Fabio Gurgel is a name well-known throughout worldwide Jiu Jitsu circles. He is one of the world’s most sought after coaches, responsible for the development of many beloved jiujiteiros – such as Marcelo Garcia, Cobrinha, Lucas Lepri and many others – as well as a CEO and head coach of the famous Alliance Jiu Jitsu Team. which is the most successful in Jiu-Jitsu history with 12 team world titles.
He’s a 4x World Jiu Jitsu Champion, and this October it will be 30 years since he has been awarded his black belt by his coach, Romero „Jacare“ Cavalcanti.
We’ve talked with him about his beginnings and perspectives as a coach, about the start and growth of the Alliance Jiu Jitsu Team and the philosophy behind it, his advice for other coaches and about the importance of taking risk in order to progress further in BJJ.
BJJEE: Thank you, Mr Gurgel, for taking a portion of your time to contribute and be a part of this interview.
To start it off, we’d like to mention – this year you are supposed to strike upon your 30th anniversary as a black belt, congratulations! How does it feel to have gotten this far and to have been training and coaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for so long?
Fabio: Thank you for having me. It feels like I’m getting a little old (laughs)! Jokes aside, the truth is that I feel very fortunate to have chosen Jiu Jitsu as a profession when I was still pretty young, I didn’t regret not even one day in my life for that. So everything that comes towards me is just a consequence of the resilience in keep going.
BJJEE: You’ve begun training BJJ in Rio de Janeiro when you were 13 years of age back in 1983, is that fair to say?
Fabio: Yes it is.
BJJEE: And you made very fast progress, earning your blue belt after around three years and reaching the brown belt level within just five years of training. It was then, in 1988, that you also decided to open up your very own academy.
Could you remember and tell us a bit about your early days, training in Rio de Janeiro?
Fabio: I started Jiu Jitsu in 1983. However, 10 months later, the tiny academy that I used to train at had shut down. I wanted to continue training, so I asked my friend to bring me into the school he trained in – but he said: „Go to Jacare’s school. Our school is too flooded“, and so he recommended Romero „Jacare“ Cavalcanti, since he would be able to give me more attention and focus.
So I moved to Jacare’s gym! And when I was 15, and still a blue belt, I began my journey as an instructor by helping Jacaré in his classes. So, when an opportunity knocked on my door and gave me a chance to teach on my own, I was already prepared to do so. And it was with Jacare’s support that I started teaching my own group of students at the age of 18.
I kept training at Jacaré’s school where the environment was the extension of my house. And I mean that quite literally – I was spending more time at the gym than in my home, so it practically became an extension of my home (laughs). I made great friends there and built my BJJ foundation.
And just a fun fact: I would later find out that my instructor in that tiny academy was the same one who actually first introduced Jacare to BJJ (laughs)!
BJJEE: Well that is a great story! And you’ve said that you started your „instructor journey“ as a blue belt. How did this come to be, how did it feel like to be assisting Jacare in his classes?
Fabio: Well, I was very fond of BJJ, spending most of my days training at the academy. So, every time Jacare needed some help, I was there to help him out and assist him.
For example, he was showing the techniques on me and also had me train with beginners, in order to make them feel more comfortable.
And those lessons that I got from Jacare were probably the best lessons that I could have received as an instructor. I just got all of the foundations on how to lead the class and coach from him, Jacare.
BJJEE: So, was it already obvious to you, even back then, that you wanted to become an instructor? That you wanted to become somebody who’d orient his life around BJJ?
Fabio: Quite simply, I knew that Jiu Jitsu would be what I wanted to live off when I was at that age of 15, so everything came very naturally for me. I remember that there was a talk that I had with my father when he asked: „What will you do when you grow up?“ I said – Jiu Jitsu.
He made me understand the size of the market and how good I needed to be in order to succeed, and I took the advice he gave me and the challenge that it posed to me. I decided to dedicate myself as much as I could, knowing that the opportunities wouldn’t be many.
BJJEE: So basically, it could be said that you took your chance; but that you also approached it intelligently.
Now, connected to the previous question: you’ve decided to, with the power of all previous instructor experience, open up your own gym… As a brown belt at only 18 years of age!
Why did you decide to do it? Do you remember the experience of opening it?
Fabio: As I said, from the time I was 14-15 years old, I was spending more time at the Academy than in my house. So, when I started getting questions from people to coach them myself and when I realized I had an opportunity to start my own class, I knew that I had to take it.
However, first and foremost, I respected my instructor. I asked Jacare whether I should bring those students – the ones who asked me to coach them – to him, so he could train them. And Jacare gave me his permission to do it on my own; he said that I was good to go and that I knew enough in order to coach by myself.
But, even though I started coaching my own classes, I kept on training with Jacare. I still knew that there’s so much to learn and I wanted to continue developing myself.
And as the number of my students grew, what I did was that I made them join the Master Jacare’s school as well. So, I’ve brought the people I coached to Jacare’s school. That way, we became one of the biggest schools back then – by having more than 200 students in 1991, which is a number of people that other BJJ Academies at that time simply didn’t have.
BJJEE: So, the mutual respect is what you’ve treasured the most and that has led to mutual growth. And that growth continued expanding, both for you personally and in regards to your career.
You’ve received your black belt when you were 19 years old, in 1989. And it was four years later, in 1993, that you have – together with Master Romero Cavalcanti, and black belts Alexandre Paiva and Fernardo Gurgel – decided to open the now famous Alliance Jiu Jitsu team.
Nowadays, through the decades in the Alliance, you’ve coached and developed over 50 (!) world champions; some of which include Marcelo Garcia, Cobrihna, Bernardo Faria and numerous others.
Could you tell us the „Alliance Story“ – how did it come to be?
Fabio: Imagine this: at the beginning, our students used to fight against each other at tournaments – which didn’t make any sense once that they used to train together at Jacare’s gym, and we all represented the same school in that way. In order to correct that, we decided to sign everybody into competition under the same flag.
This is why we called it „The Alliance“. It was a unity. Our only goal was to avoid the situations in which our students would be fighting against each other, as well as to get them to compete as a team. As a family that we were.
After that, the people inside our Academy started seeing a lot of value in what we did and they were very proud to defend the Alliance flag. With time, too, it started being more than an Academy – it became a school, with a philosophy behind it.
BJJEE: And what sort of a philosophy did you implement in Alliance?
Fabio: Essentially, it was Jacare’s philosophical standpoint that we took – and those standpoints were the ones he was taught by Rolls Gracie. So we, basically, introduced the Rolls Gracie philosophy and approach.
He has seen Jiu Jitsu as a very open-minded person, which he was himself – he implemented a lot of things to his training, without being too narrowly focused on thinking that there is only „one way“ to the art. So, it is through him that we respect all of different styles and approaches to BJJ.
The mutual respect is also a very important thing, as we let our students develop in areas that they want to. All of our students have their own style and we want to make an environment where their own genius can flourish. Everybody is different, so why not let everybody develop into their best selves?
So, Jacare brought this philosophy from Rolls and we keep it alive. We aim to keep and preserve the respect we feel towards everyone; for, I believe that the more respect there is towards the whole Jiu Jitsu community, the more will we have the true Jiu Jitsu. And that is exactly what we are always going to defend, the real Jiu Jitsu.
BJJEE: Understood. But, what do you mean by „true“ or „real“ Jiu Jitsu?
Fabio: Sometimes, today, we encounter problems with individuals that simply want to introduce more money to the table. And this is done just for the sake of money, not for Jiu Jitsu in any way, shape or form. And we act very carefully with those sorts of things.
Let me give you a simple example: let’s say some people want to go out there and create something similar to the IBJJF for example. Again, this is just an example, for it is an easy one to understand for everyone reading. Now, those people want to create that JUST for the sake of money and of bringing attention, so they offer money for the athletes to go out there and compete for the money.
And don’t get me wrong – more money in the sport is an aspect of the Jiu Jitsu evolution, and this is great since it means that the sport is progressing. But, what’s dangerous is the focus on providing the short-term benefits… „Fast money“, sort to speak, instead of choosing true Jiu Jitsu and still getting that money, just over a longer period of time. We try to work and see a little bit further than that.
Alliance stands beside Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, so that people can get whatever they want: be it prize money, sponsorships, gift packages and so on… But we stand with true BJJ – with those who see Jiu Jitsu as a way of life first and foremost. Money is good, but Jiu Jitsu needs to come first.
BJJEE: Then, it could be said, that Alliance stands behind and seeks to preserve the true values of BJJ first, and that everything else comes second.
And how did Alliance stand within the BJJ scene in Brazil back then? How were you different from other academies, what made you stand out?
Fabio: I just have to remind you that the goal behind Alliance is, and has been, to bring everybody together in order to train BJJ. And in the 1990’s, Jiu Jitsu wasn’t really „friendly“ sort to speak, because of its rough nature – and so the academies started becoming smaller.
What I mean is, let’s say it’s the ’90s and that you want to start training BJJ for fun. And so you get to the mats, but when you step onto them for the first time you are in the middle of a shark tank.
You train with people who are very serious about competition and who are training very intensely. Harder and harder with each training.
You’d most likely quit, isn’t that right? Instead of finding an environment where you can develop yourself slowly and with positive people around you, you just get crushed every single training session. That’s why a lot of people quit back then.
And that is the reason why I believe Alliance has withstood for all these years. One other reason is that, in 2001, we started implementing our own methodology, to grow Brazilian Jiu Jitsu the way we see it – as something for everybody to be a part of.
BJJEE: You also mentioned that Jiu Jitsu wasn’t „friendly“ in the 1990’s. What might be some other things that are different in BJJ today – be it in training, the community or anything else?
Fabio: Jiu Jitsu is a constant evolution. Training was very intense at that time, of course… But compared to today, it’s nowhere near to what’s happening these days, since there’s a lot of difference in technology and in the ways that we prepare for competitions. That is always changing.
One important thing to point out is that Jiu Jitsu was more connected to self defense back then, as well as with vale tudo. And that is how BJJ was actually born, out of self defense. And we were closer to that aspect back then than we are today.
You see, „Old Jiu Jitsu“ versus „New Jiu Jitsu“ comes down to self defense. I believe that self defense should be more important today, as important as it was back then.
What’s more, I believe that the first contact to BJJ should be the one of self defense. For, you see, there’s all those things that you need to know in order to become a competitor – and you cannot deny yourself those things, because then you are falling behind with class and your own progress… But both competition and training for the sake of it are as important as self defense.
So, Jiu Jitsu should have both sides to it, the self defense and competition ones. I believe that all schools should teach both self defense and Jiu Jitsu basics to every beginner – and only after that should you teach them the „best sweep“.
BJJEE: So you mean to say that self defense is the essence and first step for beginners to take in BJJ? Why is that?
Fabio: Okay, so for example: imagine someone who never did Jiu Jitsu before, someone who doesn’t have a clue about it. He comes to class. What is the first thing that you are going to teach him?
Is it a berimbolo? Or maybe a more simple one, a triangle? Sure, triangle is a very simple move to apply, that you can teach the other side without many problems. But your question should be: does that make sense? Does doing a triangle make sense for a person that never did BJJ? And the answer is: 100% no.
So, the chance for that person leaving BJJ is pretty high, since you didn’t give him anything to really understand, anything that makes sense. However, if you teach that person self defense, then it makes sense because self defense speaks for itself.
Let’s say you know how to defend a sucker punch and you ask the person if they want to know how to do it as well. And of course they will want to know how to do it, because everyone wants to know how to defend themselves from being punched.
And after learning that, they will want to learn something else. They will want something more out of Jiu Jitsu, and the chances of that person staying in BJJ will be considerably higher than in the first case we spoke about.
They should be taught self defense before anything else. By doing that, they will find out that their instinct does not really go hand-in-hand with Jiu Jitsu, as they will understand that they need to learn what to do in certain situations; which is the opposite of what their instinct is telling them to do. They will realize that what is good to do in BJJ is what goes against their own instincts… And as they realize that, they will have a basis for a much better understanding and learning about all of the other techniques later on.
You see, it’s an endless amount of moves that you can teach to students. For example: how was it that the berimbolo developed? It was a response to having your De La Riva guard defended, so the competitors realized that they had a chance to start spinning in order to counter that defense.
And all of this leads to a sequence of other possible reactions from both competitors, which is a never ending study.
To sum it up, you need to teach beginners the basics of self defense, as that is how they will end up feeling more connected to the sport. After that, you can start piling up the techniques.
BJJEE: So, self defense comes first, then the basics that make Jiu Jitsu and then everything else; that is your advice for the instructors, in terms of how to approach their beginner groups.
Similarly, do you have any additional advice for the coaches who are reading this interview? How did you, yourself, become such a versatile coach and how can others best work on their craft, so that they can become the best instructors that they can be?
Fabio: Generally speaking, it’s very hard to evaluate another instructor’s work. What I can say is that I have worked very hard in order to accomplish what I have accomplished; and as that is regarded, there is no big secret. You have to work hard, be loyal and honest. One thing that I do is that I always try to create opportunities for my athletes, so that they can make a living out of what they love to do. I think that this is what keeps them happy and motivated to build the team we have today.
On the other hand, I believe that beside of being a hard worker and creating opportunities, that the coach should pay a lot of attention to not feeding the athlete’s ego. Sometimes you put a good athlete on a pedestal and without seeing it, you are pushing down all of the other members of your team. The bottom line for this is: treat everyone the same. Commitment should be a rule for every single one in the group, no matter how many titles they may have.
However, what is really important to be successful as a coach is to look after the beginners, as they are the foundation of your school and there is no chance to build a successful team without them.
The problem of focusing only on the competition team is that you will probably shrink your group for a couple dozens of students by doing so. And that way it just gets smaller, as opposed to an approach where you could put your energy in order to build a school of Jiu Jitsu with hundreds of students – in which case your chance finding good talents raise significantly as well, so your competition team suddenly appears in of itself.
BJJEE: And do you think that there are other, concrete things that coaches should do more in order to make their classes more efficient? Are there any mistakes that you see some of the coaches making on a regular basis, that hinder both their and the success of their students?
Fabio: There are a couple of things that coaches need to do. And the first thing that the BJJ instructors lack is methodology. Most of the instructors don’t have any sort of a methodology, and it is very hard to deliver a good quality of training if you don’t have a plan. So, a methodological approach should be planned by every instructor.
Alliance has been following its own methodology for a long time now, we’ve been working with it for over 19 years. And this year we have launched our very own methodology online, for beginners – the Module 1, available for every single instructor out there looking to make his class the best that he can. And that’s exactly why we’re doing it, so that we can transfer the knowledge we have acquired during all of these years to instructors. So that we can teach them what we know, and so that the instructors can then teach their own classes in a better way… And so that the whole BJJ community wins.
BJJEE: A methodological approach is a crucial, unavoidable factor for somebody to lead a successful class – is that what you’re saying?
Fabio: Yes, they need to have a methodology in place. And, sure, if they don’t like Alliance or our own system of coaching, then no problem, it’s their own opinion and I am not saying you must take our own system and implement it. They can develop and implement their own… But there has to be one, no matter what.
Furthermore, sometimes it’s not even that the instructors don’t have a methodology, but that they’re lazy. They just get their students do the same old warm-up moves on repeat, then a couple of drills are done and then some moves and techniques that have been done previously who knows how many times as well… So, rather than being a class, it’s just „training“.
They get them to just do whatever they know what to do, instead of teaching them things that they can learn, the things they need to know and understand. They need to go step by step with someone who doesn’t have any experience just yet, not just drop them into training like they’ve been doing Jiu Jitsu for a long period of time.
I mean, even in a Law school for example, you don’t just get dropped into a case during your first day of studies. So why is this done in some BJJ academies?
BJJEE: Understood, a planned and sensible approach absolutely needs to be undertaken by all instructors that want to make their classes into continuous learning and skill-building experiences, rather than just training sessions. Thank you.
Was there another point that you wanted to add, in regards to coaching approaches?
Fabio: Yes, I wanted to say that another common mistake I see is focusing too much on competition. Because, if in your class you focus too much on the competition group, then you’re actually spelling out all of the other people that would love to learn BJJ – those who cannot keep up with the training sessions of competitors, because of their knowledge and their pace.
This is something that has happened in Brazil in the 90’s, as I said, something due to which the academies were getting smaller as less people came in to train because the environment in the academies was bad. Today, this is something that I see happening in Europe… With this sort of an approach, your base of students gets smaller and therefore you don’t get as many people training in the academy – nor do you find any potential talents for competition, as they cannot even start training in the first place!
Alliance has 30.000 students. And when the largest competitions take place, even then the number of competitors from our team – that go to the tournament – amounts to 1% of the total number of our students. 1% of our students are competitors. So, if you focus only on your competitors, you will not have a lot of people training in your academy.
BJJEE: And what do you think is a good time to start competing? Should everyone start competing already at the white belt level?
Fabio: Well, we don’t like to push our white belts to compete. We first want to make them feel safe and to have them fall in love with Jiu Jitsu. Until they receive their blue belts, I like to have them feel that they’re growing with the sport, so there’s not much focus placed on competition.
But, after their blue belts – that is, after around 150 classes in, more or less – they are ready to go. Because, after they’ve built a solid foundation in their white belt phase and had their way eased into BJJ, they’re going to be around much longer than the ones that just went into the shark tank immediately and simply tried to survive.
BJJEE: Thank you for all of your thoughts in regards to coaching, we bet our readers will appreciate them a lot! However, let’s turn now to yourself for a change.
You are well known not only for your coaching abilities, but for your successes in competitions as well. Just to give the readers some perspective: among other things, you’ve managed to win three European Championships, ones in 2007, 2009 and 2010… When you were 40 years old.
In other words, you’ve managed to maintain a superb competitive shape well past the point when most athletes would just retire. How is it that you managed to do this? How did you keep your competitive flame alive, especially amidst all of your coaching responsibilities?
Fabio: I have competed since day one. Even before Jiu Jitsu, before I started training it, I competed in all sorts of things. But, in regards to BJJ, I was 15 when I started competing and I’ve loved it ever since.
I decided to retire as a professional when I was 31, after winning my last world title. Years later, I was living one of the best phases as a coach when, under my roof, I had guys like Bernardo Faria, Cobrinha, Leo Nogueira, Tarsis Humphreys, Michael Langhi, Sergio Moraes, and the list goes on… So I decided to compete one more time as an adult in the Europeans 2010 at the age of 40, as I was missing that feeling, and thanks to my students I knew that I could make it. I think that I still hold that record as the oldest black belt to win a Grand Slam tournament in the adult division.
I may not be competing anymore these days, but that competitive spirit has transferred to other areas: I want to be the best coach, the best association, to be the best… In everything I do. So that is the competitive flame I have, it never dies.
BJJEE: And based on that decades-long experience of actively competing and training, do you have any advice for those of our readers that aren’t in their 20’s anymore, but that still want to keep training efficiently and productively?
Do you have any tips on how they can prolong their longevity on the mats and stave off injuries?
Fabio: In terms of actual practice, the older people need discipline and routine. What you do at daily basis determines whether you will succeed or not. So, you need to dedicate yourself more than anything.
What I mean by this is that you need to ask yourself the right questions: what do you want? What are your goals? You might want to be in shape – what are you doing to achieve that?
BJJ can teach you so many things beside the techniques. It teaches you the discipline, it teaches you how to overcome problems… And if you want to add years to that, then just build up the discipline and go to the mat. Give yourself more chances to train.
As the saying goes: all of the challenges are there for you to overcome them. And if you don’t put yourself in those challenging positions, then you make yourself old and you start to lack behind. But, if you stay on the mats and if you keep on competing, then you keep on improving.
I keep myself going and training for the guys that beat me up and that is a part of the game, one that makes it fun and that makes me evolve in all aspects of life. So, when you get older you need to be wiser. And being wise is what I am talking about here – about getting your discipline down, your routine and goals.
BJJEE: So, being wise in training becomes much more important as the years pile up, rather than for the „youngsters“?
Fabio: I feel as if it is like this: when you are young, you have a lot of space to make mistakes. You have more time to correct them. But if you make those same mistakes when you are older, then you are in big trouble as you don’t have the same amount of energy or time to correct them as you did when you were younger. So that is the concept which you need to bring into Jiu Jitsu, it is the same thing. You need to keep yourself on the mat and be wiser.
All in all, after you turn 40, you must learn how to keep yourself training. The best advice that I have is to never stop, no matter how hard it gets. „Pausing“ with training and returning back to the mat at that age is very painful, so leave your ego behind the door and keep going. Consistency is the name of the game.
BJJEE: Fantastic, thank you for the wise words! We’re getting close to the end of our interview, and as a last question, we’d like to go back to your coaching genius… As said, you’ve been a coach to a number of high-profile names in BJJ and helped them develop into legends in their own right.
Are there any specific traits that you see within your most successful students, that you think get them to excel the most? In other words, is it due to their talent, their character or something else that they make such strong progress? Why is that?
Fabio: It is a simple combination of a hard work ethic + talent + of an open mind to learn. Every champion I had the chance to work with has had this combination. And if you put resilience on top of that recipe, then there is no chance of going wrong.
But an additional thing that I think makes them successful is that they take a lot of risks in order to get to the level they’re at. All of them changed their games until they’ve found out what works for them… And even after that, they never stopped learning and evolving, trying new things. They continued to take risks.
And even today, you’ll see Cobrihna, for example, trying to do new things in his own academy. Marcelo as well… They always try to do new things, to learn and evolve even up until this day.
Sometimes when you are out there on the training mats, you don’t want to tap in front of everybody, right? So you keep yourself in the „safe zone“ and you decide not to try out something that you’ve been thinking about.
And what those guys, the most successful ones have is the humbleness to train and understand that nobody is unbeatable, that we all need to tap in order to learn. And if you want to continue evolving, you have got to try out new things and new techniques. And of course, when you try to do new things, sometimes you are going to get caught (laughs). But you have to keep on trying it. And that is how you, together with your BJJ, will keep evolving.
BJJEE: To risk is to keep on becoming a better version of yourself – what a wonderful message to end this interview! Thank you very much for your time, Mr Gurgel. It has been a pleasure.
Fabio: The pleasure is mine, thank you!