My First Tournament Vol. 1: Gracie Barra Black Belt Tim Bruce

In this new series Black belts will be interviewed specifially about their first tournament.  They will further explain the training and life lessons taken from that experience. Today we talk with Gracie Barra Black Belt Tim Bruce. He represents GB LA Beach in Florida and Jupiter Boxing.

OTM: What was your first exposure to jiu jitsu and when did you decide to train in the gentle art?

Tim Bruce: Besides watching the UFC and Royce, which is where most people first saw BJJ, I had a Brazilian roommate who would always tell us about how they all used do Jiu Jitsu in Brazil when they were little kids. We sort of thought he was full of it and didn’t understand how effective the art really was because we had only seen it on t.v. He had a cousin come from Rio to visit who was a blue belt and one night we were messing around and wrestling. We were all bigger than he was and didn’t think that he could do anything to us, considering we were all in good shape and athletic with karate and wrestling backgrounds. After he choked us all out several times over in a matter of seconds each time, we started to think that maybe there was something to Jiu Jitsu! We were all lying on the floor out of breath and he was sitting there smiling. That was a wakeup call for sure and made me really want to start up.

OTM: Tell me about your first competition and what you learned from that experience?

TB: My first tournament was in New Jersey in a town called West New York.  I had only been training a few months at this point but doing pretty well so my instructors told me that I should compete. I was living in Delaware and was on spring break from college so my plan was to fight and then after, drive down to Florida. I remember being unbelievably nervous and thinking that everyone around looked like monsters. It was 15 mins outside of Manhattan so there were a ton of Renzo’s guys. They pretty much dominated the market back then! I remember seeing him coaching and thinking to myself "He doesn’t seem that big!"

Your first tournament you take everything in I remember not being sure how to warm up and being taken aback by all the different BJJ shirts and teams that came to fight.  There weren’t a lot of tournaments back then so it drew a pretty decent crowd and I felt lost. My first fight was against this guy who was wearing wrestling shoes and looked like he was in his early 30’s.They called us onto the mat and handed me a wrist band for my ankle…I had no idea why! They started the match and the jitters instantly disappeared. He shot in quick for a takedown and I tried to counter with a guillotine which came close to being sunk in but he ended up pulling his head out and securing the double leg for the points. I closed my guard and went for a sweep which didn’t work. He posted his arms on my hips and I swam my arm under, ducked through to his side, switched my hips to his outside and ended up catching an arm triangle on him. He tapped and I never felt so good in my life. 5 minuets later I was reeling in my victory when I saw him leaving the venue with his 4 year old son holding his hand. His son looked up at him and said "Did you win, Daddy?" I felt so bad that I just beat this guy in front of his son and he would have to tell him that he had lost. I’ve never forgotten that moment as long as I live. I realized at that moment that BJJ and competing is more than just for young athletic guys that want to be MMA fighters. It’s a family event as well where people bring their friends and loved ones.  I also realized that you can’t take these fights personally and let events or opponents get into your head. Every opponent has a mother, a father, brothers, sister, wives, husbands, kids etc… When the ref starts the match, its either you or them. I didn’t go all that way to make someone else look good. You also can’t let guys that look menacing place fear into you. I saw a guy decked out in tattoos with a shaved head and crazy jiu jitsu gear on. He had mangled ears. I thought that he was going to kill everyone in the place. Then he put on his Gi and white belt! He lost his fight in 20 seconds via armbar by a kid that looked like an accountant. I took in a lot that tournament. I ended up losing my second fight by two points to the guy who eventually went on to win. I was passing his guard when his head collided with my knee and he started bleeding. They restarted the match from that position after the bleeding stopped and held a closed guard until the time ran out. I don’t remember too many tournaments or individual matches but the first one seems to really stand out. It’s a lesson in who you are and what this sport means.

OTM: Who were some of your early icons, people you liked to watch compete?

TB: My first school was an Alan Goes affiliation, so I thought that he was the man. He had good BJJ geared towards MMA so I really thought that was cool and was able to see tapes of his vale tudo fights. Back then there was no youtube so I had to rely on "Gracie in Action", which my instructors had on tape to see Rickson and Royler do their thing on the beaches of Rio. But the one guy that stands out is Saulo Ribeiro. I attended a seminar of his in Vitoria, Brazil in 2000. This was before he really spoke any English and my Portuguese was very limited so I had to learn via hand gestures, but I took a lot out of it. He was really nice and rolled with everyone. I had a 4 hour seminar, got a free shirt and certificate and was able to roll with him for about 40 reals which was like 20 bucks at the time. After that I tried to follow anything he did. I still think that his BJJ instructional materials are some of the best out there today.

OTM: At what point did you decide that you were going to push all the way to Black belt?

TB: I don’t think that there was ever a point when I was on the mat that I ever thought I WOULD’NT get my black belt.  I didn’t actually begin to focus on it until after I got my brown belt and realized what the next step was. Once I tasted Jiu-Jitsu I was hooked and knew that after a long enough time it would come. I’ve taken some time off here and there but jiu jitsu is something that I’ll do forever. I always assumed that I would get it one day because I never imagined quitting.

OTM: What was it like, the day you got your Black?

TB: I didn’t expect it at all. It was funny because we had 3 other black belts besides my instructor Rodrigo Mendes at the ceremony which was unusual. I was a little suspicious when my instructor’s son asked me if I thought I’d be getting black belt that night! I actually thought that I’d possibly get a stripe but wasn’t worried about a promotion; I stopped worrying about that a long time ago. I learned that when you focus on stripes and belts you usually end up disappointed and in reality it’s the skill that matters, not the color of your belt. We had a good turnout and one of our brown belts, Anderson Pinto was presented with an award from Edgard Dutra and Pedro Lima from BTT Melbourne, which is why I thought that there were so many black belts, to give an award. At the end Rodrigo came out with a plaque for me which I thought was in appreciation for helping him out, but then he turned it over and it said rank of black belt. I was shocked and honored. It was really cool to be able to receive it in front of some of my training partners and students from my instructor. One day it will be nice to give those guys their black belts.

OTM: Some people say that teaching takes an edge off of your competition mind. Do you agree or disgree?

TB:I partly agree with it in the sense that you are more focused on your students when you teach and less about sharpening your skills. There is an advantage in the sense that your technical knowledge is HIGHER but the nature of competing requires higher intensity training and speed. When you coach you have a different view of a match and see things from the outside whereas when you compete its more tangible and you see things from the inside. You need to focus on your training and a good coach will focus on his students and this may mean less time on the mat focusing on what you need to be successful in a match. It’s very hard to do both especially when you have other responsibilities in life. I don’t mind trading coaching for competing sometimes because I feel just as much pride when one of my guys does well. But any jiu jitsu fighter will tell you, it’s hard to go to a tournament and NOT roll!

OTM: Whats the best and worst part about being a teacher, and the best and worst part about being a compeitor?

TB: The best part of teaching is the personal relationships you build with so many amazing people from all walks of life. You really get to know and help a lot of different people whom you’d never have met otherwise. The bad part is that it can take time away from your own family. Fortunately my twins, Hunter and Kayla will be old enough to start training in a year or so!

The best part about being a competitor is that you improve your game and hold the torch for your academy. Representing your school at Worlds and the Abu Dhabi is an honor and privilege. You bring back knowledge to share and help make everyone around you better. The bad part is the rigorous training needed to reach the elite level can be taxing physically, mentally and emotionally. I really respect those guys that have the ability to push through and compete nonstop. I really respect some of the guys like Renato Tavares and Roberto Traven who still fight superfights and in the adult division at big tournaments despite being 20 years older than some of the guys they fight.

OTM: What are some of your happiest moments being a part of the jiu jitsu movement as it spread in America?

TB:I think I’m happy when I see my school, Gracie Barra Delray Beach growing and adding programs. My instructor is great and it’s awesome to be able to help him make the school successful. I also like to see former training partners getting their own schools and becoming successful all over the country. Being able to spread the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu culture to others is pretty cool because I remember what it was like when we first started and there were only a few black belts on the whole east coast. It’s come a long way in the past decade and it’s still growing like crazy.

OTM: Any last words?

TB: Keep training. There is nothing that can stop someone who is willing to show up every class and train hard. BJJ is cerebral in nature and the constant evolution of the sport requires constant learning on the part of the instructors and practitioners alike.


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Adisa Banjoko