Gracie Barra black belt Professor Rafael Ellwanger is quite a character. He grew up in Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro, but he sounds like he’s from the “deep south” as he regales you with his BJJ stories; his Brazilian accent coming through every now and again. He owns one GB school in Hammond, Louisiana and he’s opening a second in February 2010 in Amite, Louisiana. He also teaches twice a week at another GB school in Baton Rouge, of which he is a partner in the business.
If that isn’t enough, Ellwanger also created 10 schools in Louisiana, which his students own. For a long time he wanted to officially pass along to these 10 schools the flag he has represented for so long: Gracie Barra. In January 2010 that became a reality when Carlos Gracie Jr. came to Louisiana for a seminar and blessed all the school owners and their instructors, “I still take personal responsibility for all 10 schools because my relationships with my students are based on mutual respect and admiration.”
Ellwanger (above, with family and master Carlos) takes pride in more than just his relationships with his students. He also takes a lot of satisfaction from his BJJ background. He lived in Brasilia, in 1995. In 1996, a GB Black Belt named Ailson “Jucao” Brites moved to town.
Ellwanger became one of his 1st students and he trained under Brites for 6 years, until he received his purple belt. Over that time period he was a multiple-time state and regional champion (white, blue and purple belt) and came in 3rd place at the Pan Ams in Hawaii in 1997 as a blue belt. When he finished college in 2001, he decided to move to the U.S. to study English for a year.
He went back to Rio in 2002 and started to train with Master Carlos Gracie Jr. and Professor Marcio Feitosa, “I got my black belt in 2006, two days after I won the Pan Ams as a brown belt. 2006 was a great year for me. I won the European Championship in my weight class and in the open; the Pan Ams and the US Nationals as a black belt in my division and 2nd in the open. Then in 2007, I won the Pan Ams and came in 3rd place in the 1st No Gi Worlds in my weight class and in the open.”
Nowadays, Ellwanger is GB Regional Director and Instructor of Louisiana and Mississippi and also the President of the Louisiana Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (LBJJF), “In my role as President of the LBJJF, I organize every BJJ competition in the State. I can tell all the schools in Louisiana are run by good people. We help each other out and compete against each other, but it’s all under the flag of BJJ, so we all work together for the common good.”
Ellwanger has worked really hard to improve BJJ tournaments in Louisiana, “Competitions here now have everything the same as the Worlds. It cost me a bunch, but I order shirts to give out for free at the tournaments, I bought all new mats, medals, and score cards – the same as the Worlds. BJJ students are now fighting in high-level competitions. When they go to the Worlds, they say to me, ‘Rafael, your competitions look the same as the Worlds.’ I like that because I really try to provide great competitions for people.”
Ellwanger hopes that people will talk about them and bring more students in from around the United States to compete, “I try to do things right. I like the IBJJF because I know how Master Carlos runs it and takes care of it, and I’ve done the same with the LBJJF. Like the IBJJF, it’s organized, rule–oriented, high quality, and you can count on it always being consistent with the same rules at every tournament.”
Most recently, Ellwanger held the biggest Carlos Gracie seminar ever, “I rented a big venue and brought in mats from all 10 gyms for the seminar. The entire floor of the venue was covered with mats and we had 165 GB school members at the seminar on a Tuesday night! I actually had to stop taking registrations because we were so full. Master Carlos, Marcio Fetosa and Marco Joca came out and talked to the students about the history of BJJ, the Gracie family, and the GB Association. I thought it was more important for them to hear about Master Carlos and his life rather than just learn techniques. It’s so funny listening to him talk about his brothers and himself and his stories about his dad. That’s an experience no other black belt can provide. Master Carlos Gracie lived and saw it all happen. He made history himself.”
Ellwanger says he never imagined so many people would turn up at the seminar, “It showed how strong we are in Louisiana and Mississippi. It was, for sure, one of the best moments of my life. I promoted Marco Macera to Black Belt that day.”
Ellwanger is happy in his life these days. He really loves his life and family. He had his first baby girl in 2009 and his other “family” – his BJJ family is ready to stand up and be noticed in 2010, “We are looking good. We have a lot of people training and our focus is on BJJ. We don’t have a lot of distractions around here, besides hurricanes, so we train a lot. I am GB for life and I am ready to bring my soldiers to represent GB at the Pan Ams and Worlds.”