PICTURED: Fabio Leopoldo: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu champ, founder and head instructor of Morumbi Jiu Jitsu in Ventura, January 2022. The studio also has a Thousand Oaks location. Photo by Chris Mortenson
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer | Photos by Chris Mortenson
In the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) in general, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) in particular, Fabio Leopoldo needs no introduction. The Brazilian native who now calls Ventura home is a fourth-degree black belt and world champion several times over. He’s also won the Pan American Championship six times and Brazil’s national title twice. Most recently, he took first place in his division (Master 3/Open Class for male black belts) at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s 2021 World Master Jiu-Jitsu Championship, which took place in Las Vegas in November.
Lucky for local martial arts fans, Leopoldo is also a studio owner and teacher. As founder and head instructor of Morumbi Jiu Jitsu (with locations in Ventura and Thousand Oaks), “Professor Fabio” has trained dozens of students at all levels — from kids to black belts now competing professionally — while continuing to make time for family, friends and his own tournaments.
He also took time to talk to the Ventura County Reporter about his career in MMA, moving to Ventura and finding a healthy lifestyle on and off the mat.
VCR: How old were you when you first started martial arts? What inspired you to take up the practice?
Fabio Leopoldo: I first started martial arts training between 4 and 8 years old. I was practicing judo and karate, but I began serious training around the age of 15. I probably started doing martial arts because I was raised by a single mom, and I had so much energy. Like all kids, I was also influenced by action movies,TV shows and UFC.
Who were some of your earliest influences?
My cousin, who used to be on the Brazilian Olympic judo team, inspired me to rejoin martial arts training; and then, I was inspired by master Rickson Gracie, the famous, undefeated Brazilian martial arts champion. But the biggest one was my grandfather, who supported me since day one and was always with me on my competitions.
Tell us a little bit about how your BJJ and MMA skills developed. Where did you train? What practices did you learn?
I was really fortunate to have learned Jiu Jitsu directly from the Gracie family. This was in the early days of MMA when various martial arts styles competed against one another. I trained in São Paulo at the Ryan Gracie Academy, and studied Jiu Jitsu, no-gi Jiu Jitsu (Jiu Jitsu without the traditional uniform), judo and MMA.
How is no-gi Jiu Jitsu different from traditional Jiu Jitsu?
Jiu Jitsu using the kimono (the loose, white uniform) is a more traditional training style. No-gi used to be more for self-defense, like grappling, or for people who are training in MMA. No-gi has become very popular because it incorporates many moves found in traditional wrestling, which is very familiar in the west.
Why did you choose to go professional with MMA?
Up to 2002, I concentrated on traditional Jiu Jitsu. However, after 2002, when I won the World Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championship, I decided to accept the challenges of MMA, and represent Jiu Jitsu (and my academy) in MMA competition. Additionally, during this period, I was assisting my professor, Ryan Gracie, with all his matches and competitions. So, it’s understandable that I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
How does training as a professional differ from someone who is an accomplished and enthusiastic amateur?
I think the intensity of the training makes the difference, as well as the mindset outside of training.
How long have you been competing professionally?
I have been competing professionally since around 2000, when I was promoted to black belt; however, I was competing in Jiu Jitsu since 1995.
When did you arrive in Ventura County? What brought you here?
Between 2006 and 2008, I moved between Brazil and New York, training and competing. I have always followed a healthy lifestyle, so, when I decided to immigrate to the U.S. I searched and searched for a location where I could enjoy mild weather, practice a healthy lifestyle, raise my family and also practice surfing, which I love. So, in 2007, when I visited Ventura, I fell in love with the area and decided to establish my academies there.
What does living a healthy lifestyle mean to you?
I came from a big city in Brazil, the fifth biggest in the world, with a great deal of traffic, noise, pollution and congestion. This is why I wanted to live near the ocean, with my family, in harmony with nature, athletics, nutrition and spiritual well-being.
When did you open Morumbi Jiu Jitsu?
I opened my first academy in Brazil in 1999, which is still in operation, and which has promoted over 100 black belts. I opened my Ventura academy in 2008, and in 2009, I opened in Thousand Oaks. We offer training in Jiu Jitsu, self-defense, kick-boxing, strength and conditioning, for adults and children.
Do you have professionals that train at your studio? How do you help them develop their skills?
Certainly. We host world-class Jiu Jitsu competitors, former UFC fighters, and I also coach Jordan Wright, who is currently fighting on the UFC.
Most of our students are there to learn how to defend themselves and train in Jiu Jitsu. We also have a lot of talented fighters that train together. We have beginner Jiu Jitsu, intermediate, advanced and MMA classes.
What, in your opinion, are some of the benefits of taking up a practice like BJJ, judo or other martial arts?
Jiu Jitsu training is ideal for self-defense, weight control and confidence. Every youngster and adult can benefit from our curriculum.
What is your training regimen like today?
When not training for competition, I train three times a week in Jiu Jitsu, and two times in strength and conditioning. I think that it’s important to also remember that I’m always on the mat teaching. If training for competition, I increase my number of Jiu Jitsu training, and also increase the intensity of my strength and conditioning training.
Do you have a family? If so, do they participate in MMA as well?
Yes, I am very proud of my family. My wife, Dini (who holds a blue belt in Jiu Jitsu), teaches strength and conditioning classes at both academies, and my children are active students. By the way, both my kids love to compete!
Describe a typical day/week for you.
First, I make breakfast for my family. Then, I work on my mobility and my flexibility for about 30 minutes. After that, I usually teach a morning class, and manage the academy in the morning. Since we have two academies, I alternate between locations, daytime as well as evenings.
Your day starts with making breakfast for the family. Do you like to cook?
Actually, I cook breakfast whenever my wife has already left home, in the morning. I like to cook, but there’s really no time for the kitchen with two growing kids, and a business with two locations. However, on the weekends, I like to barbecue with my wife, and kids. We frequently have friends and guests dropping by, so my wife and I love to prepare Brazilian foods on the grill.
Since we’re on the subject, what kinds of foods do you eat to stay healthy?
I try to avoid excess sugar and gluten. I follow a healthy diet. I like to eat berries, avocados, eggs, Acai, greens and other high-protein foods. The good thing is, my wife eats super healthy as well. I see our body as the engine of a car: If you put good fuel in, you will definitely perform better in all aspects. I try not to relate to food as a pleasure.
When you’re not training and teaching, how do you spend your time? What do you do for fun?
Well, my family is first. I have two healthy, active boys, ages 8 and 5, and we always do things together on weekends. On Sunday we enjoy going to church and, if time permits, we’ll all go to the beach to surf or skateboard and we all enjoy the beautiful California coast. We also frequently schedule Morumbi events on weekends, so this also takes up a lot of time.
You mentioned earlier that you’re an avid surfer. What are some of your favorite spots to surf?
My favorite surfing spots are mostly Ventura area locations. Ventura has many great surf spots; it all depends on the swell direction. The truth is, we are lucky to live in this area.
What do you see in the near future for your MMA career? Do you plan to continue to compete? How about further down the road, in 10 years or more?
Well, I’m 45 years old, and my main goal now is to train the next generation, like Jordan Wright, who is on his way to a world championship.
Currently, my Jiu Jitsu skills are at their peak, and I look forward to winning the World Jiu Jitsu Championship this year.
Any new plans in store for Morumbi Jiu Jitsu?
In addition to providing the best Jiu Jitsu and martial arts training possible (especially for kids,) this year our academy goal is also to be voted as the “Best Martial Arts Academy” in Ventura, for the 14th year in a row!
Anything you’d like to share with us about yourself, or your studio, that we haven’t touched on here?
With hard work and good intentions, you can achieve anything.
Morumbi Jiu Jitsu, 1182 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 805-496-1610 OR 3171 E. Main St., Ventura, 805-643-7717. www.morumbijiujitsuacademy.com.