Competing BJJ in Brazil with Jake Mackenzie

Canadian born black-belt, embedded resident of Rio, and renowned half-guard practitioner, Jake Mackenzie is a certified gringo legend of jiu-jitsu competition in Brazil, competing in around 200 tournaments since his debut in 2002. He is a multiple time Brazilian National Teams Champion representing GFTeam and a 2-time black-belt Brazilian National No-Gi Champion. Jake has an unquenchable thirst for jiu-jitsu competition and the lifestyle of travel and adventure that accompanies it.

I had a chance to pick the brain of this self-professed “jiu-jitsu nerd” on his experiences of competing in the cradle of jiu-jitsu.

When was your first experience competing in Brazil? What was that like?

My first tournament in Brazil was the 2003 Mundial in Tijuca Tennis Club.

I remember being super nervous because I couldn’t understand the names they were saying in Portuguese and I was so worried about not understanding my name when they called me. I ended up losing the first match, but I remember the energy and all the great matches at black belt! It was amazing to participate in three Mundials in Rio, I wish the IBJJF would bring the worlds back to Brazil at some point. But I highly doubt that will happen.

As a ridiculously well-travelled competitor – can you think of any nuances that separate competing in Brazil from anywhere else?

I believe the talent pool is still much deeper in Brazil, especially in states like Rio, São Paulo and Manaus. Every state you go to in Brazil has super tough guys to compete against, but, if you go to one of these hubs there is going to be several top level guys in each division. The major international tournaments are all outside of Brazil now, but all the guys that are winning are still from Brazil. Many of the best instructors live in California, NY, etc. But all them made their way and sharpened their skills in the jiu-jitsu scene in Brazil.

What is your most memorable moment or moments competing on the mats in Brazil?

I have had so many great memories over my career, but by far the biggest one that sticks out is the Brazilian National Teams Title in 2010. I had been training and competing for about 4 months at GFTeam and was selected to be one of the 5 competitors on their A squad for the National Team Tournament.

In the history of the tournament there had never been a three-time Champion at black belt. GFTeam had won 2008 and 2009 and was looking to be the first 3-time champion. Atos showed up with a killer team, Rafael Mendes, Guilherme Mendes, Davi Ramos, Ed Ramos, and Bruno Frazzato. Theodoro and Tanquinho ended up winning the first and third matches, but Atos took the second and fourth so we were tied 2-2. I ended up fighting the 5th and final fight and deciding the tournament. I won a great back and forth match against Ed Ramos. The fight was tied up on points and advantages until the last 10 seconds. I was able to sweep to the mount just as the match ended to get the advantage.

Given the size and prestige of the competitions that now take place in North America and even in Europe, is there any reason for someone to go out of their way to compete in Brazil?

Brazil is an amazing experience, every competitor should take the trip down and feel the energy and atmosphere of a tournament in Brazil. They have had jiu-jitsu so much longer than the rest of the world and the energy and heart you see at the tournaments is like nowhere else.

Have you seen any changes in Brazil’s competition scene in all the years you have spent there?

I have seen changes over the years, but I have seen a lot of things stay the same. There have been some big improvements to the scene in Brazil, but there are also problems that still affect the sport from pushing forward. Hopefully with the IBJJF and UAEJJF doing more and more big events in Brazil, the sport continues to progress and grow.

There is always talk (mostly from disgruntled losers) of discrimination against non-Brazilians, as an embedded gringo what is your take on this?

This happens very little in my opinion. I lived 10 years in Brazil and was competing almost 15-20 tournament every year. I have had rough calls in matches, just like any competitor but I don’t believe that it is because I am a gringo. I believe 99 percent of the people who complain about this don’t have a solid understanding of the rules. There is so much grey area in the rules and the refs in Brazil have so much experience, so they play rules very close to the book. I have refed in Brazil as well and every tournament as a referee I have learned new details or nuances in the rules that I never knew from just competing.

Can you think of any personal anecdotes of memorable things you have seen while competing?

I went to Manaus last year for the first time to compete at the state tournament. I was blown away with how strong jiu-jitsu is there, they had 3600 competitors competing over four days. I was completely blown away with the level of the competitors I saw there. I am absolute jiu-jitsu nerd and was a big fan of the scene there before competing there, but after going and fighting there I will need to go back every year to feel that energy and jiu-jitsu culture.

Finally, any do’s and don’t for a first-timer competing on the mats in Brazil?

Try to find your ring coordinator to see what mat you are on, and so he knows who you are. A lot of times the Brazilians can’t pronounce the gringo names properly and you might not here your name being called. As long as they know what you look like they can go find you. As far as that nothing really comes to mind. Just be as respectful as possible and be humble in victory or defeat.

Becoming a Part-Time Grappler

I have been training jiu-jitsu for nearly eight years now –  for the bulk of that time I was lucky enough to have trained everyday, like most cats who find this wonderful sport, my desire was unquenchable. At the age of thirty I sold everything I owned and quit my full-time job as a high school teacher, to live in Brazil and train full-time.

For the past three and a half years, I have worked intermittently to finance my jiu-jitsu, living on the absolute minimum, refusing to buy anything but the most essential of items. My sole focus was training, traveling and competing, striving to better myself through the art; to say that I defined myself through jiu-jitsu would be an understatement. I have a plethora of hobbies and interests but jiu-jitsu literally changed the direction of my life.

Now, I have decided to take a step back and become the proverbial part-time grappler as I pursue something else that I have always loved.

I had fallen in love with pro-wrestling at the age of six, at the time I had not even seen a match, I became enamoured after stumbling upon a copy of the official WWF magazine at a friend’s house, it must have been just after Wrestlemania VI, as I remember seeing images of the Hulkster and the Ultimate Warrior. To a little dude that loved Superman, seeing two real life jacked superheros on the pages in front of me, meant I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t until Royal Rumble 1991 that I remember seeing any live action. I watched the whole show so many times, I could quote Gorilla Monson and Rowdy Roddy Piper’s commentary verbatim.

Pro-wrestling was something that I had never outgrown and continued to follow through the formative stages of my life, childhood, parental breakdown, awkward teen years, the death of loved ones, university, the breakdown of relationships and fully fledged adulthood. Name an important period of my life and I could tell you exactly what was going on in wrestling at the time.

I had an epiphany during Wrestlemania weekend last year. It occurred to me, how could I love pro-wrestling as much as I do without ever having tried it? As ridiculous as this sounds, pro-wrestling had been my inspiration to start grappling in the first place, jiu-jitsu felt just like the front-room wrestling sessions of my childhood where I attempted to force friends into submission with Rick ‘the Model’ Martel’s Boston crab. I concluded that never having attempted to learn this craft was a sad state of affairs. I made a decision that afternoon that I would need to have at least one match.

This wasn’t to be a complete farewell to jiu-jitsu, I would still be able to get onto the mats a couple of times a week teaching and training no-gi. But, to make a real go of this, I would be spending most of the week in the squared circle learning to ‘bump’, ‘sell’, and get ‘heat’, sadly, this wouldn’t give me any time to throw on the gi.

Ultimately, making this decision wasn’t easy, on one hand this is something that had been a dream since childhood, but, the kimono isn’t just an item of clothing used to facilitate the strangling of one’s friends, it is something that I use as a vehicle to express myself.  The thought of life without it, if only for the short term is thoroughly alien to me, it is something I will miss implicitly as I attempt to acquire the skills necessary to simulate beating people up.

This most definitely isn’t the end, the world-spanning adventures of Tales from Deep Half will continue, albeit on a part-time basis.

 

 

 

Competing BJJ in Brazil

Part 6: Grapplers are Weird

During my time in Brazil I spent many a weekend hauled up in huge gymnasiums and sports halls. This resulted in the mass consumption of terrible acai, and sitting through endless hours of jiu-jitsu whereby all but the most sublime guard passes, sweeps and submissions eventually faded into obscurity.

A typical tournament day with your team can last a resolve-testing twelve hours, from the kids who compete early doors through to master white-belts who demonstrate their unique brand of grappling right at the death. During this time, guaranteed you will bear witness to a whole host of funky shit.

Black belts wear what they want

When you are a veteran black belt and your cauliflower face bares the scars of a thousands war-torn battlefields where you waded through a sea of dispatched kimono-clad corpses, nobody is going to tell you what you can and cannot wear, regardless of how ridiculous you may look. This includes Havaianas with socks, wrapping yourself up in a leopard print blanket, or even rocking dress shoes to warm up in.

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When you’re a black belt you are also free to announce to the world that you are indeed a badass who has achieved this highest of accolades. So, if you want to rock a shirt with a black belt on, that’s cool; matching bracelet, no doubt; fitted cap with the black belt printed on that piece, no fucking problem. You want to take it to the next level and stick a black belt on your glasses, go ahead, no one is going to say shit to you!

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‘Sweep him you son of a bitch’

The impassioned and somewhat crazed nature of Brazilian crowds is well documented – jiu-jitsu tournaments are no different, which is one of the things that makes competing in Brazil compared to everywhere else so special. This craziness is predominantly positive but it can overflow into critique, anger and even extreme vitriol when directed at athletes from rival teams or an official who makes a bad call.

Critique of the other in a sporting context is the natural order of things, and jiu-jitsu is no different in this respect. However, the derisive nature in which some instructors and teammates coach from the side-lines can at times be bewildering. I for one would struggle to find a modicum of strength to pitch that last-ditch effort after being lambasted for being a ‘filho da puta’.

One of my friends insisted on calling everyone ‘mulher’, somehow he assumed that using this gender pronoun as a pejorative would will one on to an inspired victory, it didn’t.

No Germophobes Allowed

Over the summer I saw someone throw up in the bullpen, it was as inconspicuous as one could hope given the circumstances, the dude in question ejected a little watery vomit at the side of the railings and scarpered pronto. I seemed to be the only one who noticed. This was not the grossest thing that I witnessed in the bullpen, I became aware of a curious phenomenon, competitors that felt no shame in hocking up and firing big fat, phlegm filled greenies onto the floor. This was repugnant on some many levels not least the fact that I had to use the very same cold concrete floor to carve out some semblance of a warm-up.

When I first began training in Brazil I was shocked by teammates who would blow their nose directly into their kimonos between rounds. Although, it didn’t take too long to become comfortable with the practice, eventually it became normalised to such an extent that I began doing it myself. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between one’s own bodily fluids and that of random dudes’; expelling snot-ridden spit onto an area where other dudes would come into direct contact with it, was just straight nasty!

Sectarian Conflict?

Coming from the secular land mass of the British Isles it never ceases to baffle me the level of religiosity that finds its way into jiu-jitsu competition in Brazil. Personally, I feel those athletes who so fervently thank God in-victory, should be thanking their coaches and their teammates. Nevertheless, each and every tournament, you will find athletes praying, and making the sign of the cross prior to their match, hopeful of Jesus’ intercession in their respective contests. I imagine an omnipresent God would take a great deal of interest in jiu-jitsu.

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This belief in a metaphysical helping hand makes perfect sense when you consider, Brazil has the largest Catholic population of any country in the world, a staggering 130 million people. This is coupled with the evangelical church which now accounts for 22 percent of the population after years of exponential growth. In this sense the mats of Brazil’s jiu-jitsu tournaments foster the true spirit of ecumenism – different denominations gathered together praising their God in (relative) harmony.

Although, it would be interesting to poll the data to see which interpretation of God’s word proves the dominant one on the mats, maybe the analysis of such data could prove once and for all which is the correct path to true salvation.