By Michael Clifford
Nine minutes and twenty-six seconds was all it took for Sabrina de Souza to run through her four opponents in the women’s featherweight division at the 2019 IMMAF World Championships and capture her first gold medal. The Team Bahrain standout was an unknown name heading into her first IMMAF tournament, but her performances left an imprint on the minds of anyone fortunate enough to see her compete.
The 21-year-old Brazilian, born in Rio de Janeiro, will head into August’s IMMAF European Championships in Kazan, Russia, with a reputation as arguably the top female grappler in amateur MMA. Brazil is known for producing high-level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, and in this regard, de Souza — who took up the sport as an eight-year-old — is no exception.
However, what makes de Souza unique is that under Team Bahrain’s Russian head coach Eldar Eldarov, she has blended her BJJ skillset with Eldarov’s knowledge of Dagestani wrestling techniques. In doing so, she has created her own unique style.
“Brazil has amazing athletes, a lot of good training, but in Bahrain, I was able to drastically improve my wrestling, which is the team’s strong point,” de Souza says.
“Team Bahrain has a lot of high-level teachers, and the team spirit is amazing, and it was a difference-maker to me. Everyone grows together. These are the pillars that make Team Bahrain the number one team in the world.”
When de Souza began her martial arts journey, she had little knowledge of how the various disciplines in combat sports could interact in harmony with one another. Still, the more she learned, the more she began to see how the disciplines could align under MMA’s banner.
“I always saw them as separate. I couldn’t understand MMA very well. My parents are not sportspeople, and MMA wasn’t that big of a deal just yet. I started in jiu-jitsu, then moved on to Muay Thai, and little by little, I started discovering MMA. And then, I started training specifically for MMA.”
De Souza’s determination, drive, and natural abilities impressed her kickboxing trainer Rafael Vinicius to such an extent that he introduced her to Team Bahrain — the No.1 ranked nation in the IMMAF— who saw in de Souza, a future world-beater. For de Souza, the decision to base herself in Bahrain has been life-changing.
“Living in Bahrain allows us to focus entirely on the goal of winning. I was exposed to different cultures and different skill sets, which was amazing for my development as an athlete and person.
“I don’t see myself outside of MMA. I live and breathe the sport. I will always be involved in it as a fighter and in the future as a coach. Or a manager or something like that.”
The past year has been a source of frustration for de Souza, who was looking to establish herself as one of amateur MMA’s most exciting new prospects by capturing more medals at further IMMAF events.
“It has been a bad moment for everyone. Everyone lost time in their development,” de Souza says. “We felt paralyzed. It was awful not being able to train and go to the gym, but I did a lot of physical training at home, and it was a trying time, but I did a lot of work on my mental side, which is the base of it all.”
Now that competition has resumed, de Souza is looking to continue where she left off in 2019 and is looking to add another gold medal to her trophy cabinet when she touches down in Russia.
“The European Championship is near, and I’m very excited to show the people what I’m all about. I think people will be very excited with what I’m going to show them, ” she explained. “The 2019 World Championship was just a small taste of what’s to come. I had four fights and four finishes, but now I want to show more in the Europeans, and I promise my fights won’t go to the judges. You will love to see me fight.”
If de Souza’s 2021 campaign is as half as exciting as her 2019 one, MMA fans will be in for a treat.
- Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
- Began studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as an eight-year-old
- Ranked No.1 in the women’s featherweight division