From the treasure chest: “How an absolute champion is born”

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Rodolfo in photo by Carlos Ozório

That GRACIEMAG and has had its eyes on Rodolfo Vieira, the biggest standout of the 2011 Worlds, is nothing new. Even before we gave the black belt the first magazine cover of his life, in issue 170, Rodolfo had already figured heavily on our website and magazine.

In October 2010 issue 164 we told a bit of the story of the newly-promoted black belt, who we already believed to be one of the future exponents in the top tier. We opted to entitle the article “The locomotive”, a metaphor for the talent and ruggedness of the fighter in dealing with life that led him to become the champion he is today. However, we wouldn’t have been wrong if we’d gone with the title “How is someone unbeatable born?” – the choice we threw on the scrap heap. After all, since then Rodolfo has been pretty much unbeatable in gi-clad combat.

Below, we’re republishing the article printed in GRACIEMAG #164, an opportunity for readers to, besides learn valuable lesson Rodolfo has to teach, find out a bit more about the athlete’s story. The article was investigated on a sweltering day in Méier, where GFTeam headquarters is located, when I went to experience for myself what a day in Vieira’s life was like at the time, on the train tracks.

Here goes:

Rodolfo at GFTeam dojo in Méier Photo de Carlos Ozório

From the tracks to the top, the latest promising black belt on the scene provides tips for shortening your path to success

If Jiu-Jitsu is the art of staying comfortable in the midst of discomfort, black belt Rodolfo Vieira had a head start on his opposition. That’s because before ever setting foot in an academy, the hulking passenger of twenty-one years already had to ward off elbows, shoulders, butts and armpits on the crowded trains linking Campo Grande, where he lives, with Méier, where he trains nearly every day.

Between stations, wandering peddlers push a diverse array of products, from snacks and soft drinks to electronic gadgets. Cripples beg, while thousands jockey for space, coming and going on the journey to and from work. Conversations are generally held at a roar. The kid with the gi under his arm and ears mangled from training goes unnoticed. Few would believe the kid who made a name for himself on the mats of the Carioca suburbs is now a respected luminary in the gymnasiums of California and lavish Abu Dhabi.

The harrowing transit on the track has paid off. Now the good-natured Rodolfo has amassed wins over established names in the sport, like world champions Bráulio Estima and Bernardo Faria. According to his masters, he can make it a lot farther still. GRACIEMAG doesn’t doubt it, and tries to unearth how it is that a victorious fighter comes to be, one who will perhaps be the gentle art’s next bugaboo.

The star of Grappling Fight Team (GFTeam) started out in Jiu-Jitsu in 2003. Solid results soon brought the athlete to make the almost-daily train trip from his neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro’s western zone to Méier, where his team headquarters is situated and where training is more grueling.

“Just going from Campo Grande to GFTeam and back feels like a training session in itself! It’s draining, different from training next door to home. I set off at noon and get there at 2pm. The return trip is excruciating. A lot of the time I’d be dead tired from training and have to go home standing in the train,” recounts Viera with a chuckle.

Like so many kids, Rodolfo saw Jiu-Jitsu enter his life unpretentiously, with the support of a great encourager, Sérgio Srour. Srour, Rodolfo’s father, is a big guy who, they say, has never lost a bout of arm-wrestling to his son (nor to his friends), and loves Jiu-Jitsu, despite not practicing it.

“I started training to lose weight; I was kind of a chubby teenager. I’d always horse around with my dad. We’d tangle up on the ground, pure brutishness. My father weighs 114 kg (251 lbs), but he’s never trained. So I asked him to take me to the academy. I won the very first championship, in 2005. After that, I started training every day.”

After sitting down for a talk with his teachers, Bruno Sousa and Arlans Maia, who were students of Master Júlio Cesar at GFTeam in Méier, Rodolfo went on to frequent more laborious training sessions, with more training partners and a team geared towards competition.

Unlike the taxing trips by train, Vieira glided smoothly between belts in Jiu-Jitsu. In 2007, he won the Brazilian Nationals at weight and open weight as a blue belt; in 2008, weight and open weight at the Brazilian Nationals as a purple; the same year, at brown, he won the World Championship open class; in 2009, Rodolfo beat top-tier black belts at the World Pro qualifiers, and returned from Abu Dhabi with the title, after overcoming such cream-of-the-crop competitors as Bráulio. The result yielded his promotion to black belt as he stepped off the airplane at Rio de Janeiro international airport.

“It shocks me that I’ve spent so little time at each belt. The truth is that I’ve been training constantly ever since 2007, my first year as an adult. I’d train in the morning, afternoon and at night,” he reflects.

Rodolfo, as a black belt heavyweight, stopped in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Worlds against eventual runner-up Alexandre de Souza. At the 2010 Rio Open in July, Rodolfo ran rampant on his way to winning weight and open weight. “You see, I haven’t even competed at the Brazilian Nationals as a black belt, for example,” he recalls. “I had a string of injuries in 2010, but I want to win weight and absolute at the Nationals next time around, and the Worlds, at least in my division. Next year I’m going after these titles. I’m also thinking about some day doing MMA, but I still have much to conquer in Jiu-Jitsu.”

He admits there’s still a ways to go for him to be considered one of the greats in the sport’s history, but that’s his goal. The distinction of being unbeatable is built by beating one’s main opponents, many of whom have overcome them in the past. Put on that list stalwart opposition like Antonio Braga Neto, Alexandre Souza and Alexandro Ceconi. Where’s this train going to stop?

At the time of the interview, Rodolfo only dreamed of making it to a world championship final, like the one in this photo by Ivan Trindade.

Six questions for Rio Open absolute champion Rodolfo Vieira

What’s the most important thing in training?
Up until purple belt, the right thing to do is practice lots of positions. I feel it’s wrong for a blue belt, for example, to prioritize physical conditioning and things. Up until brown belt, when I won the absolute at the Worlds, I only trained Jiu-Jitsu. There’s no point in having a lot of stamina but being technically sloppy. Always practicing positions is ideal. After that, you have to do a good job dividing your time between physical conditioning and rest, diet and lots of technical training.

How do you react to defeat?
When I lose, the truth is that I get kind of afraid of facing the opponent again. But I forget all that come fight time. I try and watch my opponents’ matches. The last guy I lost to was Alexandro Ceconi. I knew he was really good standing and that to face him I’d have to land on top. So I trained a lot of throws, lots of defense of the takedowns he uses, and when I faced him again, it all worked out. To this day there’s only been one guy I lost to who I haven’t gotten back yet: Leandro Athaídes, of Nova União. But I’m not worried about it. If we face each other again, we face each other.

How do you react to victory?
We have to correct our mistakes not just when we lose, but when we win, too. You have to revisit the situations where you felt uncomfortable, where the opponent made things hard. I show up at the academy and talk to Master Júlio and he corrects me. You have to train a lot of the basics, train everything. There are positions we think we’ll never be in, but at some point, we’ll need them.

Do you practice a lot of positions where you feel uncomfortable?
At the gym I’m a big-time guard player and always play on bottom because that’s where I’m weak. I’m really confident in passing guard and standing, looking for takedowns. The truth is that we have to work really hard on what have a hard time with, do lots of repetitions. Lots of repetitions.

To become absolute world champion these days one has to get past three-time champion Roger Gracie. How do you beat a competitor who just seems to get more and more unbeatable?
That’s a tough one! To beat him it would have to be from the top. You can see how he takes the best guard players around and trounces them. It’s nearly impossible to beat him from the bottom. You have to train a lot of judo and take him down. It’s tricky, but it’s not impossible.

What advice would you give a beginner who dreams of being champion?
To be champion all you have to do is train. But first, one must be a good person. Be a friend at the academy, learn to help. To be good at Jiu-Jitsu it’s all about believing and training, there isn’t that much else you can do.

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