Marcelo Alonso. Those are the only words that you need to know in Brazil. Well, those two words and the word “porra.” The first two are the name of the most connected and well respected MMA journalist in Brazil, and the other is the equivalent of “f*ck.”
I wake up in the familiar, groggy position of economy class—in the last window seat of a flight to Riode Janeiro—and wonder how I even slept in my sarcophagus, stuffed next to my teammate Pat Cummings, a hulking 225-pound wrestler, who has the mannerisms of a beefy lightweight. When I wake up over the Amazon, I see his face in the same expression it was when I left consciousness—a dazzled, bewildered look, way too enthused to be playing Continental Airline’s outdated circa-1989 video games. He is obviously jazzed about our big trip, but I, a curmudgeon, am significantly less excited about the whole ordeal, partially because I had just been kidnapped from the Land of the Rising Sun, where I had been showered with adulation, drinks, and women. I was snatched from my Asian paradise and was now on a glorified Greyhound bus, jammed next to this behemoth. In addition, I realize that coach Ryan Parsons, despite being the smallest man on the trip, is enjoying the most amount of room. Compared to me, he is in a luxury suite across the aisle, with seemingly an entire row to himself.
I looked at my watch, and realize that I had only slept for four hours in the last 24, and my 20 hours of awake time had been spent in a catatonic state of sensory deprivation. Lacking any real stimulation to my senses, I opened the window shade. The light poured into the dark cabin, and as the rods and cones in my eyeballs fired, I made out the unending sea of trees below me. Clouds skated underneath us, and I could make out little streams, carving through the rain forest. I slapped the shade shut and tried to muster some more sleep, as Pat jiggled in his seat, toggling between what looked like bootlegs of Super Bomber manand Solitaire.
I blink again, and we’re on our feet in the customs and declarations hallway, waiting in a high-ceiling portion of the airport that looks as if it dropped directly from the green-tiled 1970s. The line moves supremely quick in a country that doesn’t have two foreign wars on its hands. We hit the cab, hit the hotel, and I lay down for some much needed rest.
I can hear Ryan talking on the phone. “Uh-huh, okay, 12:30?” I open one eye to the clock—12:02. “Sure, we’ll be there.” He hangs up. “We’re going to train at 12:30.” My brain is exploding with WTF letters, but I don’t have the energy to argue. “Just let me sleep for 20 minutes.” Before I know it, I’m in a car driving down a beautiful, rainy, coastal highway.
Riding in a car in Rio is like riding in a twisted version of America. You’re on the right side of the road, but Americans drive like senior citizens in comparison. Everyone in Brazil, even our mild-mannered tour guide, is weaving rapidly between one another. They use stop signs and red lights as mere suggestions, sometimes cruising between lanes before picking the lane that is moving quickest. It’s a very skillful and technical display. We zig and zag and hear story after story of this beach and that beach and this Gracie and that Chute Box and listen through the thick accent of Marcelo Alonso, who gestures intently with his hands, even while driving. He especially likes the phrase “It’s very nice” and sprinkles it into his stories as such: “Man, today is rainy, but on a nice day, man…”He places his palm on his face, sucks air through his teeth for a moment, then shoots the palm back out in front of him, “…the women, it’s very nice!”
Our first stop is at the gym of “Minotauro.” The interior of the gym is adorned with familiar scenes of Pride victories past—Anderson Silva’s famous knee of Carlos Newton, Minotauro’s devastating left hook, and even a decent rendition of Lyoto Machida’s bone structure. More shocking to the senses is the stench of the gym, which smells like wet judo gis.
The team of fighters is assembled on the benches near the cage that dominates the gym space. All the guys are tough looking, displaying quite a bit of fighting experience. Through handshakes and high fives, we are welcome to the gym, and before we know it, we’re in the massive cage, all doing battle with some really tough sons of bitches.In my last round of sparring, I exchange with one particular hard-kicking bastard, and decide that it would be better to fight this guy on the ground. No sooner had I taken him down did I realize the source of the sour gi smell. It was the mat of the massive cage! While I was daydreaming about what type of Brazilian staph infection I was getting, this nameless dude was working his way into an Anaconda choke, done with perfect technique.
We next made an exhausting trip to “Gordo’s” grappling gym, where I picked up a couple of moves that I used on the rest of the trip and that I’ve now worked into my repertoire. It’s also where Pat met his man crush,the ever-legendary Mario Sperry—a fighter I grew up watching and, I’ll admit, was a bit in awe of meeting. Still in fantastic shape, he shared some leg lock techniques and escapes with Pat, who, despite being a world team wrestler, is relatively new to BJJ. After some high fives and pleasantries with a few English-speaking foreigners, who gave us tips on interacting with the local women (“Be super aggressive and grab them.”), Marcelo offered up the prospect of a hike, which I was fairly excited about, but Pat, an avid outdoors man, exploded into a full blown joy-gasm. Marcelo pointed out the area for our hike, and it was adorned with a giant mountain. Now, I was excited.
I charged into the rainforest, water bottle in hand, and before too long the city sounds completely disappeared, as well as any direct sunlight on a cloudless day. We excitedly made our way up the steep inclines, with Ryan, surprisingly, leading the charge. I had always noticed that he walked quite fast in the airport, but herein the woods, it was serving him especially well. Rock after rock we passed, tree after tree, and eventually we got to a large rock that seemed to jut out from the woods. Pat and I ventured out onto the massive boulder and we got an eyeful—a glorious view of the cityscape below and the expansive ocean. I turned my gaze upward, and even after 45 minutes of marching, we did not seem to be that much closer to the peak. We went back to the trail, and Marcelo was huffing and puffing.
“Man, you guys are att-aleets,” he said, rejoining us on the hike. Thirty more minutes of huffing past tree after tree, as well as the occasional fallen fruit about the size of basketballs, we came to a clearing,where everyone thought it was best to take a break. As we chatted, I noticed movement in the trees—a little monkey swinging about. Try as I might to attract him with mini bananas, he was too afraid, and instead jumped from one branch to another and scurried out of sight.
After another 30 minutes, we left the forest, and now the massive face of the mountain was in our sites. The older guys fell behind as the adventure team rushed to the face of the mountain, rapidly finding footholds and crevices to monkey our way to the top. Dirt fell down behind us, and as we ascended, we got a better and better view until finally, at long last, we stood triumphantly at the very peak of Pedra da Gavea. Every direction that we gazed was a more breathtaking view than the other—amazing cityscape, glorious mountains, a great bay, and ocean beyond ocean. I mumbled under my breath, “Porra.”
The next day, we walke
d into the exact opposite direction. While visiting the famous boxing gym Nobre Arte, we got to witness things that foreigners are rarely privy to—the small, jagged hallways and ragged corridors of the “favella,” which is the word used to describe the slums that are built into the mountainsides. The area is essentially a shantytown on steroids that has evolved into a real life city of its own. Marcelo explains that it grew from the workers who were used to build the beautiful city of Rio. After the city went up, the workers went back and proliferated in what looks like a termite mound made of plywood and plastic. Giant drums on roofs are used to catch rainwater for drinking, and the residents tap into the electrical grid via splicing wires atop telephone poles to steal power for the community. The best part of this area? The terrain is too small and jagged for cars to drive around in, and no cars mean no cops, which means the area is ruled by drug dealers.
This favella—lucky for us—has been conquered by the “Boppies,” hardcore, badass police who helicopter into the slums and gunfight with the dealers. Bullet holes in one of the checkpoints—and the police substation that looks more like a military outpost—tells me that this is one of the slums that the Boppies have control of. Throngs of little kids begin to crowd around us. One makes a hand gesture to his mouth, which I mistake for something else: “I think these kids are trying to sell us weed!” I laugh at my coach, Ryan, who is much more perceptive than I am. He walks past me to the lunch counter and buys what looks like a Hot Pocket and hands it to the small, skinny kid standing at my feet. He hurriedly jams it into his face, and teams of other frail, dark-skinned kids begin to gather around. I always thought that since I grew up in government housing that I was poor. I wasn’t poor. Compared to these kids, I was rich. They all lined up politely, and I bought them Brazilian sandwiches, handing down one after another to them—happy for the moment, but my heart hanging heavy. We left the favella, but the images are burned into my mind, so I’ll carry them with me. It changes your perspective.
We arrived at the Nova Uniao gym late, obviously from our dedication to helping the children of the favella, and not because of the delicious Acai bowl right across the street from the academy. As we entered the gym, we were privy to some of the most amazing sparring I have ever seen. A room full of mostly lightweight fighters was rapidly changing positions, wrestling, trading punches—full MMA fights with little gloves and shin guards. Amongst this packed room was a familiar face near the back—Jose Aldo, who shows why he is kilo-for kilo one of the best fighters in the world.Since we outweighed almost everyone in the room by at least 30 pounds, and we showed up late, we stayed seated on the ring in the middle of this flurry of sparring until they finished up and we were asked to show some wrestling to the group.
I was Pat’s dummy, and he demonstrated some excellent techniques to the ever-enthusiastic crowd of Brazilians. We drilled the moves until everyone was sufficiently satisfied and shared some laughs. Suddenly, the most vocal of the group, a strong looking tattooed fellow with a smile on his face, barked toward me something that sounded like a question: “Leve oupesada?” Instantly, Marcelo Alonso began pleading with Tattoo Neck, but he was quickly shouted down by the entire team. He then sheepishly translated, “He is asking, uh, if you are light or heavy.” Everyone was eyeing me, and my street sense began to tingle. Pat and I obviously outweighed everyone in the room, so I answered aloud, “Heavy.”
The room erupted with “Oooooooooooohhhhhhhh!” What happened next was mind boggling.Suddenly, 6’3” Pat was tussling with four Brazilian featherweights, swarmed to the ground and being choked, while the rest of the room slapped him and beat him with a kick pad. I had subconsciously moved to a defensive position in the ring, laughing at the scene, and realized my coach was in the melee as well. After sufficiently beating them into exhaustion, the mob realized that I wasn’t there, and they turned their attention to me, pointing and yelling in words I couldn’t understand—but I knew what they wanted.
I hopped out of the ring, arms outstretched like the famous statue of Cristo atop the mountain. A nameless Brazilian shot a single, to which I sprawled, then out of habit, reshot. Big mistake. Suddenly, from all angles, I was accosted by every manner of featherweight. Every limb was grabbed and twisted. My neck was choked just to the point of being uncomfortable, but not unconsciousness, and my face was slapped the entire time. I continued to struggle against the swarm. I was undeterred by their numbers, constantly moving, despite the apparent futility. I finally stopped struggling and just laughed, but this was no time to rest because I felt a feeling that I had not felt in quite sometime. Tattoo Neck bit me on the ass. I instantly became adrenalized and yelled out the only words that came to mind: “Porra! Porra! Porra!”
Part Two coming soon.