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BJJ Veteran Eduardo Rocha Training Winners in SF Bay

At first glance, Eduardo Rocha looks like another muscular bald guy, the kind you find on the weight benches between sets. At second glance, he is intimidating. With copper eyes that pin you like a memo on a bulletin board, Rocha doesn’t look like he has too much trouble in dark alleys.

At 43, Rocha is a fourth-degree black belt and world-class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter. When she’s not training for competitions, Rocha takes care of a rapidly growing academy, an even faster growing son and the typical hobbies of a Libra: surfing, snowboarding and avoid conflicts.

Although a peaceful nature may seem at odds with his chosen profession, Rocha’s long years of fighting have taught him to choose his battles very carefully.

“Sometimes drunk guys want to play with me,” he says. “And I think Man, you have no idea what you’re doing. But I just gave up. It’s not worth creating a problem.”

Rocha’s Libran Balance is handy for more than just tearing up waves and dodging bass fights. The immigration process requires soul surfing skills. An emigrant leaves not only his home and his family, but also his sense of identity. To experience a new culture, a new language and a new lifestyle is to see the world with new eyes. The World becomes a 3D version of Where’s Wally, and you are Wally. It takes some time to find your new self with your new eyes in your new world in the constant cycle of learning and forgetting, leaving and coming back, connecting and letting go. When you add running a business and raising a child to that, anyone can feel overwhelmed. But Rocha seems to take everything head on.

“When I arrived here, everyone told me: ‘Be careful, there are bad neighborhoods here.’ They never saw the favelas in Brazil. This place is Disneyland.”

Born near the sea, Rocha’s first love was water. But when his family moved from the quiet seaside town of Gavea to the harsh reality of Rio, Eduardo, then a teenager, discovered a new priority: survival. So he swapped his flippers for fists and his goggles for a gi and began his long love affair with the art of war.

Having started training as a teenager, Rocha was awarded his black belt at the age of 27 by BJJ legend Royler Gracie. Now a fourth-degree black belt, Rocha has participated in a seemingly endless array of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments – with strikingly similar names – here and in Brazil over the years. Rocha also competed in a discipline known as Vale Tudo, which translates to everything is fine. As the name suggests, Vale Tudo is a chair-twisting and overturning affair that incorporates elements of Thai boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and pure badness.

Along with the technical intricacies of strategy and form, Rocha’s preparation involved countless hours spent perfecting the exquisite art of taking a punch.

How do you learn to take a punch?

Rocha smiled her crocodile smile. “You let someone hit you until they’re tired. Then you let someone else hit you.”

Needless to say, Vale Tudo has a high attrition rate, and Rocha’s affection for his teeth eventually won out over the questionable lures of Vale Tudo’s testosterone-soaked poundfests. Since then, he has dedicated his time and energy exclusively to teaching and training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Rocha’s life has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs, but he talks about it with the even tone and emotional detachment of an accountant doing an audit. The eldest of three brothers, Rocha felt the weight of responsibility from an early age. Her fighting spirit seems to have been inherited from a feisty Libra mother who kept her postmodern family poised with a smile on her face and samba music playing in the background.

“It used to bother me,” Rocha says, echoing the sentiments of every teenager since the dawn of time who’s been bothered by a parent’s musical preferences. “Now I see why she likes it. It makes you feel-you-know-happy.”

Blood and betrayal, sun and shadows, divine intervention and evil spirits are all part of Rocha’s personal Brazilian soap opera. After a near-death experience in a car accident, a fight gone wrong, and the birth of a son, Eduardo Rocha decided it was time to start thinking seriously about the future. Rocha came to East Bay in November 2004 with a suitcase, a surfboard and a dream of building something that would last for him and his family. His unique style attracted an immediate following, and Rocha became their prophet of pain, on a sacred mission to free the real men of East Bay from their inner sissies.

The obsessive-compulsive behavior that BJJ inspires in practitioners along with his undeniable skills have been Rocha’s recipe for success in Oakland. In a sport where black belt instructors are treated like rock stars, Rocha is king of his own brand of Rocha ‘n’ Roll. The fanaticism that accompanies the sport can bewilder those who have yet to hear the call of Jiu-Jitsu, but those who seem to think and talk about nothing else. BJJ fighters’ conversations revolve around three things: the submission they almost got; the new gi they does to obtain; and whatever new style will revolutionize the game forever – or until next week, whichever comes first.

Eduardo Rocha maneuvers through the changing styles and conflicting loyalties of the California Jiu-Jitsu scene with seemingly unflappable Libran aplomb.

When asked to explain his success, the crocodile suddenly becomes shy.

“It’s my charisma,” says Rocha.

Could be. But with a rosy future on the horizon, Eduardo Rocha told me about the past.

Why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

My city, Rio, is very violent. I needed to find something to protect me and my brothers.

Why not a gun?

Because a gun will put you in jail, fast. There’s a lot of fighting in Rio, but most of it doesn’t involve guns. The weapons are in the favelas. At least, that’s how it was when I started. Now it’s different. Now it’s a war.

What are all these fights?

If you want to be respected in Brazil, you have to be able to prove that you are strong.

Wait a minute. Is Jiu-Jitsu a fight, or a game, or what?

Jiu-Jitsu is everything. A fight, a sport and a game.

In America we have a saying, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” What is important to you?

Winner. In Brazil, there is no place for second place. You are either the first or the last. In Brazil they say: “Second place is the first place of the losers”.

Is that why you moved to California?

I am in California because a door opened for me at the right time. California is the capital of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in America. I’ve been here before for tournaments, and when the door opened, I walked in.

Jiu-Jitsu seems like a pretty macho game. How does your school fit into the diverse population of East Bay?

There are also some macho guys in the East Bay. Not many, but a few.

Can people who aren’t macho get anything out of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

My school is open to everyone, but Jiu-Jitsu is not for everyone.

What is your biggest fear?

In this world, sharks. In the other world, evil spirits.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

On a big ship, traveling alone. The ocean will be my next challenge, when I can no longer use my body to fight.

I heard there were sharks in the ocean.

(Rocha laughs) This is a good thing. I love fear. Adrenaline makes me feel alive.

What about pain?

No. I don’t like it, but you have to learn to live with it.

Your name means “rock” in Portuguese. Do you feel like a rock?

I try to be strong as such.

The rocks are cold.

They heat up in the sun.

Snakes too.

We all adapt to the situation.

The rocks are breaking.

This is the wrong side of the rocks.

I guess no one is perfect.

(Rocha laughs)

If you could be anyone other than Eduardo Rocha, who would you be?

Someone who doesn’t need anyone.

Like a rock?

Or a shark.

If you could go back, is there anything in your life that you would change?

All. I have made many mistakes in my life. I had to learn the hard way. Sometimes you have to go through hell to find a way to live.

You have a lot of medals and trophies. Which one are you most proud of?

The medals do not make the fighter. You are what you are. What I’m most proud of is surviving here in a foreign land. Show people that I can do anything, not just fight like a bull.

What is your pet peeve?

Weak people. People who are always looking for the easy way out.

What do you like the most in America?

The way Americans do business. Here you can actually do something. In Brazil, it’s all about having a good time.

How to define happiness?

Beautiful women, my son, and a beautiful day for surfing.

Is there anything else that Jiu-Jitsu has given you other than muscles and lots of trophies?

Jiu-Jitsu brought me balance. It teaches you how to survive when you’re not at your best and how to adapt to bad situations.

What is your main motivation as a fighter?

Fear.

Do you have a hero?

No. But I love Batman.

This interview was conducted in 2006 in Oakland, California.

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