An Interview with Mario Yokoyama of myBJJ
Last week I popped into the myBrazilian Jiu-Jitsu headquarters in Camperdown to have a chat with founder and head instructor Mario Sergio Yokoyama.
Having finished another month at Darkside, I opted for a short break from boxing so I could take some time not only to explore other martial arts but to get to know the city and some of the other travelers and locals in it.
One of the first things I was happy to have done with the extra time was returning to myBJJ for my second interview with a founder and head coach of a Sydney martial arts gym–another fun and insightful experience. (The first was with Uro Pavi of Darkside.)
When I got back to Sydney last month, I took a free Jiu-Jitsu Fundamentals trial class at myBJJ and wrote about it here. Since then, I have been wanting to come back and ask Mario–the man behind my–some questions.
I wanted to learn more about the various Brazilian jiu-jitsu styles and approaches to training, the Gracies, self-defense, competitive BJJ, grading systems, and how jiu-jitsu differs from country to country.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: An Art for All Ages
When I arrived at the gym just after 9 in the morning, Mario was in the middle of a kids class. It was the last day of the winter break and of the jiu-jitsu school holidays camp so these young rollers would be in the gym’s care until 3 in the afternoon.
In addition to the questions I had prepared, I wanted to ask Mario about their kid’s classes. When I took my first stab at jiu-jitsu last year, my own daughter was three and too young to join. In fact, I found that most any sports teams in Manila–including soccer–didn’t take kids until the age of five.
I assumed this was because children under five couldn’t be expected to follow instructions but Mario told me they start training kids at three and sometimes even younger.
In fact, he said he’d had two-and-a-half-year-olds follow instructions better than some ten-year-old students and can already go through the moves.
Overall, however, jiu-jitsu does appear to be a discipline suited to all ages–from the preschoolers rolling around on the mats to the white-haired masters gracing the walls.
Mario Yokoyama: Student and Teacher
“I have been a black belt for almost twelve years and I’m still learning here with my own students. That was my plan at the beginning, to build a school where I can train as well.”
Speaking of the Gracies, Mario himself received his black belt under Ryan Gracie. However, he first began his jiu-jitsu training in Sao Paolo under master Roberto Lage.
Mario was thirteen years of age and a judo purple belt when he first walked into Lage’s jiu-jitsu academy. Though he initially came in to complement his ground training in judo, he quickly fell in love with the training style and mechanics of jiu-jitsu and decided to take the path of jiu-jitsu.
By the time he had his purple belt in jiu-jitsu, still in his teens, Mario was helping teach classes in Brazil. After that, he spent time in Japan teaching jiu-jitsu to the police and eventually he moved to Australia where he got started teaching in his back garden with three students.
As the number of students grew, he moved to a new location and when this got too small they moved again. This happened three times, he tells me. The third location was in Marrickville in 2013, where myBJJ was officially founded and the school started getting personality. Three years ago that location also got too small and that is when they moved to the current headquarters in Camperdown.
“When you have a good product, it doesn’t matter where you are, people come to train with you. When I was in Japan we had these guys who would drive four hours to train with us and four hours to go back [home],” Mario recounts and tells me the same thing happened in Marrickville where they had guys catching the train from out of town in the evening, staying the night and training again in the morning before returning home. Currently, they have people coming all the way from the Blue Mountains.
Gracie Barra, Gracie Humaita, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Around the World
“They were very tough but very humble.”
When you look for places in Australia where you can train in jiu-jitsu, you’re guaranteed to see at least a few Gracies popping up. Often, it will be either Gracie Barra (“baha”) or Gracie Humaita (“umaita”)–schools that you can find all over the world.
Knowing that Mario got his black belt under Ryan (“Hyan”) Gracie, grandson of the acclaimed patriarch of Brazilian jiu-jitsu Carlos Gracie, I wanted to know where his gym fits in with these disciplines and I was also curious to hear some first-hand accounts of his interactions with members of the widely influential and almost notorious Gracie family.
For starters, I had to ask where myBJJ fits in the red-to-yellow or Barra-to-Humaita spectrum. Firstly,, Barra gyms–distinguishable by the red triangle–focus heavily on competitive jiu-jitsu and the training tends to revolve around points and rules.
Carlos Senior, the founder of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and influencer of the Barra approach, believed that the best way to spread his family’s martial art around the world was through sport and that is exactly what happened thanks to his many sons and nephews. Carlos Junior now owns IBJJF, which hosts some of the biggest jiu-jitsu competitions in the world and sports a 50-page rulebook.
Where the jiu-jitsu taught in Barra schools has evolved for competition, Humaita, or the yellow triangle, denotes a more traditional self-defense school. Carlos’ younger brother Elio, who helped build the jiu-jitsu empire, saw jiu-jitsu purely as a martial art and form a self-defense and not as a sport. Therefore, Humaita schools–though they may still compete–teach BJJ first and foremost as a way to defend yourself.
After his first instructor, Roberto Lage–who’s master trained under a Gracie, fell victim to a stroke, Mario started training at the Ryan Gracie academy and he recalls how much it impressed him. Mario tells me that most of what the myBJJ team teaches comes from the Gracies, from Barra to Humaita and all the variations of and between the two that exist today.
As I see it, the classes at myBJJ seem to begin with a practical self-defense approach in the fundamental classes, progress to competition-geared jiu-jitsu in advanced classes, and turn away from points and rulebooks at the master class stage where fighters train in a manner that bespeaks no-holds-barred fighting and points again to the traditional approach.
As far as the Gracie family, what he could say about the members he has met–including Carley, Clark, and others who have visited myBJJ–is that they were very tough but very humble. At his use of the word humble, my mind immediately shot to the large, bold text on the front of the building: “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: The Humble Sport”.
Currently, myBJJ has schools in Australia and New Zeeland, and besides training in Brazil and Japan, Mario has also been to Korea, the US, and Portugal. He believes it’s important to different places and to see how they train.
“Sometimes I like to go away and come back here. I like to be outside, to see how the instructors and students train because that way we can take that and implement a new strategy or way to train our students.” For the same reason, he likes to bring guys in from outside to do seminars and classes.
“I have been a black belt for almost twelve years and I’m still learning here with my own students. That was my plan at the beginning, to build a school where I can train as well.”
Martial Arts: Combat Sports versus Self Defense
“Your greatest weapon is your mouth.”
Because there is quite a difference between training to fight a more-or-less equally matched opponent in a ring or a cage and learning how to defend yourself in a real-life violent confrontation, I was keen on diving deeper into the self-defense versus competitive-sport topic.
I asked Mario if, from his experience, someone who has taken BJJ classes in a safe and respectful environment could actually defend themselves in an encounter on the street–that is, without experiencing such confrontation in class.
With this question, I was thinking back to what I had discussed with Uro Pavi at Darkside and his insight on self-defense.
What Uro had to say was that–and I quote–a violent encounter is ultimately more emotionally scarring than physically. This, if you’re not getting that first emotional rush of being brutally hit and punched and kicked, you miss the point and you’re not really getting the full self-defense experience.
Walk into any jiu-jitsu gym in Sydney, and you can feel quite guaranteed that you won’t be punched or kicked at all–and certainly not brutally. Therefore, I had to wonder, how can it prepare you?
Any combat sport will teach you physical moves that can be useful in a fight and if you train hard enough your body can learn to react. However, whether or not you are emotionally ready to handle a confrontation is a different story.
Here was Mario’s insight, when it comes to confrontation: “Your greatest weapon is your mouth.” As I understood it, he was saying that beyond being physical trained and emotionally tested, there is also the need for mental preparedness.
Mario explained it like this: if I was walking down the street and a little kid started yelling insults at me, I would take one look at him and know that he was no threat to me. I have no need to prove myself in this situation so it would be absolutely ridiculous to yell back at him. Therefore, instead of taking his bait to engage, I can carry on my way.
Along those lines, Mario told a story of an encounter when he first arrived in Sydney. He was in a pub when a large and, in Mario’s word, scary looking guy tried to pick a fight with him.
This guy was talking a big game but Mario, already a black belt by then, knew he could beat him. Mario proposed going to the parking lot to fight, offering to pay the man $5,000 if he beat him. On the other hand, if Mario won, this man would have to pay him $500. For all the man’s talk, including claims that his sister could beat him, he didn’t show up to the fight.
If you’ve trained in jiu-jitsu and have learned how to handle someone bigger and stronger than you, you can look a challenger up and down and know that they are not a threat. Just as you would not engage an impudent child, so this contender is likely unworthy of a contest and, at the end of the day, that mental confidence and calm may be all you needed to win the fight.
I’ve found this lesson to be at the core of every serious martial arts school or MMA gym I’ve been to. You don’t learn martial arts so that you can go out and pick fights. You train and challenge yourself in the gym so that you don’t have to prove yourself by getting into fights out in the street.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Australia
“I have guys who make their best friends on the mat.”
Next, we talked about the people who come here to myBJJ in Sydney to learn a martial art. Compared to the streets of Brazil and the United States, where knowing how to handle yourself can be an essential skill, Australia is quite a safe place.
Regardless, the confidence that comes with knowing you can defend yourself if you need to is valuable to anyone, anywhere. In Australia, Maria says, life is relaxed. It is neither as dangerous as Brazil nor as stressful as Japan, where people work twelve to fourteen hour days.
Here, jiu-jitsu is a lifestyle. You can do it for fitness–and that brings confidence to other areas of life as well–but you don’t just come to train. You come to learn something new and you make new friends.
“I have guys who make their best friends on the mat,” Maria says. “There are guys I train with who I have a closer bond with then I have with my own brother. These guys, my best friends, are the ones who try to choke me out in every class as well. And it’s great. I trust them, my life in their hands. I know they’re not going to hurt me.”
On what you walk away with, he goes on: “Anytime you have a really tough session, you feel like you learned something You come home and you feel so tired but you feel like you’ve learned. It’s very addictive too.”
Mario calls it “a great addiction” because they have had people come in and replace their addictions to cigarettes and alcohol with jiu-jitsu. In fact, he thinks that jiu-jitsu could make a great therapy for daily life and I have to say from personal experience that I wholeheartedly agree.
“You know you’re going to have great instructors and classmates.” He carries on with pride and enthusiasm. “The class finishes, sometimes at 8:30; come here after 9 and we still have people on the mats, talking and reviewing techniques.”
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Belts and Grading Systems
“When a student is ready for the next belt, we order it and give it as a gift.”
At myBJJ, they follow the IBJJF belt system: white, blue, purple, brown, and black.
Some jiu-jitsu schools have added additional belts by combining colors and giving, for example, a white-and-blue belt, but they have not adopted this practice here.
For kids, the colors are white, yellow, orange, and gray, and they have adopted mixed colors such as a yellow-and-orange belt. However, for the stripe system, they only give four at myBJJ and not twelve as some schools do.
“I know it’s a good way to motivate the students–giving stripes–but we have other ways to do that,” Mario explains. When I asked long it typically takes an absolute beginner to earn a blue belt, he said the fastest is eight to ten months but that, for some, it can take up to three years.
Mario referenced back to being held as a white belt for four years by his mentor and instructor Roberto Lage. He recalls the first day he trained with him, coming as a purple belt in Judo at the time. Roberto told him, “It’s better to be a strong white belt than a regular blue belt” and Mario has carried that outlook with him ever since.
“I prefer the white. A belt is just [there] to tighten [your gi].” He says. Knowing what you can do is internal; the color of your belt has no effect on that.
As far as ceremonies for awarding belt promotions, they differ per school but Mario personally says, “I believe everybody progresses differently. When a student is ready for the next belt, we order it and give it as a gift.”
He tells me that some schools have one or two grading days or ceremonies in the year and that it’s a good way to bring in a lot of money. However, he likes to promote each student when they are ready. On a fixed grading day, two students may end up getting the same belt promotion though one has attended 200 classes and the other only 100.
Just as he came up to instructor Salvador at the end of my trial class last month and surprised him with his black belt, every student is presented with their new belt as a gift precisely when Mario believes they are ready–even if that moment happens to be in front of the entire gym and brings them to tears.
The Good and the Bad
What Mario likes about jiu-jitsu here in Sydney is the fire with which people come to train. “Some people train three times a day,” he says, “some people come every day.”
On the other hand, he doesn’t like it when people come in with that fire but eventually stop coming regularly. Often it’s because something comes up, either with work or family, which is very understandable and often how life can be.
That’s also why myBJJ has classes from 6 in the morning to 9 at night. Mario tells me he sees extremely fast results from his students, even faster now than five years ago when they were already learning at impressive speeds.
Chances are you’ll impress yourself too. Jiu-jitsu is a beautiful sport and one I encourage anyone to try, for many of the reasons Mario gave above and more. If you’re still looking for a reason or a place to give it a go, your first class here is free.
2 thoughts on “Things to Know About Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Sydney”
Another great article. Your article and live stream always inspire me in some way. Although I don’t have the chance to come to your live stream very often as you stream schedual is kinda overlapped with my working time, I watch the recap every time when I got off work. I wish I could be there.
Every now and then I get the itch to training BJJ or continue my Muay Thai training. I found a BJJ gym here where I am working and it seems pretty awesome. Despite the fact that they do not have a black belt coach like Mr Yokoyama, they have a very friendly environment and purple belt coach who I think is enough to teach the beginner like me.
I had trained Muay Thai for almost a year when I was in primary school. One year is obviously not long enough and that’s the one of the main reasons I want to continue practicing. I can still recall the day I got knock out for the first time in my life- I remember absolutely nothing until I was told by my partner that I was out……..Pretty embarrassing at that time but that was quite an experience.
Like you mentioned about $500 and $5K case Mr Yokoyama encountered, brings another reason I want to try BJJ: Build up self-confidence. You don’t have to prove yourself against anybody since you already know you are outpowered them at the very beginning. You know here in China people do not like get involved to a serious fight as the cost is simply to high. As the government want to restrain violence as much as possible, they just flat out fine anyone who is involved in the fight disregard you are the good or bad guy. There are many disappointing cases here. So if you show a confidence to your opponent like Mr Yokoyama at the first place, he might sence your confident and never want to seriously fighting you before you can win the fight without having a scratch. By training BJJ I wish I could build my confidence by knowing how to handle varieties of components in different situation physically and mentally.
But honestly there are still some doubt in my mind:
Is it true what people said “a black belt can tun to a purple belt after absorbing one punch and become white belt after two. Am I still have the chance to apply what I learnt after get a significant damage ? Is BJJ practical?
How am I make sure that my opponent can recover after being choked out? How to contol my power in a real fight? I obviously do not want to put him into sleep permanently or I will ended up behind bars. (This sounds like a fatuous question though…..)
Hope you can share your thougt if you don’t mind. I currently preparing for my IELTS test which will take place in Sep. Hope I can get a good score before put myself in a Muay Thai or BJJ gym.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Those are some great comments, Tony!
From what I have understood so far, self-defense geared BJJ is indeed practical because it is not limited by points and rules regarding which moves are and are not allowed. For example, Mario Yokoyama said the first time he walked into Roberto Lage’s gym to learn jiu-jitsu he got knocked out.
He also told me that they include striking and MMA in the Master classes at myBJJ and again are not restricted by competitive BJJ rules but instead learn it as a form of self-defense that can be applied in any situation. If that’s what you’re after, maybe you can look for an Humaita-inspired school.
Thanks for watching the streams and reading my posts, Tony; I appreciate your support and wish you good luck with the IELTS exam!