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UFC Vegas 78’s Luana Santos explains why she chose judo over ballet, followed Ronda Rousey to MMA

Luana Santos
Photo via LFA

Luana Santos makes her UFC debut Saturday against The Ultimate Fighter 30 winner Juliana Miller, a wild dream that started by chance.

Santos’ father competed in judo and wanted his two kids to have the same experience. His wife, however, was against the idea of watching her little girl rolling around in a gi. Instead, she wanted then 8-year-old Luana practicing something “girly”.

“He took my brother and I to a judo class and my mother didn’t want that, she wanted me to do ballet,” Santos said in an interview with MMA Fighting, “But I was never girly, playing with dolls and stuff like that, and I loved judo.”

Santos started training judo at 8, and by 18 she was a black belt in the art, winning a gold medal at the IJF Cadets World Tour in Turkey and reaching the podium in tournaments in Germany and Brazil.

Santos was representing the Brazilian national judo team, and that’s when she looked at MMA with different eyes.

“I never dreamed about going to MMA,” she said. “I say that me going to MMA was written [in the stars], it had to happen, because I went to MMA by chance. I was watching a UFC event at a friend’s house and her father was there with a friend. I was always a fan of Ronda [Rousey] because she’s a judoka, for her story, for seeing her in movies. I was inspired by her.

“I was watching the UFC and joked that I would do that one day, and her father’s friend asked if it was for real. I said I’d do it, but never imagined it would go beyond that.”

That man knew the owner of 011, a traditional MMA team in Sao Paulo, and invited Santos to train there one day. Santos was a “casual” MMA fan who only cared to watch face-punching events when stars like Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo and Ronda Rousey were in the octagon, but she decided to give it a try.

“It was kind of crazy to leave judo in my prime, being on the national team,” Santos said. “I did one MMA training and never stopped since. I think judo gave me great background and experience, I had already cut weight before and trained at a high level — I had lost matches, too. I came to MMA with a good arsenal because not many people know judo throws in MMA. On the other hand, I had no idea how to throw a punch or a kick. I started from scratch, literally.”

Santos kicked off her amateur MMA career in 2019, many years after Rousey’s final UFC bout, but still had “Rowdy” as an inspiration. Three amateur wins and a 5-1 run as a professional have led Santos to the UFC, and she said, “I don’t feel much pressure in the UFC because I’m traveling and fighting since I was a kid, so my head is used to this.”

Miller, her opponent Saturday night at UFC APEX, won a TUF tournament in 2022 by finishing Brogan Walker in the third round before dropping a decision to Veronica Hardy earlier this year.

“She’s not a striker but she comes forward aggressively,” Santos said. “I think it’s going to be a tough fight. I think she has good chin, too, but I expect her to try to do jiu-jitsu with me. The fact she was a TUF winner changes nothing to me. If she somehow can take me down, I have jiu-jitsu for her. I’m going there to stand and trade, though. I hope this fight ends with a knockout, but I can submit or TKO her if we go to the ground.”

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