Big name purple belts steal the show at the Pan

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In the female purple belt division, it was once again Mackenzie Dern of Gracie Humaita who cleaned up her division quickly and effectively to win her first ever Pan. In her featherweight division, she won all her matches with submissions, any one would do: a rear-naked choke, a triangle, and then a lapel choke from the back.

Mackenzie Dern celebrates with her dad, Megaton, stepmom, Luka, and boyfriend Augusto Mendes. Photos: Deb Blyth

Dern received her purple belt last June, but over the last nine months, she’s proven herself more than capable of competing at that level, including recently winning the European Open in both her weight and absolute, and qualifying at the World Pro JJ Tournament in Montreal, Canada. As for the latter, she’ll be traveling to Abu Dhabi in April with her father, Wellington “Megaton” Dias, and her stepmother, Luciana “Luka” Tavares, both of whom also qualified for the prestigious event. All three will be competing in the UAE as a family affair. “My dad, my step mom, my boyfriend (Augusto Tanquinho Mendes), and five girls from our program are going. We will have a big girls team there. I will have a good experience competing against brown and black belts.”

Dern is moving to Brazil in June to “up” her training routine and spend time with her family. She’ll be back in June for the Worlds. “I have so many tough girls to face,” she said, “I want to be consistent as possible. I don’t want to wait too long to compete between any tournaments.”

Dern said one of her goals for 2011 is to help Leticia Ribeiro with her seminars, so she can get better herself. “You can be the best competitor, but a bad instructor. I want to be the best teacher. I want to work on my instructional skills.” As for the 2011 Pan, Dern said she had a great experience. “This was my first ever Pan win!” She said, “It was so exciting!”

Gianni Grippo and Christian Broadnax following their respective gold and silver place finishes

In the men’s adult feather division, Gianni Grippo of Renzo Gracie made sure he did his homework before stepping foot on the mats at the 2011 Pan. Grippo, who admits to having a “secret notebook” he created with his coach John Danaher, of everyone in his division and their talents and strengths and weaknesses, said his division was stacked. “My goal was to not surrender any points,” he said, “I’ve been working really hard on my defense this last year.”

In the finals, it ended up being Grippo, who’s only 19 years old, facing another very young and skilled competitor in Christian Broadnax of Nova União, who’s a mere 17 years old. Each of them worked diligently through their respective brackets until they met up in a much anticipated final match. In the end, it was Grippo who came out on top to take gold in their division.

At one point in their match, Broadnax went for a flying armbar and almost submitted Grippo. “Christian is just a kid at 17,” Grippo said, “But he feels like he’s a 22 year old. It was a fun match. He’s so athletic. He went for a flying armbar – it was close – it was extended and almost popped, but I was able to get out. I felt in control for the rest of the match.” Grippo said he was very impressed with Broadnax’s athleticism. “That was in my notebook,” he laughed.

Grippo was really happy with his performance at the Pan and said he enjoyed his experience immensely. “When I came in here today, I was hoping for the best. This is the second biggest tournament of the year and it felt good to come out on top in the feather division. This is the real build up to the Worlds.”

Although Broadnax was clearly disappointed with his finish, he had to be happy about one thing: during his match against Grippo, Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles stopped to watch the two competing. Although Broadnax lost to Grippo, Cobrinha grabbed Broadnax by the arm as he walked off the mats and commented on his athleticism and talent in the sport. At one point, Cobrinha said, “Your balance is amazing!”

Will Durkee taking it easy after his big divisional win

Will Durkee of the Avengers won his middleweight division, beating DJ Jackson of Lloyd Irvin in the finals. Durkee knew he was up against a real talent and took the match very seriously. “I’ve seen him fight before,” he said, “I knew he’d won his weight and the open at the Europeans. I was really looking forward to fighting him.”

The majority of the fight was spent standing up. In the last 30 seconds, Durkee was able to get a takedown that secured the points necessary for him to win the match. “It was a really good fight,” Durkee said, “I’m sure I’ll run into him again in the future.”

Durkee trains with Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu in Miami and said he really enjoys it. “He’s helped my game so much,” he said. Durkee wrestled at Northwestern in Chicago and also coached there. “I just started getting into Jiu-Jitsu when I moved to Miami and found Cyborg,” he said, “It’s an awesome training environment. His energy is as important as the training itself.”

Durkee is hoping to get to the Worlds in June, but he’s getting married and that takes precedence. “I’d really like to compete at the Worlds,” he said, “We’ll see. Maybe I can pull it off.” Regardless, plan on seeing more of Durkee at future tournaments, including the no-gi events. “I love gi training, but as a wrestler, I find no-gi more natural for me and more closely related to wrestling.” Durkee won gold at the 2010 No-Gi Worlds blue belt open class and in his middleweight division. “I will keep competing as long as my body holds up,” he said, “I love that Jiu-Jitsu still allows me to have that competitive edge.”

Willy Leonard with teammate DJ Jackson after their absolute match

In the purple belt adult open, it was Willy Leonard of Lloyd Irvin who won gold, beating his fellow teammate and friend DJ Jackson in the final. Leonard, an ultraheavyweight, and Jackson, a middleweight, did not hold back as they fought it out on the mats. “We’re trying to get away from closing out the brackets and not fighting,” a victorious Leonard said, “We want to give the crowd something to watch. We’re trying to start a new trend.”

After two matches in the ultraheavy division, Leonard was also able to grab gold in his division, making him a double gold medal winner for the day. Once again, he closed out the bracket with a teammate, Kenny Brown, but they fought it out, with Leonard coming out on top, shutting down his teammate with a brabo choke.

Leonard is no stranger to the medal podium. At last year’s Pan, he won both his weight and the open class, then won the same at the Brazilian Nationals. Shortly thereafter, he was awarded his purple belt. He competed at the 2010 Worlds and won his division, but lost a close one in the absolute. Then he moved onto the 2010 No-Gi Worlds and won his weight and the absolute. Next up for Leonard, who is a high school P.E. teacher and wrestling coach, are the Brazilian Nationals and then the Worlds in June. With a track record like Leonard’s it’s not hard to imagine what the results are going to be.

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