Professor Henrique Saraiva, our GMI in Dublin, Ireland, where he leads the Irish branch of Carlson Gracie, had already packed to return to Brazil when he stopped to watch José Also fight Conor McGregor. When that punch by the Irishman landed, Henrique knew: it was time to stick the flag firmly on Irish soil and try to surf the tsunami the UFC was about to send.
In the exclusive interview below, the black-belt told of his main lessons and difficulties until building a successful dojo in the land of Bono Vox and James Joyce.
GRACIEMAG: Do you still remember your first time on the mat?
HENRIQUE SARAIVA: I started out at the gym at four years old, and one of my first memories is of my first championship, at six. My dad put me there just to do a self-defense presentation before the event began, but the curious part was that my tiny opponent didn’t want to fight me. I had to fight a much bigger boy than me, but wound up winning, and something like that always stays with us — the first time we beat someone bigger.
Pure BJJ. And when did you realize you wanted to life for and off the sport?
Teaching BJJ has always been my passion. I started early, in the blue belt, in 1999. These days I get to live doing what I like here in Europe, and most important: each teacher here is someone helping develop BJJ across the planet. So we have a cool job that is also a cool mission.
Why did you choose Ireland to teach in?
I came here to spend three months and saw loads of potential for development — from the organizing of competitions, body of refereeing, and even the number of gyms, which was much smaller than when I got here. One day before my ticket to Brazil, I stopped to watch on TV UFC 194, held in Vegas on December 12, 2015 — Conor McGregor vs. José Aldo. When McGregor got the knockout, I automatically imagined that Ireland would become the country of the hour in Europe. MMA exploded, and consequently BJJ would follow. And so I decided to stick around.
And what was the biggest obstacle in establishing an academy in Ireland?
I believe adapting to the language and culture is always the hardest. But with BJJ exploding here, I knew it was just a matter of time for my work to make an impression. I started focusing on teaching children here, because few gyms pay full attention to this. And it’s also the future of BJJ.
The IBJJF’s European Championship is a very big, popular event — perhaps the biggest in number of athletes these days. Are there any interesting rivalries between nations?
I believe that, even due to the culture of BJJ, the rivalries are still bigger between teams than nations. But one pretty interesting thing I noticed was that all Irish athletes support each other when the Euros roll around, despite being from different teams, and they take advantage of the IBJJF event to train together weeks before, and even during the championship. A very nice behavior, and one that shows the camaraderie of BJJ throughout the planet.
What does the growth of BJJ look like in Ireland right now?
There was a quick burst of growth, and now the sport is getting very organized. With the arrival of the IBJJF Opens last year, the events took an important step towards professionalization — of the tournaments, of the referees, and also of the true teaches, who became more highly valued. In championships, it’s evident who teaches good technique. I’ve been doing what I can and I’m sure I’m a part of the history of the development of BJJ in Europe.
So Conor’s success was decisive to the expansion of BJJ.
Yes, it helped with this whole MMA explosion and consequently BJJ. But the organization that the IBJJF is bringing to the country is even more valuable, because this will bring a much greater effect in a few years.
You are a reader of ours ever since we were a tabloid here in Rio de Janeiro. Any lesson or piece that left a mark?
My favorite pieces are the interviews with athletes and masters, because they inspire the reader to give their best, and bring lessons of life and tenacity. The athletes inspire due to the moment they’re living, and the masters due to their story of like and dedication to the gentle art. Thank you, Graciemag, for this opportunity to divulge my work.