Jorge Gurgel is sitting in the last place you’d expect to find a fighter to be while at training camp, and he’s talking about the last thing you’d think he’d want to talk about. At a Japanese restaurant, Gurgel is pushing pieces of sushi around his plate while he ponders the tumultuous topography of his career. The hills and hollows of the fighter’s successes and disappointments are eerily mirrored in the undulating topography of the surrounding countryside, just outside of Cincinnati.
Gurgel notes that, each time he approached a peak in his career, circumstances conspired to throw him down into the depths. He realized his dream of moving to the United States, only to struggle because “nobody gave a shit about Jiu-Jitsu.” He made the cast of The Ultimate Fighter Season Two, only to be forced to withdraw from the competition because of an injury. He was tapped to fight on the UFC’s first card in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati, only to lose an uncharacteristic decision.
“Fucking sucks,” Gurgel says about that decision. “Worst day ever. I didn’t think about this anymore until you asked.” It’s clear that the loss, coupled with friend Rich (“Ace”) Franklin’s second loss at the hands (and knees) of Anderson Silva the same night, weighs heavily on his mind. “I remember the whole US Bank Arena being quiet,” he says, “In the locker room, you knew there were thousands of people out there, but all you heard were the steps of people walking out.”
For three days afterward, Gurgel sat at rock bottom, staring at a blank television screen. “My mom had to fly in [from Brazil] to take me out for a burger because I couldn’t sleep or eat, I just sat on my couch,” he says. The Jiu- Jitsu black belt couldn’t afford to wallow for long, however, not with a 13,000-square-foot training facility in nearby West Chester, Ohio, bearing his name.
Gurgel was once a teenage gym rat in Fortaleza, Brazil, who dreamed of holding the keys to a room where he could train seven days a week, year round. “I told my parents when I was 15 years old that I would have a Jiu-Jitsu school one day, and they laughed,” Gurgel says. Now his own laughter fills a gym the size of an airplane hangar.
JG MMA Academy occupies a giant warehouse in an industrial park north of the “Queen City.” A retail counter and a reception area flank the entryway and an expansive grappling mat. The gym is also equipped with a cage and two additional mats for Muay Thai and women’s and children’s Jiu-Jitsu classes. A large steel frame standing between the cage and one of the smaller mats holds an assortment of Thai, double end, and upper cut bags. There is a small cluster of treadmills and stationary bikes, two areas for strength training, and a boxing ring used by the Cincinnati High School Boxing Team. In addition to Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu classes, JG MMA Academy has strength and conditioning trainers and wrestling coaches on site.
The gym is a madhouse at night, with up to three classes running while fighters work out in the intervening space. When you’re gearing up for a bout, it can be difficult to focus while dodging hyperactive kids and overeager students, so Gurgel sets aside time for pro practice on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “I told my business partner Ed (Wilson), the only way we’re going to be successful is if we win, because our fighters are good,” Gurgel says. “At nighttime pros can mix with other guys, but at 11 a.m. it’s only us.”
And Gurgel’s fighters are good. Besides him, Franklin, and UFC up-and-comer Dustin Hazelett, the gym boasts a bevy of battle-tested brawlers like Jan Finney, a King of the Cage and BodogFight veteran, and prospects John Meyer, Waylon Lowe (a three-time NCAA Div. II national champion wrestler), Billy “Mojo” Horn, and Patti Lee, all of whom have enjoyed success with regional promotions.
Considering that top prospect Josh Souder is currently training on the west coast, and Team JG fighters Prince Mclean, Luke Zachrich, and Matt Brown are all somewhere else doing something together that no one is allowed to talk about, it’s no wonder the gym is starting to garner national attention.
Anywhere from half a dozen to two dozen fighters take the mat during pro sessions at JG MMA Academy. These workouts are much less formal and structured than the crucibles FIGHT! has chronicled at high-profile gyms— trial-by-fire exercises that brutally test the body and spirit, sending many men away in tears. At JG MMA, rounds come and go as a dozen fighters work quietly, break, switch partners, and go back to work. The only noises are the groans from the mats, the occasional clatter from the cage floor, a mix of Nas, Jay-Z, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the sound system… and Gurgel. Soaked in sweat from several five-minute rounds of grappling, he inspects the techniques of his friends and students, shouting instructions in musical, Portugueseaccented English.
Most of the fighters train once or twice a day most days of the week, but they keep dramatically different schedules, often going to different gyms to focus on boxing, Muay Thai, or strength training. Such a wide-open schedule might drive some to distraction, but it suits Team Gurgel just fine. “No matter when you come in, there’s pretty much always somebody decent to train with here,” Dustin Hazelett says.
Every Midwestern MMA gym resides in the very long shadow cast by Pat Miletich’s camp in Iowa. For years the region’s top prospects went to Miletich, or to high profile gyms like Team Quest, Legends, American Top Team, and now Xtreme Couture. But Hazelett is happy to be here, and plans to stick around for a while. “Now we’re starting to get more people coming in and we’re starting to raise more fighters up from here, so we’ve got a much bigger pool of good fighters,” Hazelett says.
Gurgel’s mood lifts when he sees a pretty girl eating alone a few tables across the room. He leans over to Taylor Ruscin and says, “I’ll give you $20 if you sit down over there and say ‘Can I be your dessert?’” Everyone laughs while Ruscin mulls over the challenge and assumes his game face.
Just 19 years old, Ruscin has been with Gurgel for six years. According to the gym owner, he was a punk kid, a bully, the type you usually have to run out of your gym. “So I take him down and put my knee in his face and abuse him,” says Gurgel. “He came back and he came back and he came back and I could see his persona changing.”
Six months after Ruscin’s first night at the gym, his mother approached Gurgel in tears, thanking him for turning her son around. Now an amateur fighter and instructor at JG MMA, Ruscin is one of his Gurgel’s confidants, entrusted with young students, and with the keys to Gurgel’s late-model Beemer, at least when the car’s owner is along for the ride. Ruscin finally stands up and strides across the room. The girl who’s about to be subjected to Gurgel’s corny line sets her fork down, and looks at her would-be suitor. Ruscin sits down and says in a voice just loud enough for us to hear, “Can I be your dessert?” Gurgel erupts in laughter. The object of Ruscin’s affection is amused and flattered, but definitely has a boyfriend. “You have balls, Taylor, I’m so proud of you,” the mentor says, projecting his voice across the room.
Gurgel’s relationship with Ruscin is special, but it’s also indicative of the way he approaches Jiu-Jitsu, and life in general. He is grateful that MMA’s popularity affords him a comfortable lifestyle, but saddened by what he sees as a diminution of the values he has held dear since he was a teenager.
“Everybody wants to be a fuckin’ fighter bro,” Gurgel says, echoing UFC President Dana White. A lot of guys come through his gym’s doors with the latest fight gear, big aspirations, and little commitment. They sport the bravado of street toughs who see MMA as way to look cool, make fast cash, and get laid. All this makes the Brazilian sick to his stomach. “I grew up doing this for myself, out of loyalty to my school, and to honor my teacher and instructor,” Gurgel says. “It was the hardest form of competition, one-on-one, and you did it to make your teacher proud. That’s it.”
Gurgel talks about how the values of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are disappearing, and how his yet-to-be-conceived children will be the final recipients of lessons he’s learned through more than a decade of intense training and competition. His anguish is palpable, his anger real. But his behavior betrays a contradictory optimism. Whether Gurgel realizes it or not, he is actually passing those lessons on to his students through the way he carries himself, the way he trains, and the way he treats people. And his students are passing those lessons along to their own pupils. In the end, Gurgel has ended up preserving and promoting the very culture he believes is dead.
Later that night Gurgel and Hazelett drill Muay Thai in the cage while Ruscin teaches a kids’ MMA class in a far corner. I jump in on a Jiu-Jitsu class taught by purple belt Dan Doerner, one of the gym’s more accomplished grapplers. To call my ground skills rudimentary would be a compliment, so I figured this would be a good chance to get a sweat going and clean up basic techniques before diving in with the pros on Saturday. Besides, I have a nagging rib injury that makes me hesitant to stand and trade punches and kicks this weekend.
Lean and limber, Doerner is slick on the ground. He sticks to submission grappling tournaments, but rolls with the pro MMA fighters. Not lean or particularly limber, I have yet to break the beginner’s habit of muscling through poor techniques. He points out two, three, four technical flaws while I am executing a simple guillotine or armbar and, just like that, I stop struggling. Or at least I stop struggling so hard.
When we start rolling, I realize that I am out of my depth. This is a no-gi class for beginners, but Gurgel’s white belts are damn good compared to my bear-on-a-unicycle routine. From beginner to black belt, Gurgel’s gym focuses on competition. Team JG had a top-three finisher in 21 of 39 divisions at the Dec. 1, 2007, Ohio NAGA tournament, with a total of 25 of the gym’s fighters standing on the podium that day. The NAGA results were no fluke. Team JG’s 218 top-four finishes in submission grappling tournaments earned it second place in MMATV’s 2007 team rankings.
My training partner goes for a takedown, lifts me, and I pull guard mid-air. We hit the ground and my rib starts screaming. I put down my mouthpiece and pick up my pen, resuming my role as observer for the rest of the night.
The classes change over at 6 p.m., and most of Doerner’s students stick around for Dustin Hazelett’s gi class. Doerner moves over to teach kids grappling across the room, and Paul Bowers gathers students in the opposite corner for beginner Muay Thai. Pliev teaches two young wrestlers while Gurgel paces, lamenting the lack of energy in the room. He changes the CDs in the gym sound system and cranks up the volume. As Motley Crue kicks into Kickstart My Heart, Gurgel begins dancing around and shouts, “Act like you want to be here, people!”
Moments later, Hazelett turns the music down. “Can’t even hear myself think,” the fighter says. An elementary-school-aged yellow belt runs up and asks what he should do since he doesn’t have a mouthpiece tonight. Hazelett smiles and says, “Just don’t get hit in the mouth.”
Down from the Mountains
The gym is mostly empty on Friday mornings, when Dustin Hazelett does his conditioning work. He is finishing a workout while the sound system cranks out G’n’f’n’R’s Paradise City.
Hazelett transitions from kettlebells to a ground and pound drill, then to weighted shadow boxing, a treadmill sprint, and then to weighted Muay Thai shadow boxing, before starting the circuit again.
He is a long way from the scrawny teen he had been in Louisa, Kentucky, who used Jiu-Jitsu to deter bullies and soon fell in love with the UFC. While still in high school, Hazelett commuted 45 minutes to a Gurgel affiliate school in Huntington, West Virginia. After his sophomore year at Marshall University, the Appalachian boy came down from the mountains to Cincinnati for three months of training and never returned.
Hazelett burned through most of his early competition like sunlight on early morning fog, and earned a shot at the big show against Tony DeSouza. It was the high point of his young career, and it set him up for a hard fall. “It wasn’t so much that I lost, but the way that I lost,” he says of the first round submission at UFC Fight Night: Ortiz vs. Shamrock 3. “I didn’t realize there were so many people that were much better than me. One of the reasons that he submitted me was that he was a lot stronger and better conditioned than me.”
Hazelett recommitted himself to conditioning, improved his stand-up, fine tuned his subtournaments mission game, and has won three straight fights in the Octagon. His career is on a steady upward trajectory, heading to UFC 82, in Columbus, Ohio, on March 1. So paradise doesn’t seem so far away these days.
Once Were Kings of the Hill
Dozens of fighters swarm the gym on Saturday. The combatants complete multiple rounds of stand-up sparring before stripping down to roll. Although he has remained in the background since I arrived two days earlier, Franklin now asserts himself, shouting to Gurgel to change the music—an obscene hip hop track—in deference to the families in attendance. The gym owner raises a glove and nods, walking over to the CD player.
Even though Gurgel’s name is on the building, Franklin carries a lot of weight at the gym. When he’s preparing for a fight and wants to be shielded from fans and hangers on, Gurgel locks the door. The flip side of this deference is that the hopes of Team JG, the academy’s students, and Cincy fight fans rest squarely on his shoulders.
Franklin carried those expectations successfully to the summit in 2005, taking the UFC middleweight championship belt from Evan Tanner. He defended his position through two title fights before suffering a demoralizing loss to Anderson Silva. “I was devastated when I lost my title the first time. For a month, I couldn’t talk to anybody about it,” Franklin says. But he worked his way back into contention, and was awarded a second crack at Silva in his hometown. “I wanted to win that fight more than any other in my career, just to do something special here,” Franklin says, but “it didn’t work out that way, my Cinderella story didn’t happen.”
Franklin’s faith has helped him stay on an even keel throughout his intoxicating highs and depressing lows. “It’s great to be number one, but when I’m on my deathbed, it won’t matter if I defended my title two times or ten times,” he says.
The fighters at JG MMA have spent enough time going through life’s hills and hollows to know that every loss offers a lesson if you’re willing to learn. They know that, if you spend too much time worrying about where you’ve been and where you’re going, you’ll forget where you are. They know that, when the cheering crowds and money and TV shows are gone, they will still have the loyalty of their friends and fans, and the pride in what they have accomplished.
Waving off past disappointments, Gurgel smiles, and says, “If I do my best today, tomorrow’s taken care of.”