During my travels most of the the jiu jitsu guys I meet always ask one thing: “What’s it like training with Roger Gracie?” Here’s my attempt to describe it.
A Humbling Experience
I have trained all over the world with many top grapplers. Some could beat me and some could not, but they have all had to work hard and most of the time I posed at least some kind of threat to them during sparring. Roger is the only person I have ever rolled with who has the ability to neutralize all my attacks and destroy my defence almost at will. I have never sparred with anyone of his ability. The harder you try to beat him, the faster you tap out. And you tap out a lot. From submissions you didn’t even know existed. Hip cranks, Spine cranks, hamstring stretches (yes hamstring stretches!), it’s a humbling experience indeed.
Because his attacks are so good, you are always defending and trying to regain position, so it’s constantly an uphill struggle. You start in a neutral position (knees or standing) and then it just becomes progressively worse and worse as he methodically imposes his game plan upon you.
On the odd occasion that I have managed to put him in a bad position, it’s only a few seconds before I begin to feel my leverage slip through my fingers like grains of sand through an hourglass. I have often found myself thinking “Yes! I have good control!” only to then watch helplessly as he executes the perfect escape and takes the top position before submitting me.
So why is he so good? I believe the reasons are the following:
Roger is big and strong, there’s no argument about it. At almost 6’5″ and about 220 lbs he’s unusually large for jiu-jitsu fighter. I remember a certain training session in which we were doing stand-up training. He had an underhook which I thought I was defending reasonably well. I was placing all my weight on it to neutralize his leverage. When he got bored he suddenly threw me literally across the mat using just that underhook. I have trained with 300 lb wrestlers who have not had that sort of power. This is one of the reasons he is such a dangerous fighter. He combines high levels of attributes with perfect technical knowledge. In the unlikely event that you match him technically in any area he simply over powers you.
His depth of technical knowledge is supreme. Roger doesn’t need the couple of seconds to analyze a position before his next movement that an average fighter does. This is because he knows the perfect technical response to each position so well that it has become reflex. Also, he is always at least 2 moves ahead. His first attack is usually just used to set you up for the second and third.
When you watch him roll, you see a demonstration of perfect economy of motion. Sometimes, he will have 3 or 4 of us spar with him in turn, changing to a fresh partner every few minutes, so that he can push himself even though he is training with inferior opponents. The strange thing about Roger, is that as he becomes tired, his technique actually becomes better, not worse. I have a theory that this is due to his size. He has had to learn the most energy efficient way to move his massive frame around during long sparring and training sessions as he becomes progressively more and more fatigued. This to me is the essence of jiu-jitsu.
Roger is not super muscular and ripped like many other fighters, but when you roll with him, him he feels “dense”. It’s extremely difficult to move or lift him – it feels as if his weight is being sucked towards the ground. During our sparring sessions many times I have tapped through sheer discomfort from the smothering techniques he employs. If he chooses to, he makes any specific part of your body (usually your diaphragm) carry his entire 100 kilos of weight. I believe this is because he has a highly developed ability to relax and contract his different muscle groups at will and because he has exceptional pressure sensitivity.
His base is also phenomenal. My sweeps are by far the strongest part of my game, but during all the years I have been training with him, I have only managed to sweep Roger once. And that’s because he wasn’t paying attention. Usually you’ll think you are about to sweep him – you might even elevate him for a second, but because of his incredible balance he effortlessly readjusts and nullifies your attempt to reverse him.
His greatest weapon is his mind. When he trains he brings an intensity which is hard to describe. During his sparring sessions with Braulio Estima, an exceptional grappler and also a world champion, I have seen him in situations in which I was certain he was going to tap. But he never does. He just relaxes and looks for just that millimetre of space he requires to escape. When he’s tired he always pushes himself even harder and calls for a fresh sparring partner. I believe that it is this mental strength and unwavering tenacity differentiate him from many other high-level jiu-jitsu players and have led to his massive success.