It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to compete. In fact, it had been a while since I even trained. Shortly after Panams I pulled my groin and it just wouldn’t heal. I took about 4 months off. I finally bit the bullet and flew all the way to Minneapolis to see the most gifted physical therapist I know, Kevin Genrich, who was able to treat me and get me moving again. As if the injury wasn’t enough, work had been an absolute nightmare requiring 6 days a week of very long night shifts which left little time to train. So you might call me crazy for signing up to compete after only a few weeks of training but my mindset carried me when my body was too weak. There is no substitute for training but when circumstances stack the deck against you, a champion’s mindset can keep you in the fight.
One of the biggest mistakes people make coming back from an injury is to go full tilt the second they feel healthy, which inevitably leads to re-injury. I hadn’t fully committed to doing the LA Pro but I was itching to fight after so much time off the mats. I put together a smart training plan and gave myself time to decide which division to fight in. I signed up 4 minutes before registration closed.
- Division: LA Pro was unique in that it offered $4,000 to 1st place in the adult division and $1000 for 1st in the absolute of Masters. The catch was that you needed at least 4 people in the division to be eligible for the prize money. The adult ultra heavy division blew up a day before registration closed with 7 competitors and some big names like Luiz Panza, Mahamad Aly, and Joao Rocha. With only 3 weeks to prep and barely fitting in 2 or 3 sessions of BJJ a week, I was in no shape to fight those guys. I opted for Masters.
- Training Partners: There was no time for a camp. I needed a drilling partner during the week and a long time friend from my original gym, Pete, who is a very heavy blue belt and advanced Judoka met me a couple times a week for some morning sessions at Claremont BJJ. I also met up with some old friends at Cape Fear Jiu Jitsu and once I was healthy enough, pushed myself at Tsunami BJJ, where John Ouano is always welcoming and willing to bring in really big monsters to beat me up! Thanks guys!
- Training Plan: Work made having a regular training schedule very difficult. I started with just drills and very little sparring the first week to allow my body to adjust back to training. The second week I added position specific sparring for a few rounds at the end of drills. The third week I added some sparring sessions with bigger and tougher opponents. The other key to success was my strength and conditioning sponsor: Dalton’s Crossfit. I was only able to get a couple sessions in a week but it gave me confidence that my cardio would be on point.
Another often neglected thing to consider when returning from an injury is making sure you put yourself in safe positions. Not wanting to re-injure my groin I limited my takedown game to only safe attacks like knee picks and collar drags. The goal was to force my opponent to pull guard and to pass. If I went to guard my plan was to settle for nothing less than closed guard and to be very careful about controlling my opponent so I could break their posture or sweep if they stood up. By limiting my game to the basics, my focused training would carry me through and I wouldn’t have to think about what to do during the match.
I only had one fight in my weight division against Thiago Ronaldo de Souza. We fought previously in 2014 and I beat him by taking his back. This time it didn’t go my way. As expected, he pulled guard but I didn’t put enough pressure on him. That mistake allowed him to roll for a knee bar that I had to respect and defend by placing us in a position I hate, 50/50. His hips were so powerful I couldn’t get to the top position and it cost me 2 points. After that he played smart pulling lasso guard and not leaving time for me to catch up. That was good for 2nd in the division despite losing. More importantly it was a ticket to the open weight.
In the open weight I came out stronger. My first opponent, Piter Silva, was smaller than me. I knew he would use a lot of movement to try to frustrate me. I initiated grips and started my takedown game. He constantly hid one arm to try to avoid fully engaging so I started playing a big man game shaking him around more and tying up on his collars to force him to make a grip so I could control a sleeve. After chasing him out of bounds a few times I pulled guard and swept. He scrambled up but not before I had earned my 2 points. Again I looked to tie up and pulled guard again. I frustrated him in closed guard until he tried to stand and was successful sweeping straight to mount which landed me another 6 points. As he tried to escape he exposed his arm so I attacked it. After several iterations of rolling and me still on the arm the ref stopped us as we went out of bounds. He was out of the submission but I was now up 10 to 0. With only a couple minutes left I knew he would have to go for broke and try a sneaky submission. He jumped for a flying armbar a couple times and I utilized my size to shake him off. Towards the end I pulled guard and rode out the clock not wanting to waste any unnecessary energy prior to the final.
My final was against Gustavo dos Santos Pires. He’s a beast and had just defeated Thiago via submission who I had lost to in my weight division. I tried to lean on him on the feet to wear him down while looking for knee picks. After a brief stalemate he jumped closed guard. I stood to pass and he immediately reached for the far leg which sets up a very powerful armbar. My base was sturdy, though, and I easily forced his guard open and negated the attack. As I jumped past his legs he quickly recovered and pushed me off balance setting up a leg attack that forced me to expose my back during retreat. I made space and swiftly turned to face him. After fending off his guard passing I got back to my feat in need of making up the ground I lost to his sweep. I attempted a collar drag and he caught his balance by planting his eye and face into the top of my head. It was accidental but a very hard hit so I stopped to ask if he was ok. After the medics came by we resumed the fight and I pulled guard. As he tried to stuff my leg, I planted both feet on the hips, lifted him in the air, and then dropped him into an armbar. I have to admit that had it not been for the accidental head contact, I don’t think I would have gotten the submission. That said, getting the W and the $1000 prize was a pretty awesome feeling!
The Champion’s Mindset:
Like everybody who competes, I got very nervous prior to fighting. I had self doubt and concerns about my preparation, etc. But it was my mindset that carried me through the event. Here are the things I focused on to keep me mind right that contributed to my win.
- Focus on what you CAN do: I knew there were a lot of positions and techniques I needed to avoid based on my limited training time and recovery. Instead of dwelling on that fact, I focused on what I could do. I played a basic game that got me to positions I could control which allowed me to set the tempo of the fight.
- Basics are always best: There are hundreds of thousands of variations of techniques to focus on. With my extremely limited mat time, I focused on the fundamentals. I had 2 takedowns I drilled, only a few guard passes, and my only guard option was closed guard. I had backup plans but in my training my first focus was to get to those few positions and work from there. When it came time to fight, I found it easier to get back to a comfortable spot and start over when things started going of course.
- Believe you can win: I knew my body had limitations but I had devised strategies to work within them. Even out of shape, I believe in my technique and defenses. I believe I can go up against anyone for 6 minutes and do well. One of the most inspiring things I picked up from the Roger Gracie camp was that there were certain positions that if Roger got to, he believed 100% he would finish it. I adopted the same mentality.
- Don’t let yourself quit: Often times our minds give out before our bodies. I’ve been guilty of “just not feeling it” and fighting a lazy and sloppy game. I promised myself that I would leave it all on the mat and I would push my body until it quit no matter how out of breath I felt. The result? I made it through the matches with a strong pace that lead to victory.
- Plan on adversity: Sometimes things don’t go as planned. I didn’t plan on losing to Thiago. I didn’t plan on being down by 2 points in the finals. During my mental preparation for the fight, I did plan to face adversity. I started in bad positions with heavy strong guys to help build my confidence in getting out of tough spots. I reflected on my loss at weight and realized I wasn’t aggressive enough and played into Thiago’s game. In the open, I didn’t care what my opponent wanted to do, I just tried to attack and be aggressive. Most importantly, I didn’t panic. I forced the action so my opponent couldn’t stall and believed that some way, somehow, I would find a way to win or die trying. And I won.
This tournament marks the first time I’ve actually won a cash prize. I’ve fought for cash at least a dozen times and never won before. The difference was that I didn’t put pressure on myself to win. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making the cash a big deal. Instead, I focused on doing my absolute best and having a champion’s mindset. I was just grateful not to be injured and wanted to move well and redeem my loss in my weight division. It took all the pressure of the result off my back and allowed me to focus on what I could control. I hope this helps you set your mindset for your next competition. Please like and share. Also, if the mental aspect of BJJ is something you struggle with, I highly recommend checking out thebjjmentalcoach.com for great tips from Gustavo Dantas. Most of all, have fun and enjoy the journey!
First and foremost I want to thank my wife, Mikialamode. She encouraged me to compete because she knows how much I love it despite the crazy hours at work. If it weren’t for her, I would have never signed up. Again a big shout out to Dalton’s CrossFit for getting me in shape. If you like the Guardian or Paladin VVVFightco gis I wore visit their site and pick one up. They have great gear too. Again, thanks to Kevin for fixing me up and to Pete, Sylvester, my brother Mike, Claremont BJJ and John Ouano and the boys for being my training partners.