Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

World BJJ Champ Rafael Ellwanger Pioneered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s Growth in the South, Credits Greatmats

[Sponsored Post] A lifelong martial artist, Rafael Ellwanger began experimenting with different disciplines at age 4 when his mother enrolled him in judo. After training in taekwondo, kung fu, boxing, muay Thai and krav maga, Ellwanger found his calling when he started Brazilian jiu-jitsu — more than 21 years ago.

In 1997 Ellwanger, then a 21-year-old college student, fought in his first competition as a blue belt at the Pan-American Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Tournament in Hawaii. He earned a bronze medal. “That day, I realized I would like to be a martial artist for life,” said Ellwanger, who attributes his longevity in the grappling arts to the comfort and safety he gets from Greatmats flooring.

Rafael Ellwanger (top of the podium), 2006

Chasing the Dream

Training under Ailson “Jucao” Brites and Carlos Gracie Jr. in Brasilia, Brazil, Ellwanger represented Gracie Barra for 17 years. On March 26, 2006, Ellwanger moved to the United States and two weeks later was awarded his black belt.

The following year, Ellwanger founded the South USA Grappling Association (SUGA). “The jiu-jitsu community need a well-organized event in the area — and several events a year,” he said.

“Our people used to travel to Georgia and Texas to compete,” he added. “I invested all I had to provide a good event when nobody believed in BJJ in the South and there was no money to be made. Now we have several other players doing events here.”

Carlos Gracie Jr. (left) and Rafael Ellwanger, 2011

Part of that investment meant getting new mats for his Gracie United Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gyms and SUGA tournaments. He chose Greatmats’ 1-5/8-inch-thick Grappling MMA Mats because of their price, quality, light weight, non-slip surface and, most important, “no mat burns.”

In 2012, Ellwanger left Gracie Barra to rejoin forces with Jucao — “like the good old days,” he said.

“He was always my mentor and a leader, and it did not feel right to be on different teams,” Ellwanger said. “That was the best decision I ever made.”

The next year, Ellwanger won the 2013 International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Black Belt Master 2 Division World Championship. And within six months, he was on top of the world again, earning the IBJJF No. 1 black-belt world ranking.

Passing on the Legacy

Ellwanger, now a third-degree black belt, owns two Louisiana-based gyms — one in Hammond/Ponchatoula and one in Mandeville. He also has 18 students who own and operate their own gyms under the Gracie United banner in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Jucao has another 20 locations across five countries: United States, Brazil, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Eighteen Gracie United gyms are now equipped with Greatmats Grappling MMA Mats — as well as Ellwanger’s federation. “They are perfect for BJJ,” Ellwanger said. “Not slippery, two colors and no mat burns!

Ailson “Jucao” Brites

“I would guess we have 2,500 puzzle mats … from Greatmats. We bought our mats in 2007, when we expanded from our very first gym. I decided to make the investment and … use the mats in the federation and the gym.”

Now Ellwanger sells his used mats from the federation to new school owners and buys new martial arts mats from Greatmats for tournaments to “keep them new and nice.”

“I can always add or replace mats when I need it,” Ellwanger said. “We’ve moved to several locations, and all gyms have a different shape and size. If you buy roll mats, you might have to cut it, and they usually come 6 feet wide — very hard to add and expand.”

High-Impact Sport

During Rafael Ellwanger’s journey through BJJ, he’s found that helping others achieve their goals is the most rewarding aspect. “No matter what it is and how hard it would be, we are in the position to impact people’s lives,” he said.

Brea and Ariana Ellwanger

His life has been impacted by the sport, as well. Rafael’s wife Brea is also a fighter and travels all over the world to compete. A few months after starting BJJ, however, she became pregnant and stopped training for almost two years.

Even so, “she was there watching and paying attention,” Rafael said. “When she came back, she was on fire. It was a lot of work to catch up from that two-year break.”

Brea was a 2015 world medalist and recently earned a gold medal at the 2016 IBJJF Pan-American Championships Purple Master 1 Heavy Division. She was also ranked one of the top 15 purple belts in the world.

In the Blood

This BJJ power couple is keeping the sport in its bloodlines, as well — their two children also compete. Their son Zion is a 17-year-old blue belt, while their daughter Ariana is a 7-year-old gray belt.

“Both train and compete a lot,” Rafael said, noting …

BJJ Advice From Rickson Gracie: Grapplers Must Also Learn to Strike

To be a well-rounded fighter, you must possess the ability to strike and grapple. Using punching to complement your grappling and ground-fighting skills is very important. In fact, it is necessary to have a background in striking if you wish to excel in MMA fighting events.

For instance, if you’re a grappler and you want to be able to close the distance between yourself and your opponent, you must understand how to strike. A good sense of timing is especially important for you to develop. You must be able to judge the potential danger of the movements of your opponent. Knowing the right time to block a technique and avoid taking punishment from your opponent’s blows is also a product of good timing.

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(Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor Rickson Gracie, above left)

If you are competing in a wrestling match, you might not need to have this type of understanding of timing, especially while you and your opponent are on your feet. But to succeed in MMA competition, you absolutely must have mastered this element of fighting. That will enable you to shoot in for a takedown and totally avoid the punishment your striking opponent will try to inflict as he struggles to avoid being taken to the ground.

Go here now to read “Rickson Gracie: Classic Q&A With the Legend of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”

When a fight goes to the ground, I find that being on the bottom and holding my opponent in my guard is very advantageous for many reasons, including the striking possibilities it presents. There are many things I can do on the ground, and I can formulate a strategy there. Striking can mean much more than just punching with my fist. Punching constitutes only about 15 percent to 20 percent of the possibilities. The rest are knee strikes, head butts and elbow strikes. All these techniques are important to know because you must consider the damage that can be done to your knuckles when you execute too many strikes with your fists.

When it comes to MMA fighting, I would much rather look for an opening for an effective grappling move than focus on just hurting my opponent with some type of strike. I always look for the possibility of employing a submission technique, and I always try to defeat my opponent in the most humane way possible, without any unnecessary violence. I don’t think martial artists must focus on violence when they compete, and one way to avoid that is to choose a submission technique over a striking technique.

In any encounter, it is good to be as gentle as possible.…

World Jiu-Jitsu Championship to Bring 1,000-Plus BJJ Competitors to Abu Dhabi

The Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship 2015 and World Jiu-Jitsu Children’s Cup will take place April 20-25 in this United Arab Emirates city of 2 million people. Celebrating its seventh year, the competition, organized by the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation, will be free for spectators to attend.

Spectators and athletes alike will enjoy an enhanced fan experience that includes an opening ceremony, sponsor-funded activities, family-oriented events, interactive booths and a raffle.

Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship

“Through six years of hard work, this competition has grown a phenomenal amount, positioning Abu Dhabi at the center of the sport as the global capital of jiu-jitsu,” said H.E. Abdulmunem Al Hashemi, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Federation. “The legacy of the event is already being felt locally and around the world, and we are immensely happy to be finalizing preparations for the 2015 installment.”

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One of the goals of the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation is to nurture the next generation of enthusiasts. To that end, the World Jiu-Jitsu Children’s Cup will run from April 20-22.

“This year is set to be an even bigger celebration of jiu-jitsu with a larger focus on the upcoming generation through the three-day World Jiu-Jitsu Children’s Cup,” Al Hashemi said. “These young fighters have the honor of opening the competition and warming up the mats ahead of the arrival of the biggest names in the sport for the three-day adult championship.”

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In the adult division, local fighters hailing from across the UAE will face challengers from Australia, Brazil, Portugal, Poland, United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, the United States and other countries. In 2014 an estimated 2,100 grapplers from 70 nations participated. In past years, UFC competitors such as B.J. Penn, Demian Maia and Urijah Faber have attended.

Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship

Since its introduction in the 1990s, Brazilian jiu-jitsu has become extremely popular in the UAE. It’s now taught to more than 40,000 schoolchildren in 100 government-run schools and is regarded as the national sport.

“Jiu-jitsu teaches all of the most positive aspects of sport requiring great mental strength [and] discipline while also encouraging respect,” Al Hashemi said. “These important core values are matched by the need for increased levels of fitness and health with the body and mind being worked in equal measures.”

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Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship

Among the sponsors and partners for the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship 2015 and World Jiu-Jitsu Children’s Cup are the International Petroleum Investment Company, the UAE Armed Forces, Etihad Airways, Premier Motors and Land Rover, the Abu Dhabi Police, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the Al Futtaim Group, Dolphin Energy Limited, Emirates Global Aluminum, Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, and the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.

(Photos courtesy of UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation)

BJJ Technique Analysis: Five Sneaky Armbar Setups From Jean Jacques Machado, Rigan Machado and John B. Will

If you grapple, you know that when you’re battling an opponent with a similar skill level, maneuvering him into a finishing hold such as the cross-body armbar can be difficult because he knows what you know — namely, that he should keep his arms in tight to avoid getting caught.

How then can you advance to the next level and teach yourself to trap a skilled opponent and finish him on the ground? There are three ways:

  • Be a better grappler. This means you must know more than he knows, catch and hold him in positions that are difficult to escape from, force him to make mistakes and capitalize on those mistakes. To make all this happen, keep training. There’s no easy or fast way to jump to this level.
  • Tire him out. Even when someone knows the attack you’re attempting, being tired or weary can make it hard for him to fend you off. You can facilitate his fatigue by fine-tuning your fitness level — so he gets tired before you do — and by being smart about how you expend your energy, resting in good positions and holding him in positions that tire him out. Again, there’s no easy way to make this happen.
  • Use sneaky setups. This strategy is one you can learn and practice right now, and it will have an immediate effect on your grappling game. That’s because your opponent can’t be prepared to foil your attack if he doesn’t see it coming.

To start you on that third path to success, this article will present five sneaky Brazilian jiu-jitsu techniques to set up armbars: one from the guard, one from the side-control position, two from the back, and one while passing the guard. Master each BJJ technique — sourced from Rigan Machado, Jean Jacques Machado and John B. Will — and you’ll be ready to devise plenty of others on your own.

BJJ Technique No. 1: Armbar From the Guard

BJJ Technique Source — Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rigan Machado of Redondo Beach, California

BJJ Technique Analysis — This Rigan Machado technique starts with a basic observation: When your opponent is in your guard and your legs are locked around his body — in what’s referred to as the closed guard — he’s probably well aware of the danger to his limbs. Therefore, he strives to keep them bent while holding your hips down to ensure that you can’t rise up and catch him in an armbar. But when you fight with your legs open or with your feet under his thighs — in the butterfly guard or two-hooks-in guard — he’s much less concerned about defending his arms and much more concerned about being swept.


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Therefore, for this Rigan Machado move, start the armbar-from-the-guard technique by sitting on the mat with your adversary sitting on your feet in the butterfly guard. Extend your left arm under his right arm and around his waste. Control his left hand with your right. Lean back and onto your right side, then lift your left foot to upend him and roll him to your right.

BJJ Technique No. 1: Armbar From the Guard — by Rigan Machado
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When he senses that you’re trying to control his left hand and feels his body lift, he’ll fight to place that hand on the ground as a “post” to maintain his balance. At this point in the Rigan Machado technique, you’ve tricked him into straightening his arm, leaving it vulnerable to attack.

Place your right hand under his left elbow, then shift your body to the right and guide his left wrist onto your right shoulder. Next, cup your hands behind his left elbow, rotating it so the bone of his elbow points up. You’ll then be able to apply downward pressure to hyperextend the trapped limb in a “cutting” armbar.

This attack can fail if your opponent rotates his arm to alleviate the pain. If that happens, use your left hand to continue cupping his left arm, then pull it across to your left hip. Spin your head to the left, and with his arm deeply across your body, you’ll be set up for a tight armbar. Use your right hand to hold his head down, clamp your left leg high across his back and move your right leg over the top of his head. Keep your legs heavy on him so he can’t rise. Then simply drop your feet and lift your hips for the finish.

BJJ Technique No. 2: Armbar From the Side-Control Position

BJJ Technique Source — Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor John B. Will of Melbourne, Australia

BJJ Technique Analysis — To execute …

Rickson Gracie: Classic Q&A With the Legend of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Part 2)

What is your current training routine?

Rickson Gracie: I have two ways to train: One is when I’m just teaching and trying to maintain my level. The other way is when I’m preparing for a fight. That’s when I increase the intensity and the rest periods so I can recover and reach maximum performance.

When you’re not training for a fight, what does a typical day consist of?

Rickson Gracie: It always has some kind of recreational activity — like surfing, bike riding or some kind of cardio. And then I teach and eventually spar.

Do you consider teaching a workout?

Rickson Gracie: Yes. It’s not a very stressful workout or something I need to recover from, but I always break a sweat and get my blood circulating. I definitely get something from it.

Do you lift weights?

Rickson Gracie: Sometimes prior to a fight, I exercise with weights.

Is most of your sparring grappling, or do you also practice stand-up?

Rickson Gracie: I do a little bit of everything. But I always try to establish a purpose for my secondary training: to bring something to my abilities. I don’t try to be the best in every segment of the martial arts.

In a previous interview, you said you have no favorite technique — that you use the openings your opponent gives you. Is that still true?

Rickson Gracie: Definitely.

Do you have a favorite way of ending a fight?

Rickson Gracie: As quickly as possible. (laughs)

Spectators might not like that because they won’t get a chance to see a demonstration of Brazilian jiu-jitsu techniques.

Rickson Gracie: Yeah, that’s a problem. (laughs)

What effect has your family had on the status of Brazilian jiu-jitsu around the world?

Rickson Gracie: There has been an explosion of jiu-jitsu. The exposure it has today is 100 times more than it had eight or 10 years ago. That has a lot of positive elements because Brazilian jiu-jitsu has such a good reputation and good credibility.

But there are also negative elements, such as when people think only of the effectiveness of jiu-jitsu so they can display their power and superiority. They don’t know that being a true warrior means you don’t need to beat people or prove you’re better. Because of them, some people think Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters are like animals who don’t understand the true martial arts. Personally, I am very concerned with balancing those two elements: the Zen aspect of the martial arts and the effectiveness of jiu-jitsu.

A few years ago, everyone thought Brazilian jiu-jitsu was unbeatable. But now some people are defeating the best Brazilian fighters. Has that affected the state of the art?

Rickson Gracie: Always it is the individual that wins or loses. A fight is not won because of a technique or specific drill. It is won because of the physical, strategic, emotional and technical qualities of the fighter.

At one point, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was so unpredictable for other fighters that it was easy to win because no one knew what to expect. Now everyone knows. Now everyone trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu — even if they are boxers or karate experts or wrestlers. They develop a sense of where the danger is, and that brings the fight to a higher level.

Fighters who practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu now have to develop their other senses: their [strategy], their heart, their emotional control. Sometimes those elements — if they have been developed so much during a fighter’s life — will allow even a guy who has not trained a lot in Brazilian jiu-jitsu to succeed without being technically superior. Now that the raw techniques of Brazilian jiu-jitsu are not a secret anymore, you have to prove yourself as a fighter in a more general way.

If a big wrestler on steroids acquires a basic understanding of jiu-jitsu — enough to avoid leaving his arm to be trapped in an armbar, for example — is that a great advantage for him?

Rickson Gracie: Just being big and well-prepared is already a great advantage for him. That makes the smaller guy the underdog no matter what he does. I still believe it’s possible for the smaller guy to win because a fight is not decided by the prevention of one technique. He has to create a nightmare, create smoke, then all the elements must be pushed to the limits. Even if he gets tired and confused, he has to be able to make quick decisions because that’s when the opportunities start to pop up. It’s hard to win quickly against a tough opponent.

Do you think all MMA fighters — even those who deny it — train in jiu-jitsu?

Rickson Gracie: They definitely have a sense of the positions they need to avoid, and to develop that physical sense they have …

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