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Roberto Leitao, former coach of Marco Ruas, Pedro Rizzo and ‘Babalu’ Sobral, dies of COVID-19 in Brazil

Roberto Leitao founded the first Brazilian wrestling federation in 1979
Photo via Roberto Leitao’s Instagram

Roberto Leitao, a revered wrestling and grappling coach and a pioneer in the Brazil scene, died of COVID-19 Saturday morning in Rio de Janeiro, his family announced on social media.

Leitao, who trained the likes of Marco Ruas, Pedro Rizzo and Renato “Babalu” Sobral in the early vale tudo days in Brazil in the 1980’s and 1990’s, was admitted to a local hospital on Oct. 14, but lost his battle against the virus 45 days later.

“Master Leitao,” as he was known in Brazil, began coaching Ruas for his vale tudo bout with Fernando Pinduka in 1984. Rizzo, a protege under “The King of the Streets,” first trained with Leitao seven years later. Leitao cornered Ruas at UFC 7 in 1995, when the Brazilian won three fights on the same night in Buffalo.

“I’ll never forget when I first trained with Leitao at Budokan gym,” Rizzo said. “He loved training with someone young and strong. We rolled and he submitted me. … We became really close after that.”

“Yesterday was a very sad day for me,” said Ruas, who saw Leitao “as a father.” “I know him for 36 years, back when I did my first vale tudo fight, and he helped me a lot, helped my team. He was 47 when we trained for the first time and he was so smart, it was impressive. I’ll miss him a lot. It’s hard to express myself. We met every time I went to Brazil, and now there’s this void.”

Leitao founded the first wrestling federation in Brazil in 1979. His son Roberto Leitao Filho, who competed at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, still is one of the leaders of the Brazilian wrestling confederation.

“Mr. Leitao was a very important person in my career,” said Babalu, a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion and UFC title contender. “He was patient to teach me in the beginning when I didn’t know anything. He sat down and explained me everything, taught me everything. I’m so thankful.

“This man gives meaning to the word ‘master.’ The word ‘master’ is overused these days, people call their coaches ‘masters’ for affection, but, to me, Leitao is a master.”

“The Rock” Rizzo, who continued to train with Leitao and his son after Ruas moved to the United States in 1996 and scored MMA wins over the likes of Josh Barnett, Mark Coleman, Tank Abbott, Dan Severn, Andrei Arlovski, Ken Shamrock, Jeff Monson and Ricco Rodriguez throughout his career, says he “owes him” for most of his grappling knowledge.

“He always said people might like fighting, but no one loves it more than him. And that’s true,” Rizzo said. “He would always bring shorts with him everywhere he went. He was always ready in case he met someone and they were close to a gym. And if the other guy said he didn’t have shorts, he’d have a spare one so there would be no excuses. He loved training.”

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