Category Archives: Brazil

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.

Competing BJJ in Brazil

Part III: Cheaper Than Protein

If you spend any time training in Brazil you will notice that a lot of dudes appear inhumanly shredded and have the strength to uchi-mata a bison. You will probably conclude without a great deal of pondering that these bodies have not been attained by chicken and rice or the twenty press-ups performed in the warm-up. If you bring your conclusion to someone with a little more knowledge of Brazil, you will invariably be informed steroids are cheaper than protein.

To unpack this longstanding claim, a 900g tub of a decent protein in Rio – will cost around 200 reals (£50). For some bizarre reason the smallest tubs of protein come in 900g portions rather than a whole kilo. A month’s supply of synthetic anabolic steroid, Winstrol also costs 200 reals. For an athlete training twice a day, 900 grams protein isn’t going to last too long. So, in essence this claim is in-fact true.

Winstrol was definitely not the only substance being used, amongst other things TRT was widespread, but PED use was very much unspoken. When questioning someone who appears to have had their head inflated with a balloon pump, they will invariably deny any infraction, thus making it difficult to gather information.

This use of PEDs for athletes in Brazil could not be more apparent than at tournaments themselves, regardless its size, from small region competitions to the CBJJ’s huge events, one only has to look around the bullpen to see their prevalence.

To call testing in jiu-jitsu lackadaisical would be to lavish it with high praise, the IBJJF test a handful of athletes each year. While, the most prestigious submission grappling championship, the ADCC does not test at all; testing in Brazil is completely non-existent.

You can notice PED usage most acutely in the Master’s division. Dudes in their forties with jaws as jacked as Andre the Giant and abs like the Ravishing Rick Rude. These aging black belts are some of the most intimidating men on Earth, many look like Mongol warlords who could rip limbs from mere mortals with relative ease.

The real concern for me are the teen athletes – purple and even blue belts who look as though a perfect set of abs has been superglued onto their frames.

Adults are responsible for themselves and should have done the necessary research before using PEDs, if they haven’t they deserve to suffer any negative consequences for their ignorance. But, impressible and in many cases uneducated teens for whom the top of the podium can seem like a matter of life and death can be convinced of upping their testosterone to astronomical levels by unscrupulous adults who they look to for guidance. These teens may have little or no understanding of possible long-term effects upon their bodies.

Competing in Brazil, you need to be aware that there is a very good chance that you will be competing against cats whose testosterone levels dwarf your own. I have both won and lost matches against such opponents. One always looks for excuses after losing, but, it is genuinely difficult not to feel aggrieved after being defeated by someone who has an unfair advantage.

The issue of PEDs is a highly divisive one, I think to be against them as an absolute is to not take into account all the nuances. There is an argument that at the highest level if everyone is using them, there is a level playing field, so how can it be considered cheating?  That being said, competitions in Brazil are beset by people who abuse them; from my perspective the onus should be on organisers, but frankly there appears no desire in Brazil to clean up the sport.

Competing BJJ in Brazil

Part 2: The Most Difficult Part

Looking through my notes the other day, I worked out that I’d competed ninteen times during the calendar year I spent in Rio; only three of these occasions were outside of the city.

Rio is home to a plethora of federations and organisations that hold competitions. This is by no means an exhaustive list but, there is jiu-jitsu’s official body the CBJJ, then there’s, FJJ Rio, FJJD Rio, SJJSAF, SJJIF, and the CBJJO.

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You are literally spoilt for choice and could compete every weekend if you are willing to travel, placing your life in the hands of the city’s homicidal bus drivers.

The difficult part is actually signing up. I am assuming like myself, you are used to entering tournaments via the organiser’s website, fill out a form, use a credit card and booya you’re good to go. However, in Brazil with the exception of the CBJJ’s events the process of actually securing your spot on the bracket is not nearly as straightforward. Each individual federation requires you to become a member.

The best possible scenario is, you have an academy as your permanent base and the professor is willing to help you sign up. In which case, all you have to do is find a photography shop (I have never seen a single passport photo booth) and get some pictures taken, hand them over with the money for your membership and entry and the rest will be done for you.

Both memberships and entry fees for regional competitions typically cost between 60-80 reals (£15-20).

Bearing in mind the example above is a best case scenario, if you’re dotting around academy to academy you will have to do it yourself. This means heading over to the federation’s offices to collect your card. An understanding of Portuguese is extremely beneficial, the process will already take longer than you would have ever deemed imaginable and despite the advertised hours the office might not actually be open when you get there.

If you already have your membership and just want to sign up – then you have to physically put your entry fee into the account of the organizer, which means going to the bank with their details to deposit the money. This is more arduous than it sounds, banks in Rio tend to have queues that tax years from one’s lifespan.

This should come as no surprise to anyone that has ever visited Brazil, where even the most basic of tasks seem to have multiple layers and inexplicable intricacies which makes just about everything complicated and time-consuming.

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Whilst this may appear to be a needlessly long-winded and frustrating process (it is!), but its culmination leads to some of the most gratifying, fun, challenging and self-defining moments that you are likely to have on the mats.

Part one can be found here.