Inverted Gear Blog / Daniel Bertina
In our previous showcase of members of the Panda Nation, we spoke to videographer and purple belt assassin Kyvann ‘Guapinho’ Jimenez. In this episode, we introduce black belt Chris Ulbricht, owner and head coach at Garden State Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and occasional Tekken aficionado.
Chris Ulbricht (26) got into the art by accident. He wanted to learn Capoeira – the original Brazilian martial art, but he got confused and ended up on a BJJ mat somewhere, learning the upa-escape in his jeans and shirt. It was the best mistake ever. After earning his purple belt, he dropped out of college to train BJJ full-time, and has been on the path of improving himself through martial arts ever since.
You’ve just won your match at Fight To Win, a submission-only event. Do you like that ruleset?
Chris Ulbricht: Honestly, I like pretty much any kind of grappling or jiu-jitsu. I compete sometimes, but it’s not a huge thing for me. Competition is more about setting a goal that I can lock down on. I run a school full-time, so preparing for competition forces me to work on my own mental space. It helps me to control my thoughts and develop myself as a person and instructor. So whatever the rules are, I enjoy the challenge. When Nelson Puentes and Hillary Witt of Inverted Gear came to my school a while ago, I fought in the RDojo Sambo League, which is a small round-robin sambo tournament – also very cool. I try to compete under all sorts of rules: submission only, gi, no-gi. It’s just another day out there grappling. It’s truly a pleasure to have a life in which most of my challenges are self-created.
You do this for a living?
CU: Yeah. I wear a lot of hats. I’m the owner and head instructor at Garden State Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. So I run the business, teach classes, and I compete as well. It’s a lot of running around, but I love it. I’ve been in business for about four years now.
It must be hard to track your own development.
CU: Yeah, but I want to chase my goals while I’m still young and in my prime. Fortunately, I have a lot of great training partners at my gym, so just showing up for my classes I get good training in. If there’s a will, there’s a way. There are plenty of black belt instructors around that only have blue and white belts to roll with who still do really well at major tournaments. So in my opinion, owning a school is no excuse to get lazy (laughs).
I guess the big trick is to stay sharp mentally.
CU: Definitely. That’s something that I’ve realized in the past year or two – how much of the game is mental. At a certain point, we all know the same stuff, or at least enough to be aware of what’s happening in a match. It really comes down to that mental ability. I was reading a book yesterday called Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack, and it was a huge breakthrough for me. Mack says (I’m paraphrasing): if you tell someone to stand on a chair for a hundred bucks, everyone can do it. But if you put that chair on top of a skyscraper, most people won’t be able to handle that pressure. It’s the same with competition. When you know you’ve trained 2-3 times a day, and you know your techniques and conditioning are sharp, competition shouldn’t be a big deal. But people stress out and think it’s something different when you step on to the competition mat. It shouldn’t be. Standing on a chair, or standing on a chair on top of a building should feel like the same thing.
Take me back to the first time you encountered BJJ…
CU: I’ve always had an interest in martial arts. I’m embarrassed to say I wanted to be a cool pro-wrestler and do acrobatic martial artsy stuff, like cartwheels, flips, and crazy jumps. So I wanted to learn Capoeira and become Eddie Gordo from Tekken. Somehow, I think I got confused about the different Brazilian martial arts, and I ended up at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by accident. Bear in mind I was still a kid, like 16 or 17 years old. When I went to check this place out, the instructor was just about to start a class. I jumped right in, straight off the street, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. We did simple things like mount escapes and he let me go live for a bit. From that day on, I was hooked
You were training in street clothes? That’s crazy.
CU: Yeah, I guess. It was a Karate school that also offered some jiu-jitsu classes. Eventually there were some issues with that place, and the instructor wasn’t really into teaching anymore, so I only trained there for about six months. Then I met Jason Scully, and he’s been a part of my journey from that point on. I consider him as one of my big mentors.
How did you progress through the ranks?
CU: I got my blue belt from my first instructor Dave Lentz, then I got my purple belt from Jason Scully, and I got involved with Jared Weiner of BJJ United. After a while, I moved to Maryland for two years to be part of Team Lloyd Irvin – which was an intense experience. When I got back I started training at a few places, including going back to BJJ United to train with Jared. A few of months after I got back I got my brown belt from Jared. He’s also the one who eventually promoted me to black belt, but I’ve always stayed in contact with Jason who I consider my first instructor. My journey has been kind of circular.
Is you school affiliated with any of those people?
CU: Nope. We’re rogue. Actually, I’m a big proponent of that. I stick to the mentality of BJJ Globetrotters. Jiu-jitsu is great, but I think sometimes people add more on to it – business, politics, hierarchy, and strange affiliation scams. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t experienced any of that with any of my instructors personally, but I have seen a lot of friends and school owners deal with that nonsense. I think it’s important to remember that we’re just people who like to train. Sometimes those ‘other’ things ruin relationships. In my school, I let anyone train with everyone. I believe the more you run your school like a dictatorship and try to control people, the more they’ll want to go elsewhere. If you treat people well, they’ll want to stick around.
What was your biggest challenge in learning jiu-jitsu?
CU: Dealing with this fact: The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know. At blue and purple belt, I felt I had all the answers jiu-jitsu could pose. I thought: “Yeah, just do the kiss of the dragon, take their back, and choke ‘em out – duh.” But as you get deeper into the art you realize the subtleties like weight distribution, hip control, and how much the fancy stuff relies on deep basics. Through the course of my training, many times I felt I hit a plateau. The further you get along the more you have to learn. Sometimes that felt like moving backwards. I was just climbing higher up the hill, and then realizing the hill was infinitely higher than I thought. It’s a strange thing to deal with.
Can you describe your game?
CU: I play like a heavyweight, kind of. My big examples are Bernardo Faria and Lucas Leite. I like to use half guard to get on top, pressure pass, and then grind my way to mount and the submission. In the beginning, I was “that” flashy inverted guy. But then you go against people that are extremely good and tight, they can slice through any open space, so I shifted my focus on establishing a tighter, more controlled pressure game. One of my Brazilian coaches used to say: “Make ’em feel DEPRESSURE!!!” I love that expression. It’s its own thing. Depression brought on by jiu-jitsu pressure. That’s what it’s all about.
Take us back to your most memorable competition…
CU: About two years ago I did a Grapplers Quest All Star No-Gi Tournament. In this tournament I realized there’s always an escape, and there’s always a way to win. If you can conceive a way to win in your mind, then you only need a fraction of a second. So, in my first match I won with 10 seconds left on the clock. The second match I won with 15 seconds left. I lost the third match, but that was okay. The lesson was learned. It thought me a mindset that there’s always a way to win, on the mat and in life.
It sounds corny, but that’s something you have to experience to believe.
CU: Yeah, it’s a physical thing that you have to discover. Sure, there’s plenty of information out there that can help guide you to it, like sport psychology books and good coaches that have been there themselves. But I agree that “Just believe in yourself, there’s always a way to win” kind of sounds like a platitude. But you have to live through it.
Do you have a background in sports psychology, or something similar?
CU: Yeah! Actually, no! (laughs). I took a single high school class on that subject and spent one semester in college. While I was doing my first year of my associate’s degree I quit and moved to Maryland to train BJJ fulltime. Around that time, I was teaching jiu-jitsu and competing a lot. My dad had been a musician growing up, and I think he kind of regretted not giving it a full shot himself. He’s still a hippie – make sure you put that in the article. But he said: “Go, give this your all, and follow your dream. If you ever want to go back to school, you can always be the creepy old guy in the back of the classroom.” So I did. People told me back then: “If you leave school now, you’re never going back.” They were right (laughs).
Well, it worked out. You run your own business now.
CU: I think college is a great for some people, but I’m very glad that I decided to do something else before I committed to that path. After I came back from Maryland, I was sure that I wanted to pursue jiu-jitsu for life.
Can you explain why?
CU: Jiu-jitsu is an extremely fun way to develop yourself as a person – physically, mentally, and spiritually. You’re learning the value of hard work and comradery, while dealing with people from way different backgrounds. An 18-year old skateboarder can become best training partners with a 45-year old doctor. I think jiu-jitsu can help you see the world from a different perspective.
Then there’s the real self-defense aspect. Some people get into jiu-jitsu to help them defend against a psycho knife killer stalking them in the shower, which is the least possible thing that’ll kill you. What will get you is obesity. You’re actually defending yourself by working out, being healthy, improving your physique, and lowering your stress.
Furthermore, once you add some goal-setting to your jiu-jitsu – whether it’s competition, getting to your next belt, or losing weight – you’re on a path of subduing negative thoughts by positive affirmations. By believing in yourself. That’s a skill that will help you in all areas of life. And lastly, on the micro level, you can also just focus on working on making your De La Riva guard better. See, there’s a lot of levels to it. That’s what keeps me going.
Who inspires you?
CU: I admire Marcelo Garcia, not only for his competition prowess and his contributions to the technique, but also for the kind of school that he has. I try to visit his place every week, and the way he runs the room is what I want my own academy to be. They train super hard, but when you walk in you feel so welcome. Positive intensity, that’s what I want in jiu-jitsu. Gianni Grippo is also a good friend of mine and a positive influence. Then there’s Jason Scully, he’s helped me a lot. Whenever I feel myself getting pulled into the classic competitor, instructor, and school owner mistakes, he’s there to offer advice. And of course, my father has been a great motivator to chase my dreams – that’s a given. I also have to credit Nelson Puentes and Hillary Witt for encouraging me to build a community.
How did you get hooked up with Inverted Gear?
CU: I started training with them, when Nelson was running the school in North Plainfield. At the time, I was really into no-gi, so they called me no-gi Chris. I loved training there. Then they moved to another location, and I followed them, and we all ended up at BJJ United. It’s funny how our paths kept intersecting. At first, I was just wearing their gi’s because I liked them and I wanted to support their brand. The sponsorship kind of happened naturally. They came to my school for a couple of Reilly seminars, and we did the BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp last summer. Nelson has also helped me with different opportunities and he exposed me to different aspects of jiu-jitsu.
There’s something in improv-comedy called the “Yes! And…”-principle. People also use it in business for brainstorming purposes. Whenever someone says something, you’re supposed to say: “Yes! And…” - then you add something constructive. You never dismiss whatever the other actor throws at you. I think positive people in this world are “Yes! And…”-people. Inverted Gear is run by ‘em. It’s great to be a part of that tribe.”
Chris Ulbricht owns and runs Garden State Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (www.centraljerseybjj.com). He loves to have visitors at his academy, and is available for seminars and workshops. He can be reached on Facebook, or at Gardenstatebjj@gmail.com. You can also follow Garden State BJJ on Instagram at @gardenstatebjj
Daniël Bertina is a journalist, writer, and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony.
The Panda Nation has many awesome citizens, like black belt Frederico Silva, who we introduced in the previous installment of Meet the Pandas. Today, we like to show what drives Kyvann ‘Guapinho’ Jimenez: purple belt competition monster, former bone breaking skateboarder, and videographer extraordinary.
Purple belt Kyvann Jimenez (26) was dragged into jiu-jitsu kicking and screaming by his dad. After years of skateboarding and Muay Thai, that ground-fighting stuff just seemed silly. But once ‘Guapinho’ (a nickname for ‘little handsome guy’) finally got obsessed with the art after an unexpected tournament win, he went on a dominant winning spree, while at the same time working a fulltime job and graduating from college.
So, you didn’t think jiu-jitsu would work?
Kyvann Jimenez: I just thought it was silly and weird. My dad got into it way before me. He started training when I was around nineteen years old. And at that point I was really deep into Muay Thai. I trained in that art for about six years. My dad got hooked on jiu-jitsu and wanted me to try it out, and he kept nagging. I’d done three years of wrestling in high school but I was pretty mediocre, so I didn’t want to start in a new grappling art. I think my 19-year old ego just couldn’t handle it. I’d figure that I’d be able to punch anyone in the face who would try that stuff on me. Finally, my dad wore me down. It took him about three months to get me on the mat. On my first day, I rolled with Dave Phimsipasom, who’s an unassuming little guy, probably a blue belt at the time. Well, Dave beat the ever-living crap out of me. I fell in love right away. When you experience a small guy kicking your ass you REALLY realize that BJJ works.
Did you become a mat-rat right away?
KJ: Not really. I can’t say I was a dedicated student right off the bat, but the main thing that fascinated me, was that I realized I could train with 100% intensity without going home with a concussion. So that was great. For the first year and a half, I trained maybe once or twice a week because I was still doing Muay Thai, but one night I had a rude awakening. After an especially grueling session my dad picked me up, and I was so concussed that I didn’t remember anything about the 45-minute ride home. Pretty scary. That’s when I realized I was done with getting hit in the head.
Where did you start?
KJ: It was a just a small club in a small room here in New Jersey with a handful of guys. Me, my dad, my first instructor Kevin Sheridan, Dave Phimsipasom, and this dude Evan. They merged with North Plainfield Fight Club, and that’s where I first met Nelson Puentes. That place eventually became Maximum Athletics. It’s still my home base. I got all my belts from Kevin Sheridan, and now I do a lot of training at Marcelo Garcia’s in New York. It’s a room full of killers, man. Every roll is a dogfight. I crave that feeling of being totally drained, leaving everything on the mat.
When did you decide to dedicate yourself to jiu-jitsu?
KJ: I got serious after I won the Boston Open at blue belt. Before, I didn’t think I was good enough, and I’d lost tons of tournaments back-to-back. I competed every month, and I just kept losing. After finally winning that tournament, I went on a nine-competition winning streak. That was a great confidence boost. When you first start out, you just can’t see how you reach a black belt level. But by training at Marcelo’s I met a lot of people who actually live the BJJ lifestyle, and who can manage to keep up with a super intense training schedule, while still working a fulltime job. It showed me that it was possible with the right amount of sacrifice.
What are some of your other memorable wins?
KJ: It’s been a struggle, but I got second at the No-Gi Pan Ams. And that’s probably one of my best performances ever. I ran through four opponents and submitted three of them. I lost in the finals to an advantage to a really decent opponent. So I’d say that’s probably the second biggest one. And again at blue belt I did pretty well at the Worlds, although I didn’t win. I did the same thing last year at purple. I beat four opponents before I lost to Cobrinha’s son, Kennedy Maciel. I met him in the semis, and he just destroyed me. I think I let him in my head because Cobrinha was on the sidelines yelling at us. And he’s one of my all-time idols.
Can you describe your routine?
KJ: I wake up at around 6:00am every day. For the first hour, I’ll do hot yoga. After that I’ll do about an hour of drilling, wherever I can. I’m a jiu-jitsu gypsy, so I head out to any gym that has drilling practice at that time—Like my friends the Main Brothers, two black belts under Renzo Gracie. I’ve been visiting their school pretty often. Then I go to work at the Apple Store. After I get home, I train again, every night for sure. On Monday, Wednesday and Thursday I do morning classes too.
That’s insane. How are you not a broken man?
KJ: Actually, I’ve been lucky. I haven’t been seriously injured in jiu-jitsu. But in skateboarding I broke close to 23 bones. Just from the top of my head I tore my ACL, broke both ankles, all my fingers, I jacked up my elbow, my collar bone, my clavicle, and my shin. But I rehabbed everything. Thank God I’m doing pretty well now.
How did you get into filmmaking?
KJ: So, on top of everything I actually went to school and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and Media Arts (with a focus on film) from Montclair State University. In my skateboarding years, I was always making highlight reels. It was a cool way to make myself look a lot better than I was. Four years ago, I got this job at Apple, and I started to dive deep into Final Cut Pro. I spent hours on end working on that program to figure out all the little configurations that most people don’t know about. Now I can make anything I conceptualize. So far, I‘ve done a couple of really cool projects for Inverted Gear.
You did the cinematography for Reilly Bodycomb’s new instructional, right?
KJ: Yeah, that was a blast. His mindset of blending passes with leg attacks really sparked my fascination for leg attacks. It was a game changer. Everyone’s been talking about the Danaher guys with their heel hooks, but Reilly emphasized that you don’t just have to go for that submission in isolation. A lot of things, like guard passes, present themselves once you go for the legs – and vice versa. I’ve never been so inspired by a seminar.
Who are your idols in the art?
KJ: Marcelo Garcia is number one when it comes to mentality. When I started to refine my game, I fell in love with the berimbolo, and in that area Gianni Grippo became a big inspiration to me. And as far as the physical game goes, I study Guilherme Mendes closely because we have a similar body type. And finally when it comes to work ethics, drills, and execution, or my training regimen I look up to Cobrinha a lot. I really admire his no-excuses-just-drill-mentality. The man is relentless, and just won the adult division at the Pan-Ams. That’s crazy.
Somehow, you also found time to start a clothing company.
KJ: Yeah. Bolo Brand is my attempt at giving something back to the BJJ community. It was directly inspired by Nelson, who changed my whole perspective on jiu-jitsu as a vehicle to help others. When he started Inverted Gear he was working out of his mom’s basement, and I was there helping out. At first I assumed it was about making money, but his main idea was just to make something cool that people would enjoy. Something that wasn’t this big-boy-macho-skull-and-flame nonsense. After that he contributed to Tap Cancer Out and gave sponsorships to people that really deserved them. Eventually I’d like to do a similar fundraiser or project for a good cause with Bolo Brand. I’m less interested in selling a specific product, but I’d like Bolo Brand to be more of a media-hub. A cool brand for content production.
How have you applied jiu-jitsu to your life?
KJ: I’ve always loved problem solving. But in my day-to-day life, I was unable to do that. My first instructor Kevin Sheridan changed my outlook. As soon as I started training jiu-jitsu and understanding what it took to improve in the art, I found some direction. I went to school and got a better job, and it blossomed me into the person I wanted to be. The biggest thing he used to say was: “Don’t knock the door down. Pick the lock.” See, I never thought of sh#t like that before. It’s a simple little mantra that I repeat to myself daily, and it’s really helped me out in everything that comes my way. Before I used to say: “Oh well I didn’t get that job, so I won’t work for it. I’m just not qualified.” As opposed to saying: “There’s definitely a way for me to get in there, if they see what kind of person I am.” It’s a little shift in mindset that changed everything.
Also the destruction of my ego helped me a lot, because I used to be super arrogant in everything I did – and being totally unaware of it. I used to say: “Well, I already know that detail, so I don’t have to listen” in every part of my life. Jiu-jitsu makes you realize that you might already know a certain technique, but there might be one little thing that another person does differently, that might be extremely helpful. Jiu-jitsu just opens you up. It makes you like a sponge instead of a dried-out rock.
What did you struggle with the most?
KJ: Letting go of my ego. I would always roll super hard and use my A-game. But I would never adapt or explore other positions. I would only stick to the stuff I knew would beat the others in class. Developing the weak aspects of my game would mean that I’d ‘lose’ – and I couldn’t handle that mentally. It was Nelson who had to beat that out of me, by wrecking me every day he made sure that my ego was broken. But in a good way, in the best way.
You made a hilarious video of your mom making fun of your cauliflower ears. Does the whole family give you grief?
KJ: Yep. The entire family joins in. Whenever we eat empanadas, everyone likes to point out how much they look like my ears. My dad’s a purple belt too, but he’s barely got any cauliflower. I got mine mostly from Muay Thai. The inner ear blew up from me catching hits and clinching. Jiu-jitsu just exploded them. It’s all good though.
What are you focusing on now?
KJ: I’m training super hard for the Worlds. I even took some time off work. I’m debating whether or not I should cut weight so I can face Kennedy again, because I really want to fight him. Perhaps I’ll stay at my natural weight, which is Feather. It’s strange. I’ve never ever had the urge for a revenge match, but I’m itching for this one. The first time we fought I didn’t perform to my level. Just want to prove to myself that I can do better. At the very least I want to be there mentally and put on a good show.
Why do sacrifice so much for this art?
KJ: There’s nothing in my life that allows me to bond with other individuals as much as jiu-jitsu. On the mat you encounter people from all walks of life. Truthfully, what keeps me coming back is the people and the good vibes. I’ve yet to come across ‘that’ bulldog douchebag jiu-jitsu guy. We just beat each other up, and we learn and grow together. That’s priceless.
Follow Kyvann Jimenez on Instagram @kyvannjj and @bolobrand.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist, writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony.
In Meet the Pandas, we introduce the many members of Panda Nation to the BJJ world. Previously, we took a closer look at Hillary Witt, mastermind of the Inverted Gear designs and daily operations. In this episode, we focus on the freshly promoted black belt Frederico Silva, who is taking the BJJ-scene by storm with his super-dynamic style.
Frederico Silva (27) grew up admiring his cousin, the multiple-time world champion and all-round badass Lucas Lepri (of Alliance fame). After leaving his hometown Brasília for a life in the States, and getting promoted to black belt by his cousin, Frederico has been tearing up the competition scene. He’s also a very committed instructor at Lepri’s dojo in Charlotte, NC.
Did your famous cousin introduce you to jiu-jitsu?
Federico Silva: Yes, he was the first. When Lucas introduced me to the art I was about fourteen years old. I was fascinated right away, but I didn’t train with him regularly because we lived in different cities. Whenever I would visit him we would train together. It wasn’t until I turned sixteen that I got more serious, and I found an academy in my city Brasília – the capital of Brazil. It was a Gracie Barra school and my first professor was Rafael de Freitas, also known as ‘Barata.’ After a while Barata left town and moved to the USA, so I started to train under professors Rodrigo Rodé and Juliano Leiro. I stayed under Gracie Barra flag until about 2015, right before I decided to move to the United States. There, I joined Lucas’ school in North Carolina, and I changed teams. The rest is history.
What do you remember about your first competition?
FS: The first time I competed I had just about three months of training under my belt. I remember one match when the guy pulled guard. I passed, mounted, and tapped him out with an Ezekiel choke. I also fought in the open division at that tournament. The first match I choked a big guy from the back, and I lost the second one. No, I wasn’t really nervous or anything. It was a really nice feeling. Before I started training jiu-jitsu I did Muay Thai for a few years, and I had two fights. So I was able deal with the adrenaline and stress of a fight situation. I was hooked right away.
So far you’ve done really well at black belt competitions.
FS: Yeah, I’m happy. I recently won the silver medal (adult division) at the Houston Open. It was only my second time competing as a black belt. I fought at the Atlanta Open the week before that, and I took third place there. So I’m getting closer to the gold. Step-by-step.
Did you train jiu-jitsu full-time back in Brazil?
FS: No, I was studying physical education. I almost graduated, but in 2012 I competed at the Worlds. Then I decided to quit university and remain in the USA for a few months. At first I went to Albuquerque to train at Barata’s school. After that I travelled back and forth for a bit, and I spent some time at the dojo of Alexandre Ferreira Santos ‘Dande’ in Texas. I went back to Brazil, and after a year Lucas invited me to join him at his academy in Charlotte. I took that great opportunity at the end of 2015.
What is your daily schedule like?
FS: We have competition training every noon class, and we train two times a day until Thursday. Friday and Saturday it’s one session a day. Three times a week we do strength and conditioning training. That’s a lot of functional stuff, plyometrics, and of course specific BJJ drills. And yeah, I also really love teaching. I run the intermediate, kids, and fundamentals classes. Lucas focuses more on the advanced and competition classes. We divide the kids classes between the both of us, because we really enjoy their energy. Our days are quite full, but we love it, and we make sure we provide a good training environment.
Did your experiences in physical education help your teaching?
FS: Definitely, especially in the kids classes. In university I worked as an assistant teacher at several schools, and the professionals there gave me all sorts of tricks on how to keep the little ones interested and energized, how to deal with them in a positive way, and how to communicate effectively. No, I never wanted to be just a personal trainer. I was always more into the educational side of things.
Do you have some advice on how to get little kids interested in BJJ? (I have a 4-year old daughter…)
FS: The most important thing is that they enjoy themselves. We do a lot of movement and balance games. Like the Spiderman challenge where you have to walk along the wall, upside down on your hands, with your feet against the wall. Sometimes I make them do zig-zag jumps, like jumping on one foot across the mat. Or Sumo is a good one too, where they have to push each other out of a small circle. You have to be creative.
And then of course, I teach them the basic self-defense moves, like escaping from wrist grabs, holds and basic ground positions, breakfalls, rolls, hip escapes, technical stand-ups. Or I let them start in a certain position, and the first one who gets the mount, wins. Just simple drills to let them understand the game. Thankfully, I have two other coaches that help me with those classes. They are also very good. It’s really a team effort at our gym. I couldn’t do it alone.
What did you struggle with in learning jiu-jitsu?
FS: Well, I always tried to have fun and explore new positions, so I never got too frustrated with the art. When I started jiu-jitsu I only played on top, and my first professor encouraged me to open up the game and to develop my guard. So I accepted his challenge and embraced the half guard. But overall, I think I struggle most with the refined strategy games being played in my division, like how to deal with the 50/50 game, when people only fight for advantages, or the lapel guards, when the other guy tries to tie you up, stall and ride the clock. That’s my big struggle right now. To find and answer to that boring, passive game. I like to go forward!
One thing I noticed after watching your matches is your crazy good balance. You seem almost impossible to sweep. How did you develop that?
FS: That’s all thanks to Lucas. He’s the man. Every day I learn some new detail he uses. He really knows how to game-plan and train specifically for certain opponents. He has an answer for everything. I don’t do balance ball drills or any of that stuff. All my balance comes from specific training and using the new positions that Lucas teaches me. I always like to try new things.
Who are some of your idols in jiu-jitsu?
FS: Aside from Lucas I respect Rodolfo Vieira a lot. His takedowns and dynamic guard passing are fantastic. He really knows how to control the pace of the match. But for me, the most important thing about the jiu-jitsu fighters is not their technique or game. It’s their attitude. Win or lose, always keep your composure and be respectful. That’s the essence of a martial art. You don’t see a lot of that with a lot of the new generation of competitors. These days there are a lot of bad boys in jiu-jitsu. I don’t like that attitude.
Tell me about your most memorable competition.
FS: I think it was the Brazilian Nationals in no-gi, at brown belt level. I was coming from a few competition losses, and for a while I was quite unmotivated. But I decided to push myself, and I started to train no-gi with a Luta Livre school: Cerrado MMA. That was an entirely new style for me. It was a more MMA-based grappling style with a super tight top game, takedowns, arm-triangle chokes and leg attacks. I taught some classes there and we exchanged knowledge.
So I committed myself and I was really focused. I went down to Rio with my fiancée and my two sons. For the first match I had a bye, because the guy didn’t make weight. Then I fought a guy from Gracie Humaíta, who I saw compete in the finals of the Europeans a while before. He gave Marcio André a really tough match, so I was pretty scared to fight that guy. But I managed to take him down and submit him with an arm-triangle choke. In the finals I faced someone who’s now my teammate, Caio Rigante Nunes. A month prior we had fought at the Sao Paulo Open in the no-gi finals, and he caught me in a footlock pretty bad – he destroyed my foot. But in the rematch I ended up winning. So that was very special. Also because I had my family cheering for me.
What is the most important thing about jiu-jitsu for you?
FS: I think jiu-jitsu is a journey, a constant search for growth. Not in a financial way, but becoming a better human being. Day after day, by doing something you love. For me it doesn’t make sense to just get a job you hate just because of the money. I think people should look for something they love, and follow that passion all the way. Go for it. Jiu-jitsu is a lifestyle that gives us the opportunity to grow, and to help other people to do the same. To help them to grow into a better person.
Finally, what advice would you have given yourself as a white belt?
FS: That’s a hard question man. But always believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid to fail or to look bad. Just do what you love. Respect everybody, and go forward.
Frederico Silva teaches at www.lepribjj.com in Charlotte, NC. Follow him on Instagram: @fredalvessilva.
In Meet the Pandas, we shed some light to the many awesome people that make up Panda Nation. Previously, we spoke to Steve Pachon, the creator of the iconic Inverted Gear logo. This episode takes a closer look at Hillary Witt—Black belt instructor, competitor, traveller, and mastermind of the Inverted Gear designs and daily operations.
Hillary Witt used jiu-jitsu to overcome her anxiety and shyness. As a smaller-sized woman she started training in the art to learn effective self-defense, but she fell in love with the comradery and the challenges of competition. After winning the Worlds at purple belt and picking up a National title in judo, she met her partner-in-crime-and-life, Nelson Puentes. Now she co-owns Inverted Gear and travels the world teaching jiu-jitsu.
When did you discover the art?
Hillary Witt: I think it was around 2005. Back in college I was dating a guy who did MMA, and I just started asking a lot of questions about the UFC, and what the deal was with those Gracies. I think he just got tired of answering, and he put a gi on me. He said: “Just come to class and figure it out yourself.” And that was that. Along the way I’ve had very good instructors. The first instructor that opened my eyes was Sergio ‘Bolao’ Souza, an old school Carlson Gracie black belt. He was a bigger Brazilian guy, but he really explained the principles of leverage. How size doesn’t really matter if you use proper technique. I got addicted right away.
Had you done any other martial arts?
HW: Nope. Some of my friends did karate but that never interested me. Honestly I was more into mixed-dancing, ballet and tap – I did that pretty much all through my youth. And then a little bit of soccer and figure skating. I had no desire to do combat sports whatsoever. But once I tried it, and I realized that I could find a way to make it all work, I became fascinated. Jiu-jitsu also really played into my competitive side.
Did you have any inhibitions training with a bunch of crazy, sweaty dudes?
HW: Thankfully there was one woman already training there. She was my size, maybe twice my age, but very athletic and super patient. I think she was just happy to have someone her size to drill and train with. When I rolled with some of the men – who were obviously a lot bigger, stronger and sweatier – I came to understand myself a lot more. At first, I would really panic in those situations. But instead of it freaking me out permanently, it gave me more of a purpose: to get in there, get over it, and get better. In the safety of that training environment I was able to get over that initial sense of claustrophobia, like when I was being smothered in side control. I would get panic attacks at times, but I was able to realize that bad things can happen if you freeze in a real confrontation. I never want that to happen in the street.
Now, whenever I feel overwhelmed, I take a mental step back and I tell myself: “Just breathe. Don’t stop moving and find a way out, step-by-step.” And I get over it. That’s something I try to tell all the other women I meet and teach. Sometimes I see that same frustration in them. It’s mostly a mental thing. So yeah, I really got into the self-defense aspect before I got competitive. I first had to get over some of my fears. Luckily I was able to do that with the support of my training partners.
What attracted you to competition?
HW: Going to competitions was just a way for me to meet other women who loved the art as much as I did, and to see how I measured up. Some of them are actually my best friends now. We all got our black belts around the same time. In 2006/2007 we were the only girls in the bracket, and they would regularly put all the belts and weight divisions together. Competition also gave me a reason to get on a training schedule and get to the gym. From where I lived it was always a one or two hour drive to get anywhere to train. So it was a serious commitment.
You’ve trained with a lot of excellent instructors, can you give us a run-down?
HW: I got my blue belt at my first gym here in Pennsylvania – I think it’s currently Alliance West Chester. That’s where Bolao taught, and his black belt Alex Britto promoted me to blue. I always travelled around a lot. I would visit Balance Studios in Philly, or I went to New York to train with Fabio Clemente. Going to those other schools for seminars and open mats was a big part of my training. See, there were only a handful schools in the North-East, so there was still a good relationship between them. It wasn’t super competitive.
When I moved out to San Diego for work, the majority of my training was done at University of Jiu Jitsu under Saulo & Xande Riberio. I went from purple to brown belt there. Eventually I left their school, mainly because of the difficult commute. Then Andre Galvao moved to town and I became really good friends with this wife. So I trained at Atos for a bit. Sadly, at one point I got laid off from work and money was running low. I decided to move back to Pennsylvania to re-group. When I got settled, I linked up with Fabio Clemente again and I met Nelson, who kind of re-introduced me to the jiu-jitsu scene. Eventually I got my black belt from Fabio.
Was Nelson already experimenting with Inverted Gear? Did the Panda exist?
HW: I think he had the company for about a year, so yes, the Panda lived! I met Nelson at a tournament about one month after I got back. I was refereeing and he was competing and coaching. He asked me where I trained, and I told him I didn’t know yet. I was considering Fabio’s for my regular sessions, but I had to consider the long commute from Philly. As it turned out Nelson had a school in New Jersey and he was affiliated with Fabio. So I started to train there. The rest is history.
Did you come to the rescue?
HW: Well, I could tell he needed help with the business. It was holiday season when I met him and he was getting swamped with orders, while still working from his parents’ basement. He had all these friends over to help him out, so it was the perfect time for me to step in. When I came back I didn’t really have a steady job yet, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was helping out with the family business a bit, so I had the time and flexibility to put in extra work. Nelson asked me to make a patch, then I made a shirt, and it went on from there. I’d gone to college for graphic design and advertising, and in San Diego I worked for a major print company. It helped that I had a professional understanding on how those things worked.
When did you realize you’d be doing something with jiu-jitsu in a professional manner?
HW: I guess when I designed my first BJJ-logo ever, for Marcelo Garcia. At the time I was still in college, and his wife posted on a forum that they needed a logo for Marcelo’s DVDs and brand. They didn’t have any money, but they wanted to see what the jiu-jitsu community could offer. They promised to do their best to make a fair trade out of it. I had met Marcelo before when he gave a seminar at Fabio’s, so I was really excited to help out. Winning that contest opened up more opportunities for other projects. At first it was just for fun. Then I got a full-time job at a printing agency, and I did my BJJ design work in my free time. After Marcelo’s logo I also did the designs for the University of Jiu Jitsu, Rafael Lovato Jr. and Leticia Ribeiro. It wasn’t until I met Nelson that it all just finally clicked. There I could focus 100% on a brand I actually believed in. And I really liked their gi’s, and I liked working with Nelson… And yeah, I kind of liked Nelson too.
Where did the judo come in?
HW: When I landed in San Diego I thought that maybe it was time to learn something else besides jiu-jitsu. So I joined the San Diego Judo School. I had picked up some wresting from the guys at my first academy, some of them were D1 wrestlers from Lehigh. I only did judo for two years but with my wrestling I got along pretty well. This was at a time in judo when leg attacks were still legal, and my coach really encouraged those. I competed in judo a little while I was figuring out where to train jiu-jitsu.
A little? Didn’t you win the Nationals?
HW: I did. I won some small tournaments, and yes, the biggest one was the nationals. But this was all still at white belt. I got a green belt shortly after that. When Saulo and Xande opened up the University of Jiu Jitsu it became a requirement for purple belts to at least earn a green belt in judo. After winning the nationals I started training BJJ with them. So the green belt in judo came right on time.
Over the years, what is the biggest transition you’ve made in your game?
HW: Meeting Reilly Bodycomb and learning his leglock system was definitely a big eye-opener. At the University of Jiu Jitsu, almost all the injuries that occurred in sparring and tournaments were the result of footlocks gone wrong. Saulo and Xande both had surgery on their knees and ankles. When my friend and I got promoted to brown belt and people started attacking the legs more, we didn’t know how to respond. We felt that we were really behind at tournaments. So it was Reilly’s system that helped me a lot. Especially the way he taught how to apply and defend the leg attacks safely. Then I realized it was no big deal. It’s a valid attack and there’s no reason for the taboo. I hope to get better at actually catching those footlocks, but at least I’m aware they’re there. I’m trying to attack them more.
You guys travel all over the world. How did that happen?
HW: We had signed up just to be campers at the first BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp in New Hampshire. As the event approached, a couple of instructors started falling off. So Nelson offered to teach a class and I helped him. We had the time and flexibility to do more of those camps, so now we’ve done seven, all over the world. It’s been really special to visit all those places I’d never would have gone to on my own. Teaching at those camps has been very good for my confidence. It’s helped me to come out of my shell. Putting myself out there to meet other people and to be a sort of leader at these events, that’s been a big step for me.
Was it a hurdle for you to start teaching?
HW: Yeah, I guess. But I started slowly, Nelson would have me teach a class here and there. I’m quite shy and at times I struggle to find the right words. I’m just much more visually orientated. For instance, if someone asks me a question I have to be put in the position myself to feel how I would respond. Doing all those camps has definitely helped me to grow as an instructor.
You have a very precise, clear teaching style. Are there any instructors you try to emulate?
HW: I noticed that I learn the best when moves are broken down a little bit more. So I always looked up to Marcelo Garcia and his teaching method. You try plan A, when that doesn’t work there’s plans B, C and D. You’re always playing off the action-reaction of your opponent. That was a big contrast with Saulo’s style, which is a lot more philosophical. He works in larger concepts and it seems like he deals less with the reactions of the opponent. You just do the move correctly, and that’s it. His method didn’t always make sense to me. I prefer the step by step planning that Marcelo uses. His black belt Emily Kwok is someone that teaches that way perfectly, I love her style. She’s similar to Valerie Worthington and Hannette Staack. And then or course there’s Leticia Ribeiro, whom I look up to tremendously. She’s my first jiu-jitsu hero and mentor. They are all extremely detail-oriented teachers and communicate very clearly. They make good eye-contact, and it’s easy to follow whatever they’re teaching. So I try to emulate all of them.
Why do you think this art is so valuable?
HW: I can’t imagine life without it anymore. You meet so many awesome people and make great connections. You learn how to be a better person, physically and mentally. You’re learning self-defense moves that you can actually apply in real life, under stress. Now I can walk around with a lot more confidence, knowing that I can handle myself in a confrontation. You won’t get that by just carrying pepper-spray. And or course BJJ has given me my marriage, it’s given me my job, my health. It’s funny. I didn’t start doing this until I became an adult, and it’s changed my life in all the good ways. Nowadays you see whole families training together. It’s a beautiful thing.
Hillary Witt is on Instagram at @invertedgearwitty.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist and writer based in the Netherlands. He holds a black belt in BJJ under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony.
To be part of the Panda Nation you don’t have to be a medal chaser, like sambo wizard Reilly Bodycomb – whom we spoke to last time. Some of our sponsored athletes are regular folks with day jobs, who use jiu-jitsu to better themselves. Like Steve Pachon, creator of the iconic Inverted Gear panda.
A little over five years ago, purple belt Steve Pachon (31) barely made it through the warm-up of his first jiu-jitsu class, taught by his high school friend Nelson Puentes. But he stuck with it. Not only did he keep training, he was also a contributor to the rise of Inverted Gear – designing the awesome panda logo and the first batches of shirts and gis.
How did you find jiu-jitsu?
Steve Pachon: I remember being a little kid and watching the first couple of UFC’s with my family. I thought: what the hell is going on there? Years later I realized what that particular style was. The more I found out, the more I wanted to learn. But I was very concerned about finding a school that was right for me. I went to a few places and encountered a range of different attitudes. It was just hard to find a teacher I felt comfortable with, you know? Especially around these parts there are a lot of MMA schools with a roughneck attitude.
Where did you end up?
SP: It was a small school in a small town in central Jersey called North Plainfield Fight Club, under the Alliance flag. Nelson Puentes was teaching there; I think he was a purple belt. Funny thing is that I actually went to high-school with him. I was a senior, and he might have been a freshman or sophomore. As a matter of fact, we were on the pole-vaulting team together. I kid you not. He wasn’t always as big as he is now – Nelson was a once skinny guy. When we graduated we went our separate ways, and I had no idea he’d gotten sucked into the black hole of jiu-jitsu. So when I popped my head around the door and I saw Nelson teaching, we immediately picked it up. It was like we’d never lost touch. I signed up right away and never looked back.
What can you remember about your first class?
SP: One word: intensity. I was quite heavy at the time, around 230 pounds. So just the warm-up nearly ended me. It felt absolutely insane. There were so many people on the mat, I’d say about 95% of them were white belts, and nobody had any idea about what the hell was going on. Everyone was bright red, sweating, and dead tired. That was just the warm-up. It was extremely intense but I loved it. Of all the people in that first class only me and one other guy, Big Paul Mendes, kind of survived that initial first day and stuck around. We went up the ranks together as training buddies. But yeah, that first class was both terrifying and the best thing ever.
So you think you have to be crazy to stick with it?
SP: Definitely. You have to like a masochist that loves the pain, and then cries out for more. But it’s all worth it. I got about four stripes on my purple belt now. It’s a beautiful thing.
Tell us about the birth of the Inverted Gear Panda
SP: Well, I’d done a fair share of drawing growing up, and I went to school for graphic design. But I wasn’t really the school type. Don’t get me wrong - I always loved making art, but for me it was more of a hobby. The idea for the Inverted Gear panda originated because Nelson was completely obsessed with going inverted. He looked up to Roberto ‘Roleta’ Magalhaes, and all those guys developing the inversion game. The first ideas for a logo were actually Nelson himself going upside down. But it didn’t really translate so well. So instead we were throwing around the thought of using a funny animal, like a panda.
At first Nelson was kind of apprehensive but he warmed up to the idea. I remember we made up a few shirts for the students because we were going to a tournament. It was an inverted panda with Nelson Puentes Jiu Jitsu written above it. I think it was done in one night, messing around with a couple of ideas on my dad’s old computer. Well… Everybody wanted that shirt; it got a lot of response. I guess that’s when it clicked: ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got something here’. Then we designed a few t-shirts and the first batches of gis. It was never a super serious thing. After training on Thursday nights we would get together at his house with a few guys, have pizza, and talk about the designs. We were like a brain trust, kicking around ideas that people would be interested in. It all went naturally.
What was a role of the mysterious panda guard in all this?
SP: (Laughs) That’s one of Nelson’s special techniques. He would always talk it up like some sort of super-secret ninja move: ‘Dude, beware of the panda guard, you can’t get stuck in the panda guard’. It was basically a shin-in type of thing he was messing around with. The whole panda idea just stood for the type of jiu-jitsu that he promotes, and that has been passed on to all of us. A ‘just-have-fun-with-it’-type of jiu-jitsu.
Do you work as a graphic designer right now?
SP: Not at all. I’m a plumber and HVAC technician. I still draw occasionally, but I never went a hundred percent into it. For me, art was an outlet. I didn’t really want to deal with deadlines and serious stuff like that. It has to come naturally. For me, art and jiu-jitsu keep me sane. I work 60-70 hours a week, so I can only make it to class a few times a week, but I make those sessions count. Every roll and every minute in class is now that much more important to me, you know? If I didn’t have that release I would probably go crazy. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.
What was the hardest thing to learn about jiu-jitsu?
SP: Oh man. Everything. I’ve been training for five years, and I feel that just now I’m beginning to scratch the surface. I’m finally starting to build a diverse game. I guess right now the hardest thing for me is to not be so stuck in my A-game, which is the omoplata. I’ve been working on that game for so long that it’s kind of a trap. It’s ingrained in my system. I love and hate it at the same time. So the big challenge now is to move away from just being ‘That Omoplata Guy’. Sometimes you have to start all over again.
Do you enjoy competing?
SP: I’d like to compete more now that I’m comfortable in my game. But I often lose on points. I guess that has something to do with my instructor Andrew, who relentlessly beat me up for many years. Andrew doesn’t really believe in the points thing; he just hunts for submissions. So now, whenever I roll, it’s kamikaze style. I put myself in bad positions, I don’t get stressed out, and I look for ways to submit the guy later on. I guess that’s not the best competition strategy, but that’s okay. People have different goals in the art. I look at the overall picture: I train to better myself and to be happy.
What do you get out of all this?
SP: I’d say: mental stimulation. It’s fascinating what jiu-jitsu does to your mind. You feel invincible when confronting any obstacle that comes your way. It gives you fantastic problem-solving skills. Without even thinking about trying to solve the problem, it often just instantly happens. In life, I relate everything to jiu-jitsu. Something’s hard at work? I just think: ‘Well, yesterday I survived five minutes with Nelson, Greg or Dave. You know what, this isn’t that bad. I’ve had a monster trying to destroy me, and I’m still here today.’
It’s fascinating. I also love the physical aspect, even when I’m sore I feel great. And lastly, the comradery is something very special. The people I share the mat with, I love ‘em like brothers. Like my first instructor Nelson, and the guys I train with at Maximum Athletics: my instructors David Phimsipasom and Andrew Silber. And or course my first training buddy, Big Paul. Of all those people at the beginning we’re the only two left. Just me and him. Before, we were the nail, now we’re the hammer – sort of.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned on the mat?
SP: Never give up. Whenever my instructors showed me a new move I usually sucked at it. But I always told them: ‘I’m going to eat s**t until it works’. And I would just constantly attack, attack and attack. And then all of a sudden the move started working! So now I tell the new white belts: ‘Find a move you like and follow it all the way through. Just keep trying, and eat s**t until it works – because it will.
Steve Pachon trains at Maximum Athletics in Dunellen, New Jersey. Follow him on Instagram at @stevepachon.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist and writer based in the Netherlands. He holds a black belt in BJJ under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @joyofirony.