Luck can play a huge factor in an athlete’s career. Talent, skills, dedication, professionalism, certainly matter more than anything. But your future can take a different path with a flip of a coin.
Luckily for Amanda Ribas, several crossroads drove her to UFC stardom.
Born in August 1993, Ribas’ destiny was set in stone almost from the crib. The daughter of martial arts trainer Marcelo Ribas—at the time of Amanda’s birth, Marcelo already had more than 40 Vale Tudo bouts under his belt—Amanda was raised inside a gym. Marcelo signed her up for jiu-jitsu classes at a young age, and she was clearly talented.
One day, Amanda quit training to take dance classes with her friends. Dad didn’t take it lightly when she returned to the gym one year later: He signed the 12-year-old kid up for judo classes and gave her a first taste of what MMA was all about.
“Amanda had some fights in the gym,” Marcelo says. “We didn’t give it a name, but it really was amateur MMA bouts. I don’t think she knows it, but she fought twice when she was 12 or something. My son [Arthur Ribas] did his first amateur fights when he was 9. That’s crazy, huh? I guess I already saw something back then.”
Two knee surgeries ruined Amanda’s hopes to one day represent Brazil in the Olympic Games as a judoka, and her father once again saw MMA as a possible career path. The 21-year-old enjoyed training in her family’s martial arts gym in Varginha – a small town popular for UFO sightings back in 1996 – and decided it was time to give MMA an official try in 2014.
Ribas won her first amateur MMA bout that year. She later accompanied her teammates in a trip to Rio de Janeiro that would change her life.
“It was funny because I didn’t even want to fight, but my teammates were training for the [IMMAF World Championships] tryouts,” she says. “I was back to Varginha after blowing my knee, and I didn’t want to even hear about sports or get close to the gym. But I went there to watch a training session and saw them preparing for the tryouts, and I felt that fire again.”
Amanda had blown her ACL, meniscus and knee-cap and undergone a pair of surgeries, but UFC and PRIDE heavyweight veteran Carlos Barreto convinced Marcelo to sign her daughter up for the amateur tournament, saying “You didn’t go to the Olympics, but maybe God wants you to fight MMA instead.”
He was right.
Amanda scored back-to-back wins to capture the IMMAF 2014 World Championship in Las Vegas. She wasted no time after that, winning her professional MMA debut just one week later in Brazil before defeating three opponents in a one-night, eight-women tournament in her hometown. According to Marcelo, his daughter’s professional MMA record listed online has dates and opponents mixed up.
“It was quite different,” she says of competing in a one-night grand prix. “Fighting in a tournament was pretty badass. I was used to competing a lot in one day in judo. It’s a completely different sport, of course, but the adrenaline of fighting many times in one night in MMA was very unique.”
Amanda was following the path of her father Marcelo, who claims to own a 47-1 record in Vale Tudo contests around Brazil. There’s no official record of those bouts — and he basically made no money off of it, really, just competing for televisions and stereos between 1987 and 1994.
The future UFC fighter never felt pressured by her father to go down that path. Not at that stage of her career, at least. Eighteen months later, however, Amanda’s decision to quit MMA would prompt an impassioned response from Marcelo.
“There was a moment I just wanted to quit everything,” she says. “‘That’s it, I’m done. I’m only getting punched in the head and not making any money.’ My colleagues in college had jobs, they were getting paid monthly, and I had nothing. I taught classes in the gym, but I didn’t have much money. I wanted to [stop].”
“No way, you’re not getting a f*cking job,” Marcelo told her at the time. “You’ll either study or fight. Are you crazy?”
Marcelo, who saw his son Arthur walk away from the sport to study after an injury forced him on the sidelines for way too long, recalls his conversation with Amanda as “an ugly fight.”
“She wanted to be a secretary, man,” he says. “I wanted to kill her.”
Money wasn’t the only issue for her. Amanda was heartbroken after suffering the first loss of her career, a first-round knockout to Polyana Viana in Rio de Janeiro. She was 5-0 at the time, but wasted time on the feet until she eventually made a mistake, slipping on the mat and trying to get back up too quickly, leaving herself open for attacks. Viana capitalized on it, tagging and finishing Ribas.
“I was frustrated because I didn’t follow the right strategy, I made a mistake,” Amanda says. “I wanted to train as soon as possible when that fight was over because I was so angry at myself. It’s easier when you can see the mistake you’ve made.”
Amanda kept the hand wrap she used that night, bloody and all, as a reminder that things can go wrong, because “It was my first loss in MMA, something significant.”
“I still have my IMMAF credential, my first pair of gloves,” she says. “I keep that because it’s part of my history. Life isn’t only made of wins, we have losses too, so we have to keep that to remind you not to let it happen again. And if it happens, remember we managed to overcome it.”
Getting back on the horse wasn’t easy since there weren’t many promotions interested in her at that time, Marcelo recalls. It took half a year until she was in a cage again, thanks to Max Fight putting on a show in her hometown. Amanda was the headlining attraction, taking on Jennifer Gonzalez Araneda for the vacant strawweight championship. She won by second-round knockout.
Amanda studied nutrition at the time (“I think we must to have a plan B because we never know what will happen,” she said. She’s currently studying physical education) and improved to 5-1 as a professional with that title win. Marcelo was then approached with an offer from across the globe.
“She was going to fight in China against Zhang,” says Marcelo, referring to future UFC strawweight champion Zhang Weili. “We signed the contract but there was a war or something like that, so the event got postponed twice. [The promoters] even came to Brazil to buy us dinner and pay her purse.”
That wasn’t the only offer they got from Asia. It turns out that a company from India was working on a reality TV show similar to The Ultimate Fighter, and it wanted Team Nogueira as one of the teams for the program. Team Nogueira’s Vander Valverde offered a spot to Amanda, but Carlos Barreto once again showed up with a piece of advice for her father.
“Why don’t you send Amanda to American Top Team instead of India?” Barreto asked. Marcelo had a difficult decision to make: India would pay good money right now, but training at the Florida-based gym could mean bigger opportunities down the line.
“I got a piece of white rubber, shaped like a coin, and wrote ‘American Top Team’ on one side and ‘India’ on the other one,” Marcelo says. “I flipped it and got American Top Team. I immediately said, ‘American Top Team it is, Amanda.’”
Moving to Florida for better training was no bed of roses, and Marcelo was unhappy with the lack of training provided for his daughter overseas. That changed when coach Marcos “Parrumpinha” da Matta got his first glimpse of her at ATT headquarters.
“Amanda came in one day and started watching my class for women,” da Matta says. “I introduced myself after training, she introduced herself, and there are things we can’t explain. We just clicked and started working together every day. She was a bit unhappy she wasn’t training enough, I started to give her more attention, and that’s when I realized she had something. We connected right away.”
Amanda finally had proper training in the United States. In fact, her life was about to get better during UFC 211 fight week in May 2017, when she flew to Dallas alongside Parrumpinha and her manager Alex Davis to sign with the world’s premier MMA company.
All that excitement and joy would only last three weeks, however, because the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced the Brazilian had tested positive for ostarine, a selective androgen receptor modulator. The two-year ban wasn’t the only hit to the Ribas clan.
“[Signing with the UFC] was not only my dream, but also my dad’s,” Amanda says. “It was called Vale Tudo back then, people called him a street fighter, they said he was a bad seed in the city, but me signing with the UFC showed people that he was doing honest work and could change lives.
“And when I finally showed them he was very professional, not that street fighting stuff, it comes out that I tested positive in a doping test. Many people still think doping is drugs, that I was using cocaine. Imagine that [laughs]…”
She laughs about it now, but it wasn’t funny back then. The truth is, Ribas’ martial arts center “went through a rough patch” after the suspension started.
“Was it horrible? Yes, it was,” Marcelo says. “Not only the time away, but the injustice. Of the 286 kids we had in the gym, it went down to only 20. Parents saying, ‘If you’re drugging your daughter, what are you going to do to my kids?’ The jokes… That gave us strength to get used to negative criticism. We saw how mean people were.”
Things got back to normal again in Varginha almost two years later, when the USADA announced Amanda was cleared of any wrongdoing after concluding the positive test was consistent with supplement contamination. Instead of getting pissed for seeing two years of her career go down the drain, Ribas’ team choose to see it as blessing in disguise.
“We knew she was innocent when they announced the doping suspension,” Marcelo says. “We embraced that as something sent from God and looked at the bright side. Yes, there is a bright side. She had almost two years to prepare and become better in other areas, such as striking. She turned into a high-level fighter in those two years. She went from grappler to striker, and we haven’t showed that in the UFC yet.”
“It sucked mentally and financially for her and Marcelo, but we used that time as a chance for her to evolve,” da Matta says. “Most fighters have crappy UFC debuts, we call it UFC jitters—a term created by [former UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva—so we had two years to prepare her mentally for it.”
Amanda was paid a monthly stipend by her manager during those two years living and training in Florida, she says, and finally set foot in the octagon in June 2019, tapping Emily Whitmire in Minneapolis. Her biggest challenge was set for later that year, battling undefeated jiu-jitsu icon Mackenzie Dern in Tampa. That one-sided victory established the strawweight as a definitive prospect in the division.
A unanimous decision victory over Randa Markos in March pushed Amanda into a flyweight bout with Paige VanZant. It was the last bout on the popular VanZant’s contract, and it felt like the UFC was trying to help Amanda build her own popularity in Abu Dhabi.
If that was the plan, it worked out perfectly.
Amanda forced VanZant to tap with an armbar inside one round, and her stock has only risen since.
“I always say Amanda lights up a dark place only by getting in it,” manager Alex Davis says. “She’s the complete package. She will become a great champion one day. There’s so much negativity in the sport today, whereas Amanda is only laughter and good vibes. She’s refreshing.”
The UFC attempted to book a 115-pound clash between Ribas and Carla Esparza for late-2020, but it never came to fruition. Michelle Waterson was then selected to meet the Brazilian in January, but it fell through weeks later. In the end, Ribas will enter the cage at Saturday night’s UFC 257 event against Marina Rodriguez, who lost a decision to Esparza this past July.
Marcelo believes Esparza “ran away” from his daughter, and Parrumpinha says the UFC’s first strawweight titleholder “clearly doesn’t want to fight” the Brazilian. The change of opponents, going from a wrestler to a karateka to a muay Thai specialist, poised some challenges in camp.
“Marina brings different risks than Carla and Michelle,” da Matta says. “Marina is an excellent muay Thai fighter, a dangerous striker. Carla obviously brings excellent wrestling, and Michelle, I respect her, but she would have been the least dangerous one, even though she’s experienced and well-rounded, since she doesn’t have Carla’s wrestling or Marina’s striking.”
“I trained really hard to show a new version of Amanda,” Amanda says. “I wanna show a little bit of my muay Thai as well. I want this to be a crazy fight. People only talk about [Conor] McGregor’s fight, I want them to talk about my fight. I wanna show my muay Thai. If I can find the distance and land a good punch and get the knockout, I’d be thrilled.”
You would think that all the hype and expectation around Amanda puts extra pressure on her shoulders, but she debunks that notion with a laugh.
“I have nothing to prove to anyone,” she says. “I did well against Paige, nailed it in my post-fight interviews, and really enjoyed the opportunities I had. It’s a different fight now. You might see a different Amanda. These are different situations. I don’t try to predict the future. If it took me two years to prove the USADA case, I don’t have to prove anything to anyone [laughs]. I’ll just do my best in there.”
Amanda won’t try to predict the future, but she also won’t hide the fact she’s in this sport to become champion. Multi-division UFC queen, even. She almost cried during her interview, picturing herself with a UFC belt around her waist five years after almost walking away from the sport.
Her coaches share the sentiment.
“It all depends on how Amanda does in 2021,” da Matta says. “Lets say Amanda wins a split decision, a boring decision… But what if she goes there and submits Marina, and then submits [Yan Xiaonan]? There’s no one else for her next except for a title shot. It all depends on how these next fights go. I do believe we’ll get to the belt by the end of 2021.”
“That’s crazy, right?” Marcelo says. “God will finally put [Amanda and Zhang Weili] against each other, this time for the UFC belt. It didn’t happen back then so it could happen now. God knows what He does.”