Heat and Pressure: The Mendes Brothers in Arizona

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Delta 5819 to Phoenix is accelerating across the tarmac. The Vancouver rain becomes a machine-gun crackle and then disappears behind the roar of the dual GE CF34-8C5 turbofans. The plane sways violently in the gusts of wind coming off the Fraser River, dropping several feet and taking my stomach with it. I can’t help thinking about how difficult it is to study the genetics of nitrous oxide reduction when I think I’m about to die. It wouldn’t be the first time a small aircraft slammed to the ground after taking off from YVR, but I put my exaggerated sense of doom on hold and focus on my excitement about finally starting on my journey to train with the two best lightweight Jiu Jitsu athletes in the world.

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Heat and Pressure

The two most memorable aspects of my weekend in Phoenix were the heat and the pressure. The temperature was north of 34oC (93oF) while back in Vancouver it was snowing. For me it was a difficult adjustment but one I gladly made to get out of the Canadian winter and bask in the desert heat. Feeling both Rafael’s and Guilherme’s pressure while passing the guard made me a convert to their philosophies of the importance of posture and pressure. These two elements came up repeatedly as I delved deeper into the Jiu Jitsu of the Mendes brothers.

Rafael Mendes has won the world championships in the featherweight division twice at black belt and looks virtually unstoppable as he contends for his third world title in 2012. He is also the reigning two-time ADCC champion. His older brother Guilherme was the first of the two to win the World Jiu Jitsu Championships in 2009, regaining his title in 2011. Just with credentials like these the brothers would be in high demand, but their style of Jiu Jitsu has also revolutionized the competition scene, making the study of their techniques a must for every serious student of the art.

While they have been performed by others before, the Mendes brothers’ signature positions – the leg-drag, the berimbolo, and the reverse de la Riva guard – have become have become de rigueur for competitors in the lighter weight classes. It was more than their techniques that made them great at Jiu Jitsu, however. Their ideas of posture and pressure and of a systematic approach to Jiu Jitsu were equally important for creating a highly-developed Jiu Jitsu game.

The Mendes brothers’ approach to Jiu Jitsu is fairly simple. From every position they analyze what the most efficient action is, then break down their opponents’ possible defenses and counters, and adjust the position or techniques to pre-emptively nullify them. Their techniques are developed as a series of movements that take away their opponent’s defenses while adhering to the basic principles of Jiu Jitsu. For example, for the leg drag pass to work, the brothers want to control the leg, then the hips, then the shoulders – which should be kept flat on the mat to secure the pass. Each detail, grip and movement is calculated to achieve these criteria with as much control and efficiency as possible.

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The crucible: Gracie Arizona

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Mendes Brothers Seminar – Day One

I arrived in Pheonix, Arizona late on the evening before the seminar. At the time I wasn’t aware of the socio-economic intricacies of the city, meaning I was ignorant that I would be staying in one of the worst neighbourhoods in one of America’s supposedly top-ten most dangerous cities. I guess that’s what $30-a-night accommodations get you. I was told later by Dave, my drilling partner during the first day of the seminar, that it would be a good idea to find alternate accommodations if possible, advice that I followed for my last night in Phoenix.

The direct area that I was in wasn’t actually that bad. It was very poor, but I mostly saw families trying to make the most of their lives in a city hard-hit by the recent economic downturn. There were even the dreaded signs of gentrification nearby: art galleries, trendy cafes and vegan restaurants. Of course this was all bound-in by the scrawl of drug cartel graffiti.

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Mendes brothers seminar – Day one in the gi (Mendes bros. photo)

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The Mendes brothers’ seminar was held at Gracie Arizona. Everyone I met there was amazingly friendly and welcoming. In fact, everyone from Arizona that I encountered was amazingly friendly and welcoming. The dry desert heat had me sweating before I even entered the gym and only got worse as I put on my heavy Mundial 9 and fading purple belt with its sad, single stripe. The entirety of day one felt like all the moisture had been sucked out of my mouth. Once we got started, however, I quickly forgot about the physical discomfort, although that would return in a different form when I felt the pressure of the world champions.

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Posture and Passing

Posture is the most important aspect of Jiu Jitsu in any position, according to the Mendes brothers. Good posture allows you to be simultaneously fast and heavy. For guard passing and specifically the leg drag pass, good posture comes from having a wide stance with the hips low. The Mendes brothers are always on their toes, giving them connection to the mat and pressure from every position. In fact, for every single position we drilled the importance of being on one’s toes was emphasized. The pressure that this creates was obvious, particularly when Rafael demonstrated the leg drag pass on me to help my partner. If I took one thing from the seminar it would be the importance of posture to create pressure, which starts from having a solid connection with the mat through your toes.

The seminar started right on time and dove directly into the leg drag pass. I’ve worked extensively on the leg drag after watching the Mendes brothers use it to great effect in their competition victories, and thought I had it pretty well figured out. The details that the brothers demonstrated, however, changed my perspective of the pass. It was clear that the power of the leg drag pass is that it methodically progresses the control over your opponent’s body starting at the lower leg and working up to the hips and then shoulders, then eventually leading to side control for three points or the back for four. Every grip was deliberate in its ability to remove your opponent’s ability to defend the pass, and for defenses that they couldn’t prevent outright the brothers had counters. In an interview with Submission Control Rafael described their goals when using this pass, “We have been working a lot the “leg drag” style, that is a position that you can do where ever you are. The key to our passing style is always kill the opponent’s hips… always blocking the hips to take the back. Our main goal is to take the back, we think it is the easier way to finish the fight.”

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Rafael Mendes teaches the leg drag pass (Kaizen Fitness photo)

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Speed is also an important attribute to the success of the Mendes brothers; they are evangelical about the importance of drilling to develop precision and speed. The Mendes brothers drill endlessly to change their technique based on the reactions of their opponents with speed, pressure and precision. The brothers emphasized that when you meet opposition you need to adapt, not try to power through your opponent’s defenses. Guilherme emphasized that if you try to hold on to your original technique you will end up using strength, and will soon tire. “You should never spend all of your energy trying so hard to force one technique. You should drill all possibilities, so you automatically know the next option when the first one doesn’t work.”

One of the most important aspects of the Mendes brothers’ Jiu Jitsu is to yield to your opponent’s force and find another direction, something I found out first hand when rolling with Guilherme. Mid-way through our round I satisfactorily blocked his knee slide pass; Guilherme quickly shifted his weight laterally, putting me in a smash pass with immense force. Guilherme is a light-featherweight competitor, but his strength and pressure are greater than anyone that I’ve ever rolled with, including some heavyweights.

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Guilherme Mendes – guard pass and “long step” kimura

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The grouping of details into techniques and techniques into a system develops organically through all of the Mendes brothers’ Jiu Jitsu, which made the techniques taught at the seminar flow into each other in a very natural structure. One the first day we covered the leg drag pass in great detail, followed by counters to when your opponent pummels their outside leg over to push away and when they get the underhook. The underhook defense culminated in the “long-step,” where you spin around your opponent’s head to take the back.  It’s a technique I’ve been using for years but the details they showed make it much more difficult for your opponent to defend than the way I had been doing it. The “long step” is exactly as it sounds. When his opponent dug for an underhook following the leg drag pass Guilherme demonstrated how he based out with his forward-most leg and pivoted around it, falling onto his hip behind his opponent. He emphasized once again that it was important to stay on your toes pushing into the opponent to prevent them from putting their back on the mat.

The counter to the leg pummel is a well-known technique used by the Mendes brothers. Their rationale for this manoeuver is that sometimes you want to fake your first leg drag attempt to elicit this response. By “fake” the Mendes brothers mean not expending energy trying to consolidate side control. Instead they wait for the leg pummel off the first leg drag in order to duck under to consolidate the leg drag on the other side. This strategy can be used when attempting the first leg drag on your opponent’s “good side” as a way to create a response that allows you to pass to their weaker side. It is also their preferred method of passing without a gi, where you have less control during the first leg drag attempt.

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Mendes brothers  – Leg drag highlight

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Guilherme took over teaching midway through and demonstrated one of my favourite techniques of the seminar: a defense to the spider guard leg lasso that puts you in the leg drag position. The Mendes brothers’ system of guard passing attempts to take into account all of their opponent’s possible reactions. Guilherme’s reason for this is simple, “Once you start a position don’t stop. Keep going until you get the pass.” Having a well-choreographed series of counters allows you to get ahead of your opponent, forcing them to rely on strength to counter your passing, which will eventually tire them out and force them to give up the pass.

While the brothers did show how to achieve side control from the leg drag, the culmination of all their efforts was securing the back, a position that Rafael said was their primary objective during any fight due to the difficulty of escape and the ability to control and finish an opponent. All back takes that were demonstrated used the seatbelt, or over-under, control. According to Rafael, “Seatbelt is best grip to take the back.”

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“Seatbelt is best grip to take the back.” – Rafael Mendes (Bruno Lemos photo)

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With the first day of the seminar at a close I ended up talking to and rolling with another Vancouverite named Raz as well as a fellow member of the Sherdog grappling forum. Both were very technical and it was a pleasure getting a chance to meet them and train with them. After three hours of training I was exhausted from the heat and the hard drilling, and I gladly packed my bags and destroyed a few sandwiches on my way back to the hostel. The hostel where I was staying was like a hack-screenwriter’s vision of a hippie commune – with patrons sitting around eating lentil soup (which was delicious), burning incense and discussing auras and shakras. The staff was fantastic though, and were genuinely interested to hear about the seminar and about Jiu Jitsu. At the hostel I was able to finish studying denitrification and move on to methanogenesis, topics I’d need to master for my upcoming comprehensive exam. Studying was easy since I lacked a television, computer, or even my mp3 player (which had run out of power).

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Mendes Brothers Seminar – Day Two

For the second day I decided to walk to the seminar, which turned out to be one of my poorer decisions. With the heat the hour and a half walk with both of my backpacks turned into a test of endurance and I was already tired when I arrived at the gym half an hour early. I had all my luggage with me since my wife had thankfully booked me a nice hotel by the airport for my last night in Phoenix.

Day two was no-gi, something for which I was immensely grateful for due to the sweltering heat. It would also be focused on the bottom game, since the Mendes brothers felt that the principles of their guard game were best conveyed without the kimono, while the top game was better taught with it.

The dynamic between Rafael and Guilherme was interesting to observe. The two brothers have spent almost every moment of their lives together; the majority of it spent attempting to obtain a deep understanding of Jiu Jitsu. The two almost act as halves of a single consciousness. Rafael is constantly smiling, except for when he’s rolling. He seems open and sociable and loves discussing Jiu Jitsu techniques. It seemed that he would have hung around for hours rolling with everyone and answering every question about technique. Guilherme was quieter, almost shy. He often kept Rafael on track with a few words in Portuguese and a quick hand signal. You could tell that his love of technique was equal to his younger brother, although he seemed a bit more serious about it. This isn’t to say that Guilherme wasn’t having a good time. When his rolling partner performed a technique particularly well or when he was asked to jump into a flying armbar during a photo op, Guilherme’s smile was bigger than anyone’s. The difference in personality came through in their rolling, with Rafael using slightly more colourful techniques while Guilherme destroyed everyone with fundamentals.

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Mendes brothers – World champions (GracieMag photo)

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Reverse de la Riva

The second day started with the reverse de la Riva guard, a personal favorite of mine. Again the Mendes brothers demonstrated several details that made a huge difference in the effectiveness of the position. Using their elbows to brace their knees, the Mendes brothers used all four limbs to manage distance while in the guard. Their guard-work was predicated upon the management of distance, being able to push away when their opponent put pressure on them and being able to pull their opponent in when they attempted to back away. They used the inside de la Riva hook to control their opponent’s legs: hooking low on the ankle when the opponent was on their knees and high in the thigh when they were posted up on their foot. Both elbows reinforced the knees creating a frame to prevent thier opponent’s ability to crush their hooks. Above all the brothers used the guard to prevent their opponents from passing the hip line.

The first and only reverse de la Riva technique taught was the tomoe nage sweep. Many people have difficulty with this technique as it can be hard to force your opponent to put their weight on you to facilitate the sweep. The Mendes brothers showed us a very nice detail about how to elicit the proper response to make this sweep effective: extending your top leg to force your opponent to push back into you. Without a collar to grab the brothers use an armdrag grip to bring their opponent close to their chest and propel them overhead by extending their arms and legs. We were taught how to post on our head and come up into our opponent’s half guard.

Following the sweep we consolidated on top of half guard, where we learned a series of half-guard passes that revolved around the Kimura grip, including an inverted triangle and a back take. The back take is something I’ve been using frequently since the seminar. Following a forward roll with the Kimura grip our opponent attempted to sit up into us to get on top. Extending both our arms and our legs we swung around to take the back. The brothers provided details on how to take the back when their opponent either turned into you or attempted to turtle away. One nice detail specifically was the use of their toes on the mat to turn their opponent when taking the back. It was also illuminating to see how the brothers dealt with the all-to-common situation when you have one hook and your opponent is blocking the other by locking their ankles and stretching their opponent out. Most enlightening of all was the variety of uses of the Kimura in no-gi Jiu Jitsu. “Kimura’s grip is very important grip in no-gi,” according to Rafael Mendes. At one point during Guilherme’s demonstration of a tight one-handed kimura from this position, he applied the submission a bit too quickly, eliciting a shout from Rafael who shook his fist in mock-anger and told us, “Be nice to your partner.” Everyone laughed and we partnered up to practice the submission.

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Rafael Mendes – Using “Kimura’s grip” to take the back

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Berimbolo

The last technique shown was the infamous berimbolo. The berimbolo more than any other technique is the hallmark of the Mendes brothers’ game, as Rafael told the group that his first attack is almost always to use the de la Riva guard first to take the back. Expanding on this strategy in their interview with Grappling Weekly Guilherme explains, “We always look to take the back, if we’re on the bottom we go to De La Riva to take the back, it depends on what the situation is but we always try to go to De La Riva to take the back. There are many YouTube videos that attempt to explain the berimbolo, but there is still a lack of information about how it is performed. I have yet to see an instructional that explained the berimbolo with the level of detail that was presented at the seminar.

Because the berimbolo was demonstrated without the gi, the usual gi and belt grips were absent, allowing a more fundamental understanding of the technique. While several people show the berimbolo with a deep de la Riva hook the brothers show the move with a much shallower hook, with the toes in the belly to push their opponent’s hips to the mat. They invert with their head close to their opponent’s leg and emphasize using their hooks and grips  to control the far leg. When asked about the risk of toe-holds during the berimbolo Rafael made a very important point that you cannot hesitate during the sweep to the back. By continuing the movement it takes your opponent’s angle away to finish. In fact he stated that he likes when his opponent tries the toe-hold, as it means they’re not trying to defend the sweep. Plus, as Rafael notes, “I have very flexible ankles.”

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Rafael Mendes – In depth explanation of the berimbolo

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There has been some controversy lately over athletes being disqualified at the 2012 IBJJF European Open when attempting the berimbolo with an underhook that puts pressure on their opponent’s knees. The Mendes brothers didn’t use an underhook or a deep overhook, but instead used the ankle grip to stretch their opponent out. They made great effort to control the far leg as they spun through for the sweep to back. When helping my drilling partner and I, Guilherme mentioned that without the gi grips it’s not always possible to fully take the back. Instead he showed how he would come up into a leg drag if he was unable to take the back.

After techniques, the Mendes brothers left time open for questions and for rolling. It didn’t matter if you were a blue belt or a black belt, the brothers would tap you repeatedly with the same emotionless expression, never stopping breathing through their nose. That’s not to say that the technique of the seminar guests was poor; in fact I was highly impressed at the technique and ability of everyone who put themselves out there to roll with the world champions. The questions from the seminar attendees also showed off their high-level of technical understanding and interest in the Mendes brothers’ style of Jiu Jitsu. Rafael seemed to really enjoy talking about his techniques, and gave detailed breakdowns on how he likes to perform the arm-drag with assistance from his shin on the arm, how he performed the amazing omoplata to armlock to backtake on Justin Rader at ADCC 2011, a sneaky armbar from turtle he was using against everyone in sparring, and several more signature techniques.

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Mendes brothers seminar – Day two no-gi (Mendes bros. photo)

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After the training was done and I managed to get back to my new hotel near the airport I was able to grab a healthy snack then unwind by the pool and watch Ultimate Absolute NYC 2: The Absoluting on my phone. As I reflected on the past two day’s events I realized that I’ve seen many long-time practitioners of Jiu Jitsu become jaded and cynical about the art, but the openness and enthusiasm that the Mendes brothers have for Jiu Jitsu was infectious and seemed to motivate everyone in the room. They were so open in part due to their request that no photos or video be allowed during the seminar, a request that was wisely honoured by everyone in attendance, although copious note-taking of course took place.

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Tempered in the Fire

In each other the Mendes brothers have something special, a constant companion that continually pushes them in training and in competition. In Jiu Jitsu excellence is borne from the endless training and repetition, the conditioning sessions, and the stress of competition. By bringing out the best in us, however, this arduous pressure molds us into not only better fighters, but better people. For the Mendes brothers, their belief in Christianity and their ability to look to the example of other great athletes like Muhammad Ali and Dan Gable helps motivate them to endure their grueling training regime.

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Rafael Mendes pushes himself during sport-specific strength and conditioning (Mendes bros. photo)

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At the seminar Rafael and Guilherme described how they train three times a day, five days a week, teaching seminars like this one every weekend unless a major tournament is coming up. Although in an interview with Grappling Weekly Guilherme elaborated, “We train 4 times a day. We have different types of training. One time for physical conditioning, and the 3 others are jiu-jitsu. We do the first one with competition class with a lot of drills and a lot of sparring. So we get tons of mat time. In the afternoon we practice a lot of attacks with everyone in the academy. And a night we do specific trainings for particular positions we want to learn or practice.”  To be able to stay focused through a training regime such as this requires surrounding yourself with great training partners. Speaking of their Atos teammates to Jits Magazine (vol. 3) Guilherme noted, “[All] of these guys, Galvao, Durinho, Calasans and Frazatto, they all added value to the over-all team.” But it’s the partnership between the brothers that appears to

In this seminar I learned that heat and pressure combined can foster greatness. A diamond, afterall, is just carbon that has been shaped by billions of years of heat and pressure to remove imperfections and become the hardest natural substance on Earth. In our Jiu Jistu training we rely on our teachers and training partners to create a similar environment, one where the demands of daily training temper our techniques to perfection and bring out the excellence within ourselves. The heat and pressure that I experienced on my trip to Phoenix to train with the Mendes brothers, more figurative than literal, brought me closer to a more-refined expression of Jiu Jitsu but also reminded me of how far I really have to go to truly understand the art.

Thank you to the Mendes brothers for not holding anything back when teaching your Jiu Jitsu, and for everyone at Gracie Arizona, and specifically Blayne from CTRL Industries, for hosting an excellent seminar.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Heat and Pressure: The Mendes Brothers in Arizona

  1. Your comments at the end reminded me of Red from Shawshank Redemption discussion pressure and time.

    This is such a fantastic writeup and really showcases your writing abilities. Truly great work.

    I was on the fence about driving 3 hours to attend one of their seminars with Tim Sledd, a good friend and the first American Atos affiliate.

    Now it’s solidified in my mind =o)

  2. Alex

    Great write up.

    Can you go into more detail about your comment below? I’ve been having a hard time with this sweep.

    “The Mendes brothers showed us a very nice detail about how to elicit the proper response to make this sweep effective: extending your top leg to force your opponent to push back into you. ”

    Thanks

    • Hey Alex, just like the second half of that sentence says, the brothers extended their leg kicking their opponent over. This forces your opponent to push back into you, facilitating the sweep.

      Hope that helped, thanks for checking out the article.

  3. TOK

    Great write up. A couple of years back there was a thread on the Sherdog grappling forums about the ATOS guys, and someone who had trained with the Mendes brothers mentioned their love of the kimura grip and how they use it all over the place. I was having trouble figuring out exactly how to put this into practice until last year when I saw this Vagner Rocha clip and something clicked for me:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtSJhfai8Cg (relevant technique begins at about 2:17).

    Is this similar to the technique you reference above (aside from the obvious armbar vs. taking the back option)? I’ve been playing around with this for awhile now and am starting to have a lot of success with it. It’s amazing how often that kimura grip is there for you in top half guard.

    • Hey man, thanks for sharing that video. That’s exactly what the Mendes brothers taught except they emphasized using your toes on your opponent’s leg to free your leg from half guard.

  4. Great write up.
    I’m jealous.

  5. pato

    very good article, andre galvao also uses the kimura grip a lot, in this video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0ipJ-SXuoI at the 7:54 mark he uses the kimura grip to take rodolfo vieira’s back!!

  6. Kazing

    I’m crossing my fingers real bad here hoping that this means we are going to see new articles about the leg drag pas and the berimbolo based on what you have been taught at this seminar?!

    I’m a big fan of your word press btw, I have used a lot of the stuff that’s on this site during my last competition.

  7. Tyler

    I should mention I just finished competing in the Chciago Open this weekend, and underhook berimbolo from De La Riva is all good. Played it all day, and took home some medals for my efforts.

    The issue is that people are making with this is internet based. This did not come from the referees. Underhook berimbolo is alive and well.

  8. pato

    is not internet based, its on the ibjjf rulebook, http://www.ibjjf.org/docs/rulesibjjf1stedition.pdf the banned technique number 8

  9. interestingly enough, i’m down in Brazil training right now, and I think i’ve seen 2 leg drag passes in a week of training. the school I’m at, not outright, but pretty clearly nonetheless stresses pressure passing in favor of standing passes, torreando et cetera. not sure if it’s a difference between academy training or just a school/professor preference, but i’ll try to ask tonight during the night class.

  10. Mike D

    The bjj scene in the American West is no joke. Last year I flew out there from NYC to visit family in Phoenix and jumped into the AZ state Bjj championships. The AC was broke in the gym and this was in June so you can imagine how the heat was.
    Well written article, I liked how you mentioned Guil destroyed people with basics, that is cool.
    Take care.

  11. Thanks for another ultra-detailed piece. I’m digging the narrative thread.

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