World BJJ Champ Rafael Ellwanger Pioneered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu's Growth in the South, Credits Greatmats
After sampling a variety of martial arts and martial arts mats, Rafael Ellwanger became a fan of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Greatmats. Find out how he went from BJJ student to gym owner to federation founder, all while providing for the safety and comfort of his students.
[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), 2006Chasing 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, 2011Part 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 EllwangerHis 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 that Zion is naturally talented and loves triangles, while Ariana is an extremely hard worker.
Rafael Ellwanger (right), 2016Even though Rafael outranks the rest of his family, he says Brea is still the boss. And as he approaches his 40th birthday, he is thankful for all the mentors and training partners who helped him become the man he is today, including Brea. “It is very hard to be a husband and coach at the same time,” Rafael said. “Things get tricky, and she gets mad sometimes, but it is all good — nothing a couple of nights on the couch would not fix.” Photos Courtesy of Greatmats