Giovanna Canuto seems to have an edge on everything in life: at the ripe old age of nineteen, she’s already collected multiple international titles in jiu-jitsu, turned pro in MMA, and just won her third first-round submission victory in a row under the Legacy Fighting Alliance banner. “I knew that I was going to go into MMA sooner or later, but I didn’t know it was going to be that soon,” Canuto tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “When covid shut down jiu-jitsu tournaments, the only things that were really happening were MMA fights, so I thought I could start training MMA and maybe get some amateur fights.” She laughs. “I thought I’d [make my debut] when I was twenty-five or twenty-six!”
Not only did she make her MMA debut six years earlier than she thought she would – after nine different girls turned her down for amateur fights, she was forced to jump straight into the pro leagues. Granted, given that Canuto trains with current UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, those girls may have been wise to turn down. “Pavel [Fedotov], [Valentina Shevchenko’s] coach, was actually the reason I went straight to pro [in MMA],” says Canuto. “Because I was training with [Valentina], and when I told him I couldn’t get any amateur fights, he was like, ‘Why would you get an amateur fight? You’re training with Valentina. Nothing’s going to be worse than this. You might as well just go pro.'”
Fedotov’s words were prophetic. Ever since he encouraged her to take that leap, Canuto has blossomed under the LFA banner. Her jiu-jitsu chops have been on full display in all three of her professional fights thus far. She’s won all three in the first round with a submission finish: an armbar, a heelhook, and a rear naked choke, to date. “In my fights, I have this thing where I want to finish the fight as soon as possible,” says Canuto. “As athletes, we want to give the public a good show to watch, because you’ll get more publicity that way, but my coach always tells me, ‘I want you to make the fight as boring as possible – I want you to do what’s easy and simple.’ Like I could just take [my opponent] down and finish her – or I could get into a brawl, and take a ton of damage.”
Canuto’s first opponent was a far more experienced professional fighter – while Canuto hadn’t even had an amateur fight at that point. Canuto credits her victorious debut to extensive sport jiu-jitsu competition experience. “[My jiu-jitsu experience] was the biggest thing,” says Canuto. “I was so nervous, going into that fight. Like I was scared for my life. I’m honestly scared for my life every time. You’re literally getting into a cage with someone who’s trying to rip your head off, and you’re trying to do the same thing to them. I feel like people who say they’re not scared are lying a little bit – deep down, they’re at least a little nervous. So in jiu-jitsu, it was always the same thing – I was always scared, I was always nervous, but I did it so much that I could kind of shape [my fear] into a good thing.”
“When I first started competing in jiu-jitsu, I was so nervous that it would give me tunnel vision,” says Canuto. “I was shaking and I’d feel like puking – but then, with time, and because I did it so long, and competed so much, I figured out how to manage it. So for MMA, I’m doing the same thing.”
In addition to her precocious combat sports resume, Canuto’s also already married – to childhood friend and longtime training partner, fellow MMA fighter Liam Hill. “He’s also a world champion in jiu-jitsu,” says Canuto, making the two of them something of a combat sports power couple. “My story with him is crazy. I came to LA for Pan Kids, and he was there for Pan Kids too, from Hawaii. His parents were there, my parents were there, and we both [medaled] that year. Then I went back to Brazil, and he went back to Hawaii. Next year, we come back to the same place at Cobrinha’s, we train again, and then he goes to Las Vegas, I stay in LA to train with Cobrinha.”
Fast forward a few months: at this point, Canuto had also moved to Vegas for additional training opportunites. “When I moved to Vegas, I didn’t know Liam was here!” But sure enough, they came back to the same gym to train, and one thing led to another.
“It’s crazy to think that we were thirteen when we met each other,” says Canuto. “When we were like fourteen, we started rolling with each other, but he always beat me up,” she adds with a laugh. “Now he’s my main training partner. He made the transition to MMA with me, but since he’s a guy, he’s doing more amateur fights – he’s 2-0 in amateur right now. It’s awesome, because we made the decision together, and we’re both learning pretty much everything from zero together. He’s not just my main training partner, he’s also a coach for me, pretty much – like he’s the one who sits down and writes all our notes down for what we’re going to drill.”
They’ve even cornered each other – though they have very different cornering styles. “When he’s in my corner, he gives me advice,” says Canuto, “but when I’m in his corner, I just scream at him and grab the cage! He’ll tell me what to do, and meanwhile, I’m like Khabib – I don’t know if you’ve seen Khabib in the corner before, but he’s just like –” Here, Canuto mimes yelling unintelligibly, and laughs. “So that’s how I corner him.”
Who else does Canuto train with? To name just a few: in the jiu-jitsu world, she’s worked with five-time black belt world champion Mikey Musumeci and Gracie Humaitá legend Leticia Ribeiro, among others. “I went to Leticia [Ribeiro]’s in San Diego and trained with her for a season,” recalls Canuto. “It was super fun because I had always trained with men, and I wanted to see if I could go to a team that had a lot of women and people my size. I wanted to test the waters. So I went to Leticia’s, and there were literally like a hundred girls. It was amazing. And they all trained with her. She’s an amazing teacher, and a top of the line athlete. She won everything you could possibly imagine winning.”
How does Leticia Ribeiro feel in a roll? “Insanely strong,” answers Canuto promptly. “She’s so little, but she’s super technical and super strong! I’m honestly super grateful for my time with her. I was this little girl who was super aggressive and only rolled with men, so I had to use a lot of strength and stuff, and be really fast, and she was like, ‘well, you’re going to be an adult and a purple belt now, so you have to be more technical now and calm down.’ So she kind of turned me from this spazzy blue belt into someone who can pick their shots better.”
Meanwhile, in the MMA world, in addition to her work with Valentina Shevchenko, Canuto trains with UFC former men’s flyweight champion Brandon Moreno. “[Brandon Moreno] is an amazing person,” says Canuto. “He’s always happy, he’s always singing, and I honestly admire him a lot. I have this mindset where I try to learn from literally everyone – I don’t care if you’re a world champion, or you’re someone who trains for fun. I think everyone has their own style, and Brandon’s style is very unique. You don’t really see anyone who fights like Brandon. I’m always asking him questions.” She laughs, a little bashfully. “Hopefully, it doesn’t annoy him!”
What about Valentina – often thought to be the pound-for-pound GOAT of women’s MMA? Canuto shakes her head, grinning in awe. “Valentina’s my biggest inspiration,” she says. “She’s the GOAT in my opinion. She has beaten everyone. I think even in the fight with Amanda [Nunes], she won. Not even from the perspective of someone who trains with her, but just as someone who watches the sport, I remember watching that fight, and being like, ‘This is crazy, [Valentina] won!'”
According to Canuto, there’s an unrelenting versatility to Valentina that makes the flyweight champ truly extraordinary. “She’s stubborn, like Brandon [Moreno]. She’s so strong, so technical, she’s complete. That’s what I want to be too. She’s a multiple time Muay Thai champion, but she also takes people down, and she submits them. She wrestles, she clinches, she’s good everywhere, you know?”
How does Valentina’s grappling feel, compared to that of a sport jiu-jitsu specialist? “Valentina’s grappling is so good,” says Canuto. “Like I’m a grappler [who’s rolled with her], and her grappling is insane. I was actually having a conversation with her where I told her she should compete in no-gi tournaments, and she was like, ‘nah, I’m a white belt,’ and I was like, ‘you could compete right now with black belts.’ I think that she might struggle with the rulesets and stuff, since she’s an MMA fighter, so she might have some trouble with heel hooks or whatever, but even there, man. I go for heel hooks on her – I go for anything possible! — and it’s just insane. Like I’ve rolled with black belts, and I’ve rolled with Valentina, and honestly, I get more beat up by Valentina.”
“She doesn’t only focus on MMA training,” Canuto elaborates. “She does everything. She puts herself in the worst positions, she puts herself in the best positions – anything that could happen in a fight, Valentina’s doing.”
What’s the most valuable thing Canuto’s learned from Valentina? “[The way that] she balances everything in life,” says Canuto. “A lot of athletes aren’t doing that. I think especially in America, we have this mindset that more is better. We assume that the more we train, the better we’ll get, which I don’t believe. When I was a kid, I thought that too – that the more I did, the better I’d get – but then you hit the point of overtraining, and at that point, you’re actually getting worse, not better, because you’re so beat up all the time. And Valentina showed me that – because she’s the champion, and I went to train with her, and she’s like, ‘Well, I only train once a day.’ Her sessions start at 8 AM, and they go until around 11:30 to 12:30, so it’s a really long session that goes over everything.” The rest of the time, according to Canuto, the champ spends fishing, resting, and engaging in hobbies that relax her.
So how did a nineteen-year-old end up as an undefeated professional fighter – and a training partner to sport jiu-jitsu legends and UFC royalty?
The story, according to Canuto, begins back in Brazil, early in her childhood. “I remember I was around seven or eight, and I was bored all the time, so I’d go outside and play, back in Brazil. We’d always play soccer and stuff, and one day, my friends wouldn’t play with me because they were doing jiu-jitsu instead. So I felt kind of left out, and decided to try it. As it turned out, I was pretty good, even after just one or two days, compared to my friends who’d been doing it for a long time. And then I actually fell in love with it — but it wasn’t really known as a girls’ sport back then. When I came in, actually, my brother was already doing it.”
Unfortunately for Canuto, their father was less than pleased about his daughter following in his son’s footsteps. Jiu-jitsu, in his eyes, was a sport for men.
Luckily, Canuto’s brother was bribable. “We had this little secret where I’d do things for my brother in exchange for him not telling my dad that I was doing jiu-jitsu,” she remembers, laughing. “My dad threatened to ground me if I ever did jiu-jitsu, so I’d come home at least ten minutes before my dad got home from work, but I’d be all sweaty. So when he’d ask me what I’d been doing, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I was out running.'”
Of course, the ruse couldn’t last forever. Canuto still recalls the day she was finally discovered: “One time, [my dad] actually got home early from work, and I remember training [at the jiu-jitsu gym], and looking up, and seeing my dad standing right there at the top of the stairs, and being like, ‘Oh, s**t, he’s going to embarrass me in front of everybody.'”
Fortunately for Canuto, her coach at the time, who had recognized her budding talent, ran interference. With some effort, he persuaded Canuto’s father that Canuto had a real future in the sport of jiu-jitsu – even as a female athlete.
So, how does Canuto’s father feel about her combat sports career now? She grins at the question. “My dad actually turned out to be my biggest supporter, and my biggest sponsor. He literally gave up everything that he had in Brazil — like, he had a job in Brazil, which isn’t easy — and he gave it up to come here [to the USA] for me.”
Canuto arrived the US when she was only thirteen – right on the cusp of puberty, and barely capable of speaking a word of English. Those weren’t easy days for her: “The transition was hard because thirteen, fourteen is that weird phase in growing up, and on top of that, the culture here was so different, and the language was so different, and all I knew how to say in English back then was like ‘hi’ and ‘bye.'”
Fortunately, in addition to her martial arts skills, Canuto has a knack for languages – and a genuine love of learning. Now completely fluently bilingual in English, she explains, “I really wanted to learn [good English] because I didn’t want to speak with an accent. I really enjoy grammar, actually. I think the fact that you can communicate and speak your mind shows your true character. Sometimes, when you have people translating for you, it’s just not the same. You don’t show that same character. I feel like your culture and language show who you truly are. That’s why I really love grammar – because you can really express yourself through it.”
Her fondness for language and grammar – and her skill for mastery over new languages – is something she shares with one of her training partners, jiu-jitsu superstar and ONE Championship newcomer Mikey Musumeci. “I actually just started training at [Mikey’s gym] again [before he went to Singapore]. I’d ask him questions in English, and he’d answer in Portuguese. So we’d just start speaking Portuguese. He actually learned Portuguese before going to Brazil, so when he went to Brazil to teach seminars, he could pretty much already speak the language. His Portuguese is really good. He’s got a bit of an American accent, but he’s almost as good as a native speaker now. It’s really impressive.”
While hard at work studying new languages and immersing herself in American culture, Canuto simultaneously spent her teens picking up new tools to add to her grappling arsenal – tools that would not only sharpen her sport jiu-jitsu game, but keep her safe as she transitioned in the much more dangerous sport of MMA.
For Canuto, a great deal of her success in the cage has come from learning carefully how to weaponize her grappling foundations in MMA-friendly ways. “My coach Hector used to always mess with me because he’d be like, ‘You’re a jiu-jitsu fighter, but you’re not a wrestler – so what are you going to do, pull guard? How are you going to impose your jiu-jitsu?’ So we started to do these classes, just me and Liam, with three or four people, in a garage. We learned that from Mikey [Musumeci] – that’s how Mikey got good, he just had that group of training partners that he could drill with and get reactions off of – so Liam and I did that, and started working on wrestling, pretty much all the time. We’d always start standing, with no guard pulling – almost like ADCC rules.”
It wasn’t any easy road. Canuto shakes her head, laughing a little. “We were so terrible at first, but then we found out about Justin Flores, Ronda [Rousey]’s judo coach, and got a membership through his website. I text him with a lot of questions, and send him videos of my training, and he’s honestly become one of my biggest go-to people for training. I can’t wait to go to California and train with him, because he has this program where he mixes jiu-jitsu with judo and wrestling. That’s all I ever wanted: putting those three disciplines together in a way that makes sense. Because you know, there are certain positions in judo where you can do it, but you’ll give up your back [against a jiu-jitsu player], so I never found anything that adequately addressed [stuff like that], so when I found Justin Flores, I was like, ‘Yes, finally!'”
That attention to Justin Flores’ curriculum paid off during Canuto’s professional debut in the cage. “My very first fight, I did an uchi mata,” says Cantuo proudly. “People asked me if I trained judo, and I was like, ‘I just watched videos and drilled!’ My second fight, I did this mat return and sent the video to Justin like, ‘Hey, I just learned this from your website!'”
What’s remarkable is that, according to Canuto, she’s never been able to pull off that uchi mata in live sparring. “I love the uchi mata. I never hit them in the gym, but then I hit it in my first fight!” She smiles in equal parts elation and disbelief. “I was super happy, like ‘man, I’ve always drilled that, but I’ve never been able to make it happen in training,’ so it was great getting to hit it under the lights.”
“I’ve always loved judo,” she adds. ” I only did it for like two months, and actually competed in judo once, but it was so terrible for my body. I’d train judo at my old gym, then stay for the jiu-jitsu class, and by the time jiu-jitsu started, my body would be spent. So I was like, ‘oh my god, if I keep doing this, my body’s going to be done by the time I’m twenty.’ But I also love wrestling – I love the flow of it, that it’s back and forth, back and forth.”
Does Canuto have a preference between the two takedown systems? “I always say this: judo is more like a ‘classy’ sport, and wrestling is more about imposing your will,” says Canuto, making air quotes. “People in wrestling are trying to completely destroy you, but people in judo are trying to style on you. So whenever we’re doing wrestling drills, you’re really trying to impose your will, but in judo, it’s more about waiting for the perfect timing and trying to get people off balance. That’s why I like training them both together. Combined, they’re really beautiful, and great for your cardio.”
One advantage of spending most of her life in combat sports is that Canuto’s never really learned to be body conscious, despite being a teenage girl training primarily with men. “I think I would have had more [trouble] with that if I’d started jiu-jitsu at an older age,” she says, looking thoughtful. “But I was already so used to it, and it was funny, because we would travel, and I’d sleep in gyms with like fourteen people, and only two of them were women. So I’d be sleeping on the mats with a bunch of guys. I almost saw them as my brothers, you know? We felt like siblings. Maybe, coming to America, it got a little weirder, because that’s when I was growing up, once I turned sixteen, seventeen – and especially around eighteen, nineteen now.” She shrugs, laughing. “But I’m married now, so it’s whatever!”
She’s also grateful to have come up around a crop of accompished female athletes like Leticia and Valentina. Canuto remembers, for example, being in her early teens and training with fellow elite jiu-jitsu competitor Erin Herle: “I was fourteen years old when [Erin Herle] came to the gym. I was doing boxing for fun, and she was getting ready for MMA, so we boxed a little with each other for fun. We were so bad, but look at us now! It’s so cool.”
At only nineteen, Canuto still has plenty of time to decide on the shape of career – but she does have one dream goal: signing with ONE Championship. “Joining ONE is something I would almost look forward to even more than the chance to join the UFC,” says Canuto. While she’d also love the opportunity to fight for the UFC down the line, her heart has always belonged first and foremost to Chatri Sityodtong’s promotion. “I love Singapore, and I want to go to Singapore so badly,” she says. “I also love how [ONE] will do cross-discipline events. Like the event they just did with Rodtang and Demetrious Johnson, where they did rounds of both Muay Thai and regular MMA – that was amazing.”
The fact that ONE as promotion has an extensive, well-paid platform for pure sport jiu-jitsu in addition to MMA also appeals to Canuto. “I would love to have grappling matches in addition to doing MMA,” says Canuto. “They help their athletes a lot too – they pay a lot. I know that I’m really young, and I only have three fights, but I feel like everybody should get together and say this, and the more of us point it out, the better: we deserve to be paid what we’re worth – especially since we’re getting punched in the face and cut open and get knees blown out, you know?”
It’s not out of the question. Given the number of jiu-jitsu phenoms that have recently joined ONE’s talent stable – for both sport jiu-jitsu and MMA – Canuto may prove herself an ideal prospect for Sityodtong’s promotion. And in the meantime, she fully intends to keep climbing up through the combat sport ranks.
To keep up with news and events, follow Giovanna Canuto on Instagram.