Hong Kong dojo Team Grips eyes success at Abu Dhabi
Brazilian black belt Caporal promises to lead city's dojo to success in Abu Dhabi
A large black dragon curls its way over the sculpted torso of Rodrigo Caporal, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and one of Asia's best mixed martial artists. Signifying strength and wisdom at any cost, summoning the mythical reptilian master has allowed the Brazilian to dominate the Hong Kong scene since moving here three years ago.
This week, he is hoping the victorious serpent will inspire others, as he leads a dedicated team of grapplers at the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championships in Abu Dhabi.
Though not the only Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) world tournament, it has become the most popular because it has a prize pot of almost US$400,000 and because wins at qualifying events secured fighters all-expenses-paid trips to the UAE capital. More than 700 athletes from over 50 countries will compete in the championships, starting on Thursday.
Caporal is confident his small Hong Kong dojo - "Team Grips" - will make a big impression, with the BJJ professor hopeful for weight division podium finishes across his team and at least two to take out the absolute categories across all weight divisions in their belt class.
With numerous wins in local competitions from his athletes and being top-ranked in the world in the 76kg black belt division, Caporal can be quietly confident.
Jordan Roberts took silver in the 82kg white belt division in the WPJJ last year (and earned a free trip by winning the 2013 qualifying trials), while purple belt Leland Lim won a silver in the Pan-America World Championships last year. Black belt Erick Buthsombat adds experience.
The female contingent will be represented by white belt Margot Ciccarelli and newcomer Amie Jahng in her first world championship. Ciccarelli dominated in the female white belts at the Copa de Hong Kong tournament last December, progressing to a bout against a blue belt three years more experienced, eventually falling short. She is hopeful of taking out her weight class and the female white belt absolute.
Andrew Wong Kee, last year's third-place winner in the 82kg blue belts, and Mandy Wan, who won the female blue belt division at the qualifying trials, have had to pull out last minute due to injury.
"Our training is very strong," said Caporal. "Saturday, Sunday, public holiday - everyone is still training. We don't train for fitness, we train for competition."
The 29-year-old leads by example, training three times a day. An MMA fighter, Caporal also trains in muay Thai, wrestling and boxing. In February, he took out China's first and only MMA national championship super fight event in the RUFF [Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation] tournament, winning 1 million yuan (HK$1.2 million).
While BJJ has become a popular fitness or "hobby" sport, Caporal insists his team are focused on one thing only: winning.
"There are other gyms in town, but when someone comes to our dojo and trains on our mats, they realise that JAB [Team Grips] is no joke and we only cater for the strong," said Wong Kee, now a purple belt and owner of JAB MMA where the team trains.
"We live jiu-jitsu and train to win," says Wong Kee of the team's approach. "We believe the mind is the strongest asset at the top level of competition. Training the mind is just as important as the physical and technical aspects."
For 27-year-old Roberts, the results come naturally because of the dedication expected by Caporal. Usually weighing 88kg, he will lose 6kg in a week to compete in the 82kg division.
"I cut sugars from my diet, I eat mainly protein and do a water cut where I flood my system with water and then stop drinking for 24 hours, which helps to lose weight. Then I jump in the sauna before weigh-in," says the New Zealander. "It's a horrible experience, it's the worst part of the tournament."
Roberts is not the only one making sacrifices.
Lim, a banker, balances family commitments with training, waking at 5am every day to roll before getting in to work at 7am.
Buthsombat, a financial consultant, also manages a full-time workload with his BJJ passions.
But it is worth it for these fighters with medals on the mind.
With an extra year of training under his gi, Roberts is hoping for a win in his weight category and also in the white belt absolute.
"The pressure [Caporal and Wong Kee] put on me is suffocating. But feeling that pressure you learn how to apply that to other people. Even though you come off the mat sometimes and you have been smashed, it makes you stronger."
It is a sentiment shared by Ciccarelli, a student who moved to Hong Kong on a gap year last September. After trying every BJJ gym in the region, she settled on Caporal's for the atmosphere and fighting spirit. "There is a very homely sense of family with the team, we train together, we socialise together … that pushes each one of us as we want to not only make ourselves proud but also our family," she says.
Above all, BJJ is a way of life for these fighters who hope to reap rewards in Abu Dhabi.
"The dojo is a family; a brotherhood. It's all about heart and intensity - we are very competitive," says Roberts. For Caporal, it is that and more: "I love BJJ, it is my life. I never stop."