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.
“Just seize every opportunity you have, embrace every experience. Make a mark for all the right reasons.” Chrissie Wellington
Picture it, Copacabana, Rio DeJaneiro. In 1992 an up and coming 16 yr old handball star had to suddenly give up on her dreams of being part of the National team due to a partial tear in her ACL and relocation issues. Did any of this stop her from pursuing a new dream, ABSOLUTELY NOT. 3X BJJ World Champion, 4th Degree Black Belt, Professor Alessandra “Leka” Vieira has encountered multiple setbacks throughout her 22 year career, but she never stopped. Her drive to compete sent her looking for another sport that would always be challenging, enter BJJ.
One day out of the blue, Professor Vieira entered what could be described as “Thunderdome” at her own risk thus beginning her BJJ journey. A predominantly male-oriented sport, she was fighting an uphill battle in extremely hostile environment. Professor Vieira is a well known pioneer for BJJ and that was never her intention. Every training session Professor Vieira attended she had to prove that she was just as serious, if not more so, than her male counterparts. It took some time, but her relentless drive began to yield the results she had been working so hard for. Professor Vieira’s road was rocky, but that never stopped her. The diligent student earned her blue belt in six months (an unprecedented amount of time for a female) from another pioneer Master Aloisio Silva (first BJJ professor to make a female BJJ black belt world champion).
After a year of training, she entered her first competition. Just like many competitors starting out she did not come out victorious in her first competition but she definitely won. The 3X PANAMS Champion never repeated the same mistakes after her first loss. In 1998, she reaped the ultimate reward for all she had worked for and received her black belt. In 1999 she became the first female black belt world champion. Professor Vieira was crushing goal after goal all because she never stopped. When she made her way to America, with 200 dollars in her pocket and a dream, even she didn’t realize at the time what lay ahead for her.
In 2004 Professor Vieira opened her own school Leka Vieira BJJ out of Torrence, California with classes for women focusing on BJJ and self-defense. Things got off to a slow start. BJJ still wasn’t main stream (especially for women) and the classes were not meeting her expectations. Notably, Professor Vieira extended an invite to a female student from another school to attend her class and the response she received was unusual. I believe the individual compared Professor Vieira’s classes to tea party. Professor Vieira responded by attending the student’s school, staying for a class, and blowing through male and female attendees like a Category 6 hurricane. This had nothing to do with egos, this was like 1992 again and this pioneer was proving that women are just as good as the men. If the women were not backing women then clearly there was a bigger problem facing females in the sport. Years later, under Professor Vieira this same student received her black belt. Professor Vieira is absolutely genuine and her mentorship is something up and comers would benefit from.
Knowing the art of BJJ is not enough, especially for women. It is imperative that women (whether you compete or not) become immersed in the background of the higher ranking female black belts. It is only a matter of time before a Professor Duarte- Magalhaes or Professor Vieira becomes the first female Grand Master. This may bring about a change for women in BJJ that will ensure the playing field is permanently leveled. Perhaps part of the promotion process should be about knowing more than passing the guard, sweeps, etc. BJJ is not Professor Vieira’s only passion. Her family is her foundation. Her mom, husband, and two children are the center of her universe. She found the perfect balance between her two true loves and couldn’t wish for anything more. You can’t ask for better out of life.
Professor Vieira’s injuries early on continue to plague her and have kept her from competing as consistently as she once did. That still hasn’t stopped her from pursuing goals. Leka Vieira BJJ may have had a slow start but that is no longer the case. Her all women’s classes at Gracie JJ Valencia (located out of Valencia, California) are doing very well. Professor Vieira provides an environment that promotes safety and empowerment. The culture these women are in thrives because her primary focus is ensuring techniques are being executed properly. It is not about speed. It is about ensuring nobody gets hurt and that proper BJJ and self-defense is being taught. Building the self-esteem of these women helps each one achieve the ideal comfort level. They are not timid and when it is go time, these ladies are like panthers in the Serengeti. They go hard and when time is up….on to the next.
Professor Vieira has created an environment where the synergy keeps women coming back. The fun starts the minute she sets foot on the mat. The women push each other in order to progress. Once again Professor Vieira is a 1st, she is the first female black belt to start an all women’s class and 10 years later it is still going strong. Her contribution to the BJJ community goes above and beyond anything a 16 year old handball player could have ever imagined. Her path changed and because she never stopped, she has brought about significant historical changes to BJJ.
Her tenacity will always be at the forefront and that is a great thing for the female BJJ community. We all start from the bottom and having the opportunity to receive mentorship on any level from Professor Vieira would be a blessing. She is always open to provide guidance to women at any stage on the gentle art of BJJ through seminars or camps. Her advice for white belts starting out is to do your research before joining a school, ensure the school is legit, the teacher is a black belt with a lineage that can be authenticated (otherwise there will be safety issues) and never lose faith. You must stick with it. It takes time but eventually you will be the one smashing instead of being smashed.
Her thoughts on the blue belt curse are simple. Women reach the next level and are plagued by injuries. There are not enough female counterparts to train with and their male counterparts show no mercy. The other issue with some students can be lack of instruction. If the student is struggling and they are not provided much needed guidance eventually the already isolated student unfortunately walks away from training. Lack of support is probably the main reason students leave a school and female blue belts appear to have that problem more than any other belt level.
As far as BJJ has come since Professor Vieira began 22 years ago, she still believes it has a long way to go for women. Her advice across the board is to focus on having a complete game. If you are weak on top, you need to work on the bottom. There is no way around it. If you are asked what is you weak side, your answer should be I have no weak side. If your game is not complete, then your game is lacking. One would think between her family and BJJ, Professor Vieira couldn’t possibly have time for anything else, then came the 25th hour in her day.
Professor Vieira is not only an advocate for women defending themselves,’ she is also an ardent advocate for children. Her love for them led her to begin donating to a children’s food bank: http://www.helpthechildren.org/hunger-in-our-world/child-hunger/how-often-do-you-think-about-child-hunger. Professor Vieira is the type of wife a husband is always proud of, the type of mother a child looks up to, the type of teacher one wants to emulate, and the type of woman one aspires to be. 2015 is already bright for those of us that have followed the professor’s career as she has decided that she will return to competition this year. In all this time and with all the setbacks, Professor Vieira never stopped. If she couldn’t train, she was conditioning herself and watching and learning. She never strayed from the path. Winston Churchill sums up Professor Vieira’s whole attitude “If you are going through hell, keep going” she has done it more than once and she won't stop.
Today in the our Rickson Interview Series: Rickson answers is it still practical in the application of self-defense Jiu-Jitsu to control my opponent until help arrives?
BJJ Legends: It's been said that in a self-defense situation, a realistic consideration of holding on until help arrives is a viable option. What are your thoughts on that?
Rickson: Depends. I mean, if you're talking about self-defense in a situation where I'm in a regular equal situation, I can hold the guy for the cops arrive or whatever. But if I know, by holding the guy, his friends will come, or if I'm a fragile woman who has just gotten space and get out of there, it's a completely different feeling of how you have to protect and survive. I feel like jujutsu's capable to give to the opponent a very complete spectrum of the possibility, either to deflect the energy and try to escape, either to kick the guy's butt, whatever it is, the need. In some cases, the opponent is bigger, stronger, meaner, you wanna just the deflect, get space and get out of there as quick as possible. The options are there and the way you're gonna use it will depend of the need.
Tomorrow: Rickson answers the question, Do we still need self-defense taught in Jiu-Jitsu Schools?
Today in the our Rickson Interview Series: Rickson answers the question, Do we still need self-defense taught in Jiu-Jitsu Schools?
BJJ Legends: I spoke with a Jiu Jitsu black belt who told me that he felt that self-defense, the self defensive aspects of the art, were no longer necessary. His opinion, the capable blue belt would be able to handle themselves on the street in a self-defense situation, if they had experience competing under the supportive elements. This sounds like to me that you don't believe that.
Rickson: I definitely don't believe that.
BJJ Legends: Why, why not?
Rickson: Because you know, I've been doing seminars all over, and they may know how to [inaudible 00:00:38], how to guard, how to be the action, but they don't know how to avoid punches in the guard. They don't know how to feel comfortable in a stand up situation. They don't have no ideas of how to use the side kick, the blocking. So the fight doesn't start and or end on the ground. A lot of things can happen in between and I feel like, not only for the competitor, because if you think every guy going to go in your school to learn how to compete, you're very wrong. I mean, the self-defense program is to feel women, children, who has sometimes like a little intimidation, they feel like shy or insecure.
So you cannot expect this kid will be a great competitor. You have to feed them with what they need so they don't get bully on the streets. So just by learning how to not be pushed or not fall easy is already a great positive valuable thing for him to learn. The elements Jiu Jitsu has to favor the community cannot be just forgotten because somebody's just had [inaudible 00:01:43] years and try to compete. I think competition is a great aspect of the sport to develop the atheletics by the competitive result of the athletes, but not to fulfill their needs of a different purpose like a law enforcement, women, and so on.
So I'm totally disagree with that. And for me, the Jiu Jitsu who don't know self-defense, he's incomplete, he may even can handle himself, but he don't have no elements to teach his daughter or his weak cousin to be what he does. So for me, our culture is based on self-defense.
Tomorrow: Is it still practical in the application of self-defense Jiu-Jitsu to control my opponent until help arrives?
Gracie Barra instructors Ricardo Testai, Marcelo Lacerda and Bruno Rocha stopped by Buena Park Police Department to show members of the team a few BJJ positions.
Ricardo Testai, of Gracie Barra Anaheim Hills, use to teach Special Forces in Brazil. His experience translates sport Jiu-Jitsu to real world application.
When asked S.W.A.T. Team member Eric Burciaga if he would see hand-to-hand fighting within the year he said. "Most definitely. The bad guys don't want to go to jail and some of those guys are learning this stuff. We need to learn it too."
They learned breakfalls, defensive recovery from the ground, dogding a punch, takedowns, and a arm choke finish.
After the seminar the police officers got to go a few rounds with the Gracie Barra black belts. Everyone was sweaty and smiling. Only the black belts managed to get submissions.
Then come join us for a FREE 1 hour self defense/conditioning workshop specially tailored for women. We will be offering thisFREE Women's Self Defense Workshop Saturday, October- 23rd at The Tinguinha BJJ Academy. The workshop will cover basic self defense techniques and it will be OPEN FOR EVERYBODY!! So invite your friends, sisters,coworkers to join in the fun and learn to defend themselves.
What:TBJJ FREE Safe & Fit Workshop- a women's self defense workshop that includes a mix of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Self Defense & fitness rolled into one.