BJJ goes to Cuba
"Training is training
@By Robert Drysdale
May 22, 2019 (JST)
has always been an article of curiosity to me. I had the opportunity to
visit the island for the first time in 2005 for a 10-day vacation in the two cities of Havana and Habana-del-este.
The possibility of a second visit came up late 2018 when a Cuban friend suggested I
try medical treatment in Cuba. His friends
would take care of me: gJust go and have a good time. Relax a bit.h
In exchange for the help and connections, I offered to teach a BJJ seminar
where a friend of my Cuban friend held classes of traditional jiu-jitsu (a
style founded by a Japanese called Morita who migrated to Cuba in 1947 and
created his own local lineage) at a municipality just outside Havana. They
promptly accepted the offer and the seminar got booked immediately after
the new yearfs celebration.
I landed at José Martí international airport early in the
morning and after exchanging some money I met my hosts. They were good
people, friendly and eager to meet me. They were childhood friends of my
Cuban friend in Vegas and my point of contact in Cuba. Two were students
of Morita, the third, my driver and later a host for the second half of my
trip, his name was Juan [all fictitious names]. On the drive from the
airport, we spoke about the usual topics regarding current UFC events and
the fight scene in general. I went along and took note that here and
there, fight fans are not so different.
They drove me straight to the local gym where the seminar was to take
place, located in a neighborhood of Soviet style small apartment complexes
familiar to anyone who has ever visited Eastern Europe.
Judo Gi's drying
outside the Serro Pelado Olympic Training Center in Boyero (just
mats were small and I wondered how many people we could fit in there for
the seminar. Not many I thought. They were covered on all sides with sacks
of sand and tires that served to create a barrier between the walls of the
gym, largely made out of aluminum sheets and plywood. Around
the mats, pictures of gym members and guest visitors. On the walls, no
pictures of Jigoro Kano, Morita or any other Martial-Artist. Instead, one
of Fidel Castro next to Guevara and a poster of Castro next to former
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Adjacent to the mats, a small room slightly bigger than a single bed where
a single bed was placed. It had some old-gis of various martial-arts
hanging from the ceiling and not too far from the bed itself as well as
some personal belongings. A hand-drawn colored poster of two Judokas
executing a gKata-gurumah takedown (firemanfs carry) was the only
decoration in the small room. The bed and gis belonged to the man who also
owned the school, short and in his mid 50fs he introduced himself
respectfully and seemed excited at the opportunity of hosting me. A
variety of Martial-Arts are taught there: Kung-Fu, traditional Jiu-Jitsu
and their own hybrid style created by the owner of the gym (which name I
forgot and regret not writing down and learning more about). They taught
mostly children, I was told.
Judo Club in the municipality of Santiago de Las
Vegas just outside Havana
They took me outside where a decent size lot was surrounded by plants and
palm trees. There was construction going on. I am not sure what they were
building, but a house for the owner of the gym was my best bet. I was
introduced to one of the builders. The son of the owner. The gym, I was
told, was gparticularh
(privately owned) and escaped the Government led and supported Olympic
sports. Things began to make a little more sense now. A private gym
teaching Martial-Arts in a country where some of the best Wrestlers,
Boxers and Judokas come out of would definitely struggle without
government support. Particularly because it taught Martial-Arts that
werenft Olympic styles.
Parking lot outside the Serro
Pelado Olympic Training Center
I was introduced to a number of students and aspiring fighters. They
greeted me respectfully and with smiles and were quick to bombard me with
questions about the fight-world in Las Vegas. Cuba struck me as an
incredible talent pool of eager youngsters. A couple of them told me that
they aspired to fight for a living.
My hosts had arranged for a doctor to come see me at the gym. Dressed
modestly and with a quiet smile he asked what I needed help with. I
didnft want to overwhelm him with all my injuries so instead I described
only two of them. I sat on a bench in the gym and he pulled out some
acupuncture needles, some magnets and got to work. Fifteen minutes later I
actually felt relieved [however, see Sanity
and BJJ]. I cordially thanked him and offered to pay, already knowing
the answer. He refused with a smile.
after, I was introduced to an Olympic gold-medalist in Judo. It was the
first time I had ever met someone with those credentials. In the U.S.
athletes are often treated as celebrities and the Floyd Mayweathers of the
world become larger-than-life figures. Not in Cuba. She was introduced as
a gold-medallist by my hosts and it was clear that she held much prestige
amongst her peers. But nothing excessive, she was still one of them.
Happily, and jokingly she blended in with the rest of the group and
didnft expect special treatment. I thought to myself that that was the
way it was supposed to be. Accomplishments ought to be followed by
humility (and I would extend it to a sense of responsibility towards your
fellow practitioners) not privilege. We followed this first encounter with
lunch at a local restaurant.
Men's Judo training center at
I learned that the municipality I was in was too far from the action in
Havana. I told my host I wouldnft be staying with him and wanted to
spend a few days in Havana until the day of the seminar. To be frank, I
think they were a little disappointed but understood that, ultimately, I
was a visitor there and wanted to explore Havana on my own, furthermore, I
was looking forward to seeing the city again. My driver and later host,
Juan, drove me there. And after helping me find a place to stay where I
paid 35 Cubanos Convertibles known as gCUCh (35 dollars) a night.
My next stop would be the José Martí National Library
(notice how this name keeps coming up). The last couple years I have
become increasingly interested in the history of BJJ and its development
in Brazil. This curiosity led to a documentary production (currently being
edited for release) titled gClosed Guard: The Origins of Jiu-Jitsu in
Brazil.h It is thought that some Japanese judokas visited
Cuba early in the 20th century. I wondered what I could find at the Cuban
National Library so I asked Juan to drive me there.
Library is located in the famed gPlaza de la Revoluciónh where
an enormous obelisk towers over the plaza next to a statue of José
Martí. Facing Martí two government buildings with their
sides covered with the iconic image of gCheh Guevara and his
revolutionary companion Camilo Cienfuegos. The plaza is notorious for
Fidel Castrofs revolutionary speeches aimed at American imperialism in Cuba and the developing world.
In the library, I was disappointed to find it was only minutes away from
closing for the holidays. I did my best to charm a staff member playing
the card of an aspiring historian that had traveled to Cuba for this sole
purpose and was eager to tell a story that was kept deep inside their
library. The librarian was sympathetic to my cause and with revolutionary
spirit promised to help me in my research. I got her email and left with a
sense of mission accomplished. It felt like a productive first day.
Cubans and Brazilians have much in common, and I couldnft help but to think
of a cartoon character that best describes this similarity. Disney has a
character that only exists in Brazil and nowhere else. Non-Brazilians are
probably totally unfamiliar with him. His name is gZé
Cariocah and hefs a parrot as well as a gmalandroh.
I canft even begin to translate the word into English. But the
closest thing is something akin to a street-cunning, smooth talking,
pick-up artist who can talk his way into or out of almost any situation.
Brazilians have mastered this art and Cubans have that in common with
One of the most striking and endearing things about Cuba is that crime
rates there are close to non-existent. Throughout my trip I walked Havana
late at night with money as well as my phone, without any worry. I
wouldnft dare do the same in Brazil or even in certain places in the
U.S. Cubans are proud of their low crime rates that are so unusual for
Latin-America and will constantly talk about how little crime there is.
Most have never even experienced any. For someone who grew up in Brazil
and has seen equivalent poverty, this is breathtaking.
They are also curious about crime in other countries. Some asked me about
Brazil and so I shared some of my experiences there with crime. This was
always met with shock and fear. Locals will approach you constantly but
never in a threatening way. Families of tourists walk around safe and
freely with their belongings. The most prolific thief in Cuba is time.
I tried my best not to get distracted with everything the island had to
offer and followed through with some of the doctors that I had met who had
no qualms about looking at my injuries and treating them. One of them
was well connected with some of their judo coaches so I offered to teach
another seminar at their training center outside Havana in appreciation for
their hospitality and help.
The seminar took place the next day and took place where their gEquipo
Nacionalh trains. I was greeted by their head-coach and about ten
other coaches, and approximately 50
athletes of both sexes and various weight categories, all young and
athletic. I was introduced as a judo expert from Brazil (I tried
explaining to their head-coach that what I practiced was a variant of judo
called gBrazilian Jiu-Jitsuh but to no avail. I was under the
impression they didnft acknowledge BJJ as a separate art from judo or
knew nothing about it, at least their head-coach kept referring to me as a
judoka when introducing me to other students who specialized in ne-waza,
a deficiency of theirs, according to one of their coaches.
I ran a brief warm-up knowing that the seminar would be centered around
techniques rather than live-sparring. I was later told by their
physiotherapist that he didnft like my warm-up because it lacked any
stretching. I have always preferred an gactiveh vs. gstatich
but their physiotherapist, who later proceeded to help men with my lower
back issue, disagreed during a friendly discussion on training
methodology. Earlier that day, I had asked their coaches how I could best
help them, in other words, what were the situations that they struggled
with the most in regards of ne-waza. They didnft seem to have a straight answer so I decided
to show basic arm-bar attacks from closed-guard, followed by a
gflower-sweeph, spider-guard to triangle, back attack from
turtle-position, as well as offense from the back-control position.
Throughout the seminar, I attempted as best I could to use the Japanese
terms such as juji-gatame and sankaku-jime,
but my limited experience in judo training crippled my vocabulary.
Additionally, the seminar was taught in Spanish, a language I donft
speak fluently and that many would refer to as a upgraded version of gPortuñolh.
Fortunately, the language barrier was never an issue during the exchange of
Typically, in seminars filming is not allowed. I have alternated this
policy over the years reaching the conclusion that it is not only selfish,
but pointless to attempt to restrain the flow of information in the age of
the internet. This point never had to be explained to my Cuban hosts, they
all had their phones out and filmed the entire seminar. In fact, sensing
their thirst for knowledge, I promised to share some positions with them
on a hard-drive in the case of a future encounter.
After about an hour and a half of instruction, I opened up to for Q&A.
Various questions came up. Many of the questions were about the same as
would be asked by BJJ players, such as how to execute the arm-bar (juji-gatame)
when opponents had their hands connected, or how to move an opponent
defending in gturtle-positionh etc. Some of my moves, prompted heated
discussions amongst their coaches in regards to the legality or not of the
moves I was showing. The athletes seemed to take it all in, perhaps
knowing that there is a fine line between actual practice and the
refereesf interpretation of what is happening.
Judo Coaches and Athletes after the Seminar
(me in the middle)
They seemed to be most curious about how to escape the triangle.
I showed the best escape I knew from a triangle from guard, but they were
referring to the one from gturtle-positionh which threw me off since
I never even thought about defending the triangle from there. I explained
that it was uncommon in BJJ (I referred to BJJ as gBrazilian Judoh a
few times during the seminar) for people to attack the triangle from there
since it made more sense strategically to go to the back. That answer
wasnft of course a solution to their problem so I had one of their
heavy-weights attack me with the position so I could better understand its
dynamics. We didnft go gliveh but the quick exchange was enough for
me to identity the problem. The move itself isnft hard to defend, in
fact, its defense is quite simple. I concluded that the issue lied with an
excessive passivity by the defendant and this could be changed by
preventing the finishing leg from entering into position instead of
waiting for a referee intervention. It wasnft a great solution or
escape, but it was my honest best solution to a problem I still donft
believe to be a major problem on the ground.
After the ne-waza seminar at the
Men's Judo training center at Serro Pelado
We finished with lots of pictures and friendly exchanges as well as
question regarding the martial arts scene in the US and Brazil. Some of
the best conversation came in regards of different training methodologies
and practices. I found their coaches to be highly intelligent and
thoughtful and what they lacked in resources they made up for in
well-planned programs of a kind I havenft even seen at the highest level
of the UFC. I explained to them how far behind BJJ and even MMA still were
in regards to other Olympic sports in terms of methodology and practice.
Which seemed to surprise them given the funds available in both sports. I
countered that they were both still young and that the level was going up
On the way out, a quick visit to their wrestling practice, the mats filled
with national and international champions. I couldnft help but to feel
an air of hostility when I walked in the room. I spoke briefly with some
of the coaches and wrestlers, and there was a part of me that wanted to
join practice. But I told myself it was better not to.
I left their Olympic training center for lunch and sit-down for a Wi-Fi
session to catch up to all the work back home. Across the street from the
park I was at, a judo academy. I entered to check it out to find
approximately 30 children training, of all things, ne-waza.
A few parents sat nearby watching their children train. It reminded me
of my own gym. Training is training everywhere.
My last contact came in the form of brief visit, alongside some of their
judo team nationals whom I befriended, to a JKB (Judo-Kickboxing) gym in
Havana, a hybrid style of striking and grappling created in Cuba that is
remarkably similar to MMA, albeit practiced with head-gear and on
traditional mats. Their events drew large crowds and ended in
submission, decision or KO.
training facility in Habana Vieja
The gym was located in the traditional neighborhood of Habana
Vieja, and was in reality a wood-shop during the day turned gym during
the night. Its members all had experience in either boxing, wrestling
or judo, some more than others. I spoke to their coach about the
difficulty of practicing an art form that was outside the Olympic sphere
and the eagerness of young Cubans to practice martial arts. I finished the
evening watching their conditioning session at the end of practice,
largely with improvised equipment.
overall thoughts were that combat arts held extreme prestige and
popularity in Cuba. Undoubtedly, the Olympic sphere reigned over
any other art that escaped that circle. The Olympic track seemed the most
reasonable given the prestige and privileges awarded to those who
succeeded in it. This didnft stop however the willingness of others to
practice that which wasnft readily available and to improvise with
I have always
believed that combat was not so different overall.
There are far more similarities than differences between Greco-Roman
wrestling and BJJ in my opinion, particularly in the physiological,
strategic, and psychological realms. But I also believe that there is
more to the practice of martial arts than the above. Ultimately, BJJ and
judo arenft so different but their popularity in certain places (my own
gym for example) differs dramatically. In Cuba, the gparticularh and
Olympic spheres overlapped to some degree. It wasnft so different from
my own experience in Brazil and the US where certain sports receive
government funding and others fare on their own. The growth of BJJ in
these two countries is a prime example of this private growth with no
Cuban's aptitude for combat was evident as well as
their curiosity about its practice abroad. I believe that it is only a matter of time before a larger
variety of martial arts and techniques take root in Cuba.
(c) 2019 Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.
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