Through my first 10+ years of training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I always wondered what the moment would be like when I would receive my black belt. I pictured all types of scenarios and all the different reactions I could possibly have when the moment finally arrived. I tried to imagine what I would say when it would finally be my turn to speak in front of my peers with the crisp new belt tied around my waist. I thought I had a good idea of what would happen, and I thought I was well prepared for the overwhelming feeling. But, as you can see in the video below, Marcelo threw a serious curveball that I never could imagine coming and everything I mentally prepared myself for years went right out the window.
All the things I had in my head that I wanted to say fell by the wayside once the moment finally came. My mind was racing through the entire road to that moment- starting as the only kid at Renzo Gracie Academy with Magno Gama. I thought about how my parents drove me to training everyday from New Jersey into New York City, rushing out of work and picking me up from school to get there. Every significant moment rushed through my head at that moment and for the rest of that night, it certainly was one of the most rewarding moments of my entire life.
From there I became even more motivated to train and drill as much as possible everyday because now I was suddenly in the middle of one of the toughest weight categories in the black belt division. But the idea excited me, I liked thrill of this new challenge. So from there I signed up for the Europeans at the very last minute and only 10 days after receiving my black belt, I was out in Lisbon, Portugal for not only my first major tournament at the highest rank, but my first tournament period as a black belt. The experience could not have been anymore eye opening for me. After winning my first two matches against Akira Hosokawa and Zach Adamson, my semifinal match came against Rafael Mendes. Mendes had been someone I looked up to for numerous years, I watched all of his matches in awe and always tried to mimc my game after him and his brother, Guilherme. They were Jiu-Jitsu idols of mine, enough to a point in 2012 where I started mulling the idea of trying to move to California to train with them. Now suddenly, a little over a week after being promoted I was on the mat with my idol in one of the biggest tournaments of the year. It was a lot for me to digest in such a short period of time.
In the end, although I lost the match 5-0 by a footlock and a guard pass I felt as though that was the best learning experience I could have had. I learned how to mentally coup with fighting someone I once looked up to. I didn’t look to him as an idol, but instead I viewed him eye-to-eye as a respected opponent and I felt as though that was a great sign of growth and that I had overcome at least one obstacle of competing at black belt.
After learning so much from that first tournament all I wanted to do was continue to compete, it didn’t matter where or when just as long as I could continue to gain experience and improve. I began to view the competitions as part of the training, it wasn’t a tournament, it started to become more like a test for me. After Europeans, I went to San Francisco for the IBJJF S.F. Open. There I took double bronze, winning my first big name match versus Osvaldo “Quiexinho” (another who I grew up watching) but ultimately losing to Rafa in the semi’s. But, unlike how I would sulk at the lower belts, I analyzed everything from the tournament- the good’s and bad’s mentally and physically, and just like that I was thinking ahead to the next one.
From there, it was on t0 Montreal, road tripping there with my girlfriend, Erin Herle, Dominyka Obelenyte and her father. There I had two matches and lost both to Leonardo Saggioro by referee’s decision and to Otavio Sousa by one advantage. I admit, it took me a whole five-hour car ride home to get over the sting of the two losses, but I once again sought out the lesson’s learned from that test and then looked ahead to the next.
At last, Pans finally went my way. I felt as though the studying of everything I learned from the previous three tournaments helped make me into a more mature and mentally strong black belt for my second major championship at the rank. That day I trusted in my game, and in what I do best, and never concerned myself about what my opponent might try to do, “just focus on your game” I would constantly say to myself. And I did. I ended up beating Zach Adamson, Isaque Paiva and Samir Chantre and then finally closed out the category with Mario Reis. That was a great moment for me, as I felt like I fought better than I ever had before, but once again it just felt like another test, so after I finished a pint or two of Ben and Jerry’s in celebration it was back to work for the next challenge.
After the Pans, I really felt like I became a more well established black belt after two nice double gold wins on back-to-back weeks in Boston and in New York for their respective opens. Beating guys like Renan Borges and AJ Agazarm provided a great confidence boost and as soon as I won my absolute final versus the super tough AJ, I knew I was ready for Abu Dhabi.
In Abu Dhabi I was brought back down to Earth as I ended up losing my semifinal match to Leonardo Saggioro once again by one advantage. I felt like a fool as I misread the scoreboard- thinking it was tied since he had one penalty while in fact he was still ahead. In the end, the fact that I was trying to settle for a referee’s decision over decisively taking the win upset me to no end. Thankfully a day at the waterpark in Dubai with guys like Kit Dale, Tyler Bishop and Nick Schrock helped me calm down and get over the day before’s disappointment- it was simply on to the next one.
From Abu Dhabi it was on to Brazil where I was invited to compete at Copa Podio’s lightweight Grand Prix event. This was a completely different setting for me as I was now in a country, for the most part, by myself and without anyone familiar and close to me. Thankfully I had Victor Genovesi and his father Gigi Paiva there with me or else I would have been completely lost and alone. The event itself ended up being just a good learning experience for me, as I saw plenty of mistakes both mentally and physically. One mistake I made physically was that I allowed myself to get too big. Since the weight class was up to 170 pounds and I walk around at approximately 150 pounds I was afforded the luxury to bulk up in size and strength. In the end, I felt as though that may have slightly hindered my performance. When I competed I was close to being 160 pounds, far heavier than I had ever competed at before and with that I felt slower. No excuses as I certainly could have adjusted better to the added weight, but I certainly felt more sluggish than usual and I felt as though I were moving at a much slower pace.
By the time the event concluded I finished with three draws to Marcio Andre, Fernando Vieira and Victor Silverio and once loss to Gilbert Burns and didn’t even qualify to make it to the semi’s. I was disappointed because I let the spotlight get to me at the moment. I was fighting too hard to look good and try to impress the audience instead of focusing on what I needed to do to win. I tried my best to win with a fluid game, instead of taking the opportunities given to me. While Pans was probably the highest point during my first six months at black belt, the way I performed at Copa Podio may have been my lowpoint.
So, from what you’ve heard so far has black belt been a seamless breeze? No, not even close. But the lesson that I’ve learned from this experience is that when the times get tough, we can’t fret on the down moments–instead we have to get right back up and try all over again. After Copa Podio, I got right back to training and worked even harder for worlds. I didn’t let any past matches affect my confidence going into the biggest tournament of the year because I knew that I learned a lot from my experience in Brazil and that I was going to California a better competitor mentally and physically than I was when I headed out to Brazil a month prior. And now from Worlds I’m just picking myself up again, once again going over the lessons learned and starting back up for the next one. At points it could feel like a painful and terribly long process, but to get where you want to be sometimes you must be ready to go through the peaks and valley’s. I certainly know I’m ready for the challenge.
The past six months have certainly been a challenge. There’s been the up’s and down’s with great wins and the disappointing defeats but I couldn’t ask for a more enjoyable and well used up six months of my life. Now on to the next six months and beyond. Osss.