A raw jiu-jitsu black belt
with a heart of gold
On the way to jiu-jitsu my bus stopped in front of a Brazilian Prison. There was a four meter high concrete wall, that’d been built out front, with razor blade barbwire added to its top. I walked for less than thirty seconds across one road then arrived at the street of the jiu-jitsu academy I’d aimed for.
It was in an industrial area of Brazil’s Santa Catarina, which at that time – 2009 – was completely foreign to me. In this street there were five oily mechanic shops, a hardware store, and a prison at one end of the street, accompanied by Brazilian shanty homes at the other.
What am I doing here? I thought to myself.
I found the address I’d been given, then entered a warehouse full of Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts – Gracie Floripa – winners of “Brasileiro de Equipes 2007,” an annual competition where top jiu-jitsu teams compete to be champions of Brazil.
As I entered the academy, I was greeted by a man, “Oi, Cabron!” He handed me a camera and asked that I take a photo. I’ve often been mistaken for an Argentinean due to my curly hair and because it’s closer than my country on the other side of the world. But I thought: Wait a minute, Cabron’s Mexican slang. Then Alesendre de Souza (a national Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion) tapped Antonio Braga Neto’s shoulder (a current world jiu-jitsu champion, although not officially part of Gracie Floripa) saying “Nao, ele e Australiano,” which, for those who don’t know, is Portuguese. Then, seven black belts laughed . . . So I took their photo.
Among the group there was a colorful character who stood out like a bee-sting. He was painted in tattoos and screaming in Portuguese. What appeared to be an angry man – at least to those with minimal Portuguese – was a proud black belt jiu-jitsu practitioner telling jokes. His name was Nelson Destri, but he’s known as “Badeco,” and he received his black belt when he was just twenty-seven.
Once Badeco finished yelling, he described a jiu-jitsu half-guard pass in very fine detail. The black belts then calmly threw ideas off one another, like a group of university professors performing research.
On top of shouting, Badeco is every bit what you’d imagine a twenty-nine year old Brazilian, with thirteen years jiu-jitsu experience, to look like. He’s got “Gracie” tattooed on one of his arms and a tattoo of two grapplers performing a jiu-jitsu position on the other – “rear-naked choke.” He’s at least ninety-four kilograms, with cauliflower ears and both biceps severely ruptured.
Badeco is a product of Crolin Gracie, the son of Carlos Gracie, who both played major roles in the international progression of jiu-jitsu.
Three years later a small car pulled up outside my apartment in Florianopolis, Brazil. “Oi! I’m here!” the voice screamed in Portuguese. It was Badeco. I’d invited him to my apartment before he was due to give me a one-on-one jiu-jitsu class. He’s thirty-four now and has eighteen years of jiu-jitsu knowledge.
“We’re not like McDonalds or Hungry Jacks,” Badeco once told me. He was referring to his jiu-jitsu being raw, real, and not a money train. Badeco lives and breathes grappling, and he’s been a black belt since the age of twenty-seven. “Jiu-jitsu brought me together and made me secure in this world,” he said. His life was unstable before he’d started jiu-jitsu at the age of sixteen. He showed me a hole on the inside of his right leg, an aged puncture wound about the size of a fingertip. “380” and “this was a slash,” as he raised his chin showing an old three-inch cut in the exact location of his anterior jugular. How the laceration missed is beyond me. I assumed “380” and the circular wound on his leg could only refer to a bullet. Now, whether he was pulling my leg or not, the cut on his jugular did not indicate a life of ballet.
My apartment was a small studio, about the size of two small car-parking spaces, so I hoped we wouldn’t stay together in it for too long. But I thought it’d be rude to not offer Badeco a coffee. I’d told him previously I was interested in doing a profile on him, so I thought, Stuff it, I’ll do a bit of it now.
Badeco’s family lived in Rio de Janeiro until he was eight years old, so I asked him to describe the most real thing he’d seen while growing up. I was thinking of Rio’s streets as crazy, something a foreigner like me would find very interesting. Although, to Badeco, the streets were just the streets. Therefore, he took me beyond those streets. He told me about his father who’d fallen ill with a heart condition in 1987. He stood up and said, “I saw my father cut from here to here,” as he pointed to the top of his sternum, running his finger down his abdomen to his left leg. Four years later his father passed away. I’d known this previously and thought: This apartment’s very small and I’ve found myself in the deep end with a weapon of a man. However, the more I spoke with him the more his picture was painted. He’d apparently been a curious eight year old, so stuck his head in on the operating theater. “That’s scarred me for life,” he said. You wouldn’t believe medics would allow a kid into the theater, but he explained his curiosity got the better of him and forced a look past the theater’s door. Badeco comes across as a very straight-talking man.
He went to public school after his father died. “The extra expense wasn’t worth it compared to the cost of a quality school,” according to him.
“I became lost after this.”
He explained people would try to learn at the school but class would be over by lunchtime. After school, some kids would run free. Some would take drugs or even do robberies. “I was completely lost between thirteen and sixteen.”
During his later teenage years he witnessed his friend get shot and killed. He pointed to the back of his skull and indicated the bullet coming out the front of his left eye. Luckily for Badeco, he’d been given a different direction with sport, and a reason to stay off the streets. His father first took him to a jiu-jitsu academy when he was six years old. “Dad loved jiu-jitsu, but the sport was more expensive back then, so he did kung-fu as it was slightly cheaper.” This led to Badeco’s passion for jiu-jitsu being fully developed by age sixteen.
According to Badeco, Crolin Gracie use to say, “Brazil’s dead fighters look after Gracie Floripa.” He was referring to the sense of security he felt in his life after starting jiu-jitsu.
After our coffee, we drove 15 kilometers from my apartment to Badeco’s home. He mentioned he was slightly ill that day, although we still trained. His transport was a respectable car, although very small. “I think I bought bad petrol,” he commented, as his car shuttled along the road. He went on to explain, “Sometimes the fuel’s diluted” in petrol stations near his home.
We eventually arrived at his house to find a tatami in his carport and a dog named “Gracie.” He then went on to teach techniques I’d never seen in my eight-years of jiu-jitsu. After receiving my one-on-one class I found it so beneficial I decided to request more.
On the way home we picked up Badeco’s daughter, Maria, from school. She’s just under three years old. Badeco becomes a softer man around her. A three-year-old boy had hit Maria during class before we collected her that day. Badeco asked Maria in a slightly modified younger tone: “Do you want Daddy to punch him tomorrow?”
“No!” she responded “No!” So Badeco looked at me stunned. “You see that? She doesn’t even want to get even.”
Badeco’s Brazilian public school past had taught him to defend his choice of school. “It’s expensive to send her to a private school but I can’t economize with this. Public schools are not the same as private schools in Brazil. But private’s expensive.”
Although he’d have nothing other than private for his daughter, I asked him, if he could turn back time, which would he prefer for himself? He looked at me with devious eyes, smiling, then said: “Public.”
“I want her to have a different life,” he said. “There are people on this island who probably think they’re higher than me.” He’s spent his entire life training, so believes some may think he’s just a “brawler.”
“I want her to have the best,” referring to Maria.
“I’ve had three knee operations, my face smashed in and teeth belted out . . .” he said, as he raised his tattooed arm showing his indented biceps, then nodded, “jiu-jitsu.” He knows he’s no bank manager, but everybody in jiu-jitsu respects him. They say he’s got a “heart of gold.” He’s helped Brazil’s elite competitors and he also finds time to share with foreign jiu-jitsu visitors. He’s helped people from France, Portugal, the United States, Australia and more. At times there’s a language barrier, but jiu-jitsu’s the same language all over the world. Badeco’s focuses are his daughter and his students.
“I’m not a brawler anymore,” he told me.
The following day Badeco picked me up for training, and told me he’d seen a public doctor as he was still feeling sick.
“Public doctor said I had a flu, but I’ve never felt like this.” So, he went on to see a private doctor. “I’ve got Dengue fever!” But we trained anyway.
Over the next three days I saw Dengue wear him down. He was forced to take just a few days off jiu-jitsu, but he still attended his academy.
The state of Badeco’s frayed black belt is now a faded grey. To me, it indicates there aren’t too many things stopping him from training. And this was also the case with Dengue fever. “My bones feel weak,” and he called himself a “bunda-mole,” which as far as I know is Portuguese for “pansy.” “I’ve got a new student coming tonight and I can’t let him see me like this.” That night Badeco was rolling with quality black belts and Dengue fever.
He’s a raw character, pouring his heart and soul into jiu-jitsu. I’ve had a good time getting to know Badeco. Behind all the tattoos and the tough guy image there’s a warm heart wanting to share his jiu-jitsu knowledge. At least that’s the impression I received.
Copyright © 2013 Caviar Literature LLC
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