Competing BJJ in Brazil

Part 4: Being ‘Gringoed’

When seeking advice from anyone that has competed in Brazil, the chances are, you will be informed about the likelihood of being ‘gringoed’. For the uninitiated the gist of this concept is, referees unfairly discriminating against non-Brazilian competitors.

Unequal treatment could manifest itself in a litany of ways such as failing to award points or vice versa awarding imaginary points to an opponent; arbitrary distribution of advantages, restarting from a less advantageous position, or cynical disqualifications.

Is this charge of favouritism real or simply a nasty conspiracy propagated by those who have just suffered an ego-damaging defeat? I have written about my own experience with this phenomenon previously, here and here, admittedly, I was bitter about being defeated in both cases.

The short answer is yes it does go on. But, this is not to say that all Brazilian referees are prejudiced and will cut any corner to ensure that the Brazilian competitor always emerges victorious. This simply isn’t the case, I have won a number of matches on the referee’s decision, where, I would have been hard-pressed to decide the victor myself.

What I did come to discover was that refereeing was a lot fairer in the IBJJF / CBJJ competitions, it was in the smaller scale and regional tournaments that I felt I was having to battle not only with my opponent but also the referee.

It is hardly an unfounded assessment to note that Brazilians are highly nationalistic, one has to only pay attention to the reaction for non-Brazilian fighters when the UFC goes to Brazil. This fierce pride combined with the highly subjective nature of the points system in BJJ makes it very easy to justify an extra advantage or two to ensure that the ‘right’ person wins.

Add this to the fact that referees can represent the same team as those they are in charge of, they would have to be at the height of objectivity to call things completely down the middle. This also means it isn’t just gringos that face discrimination, but anyone that has the misfortune of representing a rival team.

There is always the temptation to drop the old adage of not leaving it in the hands of the judges or the referee in our case. But the sport of jiu-jitsu is far too nuanced for this overly simplistic, clichéd bullshit, if two athletes are of equal level (which you would hope otherwise where would the fun be in competing?) there is a good chance it will be exceptionally close and come down to the discretion of the official. Is it too much to ask that they be a completely neutral party?

Unfair treatment does go on, but it is certainly not an inevitability, and does little to outweigh the awe-inspiring feeling of competing on the mats in the birthplace of jiu-jitsu.

If I could offer a piece of advice based on my own experience, don’t use being ‘gringoed’ as a crutch for being beaten by a better competitor, it just makes you sound like a dick.

Check your Ego at the Door?

“The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That’s pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps”

Marsellus Wallace

After seven long weeks away off the mats with broken ribs, I was back. My enforced exile had given me plenty of time to obsess over a perceived atrophying of my ability. The art of jiu-jitsu had not come easily to me, nearly eight years of hard strife to achieve mediocrity, so the thought of any depletion in my skill level was enough to consume all my waking thoughts.

The excitement of being back at homebase after five months away in South America, and being driven fully by my ego, not wanting to actually appear worse than when I Ieft, I immediately attempted to go to war. My ribs though, were not yet up for the challenge, I discovered that I couldn’t play guard, well, I couldn’t if I wanted to sweep anyway! I couldn’t sit in anyone’s closed guard, and for some reason I kept finding myself in positions where I was being bear-hugged.

My heart sank when I realised that I would have to be that guy, everybody knows the one, after asking you to roll they mention they are hurt, and they can’t do this, and can’t do that. In the past, when I found myself in this situation, I’d felt aggrieved, secretly thinking, why didn’t you stay at home, so I could get on warring with someone else? Of course, I didn’t realise the unbelievably selfish nature of this attitude until the shoe was firmly on the other foot.

While jiu-jitsu can catapult you into a state of euphoria, that is incomparable, exceeding any chemical high, it also has the power to throw you into a pit of despair and deliver a blow to your ego akin to a hundred hand-slap in the nuts. Any talk of leaving your ego at the door is bullshit, your ego stays tied around your waist.

It is a deplorable state of affairs to leave the mats having a crisis of faith just because a training partner who you perceive as possessing an inferior skillset to your own gets the better of you. Yet, in the last few weeks it is a state that I’ve found myself in.

I definitely haven’t enjoyed this experience, but on reflection, it has been beneficial, it has been a severe ego-checker and I’ve achieved a measure of humility that had obviously been missing for a while. Nevertheless, I’ve made a few mental notes of cats that will certainly be getting it when my ribs are back to a hundred percent.

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.