Meet the Pandas – The Not-So-Gentle Dutch Giant – Martijn ‘Grandão’ Gademan

The Europeans are a powerful part of the Panda Nation. Last time we introduced British black belt and all-round submission wizard David ‘Morcegão’ George. For this episode we turn the spotlight on yet another incredibly tall and skilled grappler, multiple time IBJJF champion Martijn ‘Grandão’ Gademan: Dutch mat rat, eternal teenager and undisputed master of the Closed Guard From Hell.

There should be a rule against teaching incredibly strong and tall humans jiu-jitsu - because it just isn’t fair for the rest of us. Still, Martijn Gademan (44) was dragged out of the weight room into the dojo, and started wrapping up his victims soon after. ‘Grandão’ is one of those rare jiu-jitsu practicioners who is universally both liked & hated. Liked because of his jolly demeanor, hated because of his incredibly frustrating guard game.

How did you find jiu-jitsu, and who can we blame?

Martijn Gademan: “As a kid I wanted to be Bruce Lee and I dabbled in a few martial arts, like judo and tae kwon do, but nothing stuck. In my early thirties I got inactive and lazy, so I started lifting weights. I was doing lot of bench presses and bicep curls, you get the idea. The downside was that a certain point I walked around like a blown-up gorilla. So I started looking around for something more mentally fulfilling. For a little while I got obsessed with surfing, and I spent some time Indonesia and Brazil. But I live in the Netherlands where the water is always super cold, and the waves usually suck. You have to be a masochist if you want to surf here.

True. Dutch weather is terrible.

MG: Indeed. So a friend recommended that I should take up kickboxing, because of my height and reach. Well, that was a bad idea too. I got thrown to the wolves and bashed up by everyone. Every bike ride home was a wobbly challenge because of all the headshots I took. Finally, my colleague Leo Noordergraaf took me along to my first BJJ school: Jiu Jitsu Factory. Leo is a purple belt still, but I believe he’s been training since in the early 1900’s – he’s that old (school). When I got there I was a 105 kilo shredded gym bro. I managed to survive the warm up, but got absolutely tooled by a little purple belt weighing 65 kilos at the most. I remember that after the first tap, I thought he’d gotten lucky. So I attacked him like a wild man and he just kept on clowning me. Over and over again.

It was love at first sight?

MG: Definitely. But what made me appreciate the art actually happened earlier. Immediately I noticed how welcoming and friendly everyone was. In the changing room I didn’t get any tough guy stares, but I was made to feel at home right away. They were people from all walks of life: you saw car mechanics training with ER-surgeons. With one thing in common, they were all really open-minded people.

Did you become a mat rat right away?

MG: Well, I trained about three times a week. At first I had to take it easy on the off-days, because I was 33 years old when I started. Also I got injured twice because of my white belt spazziness, I tore my ankle and dislocated my shoulder. But for my body type, ground fighting was a perfect fit. I didn’t like getting thrown – still don’t. My saving grace is that I’m just a big kid that doesn’t want to grow-up, really. Maybe that mentality has kept my body young too.

You’re a unique figure in the Dutch BJJ scene, because you train everywhere.

MG: “Yeah, I don’t know how that happened (laughs). I guess people enjoy my company. My first and main teacher is Mathieu Peters of Jiu Jitsu Factory. He’s one of the first homegrown Dutch BJJ black belts and he brought me up through the ranks. So I trained there three times a week, but I wanted more mat time. Leo (him again) brought me along to your instructor, Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Marcos was cool with me training there. I represented JFF in tournaments and got all my belts from Mathieu, but I was always welcome at Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. After a while I became friends with people in other schools, and I would travel around and drop in where I could. I also spent some time in Brazil, training at De La Riva’s. That’s where I got my nickname ‘Grandão Branco’ (big white guy). But you can call me Grandão for short.

Can you describe your teacher Mathieu Peters?

MG: He’s the first black belt I ever met. When I started out, black belts were like demigods. Mathieu and his brother Willem got their black belts from Cadu Francis, from the Yamasaki lineage. The guy is just a really good teacher. He works as a professional educator, and you immediately notice how skilled he is at creating a great learning environment. He hammers down on the basics for blue and purple, and then lets you discover your own thing later on. Mathieu is super detailed, he loves the basics but is very open for new school techniques. But more importantly, he explains the hows and whys behind the moves.

And what about Marcos Flexa?

MG: Marcos is the embodiment of the old school Copacabana Carlson Gracie style. Both in his attitude and his techniques. The man is a 5th degree black belt and really good at simplifying jiu-jitsu. He always teaches no-nonsense moves. Very efficient. What I love most about Carlson Gracie Amsterdam is the high level of the entire room – from white to black everyone there is tough as nails. And each of the black belts there have their own distinct style. Flexa brings the old school pressure game, Desmond shows advanced modern competition tactics, Olga shows her BJJ and judo blend, and then there’s you with your BJJ encyclopedia insanity. I train at a lot of different schools, but I think CGA has one of the highest overall levels I’ve experienced.

You have the most diabolical closed guard game I know. How did that happen?

MG: I spent some time in San Diego training at Cadu Francis’ Jiu Jitsu Foundation to prepare for tournaments. Cadu is an excellent competition coach. He hammered down that I had to develop an A-game, which was my closed guard, because my takedowns and passing skills were non-existent. All competition sparring was geared to me finding controlled entries into that position. We did an enormous amount of drilling on that subject. Earlier, I had started playing around with a 2-on-1 grip, and Carlson Gracie Junior taught me some great pointers about the spider guard, which I could use once my guard was opened. All those ideas got blended together and drilled into an effective competition game by Cadu. By the time I reached blue belt, I’d built a whole system around that position. That’s when I really started to annoy my training partners (laughs). So Cadu is the one to blame.

What was the hardest thing to learn?

MG: Man, where do I begin? I’m a black belt, but I still feel there’s SO much I still don’t know. I guess you have to grow into each rank. Right now I’m trying to be less of a noob in the stand-up part, so I like to spar with some of our judo guys and get thrown through the mat. Because closed guard is (and has always been) my strongest position, now I try to develop my passing. Often I have moments when I think: I suck, I know nothing about jiu-jitsu (laughs). I hear that’s a common feeling among newly promoted black belts.

You must be doing something right, because you’ve medaled at the Worlds and Euros.

MG: Yeah, I’ve done well in the master division at several IBJJF tournaments: Munich, Paris and Rome, I also won local stuff and got myself a shiny NAGA-belt – which looks great on me when I go clubbing. But my most prestigious wins are gold medals at the IBJJF Euros (blue, purple and brown) and the IBJJF Worlds (blue and purple).

Let’s take a step back. What do you remember about your first competition?

MG: That was the 2009 Dutch Open at white belt. Leo dragged me along. I’d been training for about 6 months and was still pretty clueless, so I did a bunch of strength training and loaded up on Redbull before stepping on the mat. Big mistake. I had a huge adrenaline crash when it was time to fight. The chaos, the screaming, it was madness – I saw a few guys getting wrecked and carried off the mat with dislocated limbs. I got super scared. I forgot what happened in our first match, I guess we both kind of fell down. It was all a blur. Somehow I swept him a few times and got mount, but we were mostly brawling all over the place. After what seems to be an eternity I won on points, and I thought I was going to die from exhaustion. Then I had to fight AGAIN, a couple of minutes later (laughs). I won that second match too, and lost the third. So I got a silver medal. That was an awesome feeling.

What’s your most memorable match?

MG: I have two. At purple belt I had a crazy match with Paulo Brazil of Malicia Team from Belgium. Those guys are really intense. I lost on points, but it was a rollercoaster of scrambles. We really tried to murder each other. I caught him in a triangle with 20 seconds left in the match. Everyone went nuts, but I couldn’t finish him. I was super proud because we’d left everything on the mat.

And the other?

MG: My most beautiful match was the finals of the purple belt division at the World Championships. That whole trip sucked. I landed there two weeks earlier in order to prepare, but I didn’t realize that Las Vegas is a horrible town. It’s a hellhole – especially if you’re there to train and not interested in partying. So I was there, waking up early, eating my broccoli and training twice a day at Robert Drysdale’s, while 99% of the people I encountered were obnoxious drunks. Drysdale only paired me with beasts and I got wrecked every class. I was really bummed out – what was I doing with my life?

That’s tough…

MG: Yeah, but a strange thing happened on the day of the tournament. I was quite stressed out before, because I had such a horrible time in Las Vegas, but to my surprise I had a good night’s sleep. When I walked into the venue I just started laughing. By that time I had quite a few IBJJF tournaments under my belt, so it felt familiar, like coming home. All of sudden I was SO glad to be there, and I couldn’t wait to have my first match. I beat the first guy 40-0, and just kept at it. In the finals I was matched up with a Canadian from Saulo Ribeiro’s. Total animal, super intimidating dude, and he mowed through everyone. That match was one of my proudest moment because I had to use all my technique to overcome his intensity. To be honest I won by a hair’s breath, but I DID manage to sweep him. That was awesome. When I landed in mount he just bench pressed me off (laughs). Still, I got my points and the win. I was so happy. After those four matches my trip had been totally worth it. I also won the open division later that day, submitting my Brazilian opponent in under 2 minutes. To my own amazement I won double gold!

How did you start teaching?

MG: That happened by accident. One time I had to step in and cover a class at Robin Gracie Amsterdam – that was weird but fun. And at purple belt Mathieu asked me to start teaching a regular class on Friday, occasionally on Wednesday. I really needed to find my own way. I had to figure out that kind of instructor I wanted to be, and how to run a class. Also, I needed to put together a curriculum. The blue belt basics from Mathieu were a big help in all of this. But teaching has really improved my jiu-jitsu, it’s made me way more analytical. It’s a great feeling to be able to share the knowledge I’ve gathered of the years. It’s the one thing in the world that makes me the most happy.”

You’ve had your share of injuries. Why have you stuck with it?

MD: One of my best friends has known me way before I got into BJJ. She jokes about my ears, twisted fingers, broken ribs and all that. So I have to take a step back and take it easy at times. Younger guys will beat me, eventually (well, they already do!). I also had a bit of a burn-out a while back, due to mental and physical overload. But I just cannot switch it off entirely. I will be with the art until I die. Maybe one day I’ll be an old black belt with a walking stick, teaching inner city kids the power of jiu-jitsu, to help them better their lives. Like Master Shredder and his Ninja Turtles. That’s something to strive for.

Follow Martijn Gademan on Instagram: @gademan01
Daniël Bertina is a black belt and writer based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami