This blog originally began as a love letter to my favourite grappler and idol, Fernando Tereré. He was the reason I spent a year of my life living in Rio, where he invited me to live amongst his friends and family in the favela that he grew up in.
He is a philosopher, a clown, and a role-model rolled into one fallible human being. And here are some more of my observations and musings on the man from my last stay in the cradle of Jiu-Jitsu.
We’ll begin from the point that I consider Tereré to be literally the most charismatic human being I have ever encountered in my entire life. It is this charisma that ensured his beloved status within the Jiu-Jitsu community long after his competitive career ended, and after all of his well known struggles with mental illness and addiction. He is someone who seems to have an endless supply of energy that is infectious to anyone in his radius, he is a man who manages to uplift the mood of everyone else.
His fun loving side and childish silliness make it so much fun to spend time with him. There was the time he hijacked an American student’s skateboard (which was ‘donated’ to the academy) and used it to ride down the steep road adjacent to the academy. I wasn’t the only one who felt like this was going to end in some serious amount of pain; either from the passing cars or the hard concrete, but it didn’t faze the man at all, he even went back for an equally nail biting second run. Then the time we were sat together at the academy and he said, “Moz, look at this”. He was deep into a conversation with a seemingly interested girl and had asked her if she would like to ‘talk dirty‘. He proceeded to start talking the talk; when said female asked for some pictures of him, without a moment’s hesitation, he sent a picture of his childhood friend, fellow black belt and professor at the academy, Julio Nogueira. The kicker here, Professor Nogueira happens to be a hundred and twenty kilos of sheer humanity smiling away in his kimono, not quite what she was expecting, one would imagine!
Any evidence of this immature sense of humour all but disappears when it is time to train; it would be unfair to stop short of calling him a genius on the mats. All the years of training, competing and teaching Jiu-Jitsu has not diminished the passion that he has for the sport. Watching Tereré train with his long-time friend and renowned black-belt in his own right, Elan Santiago, he studiously examines new techniques before beginning to rep them slowly, considering each and every movement. This acquisition of potentially new information is serious business, which is evident from the concentration on his face as he analyses every facet of it, looking for any holes there might be. When he is satisfied with the efficiency of something he drills it until it flows naturally into his game and then uses it enthusiastically on everyone that night.
It has been interesting observing the visitors who arrive daily at the academy from all over the world. It is certainly a heart-warming thing, the looks of awe on their faces when Tereré asks them to roll. It is the look of a little dude on Christmas morning, if all Christmas mornings in history were combined together. I can empathise with every single one of them too, no matter how many times we spar together, I cannot help but smile as I’m hit with the inevitable hook sweep, have my back taken and am quickly choked into near unconsciousness.
Although on the opposite side, certain dudes come to the academy with legend assassination on their mind, and will try to really put it on him whilst rolling. Whether you consider this disrespectful is a matter of personal opinion, although it is ultimately irrelevant as, when their intentions become clear, the volume is cranked up to 11 and these opportunistic individuals end up strangled in brutal fashion.
While this enthusiasm and energy radiates from him, he is at his most passionate when spending time with the children of his social project. Since returning home after his issues with addiction, he established his academy, which has provided free training for all children, and indeed adults, of his impoverished community. His goal for the project was to improve the lives of children in the community by providing them with a safe environment, removed from the drugs and violence which is unfortunately endemic within the favela.
He is a teacher, a role model, a friend and a hero to the children of the favela. Whilst in the community, little boys and girls flock to him. These children did not see him in his competitive heyday, they didn’t see the world title wins, they have no idea what he has meant to the sport of Jiu-Jitsu. They are drawn to him because of the love and affection that he has for them. With his project, he is providing much more than Jiu-Jitsu, there are positive role-models which sadly are lacking in many of the children’s lives, as well as somewhere they can spend time with their friends which is safe, and a place they can depend on to be fed.
Whilst on the mats, there is a lot of time for fun and games but when it comes time to introduce technique, Terere treats his young students as seriously as he does the adults. Witnessing the kids train is very different from classes here in the UK. They are taught like the adults. Risk assessments do not exist in Brazil, thus no techniques are restricted. And they go hard in sparring, hanging off each other’s necks and trying to drive each other through the mats with big throws. They are actively encouraged by Tereré, who sits on the side, giving precise instructions to his pint-sized students. The proof is in the pudding with the academy producing a green belt champion at this year’s IBJJF Pan Kids.
After their class, as the adults get warmed up and ready for their session, he can be regularly found outside flying kites with them the until class starts, surrounded by smiling kimono clad children, but the biggest smile always remains on his face.
This care for the children stretches off the mats and away from the academy. I received a shock one Saturday afternoon as I was walking along the beach, my mind somewhere else. I heard a familiar voice. “Oi Moz!”. I turned around to find Tereré surrounded by an eclectic mix of people; an army of his young students, battle hardened Brazilian black belts, and a assortment of dudes of varying nationalities all chilling, surfing and eating together. This surprise encounter ensured an awesome afternoon which ended back at Tereré’s spot for a carnivorous feast of meat in typical Churrasco style.
At the end of my stay, I had a private lesson which abandoned the traditional structure of exploring new techniques; I was given a theoretical lesson in Jiu-Jitsu. He is a different man when he is explaining technique one to one; gone is the jovial, energetic character that lights up in the room, replacing him is the thoughtful, analytical and brutally honest master of the art of Jiu-Jitsu.
Using his personal philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu, he broke down my game and explained to me my shortcomings. He concluded that I don’t “Play Jiu-Jitsu”, I come to the academy everyday and try to beat people relying solely on what I am already good at (yep, deep half!). I don’t open myself up to new positions or explore other avenues and possibilities, which, he explained, are essential to progress. In my head I was expecting some new technique and maybe some praise for my recent success at the IBJJF Open in Manaus, instead I was given a scolding for being so closed-minded!
Whilst his brutally honest assessment seemed harsh, it was so obvious how much he cared about my Jiu-Jitsu and its evolution. He wanted me above all things to gain an understanding of the bigger picture, which, according to his brutal analysis, I didn’t currently have. It hurt a little as I thought I was getting somewhere, only to find out I hadn’t really been going anywhere and success in competition wasn’t evidence of advancement.
In this hour he gave me something so much more important than a few techniques. He hadn’t given me any answers, but rather a formula to work them out for myself.
It has been a real privilege to have befriended the man who has transformed my Jiu-Jitsu game but more importantly is transforming the lives of those around him.