Augusto “Tanquinho” Mendes

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Tanquinho burst onto the Jiu Jitsu scene in a big way in 2011. Which is odd considering he’s been competing at the highest levels since white belt. But his recent results at featherweight – capturing the Abu Dhabi Pro Cup in the gi and taking home a silver at the World Championships have turned all eyes on Augusto “Tanquinho” Mendes.

In the eyes of Jiu Jitsu fans and competitors, however, there are two dichotomous views of the Soul Fighters captain. The tough-as-nails guard passer with a ton of pressure and solid fundamental technique, and the controversial competitor who skirts the letter of the rules to win. While neither label can fully encompass Tanquinho, I’m more inclined to focus on the former definition after watching him closely since his drop to featherweight in 2011. But the specter of the latter has tainted the vaunted competitor’s greatest victories this year.

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Augusto Tanquinho at Lightweight – 2010 Highlight 

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Augusto Tanquinho at Featherweight (mostly) – 2011 Highlight. Is this not fantastic music for a Jiu Jitsu highlight!?

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I’m going to focus on Tanquinho’s 2011 competition season because his competition strategies and results over this time period best illustrate the dichotomy in Tanquinho’s Jiu Jitsu.

This isn’t to say that he has only been successful during his year at featherweight. Tanquinho won gold in the 2009 and 2010 Rio Open and 2010 South American Championship and claimed silver in the 2010 New York Open among other notable placings at leve (lightweight). His rise through the belts was also punctuated by major tournament victories such as the 2000 world title at blue belt (juvenile) and 2002 world title at purple belt. Yet major losses to Claudio Calasans, JT Torres, Lucas Lepri and Michael Langhi at lightweight showed that the Francisco Mansur black-belt needed to make some drastic changes if he wanted to be considered among the best in the world.

The loss to  Calasans and Lepri at the beginning of the 2011 season – in the  Europeans and the Pans lightweight divisions, respectively, may have facilitated the drop to featherweight. Both were close matchs but Tanquinho was ultimately bullied around due to the sizable weight difference, particularly on the feet. In the case of the Calsans match, Tanquinho was effectively fighting the second-best middleweight in the world and only lost by two advantage points – although both were accrued when Tanquinho fled the mat to avoid sweeps. It must have been a difficult choice for the Soul Fighter competitor to drop a weight class since he was still placing reasonably well at lightweight, but it turned out to be the correct decision.

Tanquinho’s return to prominence in 2011 has several causes. Cutting to featherweight after years of mixed results as a small lightweight, his recovery from an arm injury and the solidification of the Soul Fighters team in 2008.

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Soul Fighters – Rafael ‘Formiga’ Barbosa narrated rolling with Augusto ‘Tanquinho’ Mendes – BJJ Weekly

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Soul Fighters. Admit it, it’s a cool logo. 

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Soul Fighters is the association of Augusto “Tanquinho,” Bruno “Tanque” Mendes (Tanquinho’s older brother), Rafael “Formiga,” Leandro “Tatu” and Master Alvaro Mansor. The new team provided the time and talent Tanquinho needed to reach the top of the Jiu Jitsu world. Soul Fighters’ close association with GF Team (Rodolfo Vieira, Denilson Pimenta, etc.) is a huge benefit when it comes to training for competition, as they are able to call on the assets of several teams (including Nova Geração) for high-level sparring partners. In fact, Tanquinho and other members of Soul Fighters can often be found training at the GF Team headquarters in Rio, and the teams came together to win the Brazilian Team Nationals at lightweight in 2009 and 2010.

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GFTeam Celebrates Victory at the Brazilian Team Championships

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All of which led to an outstanding 2011 competition season for Tanquinho. First let’s take a look at the duel performances against American standout Ryan Hall. Ryan is a young black belt with an evolving, unorthodox Jiu Jitsu game. As primarily a guard player it was little secret what Hall’s strategy was coming into his first match against Tanquinho in 2011 at the Abu Dhabi Pro Gi tournament. Unfortunately it seems that every single person who has ever filmed Jiu Jitsu from the stands is afflicted with both epilepsy and turrets. Amazing. It’s worthwhile, however, to put up with the poor filming to get a good sense of Tanquinho’s A-game as displayed against Ryan Hall.

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Tanquinho vs. Ryan Hall – Abu Dhabi Pro Gi 2011

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Click to watch – Tanquinho vs. Ryan Hall – 2011 World Jiu Jitsu Championships

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Tanquinho has excellent posture and base, making him very difficult to sweep. He commonly uses his pressure and lightning fast hip switches to pass the guard – putting himself with one leg between his opponent’s, then either knee slice passing or switching out either to reverse half-guard or directly into reverse kesa gatame side control. Tanquinho demonstrates the latter guard pass in this video.

In the first match against Hall at the Abu Dhabi World Pro Tanquinho gets the pass from Hall’s 50/50 guard, stepping out over Ryan’s leg into side control. The benefit of having such a solid base when standing is the mobility it offers. Later in the match Hall attempts to mimic his new coach, Marcelo Garcia, with a one leg X guard sweep that is thwarted by a quick hip switch by Tanquinho. Hall does manage to get a 50/50 sweep to finish the match 3-2 (the best I can tell).

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And then this happened – Tanquinho vs. Ryan Hall – Abu Dhabi Pro Cup 2011

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In their second match – this time at the World Jiu Jitsu Championship – Hall plays more of his comfortable game, showing inverted guard and lots of 50/50, but also with some reverse de la Riva. In fact, Hall pulls 50/50 guard immediately but is forced to accept a shallow reverse de la Riva by Tanquinho’s constant knee slice attempts.

As Tanquinho finally completes the knee slide at the half-way point in the match we see a glimpse of why his fellow competitors sometimes get riled up at the mention of his name. Despite Hall being turned into him past ninety degrees, Tanquinho aggressively tells the referee to call for guard passing points. Tanquinho is a very high level IBJJF referee himself; he knows that this position is not rewarded with points until the bottom player is turned with his or her back to the mat.

Hall is able to use this time to get to his knees and briefly reclaim half guard. But is passed with a quick hip switch again and this time Tanquinho gets his points to win 3-0. Despite the heated discussions with the referee the Tanquinho we saw in these matches was a patient yet aggressive guard passing machine who played a fairly conventional game-plan. Tanquinho matches aren’t always the most exciting yet Jiu Jitsu fans love them due to the poise, balance and technique on display.

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Tanquinho vs. Cobrinha (Brazilian nicknames are awesome) – 2011 World Jiu Jitsu Championships

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After beating Hall and Atos’s Bruno Frazatto, Tanquinho was lined up against featherweight legend Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles. In the Cobrinha match we see a more strategic side of Tanquinho. Again I apologize for the quality of the video.

After pulling guard, Cobrinha snatches a tight single leg from de la Riva guard. Tanquinho, though, appears to hop out of bounds to avoid the takedown. He was earlier accused of doing the same against Guilherme Mendes, which Tanquinho clearly did to avoid Guilherme’s back take. In that instance the Soul Fighters black belt gave up two points for fleeing the mat instead of the four he would have lost for the back take. No points were awarded during the Cobrinha match for this.

Furthermore, when Cobrinha crouches to initiate a guard pass around 4:20 in the above video,  Tanquinho flicks his foot, which gains him the two points for a takedown. It’s not an uncommon method of attempting to claim two points from your opponent’s guard pull, but Tanquinho has the foot sweep down to a science. Many other competitors do it as well, so I’m not singling out Tanquinho for it. Cobrinha though, is visibly upset at this dodgy reffing and turns it on to hit a beautiful single leg sweep – this time finishing with a solid trip.

Tanquinho is able to get to his reverse de la Riva and spider guard leg lasso combination he frequently uses in competition – for example here against Yoshinobu Kakizawa from which he sets up a beautiful omoplata/kneebar sweep. Here’s a breakdown of the primary sweep from this position by Tatsuya Onose. Tanquino is unable to hold this position but does use it to sit up to trap Cobrinha’s leg, then sitting back to get underneath Cobrinha. From here Tanquinho hits a nice overhead hook sweep almost to the back and begins asking the ref for his two points despite his inability to gain the top position. He eventually does and gets his points to take the lead 4-2.

Continuing the frantic pace of the match thus far, Cobrinha is able to swing under Tanquinho from reverse de la Riva, standing up with a tight grip around the waist.  The entry to this sweep is shown here by Rafael Mendes. Tanquinho is able to slow the match to a crawl and hold off the back take for the remainder of the round for the win. Cobrinha, however, asserts that this was simply stalling by Tanquinho.

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This isn’t a photo – it’s actually a video loop of the last two minutes of the match. 

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“One example of a motionless match was mine with Tanquinho in the semifinals. Of course he’s an athlete who competes by using the rules in his favor. Please, I’m not trying to take any credit from him, much less complain about something that can’t be undone. But that match was a good example of it, of how the rules work against the spectacle. Furthermore, we can’t forget about the ‘influence’ on the refereeing. I feel, like a lot of good folks do, that if you don’t want to get hindered by the refereeing, you have to go for the finish. But what about when it’s impossible to achieve because your opponent falls back on evasive maneuvers? And what about when you get to a good position and he runs away to have the match restarted on the feet? Such attitudes should be penalized more severely, in my opinion.” – Cobrinha

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Tanquinho vs. Rafael Mendes – World Jiu Jitsu Championships 2011. I know I pick on the 50/50 guard a lot, but holy shit. 

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Tanquinho went on to lose his rematch against two-time World Champion Rafael Mendes by advantage. It put the two Mendeses at one win apiece for the 2011 season. However, Atos and their supporters say that Rafael should have been the victor of their earlier meeting at the 2011 Abu Dhabi World Pro Gi. After watching the video, I would be inclined to agree with them IF the scoring was under the IBJJF system, which it clearly isn’t. It’s unfortunate that Tanquinho’s most controversial match of the year was the one where he played as uncontroversially as possible, yet it was marred by inconsistent reffing all the same.

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Tanquinho vs. Rafael Mendes – 2011 Abu Dhabi World Pro Cup – Gi

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The match starts out with Rafael immediately pulling de la Riva guard to attempt his famous berimbolo sweep. Tanquinho struggles to keep his base but ultimately recovers to his standard guard passing posture with one pant sleeve grip and a cross grip on Rafael’s collar. Rafa uses his own collar grip to shuck Tanquinho forward again almost hitting the berimbolo. With his outside de la Riva sweep attempts shut down, Rafa goes for the inverted reverse de la Riva  to the back. Tanquinho is forced to keep his back to the mat to defend – allowing Rafa to come up on top for the first two points of the match.

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Legs everywhere! Rafael Mendes – reverse de la Riva sweep

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Tanquinho now gets a turn to show of his guard. He tends to pull his opponent’s right arm towards him, using the leg lasso on that arm with a half guard or reverse de  la Riva. In this case he uses the shin across the belly which to me appears as if he wanted to swing underneath Rafa for the sweep. He finally does at the 2:40 mark, getting two points but putting himself in a near kneebar. Rafa gets an advantage for the kneebar although Tanquinho finally gained the top position by turning into the 50/50 guard. He previously used a version of this sweep against Lucas Lepri at the Pan Jiu Jitsu Championship and Michael Langhi at the Mundials.

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Tanquinho spider-guard sweep

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Rafael Mendes aggressively uses the 50/50 guard to turn back into Tanquinho’s leg, sweeping back to the top 50/50 position and gaining another two points. It appears as if Rafa is holding on to Tanquinho’s belt for dear life, causing the referee to admonish him for stalling within the 50/50 guard, something to which the Atos team took umbrage.

Rafael grabs for Tanquinho’s foot for a toe hold but loses it, allowing Tanquinho to again gain top position and the two points for the sweep. Rafa wasn’t close at all to getting the submission, so it appears as if this is the right call. However, after the sweep Rafa does slap on a tight toe hold, but lacks the leverage to finish and loses it when Tanquinho kicks his hands off.

It’s debatable whether this toe-hold was advantage-worthy, but my feeling is that these toe-holds from the 50/50 often lack the leverage to finish. They’re used more strategically to wrack up advantage points than to seriously submit the opponent – which we saw during Rafa’s 2010 Mundials final against Cobrinha. But just because they’re used to play to the rules without actually finishing doesn’t mean they can be discarded. It stands to reason that the ref did not view the toe hold attempt as being close to submitting Tanquino. Clearly the Atos team disagrees.

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Thankfully team Atos provided totally unbiased captions: “The referee did not give an advantage for the foot lock. The opponent escaped the figure 4 leg lock but did not establish the sweep.”

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So far so good but now things start to get a bit tricky. Tanquinho uses the ensuing exchange to attempt a shallow kneebar. Rafa gets to the top again while defending and yet is not given the points. The convention usually stands that a positional change while in a position is not scored until the submission attempt is nullified, but that usually applies to when a competitor is forced to abandon top position, not claim it.

The match ends seemingly with Rafael Mendes up by one advantage point with the score tied 4-4. But as the competitors begin to celebrate the referee is trying to sort out the scoring of the final exchange. He calls for an advantage first for Rafael, then changes it to Tanquinho, presumably for the kneebar attempt (yet doesn’t award Rafael Mendes’s toe hold or sweep). The referee’s consult and Tanquino’s hand is raised at the victor.

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Tanquinho – Gold in Abu Dhabi

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In all honesty the match could have went either way, but whatever criteria was used to judge the match, Tanquinho won. It’s difficult to blame Tanquinho for this since he wasn’t the referee (which would have been an even more incredible feat to have refereed his own match). With his victory Tanquinho completed a sweep of Ryan Hall and the entire Atos featherweight line-up (Ary Farias, Guilherme Mendes, Ed Ramos and Rafael Mendes), which is as unprecedented as it is amazing (He would later beat Atos’s Bruno Frazatto at the 2011 Mundials).

Unfortunately for the Soul Fighters veteran his standout year in 2011 was marred by some controversial events – dubious takedowns, fleeing the mat, petitioning the referee and stalling. Yet no one can deny that Tanquinho has what it takes to be one of the best in the world. And don’t think he’s the only one to play to the letter of the Jiu Jitsu rule set instead of it’s intent. The entire premise of the 50/50 guard is to complete sweeps without being able to continue advancing position or worse, to stall- yet we see Hall, JT and the Mendes brothers making it a staple of their Jiu Jitsu game. The foot sweep/pant grab “takedown” from a guard pull is a hallmark of Jiu Jitsu competitions and is even taught at some academies. Young American Champion Hillary Williams fell victim to the foot sweep during her guard pull on Kyra Gracie in 2010, before being triangled in the female absolute.

The intent of Jiu Jitsu competition is to continually improve position until a submission is captured. It is clear from recent events that Jiu Jitsu refereeing needs to keep up with advancements in strategy to ensure that the spirit of the art is maintained.

Meanwhile, I will continue to watch Augusto “Tanquinho” Mendes and his accent to the top of the Jiu Jitsu world, where I hope he continues to compete at featherweight. Because of the controversies surrounding his career it’s easy to look past the phenomenal technique Tanquinho puts on display. In fact, although he plays largely on top his guard is good enough to sweep anyone in the world. I would like to see Tanquinho mixing up his positions more and using his sweeping game to lead into his guard passing. But it’s difficult to make major changes when you’re this successful. Either way expect to see Tanquinho on the featherweight podium for years to come.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Augusto “Tanquinho” Mendes

  1. mike d

    I am a big fan of Tanquinho. I appreciate your attention to him in this article. I competed at Long Island Pride in Danbury CT this past May and he was the superfight there (he won). I spent some time chatting with him and picking his brain. He is an absolute gentleman. I too look forward to seeing him in action again. I think next up for him is US Open? Or is he doing ADCC? Im not sure.

    In addition to that pass he shows on youtube, have you ever seen the tanquinho choke from guard where your fist slides under your opponents gi to choke him in the front? Excellent.

    • Haha, I have seen that choke. I haven’t tried to use it yet though. I’m pretty sure Tanquinho’s fighting at lightweight at ADCC (77kg) so we’ll see how he does against Calasans and Garcia.

  2. on a similar note, i’ve seen Claudio Calasans play the rules to win. I’ve watched a ton of his matches, and when he didn’t get the sub early in the match, it was clear he was looking to get a sweep with a minute or so left, and then got up like he’d won the mundials.
    at any rate, i’ve modeled some of my bottom game after him, and he was beating rodolfo in the 2011 mundials before one mistake partway through the match. for all the talk about calasans as a judoka, the single or double leg he hit and rounded the corner on a guy the size of rodolfo was amazing.

    as long as the rules exist, to some extent players who want to win at the highest level will at times play them to the utmost to get their hand raised. cobrinha words it aptly in saying that the rules must change to change the players. he didn’t outright blame his opponents for their style of play, rather that the rules allow this. it’s interesting to see bjj go through the growing pains of rule changes that judo has for a long time.

  3. badabing

    how about that weird lapel de la riva he does? thats sick!

  4. Stinky

    Would LOVE if you did a piece like this on Leo Vieira

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