Jennifer Perez returned home last week after a year traveling the world and training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. She visited 10 countries and 45 academies. Fresh off her travels Kostas Fantaousakis asks her about her year abroad.
Kostas: Jenifer, how long have you been training in BJJ.
Jennifer: I have been training since February 2012. I started Training BJJ as a way to rebuild my self-esteem and strength that had been drained from a bad relationship of 9 years.
Kostas: What is your belt rank and who is your instructor(s) in BJJ? Do you train in other sports too or just BJJ?
Jennifer: I was promoted to blue belt in June of 2013 under Amal Easton. I trained kickboxing and Muay Thai 2 years prior to starting BJJ. I had a 1 year break between the time I stopped MT and started BJJ
Kostas: How did you get this idea to travel around the world and visit so many academies?
Jennifer: Japan was always a place I wanted to visit so after my breakup I took some savings and booked my trip to Japan. Fast-forward, on my flight back I couldn’t help but be sad knowing that the high from my trip would soon subside. There was a Fidelity commercial that came on and at the end of it it said "Save Today to Live Tomorrow"...that was the moment I realized I had to quit what was making me unhappy and dedicate at least one year to myself. To try and discover my intended purpose. I read BJJ globetrotter by Christian Graugart and immediately knew I had to do that.
Kostas: Can you name some of the countries you visited? How long did it take to visit 45 academies?
Jennifer: I’ve visited about 50 academies in total this year and visited some amazing places like South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, Portugal, Singapore, Panamá, Puerto Rico and a few more. I started Jan 15th of 2014 & in Jan 2015 I visited my 50th academy AlleyCat Fitness Foundation in Casco Viejo Panama.
Kostas: Did you travel all by yourself or did you have other athletes with you?
Jennifer: For the most part I was alone but our Jiu-Jitsu community is so amazing that once I connected with at least one person from the academy I was treated like family instantly!
I met up with many friends along the way that stayed and globetrotted with me for weeks at a time. Like Vivian Velez from Puerto Rico and Talita Alencar from Rio. It was great to have full time partners who also enjoyed visiting other academies as much as I did.
Kostas: How do you decide which school to visit? Do you use the internet to get information first and then contact the school or do you ask friends and fellow athletes where to go?
Jennifer: I primarily relied on referrals from my professor teammates and other members of the globetrotting community that made suggestions on where to train. I did google a few places out on a remote island in Lombok but that’s because I was itching to train & no one there seemed to know what Jiu-Jitsu was.
Kostas: There seems to be a recent trend in BJJ to combine traveling and training. After visiting so many countries could you give travelers a few tips on what to look for and what to avoid when visiting schools abroad?
Jennifer: I can’t say I've had a bad experience because I truly haven’t. Everyone was always so welcoming. What I do recommend is if you are traveling on a budget make sure to call ahead and confirm the cost of the drop in fee. Also, as a female I was nervous at first meeting so many new people and telling people my story and the fact that I was traveling alone, it was scary but the complete opposite happened. It’s like I had big brothers in every country I visited!
Tip: Train with respect and you will always be welcomed back! It’s that simple. Our community may seem big but it’s quite small and if you are a good person with good intention the door to any academy will always be open but being disrespectful and rude will spread like wild fire and soon the doors will start to shut on you. Stay positive and happy always.
Also, I always had gear from my sponsor Newaza Apparel or from Easton BJJ and I gave them out to the professors as thank you gifts for allowing me to train there. Nice gestures are always appreciated.
Kostas: Every BJJ school is different. Some focus more on self-defense, others in MMA and others on sport Jiu-Jitsu. Did you notice any other differences? How do schools vary from one country to the other?
Jennifer: Yes there were many different styles of BJJ. I remember showing up to No-gi class with Prof. Nico Han at Synergy MMA there were about 10 guys on the mat and I was one of 3 women. I was excited to train, except for the fact that I was getting punched in the ribs when I locked down the guard and in transition to a triangle I was getting tapped in the head by punches from by partner. It was very annoying and I kept losing focus but I believe that was the point and lesson of Prof. Nico -- self-defense first.
Some schools that I enjoyed very much this year were Atos BJJ in San Diego & Mendes Bros in Costa Mesa. Both were very competitive academies with amazing training and tough competitors. Alvarez BJJ in Dallas TX has incorporated wrestling into their training and after being there for a week. I can definitely say there is no question why they have such high level performing athletes. I trained with Lucas Leite and Pati Fontes at Checkmat La Habra and their machine drills are amazing. I still use a lot of them today. I also spent two weeks training Ft. Lee Combatives with Prof Matt Smith, whoa, what a monster of an instructor. Trained with military men every morning at 5:30 am, def no berimbolos were being used here! Prof. Edison Takohara at OverLimit teaches Judo every night as a part of the BJJ curriculum, it was very fun and I learned some pretty cool throws. Every academy was different. I started at Easton BJJ where we had a curriculum and learned step by step, move by move, fundamental, intermediate and advanced. Some academies didn’t offer this. There is one class and that is it, sink or swim. You have to pay attention and learn quickly.
BJJ is a very artistic martial art and each country is painting with the same colors except every painting in the end looks very different from the other.
Kostas: Did you meet any famous instructors/athletes during your travels?
Jennifer: Yes, many amazing talented athletes. From Fernando Terere in Lisboa, to Prof. Rickson Gracie in Torrence, Lucas Leite in la Habra, Miyao Bros In Japan, Mendes Bros in Costa, Nico Han in Bali, Master Cyborg in Miami, Michelle Nicolini, MacKenzie Dern and the list goes on and on... Truly a blessed year.
Kostas: Do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice that was given to you during so many training sessions around the world?
Jennifer: I was in Miami prepping for the worlds and Master Cyborg was running a class and after 3 hours of intense training he said, "I don't care if you win, there will always be more opportunities. The only thing I care about is that you never quit."
Another great moment was in Lisboa, after training, Prof. Terere overhears me talk about my roll with my partner and says to me the best way to win is to believe you've already won!!
Ian Lieberman of Easton BJJ said to me after a really tough roll, Jen you are 5'ft 127 lbs. blue belt he's 6'4 200lb black belt. You did great! Hahaha, I know BJJ isn’t about the size of the person, it is about the size of patience you have with yourself.
Kostas: Did anything surprise you when visiting other countries?
Jennifer: Yes, I was surprised and impressed with the determination of my Brazilian brothers and sisters in Japan that worked 12 sometimes 14 hour shifts. Afterwards go straight to the academy to train at 9:30pm train until midnight, go home only to sleep 4 hours max and be up and doing it again the next day. Now any excuse I hear people make to not train seems petty and inconsiderate!
Kostas: To finish this interview would you say that the BJJ lifestyle is unique in bringing people of different ethnicity and backgrounds together?
Jennifer: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu isn’t just a martial art or a sport it is much more special than that. It unites and brings people from all walks of life to one center point. The mat is full of not just one type but many and that is why it is so beautiful. There is no discrimination, no racism, no politics, no religion... It’s all about the flow of the roll! That's why I love this so much.
Patrick Lencioni notes, “great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.” I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Danny Alvarez and his daughter Danielle of Alvarez BJJ. Their team epitomizes the type of synergy Lencioni references above. You could be a newcomer to BJJ in Texas and you would find out soon enough about the dynamic duo and the rest of the Team Alvarez Superfriends.
A unique combination of humbleness and tenacity is what makes Professor Alvarez’s transcendent style of leadership so effective. A team’s cohesiveness depends on the attitude and guidance of its leader. This 15 year BJJ veteran has wrestled and done Judo but this sport is his calling. “No other sport or martial art has given me the fulfillment that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has. It has really taught me about respect and giving back to others. Its all about how you treat and help others grow as you do.” A sentiment I personally share with Professor Alvarez.
Team Alvarez is driven by an unyielding force at the helm. After 11 years at General Motors, Professor Alvarez decided his heart and soul belonged to BJJ. He left behind the security and stability of a well paying job to prove he was ready to push his team to new heights and that in itself is an admirable trait in a leader. He recognizes what an asset he is to his team as their guide and wanted to give them his undivided attention. Under his expert tutelage some have already surpassed him as competitors at their belt levels.
Up to this point Professor Alvarez has no regrets. A large part of his success is his ability to consistently impose his game upon his opponents. Win or lose according to the Professor “making mistakes is how we improve and get better.” The moment he is the proudest of to date is his triumph to become the IBJJF Masters Worlds 2012 Champion. He defeated World Champions Rodrigo Pagani (Saulo Riberio JJ) and Bernardo Pitel (Nova Uniao). In just six years Team Alvarez has become a force in Texas and the BJJ world and they are hungry for more. Professor Alvarez was sure the moment he started BJJ that it was his destiny, Danielle’s journey to The Promised Land was a bit rockier.
Her first brush with BJJ was around 7 or 8 years old and she rebuffed the sport. She went on to take up other athletics. At 14 she was reintroduced as a method of self defense and again she was not thrilled. Each time there was a practice to be had; Danielle was in attendance full on pout. Once her skill set grew and some confidence along with it, a slight transformation came about. She began to like BJJ a little more and she began to attend more classes sans the pout. At her first competition, NAGA May 2009, Danielle took silver in NOGI and gold in GI. One would think this was the turning point for her and she finally found her way in the BJJ world. I have news for you, after that competition in Dallas; she vowed never to compete again. It took another year before Danielle set foot back on the mat competitively and she has been a hurricane in the BJJ world ever since.
When she sets foot on the mat her level of composure is uncanny. “Whether Danielle is in a good position or a bad one, I never stop talking to her. It’s like playing a video game, she listens so well. I have the controller and Danielle is the character on the screen doing what I am asking her to do,” states Professor Alvarez. I don’t know if it was luck or what but I can say I was fortunate enough to be a part of Danielle’s greatest moment to date at the 2014 Women’s Regional Championship in Denton, Texas. She fought her way through some tough competition to end up in the Super Fight Finals with the Premiere Black Belt in Texas, Professor Fabiana Borges of Gracie Barra BJJ. To this day it is the best match I have seen. Clearly Danielle was the underdog as the Purple Belt going against a Third Degree Black Belt. Both competitors were matched sweep for sweep during this 10 minute match. The auditorium was full of thunderous screams, stomps, and applause the entire time. The match ended in an 8-8 tie. Danielle won by advantages. The look on her face as well as Professor Alvarez’s face was absolutely priceless.
Alvarez BJJ is a powerhouse in Texas. It is undeniable that the success of this team is due to the leadership provided by 2nd Degree Black Belt Professor Danny Alvarez. He has a clear vision for his team and in its six short years of existence this team is hitting its marks. He has a goal to be the best competitor in his division, with the level of unwavering commitment he displays, not a problem. Danielle may have had reservations initially but she has resolved all those issues and her path is clear and her future is bright. She currently represents Texas very well and at the rate she is going her goal to be the best female competitor is not too far off. Alvarez BJJ has raised the bar for us all and Professor Alvarez has no intention on stopping until his team is the best not just in Texas but one of the best in America. This may seem like an overwhelming task but when you are hungry like a wolf, you will make the earth around you quake while in relentless pursuit of your dreams and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.