GTR Archives 2000-2019

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BJJ goes to Cuba

"Training is training everywhere"

@By Robert Drysdale

May 22, 2019 (JST)

 

Cuba 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

I went. 

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 yearfs 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.

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 Judo Gi's drying outside the Serro Pelado Olympic Training Center in Boyero (just outside Havana)

The 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-gurumah takedown (firemanfs 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 50fs 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.

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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 gparticularh (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 werenft 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 didnft 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.  

Shortly 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 didnft 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.

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Men's Judo training center at Serro Pelado

Once I learned that the municipality I was in was too far from the action in Havana. I told my host I wouldnft 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 gCUCh (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.

The Library is located in the famed gPlaza de la Revoluciónh 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 gCheh Guevara and his revolutionary companion Camilo Cienfuegos. The plaza is notorious for Fidel Castrofs 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 couldnft 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 Cariocah and hefs a parrot as well as a gmalandroh. I canft 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 them.

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 wouldnft 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 Nacionalh 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-Jitsuh but to no avail. I was under the impression they didnft 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 didnft like my warm-up because it lacked any stretching. I have always preferred an gactiveh vs. gstatich warm-up 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 didnft seem to have a straight answer so I decided to show basic arm-bar attacks from closed-guard, followed by a gflower-sweeph, 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 donft speak fluently and that many would refer to as a upgraded version of gPortuñolh. Fortunately, the language barrier was never an issue during the exchange of information.

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-positionh 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 refereesf interpretation of what is happening.

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 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-positionh 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 Judoh 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 wasnft 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 didnft go gliveh but the quick exchange was enough for me to identity the problem. The move itself isnft 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 wasnft a great solution or escape, but it was my honest best solution to a problem I still donft believe to be a major problem on the ground.

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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 havenft 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 very quickly.

On the way out, a quick visit to their wrestling practice, the mats filled with national and international champions. I couldnft 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.

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JKB (Judo-Kickboxing) 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.

My 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 didnft stop however the willingness of others to practice that which wasnft readily available and to improvise with whatever was. 

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 arenft so different but their popularity in certain places (my own gym for example) differs dramatically. In Cuba, the gparticularh and Olympic spheres overlapped to some degree. It wasnft 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 governmental support. 

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.

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(c) 2019 Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.

Other Robert Drysdale articles exclusively on GTR:

Reflections on the Evolution of BJJ

Who Taught Oscar Gracie?

I was Skeptical

Selling Self-Defense

Rickson Gracie is Wrong

Rev. of book by João Alberto Barreto

Maeda Promotes Five Brazilians

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GTR Publications

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Craze Vol. 1: The Life and Times of Jiu-Jitsu, 1854-1904

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Choque 1, 3rd Edition 

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Choque 3, 1961-1999

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Choque 2, 1950-1960 

  

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Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, 1997-2008 (2018 rev. ed)

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Digital Editions are also available

GTR Archives 1997-2019

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