An Article by Mark Mullen
As I lay gasping on the cold pavement of the Trans Canada Highway, the 18 wheeler that had just plowed me over belching diesel exhaust into my face, my life essence slipping into the next plain of existence, my last thoughts were “Shit!! I never made it to Rio de Janeiro!” I bolted upright, awake out of that feverish dream, heart pounding. I had daydreamed about going to Rio to train jiu-jitsu for over 10 years, but never found the right circumstances, time or money.
I resolved right then and there in the darkness that I would go to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the next year of my life.
Aged 41, living in Canada, I have a brown belt in Judo and a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu – I had been training rather recreationally (and truth be told – sporadically) over the last few years. I planned to do some jiu-jitsu while in Rio, but the focus of my trip was to sample what life was like for those fortunate carioca who had grown up in the “cidade maravilhosa”. I had always envisioned the idyllic life as a jiu-jitsu / beach bum down on Copacabana Beach, training jiu-jitsu in the morning and spending the afternoons at the beach with friends, watching the world famous brazilian girls while sipping agua de coco.
The trip was 6 weeks in length – with a laptop in my apartment, I could stay in touch with my webdesign clients and even work a little. Through a website that offered to rent apartments to gringos – I booked a simple bachelor apartment with an ocean view of Copacabana Beach and less than a block from the infamous Help Discotheque. I received a 20% discount for booking longer than 30 days and for $150 – I had a maid every second day for the entire 6 weeks. I saw some arrangements of staying in a house near an academy with a bunch of other foreigners – but frankly, staying in a big dog pile and sharing a room with a bunch of sweaty, stinky guys didn’t have much appeal.
I told the guys in my home academy (Gracie Barra Calgary with instructor Josh Russell) that the main focus of my trip to Rio was to enjoy the beach, food and garotas – but if you were a Catholic in Rome, you had to visit the Vatican. When in Rio, I had to visit “the Church of jiu-jitsu” – the Carlson Gracie Academy. There were several small academies within blocks of my apartment and the Gracie Barra Academy was way too far from where I was staying in Copacabana. The famous Champion Factory – where my first jiu-jitsu instructor, Marcus Soares had come from – had produced many of the greatest MMA fighters and his stories had fuelled the dream of someday myself stepping onto the mat.
Took me 3 attempts to find the academy (no signs). I stopped at a sucos bar, frustrated and exhausted from the heat and in a last ditch effort asked the juice jockey where the academy was – he had never heard of it. Fortunately ,a businessman overheard and offered to point me in the right direction “but I think it closed when Carlson passed away?”. And there it was,..non descript, the entrance on a side street above a beachwear shop. Ari Galo is the morning instructor at Carlson’s Academy – 150 reals (approx $100) for a month of classes. The Carlson Academy was far smaller and humble than I had imagined. There is no air-con in the academy and I had sweat running down the tip of my nose as I put on my gi. It was the realization of a long held dream to cinch up my belt, bow and step onto the mat at the Carlson Gracie Academy
I trained at the 8am class – I can’t imagine how sweltering the temperatures would be inside the academy under the midday equatorial sun. The instruction was in Portuguese and I did my best to keep up and nod and smile alot. Most of my friends in Canada had expressed some apprehension that the Brazilians would try to headhunt the gringo. I found the exact opposite to be true. I was matched up with one of the very best brown belts – who dispensed advice and tapped me out in equal measures, but I never felt like I was getting my arms cranked. Obrigado to Fernando.
Most classes there was usually maybe 1 bluebelt, no white belts with the majority of the 12-15 students at any class being purple through black belts. Few of the students appeared to do any weight training with average looking physiques. One slim individual came in to class one morning with no muscular definition to speak of; I immediately evaluated him as a soft beginner. He put his worn blackbelt on and was an absolute monster on the mat with a relaxed rolling style until the timing was right and he would explode into a submission. A few guys who fought MMA professionally would come in and roll with everyone in gi – I saw zero no-gi grappling my entire stay.
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Most of the guys back home wanted to know about the differences between the North American and Brazilian academies. a few observations:
- Far fewer techniques demonstrated in Brazil. Maybe 2 per class and it was not uncommon after a brief warm up to hear “ok,..today we go to training”. The emphasis was on rolling in 7 min timed rounds.
- No stand up. The blackbelts explained that the only time they performed sparring from standup was in a week or so before tournaments. They felt that standup grappling was more likely to result in training injuries.
- I found the jiu-jitsu much more “feint” oriented as opposed to straight ahead pressure. The majority of the techniques were explained in the context of setting it up with pressure to one direction and then reversing to take advantage of your opponent’s reaction. The softer, more flowing style of jiu-jitsu was described by Ari as more pure jiu-jitsu – that is to say in Brazil, there was less influence of other arts like wrestling in the jiu-jitsu.
- No one had stripes on their belts. The majority of the blackbelts were not competitive wunderkind – rather, guys who just had been training for a long time.
- You don’t pick your own sparring partners – the instructor always matched me up.
- I felt that people were less concerned with “who tapped who” or needing to establish the pecking order than in North America.
- The atmosphere was very relaxed – some guys dropping in, having 1 roll and then getting back into their street clothes to go back to work!
When I returned home there were the inevitable questions about “How did you do down there? Did you tap everyone out?” I laugh and respond “I didn’t bring anything down there that they hadn’t seen before or know how to deal with!”
Outside the Academy: Food, Nightlife, Beach
- I stayed in Copacabana – a busy area of the Zona Sul where many gringos congregated. The beaches were cleaner than I thought and I spent many languid afternoons playing in the surf and sipping Guarana.
- I felt the whole idea of the rampant danger in Rio was way overblown. In 6 weeks I had one incident where a guy tried to jack me and when I yelled “Policia!” he ran away without harm.
- Time spent learning to speak Portuguese will be paid back to you a hundredfold. More than half of the students in the academy spoke zero english and being able to communicate with my robotic Pimsleur english opened many doors for me. The most beautiful girl I met spoke not a word of english; my Portuguese made it possible to get to know her – if that isn’t a compelling reason to study….
- Tons of food options – I ate daily at a per-kilo place where a plate of chicken breasts, black beans and broccoli rice would be about $6. On those nights when I wanted to splurge I would go to an all you can eat sushi place or the churrascurria (Brazilian BBQ) for a little over $20.
- Every morning during my entire stay I enjoyed the acai and strong Brazilian coffee at one of the corner sucos kiosks. The jiu-jitsu Gods must have created acai for the jiu-jitsu player and after class – at my fave sucos bar around the corner from the academy – I would grab a chair and a “tigela grande de acai” and watch the people walk by.
- I am not much of a night club person so I have little to report other than that everything you have heard about the brazilian girls is true. They are feminine, friendly and full of life – quite a refreshing change from the hoodies and baggy sweatpants in Calgary.
The trip to Brazil was a life changing experience. It should come as no surprise that a trip to Rio would re ignite ones passion for jiu-jitsu. I resolved to do less weight training and more attention to smooth jiu-jitsu based on leverage, timing and reading my opponent’s energy. And more importantly, I changed my attitude towards showing up at the academy back home. Whereas before I frequently would be too serious about training – all or nothing mentality – don’t tap to this person or self flagellation at missing a class or getting your guard passed.
The Brazilian blackbelts seemed to have a different approach: it was part of their lifestyle and they just went to the academy because it felt good. Instead of intense pressure on having to improve all of your game immediately, they just got on the mat, enjoyed rolling with their friends and along the way,…managed to develop some great jiu-jitsu!
I experienced some perfect days down there in Rio. Wake up hearing the surf crashing outside your window. Grab your gi and flip-flop your way along the beach down to the academy; looking out at the ocean mentally running through your techniques. Have a few laughs and practice my Portuguese on some new friends while learning my favourite art in one of the world’s best academies. Acai or fresh squeezed juice at a street side sucos bar before heading to the beach all day. The lifestyle down there is fantastic.
One of my travel buddies put it best with his broken English “All the time in my life before I came to Brazil was wasted!”
Mark Mullen is a Calgary-based web programmer and is now a BJJ black belt.