Felipe Grez: Sydney's BJJ King

Written by Boon Mark Souphanh

From taekwondo, to edged-weapon defence, to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Sydney’s Felipe Grez considers himself a lifelong student of the martial arts. Currently the head instructor at his school Jiu Jitsu Kingdom in Darlinghurst, Grez doesn’t think of himself as the ‘king’, but rather an educator to his legion of passionate students. Blitz recently caught up with the self-confessed ‘jiu-jitsu nerd’ to get his thoughts on teaching, training with the world’s best, and the state’s emerging BJJ landscape.  

The King of Sydney's Jiu Jitsu Kingdom: Felipe Grez

Felipe, you say you’re a lifelong student of the martial arts; could you please tell us about how it all got started?

It all started after I began doing taekwondo when I was eight years old. I ended up doing taekwondo for 11 years, getting my Black-belt along the way. Then, right before I turned 20, I started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu after I watched the first MMA show in Australia – Caged Combat. Mario Sperry won the whole thing and I was very impressed by what I had seen. I had also just watched UFC 2 at the time and was also very inspired by Royce Gracie.

After doing a bit of research I came across Chris de Weaver, Adam Kayoom and Luke Picklum, who were Mario Sperry’s representatives in Sydney. They taught BJJ out of the North Sydney PCYC; I started jiu-jitsu there and haven’t looked back since.

Having started in striking arts, what attracted you to taking up Brazilian jiu-jitsu?

I’d always enjoyed grappling before I began BJJ. I would incorporate a bit of karate, judo and muay Thai into my training while I was doing taekwondo. Obviously, seeing it being used successfully in the UFC had an impact on my decision to try BJJ. It started off as a part-time thing, but I ended up stopping taekwondo after six months of BJJ. I’ve been doing it for 14 years now!

What gave you the impetus to start your own school, Jiu Jitsu Kingdom?

I used to teach kids’ classes when I was doing taekwondo. I really loved training, teaching, and competing — basically all aspects. I originally started teaching BJJ out of Penrith Elite gym, owned by James Te Huna at the time. After they sold the gym, I moved closer to the city and noticed there weren’t too many BJJ schools around my area. So yeah, I quit my job and started teaching full-time. I have to do a bit of security work on the weekends to make ends meet, but I love it.

I understand you also run weapon/knife defence classes and seminars out of your school with the likes of Ray Floro. What attracted you to these arts? Do you think BJJ training compliments the techniques taught in these systems?

Coming from lifelong dedication to martial arts, I do believe that all styles and systems have value. Just because I love jiu-jitsu, doesn’t mean it’s the answer for everyone. So, I think exploring different arts and exposing my students to them is beneficial for everyone.

I’ve known Ray (Floro) for a long time; I used to do private lessons with him back in the day. I’m thankful to be able to bring him down to my gym a few times a year; I think he is an amazing martial artist. Perhaps more importantly, he is a great person. I only like to have good people who are going have a positive influence on my students in the gym.

In regards to BJJ, fighting from the clinch is one of its strengths. With edged weapons, the dangerous place to be is on the outside. In saying that, you can’t go about defending yourself by shooting a double-leg takedown to close the distance like in BJJ — this could be fatal. I found Ray’s method to be fantastic, as you basically use a straight entry to achieve the clinch. Once you have the clinch, it’s basically BJJ with a few slight tweaks that Ray has developed. Ray is extremely open-minded, so he’s always trying to take the best aspects of various styles and blend them.

As BJJ instructors nowadays tend to vary in their approach (eg. ‘tough – Ralph Gracie-style approach or ‘have fun’). How would you describe your own style of teaching? How do you balance the ‘fun’ aspect with hard, tough training?

I would describe my teaching style as very relaxed. You’ve got to enjoy your jiu-jitsu. If you want to get good at anything, consistency is the key. So, if you want to train consistently, you’re going to want to have fun as well. You got to enjoy being on the mat and turning up to training, even when you’re tired. I feel people with this kind of mindset develop much quicker than those who come in wanting to win everything.

I like to think of myself as a jiu-jitsu ‘nerd’ as opposed to a fighter. That’s not to say we’ve never produced guys that have transitioned successfully to MMA or done well in competition, because we have got those. However, most of my students are here for fun or fitness.

What are your thoughts on the hot topic of learning BJJ for self-defence vs. BJJ for sport competition? What aspect do you focus on more at JJK?

I think we have a mix of both at Jiu Jitsu Kingdom. My introduction to BJJ was through those from the Mario Sperry/Carlson Gracie side, who were all really into the vale tudo and the MMA scenes. So regardless of whether I’m teaching gi or no-gi classes, I have tend to have that vale tudo mindset where you have to know how to defend yourself from damage in all positions. I really don’t play spider-guard and all these other modern games, but I also don’t teach straight Gracie self-defence classes.

I think I just make sure that my students know how to protect themselves, first and foremost.

You’ve spoken in the past about living the ‘jiu-jitsu lifestyle’. In your mind, what does that mean?

I guess many people tend to think of it wrongly because the art was developed in Brazil. I think the stereotype has something to be with living laidback life on the beach, being tanned and fit. In my mind, what it really is - is just living a good, clean, healthy life and being a good person as well. It’s pretty simple, really.

As you’ve travelled all over the world learning from some of the best BJJ guys around (and attended local seminars), who was the most memorable to train with?

The people I’ve trained with are all memorable for different reasons. In terms of jiu-jitsu, my favourite guy to train with of all time would have to be Marcelo Garcia. I’ve trained with him a number of times in the United States and he is an amazing martial artist and a great guy. The directness and simplicity of his game is what stands out to me. People watch him compete and they think he’s some out-of-this-world phenom with his X-guard and things like that — this isn’t true. Marcelo wins all his matches with pretty much three techniques: the rear-naked choke, guillotine, and the north-south choke; he even performs these chokes exclusively with his right arm. Guys know this, but he still consistently goes in there and taps the best Black-belts in the world with these techniques. It’s all about technique.

Although it’s not BJJ, I’ve got to mention Ray Floro again. I’m constantly blown away by the efficiency and the simplicity of his techniques. Also, his ability to teach and engage his students is a real inspiration. He can take absolute raw beginners and take them to a relatively high level within a few hours of training, so I’m amazed by his ability to communicate and pass on information.

There’s also another fellow by the name of Steve Maxwell who I’ve really looked up to recently. He’s a 4th Degree Black-belt in Gracie jiu-jitsu and a former NCAA wrestler. However, what I’ve got most from training with him is his concepts on strength and conditioning. Having had the opportunity to have him down at my gym at the start of the year, he changed my whole perspective of training. I don’t look at strength and conditioning training involving things like weights and sprints any more, now I focus on things like joint mobility, breathing and things like that. It improved my jiu-jitsu and health. I became more relaxed and I’m full of life because of it.

What are your thoughts on the current BJJ landscape in Sydney? With so many high-quality Black-belts from Brazil now opening schools, what do you think academies need to do to attract and keep students?

The growth of BJJ in Sydney is great. It’s really picked up a lot over the past couple of years. However, with the influx of new instructors coming in, there have also been a number of unethical individuals who have come onto the scene. Students will be drawn to ethical, honest and open-minded instructors. I understand that many people want their students to be loyal, but I think loyalty works both ways and you have to be honourable and respectful in what you do. I have an open-door policy at my gym. I’m affiliated with Gracie but I welcome anyone to come train at my gym as long as they come in with a good attitude.

What are your goals for the rest of your career in martial arts?

I just want to be a lifelong student and continue to improve. I want have a whole bunch of fun, help people get better, and build a better gym. I say that is pretty much the goal.  

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