After military tragedy, Herbeth Sousa fights for his late brother and the UFC contract he never got (2024)

You probably couldn’t tell by looking at the 10 submission wins on his MMA record, but Herbeth Sousa didn’t quite take to jiu-jitsu right away. His older brother, Hercules, was the one with the real knack for it. In fact Herbeth probably wouldn’t even have started jiu-jitsu if it wasn’t for Hercules. And who knows if he would have stayed if it weren’t for their mother, Rosa, who used their scarce resources to get them a pair of expensive gis just as a sore Herbeth prepared to quit.


The Sousa brothers lived in Sao Sebastiao, one of the administrative regions of Brazil’s Federal District — a territory comprised of the country’s capital, Brasilia, and what are commonly referred to as satellite cities. Like many of these cities, which came to hold a lot of the workers involved in the construction of the wealthier capital, Sao Sebastiao is a poor area. The type of area, their mother knew, that could make it easy for boys to stray. So the minute she saw Herbeth hanging out with the wrong crowd, she told Hercules that he needed to take his younger brother with him to a nearby social project that allowed kids to train jiu-jitsu for free.

“(I said), ‘If you don’t take your brother, you’ll get your ass whooped,’” Rosa said with a laugh. “I put that pressure because, when he was with his older brother, he didn’t do anything wrong.”

Herbeth wasn’t exactly excited about it at first. Unlike his brother, he didn’t have any interest in jiu-jitsu. Or in fighting in general, for that matter. Hercules even tried to get Herbeth to watch UFC reruns with him on TV, but Herbeth didn’t really care for it. Soccer was his thing. Jiu-jitsu, however, was his only chance to get out of house under their mother’s close watch.

“But I always told him, ‘Hercules, I can’t understand these positions. I can’t understand anything,’” Sousa recalled. “Because I was really bad. Think of a guy with no motor coordination. That was me. I don’t know, I just didn’t have a knack for fighting. I didn’t have it like him. My brother, you’d see him training, and he had that drive. Not me. I was kind of clumsy, kind of goofy.

“But I observed him, and I saw that he was the standout of the project, and I said, ‘In 2010 I’m going to focus, and I’m going to try to be like my brother. If I get halfway there, it’s good enough.’ It turned out, the teacher gave both of us our blue belts. I was so happy about it, because I thought I’d caught up with him. He was super happy, and so was my mom.”


That wasn’t all that Herbeth and Hercules did together. They were close in age — just about one year apart — and Rosa made it a point to have them be as tightly knit as possible. They would go to school together in the morning, help their carpenter dad with work in the afternoon, and then train at night. The first time they were apart for a longer period of time, really, was after Hercules turned 18 and decided he was going to join the army.

Hercules had already dipped his feet in MMA by then. He’d started training at Brasilia’s Constrictor team, once home to UFC standouts such as Rani Yahya, Francisco Trinaldo “Massaranduba” and Renato Moicano. That’s also where Hercules met Paulo Thiago, then a UFC welterweight who was part of a unit of the military police called the Battalion of Special Operations (BOPE). Thiago was somewhat of an instant hit among Brazilian MMA fans thanks to his day job — or, more specifically, thanks to a movie that centered its plot around it. The franchise “Elite Squad,” which came out less than two years before the veteran’s UFC debut, had a BOPE official as its main character and became a massive blockbuster in the country.

“(Hercules) would say, ‘I’m going to go to the army, I’m going to study there, I’m going to join BOPE, and I’m going to be just like Paulo Thiago,’” Rosa recalled.

In January 2012, Hercules had his MMA debut. He won it, in the first round, via submission. In a video that’s still up on YouTube, he can be seen emotionally celebrating his win with several shout-outs — to coach Ataide Junior and his entire Constrictor team, to teachers “Massaranduba” Trinaldo and Francivaldo “Nego” (Trinaldo’s brother) and, also, to his dad and mom, who couldn’t be there that night.

That would be the only time Rosa wasn’t present to watch either of her sons compete in MMA. It would also be Hercules’ very last fight. On April 19, just a few months later, Hercules died during his military trainingjust as he was about to complete it.

Herbeth, who’s now known in MMA as “Indio,” had no plans of being a professional fighter then. He’d spar with Hercules, but mostly to help him because they were about the same size. Sometimes, it took some convincing; he’d only go under the promise Hercules would go easy that day. Herbeth would listen, fascinated, as Hercules told stories of training at Constrictor, but had never trained there himself. He didn’t quite know what to do with his future yet, but he considered joining Hercules in the army.


That is, before everything changed.

Incensed by the circ*mstances around Hercules’ death, Herbeth decided he’d also live out the rest of his brother’s life. Later that year, in December, he had his MMA debut. As he would do for his six following fights, he went into it wearing Hercules’ training trunks. Also as he would do in his six following fights, as well as in 14 of his overall 15 pro MMA bouts, he won it.

“That’s when I was sure,” Herbeth said. “I said, ‘Man, I think this is what I want for my life. I’m going to be a fighter. I’m going to continue his legacy.’ That’s all I could think. I said, ‘I’m going to continue his legacy, and I’m going to make it very far.’ I made him two promises: that I was going to keep training and that I’d become a black belt, and that I’d achieve his biggest dream, which was making it to the UFC.”

Sousa has already accomplished one of these two; he was given his black belt two years ago. And though the second one turned out to be harder than he’d anticipated, he is hoping that what he did just in July — claiming Future FC’s 135-pound belt with yet another first-round submission win — will get him that much closer.

In the meantime, Herbeth trains, fights and talks on his brother’s behalf. And even if those seven-year-old memories still seem very much fresh in many ways, he doesn’t mind going over them. He still laughs, and jokes, and offers anecdotes of the life Hercules lived before he died. Much like Rosa, who remembers her oldest son as a very funny, smart, good-hearted young man.

“We turned our pain into motivation,” she said of the family’s efforts to keep Hercules’ memory alive, “because he deserves it.”

Hercules did, after all, live. Herbeth still does. And he seems to keep sight of both these things.

“It’s good for me (to talk about it)because I remember what we went through and what we lived together,” Herbeth said. “And that the human being is flawed. We think that we’re strong, that we’re invincible. But we’re not. We’re very sensitive. Life is so fragile. So I took a massive lesson out of this.


“I used to not appreciate my mom and my dad that much. Now, I’m 25, and if you ask me whether I want to be with them or travel, I’d rather be with them. I’d rather train with my master. Now I get to hang out with the kids at the social project. I learned to appreciate the small things. And he taught me that, right? I learned it the worst way.”

After submitting Taigro Costa on July 2, in the title headliner of Future FC 7, Herbeth cried. That, he said, meant breaking a self-imposed tearless strike that had gone on for years. It also meant making good on yet another promise that he had made to his brother: That, after all that painful crying early on, he would try to only cry for positive reasons.

“I was going to school, and they talk about it a lot now, right — this depression thing,” Herbeth said. “I cried a lot, every day. But I didn’t let anyone see me cry. I’d hide. I’d go to school and cut class. I’d spend almost half the school day in the bathroom crying. That’s when the headmaster went to my mom and asked her to give me some time.”

But the mourning would soon give way to — or shape-shift into — training. About a month later, Herbeth says he was back at the gym, from Monday to Monday, from one session straight to the other. It was all so fresh by then, Herbeth said, that people thought that he had lost it. That this intense, sudden focus was his grief talking. And, who knows, maybe some of it was. But Herbeth had made his decision — his “epiphany,” he calls it. His brother never got to drive. His brother didn’t get to start a family or travel or enjoy much of life, really.

But, if Herbeth had a say in it, he was at least going to have his story heard.

“I thought there was going to be justice, you know?” Herbeth said. “I had this idea that people were going to be arrested, that someone was going to pay for it, and in time I realized it wasn’t like that. So I said, ‘I’m going to be famous, and I’m going to try to tell his story. Even if no one gets arrested or anything, the world will know what happened with him and what happened with him was wrong.’”

When it comes to what it is exactly that happened that April 19, Herbeth says, ”we haven’t really found out the truth.” What they have are clues and stories and what they’ve pieced together over the years with their own investigation and digging, after they didn’t believe the version that the army originally presented to them — that Hercules, who didn’t know how to swim, panicked while completing a lake crossing through a cable and threw himself in the water.


“It’s the same as saying that my brother killed himself,” Sousa said. “It’s crazy.”

Instead, the family believes that the death was the tragic result of a cruel prank.

“A guy who didn’t like him was in the middle of the river holding the cable, so as not to let them go underwater,” Herbeth said. “And when he saw it was my brother. He shook it, until my brother fell. It was the only thing my brother didn’t know how to do: We can’t swim. And he ended up falling to the bottom of the lake. People told us that they tried to remove him, but we found out that it took from 12 to 13 minutes for him to be taken from underwater.

“The bottom of the lake is very muddy. So when my brother went under, his combat boots got stuck in the mud, and he couldn’t make his way up,. But even if it hadn’t gotten stuck, he couldn’t swim. … And the doctor who was supervising that day was at another field, so it was another 11 minutes before he got back. I even told them that day, ‘Did you guys expect my brother to be Jesus, to resurrect and get back up and talk to you?’”

In a news story that Record channel ran at the time, the army affirmed that there were boats and swimmers in the location, and a major in charge of the operation said that safety measures were taken. They also showed a preliminary report, in which the army doctor said that, by the time he arrived, the instructors were already doing cardiac massage, but Hercules no longer had a pulse. In his report, he said he tried to do CPR for another 13 minutes.

Seven years may sounds like a long time, but the detail with which both Herbeth and Rosa go over the aftermath of a tragedy that they don’t believe was handled, divulged and, most importantly, remedied properly by the army puts it all into perspective.

After military tragedy, Herbeth Sousa fights for his late brother and the UFC contract he never got (1)

An emotional Herbeth Sousa is comforted by his mother, Rosa, following his recent Future FC title win. (Marcos Santos / Future FC MMA)

Herbeth remembers being given the news. They came when he was working with his father that same day, a Thursday afternoon. “I think you wouldn’t deliver the news like that about a dog,” Herbeth said of the casual tone of it all. From there, they went to get his mom. Herbeth remembers not quite believing it, thinking it could have all been just a terrible mix-up, until they saw the body lying there in the morgue. He remembers standing outside of it afterward and being handed his brother’s belongings.

“That really stuck with me, standing there in front of IML (Brazil’s Institute for Forensic Medicine), holding a trash bag with his stuff” Herbeth said. “I was enraged by that.”

From then on, they began their search for answers that extended beyond the vague “accident” explanation. “My mom wouldn’t let them rest,” Herbeth said of Rosa and her relentless — still ongoing in the form of a civil suit, after the criminal case was closed — efforts, which included tracking down recruits who were present and trying to get them to talk about what they saw.

“I’d go to the bus station and wait for them at the bus line,” Rosa recalled. “I’d wait for them to come down at the bus stop at Sao Sebastiao, because two of them were from there. I went to the quarter. I invaded it three times, angrily. I’d go and they wouldn’t have me, and I’d force my way in. Really, my pain there became anger. Because of the injustice. I had a perfect life. Two perfect sons. A life, really, in which I didn’t know what suffering was. Then they go, kill my son, give him back to me to be buried, and want me to believe it was an accident? Amid all of it, we found out it wasn’t. But that’s a truth that, for the justice system, it doesn’t matter.”

It took time for Rosa to believe her son was really gone. For a while, she said, she would go into his room to check if he was there, still hoping it had all been just a nightmare.

“It took a long time for it to sink in,” Rosa recalled. “I looked at it, ‘But my God, why?’ Herbeth was 17 then, and my husband was in shock, and I didn’t have anywhere to run. The worst violence they did with me was having me go to IML, have to buy a casket, buy flowers, have to go to (cemetery) Campo da Esperanca to get a grave. I had no one to turn to. I had to do that. I was in the middle of that suffering, and I thought, ‘I did all of this for him to be born. I bought bathtubs and towels, and now I’m buying a casket, I’m buying candles, I’m buying a grave.’ You know? A violence like this. I don’t hold grudges. I try not to live my life based off grudges. But you can’t just forget something like this.”

To this day, Herbeth’s picture on WhatsApp features both him and Hercules. His brother is still remembered on his social media. The bedroom they shared, in the house Herbeth still lives in with his parents in Sao Sebastiao, is now basically a closet. Herbeth will go in there and change, but for the past seven years he has slept on a mattress in the living room.

“I’m a guy who can go in a cage and brawl with another man, and I’m not scared or anything,” Herbeth said. “But sleeping in the same room that we slept in? I can’t.”

Still, Herbeth doesn’t think about moving out for now. In fact, he shudders at the mere thought of living abroad and straying too far away from his parents, who have both supported him in every step of his journey. His dad can’t go to every fight — when there’s travel involved, he needs to stay home to take care of their horses — but his mom does. In fact, when he doesn’t have a third corner person, she’s the one who fills that spot.


“My main way of helping is keeping his head in place during the weight cut, during the weigh-ins, during weight recovery,” Rosa said. “I’m always there, supporting him, saying good things.”

Herbeth says it was his mom’s dream to have a son with a degree. And he’s right; as a seamstress who married a carpenter, Rosa had a hard life, and she hoped that her children would get a good education and the better jobs that tend to come with that. But at least for now, Herbeth has chosen to go a different route. So she’s embraced his dream as her own.

Both his parents embraced it so much, Herbeth said, “that I think we became unbeatable.” And though that might sound like an intense word, Herbeth’s history of not only winning, but doing it mostly quickly and coming out unscathed, can give it at least some credence.

“There are no words. I can’t even describe the emotion of seeing him like this,” Rosa said. “He’d promised that he’d be a black belt and that he’d go to the UFC as an homage to his brother. And to see him so close. The day I saw him getting the (Future FC) belt — I have this tendency to look and not express my feelings that much. But I looked and said, ‘Man, I wonder if (Hercules) is seeing this.’”

If you ask Herbeth, he is.

“I believe he goes in there with me to the fight,” Herbeth said. “I believe he makes that walk with me. I even joke with my mom. I tell her, ‘There’s no way they’re going to beat me. How are they going to beat my brother and I together? It’s impossible.’”

There’s something else that stuck with Herbeth from the days around his brother’s death.

“A lot of people who hung out with us didn’t come home to see us,” Herbeth said. “But all the Constrictor guys came over. They came to talk to me, and they asked me if I was going to keep training. I was sort of out of it, but I remember it to this day, that everyone from the professional MMA team came over to talk to me. And my biggest surprise was — I didn’t know master Ataide Junior, but he went to my brother’s burial. He did a circle and a prayer. I tell him to this day that I was sure, that day, where I was going to train. With him.”


Junior, founder and leader of Constrictor, would go on to become Herbeth’s head coach and remains so to this day. All these years later, Junior doesn’t really like talking about Hercules’ death too much, still made uncomfortably emotional by the circ*mstances of a tragedy that he says “traumatized” not just him, but the team as a whole.

“Every time I travel with Rosa and the kid, I get very sad about their life story,” Junior said. “I haven’t digested it until this day, you know? It was very mean, the whole thing that happened, with a very humble family. Had it been 10 funerals, I’d have been there for all 10.”

Junior remembers Hercules as a “talent” at the gym, with very good boxing and jiu-jitsu. Herbeth, on the other hand, had a bit of a tough time getting the hang of things — he “got his ass kicked a lot” is how Junior playfully describes it. Clearly, though, he got there eventually. And that same jiu-jitsu Herbeth felt so awkward about at first is what his head coach points to as the highlight of his evolution as a fighter and the crowning jewel of his game.

It’s also what emboldens Junior to make a pretty big prediction.

“He will be UFC champion,” Junior said. “You’ll see. He’ll take this 135-pound division. He’s humbly taking everyone. He submits everyone. In order to beat him, the guy will have to have very good grappling or not let him get close, and that’s very hard in an MMA fight. I think he’ll bring this belt to Brazil. It’s the first time I say that about a student of mine. I’ve put five of them there, but I think it’s the first time one of them will be champion.”

Of course, talent helps — and the coach certainly believes Herbeth has that. He also puts in the time and the work at the gym — intelligently, Junior adds, with focus and the ability to listen to instruction. With a solid team and his family behind him, there’s obviously a winning formula there. But when it comes to that X factor, the thing that helps 5-foot-5 Herbeth not only compete successfully in the cage, but beat much bigger competition on the mats, the coach thinks there’s something else involved.

“I think it’s these two spirits,” Junior said. “I think it’s the strength he gets from his brother. I think something makes that happen, because there isn’t much logic. He weighs 60 kilos, he is in a good jiu-jitsu team, the guys are good, and he catches everyone.”

In order to fulfill Junior’s prophecy, Herbeth must first make it to the UFC. And the fighter believes that isn’t too far from happening. In fact, fresh off back-to-back submission wins over tough opponents who had never been submitted before, the Future FC bantamweight champion is hopeful that his next appointment might already be there. His managers, Herbeth said, told him he has already done his part and can expect the call any day now.


“I believe the belt solidified my time here, in these national events,” Herbeth said. “I fought at (Jungle Fight), I fought at (Shooto Brazil), I fought at Brazil Fight, now (Future FC). I think that’s it (for me) here.”

No fighter road looks the same, but making it to a major league like the UFC carries some familiar implications to all of them. There is some level of stability, at least compared to the one provided by the local circuit. There is the sheer sense of recognition that comes with being accepted among the very best at doing what you do. And there is, of course, the financial relief that comes with the (much) fatter paychecks. For people like Herbeth, who came from such humble beginnings, the impact of the latter can be literally a life-changer.

“I really want my mom and my dad to age comfortably,” Herbeth said. “Because they both work so hard, and they’ve been working toward this with me for seven years, and I believe they deserve it. The UFC can help give this structure I want to give them.”

“Help” is, in fact, a word Herbeth uses a lot when conjecturing about a possible UFC future. He could help his teammates, and all of those who helped him. He can continue helping the social project he was first brought up on — something he already does, non-financially, by giving them his time and passing along some of what he’s learned. But the one goal he constantly goes back to is the same one that got him into this whole thing in the first place.

“I just want to be a supporting actor to tell his story,” Herbeth said, seemingly unaware that both he and Hercules can be — and very much are — the protagonists of this one.

(Top photo: Marcos Santos / Future FC MMA)

After military tragedy, Herbeth Sousa fights for his late brother and the UFC contract he never got (2024)
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