Rivalry Report: Keenan Cornelius vs. Jackson Souza

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“Do you stay with the same strategy or do you change your approach?”

It is a common enough question in sports that it has become a tired cliché every time it’s uttered by yet another hapless announcer. But the above question is something that many athletes and coaches find themselves asking this question within a game or match, or as the season progresses and results aren’t up to expectations.

One of the most exciting rivalry currently playing out in Jiu Jitsu is between rookie black belts Keenan Cornelius of Atos and Jackson Souza from team Checkmat. On the surface this rivalry sees the clash of two opposing strategies with which one can play Jiu Jitsu. Keenan is famous for his flexible and virtually-impassable guard, while Souza is feared for his Judo and crushing top game. These archetypes are not uncommon in the sport, where athletes known primarily as highly-technical guard players such as Romulo Barral, Rafael Lovato Jr. and Braulio Estima are often paired against those with reputations as monster passers such as André Galvao, Rodolfo Vieira and Xande Ribeiro. Yet each of these athletes would not be at the highest attainable levels of Jiu Jitsu if their games were not incredibly well-rounded. But do the new generation of black belts also have the ability to play anywhere with expertise, or is the current trend of highly-specialized competition strategies diminishing the versatility of modern Jiu Jitsu athletes?

In early 2014, Tennis’s world number 2-ranked Novak Djokovic had a highly-publicized change of strategy when he brought aboard a new coach to adapt his style of play to the evolving game. While early results were shaky Djokovic was able to beat rivals Roger Federer and world number 1-ranked Rafael Nadal within weeks of each other. What allowed Djokovic to come off the baseline and play a more full-court strategy was his dedication to being among the most versatile players in the game.

Likewise, a change of strategy can pay dividends in Jiu Jitsu. One of the all-time great guard players, Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles finally beat rival Rafael Mendes by utilizing his wrestling in the finals of the 2013 ADCC in Beijing, China, and featherweight top-player Augusto “Tanqinho” Mendes was able to beat both Cobrinha and Rafael Mendes in the same day by strategically using the 50/50 guard and superior wrestling, respectively. Finding ways to maximize your scoring opportunities while avoiding your opponent’s strengths requires an athlete to be adept at all aspects of Jiu Jitsu.

The first meeting between Keenan and Souza at the 2013 IBJJF world championships was one of the most highly-anticipated matches of the tournament. Keenan’s former team had been trying to arrange a match between the two, who were seen as the two best brown belts in the world (Paulo Miyao had something to say about that, though). The pair finally met in the semi-finals of the brown belt absolute division, and the match ended up being fairly uneventful, but showed the strategic grooves the two would settle into over the course of their rivalry.

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Keenan Cornelius vs. Jackson Souza – IBJJF World Jiu Jitsu Championships 2013

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Clark Gracie: The Omoplata Game

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In the days after the 2013 Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships, pictures of the winner of the middle-weight division were all over some of the biggest websites and news programs in the United States. Appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS’s Inside Edition soon followed. Rumours of a L’Oreal hair-care sponsorship were bandied about. Okay, that last one isn’t technically true, but it was a bizarre state of affairs that a Jiu Jitsu athlete would reap so much attention.  Was the sport finally breaking through to the mainstream?

It would be nice if this was a result of recognition for his win at the Pans. But Clark Gracie’s flirtation with popular recognition stemmed from an unrelated photograph of Gracie applying an omoplata to Ken Primola during the 2012 New York Open that made the rounds on Reddit and Facebook. The Jiu Jitsu Lab got in contact of Clark to ask him about his new-found fame, the pressure of his family name and his signature omoplata game.

“I first saw it the day after I won Pan Tournament when one of my students showed it to me on Reddit.”  Clark admitted when asked about how he became aware of the photograph that launched hundreds of image macros across the web. “I thought some of the memes were funny. I believe people, especially non-Jiu Jitsu practitioners, think that it is a very interesting position and for me to be looking so calm is unusual, but actually it is one of the positions that I feel the most comfortable and confident in.”

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The Omoplata Game feat. Clark Gracie – Highlight Video

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Evitar a Guarda: strategies for avoiding the guard

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Guard passing is hard.

To pass a good guard it takes a substantial amount of speed, power and technique. The Jiu Jitsu ruleset recognizes that playing from the top is more difficult than sweeping from guard, which is why passing is allotted more points in the scoring system. That extra point isn’t always enough to incentivize guard passing, however, due to the restrictive time limits and advanced guards commonly encountered in modern Jiu Jitsu tournaments. It’s just too easy to get swept or get stalled out when attempting to pass. While The Jiu Jitsu Lab has taken great interest in guard passing, focusing on the top games of Guilherme Mendes, Rodolfo Vieira, Leandro Lo and Marcelo Garcia, for example, even we have to admit that sometimes the best way to pass guard is to not pass the guard.

At all belt levels, the current crop of competitors is implementing a strategy of avoiding the top position. The benefits can be seen in the rash of submission victories by athletes such as the Mendes brothers. The downside to the philosophy of avoiding guard passing is the boring and unrealistic double guard pull scenario.

This article will focus on several methods of bypassing the guard, many of which you will have seen before – Marcelo Garcia’s armdrag, Rafael Mendes’s berimbolo and other de la Riva back-take positions, the reverse X-guard/leg drag sweep, and the Beijo do Dragão. Put together, it become clear that some of the most aggressive champions of Jiu Jitsu have individually came to the same conclusion – why waste time passing when you can bypass the guard to achieve a dominant position and finish the match?

“If I open a match with a successful double-leg takedown, I still have to pass the guard and mount before I can take the back. If I pull guard and successfully sweep my opponent with a butterfly sweep or a scissor sweep, I still have to pass the guard, mount and set up a back-take. The armdrag, however, is a high-percentage shortcut to the back. In one move, I can skip having to pass the guard and having to fight for the mount. It feels like magic.” – Marcelo Garcia, Advanced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Techniques, p. 23.

One of Marcelo Garcia’s most iconic performances was the armdrag against Vitor Shaolin at ADCC 2003. The unknown Marcelo was an alternate for the competition, yet dominated the legendary Renzo Gracie en route to his semi-final match against Shaolin. Shaolin was a two-time world champion. Within seconds of the start of the match, Marcelo Garcia was calmly walking away from an unconscious Shaolin.

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Marcelo Garcia vs. Vitor Shaolin, ADCC 2003

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Marcelo’s armdrag has been covered in detail by The Jiu Jitsu Lab previously, and the key points Marcelo makes when discussing the position is that a) it could be incorporated into his game with minimal adjustment, and b) it could be used to by-pass the guard and land him in his best position.  The armdrag can be used from the guard and from standing, allowing its user the ability to achieve a dominant position early in the match with relatively minimal effort. For this reason the position that was seen as a flashy cross-over technique in 2003 is now a staple of most-everyone’s Jiu Jitsu game.

“[If I just use the de la Riva to sweep I will end up in half guard on top and will have to pass the guard again… I don’t go on top, because than I have to pass the guard. If he’s doing a good half guard or inverted de la Riva than I will not pass. So I don’t want to just sweep and go on top. That’s just a normal position. You still have to pass the guard. I want to do something different. I want to take the back.” – Rafael Mendes

Similarly, the berimbolo is a position that can be incorporated into most people’s existing de la Riva game, and one that can be used to avoid having to pass the guard – a point emphasized by its most successful user, Rafael Mendes. If one were to make a video of the evolution of the berimbolo they would see that it originated from a similar de la Riva guard technique used to take the back. It’s common for the opponent to attempt to defend the previous back take by sitting down to remove the angle of attack. What the Mendes brothers and others discovered is that by changing the angle yourself by inverting the back is still obtainable.

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Rafael Mendes – Berimbolo

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Drilled to Win: Contest Results

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Forty hours and one-hundred drills. I’ve been keeping comprehensive records of all of the drilling sessions that my team and I have been logging since we started this little experiment in November of 2012. Everyone who has been showing up consistently for each drilling session has been showing a marked improvement in their Jiu Jitsu. A new emphasis on drilling seems to have entered the cultural zeitgeist in Jiu Jitsu as right after our article on the subject was published several blogs and other publications released articles on drilling, the best of which was written by Erin Herle for GracieMag.  Furthermore, thanks to the wonders of the internet age we even had some friends from around the world join us in our promotion of drilling.

I’d like to thank everyone who entered and supported our “Less Talking, More Drilling” contest that we began on December 5, 2012. We reached out to our friends at DSTRYRsg, one of the biggest Jiu Jitsu blogs on the web and together decided to send some free stuff to people who filmed themselves drilling technique. We didn’t get a whole lot of entries; at least not as much as I was hoping. In retrospect the prizes were small for the amount of work that such a contest would entail. However, we did get several entries that really went above and beyond and each of them deserves recognition and some Jiu Jitsu Lab and DSTRYR gear sent their way.

First we have legendary BJJ blogger and beard-enthusiast Aesopian, whose submission was entitled “Drill to Spin, Drill to Win.” Aesopian demonstrates several uses of the spin-behind transition, also known as the “long-step.” What I like about this video is that these actions are truncated pathways of full techniques that can be performed with a fairly high tempo, hitting all of our goals of drilling: technique, speed, smoothness and conditioning. For this video Aesopian won a Jiu Jitsu Lab T-shirt and “Less Talking, More Drilling” sticker.

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Aesopian – Drill to Spin, Drill to Win 

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Coming in close to the deadline was a great video from Patrick from Weillington, New Zealand. Patrick and teammates demonstrated the Galvao version of the Toreador pass. The element of this video that stood out for me was how they used games to control the increase in resistance to the technique. Drilling against controlled resistance is a fundamental aspect of rapidly incorporating a technique into your game.  Patrick will also receive a Jiu Jitsu Lab T-shirt and “Less Talking, More Drilling” sticker. Whatever that will cost me for shipping will be well worth it, Patrick.

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Patrick – Torreador Drills 

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Finally, Andy from Oregon sent DSTRYRsg a comprehensive video of various Judo and Jiu Jitsu techniques that he likes to drill to warm up for competition. Andy is a Judo black belt and Jiu Jitsu purple belt with great enthusiasm and technique. I was also really impressed by the mustache sported by his uke, who happened to be his brother. I was reluctant to post this video because my teammate Dan has been catching me with Osoto Gari lately and I knew the drills shown by Andy would give him new ammo against me. But Andy deserves recognition and for this video he won a DSTRYRsg prize pack.

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Andy – Judo and BJJ drills

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Thanks again to everyone who entered the contest.

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Pressure: On top with Guilherme Mendes

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Driving past the blinding lights of the Richmond airport on our way back to Vancouver following a Friday night training session, the topic of conversation turned as it inevitably does to Jiu Jitsu. Guard passing was on our minds as the usual heavyweight destroyers were brought up. My training partner Cedric made the astute observation however that even as a light-featherweight, Guilherme Mendes can use a small number of passes to account for virtually all types of guards. The techniques Guilherme chooses work in a system to pass the various modern guards that he may encounter. Not necessarily by having a different move for each guard, but by applying principles that are universal.

After watching Guilherme Mendes fight for years I finally felt for myself how this light-featherweight can develop his passing pressure when I had the opportunity to roll with him while attending a Mendes brothers’ seminar in Arizona last spring. From this experience I was able to better understand Guilherme’s ideas on posture and pressure, as well as the technical details needed to pass some of the best guards in the world.

Guilherme Mendes is a three-time world champion at the black belt level. His first world title came in 2009, a year before his younger brother, Rafael, achieved his first world championship. Since then Guilherme repeated that feat in 2011 in a rematch against Samuel Braga, and most recently in 2012 in a grinding, back and forth match with Laercio Fernandes. While Rafael is best known for his guard, Guilherme has been increasingly using his crushing guard passing and collar chokes to overwhelm his opponents.

To study Guilherme Mendes’s Jiu Jitsu I edited together a compilation of some of his most commonly used attacks, focusing on his top game.  Combining training and competition footage allows us to see how techniques are ideally completed and how they must sometimes be modified in competition, respectively.  From watching these techniques we can learn some of the keys to Guilherme’s renowned takedown, passing game and submissions. Some important principles include: using posture and grips to create pressure and wear down your opponent, focusing on a small number of interrelated techniques, and switching between techniques when being met with resistance.

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Pressure: Guilherme Mendes Top Game Highlight Video

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2012 Jiu Jitsu Lab Awards

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“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin, into the future.”

And the future of Jiu Jitsu isn’t as certain as it would have seemed a year ago. There are some very positive developments, such as the increasing openness of  high-level competitors about their techniques and training. There are some less positive aspects of the sport, such as the continued attrition of top-level athletes who see more value and pay in mixed martial arts competition. While the sport continues to grow and the IBJJF adds events throughout North America, there still needs to be major development worldwide to see Jiu Jitsu become a truly global art. One of the biggest question marks is what will Jiu Jitsu look like in the near future? Will it continue to speciate from its fighting roots with abstract positions and strategies that are less applicable to actual combat? Will standing technique begin to creep back into the art as competitors fight for every scoring opportunity? Will the berimbolo become passé? Some changes are already occurring, such as the return of Judo to the heavier weight categories. Some within the community are developing events outside of the often-criticized IBJJF ruleset. Where these changes will lead will determine the future of the sport.

The Jiu Jitsu Lab has also gone through some changes. 2012 saw an emphasis on longer articles and analysis, as well as a few successful video projects. I had the opportunity to attend seminars with some of the best in the sport, including the Mendes brothers and Cobrinha, which turned into what I thought were pretty good articles. Sustaining these efforts in the coming year will be tricky, as the delicate balance of family, work and training becomes heavily weighted by an extra 17 pounds of awesomeness. But there are also a few upcoming projects that I’m really excited about.

The Jiu Jitsu competition scene saw some amazing upsets and the continued evolution of the art technically. Without further delay, the Jiu Jitsu Lab presents its picks for some of the people that made the biggest impact in 2012, and for years to come.

Competitor of the year (gi): Marcus Buchecha

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Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida had the most-successful Jiu Jitsu campaign of 2012. In the last few years, other athlete’s victories at the Pans or Worlds were questioned by some due to the absence of the biggest stars. Buchecha ensured his place in Jiu Jitsu history by upsetting last year’s world champion Rodolfo Vieira, then giving a dominant performance against all-time great Roger Gracie at Metamoris Pro. Not only did he win, Buchecha displayed unrivaled style and tenacity, reminding his fellow athletes that Jiu Jitsu is still a fight.

Runners-up: Leandro Lo, Rafael Mendes

Marcus Buchecha vs. Kron Gracie

Marcus Buchecha vs. Roger Gracie – Metamoris Pro

Competitor of the year (no-gi): Alexandre Ribeiro

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Can someone who is at the top of the food chain in the era of “modern Jiu Jitsu” still be considered old-school? If so it’s a label Xande wears proudly. In Xande’s case old-school means using proven, fundamental techniques to overwhelm his younger opponents. The odd flying armbar doesn’t hurt either. Xande’s 2012 nogi campaign saw him take home two gold medals from the No-Gi Worlds and put on arguably the most exciting match at Metamoris with Dean Lister.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FivgeP1RJI]
Xande Ribeiro vs. Dean Lister – Metamoris Pro

Xande Ribeiro vs. Leandro Lo – No-Gi Worlds 2012 Absolute Finals 
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Drill to Win: the quickest path to success and a new T-shirt

A Jiu Jitsu Lab / DSTYR:SG Joint

A Jiu Jitsu Lab / DSTYR:SG Joint

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Walk into a typical Jiu Jitsu class and tell me what you see. Students warming up with exercises that may or may not be related to the techniques that day, practicing some techniques that may or may not be related to each other. Finally, everyone’s favorite part of class – live sparring or rolling. Often, the higher the belt rank, the more of a class a practitioner feels he or she can skip. The cliché is the purple belts that skip warm-ups. And by the time some students reach brown belt, they’re skipping techniques all together.

Unless an academy has a glut of upper-belts, it’s difficult to reach the threshold where having an advanced class can be sustained, forcing experienced practitioners to get their technical repetitions through sparring alone. If this sounds familiar to you, you probably need to incorporating more drilling in your training. Many schools are moving away from the “move of the day” model described above, and have a more structured curriculum with defined  bench marks to gauge student progress. Additionally, a renewed emphasis on drilling has reached the mainstream of Jiu Jitsu practice.

Drilling is vital for the development of a Jiu Jitsu athlete. Particularly for the advanced belts, where the difference in the success or failure of a technique is often a minute detail or a fraction of a second in timing. Of course, sparring, technical development, strength training and conditioning all play major roles in an athlete’s success, but drilling is one of the often-overlooked elements of training that anyone can do more of to improve.

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Andre Galvao on the importance of drilling

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Cobrinha in Vancouver

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Original photo by Eric Yu.

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Rubens Charles Maciel is a man of many talents.  As a four times black belt World Champion it would be enough if “Cobrinha” was known only as a great Jiu Jitsu competitor, but the man is also a skilled baker, capoeirista, innovator and teacher. His many experiences seem to inform the way Cobrinha thinks about and teaches his Jiu Jitsu.

When I heard that Cobrinha was giving his first seminar in over two years only minutes from my apartment, I knew I needed to go. It meant cancelling my plans to drive south to Seattle to attend another Mendes brothers seminar on the same day.

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The Competitor

Cobrinha’s Jiu Jitsu has inspired me since I saw my first footage of him in competition. It was the finals of the 2006 mundials, which had taken place the year prior. I was a brand new white belt searching the internet to kill time. I had heard of Marcio Feitosa who had won the mundials several years earlier, but didn’t know much about his opponent. In that match it looked like Cobrinha and Feitosa were doing two different sports. Cobrinha’s impossibly smooth leg drags, reverse de la Riva sweeps and long-step transitions are still considered innovative in 2012.

Since then we have seen Cobrinha reclaim his world title three more times, including two legendary matches against Bruno Frazatto in 2008 and 2009, which were won by a brutal toe-hold in the dying seconds and a referee’s decision, respectively. Each time he steps on the mats we are able to witness Jiu Jitsu evolving.

Despite these titles and accolades Cobrinha’s legacy is in a difficult place. Several losses to featherweight upstart Rafael Mendes, including a brutal armbar at the 2012 Pans, have overshadowed the veteran’s accomplishments in the eyes of some fair-weather fans. Some might overlook or denigrate Cobrinha as a result, but the man has four world titles at black belt, and in recent years when most of his peers are no longer competing Cobrinha has maintained his status as at least second best in the world. Cobrinha has earned his legend status, and has even been inducted into the IBJFF Hall of Fame, in case anyone would dispute it.

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Cobrinha competition highlights

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Metamoris Pro – Review and Recap

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Metamoris is a silly name for a Jiu Jitsu event, but “Gracies in Action” was already taken.

Forget the name, though. Let’s focus on the fact that a fantasy for every Jiu Jitsu fan just took place – 20 minute submission-only superfights between some of the best competitors in the world. For an event where only half of the matches had a deciding result, it was nonstop excitement and still felt very satisfying. I was thoroughly impressed with the performances of all of the athletes involved. And, although some technical issues were apparent in the live-stream, I was equally impressed by the first time promotion. Well worth the $20 for the stream since each fight brought a unique experience and excitement.

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Metamoris Pro trailer

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Caio Terra vs. Jeff Glover

Glover taps. Budovideos photo. 

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The first Jiu Jitsu match of the evening gives us a rematch between two elite grapplers with unfinished business. Their last encounter at the World Jiu Jitsu Expo ended with Glover scoring a win on points in a close match. After the match fans argued that the match would have been decided in a longer, submission-only fight. It was a fantasy at the time, which is the key to the appeal of the Metamoris Pro. It’s essentially a collection of all of the potential matches that are bandied about on the internet message boards by Jiu Jitsu fans.

The match started with Terra sitting to the slowest guard pull ever, before launching into a berimbolo sweep.  Terra tried a few berimbolos in this match, and I love the way he brought his knee in before crossing his ankles in order to sweep to the leg drag while preventing the footlock. At least that was the plan, but Glover kept snagging tight toe-holds that only failed due to Terra’s inhumanly flexible ankles.

The first exchange ended with both men on their feet, after which Glover performed his now-signature move of giving his back. Unlike their last encounter, Caio doesn’t attack but playfully spanks Glover showing that any hard feelings from their last match are no more.

Once on top, Terra’s gameplan was to work the armlock, which he did with determination as Glover defended for several minutes before giving up the tap as Terra used a beautiful grip break and an unorthodox foot position on Glover’s neck to secure the submission.

Both athletes were the models of sportsmanship after the match, which is unusual after a match between these particular athletes. Glover, whose showboating has drawn scorn, hoisted Terra in the air after the match. While Caio Terra is often criticized for his post-fight interviews, he was nothing but class as Rener Gracie stuck the microphone in his face.

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Jeff Glover vs. Caio Terra – Metamoris Pro

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Lo-Fi: Getting back to basics with Leandro Lo

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The lean figure in the patched up white Koral sidesteps around the mat with arms outstretched. Time and again he circles until he finds his comfort zone. Suddenly the competitor’s demeanor shifts as he shuffles forward to engage. His white tape interlaces the fingers on the hand that snaps out as he sets his right hand gripping the lapel of his opponent’s gi. His left hand reaches out for the sleeve. Sometimes his opponent pulls guard, sometimes he does. Leandro Lo Pereira do Nascimento dominates from either position.

In Jiu Jitsu we always joke about the fact that there’s probably an underprivileged Brazilian kid somewhere destroying everyone but who can’t afford to come to the United States to compete in the big IBJJF tournaments, so no one has heard of him. That kid was Leandro Lo, who came up in Cicero Costha’s Lutando Pelo Bem (The Good Fight) program. Until 2011, when Lo defeated the then Mundial champion, Michael Langhi, most Jiu Jitsu fans in North America had little knowledge of the young competitor from the east side of Sao Paulo. Now Lo is widely recognized as one of the most dynamic and consistent lightweight competitors in the world. Best of all, Lo’s hectic tournament schedule allows us many opportunities to observe the techniques that have brought him to the top of the Jiu Jitsu world.

I love the videos of Brazilian competitions that surface from time to time. The footage is washed out and grainy, the mats are brutal and seem to collect a quota of broken toes and fingers. Seriously lo-fi stuff. But the crowd is fired up and the Jiu Jitsu recalls a time when it was still a fighting art. In a way these competitions are like Lo himself.

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Leandro Lo  - Copa Podio highlight

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