How I Became Pablo Popovitch’s First American Black Belt

Ed. Note:  I told this story of how I became the Popovitch’s first American Black Belt in a series of posts from January to March, 2011 when I learned that my instructor,  Jorge Popovitch, had been severely injured in a mudslide that completely destroyed his home in Brazil.

TRAINING WITH JORGE, HOW I MET THE POPOVITCH FAMILY

These past few weeks I have reflected on my time spent training with Jorge and Pablo Popovitch when I lived in Florida.  Jorge continues to be hospitalized after his home in Brazil was demolished by landslides caused by heavy rains earlier this month.  Jorge’s wife, Soraya perished in the accident.

I went back and pulled out some photos and documents and decided to share a series of stories of what it was like to train with Jorge and Pablo.

HOW I MET JORGE AND PABLO POPOVITCH

In 1996, I was approached by my employers to relocate from Pittsburgh, where I had worked for three years, to Ft Lauderdale FL.  The insurance market (my business was Auto Claims) was booming in South Florida and they needed an office to control the local claims coming in.  When I was approached with the position, I immediately began to search for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academies because I had seen the UFC, or more importantly, Royce Gracie, and I wanted to learn.

Now in 1996, the internet was still foreign to me.  The only way to access is was through a dial up modem.  And when you connected via AOL, you paid by the minute.  So, my search was extremely short.  I found a Gracie Jiu Jistu academy in South Beach and figured I would visit and join when I arrived.

I had been allowed only one trip to FL to meet with my new boss.  At that time, I had no idea where to live and did not have time enough to go searching.  So, before I moved, I found an apartment, via a renter’s guide, that was close enough to the office. I rented it over the phone without even looking at it.  I didn’t really care about any amenities since the plan really was to live and breath work until I had the opportunity to sell my house in PA and move my stuff.

I drove down and arrived in Pembroke Pines FL on 3/2/1997.  It was a Sunday.  After I unpacked my car, I quickly checked the yellow pages for any advertisement of the Gracie School in Miami.  Instead, I saw this:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 9117 Taft St PemPines (954) 437-0091

It was two blocks from my apartment.  Call it an accident, coincidence, or fate, but I knew I had found the place to train without going to the school ( I later learned that South Beach, where the other academy was, was about an hour commute because of traffic.  That sealed my fate of being one of Jorge’s students)

On Monday 3/3/97, I called the school and talked to Pablo.  I asked if I could come in that evening to try a class and he extended the invitation.   I came in that evening and Pablo was sitting at the desk.  He was young and had a heavy accent (to me at least, since being from the mid west) and showed me the dressing room and gave me a school gi to use.  I met Jorge, who had limited English at that time, and joined the class.  I can’t remember how many participated, I just remember the atmosphere as being very alive and energetic. It was much different than all the other traditional martial arts schools I had attended.

We began with a traditional bow in and then started the warm up.  After about 20 minutes, I thought I was going to die.  The combination of the FL humidity, the heavy uniform, and the exercises that I had never done before, just about did me in.  I recall many people laughing, especially Jorge who spoke in very animated Portuguese as to the  difficulties I was having.  What I remember most about that first day was my first training experience.  Jorge pulled me aside and I got in his guard.  The instruction, in the best English he could muster,  was “pass my guarda.”  I had no idea what to do, so I just went berzerk trying to break his legs to get around them.  What resulted was my neck, shoulders, and arms being bent and manipulated in ways they should never be.  After what seemed like an eternity, I was allowed to rest.  I remember him looking at me and he began waving his arms fanatically saying “you crazy, you move too much.”

That was the first and ultimately the most important lesson:  In order to fight appropriately, I needed to be calm and relaxed.

After the class, I bought a Gi (a Tiger Claw Judo Uniform is all they had) and I signed up immediately.  I knew I had finally found what I was looking for.

PemPine Flyer PemPine Sched

TRAINING WITH JORGE: THE FIRST TWO YEARS 

Over the years, I have seen my share of students that have survived and thrived in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu/MMA and those that have not.  We bring our personalities, athletic abilities, past experience and egos with us when we first enter any academy.  But what became abundantly clear in the the early years of training with Jorge is that, regardless of who you were and what you came in with, you needed to train, train hard, and train a lot.

We were a Carlson Gracie Academy in these early years (I had the opportunity to meet Master Carlson around 1998 when he came in to visit and teach.  At 66, he was one tough player.)  BJJC CG Team Patch The tournament scene was non existent.  The IBJJF (or at that time the CBJJ) World and Pan championships had only started in 1996, and the NAGA and Grapplers Quest promotions had not been created or were in their infancy. So, our competition was amongst ourselves  (Our Saturday No Gi training sessions became a tradition for pushing and testing one another) .  Jorge often advised that he had never fought in any organized event in Brazil.  He only fought in the streets, so his focus of training was never geared to time, rules, or points.  It was about training for survival.  Training for the finish.  “YOU NEED TO TRAIN MORE” was Jorge’s favorite mantra. It became his default answer to most questions and inquiries.   He would yell it, scream it or whisper it in order to get his point across: That this was the only solution. In order to finish, to survive and win,  you needed to experience positions and scenarios over and over.  The well worn path becomes the well known path.  After all these years, I can say for certain that this statement is the best training advice I have ever heard.

Late 1997, I met Mike Yanez  Vale Tudo Shorts and we became fast friends and training partners.  We would eventually form two thirds (Kelly Carter, our third partner joined around 1999/2000) of our competition team.  Our training together was spirited and we grew together to eventually be the first Americans awarded our Black Belts by Jorge and Pablo.

An event that defined the academy occurred in late ’97, early ’98.  At the time, Jorge had another Black Belt instructing at the school.  His name is irrelevant, but he had a following within the school.  For whatever reason, the partnership between Jorge and this person deteriorated and he left the academy.  A major portion of the student population left with him.   It was then that I learned of the Portuguese term “Creonte” which was defined as person who betrayed the team and went to another school, essentially a traitor.  But Mike and I remained and continued our training.  The group classes were smaller and, for a time, I did not have any idea if the school would continue.  PenPine Class Photo 98 But Jorge made a shrewd decision to open a second school in Ft. Lauderdale.  The addition of a second location increased our membership (and would eventually become our headquarters).    As karma would have it, our academy would live on to thrive and the other school, well, it didn’t last.

 

Blue Belt

 I was awarded my blue belt sometime in 1998, I can’t remember the day or how it was given to me.  I just remember Jorge telling me that I had to put a black patch on it.  I had no idea why, but I set out with a black piece of fabric, needle and thread and created the single worst sewing job known to man.  When he saw it, he chuckled, but said it would do.

Eventually, Jorge made the decision to close the Pembroke Pines branch and move all training to Ft. Lauderdale.  Despite the distance from my home, I did not waiver in my training schedule and made the commute four/five times a week.  The move to a new school with the increased membership, the addition of Kelly, and the decision to hold the CBJJ Pan American Jiu Jitsu Championships in Florida, would solidify the foundation of Team Popovitch.

TRAINING WITH JORGE: TEAM POPOVITCH IS BORN

The 1999 CBJJ Pan Am Jiu Jitsu Championships were held in Miami, Florida.  We were excited to have our first exposure to an actual competition.

It was a disaster.

In order to compete at CBJJ events, you had to be at least a blue belt.  Jorge decided that Pablo would be our lone representative to compete.  So he entered at purple belt.  A few of us went to watch but when we arrived, it was chaos.  There was no schedule posted,  there was no logical order of the divisions or weight categories, and all announcements were in Portuguese.  So, we sat, watched, and waited. For 14 hours. We had arrived at 9am and Pablo did not step on the mat until 11:30pm.  He fought and won his first match, and then, thankfully, he said he wasn’t staying to continue.  It was just too late and the day had been too long.  We learned later that event ended around 4:30am.

Despite the poor organization of the tournament, we had caught the competition virus.  Mike and I welcomed the arrival of Kelly Carter, who moved from Chicago (he was already a blue belt under Carlson Gracie Jr.) and the three of us formed a bond where we pushed each other in training and supported each other in competition.  Around this time too, Jorge stopped referring to the academy as a Carlson Gracie School.  I don’t remember why this was discontinued, but we needed a name.  I made the suggestion to Pablo to use his last name in order to have a clear identity of him, his dad and the school.  Thus, Team Popovitch became the official name of the competition team.

In 2000, the CBJJ Pan Ams were held in Kissimmee FL, just outside Orlando.  Pablo, Mike, Kelly, Jorge and I traveled the 3 hours for the weekend competition.  The event was better organized than the previous year, but was still rife with problems (we stood in line for weigh ins for about 7 hours.)  But it didn’t matter, we were finally competing.  Mike, Kelly and I all went at Blue Belt and Pablo fought at Brown Belt.   I can’t recall the specifics of everyone’s matches, all I know is no one medaled.  My first match lasted about two minutes as I lost by arm bar.  That defeat only fueled my desires to train harder and compete more.

Our training certainly intensified.  The school was growing and we were now training just as much without the Gi as we were with it.  Our sparing sessions were becoming very competitive and Jorge was instrumental in making sure we were paired with each other to keep this competitive spirit alive.

Jorge also started allowing us to stay late to train, then lock up for the night.  He began to trust and believe in us to take care of each other and the school.  Belief and trust were cornerstones of Jorge’s philosophy.  He frequently said “you have to believe” during our training.  His message was simple and direct as he attempted to instill confidence in all of us.  After all, we were going to be representing him in competition, so he was going to make sure that we represented him well.  It was not until years later that I discovered that his message was two-fold:  First, you must believe in Jiu Jistu, its techniques, movements, and philosophies, because its value had been tested and confirmed time and time again.  But,  he also meant that you have to believe in your Jiu Jitsu.   To know Jiu Jitsu was good, but to do Jiu Jitsu, your way, was better.  He said to me one day that knowing 100 techniques was nice, but using ten techniques, which you favored, over and over until no one could stop you, was much better.

As I have mentioned, our competition opportunities were scarce.  We heard of a organization called NAGA that had been in business for sometime in New England.  We learned they were holding a championship in December, 2000 for both Gi and No Gi.  Pablo and I were the only ones who could attend, so he and I traveled to participate.  This event exposed many people to Pablo and started his career to the competitor he is today.

NAGA Medal Saturday 12/2/00 was the No Gi tournament.   Because of our CBJJ experiences, we had poor expectations for the organization of the event.  We could not have been more wrong.  From weigh-ins to getting our medals, it was extremely well run (and still is).  I entered the intermediate division at light heavy weight and had a bracket of 16.  Now, what was different then about NAGA, for the No Gi divisions, is that they did not award points for positions.  You either won by submission (every submission was allowed) or by referee decision, if time expired.  Overtime could also be granted if the referee could not decide.  I started off very strong in the event, getting a submission in my first fight, then a referee’s decision in my second fight.  But because the event was so tightly run, they did not give much rest in between matches.  I started off strong in my semi-final match, but as it wore on, my energy slowly started to deteriorate.  The match went the distance and the referee said we had to go to overtime.  I managed to be the aggressor in OT and was awarded the decision to make it to the finals.  But I was spent.  As I am lying on the side of the mat, grimacing in pain and trying to catch my breath, the referee comes over and says I have 5 minutes before the finals.   I lobbied for more time, which I have no idea if they gave me, but I got up and tried to recover as best as possible.  My finals opponent was a purple belt from Brazil, who had gotten 3 straight submissions in a very short time.   I summoned as much energy as I could for the final, but I could not do anything.  I lost by submission and settled for second place.

Pablo NAGA 12 Pablo had a very easy day.  He entered the advanced division, middleweight I think, and easily defeated  each of  his 3 opponents on his way to the first place.  He was the talk of the tournament.  I remember he came out to his first match and was wearing only his shorts (actually they were my shorts. He had to use them because of an embarrassing suitcase mishap at the airport, but I’ll save that tale for another day.) So when everyone saw what he looked like, the place became very quiet and focused on his ring. Unbeknownst to us, you had to wear a shirt while competing. A t-shirt vendor quickly scrambled, gave him a rash guard and unofficially became his first sponsor.  Pablo Popovitch had arrived.

Sunday was the Gi division.  I was exhausted from the day before, but I was still going to enter the blue belt division.   My first opponent was Pete Sell, who eventually became a pro MMA fighter and made some appearances in the UFC (Matt Serra, also of UFC fame, was coaching him.)  It was a tough match and we were pretty equal until my body just gave out and would respond anymore.  I think he won by a score of 4-2.  So, my day was done, but it didn’t matter.  I had tasted victory in only my second competition and all I wanted to do was learn, train, and compete as much as I could.

We returned from Connecticut victorious, energized and confident.  As 2000 came to an end, lying in wait for us would be our golden years of our training and competition.

TRAINING WITH JORGE: THE MERGER

Jorge had a practice of matching people in class to train, a practice that I continue today at my academy.  It was meant to keep everyone involved in training so that the more dominant and experience students did not monopolize the training space.  But the real intent was to challenge us by exposing us to training partners with different styles, body composition, and experience level.  Training relationships between the same partners can become stale and complacent and in order to develop you have to expose yourself to as many scenarios as possible.  Recall the “well-worn path” philosophy.

An additional training tactic that Jorge did with me was to occasionally give me assignments.  For example, later in my training, he told me that I was not allowed to close my guard.  My legs were to remain open, regardless of the circumstances.  This lasted for six months.

It was in 2001, as we were preparing for the Pan Ji Jitsu tournament, that I was assigned a task.  The Wednesday before the event, Jorge put me in the center of the mat and paired me with another athletic, powerful, blue belt.  Jorge told me that all I was permitted to do was to put my partner in a straight arm bar from my guard.  He expected us to perform at full speed.  Since my partner knew what I was attempting, he became very successful at defending.  With each failed attempt,  Jorge made me repeat it.  Over and over again.   Soon, other students stopped what they were doing and began to watch because it was brutal.  Jorge did not spare me from any criticism, nor did he hide his displeasure with my performance.  Mercifully, it came to an end and I left that evening having experienced the worst training session of my career.

But in his own way, Jorge stoked a little fire in me that day and I went on to win the silver medal at the 2001 Pan

When we returned from the Pan (Kelly won a silver medal in light heavyweight) we were awarded our purple belts.

Purple Belt Group Jan 2002

When I finally reached the level of purple belt, I had essentially developed my style of jiu jitsu.  So, I began to focus more on efficiency and making small adjustments to my style.  It was my time to “sharpen the blade.”  I also was able to intensify my training for competition.  What was instrumental in our training and competition experience was our merger with American Top Team.

Ricardo Liborio, a founding member of the Brazilian Top Team, was one of Pablo’s coaches when he was still living in Brazil.  Ricardo moved to the United States and co-founded ATT.   Pablo needed more training partners that would help him compete in the ADCC championships, the “Superbowl” of submission wrestling.  ATT was able to provide that need.  Ricardo invited him to join and we became an ATT affiliate.

Merging with ATT also had two benefits for us:  Exposure to cross training and tournament sponsorship.  When we joined forces, we had joint training exercises on Saturdays.  It was pure insanity.  30-40 guys would jam into our little 1200 sq ft academy and go at it for 2 hours.  It was here that I got to train with the likes of Dustin “Clean” Denes, Wade Rome, Jorge Santiago, and Jeff Monson. 

But the really cool part of being a part of ATT was that when we fought at tournaments, they paid the entry fees.  I took advantage of this and competed as much as I could.

In 2003, Pablo’s dream came true and he received his invitation to the ADCC Championships.  While he lost in the quarters of the -77kg division, he proved that he was ready to be champion.

Next up: Private Time

TRAINING WITH JORGE: PRIVATE TIME

In 2003, I began planning to leave Florida.  For personal and business reasons, my time living there was coming to an end.

I approached Jorge and informed him of my plans and my goal to own an academy in Ohio.  I asked if I could continue his traditions and become an affiliate of his.  He readily agreed and we began a series of private training sessions.

Our private time together was not intended to learn much more technique  but to remember, refine, and perfect the basics.  We also talked about his days in Brazil, jiu jitsu philosophy, and how to be a better teacher.

One session, we were talking about the “olden days” when Jorge was back in Brazil.  We got on the subject of Rickson (who really doesn’t need an introduction, but for the uninitiated, go here) and what it was like training with him.  He asked me a simple question to describe what Rickson was like.  He said ” Have you ever tried to catch water?  That is what it is like to train with Rickson.  That is what I have always tried to be and that is what you should try to be too”

The most eloquent way to describe what he meant is the following passage I found.  It references Judo, but this applies as much to Jiu Jitsu and it echos what Jorge was trying to teach:

The principle of Judo is like the nature of water.  Water flows to a balanced level.  It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it.  Its surge is irresistible and it permeates everything. It has existed and will exist as long as time and space. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible, but has enough power to split the earth itself.  When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock.  Its services are boundless and its uses endless.  First it is as turbulent like the Niagara Falls, and then calm like the still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summers day.  So is the principle of Judo.

This was written by G. Koizumi in his forward for Higher Judo by Dr. M Feldenkrais.  G. Koizumi is credited with introducing Judo in France in 1918. This passage was written in 1952.

Being “water”  is the ultimate state of being in Jiu Jitsu.  Calm and still,  simmering to a a boil,  surging to torrential and then ultimately overwhelming. 

After seven years,  this principle was the ultimate gift.  It was not the final lesson,  learning never ends in this art,  but it was the key that unlocked the true essence of Jiu Jitsu.

Now go and be water.

POST SCRIPT

I returned to South Florida in August, 2006, with my student Rob Justine, and had the privilege of demonstrating my skills and knowledge  for Jorge and Pablo.  They awarded me the highest of honors, the black belt, the first American to receive such an honor.