A lot of people ask me how I began training BJJ in Rio and why I decided to make Brazil my home. The answer to the latter half of that question becomes unnecessary when people arrive in Rio, because they can see for themselves why I wanted to stay! But how I came to be here is an interesting story for sure.
In the interview below you’ll find out:
• How I trained with Helio Gracie and his grandsons at his farm on my very first trip to Rio de Janeiro
• My experiences of training with world-class black belts at Gracie Barra back when they were the #1 team in the world
• How I got my black belt in Brazil and became fluent in Portuguese
I hope you enjoy it! If you’re interested in sampling life in Rio, then make sure to take a look at how Connection Rio enables people like you to get the most out of training BJJ in Rio. It’s certainly a lot easier than when I first came here!
Dennis A. Asche
Which year did you first train in Brazil, and how old were you?
I first got here in 2003, I would have been 25 when I got here, I had my 26th birthday while I was here.
How did it happen that you came to Brazil?
Coming to Brazil was a dream, I wanted to experience the culture here and I was extremely dedicated to the arte suave at the time. I was competing on a regular basis and my coach John Machado put me into the very first Gracie Open. The grand prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Brazil and a week at Helio Gracie’s house. It was an incredible experience and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Rio de Janeiro.
How did you go about organising your first trip there?
Everything was taken care of. Their slogan was “A Life Changing Experience” and it really was. Rorion Gracie himself took care of the visa and the travel details and everything.
How long did you spend here on your first trip?
Six weeks. The first week was the grand prize, which was the week at Helio Gracie’s house. After that I spent five weeks at the On The Mat apartment. It was the perfect place, only a few blocks from Gracie Barra.
Which is where you trained?
Exactly. It was a great experience. My sponsors allowed me to stay and train for the PanAms.
I spent one month back in the US, I had a couple of competitions. As soon as I got back I had a boxing competition, the Southern California Pro-Am no gi competition, and the Pan American championships. And amidst all this I was booking my flights back down here, it was non-stop. I sold my personal belongings. I sold everything I could so I could come back.
How long did you then stay in Brazil?
That time I stayed for two years.
What rank were you when you first trained BJJ in Brazil?
Did you speak any Portuguese prior to arriving?
Only a few words, nothing worth repeating.
Why did you choose to train at Gracie Barra?
It went back to lineage. I was a student of John Machado and went back to train there out of respect for him.
What were your first impressions of the training there?
It was great, at that time there were no real Gracie Barra gyms outside of Brazil so all the champions who have since left and opened their own schools were still on the same mat. It was awesome. The attitude was different, it was very tough, very competition-orientated. There were limitless black belts on the mat, and varying styles and body types to train with.
Was it very different to what you’d already experienced?
Very. Even in Southern California, the mecca, there weren’t so many black belts. Living and training in LA there were quite a few black belts but you would rarely see more than one on the mat at the same time.
Gordo, Marcio Feitosa, Carlos Gracie Jr, Flavio Almeida, Nino Giuseppe Schembri, a lot of guys.
How did everyone receive you? Did they treat you differently because you were a gringo?
Yes they did. At the time there were less foreigners, and it was a different treatment. Less respect, you had to prove yourself that you were a worthwhile jiu-jitsu practitioner. There was a period of testing.
Tell me about the day-to-day training at that time. Was it different to how they train now?
Gracie Barra had yet to structure their training like it is today. It really varied from professor to professor, based on who was teaching the class that day. generally Marcio Feitosa was in control of the classes, him or Carlinhos Gracie. And classes were completely different from one to the next. The class would be focussed on what they specialised in, but nowadays they have a curriculum everyone adheres to.
And the coaching was different too? It was sink or swim back then?
It was. You’d go through the hazing or whatever, everyone would try to run you over, but then when they saw you were serious and kept coming back they’d open up and help you out. It was truly sink or swim. But when I arrived my objective was to fight MMA, so most of my training was no-gi on the newly-formed Gracie Barra Combat Team.