Leo Vieira

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Leo Vieira is one of the most influential and exciting lightweight submission grapplers of the modern era. Sure, there are other contenders for that title: Robson Moura, Royler Gracie, Vitor Shaolin and Ricardo de la Riva. But Vieira more than lives up to it due to his advancement of techniques and strategies in Jiu Jitsu as well as his role in the development of some of the most talented Jiu Jitsu competitors on the world stage over the last ten years.

Leozinho has influenced my personal Jiu Jitsu game a great deal, both directly and indirectly. Some of his technical contributions to the sport include the brabo choke, the leg drag pass and driving home the importance of the back as the premier dominant position in the lighter weight categories. While these have all been done by others, Vieira’s mix of technicality and athleticism, as well as his influence on the Jiu Jitsu scene in Sao Paulo, Brazil has had lasting effects throughout the Jiu Jitsu world.

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Leo Vieira Highlight – Pure Awesomeness

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Leonardo Vieira and his brothers, Ricardo and Leandro, are originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they first began training under arguably the most accomplished coach in the Jiu Jitsu world, Master Romero Cavalcanti – the original Jacaré.

Cavalcanti was the last of the famous five black belts under Rolls Gracie. Rolls learned under his uncle, Helio Gracie, but was also personally responsible for a great deal of the technical development of Jiu Jitsu in the early 1970’s. His cross-training in wresting, Judo, gymnastics, weight-training and Sambo as well as his creativity and personal style developed Jiu Jitsu from the largely self-defence orientated martial art to the more sportive variety we know of today.

Rolls wasn’t training in a vacuum, though; his brother Carlson and his cousin Rickson were pushing Jiu Jitsu to new heights along with him. It was in this environment that Master Cavalcanti came through the ranks of Jiu Jitsu and the idea of progression, that both Jiu Jitsu technique as well as the Jiu Jitsu competitor as an athlete can be constantly improved, clearly rubbed off on him. When Rolls tragically died in a hang-gliding crash in 1982 he left a handful of students including Cavalcanti to continue his legacy. This includes the move away from self-defence towards training Jiu Jitsu as a sport:

“We don’t practice auto-defesea as much as before,” Jacare admitted, “because we don’t need to.” He elaborated: “We think rolling is the best preparation for self- defense. You develop the conditioning, the endurance, the resistance to pain, the sensitivity to an opponent’s moves, and the other elements you need for good self-defense.” – From Global Training Report

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Leo Vieira vs. Naoya Uematsu Highlight

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When young Leonardo Vieira started training with Cavalcanti at Academia Romero Jacaré in 1982 he was just 6 years of age. Leo followed Cavalcanti to Alliance when Master Jacaré formed his new association with a group of his former students to contest the fledgling tournaments beginning to crop up in Rio. Leo’s first taste of success at the largest forum in Jiu Jitsu came in 1996 when he, as a brown belt, won the Mundials for the first time. Vieira won the World title again in 1998 at the age of 22, less than one year after receiving his black belt from Cavalcanti.

Leo became one of the most talked about young competitors on the Jiu Jitsu scene. His match at the 2000 Mundial against Vitor Shaolin is one of the all-time best matches in Jiu Jitsu. Leo had several classic matches against fellow lightweight Shaolin – at the Mundials and the Professional BJJ League, among others.

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Leo Vieira vs. Shaolin. Classic Match.

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Highlight of the matches between Leo Vieira and Vitor Shaolin

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It was after this time that the Jiu Jitsu landscape underwent some tectonic shifts that created some of the powerhouse teams and competitors we see on the podiums of today. And Leo Vieira was right in the middle of it all. While training in Sao Paulo with Fabio Gurgel, Romero Cavalcanti’s first black-belt, Leo and some of the other black belt competitors grew increasingly frusterated with the direction of the IBJJF. Chief among their complaints was that a rival organization, the Confederação de Jiu Jitsu Olimpico, was providing prize-money for the competitors in their Copa Do Mundo de Jiu Jitsu tournament. The Alliance black belts felt that they should be treated as professionals, which included being fairly compensated for their efforts.

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Click for full size.

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Gurgel tried to persuade them that the prestige of the IBJJF Campeonato Mundial de Jiu-Jitsu was greater and thus should be their goal. Leonardo decided to split from Alliance to compete in the Copa Do Mundo, as did several other influential competitors. This included black-belts Leonardo Castello Branco, Ricardo Vieira, Fernando “Terere” Augusto, Rodrigo “Comprido” Medeiros, Demian Maia, Felipe Costa, Octavio “Ratinho” Couto and brown-belts Chico Mendes, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Robert Drysdale. Terere spit off to found his own team, TT, with Eduardo Telles. This left the rest to join the new Masters team.

Masters didn’t last long and split after their first world championship run. Brasa formed in its place with Leo Vieira, Ricardo Vieira, Comprido Mederos, Chico Mendes and Castello Branco all taking on leadership roles, and Felipe Costa, Jacare Souza, Demian Maia and Robert Drysdale acting as the up and coming talent. They were later joined by TT stars Ramon Lemos and Andre Galvao after Fernando Terere left due to his battles with addition. Lemos is better known as the coach of Atos – including Rafael and Guilherme Mendes. Brasa is still going strong today, but Leo Vieira left after being unhappy with the direction of the team and the lack of leadership on the behalf of his fellow founders.

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Leo Vieira rolling with Fabio Gurgel at Alliance Sao Paulo before the split. 

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Leo Vieira training at CheckMat Sao Paulo

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The new team was to be run solely by the Vieira brothers. Leo chose CheckMat as the name due to his interest in chess and the double-entendre it created. CheckMat was also a powerhouse team boasting competitors such as Leo, Ricardo, Rafael and Guilherme Mendes, Ary Farias, Bruno Frazatto, Rodrigo Cavaca, Joao Assis and Lucas Leite. This team would fracture again when Ramon Lemos would take his star pupils and form Atos with Andre Galvao. Regardless, CheckMat still performs well at most major competitions earning first in the 2008 and 2009 no-gi worlds, first in the 2009 European championships, second place in the 2010 no-gi worlds, second at the 2010 Europeans and third at the 2009 and 2010 Worlds and 2011 Europeans.

In his 2000 book The Tipping Point, Canadian Author Malcolm Gladwell investigated the idea of “The Connector.” Connectors are, according to Gladwell, individuals who act as nodes to the rest of their community and are therefore unusually influential in their field or social circle. While some aspects of Gladwell’s work on social networks is considered dubious by actual network theorists, it is not disputed is that the individuals that act as nodes to many separate communities can have exert influence in a non-linear fashion (the popular explosion of his ideas despite their lack of scientific backing is a common occurrence in Gladwell’s publishing career). This clearly describes Leo Vieira. As someone continually seeking better opportunities for himself and more autonomy over his training, Leo touched many of the major Jiu Jitsu teams and competitors of his day. He had the clout to do this because of his excellent tournament results and his high level of technical development, which was and is much sought after.

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Leo Vieira vs. Baret Yoshida

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Between all of the various team changes that included most of the biggest names in competitive Jiu Jitsu, Leo Vieira somehow found time to carve out a hugely successful competitive career of his own. He continued to win in the gi – taking Pan Am gold in 2002 and 2004. But it was his performance without the gi, specifically at the ADCC championships that inspired the most admiration. Starting with his legendary performance against the much larger Mark Kerr in 2001, Leo’s reputation as one of the best lightweight no-gi competitors grew. It was confirmed in the form of gold medals in the -66 kg class in 2003 and 2005. Leo showed that an aggressive top game focusing on dynamic guard passes and the goal of finishing from the back was a solid blue-print for dominating the lower weight classes, which are largely thought of as being the realm of the guard player.

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Leo Vieira describes winning ADCC – this video is a must watch! 

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In 2003 Leo beat American stand-out Baret Yoshida and in 2005 took on Rani Yahya for the top spot in classic matches. In 2007 he missed out on the gold, taking silver to Rani in their rematch. 2009 saw Leo submit the eventual bronze medalist Ryan Hall (who was representing Brasa at the time) before losing to the gold-medal winning Rafael Mendes. In 2011 Leo returned to competition in the ADCC middleweight division losing only to four-time ADDC champion Marcelo Garcia. It was a dream match but like everyone else, Vieira fell victim to Marcelinho.

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Leo Vieira vs. Mark Kerr – ADCC 20o1

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Leo Vieira vs. Matt Serra Highlight

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ADCC 2003 Highlights

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Leo Vieira – ADCC 2007 Highlights

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ADCC 2009 Highlights – Leo’s matches start at 1:13

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But Vieira has an influence on Jiu Jitsu to which few else may lay claim. Because of his association with so many of the best athletes in the sport his technical development has rubbed off in some unexpected ways. Leo is known for his high amplitude throws, chief among them his Seio Nage. Watch his classic match with Matt Serra, his match against Tetsu Hadairo at ADCC 2005 and most recently his ADCC 2011 match against Enrico Cocco. Leo Vieira’s armdrag is another frequently used takedown, often combined with a single leg or inside trip. It’s likely that this maneuver comes from his days at Alliance, since it’s widely used by Marcelo Garcia and Lucas Lepri, among others.

Vieira’s guard passing, particularly without a gi, is legendary. His is supposed to be working on a book on the subject with acclaimed Jiu Jitsu instructional author Kevin Howell, but no recent updates have been made. Vieira popularized, if not developed, the cartwheel pass and the leg drag pass to where they are today. Much has been made about Rafael Mendes’s guard passing – it’s highly likely Leo is the progenitor of these techniques. Vieira’s 2003 match with of Eddie Bravo was a showcase of his no-gi guard passing.

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Leo Vieira vs. Eddie Bravo – ADCC 2003

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The rolling back take is also one of Leo Vieira’s signature moves. The Jiu Jitsu Laboratory did an entire feature on the technique. Needless to say, Leozinho has caught many opponent’s unaware with this flashy yet functional maneuver.

Leo Vieira is also one of the progenitors of the brabo choke. The brabo and the darce are basically the same choke, but the brabo is often performed with the gi lapel brought under the head and passed to the overhooking arm. “Brabo” means angry or aggressive in Portuguese, and the story goes that it was part of Vieira’s e-mail address, Leobrabo. The move was named by Kid Peligro after Leo. If you’ve ever seen Guilherme Mendes, for example, throw himself into a brabo choke, you have a pretty good idea of where it may have come from.

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Leo hits a Seio Nage on Enricco Cocco – ADCC 2011 – J Sho photo. 

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Leo Vieira remains an inspiring and influential figure in the world of Jiu Jitsu. His influence on the development of the major Jiu Jitsu teams in the world is unparalleled partly due to his location at the center of events during the major team upheavals in the last 10 years. Vieira’s technical development is outstanding. Many techniques that are used at the highest levels of competition today were developed in part by Vieira. His victories both in and out of the gi are the stuff of legend in the small but passionate Jiu Jitsu scene. What we learned from watching his career is that sometimes flashy moves can be functional, that to be the best you need to seek out the best training partners, that it’s important to control your own destiny and that choking people with their own gi is really, really fun. It’s also important to have learned to never count Leo Vieira out, he may surprise you like he did the 76 kg category at this year’s ADCC.

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6 Comments

Filed under Jiu Jitsu Profiles

6 responses to “Leo Vieira

  1. Amazing Leo review there mate. So much I didn’t know about him and he’s one of my favourite BJJ personalities (mainly because he shook my hand when I received my blue belt). Great guy, great competitor, shame about Marcelo this year, I was there, I was gutted. Throw was the best of the tournament though :o)

  2. Stinky

    Fuckin A. Léo is the man.

  3. Ya, i loved watching Leo last weekend.

    amazing. can’t wait for the fabled book to come out.

    was cool to see him beat up all the new guys.

    great write up.

  4. Max

    Checkmat is huge now. They have gyms in Sweden, Japan, Singapore everrrywhere!

  5. Mike De Rooky

    Shaolin created the choke that people call “brabo”
    Watch the gi match Shaolin vs Yuki Nakai..he was doing it in 1999..
    ossssssssss

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