Gabriel de Sousa's first two appearances at the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship got completely overshadowed by all the action in the black belt division.
In 2017 he competed in the purple belt category, and in 2018 he moved up to brown. This year, though, he will arrive in the UAE capital for the 11th staging of the World Pro – as it is popularly known – to fight as a black belt holder.
But that is not all.
De Sousa is the leading contender to win the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s (UAEJJF) world title – given to the world's top-ranked fighter – when the three-day event gets under way at Mubadala Arena on April 24.
The 22-year-old tops the rankings table with 1,220 points. But fellow Brazilians Diego Ramalho (1,200) and Ricardo Evangelista (1,040), as well as Poland’s Ivan Wardzinski (also 1,040), are all breathing down his neck.
What makes the title race even more interesting is the fact all four fighters are competing in different weight divisions: De Sousa in the 62 kilograms; Ramalho is in the 77kg; Wardzinski in the 94kg; and the Abu Dhabi-based Evangelista in the 110kg.
Points on offer include 400 for winning the weight division, 320 for second place, 240 for third and 200 for fourth. So, victory will be enough for De Sousa to seal the deal. But failing to achieve that, any of the other fighters can be crowned champion.
Despite the race being tight , De Sousa is playing it cool.
“No pressure – just more motivation to train and when I wear my black belt,” he said during a recent visit to Dubai. “I have fought a lot of good athletes. I have been doing well in tournaments, so I am all good to go.
"I have been in the world ranking race for six-seven months, and now have just have one competition. I am focused with 100 per cent attention, and I am looking forward to get it done."
The rankings race was introduced by UAEJJF in the 2015/16 season, with Brazil's Erberth Santos being crowned the inaugural champion, and fellow Brazilians Jose Junior and Igor Silva winning the title in the subsequent seasons.
The fact De Sousa has been at the top of his game makes him the title favourite in 2018/19. He has 22 victories and three losses, and has racked up five gold medals, two silvers and one bronze in the UAEJJF’s world ranking competitions.
He last visited the capital in January to compete at Grand Slam Abu Dhabi where he won bronze. He followed it up with consecutive gold medal wins in the North America Continental Pro, the Africa Continental Pro and Grand Slam London in March.
A day later at the same venue in London, he claimed bronze in the 'King of Mats' in the lightweight division behind fellow Brazilians Hiago George and Isaac Doederlein.
At the moment De Sousa is busy ironing out any weaknesses he may have ahead of the World Pro – something he has always done ahead of important events.
“If my guard is not good, I train more on that. If I got stuck in the close guard, I work on that," he said. "I train on what I did wrong or if there was a move that wasn’t helping me."
De Sousa's career has not always centred around ranking points; at least, not as much as winning titles. That said, he would like to settle this issue with victory in Abu Dhabi.
“Of course, I’ll give my 100 per cent with a good mindset to achieve both the championship and the world title," he said.
“I think that when you spend more time thinking about the possible ways to become a World Pro champion or the world title, you can get it done.”