Inverted Gear Blog / Daniel Bertina
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.
We like to give some insight in what drives our sponsored athletes, and why we are proud to support them. Previously, we talked to Eric Sian, Guam’s first world champion grappler. For this installment of Meet the Pandas we speak to Reilly Bodycomb: sambo champion, leglock wizard and all-round badass grappler.
Reilly Bodycomb (32) has been leglocking people into submission since 2005. He became famous for his own dynamic, take-no-prisoners grappling style – honed by his instructor ‘Sambo’ Steve Koepfer at New York Combat Sambo, his excellent coaching ability, and his willingness to share his leglock knowledge in various instructionals. Reilly’s been on a tear this year, winning gold at the Sambo Nationals, the Sambo Pan-Ams and the Dutch Sambo Open – among others.
How did you fall in love with sambo?
Reilly Bodycomb: When I stepped on the sambo mat at New York Combat Sambo, around 2005, it wasn’t the first time I’d experienced grappling. At the time I was a karate instructor in Brooklyn, and I had done some jiu-jitsu and judo before. So I would roll pretty consistently in our school and at various other gyms. However, it was my first time encountering a particular class structure that wasn’t traditional. A sambo gym is run closer to a wrestling or boxing club. There’s no bowing, no rank and no formality. That was both interesting and foreign to me. It turned out to be something I’d been looking for all my life, but just didn’t know it. I really liked the openness, focusing on what works best for your body type. Now, in retrospect, I realize that is not a universal characteristic of the sport. There are some gyms that have a more narrow perspective, as I found out during my travels. But New York Combat Sambo really had this open-minded attitude. One of my favorite things about training there, was that we went really wide with the rulesets. I was able to compete in sanshou kickboxing, MMA, combat sambo, sport sambo, freestyle sambo and submission grappling.
So it wasn’t your first time grappling, but did you get your ass kicked?
RB: I can’t remember (laughs). I had my first taste of getting absolutely crushed and dominated by a grappler several years before, when I went to train at an MMA gym. Like every other striker trying grappling for the first time, I got stuck underneath someone and couldn’t get out. That’s when I had that big revelation we all experience at the start of our journey: “Wow, this stuff really works! I have to learn more!”
Aside from the mindset, what else attracted you to sambo?
RB: My coach Stephen Koepfer taught striking and grappling combined in almost every class. You had gloves, shinpads and sometimes a jacket on. Grappling was mostly taught and discussed within the context of a real fight, so with strikes. There was a universal approach to sambo that I really appreciated. The fundamentals of the art – as they were taught by Steve – were a combination of striking and grappling. Everything was synched. So that gave me a great base to explore other arts. You often see the reverse in a lot of modern jiu-jitsu gyms, where striking is not addressed at all, or only reserved for higher level students.
Sambo seems to place a lot of emphasis on developing general movement first, specific technique second. What are your thoughts on that?
RB: Steve learned that from his coach Alex Barakov, and it’s a very effective approach. We focus on a lot of flowing movements, rolling and tumbling. But they serve a specific purpose. When I teach class and I warm up the room, I’m showing how to do rolls in a way that can be used combatively. For example: when you practice forward rolls across the mat and you’re posting out your hand, you’re not rolling in a way that you’d ever use in fighting. Because when you’re rolling in a fight, your hands are probably busy grabbing the jacket or hooking a leg. Same thing if your forward roll is taking you far across the mat. Sure, that’s nice for a warm up, but that situation won’t really happen in a fight. You’re more likely to kind of roll back or invert in the same spot, like when you’re attacking a kneebar from standing. Another example, our backward rolls are primarily used to train our entries for sacrifice throws, it’s not just rote repetition. We place a great emphasis on weaponizing our rolls.
So that’s where your spectacular sliding, jumping and rolling attacks come from?
RB: Exactly. Those dynamic entries don’t feel dangerous to me. When I’m teaching I realize just how important that stuff is. At a glance rolling leglocks seem crazy and unorthodox, but once you have fundamental body control and awareness, those dynamic entries are totally reasonable. During my career I’ve hit those moves consistently, now my students are hitting them too. That’s no coincidence. If you teach those fundamentals correctly they are transmittable. You just have to train them a lot in order to be able to pull the trigger when you see the opportunity. Those moves not only effective in a real fight – they also look awesome. It’s not just dancing. Luckily I found the right coach to help me develop that aspect of the game. The very first point I ever scored in a sambo match was a flying scissor takedown. It became clear that I had an aptitude for this. Being more dynamic was what actually felt easy to me.
You’ve been on a tear this year, winning a lot of competitions. What’s gotten into you?
RB: My ideal vision is working towards a fast-paced, dynamic, stand-up oriented grappling style. I want to be technical and well-rounded, and that means taking a lot of information from different sources – like jiu-jitsu, wrestling or judo – and then pouring that through a sambo filter. For me, the most important thing is to be a dynamic martial artist. It’s way more important than being just a ‘sambo guy’. Sambo just happened to be the best vehicle for the way my brain works, and how I can express what I think is cool in martial arts. I want to win on the feet, get the takedown and not get thrown myself, and/or winning dynamic entries to mat work. On the mat I want to submit my opponent as fast as possible. If I can’t, then I’m getting back to my feet quickly. That’s my lens. I figured the best thing would be to return to the sport that enforces that particular mindset and behavior. So this year I decided to push hard into my root sport. I went full circle. It’s kind of cathartic.”
Is there one win or tournament medal that’s especially important?
RB: Actually, there are three. When I fought in MMA in 2007 I won by double leg, mount and ground & pound. After that I stumbled into the sport of submission grappling, and I noticed there was a massive skill gap when it came to heelhooks. So I was able to win a bunch of grappling tournaments with heelhooks because people weren’t familiar with them. It’s not that I was super good or anything, at that time there was just a skill gap – which is obviously closing now. For a couple of years I went deep down the rabbit hole of leglocks, and I developed all sorts of dynamic entries into the heelhook. Around 2013, while my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I really wanted to win another MMA fight, but this time using a leglock. It was important to me to check if I hadn’t wasted my time, developing a skillset that would only work in submission grappling. I went to work with the help of my friend and BJJ black belt Colin Murray, and sure enough I was able to win a MMA fight by heelhook, before my daughter was born. That was a true pressure test of what I’d been working for all those years.
Furthermore, this year I won the sambo Pan-Ams. To enter that tournament you have to win your county’s nationals – which I did, and that was the first tournament that gave me an international sambo ranking. Americans don’t show up on that board easily. Seeing that gold medal elevate me to fifth in the world at 68 kg was truly amazing.
And winning combat sambo in Holland for the first time, again this year, was huge. Last time I fought under that ruleset was in 2006, I lost and didn’t do it again for years. I did fight MMA in between, but still it was super scary to put myself out there again. I was in a foreign country with just my Belgian friend Wannes De Roover. For some reason it was a really violent tournament. A dude got knocked out cold right in front of me, and had to be carried off the mat. I thought: “Man, WHY am I doing this?!” I imagined waking up in a Dutch hospital somewhere. Thankfully, in the first match I manage to suplex the guy and pin him for four points, so that’s an eight point technical win. In the second match I pulled off a sitting armbar-triangle combination. I won that tournament and came out pretty unscathed, while people around me were dropping like flies.
What keeps you fascinated about the art?
RB: I like trying to find areas of the game that don’t come natural to me, and that I can develop into strengths. Like throws and takedowns. In 2010 I fought in NAGA and I got taken down by a really good wrestler. People said: “Of course, he’s a former D1 wrestler”. But I thought to myself: “I never want to get taken down again!” When I discovered there was such a big hole in my game I got super angry, and I started to work on my takedowns and throws. Nowadays when I face a good wrestler I feel I HAVE to take him down, not just roll underneath him for the heelhook. There’s so much territory in grappling that still I have to explore.
At 32, is your body is still functioning?
RB: No (laughs). My back is very bad and I had surgery on my elbow, and it all just keeps getting worse. I definitely walk around like an old man most of the time. This year was the first time I actually went to see a chiropractor and I started to so do some mobility work. Yeah, I might also look into yoga.
Leg attacks in submission grappling have become really popular. It must be cool to see that they’re here to stay.
RB: Yeah, it’s very interesting to see the progress, and I think I had a part to play in that. At the same time it makes me want to focus on something else. Now I just love throwing people. This year I hit my first total victory throw in combat sambo. That’s when you throw the opponent squarely on their back while remaining standing, it’s the sambo version of scoring ippon. I’d never done that before. You see, my interests shift a lot. I guess that’s the grappling-hipster in me.
If you had to pick: fighting or coaching?
RB: I’ve always been more of a coach than a fighter. I always dreaded competition because, honestly, it’s not really fun. Competing in martial arts was less about me trying to win, and more about making sure that the material I was coaching was legit. That’s why winning combat sambo or in MMA was so important to me. It’s obviously not the same as fighting in the UFC, but it sets me up to have a little bit more confidence when I’m helping someone compete at a higher level. All athletes hit a wall at a certain point. But if you’re successful at transmitting information as a coach, you can keep going.
In conclusion, tell us about the RDojo Sambo League you’re setting up with Inverted Gear.
RB: Sambo offered me a different viewpoint to look at grappling. However, the art is not really accessible to people (in the United States, at least). I wanted to create a way for people to actually experience sambo. Not just by learning individual techniques in a seminar setting, but to actually get on the mat and try out the rules. The RDojo Sambo League is a nationwide series of in-house tournaments that use slightly modified sambo rules, which are more accessible to jiu-jitsu practitioners, while still keeping the essence of the art intact. The league has a round-robin format so people get several matches. We thought it would be a cool way for people to experience the game in a friendly environment. That way they get to hone new skills, which they can apply to their own combat sports. And no, there will be no belt divisions. You just go for it.
Follow Reilly Bodycomb on Instagram @Rdojo.
For more info on the RDojo Sambo League visit www.Rdojo.com/league
About the Author Daniël Bertina
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.
We want to introduce the world to our sponsored competition team and share the stories that inspired us to support these up and coming grapplers. Last time, we shared the story of Jose Mazariegos, a Princeton student balancing a full course load with a full-time commitment to training. In this installment, we talk to Eric Sian, Guam’s first world champion grappler.
Eric ‘Chambolo’ Sian (25) never expected to be any good at jiu-jitsu. As an obese, uncoordinated and insecure kid, he was bullied in school. But under the guidance of his professors Stephen Roberto and Terence Aflague of Purebred Guam, he became Guam’s first homegrown world champion – winning the gold medal in a stacked adult division, while competing as a juvenile. Now he’s a BJJ black belt medal chaser.
When did you start your jiu-jitsu journey?
Eric Sian: As a 13-year old kid I saw my first MMA event here on the island of Guam. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I fell in love with the art right away. At the time, I didn’t know who was who and what was what. I was just driven to learn. So I ended up at Purebred BJJ Guam, and I dedicated myself to pure jiu-jitsu. I’ve been there ever since.
What do you remember about your first class?
ES: I had no clue what I was doing. You’ve got to realize I was a pretty fat kid back then, so I thought I could overpower everybody in class. I came to realize that didn’t work. At that time, there were no kids classes or anything. I was the only one training jiu-jitsu with the adults, but it worked out because I was pretty big for my age. It was still really nerve-wrecking, rolling with the adults, stepping on the mat and getting beaten up almost every day. But I liked it. I’d never done any combat or contact sports before. I played baseball. That’s pretty much it. My first professor was Stephen Roberto and I’m still under him to this day. He promoted me to black belt in June of this year.
What was the hardest part about learning the art?
ES: Everything. All of it. Just being physically able to do anything. I was so uncoordinated I couldn’t even shrimp or push properly. Nothing. I was a softie boy, and everything I did hurt. But my training partners beat the techniques into me, and they encouraged me to keep trying. They told me: hang in there, you’re not doing to die, we won’t let you die, just don’t quit! And I trusted them. It made me a tougher person.
How did you become so obsessed with jiu-jitsu?
ES: Well, in school I was bullied a lot. So part of me wanted to get back at those kids who mistreated me. But I had good mentors, and I soon realized that wasn’t the right thing to do in the long run. I focused all those negative emotions on excelling in competition and developing myself along with the art. I stuck with it because I watched myself progress and grow, and I saw jiu-jitsu evolve over all these years. It’s a truly amazing thing. It’s been a constant factor in my life that I can always look forward to. There’s no end to jiu-jitsu.
You’re a fanatic competitor. Which medal are you most proud of?
ES: In 2009 I entered my first international tournament competition ever. It happened to be the Mundials and I won the gold medal in the blue belt division while I was still a juvenile. That made me Guam’s first homegrown world champion. Locally trained, with all the preparation done here on the island with my teammates. Prior to me leaving, I never thought I’d be doing something like that. I just really liked to train, so that gold medal is my most prized possession. After that I won gold at purple belt at the Asian Open 2010 and at brown belt at the Asian Open 2012. At the Asian Open 2014, I managed to win double bronze. I also competed at a few tournaments in the Philippines and medaled there. However, this year I didn’t do so well. But nothing can top that first world champion medal. I’ve been trying to do it again at the other belt levels, but that’s more of a challenge. Hopefully I’ll get there one day.
Can you describe your game?
ES: In high school I picked up wrestling, and I started to blend that with my BJJ. I’ve always had a tight top pressure guard passing game. Pretty much all my attacks come from the top position, and I specialize in the D’Arce choke. Once in a while I play guard in training. Michael Liera Jr. spent some time here with us in Guam, and I fell in love with his De La Riva and X-Guard set-ups. But when it’s competition time I stick to my bread and butter. Aggressive takedowns, heavy guard passing, staying in a dominant position, and finishing. No fancy stuff. It’s all pretty basic.
Did jiu-jitsu help you in other areas?
ES: Definitely. You’ve heard people say it before, but jiu-jitsu has really saved my life. When I look at problems or obstacles in life, I don’t see those as something unavoidable. There’s always a way out. Just like there’s always another way to get around a position or submission. There’s always a chance for a counter or an escape. And for sure, training jiu-jitsu has made me more courageous. I’m willing to do more than what’s expected of me, and I’ve become a lot more confident and comfortable with myself.
What’s your training regimen?
ES: I work as a fire technician, but I train every day. Sometimes twice. In the morning it’s a quick weight training or cardio work-out. Nothing crazy, I’m just hitting large muscle groups with basic exercises for strength, like squats, deadlifts and bench presses. And then there’s jiu-jitsu every night for five days a week. On Saturdays I train jiu-jitsu during lunchtime. On Sundays I go to the beach and do a workout there. No, I don’t get burned out. I’m still young. Sometimes I do feel like an old man because I’ve been doing this for a long time. But if you have the right mentality and you train smart, you can deal with it.
Can you explain your nickname, Chambolo?
ES: Cham stands for the Chamorro people and culture. That’s my heritage. And Bolo refers to the actor Bolo Yeung, remember him? That super buff kung fu guy? I guess my teammates thought I looked like Bolo in Enter the Dragon, crushing people like it’s nothing. We were joking around after training one night, giving each other nicknames. This one stuck.
Who are your idols in the sport?
ES: First of all, it’s always been my professor Stephen and his first black belt Terence Aflague. They’ve been there for me since day one. They smashed me and picked me back up, and that made me into a stronger person. I really appreciate how open and straightforward Stephen is. He may come off a little bit harsh at times, but often a no-nonsense answer is the most beneficial. He has a good teaching style of the whole game, top and bottom. But more importantly, he really stresses respect, honor, and loyalty in the academy. Those are traits that we all live by. I think that’s made him a great person and teacher. We’ve gone pretty far under his guidance. Of course I’ve always looked up to Enson Inoue, the founder of our gym and the one who promoted my professor to black belt (together with Mike Fowler). Also, I really liked watching Leo Viera’s jiu-jitsu back in the day. I used to study all his competition highlight videos. He was a real innovator. Very dynamic, relentless guard passing.
Considering how jiu-jitsu has helped you as a teenager, do you enjoy teaching kids?
ES: Definitely. At Purebred BJJ Guam we have an excellent kid’s program, and I help teach the teen classes sometimes. I really like rolling with those kids. I give them a little bit of tough love. I’ll say something like: Oh yeah, do you think you’re good? Then show me how good your jiu-jitsu is! And I’ll let them work for it. That builds a lot of confidence. I recognize myself in them, sometimes. When I was their age I was horrible at this stuff. But nowadays, the knowledge of jiu-jitsu is way more available. Just at our academy we have fourteen black belts, and there’s so much excellent information out there. So I tell those kids: Never doubt that you can become better than me. Just don’t quit.
Follow Eric Sian on Instagram: @chambolobjj
About the Author Daniël Bertina
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.
We are exploring the stories of grapplers sponsored by Inverted Gear. Last time, we talked with Carlos Saquic Pérez about balancing a demanding career with intense jiu-jitsu training. In this installment, we talk with Jose Mazariegos.
At 19, this purple belt’s passion for jiu-jitsu gives him an enormous work ethic, allowing him to conquer his ADHD and getting him accepted into Princeton. When Jose is not studying at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs—with the goal of becoming part of the United States intelligence community—he’s training with Emily Kwok and Marcelo Garcia and collecting medals at tbig tournaments.
How did you discover Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
Jose Mazariegos: I was very hyperactive as a child. I had ADHD, and my mom really wanted me to have an outlet. She enrolled me in soccer. I was supposed to be the next Lionel Messi. That was her plan. Well, I tried that for about a year – it didn’t work. I got into several fights in school and I was failing most of my classes. She told me to find something else. So I picked up track. During one of my runs with my team, I passed by a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu dojo, Team Silva. There was a little tournament going on. I saw a little guy (about 140 lbs) go up against this super big guy, probably twice his size. I thought: He’s going to get crushed, there’s no way he’ll survive. About two minutes into the match, the little guy did something with his feet, and the big guy was tapping. Loudly. And that was it.
I’d never seen anything like it. The closest thing was probably WWE. I was amazed but didn’t tell my parents because my mom really frowned upon fighting in any way. The next day I went back to talk to the professor, Manuel Reyes. He was the guy I’d seen the day before. I told him: I’m 13 years old, I don’t work, I have no money, but I really want to learn this and I really want to be just like you. Manuel nodded. He told me he would teach me for free, on one condition: I’d have to help out with the kids class, stick around for the adult class, and stay to clean up afterwards. I did that for about six months. I went there every day, without fail.
When did you get your first taste of competition?
JM: About seven months in. That was also when I had to break the news to my parents. I asked my mom to take me to one of my ‘school events’ – which was actually my first competition. She had no idea. When we got to the venue, I finally told her I had enlisted into something called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And that I really wanted her to see me fight. She exploded: “Oh my God, you didn’t tell me? That’s so dangerous, you’re going to break something!” But I stepped on the mat, fought, and was very lucky to win. At the same time, during the previous months she’d noticed I was doing way better in school. I was calmer and more focused, because I had discovered my passion.
So, how did you end up at Princeton?
JM: The idea of going to college never appealed to me, and my parents weren’t really into all of that. They just wanted me to have a happy life. So I’d planned to either be a professional jiu-jitsu fighter or to join the navy. At the same time, I always got good grades. It was my English teacher who really encouraged me to take my SAT’s, and he helped me to apply to a bunch of colleges. He saw something that I didn’t realize I had. I told him about my jiu-jitsu and military plans, but he thought that was going to be a waste of talent. I believed him.
To my surprise I got acceptance letters from a few colleges, and one of those was Princeton. I didn’t know anything about Ivy League schools or what that meant. My teacher went nuts when I told him. I asked: Dude, is this good news? Did I win the lottery? But when I found out that Princeton was on the other side of the country, I sort of freaked out. I didn’t want to stop training. My teacher calmed me down, and told me that Marcelo Garcia’s academy was reasonably close – like 80 minutes away by train. I also found out that there was an affiliate academy only a few miles from campus, ran by one of Marcelo’s black belts, Emily Kwok. I looked her up, and that sealed the deal for me. I was going to Princeton and also train jiu-jitsu full-time.
That sounds like a huge step.
JM: It was. I had to get used to a totally new environment. It was my first time being away from home, and I spent most of my hours training. As an academic subject, I had chosen molecular biology, just because it sounded interesting. Not the best choice. After my first class I realized that wasn’t for me – way too difficult. It took some soul-searching to find out why I was even there. My first semester was a weird, unbalanced time. I entered my first east coast tournament, but my head was in different places and I lost my first match. That had never happened. I had a lot of doubts and thought about quitting.
But I finally made the decision to really go for it. I figured there should be enough time for everything – academics and jiu-jitsu – if I just schedule it. So I switched my major and got into the Woodrow Wilson School for International Relations, with the hopes of one day working for one of the US intelligence agencies. I’m sticking to that route. And I train as much as I can.
Walk us through your typical day.
JM: I wake up around 7am to go for a run. I do track workouts by myself and train with the Princeton Running Club for my explosiveness. After that I go to class at 9am. I have lunch, I go for a bike ride, and then I go lifting. After that I go to another class, do a little bit of homework and have some food. Then from 6 to 9pm I train jiu-jitsu at Emily’s. On Monday’s my classes end at 2pm, so right after I jump on the train and travel to Marcelo Garcia’s academy in New York City. I train there until 9pm. I do that twice a week, Monday’s and Friday’s. When I get back to Princeton it’s about 11pm, and I do homework until about 1 in the morning.
That’s the ideal situation. But when it’s a brutal week I have to stay up and study until sunrise. With maybe only a few hours of sleep – or none at all. Then I do it all over again. Yes, it’s crazy. But I love it. I might go to bed really tired, but every time I wake up I know it’s going to be a great day. It’s also an awesome feeling when you go out to compete and you ask yourself the question: Did I do everything I could to prepare myself? If the answer is yes, you know that even if you lose, you gave it all you had.
Where does competition fit in?
JM: I try to compete at least once every month, ideally twice. I just love it. I got third place at the Pan-Ams last year – I lost by an advantage to the guy that ended up winning the whole thing. And I’ve reached the quarter final of the Worlds but didn’t have that extra push. This was all in my freshman year, when I was still figuring out who I was, finding a balance between academics and jiu-jitsu. Now, in my sophomore year I have a really strong mindset. I’m extremely motivated, and I know what to do.
What is your most memorable win?
JM: Probably winning nationals at blue belt. When I entered I had just turned 17 and made the cut by eight days. I was a kid going up against 26-year olds in a stacked division. Their power was unbelievable. I had never trained with people that strong. Thankfully I had really good cardio, so my game-plan was to tire everyone out. Hopefully at the end I’d have a little more left. Which I did. Now I have my sights set on winning the Pan-Ams and the Worlds at purple belt featherweight. For the long term, I really want to get to old age and still be able to get on the mat. I’m not just in it for the medals. I love the spirituality of jiu-jitsu and the confidence it’s given me. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to inspire the generation after me. I’m not sure what my life is going to look like after college. But I know that wherever I’ll be in the world, I’ll find a place to train.
Who are you idols in jiu-jitsu?
JM: When it comes to the bigger names, aside from the Mendes brothers, I really admire Cobrinha. He’s probably 36 and still places at the Worlds in the adult division. You just have to give him props for being such a beast. Then there’s obviously my first professor Manuel Reyes. He’s an awesome person. Whenever I go back to California we train together. He’s always complaining he’s getting too old, but he’s extremely technical and teaches me great things. I’m really lucky to have started my jiu-jitsu journey with him. Other than those people, I really don’t follow the jiu-jitsu scene as much as I’d like to. I’m more focused on developing my own game and not copying someone else’s. I’m mostly studying what Marcelo and Emily have to offer. Of course, they’re both amazing.
What do you admire about Emily Kwok?
JM: Even outside of jiu-jitsu you immediately notice that Emily’s just an extremely driven person. Talk to her for five minutes, and you realize she’s a natural born champion. Her teaching is very meticulous and detail-oriented, which makes sense because she has always trained with people double her size and double her strength. So she needs those details. Emily can teach a basic position, like a scissor sweep, in a completely different way than you’re used to seeing it. And you can pick up something new. Every time she leads a class it’s very inspiring. When I came to Princeton last year she was five months pregnant. She was still doing all the warm-ups, drills and light sparring right along with us. I asked her if she needed to take it easy. But she said: “Oh no, it’s all good. Just don’t put knee on belly.” I was an 18-year old huffing and puffing along, and she was still going at it. Very awesome.
Is there an overlap between being good at academics and being good at jiu-jitsu?
JM: Actually, my experience has been almost the exact opposite. Sometimes people that are very analytical tend to overthink jiu-jitsu. But it’s meant to be a simple, functional martial art. Sure, it’s important to have your grips in certain places. But when you overcomplicate things, you lose the essence of jiu-jitsu. When I train, I’m not in my academic state of mind, I’m in completely different zone. On the mat, I’ve learned to look at things in my unique way. When you train, you realize jiu-jitsu is different for everyone. The point is to discover your own game, and to have that work for you. Being a college student doesn’t give you a clear advantage in that process.
What keeps you fascinated by jiu-jitsu?
JM: This art has brought out the best in me. And I’ve seen it bring out the best in everyone. It’s such an intense experience training together with your friends, leaving everything on the mat. You can’t compare that to academics. You won’t see your college professor writing a math equation on the blackboard, sweating, crying tears of joy. I’ve known some of my friends for over twelve years, and I’ve trained with some people for six months – and I know them better than my longtime friends. Not only because of the sheer proximity of jiu-jitsu, but every time you roll you’re putting your life into the other person’s hands. That trust is huge. When I train, I learn more about myself and more about my limits. And I feel those limits are meant to be broken.