Robson and Goliath

Written by Daniel Tran

BJJ champion Robson Moura

An hour-and-a-half drive from Rio de Janeiro, nestled in the mountains, is a town known for creating legends. Known for its stunning views and natural landscape, Teresopolis is famous throughout the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community for the great names of the past. The Gracie and Machado families are often spoken of in the same breath as the mountainside town, but today a new name can be heard among the legends: Robson Moura. A multiple-time BJJ world champion, Moura recently visited Australia to impart some of his submission prowess. He spoke to Danny Tran about his martial art journey and gave some advice for aspiring grapplers.

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Born on 23 March 1978 to a small and humble family, Robson Moura originally wanted to do karate but his father would have none of it. Having already known about Jiu-Jitsu from a friend who was a Brown-belt, Moura's father didn't think twice about enrolling his son in the arte suave. Little did he know that Moura would become one of the most successful competitors ever to step on the mat.

Moura's first teacher was Carlos Gracie Junior's Black-belt Ailson ‘Jucao' Brites. A Brown-belt when Moura first met him, Jucao's love of competition deeply influenced the boy. By the time he was 15 years old, Moura had already decided to start training full-time after turning the heads of sponsors.

"I was really serious. I was a kid but I was always really serious. I was not going out, I was not spending time outside of the school. I was training in the time I had off; at home I was watching tapes, studying it," he says. "My dad in the beginning didn't want me to take it full-time because I came from a poor family and he was not making enough money to support the whole family, he was like ‘You have to make some money, you have to work'. But my mum, on the other hand, was giving me support. She gave me money behind my dad's back: ‘Go train, go to Rio.' Eventually my dad said, ‘If that's what you want to do, do it - go ahead'."

At 16 years old and already a Purple-belt, Moura was already showing promise as a high-level competitor when unfortunate circumstances saw Jucao move away to Brasilia. In order to continue his training, the young man went to train at Nova Uniao headquarters with Andre Pederneiras. But Moura's choice of team was not random - his decision to fight for the lightweight powerhouse stemmed from Jucao's history with the founders of Nova Uniao.

Established by Wendell Alexander and Andre Perderneiras, a little-known fact is that Nova Uniao had another founder: Jucao. After putting the word out, the three had a magazine interview spreading the word about a new team. But the trio's decision to open its doors to train foreigners attracted criticisms from the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community at the time. Pressure from his master, Carlos Gracie Jr, caused Jucao to abandon his personal involvement in Nova Unaio but his students would still compete under its banner while training with him.

"When he moved away, we just kept competing under Nova Uniao and I decided to go to Rio to train at Andre's school," Moura says. But his decision was not an easy one. The distance between Teresopolis and Rio meant Moura was forced to travel an hour-and-a-half by bus each way to train. He would sleep inside the gym for days on end before going home and repeating the process all over again. But despite the gruelling nature of the training, the benefits were immeasurable.

"It was really different. Back in the years we trained way more... That's all we did, just training and competing every weekend," Moura says.

"I had a good instructor. At the beginning my instructor was really good; he pushed me. As soon as I started training with Andre Pedernerias, he was the same. I had good training partners and I was doing something I loved. I was just training; I had so much fun. It was so natural, so easy to be on the mat every day. It was not like I had to be on the mat - no, I wanted to be on the mat. I wanted to compete, I wanted to spend time to learn and to improve, and that's what I've been doing for the last 22 years."

Fighting at 66kg, Moura was essentially David to every Goliath on the mat. Although his training partners were often heavier, he never had any problems and found himself modifying techniques to make them his own.

"Every time I had the chance to train against big guys, I had to think how I'll surprise them, how I'll stay one step ahead of them all the time. It has helped me with my speed and it has helped me to develop new techniques, just to get out of bad spots," he says.

Moura's successful debut on the world stage came in 1996 when he won the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Championships. He says that although he had won the world title as a Purple-belt, in his mind he wanted to be a Black-belt world champion. "The World Championship was the weekend and on the Monday I was training already; I was on the mat already to train to reach my goal," he says. After being awarded his Brown-belt at 17 years old, Moura opened up his first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school in Teresopolis so he would have a place to train closer to home, while also training in Rio twice a week. Although the school was small, there would be at least 50 students on the mat at the same time. Moura describes the establishment of his first school as one of the best times of his life.

"Since I was 15 years old, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to have my own school, be a successful competitor and build some good Black-belts," he says.

But in the meantime, his training would not slow down. Moura's furious work ethic meant he would remain at Brown-belt for only 10 months before being promoted to a Black-belt in 1997. He would then continue to win the World Championships for the next four years in a row, cementing his name as one of the most lethal and determined competitors to grace the mat.

In 2001, Moura received an offer to fight in Mixed Martial Arts for Shooto in Japan and readily accepted, shedding his gi for some 16-ounce gloves. He would fight a total of four times in Japan, for two wins, one loss and one draw. But instead of returning to a life in Brazil, Moura made the difficult decision to move to the United States.

"I had a great life in Brazil, my school was successful and everything was nice. But I wanted to go to the next level, I wanted to move to the United States and start everything again." When asked who has been the biggest support throughout his career, Moura turns and smiles at his wife, Alessandra. "We have been together since we were 14 years old. My life was built with her. Everything was built with her," he says. "She's been with me for the good times, the bad times and when I'm training, when I'm mad, when I have to cut weight - anything. She's always there. When I cannot make a decision because I'm focused on training, she goes there and takes the decision."

And it was Alessandra who helped Moura get through one of his biggest challenges; returning to full-time training in 2007 after several years of absence.

"I knew I could be world champion again and I started to compete. I had a game plan before the World Championship, I competed at the Pan Am's [Pan American Championships] and I competed at a few competitions, then I came to the World Championships to compete against the young kids. They saw me compete when I was Black-belt and they'd just started; and these kids were so hungry to be a champion, they were so hungry to take my name," he remembers. "But I was so relaxed. I knew I could be world champion again.

"It was a big challenge for myself [but] I think that was the best time in my career - because after a couple of years I came back, and was a world champion again."

Tips from a Champion

Better your BJJ game with some sage advice from Robson Moura.

Robson, for the student hitting the mat for the first time, what advice would you give them, in terms of how to approach their training for best results?
I would say to everybody starting or training Jiu-Jitsu right now: don’t put any pressure on yourself. Every time you step on the mat, just try to have fun and improve as much as you can. That’s what I’m doing today. After training for 22 years, all I do today, every time I step on the mat, I have so much fun. When you do that, learning becomes so easy… you don’t realise how fast you’re going to learn.

How do you prepare for competition — do you have any advice on what to do immediately before a match to ensure you’re mentally and physically ready to compete?
Just relax as much as you can. And compete as much as you can; the more you compete, the more you’re going to learn. Every time you compete, you never lose. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to be the first place, second place or the last place, you’re always going to win because you’re going to make more friends, you’re going to learn from a lot of experiences and you’re going to learn how everything works. Just be relaxed and do what you’ve been doing every day in the gym.

Do you have any tips for those looking to move from gi grappling to no-gi, and how to adapt their game?
I think the gi makes your no-gi better. The guys that never do gi and they only do no-gi, if they put on the gi they’ll be stuck because there are so many different details, so many different grips they haven’t worked on. But if you do gi and you take your gi off and do some adaptation, it’s quick; you just change some grips and keep going from there. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to be a no-gi guy, you still have to train with the gi on to make your technique better and fast-moving.

So is it better to focus on gi and no-gi in the beginning?
I would say, in the beginning focus more on gi. I think the gi will give you more ideas, more escapes, more technique than no-gi. The no-gi is going to be more scrambling — guillotines, kimuras, foot-locks — and they don’t need to have as much technique to escape from there. Especially if both guys are sweating, they just scramble and escape. In gi you have to learn the technique. You’re not going to be able to scramble if you don’t know the technique.

How should smaller fighters approach Jiu-Jitsu if they’re training partners are larger?
For the smaller guy, if they’re going to start training from the beginning, try not to train too much with the big guys because you don’t know how to do the technique [well enough to deal with them]. It’s better to train with the smaller guys because you learn the technique… As soon as you know more technique, then you can start training with the bigger guys, because it’s tough to learn how to survive against the big guys.

How about students who have been training for a little while?
Use speed, and surprise them with a lot of lapel-chokes, that’s worked really well for me. And use a lot of loop-chokes — that’s going to save your life!

Should a student focus on developing a small number of techniques to a very high level or work to be able to adaptable to any circumstance he might find himself in?
You have to build your game. You need to have a game plan. It’s not all about stepping on the mat and scrambling or just sparring… you’ve got to have a foundation. If you don’t have a foundation, on the battlelines you have no idea what to do and you try and catch the guy with some surprise move. But if you have a game plan, you go there and you know what you’re going to do.

So students should absorb everything from the beginning and develop a game from that?
Exactly.

How important are private lessons?
I think it’s really important. If you have time, you have to take some privates because you’re going to work on your game; you’re going to work on the detail to help to learn fast. It’s really hard in class, you have like 40 or 30 guys on the mat and the instructor shows the technique but he doesn’t show the specific detail for each one because he can’t for so many people on the mat. When you go for the private class, then you have specific questions and the instructor’s going to be like, ‘Now, for you…’ If you have the chance, spend some time doing private classes because it’s going to advance yourself and your Jiu-Jitsu. That’s a good investment.