How BJJ helped João Gabriel Rocha beat cancer

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João Gabriel gets a round of applause after submitting Erberth Santos in a semifinal match of the 2017 Pan’s absolute division. Beatriz Lina/GRACIEMAG.

João Gabriel Rocha (Soul Fighters) won the ultra-heavyweight title March 19 in Irvine, Calif. at the Pan. The 25-year-old reared by Leandro “Tatu” Escobar and Rafael Formiga dealt submissions left and right, and choked out Gustavo Dias in the final. He also came in second in the open division, behind only Leandro Lo.

That’s quite the turn of events for Rocha, who had to ditch the gi in 2014 while he fought a bout with cancer. In this interview with Graciemag following the Pan, he talked about how his competitive mindset helped him through that rough patch.

GRACIEMAG: How did your 20 years of competition help you beat your cancer?

JOÃO GABRIEL ROCHA: It was complicated. When I had surgery to remove the tumor, I did not even know what I had. And then it was that scare when I found out. Being unable to train, without competing, and even reading Graciemag and seeing I wasn’t in it, especially the World Championship issue, were complicated moments. But nothing was worse than seeing my parents devastated, in really bad shape, ditching everything to be by my side. I saw them both suffer and then I’d pretend I wasn’t feeling the pain and discomfort, so they wouldn’t get worse. I think this is a common aspect of BJJ — being able to keep your poker face and not telegraph to your opponent that you are straining. Then the worst part by far were the two months of chemo; it was three liters of chemo injected into my veins daily, and I would feel my entire body burn inside. I took on each cycle, each session, like a fight for a gold medal, and the suffering like it was those ten final seconds of the fight, where I needed to withstand everything, give it another big, painful try to win. I was sure I would beat the disease. Never did the idea of death shake me; in my mind all there was were upcoming BJJ plans — how and when I would resume training, what championship I was going to compete in next. I kept a very healthy mind, with the help of jiu-jitsu.

What about the recovery?

It was very quick. My doctor predicted I was going to take six months to feel in shape again. But in one month my hair grew back, I lost some 16 pounds and went back to training. Everything has a good side; the feeling of being able to breathe normally, to feel alive again is inexplicable. I started greatly cherishing the little things I didn’t even notice existed around me before. In my mind there had been nothing but training and becoming world champion. Now I realize that life is much more than that. I grew a lot, I feel.

What did you learn about BJJ as a result of that trial?

I had never known what a life without BJJ was like; after all, I started training at two years of age. I don’t remember anything from my first fights, given the fact that I was four. So I have attained this knowledge now, of going one year without being able to train. I learned how to see the suffering of the competitors during that marathon; to realize how there are teachers who have never won a world championship but who help hundreds of kids; that there are supporters who suffer, who curse — that is, that there is a world of people who feel intense feelings around BJJ. Prior to this, I only paid attention to my opponents. Another aspect that helped me is that, thanks to this thing, I was able to practice positions without having a championship on the horizon. So I tested new positions, modern guards, game types that make an opponent’s life harder. I do not intend to use any of these techniques; I want to continue with my game of seeking to take down, mount and finish, without thinking about points, but I managed to understand better the mechanics of some new positions, and now I have more possibilities to disarm my opponents. After all, knowing how to defend is knowing how to disarm one’s rivals.

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