Moldovan children who train Brazilian jiu-jitsu. All images courtesy Bobby McMasters.
In 2011 we heard Christian Graugart’s tales of global Brazilian jiu-jitsu travel. One of the exotic destinations he visited was the small country of Moldova (population: less 4 million). Since then Georgette has been keeping in contact with Bobby McMasters, an American who’s been instrumental in spreading jiu-jitsu in Moldova.
We reached out to McMasters for more information on the story of jiu-jitsu in Moldova.
The FightWorks Podcast: Tell us how it is that you now find yourself in Moldova, deep in Eastern Europe.
Bobby McMasters: The short answer is Rocky IV. The long answer is that I started out here as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in 2005. As a potential volunteer, you pick the region you want to serve in, and then Peace Corps chooses your host country and everything else. I chose Eastern Europe/Central Asia (mostly because of my childhood fascination with Rocky IV) and I was eventually placed in Burlacu, a small, remote village in the Republic of Moldova. After my service ended in 2007 I moved back to the US. After a while, things got boring and my grandparents (who we were looking after) moved out of their home and closer to other family so we (myself and my then-girlfriend, now-wife) decided to go on another adventure in Eastern Europe. We left in January ’10. Since we both spoke Romanian we decided to try our hand at living in Romania. Initially we wanted to work in tourism but nobody wanted to hire us. We found teaching English to be a fairly lucrative profession for native speakers so that’s how I’ve been making my money for the past 3 years or so. We’re both living in Bucharest now, which is only a 5-6 hour trip from Moldova.
The FightWorks Podcast: What are the three most important things you think our audience should know about the country?
Bobby McMasters: Only 3? Hmm… I could really focus on negative things but I think I’ll look at the positives and tell your audience that Moldova has the absolute best hospitality, wine and the most beautiful girls in the world. What else could be important after that? . When you go to a Moldovan’s house you will totally be taken care of. They will feed you more than you can stand and you will drink some of the best wine and strongest moonshine in the world. When you go to one of their gyms, you won’t be able to escape without even just a few pictures with at least half the team. I’m married now and of course I don’t even look at girls anymore but I hear they look nice. The guys don’t match up… also from what I hear from somebody (sorry, ladies).
The FightWorks Podcast: What is your background in BJJ?
Bobby McMasters: I’ve actually been practicing BJJ for a long time. My road to BJJ started with wrestling. I wrestled in high school and then 3 years in college, and after taking a year off I really wanted to get back into it. I looked around Detroit, where I had moved to after graduating college in 2003, and tried to find maybe a wrestling club or even a high school that maybe needed an assistant coach or something. I wasn’t able to find anything in the area. During my search, however, “submission wrestling” came up. I showed up for a practice and I really liked the idea of submissions. I wanted to compete, and the only tournaments they had were Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments so I bought like an A4 gi (I’m between an A2 and A3) I entered the tournament, took my guy down and ezekieled the dude in like 10 seconds because of course my sleeves were enormous on me. After this I was totally hooked. I went on to train with Saulo and Xande Ribeiro who were living in Toledo at the time but drove to Detroit every day to teach us BJJ after our first instructor, Dave Gomez left the gym. I trained with them for about a year before I had to make a tough decision: continue to train with some of the best guys in the business, or go see the world and maybe learn some judo or sambo in Eastern Europe. I was at the end of a relationship, sick of my job and Detroit, and since I had never been out of the US prior to this, I figured this would be my only chance and see where this road would take me. I’ll get to my BJJ-in-Moldova story shortly, but after my service I came back and trained in Virginia, got my blue belt, got a back injury and moved back to Eastern Europe where I’ve really only been training sporadically up until now.
The FightWorks Podcast: What made you decide to focus on Brazilian jiu-jitsu there? Was BJJ popular in your new home before you arrived?
Bobby McMasters: In the village, BJJ was absolutely non-existent and unheard of, and so was sambo and judo. My dreams of leg-locking the shit out of huge, Ivan Drago-looking dudes and drinking vodka with Igor Vovchanchyn in a crumbling former Soviet city were crushed when I was assigned to teach health education in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. The only thing they had that was close to a grappling sport was a yearly traditional wrestling competition (called “trinta”) where the winner of the single-elimination tournament wins a young ram. I entered in the competition in 2006 and subsequently won the smelly little ram. This is an epic story in and of itself but I’ve already written on it in this last issue of BJJ Legends Magazine so you can check it out there if you’re really curious. To answer your first question though, I focused on BJJ because otherwise I would have gone crazy. I was a grappler and grappling is how I have always chosen to spend my free time since I can remember. I wound up sending out just one email asking for help with my program, and within 30 minutes I got calls on my phone and emails in my dial-up-era inbox in the middle of nowhere from people wanting to pitch in. One guy in the Netherlands was closing his gym and wanted to send me all his extra stuff. One guy from England had a gi he really liked but never used and wanted to send it to us…. the list goes on and on. Eventually, (mostly through family) I was able to raise enough funds for the mats, which was our first step. I priced some mats in Chisinau (Moldova’s capital city), and it came out to being about $100 per mat. This was really my only option. We wound up buying 12 mats and the village of Burlacu chipped in 10% of the total cost as well as provide me with a driver who would drive me out to Chisinau (about a 4 hour drive) to pick up the mats. We were able to initiate a sustainable BJJ program that still exists today. They still use the same mats and two years ago they received a refreshment batch of gis (their old ones were all ripped to shreds). Although I’d really like to see them training more and with more drive, this is definitely a step in the right direction. In the end, Moldova’s rural programs definitely need the most support, even to this day.
Traditional Moldovan hospitality: an overflowing table.
The FightWorks Podcast: Describe the average Moldovan BJJ practitioner. For example, what is his or her gender, belt level, age, size, etc…
Bobby McMasters: Hmm… The average Moldovan BJJ practitioner is pretty young. I would say on average he is a boy in his early teens and since Moldovans don’t tend to be huge people, he’s not that big either. He is definitely a white belt, but on the other hand he’s like a mini Matt Hughes; he’s thirsty, he’s a farm boy and he’s ripped as shit. As you can imagine there aren’t too many black belts who come out to rural Moldova in order to promote people so their belt colors tend to remain pretty white. All current BJJ practitioners in the country have, at most, a blue belt, and unless I’m mistaken there are presently only 3 or 4 of them. There’s a guy who is originally Moldovan but has emigrated to Canada. He has his purple belt but that’s as high as they go. Regardless of belt rank, the level of the average Moldovan fighter is definitely advancing. Up until a couple years ago I could have told you that beyond a shadow of a doubt there was nobody who could beat me. Now, I’m not so sure. I’ve been subbed during sparring sessions on more than one occasion, and I’ve been BJJ-ing for about 9 years now. In the end, the average Moldovan BJJ practitioner has rolled with 0.02% of people from other countries. How many people from other states (which are larger than your average European country) or countries has your audience rolled with? Consider coming out sometime.
The FightWorks Podcast: Tell us about the first ever nationwide BJJ tournament in Moldova.
Bobby McMasters: Sure. “The Moldova Cup”, is the first Moldovan-initiated, Moldovan-run, Moldovans-only BJJ tournament to date. We’ve had a few previous competitions including an organized sparring between the Chisinau and Burlacu teams, and two “tri-duals” tournaments which were structured after US wrestling dual and tri-dual, team-based competitions. In any case, the Moldova Cup kept to the IBJJF regulations in all regards with the exception of weight classes, weigh-in and gi regulation requirements (most competitors don’t have regulation BJJ gis, many competing in their karate gis that they grew out of two years ago). We were lucky to have help from three BJJ practitioners from Absoluto BJJ (based in Bucharest) come and help referee the tournament including Tudor Mihaita, Romania’s only resident black belt. The tournament almost didn’t happen. At the last minute, the Ministry of Sport said that we couldn’t hold the tournament because we weren’t sanctioned by some sort of official sports body or something. Luckily, we have some connections and were able to get it cleared up. Still, this is nothing you would see in amateur BJJ competitions in the US. This is just one of the many hurdles one has to get through in order to do something positive for people out here. Despite the bureaucratic haters, it was a really positive experience for all the participants. We had over 70 people participate including judo practitioners, and we even had 5 girls. It’s been our biggest turnout so far, so much props and love to everyone who showed up and who volunteered and helped organize the tournament. Another bragging point I have is that one of my first BJJ students, Alexandru Birlea actually set the ball rolling for this event and did most of the organizing/fending off of bureaucrats. Alex “Sandu” Birlea is a blue belt and an absolute future baller. He has won multiple national titles within Romania and remains unbeaten in any Moldovan competition.
A group of Moldovan Brazilian jiu-jitsu students.
The FightWorks Podcast: Was there any moment of the tournament that was particularly special for you, or most rewarding?
Bobby McMasters: Oh yeah, at this point in my life BJJ in Moldova is super rewarding in and of itself. I see kids now who I used to see being carried around the village by their parents because they weren’t even old enough to walk, winning their first BJJ match and getting their first medal, or kids who experienced their first triangle choke courtesy of myself all those years ago as young adults winning matches. After almost 10 years experience working professionally with disadvantaged youth this is by and far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved with. As far as one moment in the tournament (and actually this happens on a regular basis at all BJJ events I attend out there), I would say it’s when I get introduced as Robert McMasters, the guy who brought BJJ to Moldova. That always makes me feel really good. The truth is, and I tell this to everyone, that BJJ is not a sport/discipline/art that you can do by yourself. The reality of the situation is that BJJ would not be in Moldova if it weren’t for the Moldovan people who practice it. Moldovans are very capable and talented people, and it makes me really proud of them when I see them actually training and enjoying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
The FightWorks Podcast: Anything else we should know Bobby?
Bobby McMasters: Glad you asked! Although there are still a few bugs here and there, we’re officially launching our site which is dedicated to continuing the support of the development of BJJ in Moldova: www.pridemoldovabjj.webs.com. Here you can see our short documentary about BJJ in Moldova as well as look into more detail about our past, present and future projects. This way we look more official and I’m not just some dude asking people for money and gis whenever a need comes up. We’re also on facebook, so look us up and like us (Pride Moldova BJJ)! As I’ve said before and as you’ll see on our website, volunteering is super important not only to the development of skills but also to the overall encouragement of furthering development in the country, so, think about coming for a visit! One rather poignant story of a positive volunteer experience can be found on Christian Graugart’s BJJ Globetrotters blog here. Of course you can help from home as well. We’d love to be able to take donations for a patch-exchange campaign (details about this can be found on our website) but we don’t know much about non-profit law so anyone reading this who is a lawyer or knows a lawyer who knows about this stuff, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also need someone to design an awesome patch and someone who knows where/how to print patches and a whole slew of other things. OK, so in reality it doesn’t matter your background. We can almost definitely find a need for you if you really want to help out.
Thanks again for your interest in what we’re doing out here. We rely on folks like you to get the word out and spread the love and all that.