Meet the Pandas – ‘Open Your Mind & Kill Your Demons’ - Ro ‘The Show’ Malabanan
The Panda Nation abides. As we continue our series Meet the Pandas, we shed light on the many awesome Inverted Gear athletes. Last episode focused on black belt speed cyclist David Phimsipasom of Maximum Athletics. Now we like to introduce Ro Malabanan: master of the sweet science, general manager at Overthrow Boxing, and jedi apprentice under Marcelo Garcia.
As a teenager, brown belt Ro ‘The Show’ Malabanan (39) got beat up often for being a ‘pretty boy’. After becoming a boxer and breaking some ribs here and there, he found Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to channel all his negative energy. The art kept him sane, while everything in life was falling apart.
Was boxing your first martial art?
RB: Yes. I started training off and on when I was around sixteen, but I didn’t really take it seriously until I reached my early twenties. Then I started doing some entry level fights, and also some USA-sanctioned events here in New York. I’m originally from the Philippines. I moved to this country when I was nine, and I have been a proud New Yorker ever since. Now, I’m the general manager of Overthrow Boxing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
When I think of the Philippines, I think of stick and knife fighting. Did you get any exposure to that?
RM: Not at all, but it’s on my to-do list. After I got the hang of boxing, I did a little bit of Muay Thai. Now obviously I’m deep into jiu-jitsu. Recently, I’ve been working a lot on pistol and gun tactics.
I saw a pretty intimidating picture of you, armed with a shotgun.
RM: (Laughs) I wasn’t sure that posting that picture was a smart play, so I sent it to Nelson to double check if it wasn’t too violent – because I was wearing an Inverted Gear shirt. But before I knew it he’d already put it out there, so I guess he was cool with it. Yeah, I’ve been dabbling with guns over the past ten years. It’s a thing that me and my buddies got involved with. I just love shooting.
Can you explain what attracts you to guns?
RM: They require great focus because they’re scary as hell and you genuinely have to respect their power. Secondly, there’s a level of clarity and presence of mind you need in order to hit the target. It’s fascinating. Especially pistols take a tremendous amount of balance, composure and footwork. Some people go fishing for their peace and quiet time. For me, shooting guns is my moment of zen.
What made you want to get into martial arts in the first place?
RM: That’s a funny story. Growing up I was labeled a ‘pretty boy,’ and I got attacked often. Other kids would also pick on me because I was from another country – even my buddies liked to beat me up. Growing up as a Filipino my parents forced me to focus on school work, academics, and family – martial arts just weren’t a part of that world. But all of my friends were street guys. We used to do backyard brawls for fun, and I would get the sh*t kicked out of me. At a certain point, I had enough and found a boxing gym in Brooklyn. So one day, I sparred with both of my friends and... Well, they didn’t get the upper hand. I accidentally broke one of my friend’s ribs with a body shot. After that, I never looked back, and I began to use boxing in my personal training business. I loved the self-discipline that was needed to improve in the sweet science. It was a lot more fun than just counting reps.
How did you stumble into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
RM: It was at a time in my life when things were going downhill fast. The recession of 2008 totally
decimated my income, and I lost everything. I remember a moment when I was training Muay Thai, and I looked at the bag, thinking: “What the hell am I doing? I’m so tired of this. I need a change.” Later on, I met a guy at my boxing gym while I was preparing for a fight. We sparred, and right away I noticed how tough he was. Afterwards, he brought up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and he invited me for a class at Codella Academy in Staten Island, ran by Michael Codella (a Renzo Gracie black belt). Right when I’d gotten sick and tired of the striking world, I met that BJJ guy. Call it divine intervention or serendipity, but I’ve been doing it ever since.
Did you know about BJJ before?
RM: I hate to say it, but back in the day I used to watch the UFC and other MMA events, and I thought it was kind of silly. I saw Ken Shamrock sitting in Royce Gracie’s closed guard, getting heel kicked for about an hour, and nothing else happening. So my initial perception of the art wasn’t that great. Frankly, I thought it was kind of, you know… gay (laughs). But life has a strange way of taking you to new places and opening your mind.
Once you actually got to roll with someone who knew BJJ, you got manhandled, right?
RM: Actually, one of my buddies (the guy whose ribs I broke) gave me my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ‘experience’ ever. He was trying to teach me a position, but wasn’t having anything of it. I said something like: “Whatever bro, let’s just fight.” So I tackled him, and right away he caught me in a guillotine. That scene repeated itself three or four times. Honestly, it was great fun. In my first proper class at Codella Academy, I was paired up with another white belt named Mike. He had just a little bit more technique. I remember him totally dominating me, and tapping me out with an Americana. It was his first day too, but he had watched some stuff online. It showed me that in jiu-jitsu even a little bit of knowledge can go a long way. It was mind-blowing. Mike was just an out-of-shape, middle aged guy…
Was it hard for you to pick up the art?
RM: Very, very hard. On the floor I lost all mobility, and I was like a fish out of water. Everyone destroyed me. It was just my stubbornness that kept me going.
Can you describe your path through the belt ranks?
RM: Right after I got my blue belt at Codella Academy, I faced some serious challenges in my life – which I won’t get into. It was a very dark time. The situation forced me to move from Staten Island to Manhattan, and the commute made it very difficult to keep training at my old academy. In Manhattan I tried to register at the Renzo Gracie Academy three times. But for some odd reason, each time I showed up on each separate occasion, there was an event being held and they couldn’t sign me up. Maybe it was a hint from above, so I thought: “To hell with it, let me google what’s around here.” As it turned out, Marcelo Garcia’s was only a few blocks away. I quickly found my home there. Marcelo promoted me to purple and brown belt. He truly became my mentor and role model.
What do you remember about your arrival at Marcelo’s?
RM: When I first got there I still had the vague thought of one day getting into MMA. That was the plan, but I was getting smashed left and right – which wrecked my confidence. As my fight date started to get closer I also separated my ribcage, so that prevented me from fighting at all. Once I healed up, I decided to do the sensible thing and just stick to jiu-jitsu. I even put boxing on the back-burner and went to Marcelo’s multiple times a day, barely sustaining myself. Looking back it was a very interesting period. Losing my business and having to start all over again really killed my ego. And I had a tremendously large ego before (laughs). You know that saying: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear? Well, I was definitely ready to learn. I had all this built up anger and negative energy, and under Marcelo’s guidance I was able to channel everything into jiu-jitsu.
Did you enter any tournaments?
RM: At first I tried to use my rage as fuel for competition, but that kind of backfired. I was just way too wild and angry. I would do crazy things with complete abandon, and my opponents would shut me down with technique. It took me a long time to overcome my inner demons, but I kept trying and finally managed to turn it around. Things started to click in 2015. That year I had a great run. I entered every tournament I could, and I won gold at the No-Gi Pan-Ams and the No-Gi Worlds (Masters 2). It was all thanks to Marcelo and being around his brown belt ‘dream team’. I modeled myself after those guys, and tried to copy their demeanors – how their carried themselves at the tournaments. The Marcelo Garcia Academy had a special energy which just lifted me up. It still does.
Can you elaborate on that?
RM: At the absolute lowest point in my life Marcelo made me feel accepted for who I was, and at the same time I felt his belief that jiu-jitsu could change me for the better. It’s hard to explain. I’m sure he had his own inner demons to overcome, and he made me feel I had that power too.
How does jiu-jitsu translate to life?
RM: How does is not? It’s kind of hard to put into words. As a white belt I didn’t know anything, it was a new beginning. Life events made me very insecure and I became a pretty reckless individual. As a blue belt I started gaining a little bit more confidence, but it was a false sense of confidence. I had an inflated ego and did really stupid things – like getting into street fights. As a purple belt I came to realize that I was part of something bigger. Training wasn’t just about me. I was representing Marcelo Garcia, and the shenanigans I got up to in my past weren’t acceptable anymore. That’s when I got my act together, started training smarter, I became more disciplined and I stopped partying every single night (laughs). Now, as a brown belt I’m thinking about where I want my jiu-jitsu to go. It’s no accident that my professional career is also growing in the right direction. I’m finally figuring out who I am, what I want to be known for, and what I want from life. So yeah, there are a lot of things I take away from jiu-jitsu.
What is the one thing that keeps you for coming back?
RM: Growth. When I was younger and insecure I always looked outside for life advice. I got involved with personal development programmes, I bought dozens of self-help books, and I went to seminars – all that stuff. The goal was always to grow as a human being. But I think that jiu-jitsu encompasses everything that you should look for in personal development. The physical, mental, social and spiritual aspects all come together. The art allowed me to truly grow as a person. So I think that’s why I stuck with it. Thankfully I was too stubborn to let it go.
Ro Malabanan is the general manager at Overthrow Boxing (Williamsburg), www.overthrownyc.com. Follow him on Instagram: @rotheshow
Daniël Bertina is a journalist & writer based in The Netherlands. He’s also a 1st degree black belt under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Instagram: @joyofirony