From 242-pound teenager to UFC talent: How jiu-jitsu changed Luigi Vendramini’s life

Luigi Vendramini finished Jessin Ayari to score his first UFC victory in 2020. | Zuffa LLC

Luigi Vendramini was an overweight kid from Brazil who, truth be told, lacked self-awareness regarding his soccer skills. In fact, sucking so bad at playing ball led to a better life as martial artist in the “Champions League of MMA.”

Vendramini scored the biggest win of his MMA career in October 2020, stopping Jessin Ayari in devastating fashion at UFC Fight Island 4 in Abu Dhabi. Back to the cage eight months later at Saturday night’s UFC 263 to face Fares Ziam in Glendale, AZ, the Brazilian lightweight hopes to inspire other kids with his life story.

“I loved playing soccer but I weighed 242 pounds,” Vendramini said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “I wasn’t [as good as] Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo, but like every other kid in Brazil I always told my dad I would play for Barcelona or Chelsea.”

Augusto Vendramini, Luigi’s father, never enjoyed soccer. He was into martial arts, especially jiu-jitsu, but one day decided to follow his son in one of his soccer practice.

It was a disaster.

“I was the substitute of the substitute of the substitute because I sucked,” Vendramini laughed. “Dad went there to watch it that day and someone got hurt, and another one was out, and then the coach had to call me in because there was no one else to play. I remember I got in and f***ed up three times and the coach benched me again [laughs].

“My dad tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Son, I’ll tell you something. I love you, but you will never play for Barcelona, you’ll never play soccer. That’s not your thing.’”

Vendramini was devastated. The overweight 14-year-old gained even more weight after dropping one of his rare activities — and his life-long dream —, and Augusto returned with an advice some time later.

“You’re too fat, son, and that’s not good,” Vendramini heard from his father. “Let’s train jiu-jitsu with me.”

“I remember being dragged to the gym on the first day because I didn’t like it,” he continued. “I was fat, and I trained with a skinny guy that beat the crap out of me in jiu-jitsu. Damn, man. I was so mad at that little skinny guy for beating me up I was like, ‘From now on, I won’t stop until I beat this guy.’”

Diving head-first in the jiu-jitsu world to avenge a beating changed not only his mind, but his body. Vendramini recalls “evolving super fast and losing weight because I was possessed by that loss to that skinny guy.”

Training at Brasilia’s Constrictor Team and watching MMA fighters Paulo Thiago and Rani Yahya prepare for their fights, Vendramini decided he also wanted to have a “fighter body.” Vendramini spent every single day of his three-month vacation from school in the gym and ended up losing 110 pounds. He had changed so much his friends didn’t recognize him back in school.

Years later, as he celebrated his first octagon victory in Abu Dhabi this past October, Vendramini hugged his father and remembered his journey and transformation from an overweight kid into a world-class MMA fighter.

“I get chills remembering it, man,” Vendramini said. “I said, ‘Dad, remember when you told me I would never play for Chelsea or Barcelona? I never played for Chelsea or Barcelona, but I’m in the Champions League of MMA.’”

Augusto almost didn’t make it to Glendale for Luigi’s fight due to travel complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but his team managed to get him in the United States in time to corner him at UFC 263.

“My father was in all of my jiu-jitsu and muay thai fights and it would be weird not to have him here with me,” said the 25-year-old lightweight. “I understand Khabib’s retirement. I don’t see myself entering the octagon without him.”

Ziam, his opponent at UFC 263, also holds an 1-1 record in the promotion following a decision victory over Jamie Mullarkey in October. The Brazilian, usually a calm and collected man outside the cage, is fuelled by Ziam’s pre-fight comments. According to Vendramini, “Smile Killer” poked fun at Brazil’s qualities in combat sports and diminished his skills.

“I read an interview in which he talks crap about Brazil, calls us lazy, and says French and Algerian wrestlers are tougher than Brazilians,” Vendramini said. “He said I have no jiu-jitsu, that I have no boxing, that I can’t finish him, and that I’m a good matchup for him to get his first knockout in the UFC. He’s talking too much and can’t back it up.

“I don’t think he’s a great athlete in the UFC and I don’t think he’ll do well in there. He’s talking too much crap about Brazil. First of all, we invented MMA. And how can you talk crap about jiu-jitsu and say Algerian wrestling is better? Tell me one French champion. What history do they have?

“I don’t like disrespect and I’ve never disrespected an opponent. He keeps saying I’ll take him down and use my jiu-jitsu, that I’m afraid of his striking… I’ve watched his fights and he’s a kickboxer, but this is MMA. Trading with big gloves and no takedowns and one thing, but 4oz gloves? One punch and you’re down.

“I was flawless in this camp, man. I’ve fixed my mistakes and added new weapons to my game. Last time I said I would get a first-round knockout and a bonus and I got it, and I’ll make a prediction again: I’ll slaughter this guy. I don’t see him doing anything against me. This fight won’t go past the first time and it ends by knockout or submission. His words were too much. I’ll slaughter him just to show him that disrespect is ridiculous.”

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