Florianopolis is the capital of the state of Santa Catarina, with a population of around 400,000. We have been staying on the outskirts, in a little beach community called Lagoa de Conceicao (we are actually on the outskirts of Lagoa – in Porto da Lagoa.) So far, I haven’t even made it into the city itself – besides my one trip to the university district last night. This is partially by design.
We didn’t want to be in a city due to safety concerns for our daughter. I had some work to do a few weeks ago and stayed home the day everyone else went into town. And I’ve been doing so many lessons with Glenio, there really wasn’t much need to go elsewhere.
But today I am Marvio’s guest at Gracie Floripa – right in the middle of downtown. I’m not sure what to expect. Gracie Floripa is one of the most-successful competition teams in Brazil. Alexandre Souza is one of the best grapplers in the world. This should be interesting.
Liz agrees to drive me into town so she and Aya can do some shopping while I’m at the gym. I get stressed anytime I am late for anything. The drive to Centro Floripa is full of wrong turns and false starts. Downtown Florianopolis is a snake pit of narrow, cobblestone streets. I’d planned to meet Marvio out front 15 minutes before class starts. I got there 2 minutes after the scheduled start time. I hate being late. I am counting on the legendary Brazilian aversion to punctuality to save my skin.
I don’t see Marvio out front so I go in on my own. The club is another fitness centre. This place seems to be primarily a karate/muay thai/fitness gym. The guy at the front desk doesn’t speak English, as usual. I bust out my white-belt Portuguese, pay him $R12 and head to the locker room.
There’s a brown belt getting changed. I can’t be too late.
I hustle upstairs. The first person I see is Alexandre Souza. I take a quick scan of the guys gathered at the edge of the mats. There’s at least five black belts and no Marvio. Alexandre nods in my direction and lets loose a stream of Portuguese. “Uhhh, nao falo Portuguse.” How many times have I said that on this trip?
Everybody laughs. “Oh, you must be Marvio’s friend,” says Alexandre. A great wave of relief swept through me. Marvio must be running late, but at he’s called ahead.
The class begins like most other classes. We jog, we jog with our knees up, we jog with our heels up. We sidestep to the inside, we sidestep to the outside, we alternate in sets of three. It’s sort of reassuring to do the same warmup everywhere in the world. There’s little variations, but we’re all working from the same playbook. It’s sort of amazing if you think about it.
The big difference here is the black belts. I’m not used to training with more than one black belt – and that’s the instructor. I believe I have only ever been in three classes with an additional black belt – and those were all guests visiting FitPlus. Here, there’s a growing pool of back belts at the edge of the mat. They weren’t warming up. That’s only for the coloured belts. A few black belts are stretching as they chat about big name jiujitsu fighters like Werdum and Gonzaga. They’ve paid their dues, I guess. They can do what they want. I notice Marvio’s arrived. He gives me a quick hello as he warms up with the other certified badasses.
Today’s techniques are from scarf hold. Oh sweet lord, I have a shameful love affair with this position. I love scarf hold. When I wrestled in high school, I knew if I could get your head and arm, I could win. I love it. Understand?
The first technique Alexandre demonstrated was the Americana with the legs from this position. Aha! This is the first technique I ever learned in submission grappling. I love it. It’s like a trip down memory lane – but the brown belt I’m partnered with still has a few pointers for me to tighten it up. I’ll take all the help I can get.
But the black belts have concerns. They call Aleaxandre over. I can’t follow the Portuguese, but I know what’s going on. Standard BJJ dogma says this is a weak position. Can’t your opponent get your back? Isn’t there a reversal available to him? Isn’t it better to underhook the far arm? The truth is it is a more stable position, but less offensive. Alexandre listens to their concerns, and demonstrates his response. You must use pressure to keep your opponent flat. And you have to be ready for the reversal. If he tries to reverse you, pass to the other side. It’s a funny coincidence that this parallels exactly the advice Marvio has been giving me about passing – if they block one route, switch directions. There's a little lesson in there - you are always learning.
Next, we go over the reversal against the scarf hold. No problem here. More high school wrestling. More than anything, this helps with my Portuguese. I know this technique step by step, so I picked up a few more words just listening to Alexandre break it down.
We split into two groups. Black belts and brown belts in one group. Purple belts and below in the other. The lower belts head off to an adjoining group. We lay down a set of puzzle mats on a hardwood floor. It’s time to roll.
First, I’m partnered with a blue belt who introduces himself as Photographer. He seems like a nice guy. He tells me he is 50. He looks like he goes about 200lbs, but maybe he;s shorter than I imagine. He’s been training two years. He has good technique, but he gets a bit winded during the roll so we take a breather. I’m relieved, too. It’s a six minute roll and my legs are still worn out from the run and BJJ the day before.
Second roll is against a white belt named Bruno. We’d been partnered for some ab exercises during the warmup. Another nice guy. I didn’t ask how long he’d been training but he seemed pretty green. But he is a big, strong guy who rolled with a lot of control for a beginner.
Third roll is against the only person I’ve seen in Brazil with red hair. It turns out the ginger is not from around here – go figure. I cannot remember his name but he is from Norway. He is a white belt with some previous submission wrestling experience.
I pull guard. He moves into combat base. I’m looking for a chance to work my new De La Riva sweeps. He seems to anticipate that – but maybe I was just working the DLR poorly. In any event, I switch to the scissor sweep – and then it happens. He tries to hop over the sweep and ends up getting sort of half swept – right off the mat and onto the hardwood floor. He’s hurt, but it’s nothing serious.
Still, he’s sitting out the rest of the class. And now I’m that fucking guy who shows up out of the blue and injures someone during a roll. The two worst things – showing up late and being that fucking guy.
Another roll – another white belt. Photographer looks at me sternly and says “Go light. Technique, no strength.” Fuck, I’m that fucking guy.
I go light. I pull guard because the guy is smaller than me. I work on a triangle setup TJ taught just before I left fitplus and it works. My partner tries to escape but winds up tapping to a mounted triangle. We slap hands and begin again. Now he pulls guard. And it turns out his guard is very good. I’m defending constantly and having a real tough time getting posture. I finally get it together, stand up and open the guard and time is over. He was very good and legitimately had me in trouble with a collar choke at one point. The quality of the beginner students seems very good at this academy.
It seems like class is over. I stop to chat with Marvio at the water fountain. But it turns out not everyone was finished. “Hey American. Let’s go.” There’s no time to correct him. This guy isn’t wearing his belt, but he’s rolling in the big kids’ room so he’s at least a brown. You do not refuse a higher ranked player if he asks you to roll.
We slap hands and go. I pull guard, but I’m not defending my collars. H zeros in on it right away and X chokes me from inside my own guard. Humiliating. We both sort of chuckle about it and start again.
It’s obvious he is letting me work positions and sub attempts. I guess I’m doing okay. Every once in a while he says “good,” so I must be doing something right. I had him in danger with a triangle once, but he escaped, passed my guard and choked me. It’s an education.
It tuns out this guy is a brown belt. Afterwards, he gives me his assessment. “Your guard is pretty good, but you’ve got to work on your passing.” It’s not that my passing was bad in this roll – I didn’t even attempt it. “Guard work is good, but you need to pass with pressure, because you are a heavy guy.”
I thank him for the advice. It’s something I really plan on taking to heart when I return to FitPlus. I’ve worked a lot on my guard in the past two years. It started when guys didn’t want to roll with a big guy on top. I figured if I played guard all the time, the rest would just come naturally. It’s not that easy. I need to work my top game now – and work on escaping from bad positions. It’s a long road to purple belt. I’ve got plenty of time.