Original photo by Eric Yu.
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.
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.
Cobrinha competition highlights
Cobrinha gave us an example of his personal Jiu Jitsu evolution during the seminar, “I used to use more spider guard, with the collar grip. That was my guard. Now I use more de la Riva guard, X guard.” He told us how he is always learning new ways to make his Jiu Jitsu more effective and efficient.
The seminar itself was held at West Coast BJJ & MMA in Vancouver, BC. West Coast, under black-belt Don Whitefield had recently joined the Alliance team, prompting a rare visit by Cobrinha. There had been a previous seminar in a suburban affiliate earlier that morning, which I was unable to attend. I was barely able to drag myself to the 2pm start as it was, being stiff from a bad injury and having a late evening the night before. The cold driving rain for which Vancouver is famous didn’t help much either.
Luckily when I got there I found my long-time training partner Cedric had chosen to attend as well, and we quickly partnered up for the drills that Cobrinha led the class through to start the seminar. Like all of Cobrinha’s regular classes, the seminar began with movement drills. In this case the packed gym squeezed into three lines for back shrimping, front shrimping, cross shrimping and inverted shrimping.
Does Cobrinha’s background in Capoeira influence his Jiu Jitsu? It seems so. His movement can be swift and acrobatic, with a seemingly-contradictory emphasis on stability and fluidity. These ideals were borne out in the drilling portion of the seminar.
Cobrinha’s cross shrimping drill simply involved placing your foot on the opposite thigh of your partner, who was standing. As they walked forward the drill was to cross your foot over and continually push off their thighs. This drill invoked a serpentine undulation and helped to develop guard retention ability.
The inverted escape was difficult for many in the audience to grasp. As your partner moved forward to a knee-ride position the drill was to push off their shin and fall away from them. Using this momentum, the person doing the drill would invert and drift to the opposite side, ready to repeat the drill. It took several repetitions before the drills felt smooth and intuitive, but I found them very valuable for proper movement, which is something Cobrinha emphasizes to all of his students.
Cobrinha’s warm-up drills emphasize proper movement.
The seminar proper revolved around taking the back. I think most people assumed we’d be practicing mostly guard techniques since this is for what Cobrinha is mostly known. There were only three techniques in the two hour seminar, but the details imparted to us were well worth the price of admission.
Cobrinha spoke of the details that he imparted like they were steps in a recipe, “The recipe might call on a pinch of salt here, some sugar there, but if you add sugar first then salt, it won’t work out.” Doing things in the right order, whether it was baking bread or taking someone’s back meant not only doing each step perfectly, but understanding why you were doing it in the first place.
This video of Cobrinha baking makes me oddly uncomfortable
The first technique that Cobrinha taught was a back take from turtle, emphasizing baiting your opponent’s reaction to get your bottom hook, before using a seatbelt grip to achieve your top hook as well. I’m leaving out some key details out of respect for Cobrinha and our hosts at West Coast. While they are similar to what I have learned from the Mendes brothers and others, Cobrinha presents an inovative and very lucid approach to developing and teaching his techniques. The detail on how to get in position to get your hook by keeping your knees tight to your opponent’s hip made the difference in my understanding of the position.
Sometimes it can be a pain in the ass to get the top hook, despite doing everything else correctly. Cobrinha showed the attendees a very nice detail that essentially entailed backtracking slightly from the seatbelt grip by holding the shoulder in order to create space for the hook. Again, I can’t speak to the exact details, but it was a light-bulb moment for me. After this, we could readjust to get the collar choke from the back.
Since Cobrinha has already taught his back take from the toreador guard pass on video, we can talk about this technique in depth. Cobrinha’s grip for the toreador, or bullfighter, pass is different than the grips of athletes such as Leandro Lo. Whereas Lo keeps his hands and arms in line by gripping the outside of the pants, Cobrinha reaches around to grip the inside of the pants in a pistol grip, then controls the legs by stepping back and closing his elbows, using his forarms to block the shins. He demonstrated this grip from an open guard at the seminar, but one of the strengths of this pass is using it to shut down the spider guard, as shown in the video below.
Cobrinha demonstrates his toreador pass to the back
From the pant grip, Cobrinha can either leg drag or go straight to knee on belly. Either pass can be countered by an opponent who is able to hip out and attempt to gain an underhook. The Mendes brothers showed a “long-step” counter to this defence at their seminar in Arizona in April, which Cobrinha uses as well (against Marcio Feitosa, for example). Cobrinha however, uses a unique detail to block his opponent’s hip. By keeping the lower pant leg, Cobrinha is able to put his elbow and forearm on his opponent’s hip as he steps around the head and falls to his hip behind his opponent.
The use of this technique provides the perfect opportunity to get the seatbelt grip. As in the video, Cobrinha explicitly states that he will get the top hook first only when he already has the seatbelt grip, otherwise it’s a sure path to your opponent’s half-guard. When he asked the class if it was okay to get the top hook first without the seatbelt one student confidently told him, “No.” Cobrinha, with mock incredulity, asked him why not – as if the student would dare correct the legend. He then laughed it off with a fist bump and told the class that the student was absolutely correct. Cobrinha emphasizes always keeping your toes on the mat, in this case specifically to hip escape to create space for your bottom hook.
Since Cobrinha wasn’t rolling with the seminar attendees I didn’t think I’d get a chance to feel his Jiu Jitsu. As the seminar wound to a close, however, Whitefield mentioned that since we drilled guard passing and taking the back he wanted for his students to see Cobrinha’s guard in action. Why he chose me to roll with Cobrinha is still a mystery to me, but a welcome one.
I bowed quickly, walked up and lowered my base to attempt to pass the most acclaimed guard in the world. Cobrinha’s guard has been voted best of the decade by his peers for GracieMag. At black belt, I’ve only seen it passed by Rodolfo Veira, although Rafa has forced Cobrinha to give up his back and caught him an armbar at ADCC 2009 and in the 2012 Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships, respectively. At least Cobrinha made it easy for me, he started out the round not using his grips.
As we rolled he would shift his hips or loop his leg between us to maintain control of the middle space, like a chess champion keeping control of the four middle squares with nothing but his pawns. I did get free of his legs by utilizing an X pass to my right, but a quick push with his foot on my chest brought us square once more. After, he told me that the technique he used to defend was simply the cross shrimping drill we performed earlier. He also mentioned to the class that my attempts at passing to the right caught him off guard, since most competitors pass to their left.
“Now I’ll start to use my grips.” These words brought the sparring to a place I could only dimly comprehend. I tried to describe it afterwards as like being in trapped in quicksand, but that doesn’t accurately convey what it was like. Instead it was like a spider web; Cobrinha took whatever movement I tried and shifted the position slightly so that I was either off balance or overextended. He took whatever I gave and found the weak point in my movement, forcing me to try to correct the position, but it was too late. Against other black belts I can sometimes recover from a small mistake but each time Cobrinha was able to quickly take advantage of my action and react in a way that effortlessly caused me to fly through the air.
Cobrinha hit this sweep on me. Twice.
The final sweep was a beautiful omoplata. As I gripped his lapel to bring myself tight for a kneeslide pass, Cobrinha shifted his hips out a few inches, extending my grip just enough. As he gripped the back of my tricep my arm was now in his possession. Sure enough Cobrinha swung into an ompoplata, then rolling back again to go with my attempt at posture, put me flat on my back. At least I got a chance to practice my breakfall technique.
Out of breath and in a daze I walked back to my spot on the mat. I was unreasonably embarrassed at my performance, but happy to have had the chance to feel the Jiu Jitsu of the legend. My contentment didn’t go unnoticed.
“David looked so serious when he was drilling technique,” the main professor, Don, told the group after, “but as soon as he started to fight he had a big smile on his face.”
After being unable to train for so long due to injury it felt great to get on the mat and really feel like I learned not only from the techniques, but feeling how Cobrinha moved and adjusted during the brief training afforded to me. With the experience fresh in my mind, I have been working on putting my opponent off balance with one, two, three techniques before locking down with an omoplata or sweep – just like Cobrinha did to me.
I left the seminar into the bright afternoon sun; nature is sometimes a perfect reflection of our inner state, I mused, as I hopped on the number 19 bus home. I was exhausted and my injured back was badly inflamed, but these minor complaints were overshadowed by my gratitude for the chance to learn from one of my idols in the sport, and also for the hospitality of the seminar hosts at West Coast.