Pires, Reloaded: BJJ Highlander Ricardo Pires Brings Home Rio Gold
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has grown up.
Over the weekend of July 23-24, 2011, the International Masters and Seniors competition was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with an impressive turnout of big names from the past, present, and-if last weekend’s results are any indication-future of jiu-jitsu.
One of those names was Ricardo Pires. Pires, 46, is Ohio’s highest-ranking black belt and co-founder of the local Rio Pro Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academies. Pires, who competed in the Senior III Ultra Heavy division, brought another gold medal home to his adopted city of Cleveland.
Pires’ story illustrates a greater trend happening in sport jiu-jitsu today.
In the relatively short time since jiu-jitsu was imported from Japan to Brazil and hence to the USA, sport jiu-jitsu has been the undisputed territory of the young and the reckless. True, the great masters like Helio Gracie were of a venerable age, but their contribution to bjj was more as teachers than competitors.
But now, that trend is changing. As jiu-jitsu has continued to grow and evolve, so have its practitioners. The result is a blending of the old school and the new, the fads and the foundations to create a jiu-jitsu that can stand the test of time.
In a way, you could say that jiu-jitsu has come full circle. Originally embraced as a small guy’s sport, with the objective of getting the maximum results for the minimum energy expenditure, jiu-jitsu then entered a long phase of over-the-top machismo. Small, weak guys became little grease spots on the mat at the hands of big, strong guys who knew jiu-jitsu too.
The martial art based on principles of energy conservation and control morphed into a cross between the Ironman Triathlon and Cirque du Soleil. And, though often spectacular to watch, jiu-jitsu gradually became farther and farther removed from its origins as the average guy’s martial art.
But now, the pendulum is swinging back again. There are still a fair number of triathletes on the mat, but there are also the Highlanders-men like Ricardo Pires who have come through injury, adversity and a fair number of years to emerge tougher and smarter and ready to fight.
Pires has been on both sides of the equation. His size, conditioning and natural athletic prowess-Pires began his sports career in pro soccer- made him a natural fit for the Superhero bjj spawned in the 90’s.
Now, 13 years after his first win at the Worlds, Pires is still one very tough cookie. But the years have left their mark. When asked about sports-related injuries, Pires doesn’t know quite where to begin.
“Well, I’ve broken all my fingers at least once,” he says hesitantly, as if unsure if digits really count. But besides the inevitable wear and tear of a physically demanding sport (It’s not the years, honey, it’s the miles, as Indiana Jones once said), there are the more insidious pressures exerted by that baddest of all badasses: life.
Three kids in college at the same time are no joke. Add that to the challenges involved in starting a new business and the evil aliens that take over your body the minute you turn 40 and it stands to reason that Pires might not approach the mat with quite the same spring in his step as before.
But Ricardo Pires is not one to be put off by obstacles. “If you find something blocking your path,” he says, “find a way around.”
In the same way, when asked to define the secret of success, Pires advises: Know your limitations.
But even at 46, Pires’ foremost limitation, by his own definition, is more in his mind than his body.
“I get anxious,” he says. “I just want to fight, fight, fight.”
Pires’ desire to get on with things cost him dearly at last year’s Pan Am’s. “I pulled half guard,” he says, “and the guy got an advantage, and he won by that advantage.”
“I wanted to fight,” Pires goes on. “That guy just wanted the medal. Do I blame him? No. He got what he wanted. This time, I found myself with the same feeling, and I thought-‘What would be worse-losing by advantage because I was stupid, or winning with the rules and not being that happy with my performance?’ And I decided I’d rather win with the rules than lose with the rules.”
In the end, he finished both fights with submissions, so even perfectionist Pires had nothing to complain about in his own performance.
To what does he attribute his win?
“Control,” he says. “and timing. My timing just gets better and better.”
And some quick thinking.
There’s an adage in jiu-jitsu: If you think, you’re late; if you’re late, you die. But as Ricardo Pires pointed out, sometimes not thinking clearly can cost you the match. The key is finding a balance between muscle memory and a clearheaded ability to identify the obstacle and find a way around.
Whatever it was, it worked.
But even if Pires has chosen to abandon the Superman tactics for a kinder, gentler jiu-jitsu (kinder and gentler to his body, that is, not necessarily to his opponents), some still see this soft-spoken road warrior as larger than life.
On Facebook, one of those modern innovations that has failed to completely win over old-school Pires, Ricardo’s daughter Renata answered the following question about her father:
If Ricardo Pires were a superhero, which superhero would he be?
“My father,” wrote the daughter of Ricardo Pires, “already is my superhero.”
Interview with Ricardo Pires
Question: Those guys looked pretty tough. How did you feel about the level of competition?
Ricardo Pires: I was surprised. I haven’t competed in Brazil in a long time. Just to give you an example, before my first match this guy came to me said, “How come I didn’t see any videos of yours on the internet?”
I said, “I just don’t like it, it’s not me to try to put my videos and promote myself on the internet.”
He said, “Yeah you should have your videos up, I wanted to study you.”
I wasn’t sure if he was joking or serious and actually he was very serious (this was right before the match).
He said, “Because I take this very very seriously.”
I said “Oh good for you, I do too, that’s why I’m here competing.” Obviously I don’t take it as seriously as he does, but I didn’t think too much about it.
After the match he acted very nice even though before the match he was not too nice but that’s pretty common, it happens a lot.
Then came the other guy, and the guy was like more polite, a really nice guy too. We didn’t talk too much before the match, we just shook hands. So, the match started and after the match I was away sitting talking to my son Victor, Josh, and Victor’s girlfriend and the guy was crying. And I felt kind of weird and what that guy said before hit me. And I said you know what, that’s how seriously they take this.
And I thought that was really nice. I didn’t look at that guy as a loser. You see a guy that age, I mean we’re not that young anymore. We’re not old either, but we’re not that young. And it was great to see all those guys like us, there were a lot of them. We didn’t have that before. The international masters, it wasn’t that big. It only started about fifteen years ago. People actually joke about it, like you should fight masters, but guys who win major adult tournaments fight in the masters and they lose.
But to see how seriously that guy took it it really caught my attention. So I went there to talk to the guy, try to comfort him a little bit, try to get his mood a little bit back, but that’s what he said too, “You know I trained so hard for this,” he said, and I felt pretty bad. Because I didn’t train.
I’m not bragging. On the contrary, maybe that was my advantage, that’s why I won, because I didn’t have any pressure on my back.
But it’s really cool to see how seriously people take jiu-jitsu in Brazil. Of course, I’ve seen it before-I was there before-but I’ve been away from Brazil as a competitor for a long time. The last tournament I watched in Brazil was the Worlds in 2004, that was seven years ago and I just watched, I didn’t compete. I didn’t talk to those guys, I didn’t know what was going on, I just saw the matches from the stands. It’s really nice to see how much jiu-jitsu has grown in a really not that long, 15 years.
Q: Jiu-jitsu only came to Brazil in the 1920’s. That’s less than a hundred years. Do you feel that as the sport matures, the fighters are maturing too and raising the level?
RP: When I was playing soccer I was 13, 14, and the average retirement age for soccer players in Brazil at that time was in the 30’s; that was old. Now, things have changed. Randy Couture is not the only one but he’s the most famous guy probably who is fighting at the age of 47 or 48. Before, nobody would have ever thought that would happen.
Nowadays you see guys at the peak of jiu-jitsu in their 30’s. That’s when they are in the best shape of their lives, and they have experience too. But you also have to remember that the guys that competed back then, who are around my age, that’s where you have the most fighters. The guys who are now between 44 and 50 are the guys that fought at a young age 15 years ago, when they were 30, or 28, which is when the tournaments started picking up and jiu-jitsu really got big. In 1996 they had the first world championship, that’s when it became popular, so that’s 20 years ago. Those guys got older but they still like to compete.
And of course the guys that came later have something to look forward to, you know, “I can not only train but also compete, that’s nice! And I can compete at my age and my level? That’s really nice!” They don’t have to compete with kids, the young guys, they can compete in our age bracket.
But it was really cool to see there are still people thinking about sport jiu-jitsu, not just MMA. There’s one guy from Gracie Humaita who has done every single tournament for like 14 years. And we can still have fun, and that makes all of us watch out our health, stay in shape and everything else.
Q: How long have you been playing jiu-jitsu? How do you feel your game has changed over the years?
RP: I would say I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for the last 20 years. I wouldn’t count the other years, because I played soccer and had to stop. So it was on and off, but my game didn’t change that much. I think it adjusted better. I’m not playing anything differently, it’s still the same old school, the same technique, of course I adjust it to myself and pick a little bit here and there but my timing is getting better and better and better. That’s what makes the difference.
There was a guy who made a comment on Facebook, which I don’t go on Facebook much but my daughter called my attention to it, he said said the guys that fought me didn’t put up much of a fight or something like that. Like the guy didn’t fight me hard but he congratulated me anyway. Which was a weird comment. But in a way, I understand. I’m not calling myself Roger Gracie, but when you see him do a position, or a move, it just looks so perfect, it looks like he’s not making an effort and the guy’s not defending himself.
And I remember every inch of that fight when I fought that guy, everything was tight, very very very tight, I felt the guy couldn’t really move. That was the difference.
I always talk about control and this just proved me right. I wasn’t worried about the submission. I did want the submission, I really wanted the submission, but first I wanted to pass the guard, not get swept, control, get knee on belly, score my points, and look for the submission as it would come. But I remember, it’s funny, because during the match I thought, it’s so good to apply what you train, and how I trained is how I fought. And again, I think I really won that fight, that guy didn’t lose, he couldn’t do much, and it was the same with the second guy.
Usually I get mad, about two or three minutes in, in a ten minute match I am trying to take the guy down and I just pull guard because I want to fight! Inside I just want to fight fight fight fight. And when you do that you start losing. You lose control of yourself, you start losing the match. That’s exactly what happened to me last year. In one match I pulled half guard, and obviously, if the guy gets the advantage he’s going to stay there. The referee has to give three warnings before taking points away, and the time we fight is not enough time. Bottom line, you give the guy an advantage, he’s going to win with the advantage. Which is exactly what happened. I gave him one advantage, he got two warnings and he still won.
So during this recent match I already had two advantages, and I was pissed, you know I was thinking, “Come on man, let’s fight!” I was really trying to take him down but playing safe at the same time, trying to take the guy down. Yeah I did a good job by avoiding, but during the match I said to myself, what would be the worst feeling, to lose because I was stupid, or win with the rules, and not be happy, and I said you know what I’m just gonna win with the rules and not be happy with the performance. I am just going to take this and that’s what happened, but the second he pulled guard, I was able to break and pass. And I was so happy.
Q: Somebody said to me you passed the guy’s guard as if he was a white belt, just because it was so tight.
RP: One detail there, our game is really good on top. Those guys that I fought-just for a quick note-both of them have been winning every single tournament in Brazil. That made me even more excited about the fight. I was like, “Oh good, I’m fighting somebody. It’s going to be good!” But they chose the strategy that works for me. Pull guard, okay great. I was trying to take you down and you pulled guard. Great.
Q: They talk about jiu-jitsu being all instinct but it sounds like you have to use your head sometimes too.
RP: I did use my head a little more. First of all, I felt really good. I felt like I was just at the gym and that’s how you want to feel. And usually it doesn’t matter if I train or not, I really get nervous in fights, because I want to fight so bad. I’m only afraid of not performing. I don’t mind if the guy kicks my ass, beats me by 20 points or even finishes me, if we’re fighting that’s what makes me happy. But losing by an advantage because I pulled half guard, that pisses me off, because it’s my fault.
I’m not blaming the person, I’m blaming myself. If you pull half guard it had better work. You know? So I have to play with the rules a little bit and actually put in place what I’ve been telling people, “Play with the rules, go for submissions but don’t forget the points.” Score the points and move. Score and move. Score and move. I scored 14 points in the first match. And it was fast. But I made sure I stayed four five seconds in each position. As soon as he pulled guard, he put me back in half, and I realized it was unnecessary for me to fight to stay in side or mount. I decided to give him half guard but just a little so I could break and pass again, and score the points. So all of that means that you are thinking and you’re calm and you’re cool and not nervous. Excited but not nervous.
Q: Being able to stay calm and relaxed, as you are, does that come with time and experience?
RP: It’s all about control. That will help your game to grow so much. With everything. With your job and everything else. That’s one thing that when I was there, I said I’m not going to lose control. I’m not going to let myself go to where I know I will go. Of course it comes with time and experience. But I think if you really pay attention and try to understand for real what control means that’s going to speed up the results tremendously. That’s going to help you a lot. Experience helps a lot but, but you have to understand that it’s all about you.
Q: Watching your match, there doesn’t seem to be a moment where you’re letting up control or getting it back. It seems like it’s there all the time.
RP: Yes, but during the match I remember twice I had, not to get back in control, but to remind myself that I was in control. There was a time I just wanted to throw a single leg, throw a double leg, a couple of throws that were there and I was just going to try try try try and I said no, I’m doing the right thing, I’m going to keep doing it. So not that I lost control but I did just remind myself, don’t go there, it came in my mind, should I just push it? And at the same time I was talking to myself. You know, I said no no no I’m going to keep pushing the way I am because I’m winning. Even if it was zero zero, zero points zero advantage, I would have won, because I was the one pushing the pace, dictating the pace. So you’re right, it was control the whole time.
Q: You talk a lot about the importance of control, but how can you control every situation?
RP: You can’t.
Q: So what you do you then?
RP: You have to understand that you can’t.
RP: I don’t think you can control every situation. You’re going to lose, you’re going to lose control of yourself sometimes, but the point is how far you go without control, whether you go too far. If you can’t swim, make sure you can only walk when it’s up here, so if you go up there, you better make sure, the water is here, this is me half gone, this is me 100% gone. And even if I get there, get half back. You know what I’m saying. You’re going to lose sometimes. You have to measure. You have to walk until you see how deep the water is. Then when you go too far just come back. That’s getting control back. If you have a warrior spirit or the competitor spirit you’re going to push yourself a little bit and you will pass that limit. That’s common.
Q: So pushing yourself is going to mean inevitably a little loss of control. Is that correct?
RP: Yes. Sometimes when you push yourself too much you’re at the limit. In Formula 1, you see guys going on the curve, and they lose it a little bit. That’s losing control. They went a little too far without noticing, and they say, “Oh man I went too far,” but they get it back. They didn’t spin. They might lose a second or two which is a lot in Formula 1, but they get back to the race. So that’s what I’m talking about. When you push yourself a little too much, you’re going to lose a little bit of control. You think you know your limit but you don’t. Then you go a little bit too far.
Q: You talked in class about being relaxed. That seems like a contradiction. Relax and fight at the same time.
RP: Look, your face shows a lot. Not only to your opponent but to yourself. When your face goes tight, everything in your body gets tight, and it comes back to control again. I have fighters I trained that it made a lot of difference to, and it made a lot of difference in my life too. You have to relax. It’s not relaxing and resting, that’s different. Let me give you an example, let’s see if that works. This is an actual situation. There is a couple, and on the one hand we have the person that when she gets the flu, she thinks the next step is pneumonia and then she’s going to die. The other person, when he gets the flu, is happy because he knows the symptoms, he knows the problem, and he looks for a solution. To me that’s relaxing.
When you understand, okay I have a problem now, are you gonna die because of the problem or look for a solution for the problem you have? So when you are in a fight or whatever situation, when something happens, relax. Those few seconds you relax are going to help you to see the situation you are in. If you can’t see the situation, that can make it worse. Getting the flu is so much different from pneumonia, and dying of pneumonia is so much different from getting pneumonia. It’s a long step. Right now, yeah let’s try to avoid, first, like your parents and my parents said, get out of the shower and put on a shirt, don’t get your chest in the wind, you’re going to get a cold. So there are steps to get there. So the moment you see where you are and where the situation is and what that represents, you should relax. Don’t get desperate.
Q: When you fight do you feel relaxed?
RP: Sometimes I am more nervous than others. That’s another thing. When I played soccer I played way better at the away field, as a visitor, because there was no pressure. And I had another ten guys I could blame! If you’re playing in your home stadium there’s a lot of pressure but away from home the pressure is off. That’s another thing made me more calm. I always hope to fight somebody local. Everybody is cheering for that guy.
Q: You said recently in class: The finish is always the same, how you get there depends on you. What did you mean?
RP: Let’s take jiu-jitsu. How is the triangle? Is there more than one? No, but how you set it up or get there is different. There are several different ways. The same thing for the armbar. It can be from the guard, from the mount, belly up belly down, but it’s the same: thumb up, knees in, facing the guy on his ears. It’s always the same. People try to make it different, but the finish is always the same. Focus on technique, focus on reality, don’t try to make it different. I mean, how old is jiu-jitsu? I don’t know much of the history, I’m sorry, but it’s always the same. People try to skip steps, find a shortcut, but you have to remember that you can find a shortcut but you’re not going to find a shortcut for the end.
At the same time, how you get there depends on you, who you are, your body style. How you’re built. Why do I like to keep legs closed for the kimura? It feels tighter. Are you telling me that it’s wrong? No, it’s not wrong. What’s wrong is to get the arms way out here. The right way is to get the arm and keep it in tight and turn so the finish is the same. So how I lock it how I finish, that’s what matters. How I get there doesn’t matter. It matters to you, not to me. How I finish is the same.
It’s the same thing with jiu-jitsu. I went to that competition in LA. Did I blame the guy that beat me by one advantage? No I didn’t, I blamed myself. He achieved what he wanted. I wanted to fight, he wanted the medal. I wanted the fight with the medal. And because I felt so bad about the last one I changed a little bit last weekend. I decided, okay I hate that feeling of pulling guard and being stupid again. If I pull guard, probably won’t have time. The guy was a big guy. Like 6’5″ 260 lbs., if I pull guard and he can just stop me from sweeping, he’s gonna win. That’s how it works. I’ve seen a lot of fights already, that’s how it works. And I said I’m not going to pull guard this time. In a ten minute match, yes, but five minutes, no.
Q: So how would you describe your style? What makes you different from your competitors?
RP: Everyone thinks their coach is the best, just like you always think your father is the best father. I really think I had the best school. I’ve seen nowadays things have changed for the worse, the level is dropping a little bit, I’m talking about gi. I think MMA is one of the biggest reasons for the level dropping. But the school I had was actually the best school I could ever pick. I really had a good school. Oswaldo Alves, Sergio Penha, he’s the one that taught me, even though he doesn’t like me to say it, but he comes from Oswaldo, but the school is Osvaldo’s. 99% of Sergio’s technique is Osvaldo’s technique and mine too. I think we were blessed to have Oswaldo as our instructor. I think because of my body type I’m a top person, and Oswaldo’s game is a top game.
Q: One thing you say a lot, when students ask you how to escape from a tricky situation, is Don’t get there. How big a part of control is avoidance?
RP: That’s one thing I learned in driving school. This guy said, don’t look at the car in front of you, look at the car in front of the car in front of you. And I said, why? And he said, because if he stops then the guy in front of you is going to stop then you have to stop. So the whole idea is to not get there.
Carlson Gracie is actually the one who made that famous. Carlson, how do I escape? Don’t get there, stupid. Funny guy, great guy. But it’s true. But in order to do that you have to know technique as well, to see what’s coming. This is why I say, Guys this is the right place to lose, to get your ass kicked. You tap 20 times today that’s gonna be great for you, just don’t tap 24 tomorrow, tap 19. But go like that so you understand what’s coming.
Q: Last question. You’re a fourth degree black belt. What are your goals for your game? It seems like you are happy with your game but still growing.
RP: You actually put it pretty well. Somebody said to me recently, Once you get your black belt it doesn’t mean you learned a lot, it means you’re ready to learn. That’s how I feel. It doesn’t matter how many degrees I have. It’s an endless learning process.
This interview was conducted in Cleveland on July 29, 2011.
write by Marwan Mousa