When looking at the history of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in America, the Gracie Barra School plays such a crucial role. This amazing grappling art looks somewhere between judo and wrestling.
It is an ideal art for women because it focuses on technique over power and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the fastest growing sports in America.
Gracie Barra has arguably had more impact on the spread of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu than any other school. Adem Redzovic and his brother Eddie run Gracie Barra Chicago and two of first Gracie Barra representatives in North America.
In this interview the brothers talk about how they first learned about jiu jitsu, what it took to be a GB representative in the early days and what you should expect as you evolve technically in the gentle art.
IllumeMag: How did you and your brother Eddie first learn about jiu jitsu?
AR: My first exposure to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was watching the first few UFC events. Like most people I was confused when I saw this skinny guy taking guys to the ground and finishing them with submission holds, and like most people I was disappointed, I wanted to see guys getting knocked out. I think I was 11 years old at the time, I was expecting to see Jean Claude Van Dam characters out there killing people. Fast forward 5 years or so, one of my brother's friends invited him to check out a BJJ class. My brother Eddie was a pretty tough guy you can say, he was about 6’3, 230lbs was really into weightlifting and had his share of street fights growing up. To make a long story short, he rolled with a guy half his size and couldn't do anything to him, the small guy wore him out and then put him in an arm lock. From that moment on my brother immersed himself in BJJ.
IllumeMag: How did things go from you knowing about jiu jitsu to you guys training with Gracie Barra?
AR: At that time the Jiu Jitsu community in Chicago was pretty much non-existent. There were small pockets of groups of guys training together, mostly out of high school gyms or health clubs. The guy who was organizing the training at the time was Jason Ori. He used to train with the Gracie family back in the Garage Days” in Torrence, Calif., and was a rep for Rorian and Royce here in Chicago. Eddie eventually became one of the top students and started teaching classes and running the academy. With Jason’s injuries and work schedule eventually he couldn't commit to the program anymore and Eddie took it over. Not long after taking over the program Eddie went to Brazil to seek knowledge. He went to Rio and started training at the Gracie Barra headquarters under Master Carlos Gracie Jr. and Marcio Feitosa and eventually became the first American to represent Gracie Barra in the United States. That was a crucial moment for not only us but the entire BJJ scene in the Midwest. I believe my brother built a bridge from Brazil to Chicago. When my brother wasn't training in Brazil he would bring some of the most talented guys from Brazil to Chicago to train with us.
IllumeMag: Being the first American reps for GB, did you feel any extra pressure in the beginning?
AR: We never really felt pressure, we definitely felt honored. The honor motivated us to do our best on and off the mats to try to live up to our potential in representing the team and Master Carlos Gracie Jr.
IllumeMag: As you guys have evolved your school, what have been some of your more rewarding moments?
AR: In the beginning we would measure success by medals achieved in competition. Through the years I believe we have started to see the bigger picture. Although it is rewarding and it's a great feeling when our students do well in competition (Gracie Barra is a powerhouse in the Midwest, consistently winning various team titles in the region), that is not what we measure success by. If we produce a world champion but he is a jerk or can't control his anger and has no manners, we actually did not better the community. We may have even contributed a bad element in the community because now if this jerk loses his temper, he can potentially break someone's arm or choke them unconscious. We measure success by how someone has improved the quality of their life and improved their character. We have a quote on our wall, “ The best amongst you are the best in manners and character” and we firmly believe that. I'll share a story with you: I have a real talented student, he's about 16-years-old. One day his father came to the office and explained to me that before enrolling his son into the academy his son was extremely depressed because his mother died and he was really close to her. His son basically had given up on life for a while. After enrolling into the academy he fell in love with BJJ and his mental and emotional state had changed. He basically achieved relief and happiness through training at the academy, that’s what is rewarding to us, to be a part of that experience. When you train in an academy with a positive vibe and with positive people the benefit is so great sometimes you cant see how great it is.
IllumeMag: Looking at your life now, how different do you think your life would be without jiu jitsu?
AR: To tell you the truth I wouldn’t know how to begin to imagine what that would be like. So many philosophies and lessons that I learned on the mats have carried over to my decision-making and contributed to the way I live my life. My closest friends are my training partners. My relationship with my brother as well as my cousin Idriz (who also teaches classes at the academy) is much stronger than I would imagine we did not share the same relationship as we do on the mats. Life is so fast paced and sometimes has a way of separating you from your friends or family, BJJ is like a glue that helps keep us close, its a blessing. I would probably be fat, that I can say for sure!
IllumeMag: What are your goals individually and for the school looking forward? Do you have any MMA aspirations?
AR: I believe when you’re young and train BJJ it’s very natural to feel an urge to compete in MMA at some point. There was a point when I made it a goal of mine and traveled to Boston to train at the Sityodtong academy to improve my striking. Around the same time I started to study and practice Islam and found out that in Islam it is forbidden to strike another human in the face. After coming across that it took any motivation I had away, I did not feel comfortable putting so much energy into something that wouldn't fit well with my conscious and I’m comfortable with that. I noticed in general when I was competing that it took all my energy and focus, and as an Instructor I always felt the responsibility to help prepare my students for the competitions. When you have to prepare yourself it can become very difficult to balance the two. I believe my goals today are goals for the academy as a whole. Ever since the first time I went to Brazil and trained at the headquarters it has always been my goal to try to replicate what Master Carlos Gracie Jr. created over there. I want our academy to be one of the strongest and most respected academies in the world. I would like to help produce great Instructors who eventually branch out and open up their own successful academies and students, the same as Master Carlos Gracie Jr. has done
IllumeMag: What belt level would you say is the most difficult?
AR: I believe every belt level has its own challenges but by far the first two years of your training is the most challenging, so the white belt and that can extend into your blue belt. This is what I remember from my personal journey and this is what I have seen for the last 10 years at the academy. At the white belt level everything you are doing is not only new to your brain but to your body, lifestyle etc. You’re trying to comprehend new concepts, develop proper techniques, sometimes using muscles you haven't used in years. Then you have to deal with the challenges and frustration that come from your first experiences of doing live sparring. As a white belt I remember having panic attacks when I couldn't escape the mount like Art Jimmison (boxer who wore the glove vs. Royce in the first UFC). On top of that, BJJ is ultimately a lifestyle so you have to find a way to balance that into your life which can be difficult to gage at first, after awhile you usually know how to balance your training, but at the white belt level you find that allot of guys are on the extreme one way or another, you can usually find them training 5X a week and eventually burning themselves out or 1X a week and usually fading away. These are a few examples of things I feel are commonly overlooked. Every belt will have its own challenges but I don't think they compare to your first 2 years. At blue belt you might not be happy with your ability to pass the guard, but do you remember how confused you were trying to pass as a white belt? At purple belt you might have trouble defending the foot locks but do you remember the kind of nonsense moves you were tapping to when you were a white belt? At brown belt you might be trying to develop your open guard but do you remember what it felt like having a big guy neck crank you in your guard as a white belt and having no idea what to do? Your first two years present so many mental and physical challenges that some who get to the blue belt and above might have eventually forgot about but most people who start BJJ never pass and eventually quit. If you made it to the blue belt be proud and stay positive!
IllumeMag: Any last words or advice?
AR: Trust and believe in your instructors. I firmly believe that you will never reach your full potential unless you have full trust and commitment in your instructors. If you do not trust your instructors then you should strongly consider not training under them. Similar to driving in a car with someone, you either enter the car and let them drive or you do not enter the car, you should not drive with your door open and your leg sticking out the car or trying to grab the wheel. Let me share a story from my personal journey: Up to my blue belt I always had some doubts to whether I was getting good enough instruction, I believe this was natural mostly because my Instructor was my older brother and at the time he was not yet a black belt. I always wondered what it would be like to train in Brazil and if there was something else out there I was not learning. I had an opportunity to see what that would be like when I took my first trip to Brazil. I was headed to train at the World Famous GB headquarters; this was a time when all the legends were under one roof, 40 world-class black belts on the mats every night. I was there for about a month and was usually training 2 times per day, and when I came back to the U.S, my game exploded. The surprising thing was it wasn't because of some new techniques that I had picked up, I would say over 90% of the moves I was exposed to I had already been taught by my brother. My game improved because when I came back, I came back with full trust and commitment to my brothers teaching. I erased the "secret sauce” mentality that some people have. With this new found trust came confidence and with this confidence I felt unstoppable, I started competing and winning local tournaments and I noticed some of the hesitation I had in the past was gone. I think its natural for students to have doubts. Negative thoughts and self-doubt are things we should try to conquer as martial artists. Don't get me wrong, I don't recommend blindly following anyone, there can be legitimate doubts and there are people who are unqualified to teach as well as straight up frauds, but ultimately when you find an instructor who is legit and you believe they know what there doing, trust them.
Adem Redzovic is a Gracie Jiu Jitsu Black Belt and Regional Director for Carlos Gracie Jr. and the Gracie Barra Team in the MidWest. For more information on Gracie Barra Chicago email Adem and Eddie at GBillinois@gmail.com
Adisa Banjoko is a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Alan "Gumby" Marques at Heroes Martial Arts and Founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. For more info follow visit www.twitter.com/hiphopchess