Some events in life are so painful, random, and inexplicable, they cause us to lose our faith and hope. But as the gentle art of Jiu-Jitsu teaches us, we must never give up nor give in to the darkness, but instead, persevere and find another way back to the light.
Two communities are struggling with this as they try to make sense of the deaths of two of their beloved Jiu-Jitsu family members, Gracie Barra black belt Thiago da Silva Santos and Team Popovitch purple belt Reza “Ray” Payan. Both young men were lost over the 2010 holidays, one from an unfathomable and heartbreaking illness, the other from an incomprehensible and tragic murder.
Thiago da Silva “Roylerzinho” Santos, began his Jiu-Jitsu training at a GB Belo Horizonte satellite school with Danilo Felipe, a black belt under Vinicius “Draculino” Magalhaes, ten years ago. He trained there until he got his blue belt, then transferred to GBBH, and trained directly under Draculino. Thiago was called “Roylerzinho” because he looked like Royler Gracie.
Thiago loved to compete and was good at it, but his main quality was not being a great Jiu-Jitsu player. It was, instead, his kind and generous nature. “Thiago was one of the nicest, most helpful, loyal, and positive people ever to have stepped foot on this Earth,” Draculino says, “His smile was so true and genuine that it brought joy to all around him.”
Thiago moved to New York with Rafael Sapo. They were training and having fun, but Thiago soon ran out of money. Draculino invited him to stay at his house in Houston. “Thiago accepted right away, but said it would only be for a little while,” Draculino says, “He ended up connecting with us so well my family wouldn’t let him go! He learned English fast and began working at my school, Gracie Barra Texas.”
But Thiago began to sound different. His voice became nasally and he complained of a plugged nose and sore throat. “We thought the humidity in Houston was the problem,” Draculino says, “Doctors thought it was allergies or a sinus infection. He took medicine and antibiotics and felt a little better. At the same time, we applied for his work visa and he got it fast, but due to a formality, he had to go back to Brazil to get his passport stamped before he could come back to the U.S.”
Draculino told Thiago to see an ear, nose and throat specialist while he was in Brazil. “The doctor checked him out and saw that there was something wrong,” Draculino says, “He performed surgery and removed a tumor. They discovered it was Burkitt’s Lymphoma, which is a very rare, aggressive, and fast moving cancer.”
Thiago was admitted to the hospital and began treatment immediately. The first chemo session yielded good results and everyone was happy and excited, but after the thirdsession, the tumor kept growing. “It was out of control and nothing would reduce its size or strength,” Draculino says. Thiago became so weak; he was unable to endure another surgery. He was in the hospital for more than four months. Draculino gave Thiago his black belt on December 20, 2010 in his hospital bed. He had been a brown belt for two and a half years. “I didn’t give it to him because of his condition, but because it was more than well deserved,” Draculino says.
At the end of his life, Thiago was in so much pain he passed out many times. “Morphine didn’t even help,” Draculino says, “He couldn’t breath, eat or drink water. He was fed and hydrated through his veins, but he never lost the smile on his face nor his warrior spirit.” Draculino sat with Thiago at the hospital two days before he died and said he thought to himself, ‘Why is all of this happening to such a great human being?’ But it’s not for us to question God’s will. Now I know Thiago is pain free, and in a better place resting.”
Thiago passed away on December 30, 2010 at the tender age of 26, after six months of battling the cancer that claimed him. Draculino says Thiago was a great father, Jiu-Jitsu fighter, friend, “And the fiercest warrior I’ve ever met. Thiago changed everyone’s lives for the better.” He leaves behind a son, Iago, and a sister, Mariana, along with his father and mother. Draculino says Thiago’s biggest angel was his girlfriend, Katherine Osteen, who left family, work, and college behind in Houston to move to Brazil to be by his side every day at the hospital. Draculino says, “Thiago is lost, but never forgotten.”
On the other side of the nation, one short day later, another senseless tragedy was occurring. Reza “Ray” Payan, a purple belt under Pablo Popovitch (who recently experienced his own personal pain in the death of his beloved mother and the critical injury of his father after the devastating Rio mudslides), was gunned down in the street by a friend after a New Year’s Eve party.
Ray was born in Iran. During the Iran/Iraq war his family took refuge in Russia. They stayed there for a few years and then moved to Baltimore, Maryland,when Ray was eight. Ray’s father didn’t acclimate to America, so he left his family behind and went back to Iran. Ray had to grow up fast and looked out for his mom and sister any way he could.
Ray trained Jiu-Jitsu for about ten years and really enjoyed it. He trained with Minotauro in Florida and was one of his first students. He eventually landed at Team Popovitch and started training there at the same time as black belt Vagner Rocha. While Jiu-Jitsu was more like a hobby for Ray, it was a career for Rocha, who eventually opened his own school. Ray followed him and began training there. “I used to tell everybody that Ray was my brother,” Rocha says, “Everything he did, I thought was cool. He was a good, humble, honest person. He was beyond my best friend. He was my family.”
Rocha says Ray was a smart guy. He started with nothing, but he had street smarts. He became a car salesman and ended up opening his own RV business and a nice home in South Florida. “He’s been with the woman he loves, Heather, since they were fifteen years old. They’ve been together for eighteen years and have a little girl, Shiva, who’s twenty months old,” Rocha says.
Everyone came to Ray for advice and said he always had the perfect solution for their problems. “He was a good person,” Rocha says, “If you said to him, ‘I like your shirt,’ I swear to God he’d take it off and give it to you. In my gym alone there were six guys he helped get jobs. He paid for dinner for kids who couldn’t afford to eat out. He cared. If he saw things weren’t good on your side, he tried to help you. He could always make you laugh. I never saw him have a bad day.”
Rocha invited Ray to his family’s New Year’s Eve party. Ray asked if he could bring Ron, a Jiu-Jitsu friend from another school, to the party with him. Ron’s wife and child were out of town and Ray didn’t want him to be alone. “I kind of knew Ron,” Rocha says. He trained with us sometimes. He always treated me with respect. He didn’t have a lot of friends and Ray was a good friend to him over the years.”
The party was very low key. “There was hardly any drinking,” Rocha says, “It was a small family get together. We just ate and let off some fireworks.” At about 2:30 a.m. on January 1, 2011, Ray woke Heather up, who had fallen asleep with Shiva, and said they were leaving. Not long after, Rocha heard pounding on his door. “Heather was full of blood and screaming,” he says, “The street was already locked down with cops and the paramedics had already taken Ray away.”
Rocha was shocked. Heather told him that she was in the car changing Shiva’s clothes while Ray was outside talking to Ron. “He was trying to drive him home,” Rocha says, “He’d seen Ron drinking.” Ron refused the ride. According to Rocha, Heather looked out the back window just in time to see Ron with his gun out, firing three shots at Ray. “Ron ran over and started screaming at Heather then ran back to Ray and shot him twice more.” Ray didn’t make it to the hospital.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Rocha says, clearly distraught, “Did this really happen? It doesn’t seem real. Especially to Ray…I can’t understand. How could this happen? He was always a good friend to Ron. Everything Ray got, he asked the same for Ron. Football games, vacations…” he trails off.
At the funeral, many came forward to speak about Ray’s involvement in their lives. He helped “Craig” rebuild his life after jail when everyone else abandoned him. He gave him clothes, found him a place to stay, and a job. Today Craig owns his own business and he credits Ray with his success. “By the time the eighth guy got up to speak, it was obvious that Ray had helped everyone,” Rocha says, “The guy said, ‘You know what? I thought he was just special to me, but apparently he was special to everyone. He helped everyone. He lived every moment to the fullest. For as young as he was, he lived a great life.’”
Rocha says he’s now going to focus on what he thinks Ray would want him to do. “I’m going to help out with his daughter and keep a smile on her face for the rest of her life. I’m going to appreciate life the way it is and just take every day that’s in front of me because you never know when it’s going to be your last day. Today you’re here, tomorrow you’re gone. You need to tell people you love them. Nothing else matters.”