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.