gracie barra montreal brazilian jiu-jitsu

Why do we fight?

Why do we fight?

Featuring Bruno Fernandes: Black Belt 5th degree

Why do we fight? What is it that compels the Jiujiteiro to press on and continue to train, day-in and day-out, with little to no return? This year, I’ll be interviewing members of the GB Montreal family to try and get to know them better and gain insight into their jiu-jitsu journey. We are an eclectic bunch with diverse backgrounds. One thing binds us together on the mats though; we train, we persevere, we fight.

10 min read

Dan Aponte: Well Bruno, we’ve been publishing this series for a little while now, and I figured it would be a good idea to interview you on the 10-year anniversary of the school. First, can you tell me a bit about your jiujitsu journey and what it was like in Brazil around the time that BJJ was just beginning to grow. 

Bruno Fernandes: Well, it’s a long story, but I’ll keep it as short as possible. The story started 32 years ago – I started when I was 11 – when my father proposed we start jiujitsu. He had 3 friends that were black belts already at Carlson’s, and they suggested I come and watch a class. So I went in, watched, eventually tried it out, and I really liked it. I was at Carlson’s until the age of 16 until my family moved to Barra de Tijuca, where I joined Gracie Barra.

One interesting bit of history is that back in the day, Carlson Gracie had 2 mats – one where he taught, and the other where Rolls Gracie taught. Unfortunately, in ’82 Rolls passed away and Carlos Gracie Jr. took over and taught on those mats for a little while. Carlos later opened his own school, Gracie Barra. So its funny to think that had I started jiujitsu earlier, I would have learned under Carlos Jr. before Gracie Barra even existed, or I could have learned under Rolls Gracie himself.

So yeah, I was just a kid enjoying jiujitsu, then when I was 17, I started medical school in university, and I always kept doing jiujitsu. It was a big part of my life at that point, where I began competing and taking it more seriously, but I was going into med school and I wanted to become a doctor. Back then, jiujitsu wasn’t really something people would devote their entire lives to – jiujitsu was still very young and there were only a few schools. Only years later, when I came to Montreal to continue my medical training, that I saw the opportunity to open a school.

When I came to Montreal, I had to keep training – it had been such a major part of life, and so I didn’t want to just stop because I wasn’t in Brazil anymore. On top of that, I really wanted to train in the same kind of environment that I was used to. I wanted to teach people the same jiujitsu that I experienced. As you know, there are many different kinds of martial arts schools out there, but the environment I’ve tried to create here is very different. The goal was, and continues to be, to create an environment where people can learn the jiujitsu that I learned, and then those people become my training partners.

Its interesting that at first, you simply wanted to continue to train while you were here in Montreal. If you didn’t begin teaching people while you were here, your jiujitsu would have taken a back seat while you completed your medical research here. 

Exactly. To be honest, at first all I wanted was to continue to train and to make sure I could break even with my gym. I found a great location (back then, the school was in a pre-gentrified Griffintown corner of Peel and Wellington), I did some really simple math and thought “okay, if I can get 50 students and charge them X, I’ll cover rent!” The goal back then was to break even – the goal was just to have the space to train without jiujitsu being an expensive hobby.

So what was it like, coming to that decision, going from pursuing your career in Ocular Oncology to becoming a Jiujitsu school owner and growing Gracie Barra in this corner of the world?

I arrived in Montreal in 2005, for a research fellowship at McGill University and to complete my PhD. The original plan was to finish that, and then go back to Brazil and start my career as a doctor. After some years, however, I became an Assistant Professor for the Department of Ophthalmology and Pathology at McGill, and it became obvious that Montreal would become my home. As I started to lay down some roots here, opening a school was a natural step.

For a while I was able to do both: Work on my academic career during the day, while teaching Jiu-Jitsu at night. But as the school grew, so did my responsibilities as an academic professor; until a day came that it was very hard to do both well. There are only so many hours in a day, so in my case, I ended up neglecting my social life and my own health. 14-hour workdays, little sleep and a lot of stress is far from what “living the dream” is supposed to be. 

Putting my medical career on an indefinite hold was a difficult decision obviously. It took a lot of time to take the courage to do so. First because I enjoyed it, but mostly because of all the relationships I had established over the years. Not as important but also relevant, was the risk of becoming a business owner instead of the financial security of a doctor’s career. A lot of variables were considered, but ultimately, I believed that being a Jiu-Jitsu school owner would give me the lifestyle I wanted in the long term.

When I decided to quit medicine and focus solely on jiujitsu, some people asked me how I could stop something that is meaningful and sorely needed in the world. Honestly, jiujitsu is something that is also needed in the world. Over the years, I have seen the kid who is too shy to say anything come out of his shell; or the older man who is out of shape, who begins to take his health into his own hands standing up straight and proud; I’ve seen women who have been psychologically abused who, over time, are given a voice and decide to make important changes in their lives.

Being a small part of that is very meaningful.

Its now been 10 years since you first opened Gracie Barra Montreal, and since then, you’ve had countless people come in and become your training partner, persevere and eventually earn their black belts. Many of them have opened their own school. Tell us a little bit about what its like now with 8 Quebec schools? (Montreal, Brossard, West-Island, Laval, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Granby, Montreal-Ouest, Ville St-Laurent).

Jiujitsu is very different in responsibility every step up. I own the Gracie Barra Montreal and Gracie Barra Montreal-Ouest locations, but as the GB Quebec director, there are added duties besides running my own schools. One of those duties, for instance, is ensuring that the schools adhere to the Gracie Barra guidelines. The Gracie Barra framework is quite interesting in that it has a scaffolding for what is necessary, at minimum, but owners have a lot of freedom to add their own flavour to the school. This is no accident – nobody but Glen (MacKenzie) could run West-Island but him; nobody but Rodrigo (Lima Mendanha) could run Brossard the way he does; and so on with every school owner. They all have their own strengths and ways of doing things within the Gracie Barra framework. That is by design. Another point is that the variety and different schools provide students with options for gyms to train at. Some people might be drawn to the way one owner runs their school over another, and because the schools aren’t too far from one another, people have the choice to go to a different school.

I also wanted to touch on something I learned very early on, which is a core value of Gracie Barra. We all have responsibilities that vary according to our level and involvement in jiujitsu. If you are a new student, your responsibility is to be open to learning, be respectful to your other teammates and learn and respect the rules of the school. As you continue to progress through the ranks, you still have those responsibilities, but you have the added responsibility of being someone other students can look up to and ask for help.

When you start teaching, there is a huge jump in responsibility that you must assume. Not only do you have to prepare for your class and help other students understand the techniques, but you actually become the image of Jiujitsu as a whole. If a new person walks in and attends your class, that might be his first encounter with jiujitsu. You therefore become that person’s first impression of jiujitsu. If you don’t do a good job or don’t have a welcoming attitude, that person might leave the class and think to themselves “Man, I really don’t like jiujitsu”, even though they only had that one bad encounter.

If you are lucky enough to open your own school, you begin adding more and more responsibilities to the list. Every step of the way, you need to keep those previous responsibilities, but you take on new ones. I still need to be a good training partner, I still need to try and help students understand new techniques, and I still need to be a positive image of jiujitsu, but I am now responsible for the people who work with me at this school and the Montreal network. There are a handful of people who make their living with jiujitsu, and I am responsible for them.

Changing gears, I wanted to talk about how Covid-19 has affected jiujitsu and the Montreal schools, but Gracie Barra as a whole.

I want to preface this with a little of my experience with Gracie Barra’s backbone. Last year you we hosted the Gracie Barra Quebec Regional, and I photographed the event. I was lucky enough to listen to different peoples’ stories and see how much work goes on behind the scenes.

At the beginning of 2020, I started teaching the morning class and again, I got another peak behind the curtain and saw how much structure and support there is. Then when Covid-19 hit, within a week of the lockdown, Gracie Barra opened up all of the online content to students and held regular videocasts and online seminars. Even though people were under lockdown, Gracie Barra continued to keep the community together. So tell us a bit about how all that played out for you.

Man, to be honest, the structure that Gracie Barra has is unparalleled in the jiujitsu industry. Most people don’t really see it, but the amount of work and effort so that students can enjoy 1 hour of jiujitsu is rarely appreciated. When Covid-19 hit, all of that structure and online structure had been in place for a few years! There are dozens of people who work for Gracie Barra corporate headquarters who are not school owners or world champions, they are people in marketing, network engineers, clothing designers, whatever. When the world went into lockdown, they became the superstars – they continued to work ensuring the Gracie Barra community would stay connected and thrive. The school owners were given content as well as ideas to keep their own schools going and their students connected. Schools were even provided with official letters to give to their landlords to be able to negotiate rent during the lockdown. There were daily meetings at every level – from head office to coaches. Even though the schools were closed, there was still a lot of work being done!

After that, there was a better understanding of what was in store during the lockdown and things began to ‘normalise’, our next concern was our students. Everyone was locked up, not being as active, so we had Zoom meetings to keep people engaged, there were online workouts different gyms were offering, and we continue to have our newsletter to keep people up to date with any changes at the gym.

Now that things have reopened, albeit under different circumstances, what is your perspective on the necessary adaptations?

Well at first, reopening required a lot of work and preparation – we needed to change the schedule to allow for breaks between classes for cleaning, we need to keep up to date with changes to PPE (personal protective equipment), and of course, class structure is vastly different! This has definitely pushed us out of our comfort zone, but there are some positive surprises I had never considered.

Obviously at first, I was pretty bummed out that we wouldn’t be able to resume jiujitsu training as we know it, but man, we are able to focus on things we too often neglect. Even though we train regularly, and we have a good understanding of our bodies, sometimes we hide the weaknesses we have by focussing on the strengths in our jiujitsu. This time has maybe shown us how ‘not functional’ our bodies are. The flow classes I have been giving, the mobility classes by Max, or the ‘Ginástica Natural’ that Elsa is giving have been very good at showing people some of their functional weaknesses. Even though our movements are pretty jiujitsu specific, a little hip movement here or some controlled shoulder roll there, man, people are struggling to move their bodies like this, and they tell me how sore they feel the next day!

On the flip side, I’ve noticed that people who have been doing jiujitsu for a long time generally do the movements pretty well. They are also telling me they want to do these movements because they know jiujitsu is coming back, and these classes are keeping them in ‘jiujitsu shape’ – these movements are priming their bodies for jiujitsu. Some even tell me they want to continue to do these movements once normal classes have resumed because they see the benefit in them. The concept of momentum, conserving energy, leverage – these classes are showing them things they were able to hide or neglect because there just isn’t enough time in a class to go over them.

The house-hold training is another big one that’s been interesting. Now, people are bringing their family members who never really wanted to go to a martial arts school. But they are coming in to help their family member, they stay into their square, and they see things aren’t so scary – things aren’t like they thought they were from martial arts movies. We’ve also had quite a few completely new members, try jiujitsu now for the first time, with a roommate or a family member, and sign up together. So we are seeing people now that, frankly, otherwise we would not see. I think once things open up, we will continue many of these of classes – flow and ‘Ginástica Natural’ to keep our bodies healthy, as well as buddy-training and family training to attract people who might be intimidated by the idea of starting a martial art alone.

All of that being said, I am so excited for when these new people get exposed to what jiujitsu really is. Man, they have no idea what lies ahead and how awesome jiujitsu really is.

So Bruno, you’ve had a long and varied life in jiujitsu. It’s was a hobby as a child, then a sport you competed in, and it eventually became your livelihood. After so many years, Why do you continue to Fight?

So actually, one thing about this “Why we Fight” series I really like is that it’s always a bit different. The people you’ve interviewed each have different reasons why they’ve started and continue to ‘Fight’, but it doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from other aspects jiujitsu brings. Maybe someone starts jiujitsu because they want to get in shape, but they also end up learning to defend themselves. Some people started because they wanted to work on their self-confidence, and they ended up meeting people that became their friends or lovers. 

After 30 years, jiujitsu has meant different things for me at different times, and when I read this series, I often remember myself in them all. Just like with the growing responsibilities we talked about before, the list of what jiujitsu means to me grows and is added to a core. As a kid, I liked to do it because, man, I had fun. Then, as I began to get good at it I realised it meant I could defend myself, and that helped with my confidence. As jiujitsu became a bigger part of my life, I realised this became a huge part of my social circle. I also realised I didn’t have to do weights or jump on a treadmill, jiujitsu kept me active and in shape. Eventually, Jiujitsu became my livelihood and the way I pay my bills and support my family. Jiujitsu has given me everything.

There is a Japanese concept called Ikigai. Think of a diagram with 4 different things: something you Love, something the world Needs, something you can be Paid for, and something you are Good at. Each combination can bring you something different; something you are good at and can be paid for is a profession; something the world needs and that you love is a mission. But at the center of it all is Ikigai – the confluence of all 4 things. 

I fight because it is my Ikigai.

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