Interview: Fabio Santos On The Early Years of US BJJ

Back in June 2013, Can flew out to California for the first time. That gave him the opportunity to finally meet some online friends, like Caleb from the Fightworks Podcast, along with a few big names from BJJ. Along with Rener Gracie and Saulo Ribeiro, Can had the great pleasure of speaking with a pioneer of BJJ in the US: Fabio Santos, a 7th degree red-and-black belt (also known as the ‘coral belt’).

This is the first part of the interview, where Fabio spoke about his memories of the beginnings of BJJ in the USA, something in which he played a central role. That will be followed by a second part next week, with the last part appearing on Groundwork BJJ. For a cool introduction to Fabio’s history, from his time in Brazil onwards, have a listen to his recent chat with Saulo here (from Can’s favourite instructional site, BJJ Library).

ARTEMIS BJJ: In your old Fightworks interview from 2006, you mentioned you started teaching in New York, with small classes of just 12 guys. Do you remember when that was and how it came about?

FABIO SANTOS: That was right in 1983, just after I got my black belt. I was offered a job in New York: I graduated in Physical Education, so I have a specialisation in bodybuilding and weight training. So, I went to New York to teach weights, at a very famous academy with lots of movie stars and stuff. At the end of the class, I would put down some mats in a corner, maybe nine o’clock at night and bring a couple of guys. We would start training then.

Some people would start to get interested in it, but we could never get it off the ground. I had to work so much, I was working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. I simply couldn’t fit it in. Time passed, then I met Sherry in Utah, my wife, and we moved to Oregon to get married. I’m in Oregon – this is around 1989, 1990 – and I’m looking at Black Belt Magazine. I see Rorion, Royce and Royler, doing seminars in California. I contact them, and they were like “Oh man, you’re here! I didn’t know you were here! You’ve got to come down and work with us!” They said they were building a school, which was the Torrance Academy.

That’s how it all started here, in the United States. Then the UFC came and everybody knew about jiu jitsu. It was like we had to put barricades at the front door of the Gracie Academy, there was a stampede to learn jiu jitsu. It was incredible. Then I came down to San Diego, as a Gracie Jiu Jitsu affiliate from Rorion Gracie. But business didn’t work out very good – we’re still good friends – but today I’m with Relson. He’s been my friend for thirty years.

ARTEMIS BJJ: Do you know if any of those guys you taught in New York are still training, or are you not in contact with any of them?

FABIO SANTOS: I know one of them moved to Florida, Sergio. He’s a Brazilian guy and still trains here and there. The other guys I pretty much lost contact.

ARTEMIS BJJ: You told Caleb your next move was to Utah, where you trained with Pedro Sauer. Although he now has a huge association, you mentioned that back then he was just teaching from his house, so only had a handful of students. What was it like training in that atmosphere?

FABIO SANTOS: Yeah, Pedro and I used to train together before, in Brazil. It was very strange to be in the United States training, just me and him! There was nobody else out there [laughs]. But almost immediately, he moved, I can’t remember where. I stayed in Park City for a couple of years, before moving to Oregon like I said. It was only a short time with Pedro Sauer. It would have been around 1986, 1987.

ARTEMIS BJJ: You also said you were at the Gracie Academy in the early 1990s, teaching a lot of the classes while Royce was preparing for the first UFC: what are you memories of the Academy at that time?

FABIO SANTOS: I taught all the classes, pretty much. That time was really tough, because we used to get a lot of challenge matches. Every single day there would be wrestlers coming in, punchers and kickers, kickboxers, all wanting to test that out against us. We had five or six guys that were always “Can I go? Can I do it? Let me do it!” We had a few brown belts out there. Also Royce himself, it was good for his training because it was one hundred percent real. The only thing you couldn’t do was eye gouge and bite.

Nowadays, it is not really vale tudo, it is entertainment. The guy only has to fight one time, it is completely different. I believe in tournaments, I don’t believe that someone can be a world champion after just fighting one time! [laughs] Like Brock Lesnar, comes through the window and fights two guys, then he is world champion in that division. That’s very strange to me. To have to go up the ranks, then you become a world champion. But here, they want everything in a microwave, so they do whatever is good for them financially.

That is probably the main reason Rorion and I got away from all this UFC thing. The guys were champions before, now the guys are drunks, drug addicts, you know what I mean? They do crap, they get arrested. It is a different breed of people from before. All the guys that fought before had trophies in their houses, they were real martial artists, proud of what they did their entire life.

Now, the guys take drugs, they take a bunch of steroids and get in there. Then they get caught, they come back again, get caught a second time: it’s like the shame is zero! [laughs] It’s not like a martial art any more, it is a different thing. I don’t think we belong there anymore, it is completely against jiu jitsu. As soon as they go to the ground, they get stood up. They don’t give the time necessary for the jiu jitsu guy to get going. Then you have a submission on and the bell rings. This is a fight. There is no bell.

ARTEMIS BJJ: Getting back to your personal history, you were going to move to Philadelphia, but were put off by a snowstorm, so came to San Diego in 1998 instead. You also said Nelson Monteiro was the only other guy around in San Diego at the time. What do you remember about setting up your school back then?

Artemis BJJ Bristol Brazilian Jiu Jitsu interview with Fabio Santos June 2013 class

FABIO SANTOS: Oh yeah: my school was right there, down the block about halfway. We started with pretty much nothing. Rorion gave me those mats that I have on the wall now. He gave me as a present and said, “Never give the fish, give the fishing pole.” I started there, we put them on the ground and I had rent money for three months. That was it, paid in advance. I told the guy, “Hey, if this doesn’t work, I don’t know dude, I’ll have to wash your car or whatever.”

Luckily it was successful. In the first month, we had a hundred students, right off the bat. I was busier then than I am now, because today we have fifty schools in San Diego. There are not that many people that like jiu jitsu. I think it is a dumb move to come to San Diego and open a school, at the moment. But people don’t care: they just opened another school recently. It is saturated. I think if you open one more here, it is going to go under.

It is impossible that you can have that many schools in a place that has a million inhabitants. I’m sure half of that is not interested in jiu jitsu! [laughs]

Photos by kind permission of Dagney. For more interviews, go here.

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