Collage of Brazilian jiu-jitsu academies in Rio de Janeiro. Images courtesy Aaron Sundquist.
In 2009 we interviewed Aaron Sundquist, an American who had travelled to Brazil and had the luxury of spending 6 months in Rio de Janeiro. During that time he trained lots of jiu-jitsu and even had the opportunity to learn from the legendary Terere. Three years have gone by and Sundquist has now made Rio his residence. He’s still training jiu-jitsu and his restless brain compelled him to build RioJiuJitsuGuide.
Sundquist offered to discuss RioJiuJitsuGuide here on the site. Because we find it very hard to resist data and even harder to resist data about Brazilian jiu-jitsu, we took him up on his offer.
The FightWorks Podcast: What is the RioJiuJitsuGuide?
Aaron Sundquist: RioJiuJitsuGuide.com takes first-hand information about Jiu-Jitsu in Rio de Janeiro and makes that information available to people all over the world. We provide the actionable information people need to decide when, how and where to train Jiu-Jitsu in Rio. We regularly publish free articles and the free annual Rio Jiu-Jitsu Ranking, which this year scored and ranked 23 academies in Rio de Janeiro across four categories: price, convenience, facilities, and competitive performance. Last, we offer a paid product–the Rio Jiu-Jitsu Guidebook–a Lonely Planet of sorts for Jiu-Jitsu in Rio. It includes very detailed profiles, pictures and maps for over 20 academies. We hope our paid product will help cover the ongoing costs of producing all our free content, especially the annual Ranking.
The FightWorks Podcast: There are dozens of jiu-jitsu schools in Rio. How did you decide which schools to feature in the RioJiuJitsuGuide?
Aaron Sundquist: Indeed, there’s no shortage, which makes Rio a great testing ground for this kind of project. Schools had to meet one essential criterion to be featured in the Ranking and the Guidebook–they had to operate an “open-door” policy. That means we excluded any invitation-only schools and schools available to members-only associations. We established this criterion for two reasons. First, to respect the privacy of invitation-only instructors who prefer to keep a low profile. And, second, to ensure that we were providing useful and actionable information to our readers. If a school isn’t open to the general public, then our readers can’t access it, and therefore any information about the school isn’t very useful. For these reasons, we excluded two schools out of 25, leaving us with a total of 23 in the 2012 Ranking. We’ll continue to use this criterion as we add more schools to next year’s Ranking.
The FightWorks Podcast: Why would someone invest in the Guidebook if they can just look it all up online?
Aaron Sundquist: That’s a good question, but one with an easy answer–you can’t look it all up online because it’s not there. The Guidebook, our paid product, was created to fill a massive information gap about training in Rio generally and academies in Rio specifically. Only a few schools have websites and any other information available online is either very basic, outdated, in Portuguese, or all of the above. At best, you can find an address, but even then, two-thirds of schools don’t have a sign on the street. The information we provide is information that can be obtained only by physically visiting the academies (and getting lost trying to find them). In short, we’ve done all of the hard work so people arrive in Rio with the Guidebook’s extremely detailed academy profiles, like this one for BTT. The end result? Less time lost, more time on the mat. Of course our paid product isn’t for everyone, but it helps to cover the costs of producing free content, including our regular articles and the annual Rio Jiu-Jitsu Ranking.
The FightWorks Podcast: How did the school owners of the jiu-jitsu academies in Rio react when you informed them of your plans?
Aaron Sundquist: Honestly, even I didn’t know what my plans were. At the time, I could only vaguely describe the goals of my work–to collect a standard set of information from academies and raise awareness about the landscape of Jiu-Jitsu in Rio in general. They probably thought I was crazy and forgot me soon after. You never know where a project this big is going to take you, you only know that you have to start in order to finish. The first step was collecting the data. With no data there was no story to tell. The final outcome of the data collection work (the annual Ranking and the Guidebook) came somewhat as a surprise even to me. And I’m certain it will be a surprise to the academies as they learn about it. That said, the Ranking and the Guidebook aren’t just useful tools for people who want to train in Rio. They also serve as a very affordable industry report for owners of academies. They can see their strong points, identify opportunities for improvement, and compare price points relative to other academies. In the end, our role is that of an objective observer, not a subjective critic, and I hope that academies will appreciate that and see they stand to benefit. Fortunately, there’s some good news for everyone, each academy has a strong point.
The FightWorks Podcast: You must have learned a lot about the Rio jiu-jitsu scene in preparing this work. Any surprises?
Aaron Sundquist: The level of accessibility to high-profile academies and high-profile athletes in Rio still absolutely blows my mind. There are some places in Rio where, if dropped by parachute, you could be within walking distance of three or four legendary academies, all of them with open (but probably unmarked) doors. During the work for the 2012 Ranking I very accidentally met Alexandre Paiva, Murilo Bustamente, Jose Aldo, Ricardinho Vieira, De la Riva, Maycon Andrietta, Luis Carlos Manimal, Rolker Gracie, Jefferson Moura, Grand Masters Osvaldo Alves and Paulo Mauricio Strauch, among many others. Maybe they were just amused by a gringo speaking Portuguese, but everyone was overwhelmingly approachable and down to earth. I trained at almost all the academies featured in the Ranking and the Guidebook and, at times, it was a little sad to move on to the next academy to continue the project. It’s really a great community and not the ego-fest that it’s sometimes perceived as.
The FightWorks Podcast: Don’t most jiu-jitsu students simply choose which school to visit based on their school affiliation or the recommendation of their own local instructor?
Aaron Sundquist: Some students certainly do, and if so then that’s the best place to start. But visiting just one school in Rio would be like going to a car show and just looking at one car. You’re already there, why not stretch your legs a little? The real advantage of coming to Rio is the level of access to a huge variety of high-profile academies in a small geographic space. These are the academies that brought the sport to the level it is today. And after crossing the world to arrive in Rio, it would seem a pity to not venture out, pay homage and learn their stories first hand. Because without them, you might not be wearing a gi today. I recommend people set up a home base for regular training and then try to visit at least four or five different academies in order to experience the different training styles and meet some of the greats. Fortunately, about half of academies offer at least three training sessions per day, so it’s easy to work in some cross-training.
The FightWorks Podcast: Does the RioJiuJitsuGuide offer Rio travel tips that aren’t jiu-jitsu related?
Aaron Sundquist: No. We maintain a very narrow focus with our content, which is oriented toward the information needs of our audience. In other words, if it’s not helpful to someone who wants to train or who is training in Rio, then it doesn’t go on the website. That said, we do publish articles about broader topics (visa issues, public transportation, safety, gi care in Brazil, etc.), but they all tie back to Jiu-Jitsu in Rio and getting the reader to the mat. People will have to look elsewhere for a list of Rio’s hottest nightclubs.
The FightWorks Podcast: Anything else we should know about the RioJiuJitsuGuide?
Aaron Sundquist: Sure, looking forward, during the first three months of 2013 we’ll be doing the leg work for the 2013 annual Rio Jiu-Jitsu Ranking, visiting old schools to update information and visiting at least 7 new schools for the first time. The Guidebook will include the new and updated profiles immediately, but the Ranking will not be published until mid-2013. Other than that, feel free to contact us with questions or comments at Contact@RioJiuJitsuGuide.com