- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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Especially when, during an over-the-phone interview recently with ESPN.com, they were asked to relate memories of their first encounter with each other. Two male voices go back and forth in Portuguese -- then simultaneously burst into laughter.
A translator is kind enough to pass along the joke. According to Aldo, “We met on Facebook and had the same interests. We kind of just hit it off.”
Aldo, the near-invincible UFC featherweight champion, and Santos, the unlikely winner of this year’s “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” series, are teammates. More accurately than that, they are friends. By their own description, though, they’re brothers.
The two produced what has to be the most “human” moment in the UFC this year so far. After upsetting William “Patolino” Macario via submission in the second round of their TUF Finale in Fortaleza, Brazil, this month, Santos fell to his knees in the center of the Octagon.
He stood up moments after, only to wander aimlessly, clearly not knowing how to react. Then, a lightbulb flashed and with zero hesitation, Santos jumped over the cage, a no-no in the UFC, and ran into the crowd looking for Aldo.
Problem was, Aldo had already left his front-row seat and had run into the Octagon. On the UFC broadcast, you can see members of the crowd pointing Santos back toward the cage. Eventually the two met just outside of it and embraced, tears in their eyes.
You don’t have to know the full story between Aldo and Santos to appreciate that scene -- but it certainly adds to it if you do.
Aldo was born into poverty in the Brazilian city of Manaus in 1986. He developed an early interest in jiu-jitsu and says he actually first saw Santos, who was 6 years older and featured in some magazines as a grappling champion, as an idol.
In 2004, Aldo flew empty-handed to Rio de Janeiro to train martial arts full time at Nova Uniao -- where Santos called home. Aldo knew little stand-up at the time and was still a novice in jiu-jitsu, but the team welcomed him and recognized his talent.
“There is an inside joke,” Santos said through translator Fernanda Prates. “When I first met him, Aldo was trying to steal my gi. He did that when guys left their gi hanging on a clothesline.”
Though Santos had done well in the jiu-jitsu circuit, he, too, struggled financially. And transitioning to a full career in mixed martial arts, vale tudo, as they referred to it, was not a guarantee of larger paychecks as it can be today.
According to Santos, Nova Uniao coach Andre Pederneiras was adamant the future of MMA was bright for Brazilian athletes and it would eventually reward his team, which included Marlon Sandro, Thales Leites and Johnny Eduardo, among others.
The early members of Nova Uniao wanted to believe Pederneiras, but it was difficult to dedicate time to all aspects of MMA without a real promise of more money.
Santos says that changed with Aldo’s arrival. The boy from Manaus had no personal belongings. For a time, he and other Nova Uniao teammates had nowhere to sleep at night but the mats.
Aldo listened to Pederneiras, though, and shared his confidence in the future of MMA. He threw himself into learning stand-up to mesh with his grappling. Santos followed his lead.
“[Pederneiras] would tell us, ‘In a couple of years, you guys will be making a lot more money,’” Santos said. “I was making maybe $500 in a jiu-jitsu tournament -- and he’s telling me I’m going to make a lot of money.
“When I saw Aldo, who was a young kid that left everything behind and traveled to the city; that gave me a glimpse of hope. I had a lot of doors slammed in my face but to see this young guy willing to go for his dream, that really motivated the team.”
The Nova Uniao gym was far from a state-of-the-art facility at the time. Santos says there was one mat. A single punching bag. When it came time for cardio training, the team ran in the street.
In all professional athletics, teammates inevitably grow close, but it went beyond that in Brazil. Members of the team trained together, lived together and relied on one another. When necessary, they fed one another.
One night, Santos remembers his two best training partners, Aldo and Marcos Galvao, were sitting in the corner instead of working out.
Santos went to find out why. When Galvao complained of a headache, he gave the reasonable response he should probably take some pain medication.
“They looked at each other and said, ‘Well, he has a headache because we haven’t eaten anything today.’ It was 8 p.m. and they didn’t have money for food. That’s when it dawned on me how bad the situation was.
“Now you can understand why it makes me so happy to see where they are because I saw how bad it was at the start. Even I doubted them at some point. I asked them and myself, ‘Is this a dream worth pursuing?’ It really is.”
In his last fight, a unanimous decision victory over Frankie Edgar in the main event of UFC 156 in February, Aldo made a disclosed $120,000 fight purse, plus a $120,000 win bonus. He and Edgar also won a $50,000 bonus for Fight of the Night.
Santos, the latest TUF tournament winner, earned a “six-figure contract” in the UFC, which is awarded to all TUF champions.
When asked what lavish belongings have been purchased with the money Pederneiras once promised his fighters, Santos points to the Nova Uniao gym.
“The biggest celebration we could have possibly had of our success is investing back in the gym,” Santos said. “There was a renovation because before, the conditions were not great.
“What I take away from what Nova Uniao has accomplished is not just the money. It’s the friendships. Money is just the consequence of our hard work and how we’ve come together.”
With a few lifelong dreams already fulfilled, it’s good to see the kids from Brazil are still taking care of one another.
You can’t see Jose Aldo and Leonardo Santos sitting next to each other in Rio de Janeiro -- but you can picture them if you try. Especially when, during an over-the-phone interview recently with ESPN.