Last year I had to sit on the sidelines due to 2 bulging discs in my lower back. The injury was well behind me and I was chomping at the bit to compete at the Panams as a black belt for the first time. It’s one of the toughest tournaments of the year and, as is often the case, life threw a few curve-balls involving moves and shifting schedules that made it uniquely challenging. At the end of the day I won, I lost, got a medal, learned a lot, and really enjoyed seeing friends and idols at the event.
My two biggest challenges were finding appropriate training partners and adjusting to a schedule that rotated through day and night shift. I had to ask myself 3 questions: What division should I fight?, Who would I train with?, and How could I prep given my shifting schedule? A really helpful tool in working through those questions was a book by Gustavo Dantas called Launching Your BJJ Competition Journey After 30. (I’ll write more about the book in a couple weeks)
- Division: Although I’m eligible for Masters I like the challenge of adult. I’ve always wanted to fight the toughest opponents and I have long standing friendships and rivalries with competitors like Abraham Marte, James Puopolo, and many others. I had to be honest with myself for this tournament. My cardio was horrible because my schedule was shifting between early morning and late night and I felt like after 6 or 7 minutes I would completely gas out. I bit the bullet and decided to fight Masters, which has its own challenges, so I could ensure I had the cardio to make it to the end of the fight.
- Training Partners: It’s tough finding large and advanced training partners and I was relying heavily on my friend Benny Dariush(you can see my post about his gym HERE) for my hardest training sessions and still traveling to different gyms to mix up my training partners. I lucked out when my “little” brother from Alliance MN, Oscar Hip, flew into town 2 weeks before the tournament. He’s a 6’6” 220lb brown belt who is an absolute beast on the mat. I was confident that the two of us could train hard and be ready to fight.
- Training Plan: With my partner in place I needed a gym. I reached out to some friends and Claremont BJJ was willing to open the mats to me on my off hours. I sent invites out to everyone I could and built a competition training schedule so Oscar and I could go at it. I also called in some favors from my supportive friends at 5 Star Martial Arts, Tsunami BJJ, and Kings MMA Anaheim to mix up the training leading up to the competition. It certainly wasn’t easy or as convenient as having everything you needed at your home gym but I was really grateful for the support and think it made for a unique, memorable, and awesome camp!
Tactics are critical at this level of competition. Fortunately, I was able to share my game plan with Damian Hirtz, Fabio Gurgel, Marcelo Garcia, and Bernardo Faria before fighting. When you have access to that level of BJJ knowledge you take advantage of it! I knew my first opponent, Bruno “Mamute” Paulista, would pull guard and I needed to avoid his lasso and closed guard. The bigger, stronger, and more experienced, Munduruca, would be next. The goal was to get the takedown and stay on top. In the open weight I was slated to fight “Formiga”, the top ranked Masters Black Belt. He’s a butterfly guard specialist and my goal was to get to closed guard with him. Bernardo actually suggested I play closed guard with all of them but I felt more confident playing top game with the larger opponents. With my plans confirmed by some of the greatest jiu jitsu practitioners alive I was ready to fight and give my all on the mats.
I fought Bruno on Saturday and he surprised me by staying on the feet for longer than I expected. I was a little tentative with my takedowns because I wanted to be ready to react when he pulled guard. He ultimately did and I pushed hard to pass landing in half guard, which got me an advantage. The rest of the match I played a pressure game looking to pass, attacking with a brabo choke, and attempting a straight armbar. His defense was excellent and I ended up squeaking out a win by advantages.
I came back Sunday for the semi-finals and open weight and didn’t feel as energized or sharp as I was on Saturday. Munduruca and I tied up on the feet and I got nervous when he got an overhook and overcommitted to freeing my arm. He took full advantage and hit me with a foot sweep that sent me to the ground. His pressure was incredible and I couldn’t get out of half guard and into any sort of offensive game. He ultimately passed my guard and proceeded to rack up points as I was being “serial crushed”(for the Boondock Saints Fans). At the European Open he subbed everyone on his way to winning weight and open weight and I refused to be a part of that statistic. I stayed calm and defended. I was able to get out of mount twice and ended the fight attacking his foot and transitioning to Xguard but I didn’t even manage to score points and lost. Surprisingly, I seemed to have tired him out and he ended up taking 2nd in the division.
In the open weight I fought Formiga. Before I could get into my closed guard game he was seated and playing butterfly. I played a pressure game and even got close to setting up my over under pass but at every turn he was able to recover guard. He swept, I swept back, and then his experience set him apart. He held off until 20 seconds left setting up another sweep which he hit just at the end of the fight not leaving me enough time to sweep back. It was a smart play and cost me the win by 2 points. The only consolation was that Xande wasn’t able to pass his guard either despite beating Formiga in the finals.
I closed out the day with a 3rd place medal in the Ultra Heavy Division and a tough loss in the Open.
Everyone I fought had been a black belt for longer than I had been training. As I’ve mentioned before, when you fight more experienced opponents, it’s a great opportunity to learn. I walked away with 5 key lessons from Panams:
- It’s ok to be realistic with your goals: Not all of us can train full time and that means life will get in the way. Select the weight, age, or tournament based on what you can do. Remember, you paid good money to WIN, not just to show up and fight. Give yourself the best opportunity to do so. Losing because someone is better than you is much easier to accept than losing because you weren’t in appropriate shape or missed weight, etc.
- You don’t have to train at a gym full of killers to do well: It helps, I’m not going to lie. You’ll probably do well in tournaments if you train at Marcelo’s or Romulo’s or any of the gyms with multiple world champs on the mat daily, but some of us don’t have access to that. My mentor Damian Hirtz said he makes a “Frankenstein” of partners. You can build your “ideal” training partner using position specific training with people who are really good at those positions without having to fight someone at your exact same level. And if you have a chance to find one or two people close to your level, you can get all the training you need. Just remember that it is still important to mix up your partners so you can fight any style or game your opponent might play, not just the one your 1 or 2 training partners are good at.
- Use your time wisely: I only had an hour and 45 minutes a few times a week to train so I made sure that every second on the mat was used to give my best. I can look at youtube or chat with friends anytime but mat time had a small window. Don’t waste the precious time you have or you’ll miss the chance to be maximally prepared.
- If you don’t play your game your opponent will play his/hers: I won against Bruno because I played my game, got to a dominant position, and pushed the pace. Munduruca and Formiga got me into their game which lead to losing. There is little room for error at this level and the second I fell into my opponent’s game, I was on the fast track to losing the match.
- Believe in your game: I should have listened to Bernardo when I fought Munduruca and pulled guard but I didn’t believe in my game. That hesitation caused me to hit the ground(with a thunderous fall) down by 2 points. One of the defining characteristics of great BJJ practitioners is they believe 100% in their game. If you commit to a technique with 100% intention you might get it, but if you don’t you will undoubtedly miss it.
It was really cool to live the quote, “work until your idols become your rivals”. Bruno, in particular, is a guy I used to see cardboard cutouts of at all the local California tournaments when I started competing as a white belt and is a true inspiration given his recovery from an insane car accident in 2010 that would have killed just about anyone else. I’m very proud of medaling at Panams as a black belt given the fact that I don’t have the luxury of training full time and I’m looking forward to fighting more of my BJJ heroes in the future. Most importantly, I feel like this tournament highlighted some holes in my game and showed me what I need to work on to get ready for Worlds and Masters Worlds later this year.
I really want to thank Damian Hirtz and my Alliance MN team, especially Oscar, for all the support. I owe a special thanks to Shawn Williams, John Ouano, Benny Dariush, and Jaso for opening their academies to me, as well as all my old teammates from the Pedro & Rodrigo days who came out to push me to get ready. Also, I have to give a shout out to Romulo Barral who several months ago got me back on the right track for my training camp and continues to be a big inspiration in my BJJ. Most importantly, my amazing wife and dad were super supportive watching and cheering for me and being proud of me regardless of the results.
Big thanks to my sponsor VVVFightCo for the new Paladin Gi that came just in time for the competition. Get yours as well as other awesome fightwear and clothing HERE. Featured image is courtesy of Bill Nash Photography. Really appreciate his snapping an action shot for me!
I always allow myself a few moments at big tournaments to be a fan and I got some fun shots of friends and BJJ legends at Pans. Enjoy!