Nova Uniao Supplants Brazil's Old Guard

By Gleidson Venga Jul 23, 2009
When Pride Fighting Championships met its end, the value of mixed martial arts teams seemed to diminish, too, as athletes were emphasized more for their own value, independent of the team they represented.

This trend has increased even more in Brazil, as Brazilian Top Team and the Chute Boxe Academy suffered several cuts and stars such as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Paulo Filho, Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua left their respective training camps. The only team not to suffer any major losses during this period was Nova Uniao. Names like Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro, Thales Leites, Wagnney Fabiano and Jose Aldo -- born and raised on a team led by Andre Pederneiras -- continue to shine in international events.

According to Pederneiras, Nova Uniao has about 50 professional athletes on its roster, including Ribeiro and the young Eduardo Dantas, who fought Masakatsu Ueda for the Shooto 132-pound championship last weekend.

Made famous in the 1990s by the brilliant showings of its lighter weight athletes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitions, the team made a seamless transition to MMA, winning titles in major events like Shooto (Ribeiro), Cage Rage (Ribeiro), the International Fight League (Fabiano) and Pancrase (Marlon Sandro).

“Our team went from BJJ to MMA,” Pederneiras said. “As we already had a very strong team in the lighter weights, basically my BJJ team migrated with the same success to MMA, so we just continued the work. But we’ve also proven that we can do it with heavier guys. Thales Leites is an example. The more that come here, the more we’ll do it.”

Although the recognition has come only in recent years, the team began to take its first steps more than a decade ago, with Pederneiras himself fighting in international events and Rafael Carino emerging victorious at UFC 9 in 1996.

Rafael Carino was my first athlete who fought in MMA, then Joao Roque and some others,” Pederneiras said. “Even when I fought, I did not have an MMA team. I called some people for training, but most of them had never fought MMA before. Only when Shaolin began fighting MMA could I bring in more people. Then we really had a team.”

Team Nova Uniao. Photo by Gleidson Venga.

While drama surrounds other Brazilian teams, the same cannot be said for Nova Uniao, which has grown strong globally. Pederneiras explained how his team remained cohesive during the turbulent times in Brazil.

“The unity here is great,” he said. “I think I have a bit of voice control here. I try not to take anything more than they think is right. I have no interest in exploring. Everyone knows how much I have invested in this team, and I keep investing. I’m here to help my team grow. My happiness comes from training champions and knowing they are making some money and changing their lives, especially the poor ones.”

However, training athletes at such a high level has created an unusual situation for the team. Only a few MMA events exist in Brazil. The queue to participate in competitions on home soil has grown so long that it has discouraged fighters, perhaps even potential future champions, from trying to compete.

“We get desperate here in Brazil when the events crack; to me, it’s terrible,” Pederneiras said. “Many athletes come here with the dream of fighting in big events, but when the small events crack, I often lose those athletes who have that dream and help others to reach a higher level.”

Complications are many.

“First, it involves exchange,” Pederneiras said. “If a guy calls and gives me $200 for putting someone in the UFC, I don’t have to put ‘Shaolin’ there. If a guy offers me a price in Shaolin’s level of payment, he probably will be the first choice in his category. If the guy offers me a price for Jose Aldo to fight in Affliction, I’ll tell him, ‘No, because he does have a contract with WEC, but I have other athletes in this weight.’ What I do is send a list of the athletes that I have. When it doesn’t come with a pre-determined name, they look at the record and choose who they want.”

Because the aforementioned teams have lost some of their luster, camp affiliation no longer serves as the main factor in a fighter being selected by a promotion. Belonging to the same team as Ribeiro or Aldo does not carry the same weight it did at the beginning of the decade, with the teammates of the Nogueiras or “The Axe Murderer.”

“In the past, you used to see an athlete who didn’t have all this potential, but he was from a great school, such as Brazilian Top Team or Chute Boxe, and sometimes he didn’t have what it takes to be a great fighter,” Pederneiras said. “The guy could get in big events, and, in the end, he wasn’t good enough to be there. Nowadays, it doesn’t happen anymore because just the athlete is important now. Unfortunately, we’re at the top with this issue, and we can’t put more athletes in other events.”

Two stars of the international MMA scene and current UFC champions have their roots at Nova Uniao, including UFC lightweight king B.J. Penn, the first non-Brazilian to win the BJJ world championship as a black belt.

“B.J. is a black belt formed in our academy,” Pederneiras said. “He studied with one of my black belts, Renato Verissimo. He trained with us since he was a blue belt, and I gave him the black belt. So his whole ground training came from us. He has his team, with his name, but he remains with us. Renato continues to give him classes.”

UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre also has links to Nova Uniao. The French Canadian started jiu-jitsu training with Fabiano, one of the most technical athletes on the team. St. Pierre graduated to blue belt under Fabiano, who later moved away from Canada and lost his prized student. However, every time St. Pierre heads to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he visits and trains with his former teacher.

Despite so many athletes falling under the Nova Uniao umbrella, the school maintains a tremendous winning percentage among its fighters. In 2007, its fighters won 17 of their 21 bouts (81 percent). In 2008, they produced 50 wins in 61 fights (nearly 82 percent). Already in 2009, the numbers are even more impressive. In 85 fights, Nova Uniao fighters have posted 72 wins (85 percent).

The second half of the year could bring more success. Aldo and Fabiano are rising quickly in World Extreme Cagefighting. Leandro Silva and Willamy Chiquerim will fight for Shooto belts in October. Sandro has advanced to the semifinals in the Sengoku featherweight grand prix. Leites will return to the UFC cage against Alessio Sakara at UFC 101. Meanwhile, Jussier da Silva, Renan Barao, Chiquerim and Dantas will all defend their South American Shooto titles.

“The expectations are the best possible. Let’s see if we can achieve it all and maintain our good percentage, thus ending another year as the best team in Brazil,” Pederneiras said. “Nova Uniao is the team that has more athletes who have become champions. They started on the white-belt level here and became champions; they did not come from other teams.”

Pederneiras pulls no punches about his team’s current standing in Brazil.

“We are the best team in Brazil nowadays; we are a team that has more great athletes in jiu-jitsu and the most number of champions in MMA,” he said. “I advise the promoters and managers of the world that if they want top athletes in Brazil, the first place they should look is here.”
<h2>Fight Finder</h2>