Interview with Felipe Souza

Felipe Souza has been teaching in London since 2002, first at the famous Budokwai Judo Dojo and now latterly at Roger Gracie Academy in Ladbroke Grove.With the presence of BJJ giants such as Roger Gracie and Braulio Estima in the UK, it can easy to overlook some of the pioneering BJJ instructors who were here before them. Felipe Souza, a Black Belt under Jose ‘Ze Beleza’ Teixeira, the CBJJ Vice President and head instructor at Gavea Jiu-Jitsu in Rio, has been teaching in London since 2002, first at the famous Budokwai Judo Dojo and now latterly at Roger Gracie Academy in Ladbroke Grove.

Jon Shotter: You have been fortunate to train under legendary instructors such as ‘Ze Beleza’, Soneca, Carlos Gracie Jr and Mauricio Gomes; which of them left the greatest impression on you, aside from the obvious answer of Mauricio’s ‘knee-on-stomach’ (laughs).

Felipe Souza: (laughs) Mauricio’s knee on stomach is hard to miss and I haven’t met anyone that was able to deal with that yet. I consider myself very lucky on having so many good teachers and training partners and each of them helped me in something, if it’s in my Jiu-Jitsu knowledge or in my life in general. But fro them all, Jose Henrique (note: Ze Beleza) is the one that I’ve spend more time with and since my childhood he has been more then just a teacher and most of what I do today is based on what he taught me.

Jon Shotter: I understand you helping your instructor teach when you were pretty young and as a consequence are adept both as a grappler and as a teacher. Both you and ‘Ze’ are known for your skill at teaching kids, do you think there are any key differences do you have to factor in when teaching children compared to adults, e.g. less focus on submissions, factoring in their attention span etc.

Felipe Souza: I started helping kids’ classes at the early age of 13 and I learned Jiu-Jitsu by teaching those kids. The kids’ class is completely different then the adults as the method and goals are different. Every child has the right to enjoy their childhood and by doing so they will become adults with morals and valor. We try to make them have fun and slowly, on each student pace teach them the basic techniques and principles of the Jiu-Jitsu philosophy always focused in developing their personality rather then building up fighters.

Jon Shotter: It is probably also worth mentioning that it is because of your natural skill in teaching children, you have been chosen as Youth Development Officer for the newly created UK body, the Grappling Arts Association.

Felipe Souza: Yes, this is an exciting development for grappling in the UK; Jude [Samuels], in his role as Director of the European Fight Network has big plans for the development of BJJ and No-Gi in the UK and Europe.

Jon Shotter: Tell me a bit about how you came to teach in England, I understand that Mauricio was instrumental?

Felipe Souza: I was 22 years old and had been a black belt for about a year. I was in the final year of my university degree and was unhappy with a number of family issues and indeed, life in general in Brazil. After talking to my teacher, he understood that it was time for me to leave and find my own way; thankfully, he got me in touch with Mauricio and Roger. Those two friends gave me an opportunity to stay in London and to help them develop what is today, the Roger Gracie Academy. I’m very grateful for that and hopefully one day will be able to help others find their way as well.

Jon Shotter: Did you find much of a culture shock? I know there are a lot of Brazilians in the UK and latterly your brother Rafael was living here, but there is a big difference between Rio, Brazil and South Kensington, UK.

Felipe Souza: (laughs) you can barely compare. Rio is a totally different lifestyle then London and even though the natural resources of that country exceed England by far, the society is too undeveloped. Here I feel I’m building up something and I can see a future here, whereas in Rio you never know how your next day will be.

Jon Shotter: Do you think the notion of ‘fighting as a family’ and loyalty to a particular club is outmoded in these days of cross training?

Felipe Souza: It should be. The same way as I had many teachers and friends, I always answered in my teachers name and asked his advice as I will always do. That don’t means you should be blind and deny what goes around you but loyalty is one of the bases of Jiu-Jitsu and if you can’t understand that it will be hard for you to develop yourself, you school and students. It’s like supporting Man. United and Arsenal (2 big English Soccer teams) at the same time…we all love football and all the goals, but when it comes to an end you must wear one shirt, and only one.

Jon Shotter: The step from Blue Belt to Purple Belt is a very marked and for some people, very difficult and lengthy transition in BJJ. What are the different attributes do you think needed to make the leap, having a rounded game (being able to fight from the top and the bottom)/being more proficient at submissions for example?

Felipe Souza: Blue belt is the second step in BJJ it shows that you’ve been putting some effort in your training and you are passionate for it, it’s basically where a big cloud of questions shows up and you feel lost every day of training. If you are able to endure that some years will pass and you will see that it isn’t really a 3-headed monster, that you can find answers for everything no matter how long it takes and the ones you don’t know yet you will find in the future. Every belt represents pretty much the same to me, which is the ability to find solutions for what you don’t know yet and the best part of it is when you get your black belt and you see that there are still a million things to learn and to improve, and I find that’s the beauty in Jiu-Jitsu.

Jon Shotter: Do you think you will always compete at the level of the Mundials, or do you think eventually you will stop to concentrate on teaching.

Felipe Souza: At the moment I struggle between competing and teaching and to find the proper balance between those two isn’t so easy, but I’m looking for it and trying to do the best I can on each moment. I enjoy teaching a lot and seeing our students doing really well in every tournament, but I won’t be able to stop without a gold medal at the worlds. I’ve been close to it a few times and I know I will be there soon.

Jon Shotter: Some RGA members such as Andy Roberts, Luciano Cristovam and I compete regularly, but there are plenty of guys in BJJ who have no interest in competing. Do you think it is harder for those guys to progress in BJJ without the experience of competition, especially from White to Blue and Blue to Purple?

Felipe Souza: It is for the fact that who is competing usually trains harder, with more frequency and there’s no other way to improve in Jiu-Jitsu then living for it. Every good fighter did that and that’s how things are. I respect everyone’s choice and think that Jiu-Jitsu can suit everyone’s’ needs, no matter how diverse, but a students that stays all day, all year in the academy like many that we have will naturally improve quicker then who come twice a week and that’s fine for us. Everyone’s goals and life are different.

Jon Shotter: The majority of the UK brown and black belts have competed and placed in the major tournaments, do you think that a senior grade with no competition experience is missing out or might have difficulty building up a good competition team??

Felipe Souza: No, not really. A good fighter doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher and vice-versa even though students usually come to the academies that publicize they have champions. It is natural and I understand it but if the teacher has spent his years in training and is a devoted teacher he might be able to do a good job. As I said before, not everyone wants to be a competitor and being a competitor is different then being a fighter.

Jon Shotter: Since you have come here, Jude has flourished from being a blue belt to being the first UK BJJ Black Belt. What do you think helped him improve much faster than his peers?

Felipe Souza: Jude is a very passionate guy with a great natural ability that has lived for Jiu-Jitsu from the moment he got in contact with it. Somehow he manages to endure many ‘knee on stomachs’ and ‘abafa’ (note: difficult to translate but relating to tapping whilst Roger or Mauricio have the high mount position and you tap for no real reason) while many students have fallen by the wayside. Now he is the first UK black belt graded by Mauricio with a European Championship Black Belt title and is an instructor of RGA. He has achieved a lot already and we are very proud of that but it always turn to the point where he pushed himself to be there and to repeat mistake after mistake until he wouldn’t do them anymore.

Jon Shotter: You yourself have a pretty extensive competition record, including a bronze medal at the Mundials in 2005 and silver and bronze at the 2006 Europeans. What is your proudest moment in BJJ?

Felipe Souza: My proudest moment is still yet to come I feel. I’ve won many tournaments in every belt and I’ve lost them as well. I’ve beaten many world champions as I’ve been beaten by them as well. That’s the life of a fighter and I prefer to see my entire journey in BJJ rather than a specific moment.

Jon Shotter: You and Andy Roberts recently refereed some pretty high profile submission wrestling matches at the 10K Challenge. I know you have a lot of experience reffing at tournaments such as the Gracie Invitational at Seni and on the Urban Gorillaz Circuit, but do you feel more nervous when in charge of the likes or Braulio ‘Carcara’ and Jeff Monson as opposed to 2 blue belts?

Felipe Souza: Of course. It is quite a challenge to referee fighters with such a name; to feel the adrenaline in the air and not be able to sweat it out isn’t so easy. But I’m used with challenges and looking back at that day I believe Andy and I did I pretty good job.

Jon Shotter: How beneficial do you think it is for us gringos to go and train at somewhere like the original Gracie Barra in Rio de Janeiro (asides from the beach, Acai and the infamous all you can eat Churrascaria Barbeques)?

Felipe Souza: I think that’s I must do trip for every Jiu-Jitsu fan, to have the taste of Brazil and to experience where it comes from and the culture even though many good teachers are located around the world. Some Jiu-Jitsu, good food, sun and girls in bikini on the beach can make miracles happen to your game. (laughs)

Jon Shotter: A number of countries outside Brazil are improving fast at BJJ and no-gi, Poland, the Scandinavian countries and in particular the US. Despite this, the top American Players are still limited to 2 or 3 guys who do well in the Pan American games, but seem to be still separated by a vast gulf from the very top players like Carcara, Jacare, and Roger etc. Assuming that they don’t train any less than Brazilian players, why do you think this is? Different teaching techniques, lower caliber training partners, less hunger to win? Felipe Souza: Not at all, it’s a matter of time. Jiu-Jitsu is a national sport in Brazil. It seems that everyone is at least a blue or purple belt. When I was a blue belt, I would come to the academy and watch/train with another 20 black belts and that’s 10 years ago. Look at the beginning of sport Judo, the Japanese would win it all quite easily while nowadays things are a bit different and the sport is not dominated by anyone geography. In Jiu-Jitsu the same will happen eventually as the sport grows around the world.

Jon Shotter: You have trained with a lot of top BJJ players, Roger aside, who is, in your eyes, the complete grappler?

Felipe Souza: I could name many great grapplers but Roger is out of comparison. The things I’ve seen in those years we’ve been training together are even hard to explain without making many other great players feel depressed. I haven’t seen Rickson prime time as we come from different generations but the stories I heard are equivalent to what Roger is doing in the modern era of grappling and BJJ.

Jon Shotter: You are friends with the Judo Olympian Flavio Canto and I know BJJ players like Saulo and Xande Ribiero and recently Roger acknowledge the value of training Judo as well. Even today though, many people are quick to portray a climate of suspicion and rivalry between BJJ and Judo (generally people on the internet who aren’t particularly skilled in either). How do you see the relationship between the two sports?

Felipe Souza: It’s foolish to build up rivalry between those two martial arts that are actually one. They came from the same source and developed differently because of cultural backgrounds and competitions interests and rules. We all sharpen our standing techniques with our friends in Budokwai as many of them come and train groundwork with us. See how many fights Flavio Canto or Winston Gordon (note: British Judo Olympian) have won in the past tournaments with ground work and check how many times Roger is taking his opponents down with great throws that position him for submissions on the floor. A fighter that denies this will eventually fly or tap and that might be the difference between gold and a silver medal.

Jon Shotter: Roger [Gracie] has recently had a successful debut in MMA arm-barring Roger Waterman on BodogFights. Do you ever consider trying your hand in the cage yourself?

Felipe Souza: I have been offered that opportunity a couple of times and I’m not sure if I have the mentality for it. I would not be able to kick a man’s face while he kneels down for example. I respect the sport but I’m more keen to focus my aggression in others ways.

Jon Shotter: Felipe, thanks very much for your time and see you on the mat soon.

Felipe Souza Tournament Record

2006∑ CBJJ European – Black Belt Middleweight Silver∑ CBJJ European – Black Belt Absolute Bronze∑ Gracie Invitational – Black Belt Champion

2005∑ CBJJ Mundial – Black Belt Lightweight Bronze

2002∑ CBJJ Brazilian Teams Championships – Black/Brown Belt Lightweight Silver

1999∑ CBJJ Brazilian Teams Championships – Purple Belt Middleweight Gold

1997∑ CBJJ Mundial – Blue Belt Featherweight Bronze ∑ CBJJ Brazilian Championships – Blue Belt Absolute Champion

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Jonathan Faulkner-Shotter