Will Ribeiro (left) and Wladimir Ribeiro | M. Alonso/Sherdog.com
Will Ribeiro has always lived amidst drama. Now, he lives in a wheelchair and financial turmoil stemming from the December 2008 motorcycle accident that nearly took his life.
Born Feb. 17, 1983, Ribeiro grew up struggling in Campo Grande, Brazil, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro known for its fruit and livestock. Ribeiro and his three siblings were raised by his grandfather and mother, never having known their father. That tight-knit family was fractured seven years ago, when Ribeiro’s mother, who was HIV positive, passed away.
It was a devastating blow but only strengthened the resolve of Ribeiro and his siblings. Living with his brother, Wladimir, and sister, Natalia, the trio shared household bills to stay afloat. The hope was that the 20-year-old Ribeiro would go on to become a successful prizefighter and deliver the family from insolvency.
It was a difficult road, but it seemed to pay off. Ribeiro made the Brazilian national boxing team, emerged as a top bantamweight prospect in Brazil and eventually signed with World Extreme Cagefighting just as the 135-pound division was taking off.
Ribeiro carried a 9-1 record into WEC and had stopped seven of his opponents. In his WEC debut in June 2008, he won a split decision over former champion Chase Beebe. In his second bout six months later, he fell short against Brian Bowles, as he was submitted in the third round. Seven months later, Bowles was WEC champion himself.
Ribeiro did not come back from U.S. with a victory, but he did return with a gift for his friend and training partner, Marcio Marreta: the gloves he wore when he fought Bowles just nights before. However, it was on the way to see Marreta that Ribeiro’s life took a shocking turn.
“Since Marcio lives near, I just took my helmet on my arm,” recalls Ribeiro. “That’s when two taxis came racing at the exit of the Noel Rosa tunnel and I crashed. I ran into the back of one, and was projected about three feet to the edge of the sidewalk, suffering head trauma.”
“The doctors said he was lucky that the rescue was quick and that the medical team was available at the Andarai Hospital when he arrived,” says older brother Wladimir. “Being a top athlete, he was in good health; it was a fusion of situations that, thanks to God, worked out in his favor.”
From that moment on, both Ribeiro and Wladimir were fighters.
The trauma from the accident was significant. Surgeons had to remove part of Ribeiro’s brain, as well as 30 percent of his skull on the right side. He continues to wear baseball caps to mask the damage. So crushed was that portion of his skull that a bone fragment dug into his right eye, leaving Ribeiro nearly blind on that side. Most of the right side of his body remains numb and partially paralyzed.
A silicon prosthesis has been produced specially for Ribeiro and will be inserted during a forthcoming cranioplasty. There is also some hope that doctors will be able to help Ribeiro recover some vision in his right eye.
As Ribeiro, now confined to a wheelchair, suffers through the long, arduous hours of rehabilitation, Wladimir has dedicated his life to his brother’s recovery. Neither of them has any kind of medical insurance.
“I make $300 U.S. a month at my job, and my sister, Natalia, just has a part-time job, which gives her $230,” says Wladimir.
Another vital player in the recovery of Will Ribeiro is Andre Pederneiras. The Nova UniÃ£o leader promotes Shooto Brazil, saw Ribeiro rise through the ranks of Brazil in his shows and has continued to donate the proceeds of Shooto Brazil events to his recovery.
“Andre Pederneiras has helped us a lot. Without him, really, our lives would be a thousand times worse. Thanks to him, we are able to survive,” says Ribeiro.
Two years after the accident, Ribeiro still struggles to talk. However, the emotion when he speaks of Pederneiras is clear.
“Today, thanks to Andre Pederneiras, I have dignity and respect. He always helped me from the start, always did everything for me, was always by my side, never left me,” he adds. “I am eternally grateful for everything he does for me. He became a father that I never had.”
“Will was brought to my academy by the master, Luiz Alves, to train MMA about three years ago. He is such a nice guy that soon, he became friends with everybody,” remembers Pederneiras.
The Nova UniÃ£o head is quick to downplay his charitable deeds.
“About how much and why I helped him, I’d rather not comment about that. I just did what I think I could do for him,” Pederneiras adds.
However, Pederneiras does share a thought which is difficult to appreciate without understanding the poverty in which many Brazilian MMA fighters are mired. It is common for local fighters to travel by motorbike, especially as many of them make modest incomes as “motoboys” -- motorcycle delivery men -- to supplement their meager fight purses.
“An athlete can’t ride a motorcycle,” Pederneiras explains. “I know it’s hard, because most of them don’t make enough money to buy a car, but I really think it’s better to take the bus.”
Nobody close to Ribeiro has any belief he will ever fight again; his condition simply would not allow for it. However, they remain hopeful he can return to the fight world.
“The doctors have said he will never fight again; he can’t take more blows to his head and also lost a bit of brain matter, hampering his movements. Half his body is partially paralyzed,” says Wladimir. “Our daily battle today is in physiotherapy, where my brother tries to move his leg to at least be able to walk again, to have his everyday life and be able to return to give boxing lessons.”
That small dream is slowly being realized. When Wladimir ran into Ivan Blaz at a Shooto Brazil event, Blaz, a captain in Rio’s special operations battalion BOPE, was moved by the story of the Ribeiro family’s plight. Blaz saw Will’s physiotherapy and thought the former bantamweight standout could still offer something as an instructor.
“Blaz has a social project inside the police headquarters, especially for poorer children. Will goes there twice a week with two other instructors to give boxing classes,” says Wladimir. “Will is a great example to all the people with a prejudice against people in wheelchairs. We are winning one battle each day, step by step.”
Given the growth of MMA, Wladimir hopes his brother’s story will prevent future misfortune for athletes in similar situations.
“With the level that MMA is at today, I believe that the events should have a way to monitor and create a type of union of MMA fighters, or something that allows athletes a health plan, or something to give them a decent quality of life when they retire,” says Wladimir. “After all, those guys are the stars of the event. Thanks to them, MMA is so successful today.”
“What will be the lives of those athletes who have dedicated their life to this sport but can’t earn enough money for a decent future?” he asks.
Ribeiro’s tragedy will undoubtedly force many to reflect on this sport and the athletes who get left behind amidst the celebration of its unceasing growth.
Alan Oliveira contributed to this report.