Interview with Marcio ‘Macarrão’ Stambowsky

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Neiman, Marcio Macarrão and Deborah Gracie.

“Time passes, and the young rooster grows into the tribe’s strong rooster,” observes Marcio “Macarrão” Stambowsky, referring to his son Neiman, who is preparing for another challenge in MMA – a fight with Javier Torres on Oct. 20.

Neiman, his 28-year-old son from his marriage with Carla Gracie, has six wins – five by submission. With each fight, the father gets better at taming the adrenaline of watching a child of his in the cage. But learning something new every day has always been the strong suit of Macarrão – a nickname he got in his time as a surfer in Ipanema, right around the time he started training with the legendary Rolls Gracie.

We chatted with the 58-year-old master, today a red-and-white–belt, about his famous sweeps, about training at his Gracie Sports gym in Norwalk, Connecticut, and much more.

GRACIEMAG: You began training in 1975, and in June of this year you received the red-and-white belt. What have you been learning in this new phase of accompanying Neiman in MMA?

MARCIO MACARRÃO: Look, every fight of his has been packed with learning. It is an enormous adrenaline, but I think I’ve been managing to manage this nervousness at each match. I’ve been in his corner about four times, but I really don’t like it. What calms me down a bit is realizing that his determination, tenacity and drive are big and genuine. And, of course, the fact that he is always training hard with his mates at Renzo Gracie’s tough team in New York makes me calmer, because I see that he is ready for the challenges that arise. When he sees me nervous he says, “Come on, Dad – don’t get nervous, ’cause I’m alright.” I’m a fan of Neiman’s; I am very proud of him. And, when a father sees that his son applied himself to be there, and he really likes what he’s doing, the adrenaline is replaced with other feelings. Neiman is tough and has been proving it: he’s been put through tough tests a few times, like in his second fight [against Dustin Holyko], and he has shown that he can hang in there.

Did he have this drive to compete as a kid?

When Neiman was five he’d tell me, “One day I want to fight in Japan!” He was already obsessed as he watched his cousins and uncles fighting in Pride FC – Royce, Ryan, Renzo, Ralph… I’ve been playing BJJ with him since he was three, but he began preparing for real in his adolescence. He’s always had an open mind and a lot of interest in learning everything about fighting. For example: when he was a kid, he’s go to Copacabana at Manimal to test himself in Muay Thai. In the end, I believe the most important ingredient for you to achieve success in any activity in life is love. Having love for something is the first step. Only that way do you begin dedicating yourself, indeed, o try to do it in the best way, to strive to break your limit and learn each detail. And that is something I notice he has in him. He’s a homebody; he’s been married for 13 years with Karina, a mature wife. That is, he lives for fighting and has a lot of focus outside the gym too.

Was his time competing as a child important to the athlete he is today?

No doubt, but I believe the biggest advantage the BJJ championships gave him was experience, in spite of the young age. With the tournaments he acquired calm – that ability to cool down when there’s danger, which saves an MMA fighter. His psychology is strong thanks to the BJJ competitions, and since he was a child he’s shown himself to be very tenacious, very brave. Since the training at Renzo’s gym is arduous, he’s evolving well.

Is it true that BJJ entered your life almost as a game?

Well, yes. I really enjoyed watching Bruce Lee movies, doing kicks and pretend-fighting with my brother and friends. One day my friend Maurição Gomes – now a famous teacher and dad to Roger – went to my place in Leblon, and we got tangled up for fun. But that time I was unable to do anything to him: he clinched, took me down and dominated me, like three times. “What’s that, man?” I asked in awe. “It’s that now I’m doing BJJ at João Alberto Barreto,” he explained. Sort of fascinated by that novelty, I talked to my dad, and he said he would take me to train at Carlson’s. When I arrived there, I saw Rolls, who shared the gym with Carlson, at the reception. His image caused a big impression on me – he was young, already a black belt around the waist, nice and very thin. He showed me around, and I signed up immediately. I remember that he explained: “The times are different. Do you want to be my student or my brother Carlson’s?” I didn’t understand and said it didn’t matter. But, as I looked at Rolls, I noticed he had a strong, penetrating stare, and I figured I had said something dumb. “No – look, I want to be your student,” I added. I hadn’t even heard of Rolls before. Afterwards Maurição ended up coming to train with us.

Did you get started that day?

No. Rolls didn’t have a gi to sell, and he told me to buy one there in a store next to the Cordeiro judo gym. The following day I went back. And, from that first class with Rolls, I was in love with BJJ. I noticed that it was an activity I could really learn; it wasn’t anything too complex, even for a child. It was curious, because at the time BJJ was just a martial art – it wasn’t seen as a sport, because there were barely any competitions. And MMA did not even exist.

What did you learn in those first few lessons?

Rolls got me learning just self-defense, standing and on the ground, for the first 45 lessons I took. Defense against headlocks, takedowns, blunt instruments, etc. I believe that gave me a very solid base for my BJJ, because it’s across those 45 lessons that the student deeply understands BJJ’s lever system in practice. It’s from the moment you understand what you’re doing, what you are seeking, that improving becomes possible and quicker. You can’t memorize in a BJJ class.

Can you compare students from the 70s and 80s with students today? Do they seek the same answers when they approach BJJ?

I believe, here in America, many of my students seek out the art to satiate a competitive side that they usually develop in college. But many youths and older men continue to sign up to learn how to defend themselves, like before. But BJJ is very wide, and can be taught in three parts that are a little different: self-defense; competitive BJJ, in and out of the gi; and BJJ applied to MMA, a more specific class for athletes looking to become professionals. But I think every student seeks knowledge: to know the technique, to know themselves.

Why did you get into BJJ?

Just to learn ways to defend myself. As I was the third youngest brother, the bullying started at home. And it’s never been easy being a kid in Rio de Janeiro. I liked surfing in Ipanema, near home, and the youngest used to be intimidated. After I started training, I would even hope for some surfer to try and start something with me! But the bullying quickly subsided; at home, one day I made my older brother tap out 200 times… At the beach, someone said I competed and trained with Rolls, so they never messed with me again. They even started incentivizing me: “Go for it – this wave is yours!”

What was the most memorable fight of your career?

There were a few – some challenges at the gym. But I remember one of the first times I ever fought – I was still starting out as a competitor. I pulled guard, got him in closed guard, choked him, and the guy went to sleep. Rolls, thenceforth, would joke: “Come on – use the mighty one!” I also really liked to sweep and land on the mount, arm already caught. Here in America people even dubbed it the “Macarrão sweep.”

You’ve always been considered a master of sweeps. What do you think of modern guards?

I think there’s a lot new, but half of what we’re seeing there existed in the old days – it’s used for a while and then forgotten… And then it comes back with a vengeance – it’s normal. What changes are the nicknames for the position. The details, really – old and new, – I like trying them out. I think like a doctor: if a doctor goes 20 years without studying, he becomes obsolete. My game has always been one of closed guard – I had a powerful guard as a competitor, – but I don’t like teaching only what works in my game; I teach the student a general outlook, modern techniques included. I just don’t like flourishes. Really, these days, as an older man, I’m even turning into more of a passer.

Any other amazing episodes you cherish?

Most amazing of all was being able to be a part of this story, of the beginning of the BJJ saga. It was a romantic, very cool time, where no one knew the gentle art. I always believed BJJ would grow a lot and go far, but every day I’m amazed at the proportion the art has taken these days – something phenomenal.

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