In 1993, the Gracie family of Brazil changed the martial arts world forever. They held a no-holds-barred fighting tournament in Denver, CO., billed as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. There were no weight classes, very few rules, and experts from several different fighting styles were invited to compete. The smallest competitor, Royce Gracie, won the competition, defeating all of his opponents in under five minutes. Royce credited his family's style of jiu-jitsu with his success.
Today's interview subject, Carlos "Sapao" Ban, grew up training with the Gracie family in his native Brazil. At 21 years old, he was the youngest person to ever receive a black belt from Ralph Gracie. The Brazilian National, World, and Pan Am Jiu-Jitsu champion recently welcomed me onto the mats of his school at Ocean Beach, to talk about jiu-jitsu, competition, and deadly force.
1. Like a lot of people in the U.S., I didn't really think of Brazil as a place for martial arts until I saw the early Ultimate Fighting Championships. How is Brazilian jiu-jitsu different from the traditional Japanese style?
BJJ is more leveraging than muscle strength, and BJJ is also more diverse and open-minded to other techniques from different arts that complement jiu-jitsu.
2. Some schools will have purple or brown belts teach the beginning classes, but you like to teach all of your beginners personally. Why is that?
Number one: quality control. And I believe that if I'm the the black belt in charge and I don't interact with the students, I'm not putting time and effort into my foundation. I believe that if you have a solid beginning foundation, you will become a solid black belt -- and that comes from training with a black belt. And also, it's an ego thing. Who am I to think I'm better than others? If you come in, I'm gonna teach you. If you're a beginner, then I have to teach you. It's the cult of being a samurai spirit -- to serve.3. I've noticed a public perception of jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts people as kind of tough, almost unsavory characters. What kind of people do jiu-jitsu?
There's definitely a taboo about jiu-jitsu people. I think the roots of it being a taboo come from Japanese emperor times. Back then, when you were a jiu-jitsu guy you were supposed to be working for an emperor, or you were an outlaw. People still associate being a jiu-jitsu guy with being tough and secluded. I think the 21st century is when people like me -- who have dedicated their lives to the art -- have a chance to break the taboo. We're going back to where it's no longer a taboo, and should be something that brings out the positivity that jiu-jitsu gives you -- not this power, ego, emperor thing.
I feel like the people who are not physically gifted think they can't do it, but they only can't do it 'cause they never tried. Or if they did try it and can't do it, it's because of the people they tried it with. Train jiu-jitsu once in your lifetime. Life is short. And choose a school where people refer you, don't just jump in anywhere.
4. These days, a lot of BJJ schools focus on tournaments and competition. Do you think it's important to compete?
In my opinion, personally, I think it's important to compete once in your whole experience. Somewhere, from white to black belt, in between these two extremes. To me, it's nothing else than feeling comfortable to force your own limits, your own personal challenges. Things like: making weight, eating right, training hard, and having abstinence of the regular things you like.
Do I force people to go? No. I believe an individual should have the will to go compete themselves. If you're going because someone's telling you to go, I don't think you should. If you don't want to compete, I also don't think you should feel bad, because you share inside the gym. Helping others get ready is just as important as if you're going to compete yourself.
5. I grew up on a lot of action and kung fu movies with people like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. In those movies they're always talking about secret knockout punches, and crazy ways to kill people with your bare hands. Does anything like that exist in real life?
There are deadly techniques in jiu-jitsu, and I've seen it and learned it. It's there, it's a secret, and it comes with time when you're ready to learn it. Not physically, but mentally, 'cause you don't show a technique like that until someone's ready to learn it. It's like giving an AK-47 to a little child -- you don't do that.
Carlos "Sapoa" Ban, is co-owner of Ocean Beach Barra Brothers Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with Matt Lopez. They offer classes six days a week, and will be hosting free self defense workshops for women, on Mondays in February. Check their website for details.