Towards the end of Summer 2008, a few of us from the Denver academy got the hair to go down to Rio and train at the legendary Gracie Barra academy. The thought developed and started coming together towards the end of the year, so we made the move and bought our tickets to go. Blue belt Shawn Portella got on board and let us know that he had a friend in Recreio who owned a big condo on the beachfront, a short drive from Barra….
The guy let us stay for free for 2 weeks and even had his housekeeper take care of any laundry or cooking we wanted done, all we had to do was pay her a little bonus money. Our group consisted of myself, Joe Rozick, Shawn, Kevin McGlocklin, Angelo Russell (from Ricardo Almeida’s school) and Professor Mario “Busy” Correa. We are all blue belts and I was initially apprehensive about how we would fare in the tough BJJ world of Brazil and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about stepping onto the mat. How would we represent ourselves, our academy and Professors Easton and Correa? Would we be welcomed by the Brazilians? Or would we be looked down upon as foreigners invading their turf?
We departed the Saturday of the last big snowstorm of the season and I was dreading the travel before we even left. I repeatedly checked the flight status and the great DIA was running smoothly throughout the blizzard. Unfortunately, there was a rainstorm in Houston and they had major delays, including us, which would make us miss the connection to Brazil. We managed to get on an earlier flight that was delayed to about the same time as our original flight, so we made it to Houston for the connecting flight, which was eventually delayed several hours! Somehow, we made it to Rio within an hour or so of our original arrival time, so everything worked out great.
The drive from the airport was interesting, as we passed many large flavelas (ghettos) and saw the huge amount of poverty in Rio. If you haven’t seen the movie “City of God”, make it a point to do so. It is a very realistic portrayal of life in the flavelas and people’s struggle to survive poverty and a corrupt government.
Our first stop was at Busy’s brother’s condo complex, where his family had organized a BBQ for all of us. The food was amazing and his family was awesome. This is also where one of Gordo’s schools is located, but we will get to that later. We were all pretty beat from the trip, so we headed to the condo and called it a day.
It is now Monday and we are ready to get to training! We meet up with Busy and head to Gracie Barra to get everything set up. GB is located on the third floor of a nice health club and much to our dismay, they had fairly new mats just like the Denver academy. The reason I mention this, is that many of us have heard stories about how bad or dirty the mats are and how the rain comes in the windows and soaks them. I instantly felt lucky that this wasn’t the case. Now, class is scheduled to start at 10:30, so we were hurrying to make it on time, but when we got up there, only a couple of students were there. We quickly learned that things are a little more relaxed and that they are on what we called “Brazil Time”, which seems to run about a half an hour later than the actual time! Class gets started with a typical warm up and black belt after black belt shows up for training. One class we counted 13 black belts on the mat and usually there were 8-10 for every class. Of course the instruction was in Portuguese, so we had no idea what was happening. We were lined up by belt against the wall and several black belts hit the mat, ready to go. We were selected and matched with a partner and it was 10 minute rounds. I spent almost the entire time at GB rolling with black belts and a couple of brown belts, so I have become very good at tapping.
At GB, the guys will go as hard as you do. If you spaz out and go crazy, they will go hard and shut you down quickly. If you roll hard, but use control and work for position and submission, they will also and you can really pick up what they are doing. Right off the bat, we noticed that they love to do wristlocks, so we had to really watch where we put our hands and the position they were in. The players there also attack from knee on belly a lot and are very good at it.
So, you are probably wondering what the technique for the class was. Well, they usually don’t show one. In two weeks, we attended one class where they showed technique before training. Luckily, all the guys there were amazing and wanted to help us with holes they saw in our games and wanted us to show them moves we use that they hadn’t seen before. Training would go on for an hour to an hour and a half, then we would hang out and work with the instructors and students on whatever technique we wanted. I definitely prefer the instruction we get at Easton, but this was great training and very educational. Overall, I thought we more than held our own and represented very well. Many of the instructors and black belts were very complimentary to us and our ability and control. All the nervousness and apprehension I had was gone and we could just focus on training, learning and having a good time.
Many days we would train in the morning and go back in the evening for a second session, with a little beach time in between. Of the ten business days we were there, three were holidays, so they didn’t have night class. Instead, they would start with an hour of basic Ginastica Natural, led by GB black belt Raphael Romano, who is the son of the developer of Ginastica. I didn’t think I would be able to do Ginastica, but much of this trip was for me to take myself out of my comfort zone and attempt things that I might not otherwise do, so I jumped in and did my best. I surprised myself and did better than I ever thought I could and the couple of classes we did, really helped my movement, even though it was pretty introductory stuff. After this, we would meet Busy’s family at the beach or go to one of the many shopping malls in the area.
I would be remiss, if I didn’t talk a little about the food and drink. Brazil is well known for its Rodizio type restaurants, where they bring meat to the table and serve you as much as you want. I am pretty sure we made a dent in the Brazilian cow population while we were there! All of the food is unprocessed and just tastes incredible. The specialty cut is called picanha and is basically the very top of the top sirloin…and awesome! We spent many lunches at a place that made picanha cheeseburgers and acai milkshakes…mmmmmmm. Making me miss them already! All of the fruits and vegetables are very fresh and tasty, so we took full advantage.
Back to training. We show up at GB one night and notice a female black belt on the mat. Yes, the beautiful and talented world champion, Kyra Gracie. Awesome to be on the mat with her, but unfortunately, they don’t have her train with 250 pound gringos! Let me say, she was working some guys her size and a little bigger.
Of all the black belts we were around, there was one that just dominated all of the others. Every time we saw him, he was submitting another black belt. His name was something like Mario Correa. I hope all of you can someday see Busy in this type of situation. He is just a step above many other guys out there and was given in immeasurable amount of respect by all of the other black belts we met. We are very luck to have the instructors we do and seeing this just makes it that much more evident.
So this is pretty much how the first week went, lots of training and recovering. The nerves were gone and we felt at home, thanks to all the great guys there, especially Professor “Buiu”, he is a great guy and lots of fun. He also has a great story. Many years ago, he was a homeless kid who ran around the neighborhood by GB. He is very friendly and funny, so many of the guys liked him and he eventually was adopted by Carlos Gracie Jr. Now he is a black belt and one of the instructors at GB. In a world where he easily could have taken his life in a bad direction, he found a better way and really has made something of himself. A great pleasure training and learning from Buiu.
So Friday arrives and GB fighter “Ximu” Machado is headlining a MMA card, the WCF, in the neighboring city of Niteroi and we decided to cross the bay and attend. Unfortunately, we didn’t know the area, so we had another GB guy ride with us to the fights. We arrived and paid a few extra reals to sit in the VIP ring area. The problem was, they sold more tickets than seats, but the next thing we know, they bring out some chairs and sit us right in front about 8 feet from the ring. So, I’m sitting there and some guy is standing next to me rubbing his rear end on my shoulder, so I look up and see a pretty big guy wearing a sleeveless hoodie. Yes, Ricardo Arona was bumping into me. I let it slide and he took his seat down the row from me. Seriously, he is a big guy and could probably fight at heavyweight if he wanted. Next there was a big commotion and here comes Big Nogueira, former UFC champ. The people there loved him and he got absolutely mobbed, but we managed to get pictures with him and tell him we train at Eliot’s school. We also saw WEC up and comer Jose Aldo as well as Little Nogueira. The fights were amazing and action packed. There was no feeling out process or anything, they just rang the bell and it was on. “Ximu” won his fight, so it was a good night for GB.
The problem that night, was that our guide bailed and left us, so we didn’t know how to get back home. We were panicked, as one wrong turn and you might find yourself in a bad situation, especially late at night. We managed to hook up with Romano and a local guy gave us some directions, so everything wound up ok, but not until after some very stressful moments.
The rest of the weekend was spent at the beach and relaxing, enjoying the scenery and doing some shopping and so on.
We hit GB for morning training and then decide it is time to seek out Roberto “Gordo” Correa. We find that training is at seven that night, so we rested then headed for Gordo’s. Gordo was the head of the GB MMA team and one of their top instructors, a true BJJ great, but they had a falling out and he decided to break and open his own schools, with many of GB’s top guys following him. This caused a huge rift and developed a big rivalry, but we couldn’t pass on this opportunity. This school is inside a recreation center and during the day, doubles as a Judo school. The mat is orange and has many patches, with the padding consisting of shredded tires. Over time, the rubber has packed down hard, so the mat feels like a hard floor with wood framing sticking up waiting to get you. We had to be very careful where we were on the mat to avoid the boards sticking up.
Class started with a long warm up, followed by 100 take downs each. Next we did king of the mat takedowns for about 45 minutes and if you pulled guard, you either had to pass or sweep before it was over. Finally we did about an hour to an hour and a half of ground work. Gordo’s is a little different. It is hardcore and no joke. You go, go hard and don’t let up until you are ready to go home. This was some of the most intense training I have ever done and his students are very, very good, but there was no way I wasn’t going to get in there as much as I could and get after it.
Judo is very prevalent in Brazil, even getting coverage on the nightly news, and most of us had very little in the judo department. What we discovered was that it was our wrestling versus their judo. These guys were very skilled at take downs and we got to see and experience some awesome performances.
We were pretty beat down after this and Busy offered to take us to the beach city of Buzios, where his sister-in-law’s family had a beach house. It was a couple hours away, but well worth the drive. The beach was beautiful, the house was great and it gave us a break from the big city. We went down to the dock to a fish market and bought some baby shark and shrimp, which the housekeeper made into a delicious meal for us. We went to the downtown area and it was block after block of shops, restaurants and bars. It was off season, but still a great place to visit.
We ended the week training at Gordo’s newer academy, which had the jigsaw style mats. It felt like being on feathers compared to the other school’s mat! Here we encountered some more great students, including Rafael Dos Anjos, a UFC fighter. I picked up a cold at some point, so the last few days, I felt pretty weak, but got in and did my best to finish up our training. As a 250 blue belt, you don’t want to be beaten by a 140 pound purple belt, and I wasn’t. Instead, I was thoroughly manhandled by a 140 pound purple belt! Nobody I rolled with down there, beat me as badly as that little guy. He got my back and we were both laughing at the situation. Fortunately for me, it is possible to laugh and tap at the same time! When it was over, he had tallied a great sweep, 2 collar chokes from my back and a nice armbar. I totaled 3 taps. We just laughed afterwards and he was a really nice guy. That is just how it is down there, you respect everyone, have a good time, train your butt off and are friends afterwards.
We trained with people from all over, France, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Ireland and others. It was great training, great fun and I can’t wait to go back and see my new friends. Hopefully some of these guys like Gordo, Romano, Mamazhino and Buiu will someday come to our school and see all of us.
When the trip was over, it wasn’t about what technique we learned, or how many times we tapped or made our opponent tap, it was about how our BJJ had changed. I realized that I can do the things that I had seen others do, but didn’t think I could. I learned that I can step on the mat with some of the world’s best and be proud of how I performed. I learned that no matter the guys belt level or size, I just need to go out and do my best and play my game and no matter how good you are, you can always improve and learn from others.
One more thing I learned is that not only do we have great instructors, but we have some of the best in the world. Everywhere we went there was a lot of respect for Amal and Busy and guys like Jeff Suskin and Mark Johnson and Andrew Dudderar that had spent time in Brazil before. I only hope that we left even the smallest impression on GB and Gordo’s and that we represented Easton BJJ in the manner it deserves. So if you want some of the best training in the world, you can take a trip to Brazil, or you can just get up and go to class tonight.