What would happen if you put a sumo wrestler, a karate expert, two kickboxers, a professional boxer, a savate (French kickboxing) black belt, a shootfighter, and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt together in a ring? Who would be left standing when the proverbial smoke had cleared?
In 1993 at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado the world found out. During The Ultimate Fighting Challenge’s inaugural mixed martial arts tournament, eight fighting experts matched up to determine which discipline of pain reigns supreme. After three rounds of fighting and seven individual bouts, one man emerged as the champion: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu master Royce Gracie.
On a warm Monday evening at Gold’s Gym in Naples, the crowd is substantially less intimidating. A handful of men and women dressed in T-shirts and gym shorts unfold long gray panel mats on the floor of a workout studio and mill around quietly as they await the arrival of their instructor, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teacher Roberto Torralbas.
Jiu Jitsu, which is a close cousin to the Japanese combat sport judo, focuses on the premise that most fights end up on the ground. The techniques are based on grappling or ground fighting and the goal of forcing an attacker – often times one who is larger and more powerful – to submit.
To the untrained eye a Jiu Jitsu match could look like simple wrestling, however the sport is based on a specific set of holds and locks carefully calculated for maximum bone snapping impact. With the proper training, size and strength can be eliminated as an advantage. A broken wrist still hurts, even if you’re 6’5”.
Torralbas, 22, is a perfect example of the Jiu Jitsu ethos. At 5’7” and 175 pounds he is smaller than many of his students and at first glance an unlikely martial arts instructor. But the young man who first tried the sport as a student at Cornell University is a Jiu Jitsu champion – the winner of his weight class at the 2006 Pan American Jiu Jitsu Championship.
After studying Judo as a young boy in his native country of Cuba, Torralbas left martial arts and took up water polo, playing all the way through high school in Florida and continuing during college at Cornell University.
It was while studying electrical computer engineering at Cornell that Torralbas noticed a group of students practicing a combat sport similar to judo but executed almost entirely on the ground. It was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
When the students in Torralbas’ Gold’s Gym class are fully warmed up and panting slightly, they gather in a loose circle around Torralbas, who beckons a student towards him and begins to demonstrate a combination of holds and moves. Lying on the ground, Torralbas is significantly smaller than the student straddling him who jokingly goes by the name “Rocky,” but with a few swift maneuvers Torralbas has thrown the larger man to the mat. He swings his compact body on top of his opponent, twisting an arm backwards at a 90-degree angle until the student yelps slightly and taps the mat urgently.
“You alright?” Torralbas asks. “It’s not broken yet.”
Unlike many gym martial arts classes, the majority of Torralbas’ two-hour sessions are devoted to fighting.
The students pair up and throw themselves into rolling, writhing, jabbing balls all over the room. They coach each other through the moves they’ve just learned, placing a knee here, yanking an arm there, trying them over and over until they see their partner’s face flash the appropriate expression of pain.
Torralbas drifts around the room, correcting his students’ form and offering tips to increase the impact of their bars and chokeholds.
“If you’re partner goes to sleep let me know,” he shouts to the class as they work on a particularly vicious leg chokehold called the triangle.
“If you’re going against a big guy you gotta use your hips;” he tells the students, “ they’re stronger than anything he has.”
And Torralbas isn’t afraid to prove his techniques work. His teaching is completely hands on. In fact, Torralbas spends most of the class on the mat himself, fighting with his students and showing them where consistent training can take them. “I grapple with all my students,” he says earnestly. “I want my students to beat me. I hope one day that happens.” Then, smiling, he adds, “But not yet.”