Rizzo lends a helping hand to favela youth

Rio de Janeiro -- At 37, former World Vale Tudo champion Pedro Rizzo is an icon in his native country. Part of this is because he is a highly visible former UFC fighter who fought Randy Couture twice for the heavyweight strap back in 2001. In fact, he can currently be seen on “Super Heroes” billboards alongside Jose Aldo, Junior dos Santos and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira all over Rio’s down and out neighborhoods.

But it’s primarily because of who he is rather than what -- those billboards are appended by the words “Sao de Verdade” -- which all told translates to “Super Heroes are for real.” It’s not an advertisement for homegrown MMA champions, but for a project that he began in April of this year called Usina de Cidadania (“power plant of the citizenship”), a school for local impoverished children from nearby favelas.

He started the school to give the children something positive to focus on outside of their current, often-dire situations. In short, it operates on encouragement, with a goal of bringing out potential.

Usina Cidadania sits on the vast Manguinhos gas refinery central to 30 notorious favelas in northeastern Rio. A security guard is at the gate 24 hours a day to allow traffic in and out. The Brazilian highway rages right in front of it, and you drive through the heart of the favelas to get there, with street vendors hocking candies and cold drinks. There is nothing glamorous about it outwardly. But it’s a paradise for the kids that attend. And, though attendance has now swelled with students who study English, math and the arts, one of the big allures is that Rizzo and the aforementioned fighters also teach MMA.

“We have 700 kids now, between seven and 17 years old,” Rizzo said while showing ESPN.com around the premises. “When they turn 17, if they are good, we try to arrange a job for them. If they have a talent in the sport of MMA we try to send them to university to be athletic students so they don’t have to pay for that. We try to take care of them to the end. Some of them… we lose them, but most of them we can help.”

The one caveat is that kids must remain enrolled in their public schools. In Brazil, school is split into morning and afternoon sessions. Kids go from their regular school to Rizzo’s.

The MMA package that Rizzo -- along with Aldo, the Nogueira brothers, Junior dos Santos and Rafael Cavalcante -- teaches is split into five disciplines. They are kickboxing/Muay Thai, capoeira, judo, jiu-jitsu and MMA, broken into classes of 50 kids apiece. They have a gym with mats and gloves to train in. Some of the children take to the sport immediately. Others use it as a recreational sport. To Rizzo, it’s all the same -- so long as they’re taking discipline from it.

“I know I’m not going to make 700 champions, but if we can put in their minds a little bit of discipline of sports, that’s good,” he says. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, you have good days and bad days.

“But you also gain respect for your opponent, respect for your training partners, so if we can put just a little discipline in their head, in their mind, they’re going to take that for their entire lives. That’s what we want. I know we’re not going to make 700 champions, but for sure we’re going to make 700 better human beings.”

Everything that Usina de Cidadania has is donated, from the woodshop materials to the music room instruments to the suing equipment.

Manguinhos has been particularly generous in its donations, equipping the primary training facility with mats, gloves and bags. The oil company is now sponsoring MMA fighters (Rizzo, Aldo and dos Santos among them) and events, which have become rampant in Brazil over the last couple of years.

Outside there is a basketball court and a soccer field. But in an aluminum hangar with an open face just behind the school is the signature possession -- a full-sized octagon. Rizzo still fights professionally and has a bout tentatively scheduled for October, and this is where he does the bulk of his training. Others who want to escape the rigmarole do the same. Anderson Silva, whom Rizzo is helping to train in kickboxing ahead of UFC 134, is a regular. Many of the Manguinhos fighters train here for seclusion. There’s even a dorm room of sorts set up for visiting fighters who want to stay on campus. It’s an all-inclusive resort of Rizzo and his students.

And Rizzo has the respect of the favelas, too.

“The drug dealers usually have guns, but when I come in they will hide them [in their coats],” he says. “It’s out of respect.”

Usina de Cidadania advertizes all through the favelas, whether they’ve been pacified [where police now control things] or not [the scary, lawless type of favela]. If he can help troubled kids who come up without a lot of hope find a different path, then he’ll have reached people on a different level than inspiring admiration from his work in the cage.

“The work here is very pleasant, because I feel like I am doing something. I have started paying back my success,” he says. “You say, I got everything in my life, I fought everyone in the world, I fought the best fighters, I fought at the best events, I earned my money, I live exactly with what I did in the ring, now it is time to pay back to society what happened to me.”

And to expand. Rizzo says that he expects more students over the next year and to renovate the soccer field and other facets of the campus that can use it. He says he expects to have over 1,000 kids participating in MMA in some shape or form, and that a small percentage of them might one day be champions.

“I am positive, we can arrange at least 10 champions through there,” he says. “If we train 1,000 kids over the next year, then for sure we can get 10 world champions out of that. International athletes…I know we’re going to have a bunch of them, but I think at least 10 champions. The teachers working there, all of them are good. They are good teachers, they are always there watching the kids. We (the fighters) are always watching the kids. We can spot the talent from the very beginning. We are there to help them. We can give them everything they need. They can’t say, ‘I don’t have a gi for training,’ because they have a gi. They can’t say ‘Oh, I don’t have a place to train,’ they have a place, they have a mat, they have a bag… they have everything.

“They just have to work.”