Favela Jiu Jitsu: The Heart of a Champion

Fightland Blog

By Nico Ball

Photos by Josue Wong Baez

[Nico Ball recently left her life as a teacher to train mixed martial arts full-time in Brazil. Originally from Pennsylvania, she attended George Mason University in Virginia and got her Masters degree studying the impact of martial arts-based social projects. She’s now living the fighter’s life and pursuing her dream to become a pro mixed martial artist, but has found a way to continue her interest in creating social change by helping organize The Tererê Kids Project, a nonprofit for the children living in poverty in the favela of Morro do Contagalo. The project is centered around jiu jitsu star Fernando Augusto da Silva, widely known by his nickname Tererê, who used the Gentle Art as a way to escape a life of crime. We asked her to send us periodic updates of how the Project is going.]

Moleza, a 14-year-old orange belt from Academia Fernando Terere, stood up, puffed out his chest, and angrily shoved the tail of his kimono back into his belt. He tapped fists with his opponent, a lanky yellow belt sporting mismatched pieces of kimono and then he pounced. In the flash of an eye, he snatched up the other kids sleeve, threw his leg in the air, and executed an imperfect, albeit, relatively effective flying triangle, one of his new favorite moves. The other kid was not in the least bit happy about the wild attack and responded in an equally wild fashion. As soon as he had freed himself they were back up on their feet and slamming into a nearby wall. Seated spectators scattered for safety as they continued to grip each other’s kimonos and drag each other towards the ground. They continued on at the same pace for five more minutes weaving precariously between the other kids rolling on the mats.

After the roll everyone filed off the mats in search of water, but Moleza remained stationary, he continued to sit idly in the middle of the mats adjusting his kimono. He was absentmindedly staring into the distance when someone jarred him from his daydreaming and forced him to abdicate his position for the next group of kids. He edged his way to the side of the mats; a look of exhaustion mixed with anger clouded his eyes. He had been dealing with a lot lately, and now that summer vacation had ended, the added responsibilities of the new school were beginning to take their toll. The days of going to the beach and meeting up with friends for afternoon training sessions were over. Now the kids had to learn to juggle the responsibilities of school and homework on top of multiple training sessions.

Last April Moleza traveled to Sao Paulo to compete in IBJJF Brazilian Nationals and he failed school as a result of it. This year if he wanted to return, he was going to have to work for it. Three days a week he had mandatory morning training which ended with just enough time for him to go home, shower, and be in school by twelve thirty. We expected him back at the academy by eight, and somewhere in the middle, he had to do his homework and study English as well. It wasn’t going to be easy, but he accepted the challenge.

After a substantial amount of screaming, professor Nogueira was able to pull Moleza back to reality. It was his turn to roll again, this time against a gringo that was visiting the academy from Europe.

Moleza shuffled out onto the mats and plopped himself down in front of a small blue belt sporting a newly purchased Cascagrossa kimono. The fresh white material of his kimono was a drastic contrast to worn pieces of Moleza’s own mismatched attire, but Moleza didn’t seem to notice.

“Hi My name is Moleza. Good training!”

Moleza may be known for being late, for being lazy, and for telling the most unfounded lies, but nobody can deny that he has many other redeeming qualities.

He is persistent, hardworking, and unlike the other kids, he is dedicated to learning English. Recently, he has been more motivated to practice outside of class. The kids learn to film technique videos and to talk through positions in English, but few of them are willing to test their knowledge with visiting gringos. Just recently he began to come out of his shell and approach gringos to drill techniques in English before and after class. The gringo smiled at Moleza’s attempt to communicate in his native language and they exchanged a few more words before the timer began to count down.

When the alarm sounded, Moleza bumped fists with his opponent, snatched up his arm, and then he unceremoniously flopped onto his back. He quickly recovered from the failed flying triangle and went barreling into the unsuspecting gringo. He could have easily gotten on top in mount, but instead, he dove down and pulled half guard. He bypassed a number of sweeps and easy submissions that he could have used to gain the upper hand and opted instead for a more complicated combination favored by his idol and half guard specialist, Bernardo Faria.

Lately, if Moleza wasn’t getting angry and attempting wild flying triangles, he was pulling half guard and imitating his idol.

Watching him train jiu jitsu was the best way to understand what was going on in his head. There are days when he arrives early at the gym curls up in a corner and spends hours talking with friends and reviewing different techniques before class. When training starts he is attentive and tries new things. When he isn’t rolling he sits and watches, comparing his classmates to the most popular competitors and the moves that they are known for.

Other days, when he’s worn out from problems at home he shows up late and walks around looking lost. He has to be told to put on his kimono and once he’s in class he goes through the techniques as if he has no idea what he’s doing. When it's time to train he lets people push him around and submit him without defending. Then he sulks off to the side and waits patiently for class to be over.

Recently his father passed away from Tuberculosis and it brought out another side of Moleza. Now, a more aggressive streak is beginning to infiltrate his lackadaisical training style. It isn’t his typical crazy flying arm-triangle kind of anger that’s typical of most of the kids that train at the project; it’s more of a controlled, calculated aggression gained through experience. Moleza, like a lot of other kids in the community, uses jiu jitsu as a coping mechanism. After the death of his father, Moleza started spending even more time at the project.

Moleza’s persistence paid off.  After freeing the Gringo’s lapel from his belt, he succeeded in sweeping his bewildered prey onto his back. Slowly, he began to work his way into a full mount. Once he stabilized the position, he went in for the kill, isolating his opponent’s arm with his knee, then he jerked it upward and hugging it to his chest. His prey tried to escape. Three months ago Moleza would have jumped for a sloppy arm bar, but now his reaction was different. He looked down, thought for a second, and then carefully placed his shin over his opponent’s ribs. It was an uncomfortable position meant to immobilize your opponent. The pressure of the shin on the rib would make any attempt to wiggle free an excruciating endeavor. Moleza waited for his trapped prey to settle down before passing his leg over his face and sitting back, and finishing the submission that he has so meticulously set up.  

“Thank you for the training” he said before shaking the gringos hand. Moleza calmly retied his belt, and walked over to ask professor Nogueira if he could go straight through and train the next round as well.

His kimono was soaked through with sweat and a look of exhaustion was brazen across his sun burnt face, but all the same he wanted to keep going.

Mozela has a lot to deal with in life, but no matter how hard it may be for him to face the death of his father, or to maintain his grades and attendance at school while also meeting the demands at the project, he continues to rise to the challenge. He continues to surprise those around him with his insurmountable determination, and it’s that tenacity that makes him a champion both on and off the mats. 


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Favela Jiu Jitsu: Ninety-Degree New Year

Favela Jiu Jitsu: The Last Man Standing

Favela Jiu Jitsu: Pass and Destroy