The next big Gracie; Felipe Couto’s unexpected march to final

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Photo: Mike Colón.

Ronis Gracie, a lightweight purple belt from Gracie Barra, came into the Worlds last June with the will to win. He felt his Jiu-Jitsu was the “complete package.” He had trained hard on both his top and bottom games and worked on every flaw he could find. By the time he stepped onto the mats in Long Beach to face his competitors, he was confident he had the “right stuff” to be a champion.

Kayron (left) and Ronis. Photos: Mike Colón.

Gracie fought in his division and the absolute. In his division he picked off each opponent one by one, strategically and systematically working his way to the final. By the time he got there he’d already won six fights. His final match was with Jordon Schultz from Alliance. Schultz, who won the 2010 Pan, was also working his way through the division, showing his technical expertise and proving his worth to the world, yet again.

Gracie had heard about Schultz and was looking forward to having an opportunity to fight him. His wish was granted. As the two faced off in the divisional final, it was apparent that this was not only going to be a battle of skill and expertise, but one of will as well.

The match began with Gracie pulling guard. He was able to sweep Schultz and go to mount. Schultz escaped, but Gracie took his back and got a choke on him. What came next was completely unexpected. “I don’t know how it happened,” Gracie said, “But I lost the grip on his collar. He turned and came into my guard again.”

Dismayed, Gracie said, “I was six points ahead. I had the fight in my hands. I guess I slowed my speed down. He tried to pass, so I turned, but I left my arm out and he got it.” Schultz locked in the arm bar and submitted a surprised and very disappointed Gracie with a little over a minute left in the match. As he walked off the mats with his head down, the only words heard were, “I can’t believe it.”

Although he’d just won silver, it was evident that this hard-core competitor felt like he had just let the gold slip through his fingers and he wasn’t happy about it. In reflection Gracie said, “I know now that even if I’m winning, I can never relax. Not even for a second. I was winning 6-0 with under two minutes left in the match. I thought I was the champion too early. I feel like he (Schultz) didn’t beat me. I feel like I beat myself.”

Ronis consoled by teammates. Photo: Mike Colón.

Ronis didn’t have too much time to ponder the situation before he had to get ready for the absolute. He needed to pull it together and get his head back in the game. His first two matches went as planned, winning one by submission and one by points. In his third match he faced Alec Baulding of Alliance. Gracie knew he was a tough competitor and that he had to play a flawless game.

At the start of the match, Gracie pulled guard, just like he did with Schultz. This time, though, he says he made the mistake of letting Baulding put him in a bad position. Gracie says he couldn’t move much and time was passing. “I had to do something,” he said, “And right then he passed my guard. When he tried to mount, I recovered.” Gracie swept Baulding, but he was still losing on points. He only had 40 seconds left in the match and tried to set up a choke, but the match ended, giving Gracie a bronze medal for his efforts.

Gracie said that Baulding had a very good top game. “He didn’t make any mistakes,” Gracie said, “And I let him have positions I shouldn’t have. I would like to fight him again.” Gracie says he’s going to keep training hard all year, so next year he doesn’t make any mistakes.

Gracie says that his overall experience was very good. “I fought a lot of tough competitors and I fought a lot of fights, so I’m happy.” Gracie has a will of steel and perseverance to match it, so he says his new goal this year is “to fight the guys who are the toughest opponents. In my division, Jordon (Schultz) is that guy. Whenever I see him registered for a tournament, I am going to sign up and go there, no matter where it is, just so I can fight him again.”

Ronis with Jordon Schultz on winners' stand. Photo: Deb Blyth.

Getting over the hump

Felipe Couto was not having a good year. The GB featherweight purple belt had a disappointing showing at the 2010 Pan. His expectations high, he lost in his first match to Eric Sherman of Serra JJ. That was a difficult loss to get over. Now, to make matters worse, he was coming into the Worlds injured.

Couto had a hurt shoulder and rib, and a huge contusion on his knee, so he was unable to train for this world-class event. Surprisingly, he was feeling upbeat and happy. He came to the tournament with no expectations of winning, so he felt no stress or pressure. His frame of mind was very relaxed. “I don’t have to win,” he said, “I’m just here to have some fun.”

Couto won his first match quickly with a submission. A little surprised, he walked off the mats smiling and said, “I may be hurt, but my mind is strong and I feel confident.” His second match he won by points. “I still feel good,” he said, a fleeting look of confusion crossing his face…then he laughed, “I guess I still have four more matches to go (to win gold)!”

As he rested in between matches, Couto said that he felt better at this tournament than any other before. As he tried to piece it all together, he said, “Before, I just focused on training and technique. I always forgot my mind. So, this time that’s what I worked on. I’m thinking now that it’s the best work out you can have!”

Couto then walked onto the mats for his 3rd match, which ended faster than the two prior. He pulled half-guard and took his opponent’s back. Next thing to happen: submission by Ezekiel (forearm) choke. Couto walked off the mats smiling, obviously in disbelief over his good fortune thus far. “I’m still having fun,” he said, “My mom’s a psychologist and I’ve been talking to her a lot. It’s taken all the pressure away.” Couto joked, “It’s working so well, I think it’s going to be my secret training from now on!”

Couto’s good humor lasted through two more wins. Then, he found himself in a place he never thought he’d be: the Finals, with Adnris Brunovskeis of Lloyd Irvin. As he prepared himself for the match, he began to transform into someone other than the fun-loving guy he’d been all day. The “fun” began to drain from his face, leaving a look of competitiveness, and desire. “I’ve never medaled in the Worlds before,” he said, “Today’s my day.”

As the match began, they both tried to pull guard. It became a grip war and slowly Brunovskeis started racking up the points. Couto’s face displayed a look of panic…he tried to pass Brunovskeis’ guard. At one point he left his arm exposed; Brunovskeis took advantage, locked in the arm bar and submitted Couto, leaving him second in the World.

After losing the match, Couto sat on the mats looking sad and deject, as if he knew he’d almost had it all, but somehow lost it. When he walked off the mats, he said it just dawned on him that this was a tournament he attended, armed with only a strong mind and a desire to have fun. It was his light-heartedness that brought him to this place, and a good place it was.

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