Q: What does it take to get a successful UFC trainer to leave Vegas for Cleveland?
A: The weather.
It's not a knock-knock joke. While Ohioans shiver wearing Uggs knock-offs and martyred expressions, Ricardo Pires is probably somewhere taking off his sweater.
"People think it's weird," says the Rio de Janeiro native. "But I like the cold."
Got cold. But the blizzards-er, atmospheric events-alone can't take all the credit for drawing this world-renowned fight trainer to the Buckeye State. Pires cites family values, the wealth of what he calls "people potential" and the influence of long-time student and friend, Clevelander Mike Riedel.
At 45, Pires is the ranking Brazilian Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor in the state of Ohio, with four stripes on his black belt honoring a life dedicated to the martial arts. Although perhaps best known for training 2004 UFC Heavyweight champ Frank Mir, Pires has blown through the "can do / can't teach" myth with an array of international fight titles of his own.
But Ricardo Pires is not one to rest on his laurels. At an age when other Gen-Exers are still deciding what they want to do when they grow up, Pires has already done it-several times.
Pires has been involved in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu since his childhood, but began his career in professional sports playing soccer for the Miami Sharks. Soccer gave way to business (Pires holds an MBA) then Pires was back to BJJ and the UFC, where a little business savvy isn't exactly a bad thing.
The brawling acronyms aren't so scary once you get the hang of it. Originally created in the early '90's as a sort of By Guys For Guys fantasy about which fighting form was the baddest, the once-controversial Ultimate Fighting Championship has since settled down to a near-staid respectability. This transformation is due largely to the influence of Royce Gracie who in 1993 baffled opponents and spectators by using BJJ techniques to prove that Might no longer made Right in the Mixed Martial Arts Empire.
It was as if King Kong and Godzilla had suddenly been trounced by Hong Kong Phooey. The non-huge of the world hailed Royce Gracie as the Great Little Hope that reduced collar size to irrelevancy. All of a sudden big meant slow and small meant agile and the conclusions went from foregone to just plain gone.
If fighting is the thing, Vegas is the place-or at least, it was. Since its inception, the UFC has expanded along the lines of the Big Bang, and it makes sense when you consider the fundamental truth that guys like to fight . The 11,000 years or so that have passed since Ancient Guy spent his time merrily clubbing woolly mammoths to death have not sufficed to tame man's natural aggression, but until the UFC came along, fighting was only okay if you were a pro. Your average Guy was expected to achieve Enlightenment in the chairs provided for that purpose outside women's fitting rooms and limit his manly urges to the socially acceptable variety; Ie, high-fiving his friends at sporting events.
The Mixed Martial Arts lifted Modern Guy up from his solitary skulking in the Women's department and made him stand erect once more-in the ring. Men found in the MMA a way to reclaim their Inner Guys in a relatively innocuous and even constructive way.
But BJJ isn't just for guys. Women's smaller size and innate sneakiness make them naturals on the mat, and kids and teens are drawn to fighting like deer to rhododendrons. Parents see in BJJ a way to channel the high spirits of their offspring in a healthy way without the high testing fees of other martial arts. In BJJ, belts rarely change color except to fade, and the most common type of promotion is a little strip of tape paid for strictly in blood, sweat and tears.
Moral: there's room for everybody in today's ring, and his admittedly bizarre preference for the cold makes Pires Vegas's loss and Cleveland's gain. Pires teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at his academies in Beachwood and Westlake, as well as MMA classes at Evolve Fitness in Medina. Pires conducts seminars for local wrestlers and law enforcement officers, both of which groups comprise a significant percentage of the RPBJJ student body.
Though Pires has a proven knack for being in the right place at the right time, his success can hardly be attributed to luck. With a sunny smile and deceptively mild gaze that misses nothing, Pires demands excellence for excellence. Nobody works harder or expects more of himself, and his example is rewarded by consistently high placings by students in national and international competitions.
According to Pires, life imitates martial art. What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas but what you learn on the mat follows you home. What's the best way to get out of a tight spot? "Don't get there," is Pires' unvarying response, with a big smile to take the sting out. Can't argue with that. And if you take a good look at Ricardo Pires, chances are you won't want to argue with him anyway.
Here Pires answers a few questions on soccer, the pursuit of happiness, and last but not least, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
How did you get involved in BJJ?
I did judo as a kid and switched to Jiu-Jitsu at 13 because my friends were doing it. But I played soccer too, and by then I was already playing for a professional team. At 17 I went pro and had to stop playing BJJ by contract. I did not get back into it until I was about 24.
What happened with the soccer?
Everything happened too early. The years from 13 to 21 are the best time in Rio. All my friends were having fun and I was at practice six days a week. Saturdays we went into what they called concentração , straight from practice to the hotel, where we stayed until the game. It was supposed to keep us together, help us focus. But all my friends were partying and I was in this hotel. It was hard.
So how did you get back into BJJ?
I came to the US to play for the Miami Sharks when I was 19, and that's also when I gave it up. It was a tough first professional experience. The coach was Carlos Alberto Torres, who had been Captain of the Brazilian national team which won the World Cup in 1970, and because he had a very strong name, none of us got paid. So I started to work as a bus boy to make some extra money. Then I moved to the Catskills, in upstate New York. That's when I heard about Mike Tyson. He used to live and train about a half a mile from where I was training. He was 16 and already he had a name.
Moving to the Catskills gave me a break. I got hired by a hotel. The deal was, they would give me a job if I played soccer for them, in the amateur championships, but it was a totally different thing. I could just have fun playing soccer. I did not have the crazy practice schedule so I liked it. I brought a lot of friends from Brazil, like Marcelo and Conan Silveira (they own the American Top Team), and I brought my brother to New York State to be with me. My brother and Marcelo and Conan knew each other from when they were kids. So suddenly the Catskills were full of Brazilians! We all eventually moved from the Catskills to Miami, and Conan opened up his own gym, and I started training again, because the hotel was a seasonal job. In upstate New York, when winter comes everybody leaves.
How did you end up in Cleveland?
Because of Mike Riedel. Mike used to fly a couple times a year to Vegas to train with me, but then I moved back to Brazil. I stayed there about a year, but it was not working out, so I decided to come back to the USA. I wanted to go to a place I could explore and start from scratch, like when I was in Vegas and it was just me and John Lewis and nobody else. And then I got an email from Mike saying he was going to Vegas, and I said, You can go but I'm not there . So a few weeks later Mike emailed me and said he had his passport and visa! It was the biggest compliment of my life. Here you have a guy fly from America to Brazil just to train. I kept trying to show him around but Mike just wanted to train. I said to myself, This guy is crazy . So I said, maybe I'll got to Cleveland, and Mike set up a seminar for me, and I saw a lot of potential.
What kind of potential?
Human potential. Athletic potential. If you travel the US, this is statistics, this is a fact, you have so many overweight people in the USA, but when I came here I saw a lot of people jogging and walking. There are a lot of people in shape here. There has to be a reason this is one of the best states to practice wrestling; You're just not born with natural ability. I mean, some are, but people have to really want to train.
And now, after 14 months we have 140 members, in one school, and about 15% are kids. So what I mean by potential is people potential.
And another thing, people call me crazy, but I love the weather here. I don't like the rain, but the temperature works really well for me and the best thing of all is, this is a great place to raise your kids. It is very family-oriented and I love that.
What makes BJJ different from other martial arts?
The results of the fights speak for themselves. I would say that 90% of fights today will end up on the ground. So if you're going to end up on the ground, why not start from there?
Why is BJJ so popular all of a sudden?
Well, MMA is the biggest reason, but Royce Gracie is the one who really made it famous. The Gracies did an awesome job of promoting this art and we all jumped on the bandwagon. The UFC was created by the Gracies, and we owe that to them, you can say whatever you want but we owe it all to the Gracies. Also, this is the kind of sport where you can go 100% without hurting each other, unlike boxing or kickboxing.
Who does BJJ appeal to the most?
Everybody. It can fit into any schedule and any lifestyle. At one time I was a business man, running a company with 900 employees. It was not easy, but it was the best time of my life. My coach used to call me to come in the middle of the day, and luckily I could leave my meeting and go train. That was the beauty of being the boss! Then I'd go back to work for another 10 hours.
Is BJJ a product of the American obsession with violence?
No, actually it's the other way around. Kids-and by that I mean teens to maybe early 20's- they have that aggression inside them already. So they start training and before they even get their blue belt, they're beating up people in the streets. This used to happen in Brazil a lot, and it gave BJJ a bad name. Believe it or not, MMA is responsible for turning that around, when it became a recognized sport. People stopped fighting in the street and started going pro, which brought a lot more status than getting arrested! And because of that, Brazilian jiu-jitsu got a better reputation.
What can BJJ teach you besides "kicking ass"?
Let me give you an example. I hurt my shoulder in the Pan Ams in 1996 and I had to have an MRI. So I get inside the machine and the lady gives me something to hold, and says, if you need to stop, just press the button. And the thing was literally two inches off my face, and I'm a little claustrophobic. And at first I said to myself, I'm not staying here! But then I thought, No, I'm not going to tap for this. So I closed my eyes and took a nap, and came out 40 minutes later, and everything was fine. On the other hand, when the nurse wanted to do it to my other shoulder, I said No way! ( laughs ). Anyway, that's when I realized BJJ was positively affecting my life outside the mat. It was giving me more control over when to press forward and when to pull back.
Control has become a dirty word in American society. Why is control a good thing in BJJ?
Control is a good thing, not a bad thing. Not so much controlling other people, but controlling your own feelings, your own actions-in other words, self-control. In BJJ control is an important element, but you control yourself before you control the situation. Control means stay calm, not necessarily go slow. It means be careful.
How big a role does pain play in BJJ?
The two sports I have practiced the most are soccer and BJJ, and the truth is, I got hurt way more in soccer. But, yes, you're going to get hurt, you're moving around, you are twisted in weird positions, people are on top of you, there's nothing you can do about it. You will get hurt, but it's not a bad pain. They're good scars. My injuries bring back good memories for me, not bad ones.
So, back to control, does self-control help mitigate the possibility of injury?
Yes, absolutely. We have a guy, Frank, he's an oboe player, and I started thinking about that the other day, and I thought, this guy's crazy! We use our fingers a lot in jiu-jitsu. But Frank can control himself enough to not get hurt and jeopardize his career, and he doesn't quit, because he can avoid the injuries. He knows when to pull back.
This brings up the question of balance. How easy is it to find a balance?
Balance and flexibility are both really important. I think you can learn balance to some degree and you can get better, but actually it's kind a natural thing. You have it inside you. I could never be a tightrope walker, but because I played beach soccer, it developed my balance. Flexibility, on the other hand, I have none!
When you were talking about bringing BJJ skills off the mat, would you say that BJJ can help bring balance into your life?
Yes, of course, because BJJ is about limits. I think the best comparison is when you tap, that's when you find your balance, your self-control. You have to understand when it's time to lose the battle but not the war. The same thing applies to business, or to your personal life and relationships. You know you have a line you can't cross, and if you cross it, you're in trouble. So you make a choice, and you live to fight another day.
What has America given to you and what have you given to America?
I don't think I gave anything to America personally, although I think BJJ the sport did. America has given me so much. You can only appreciate it if you live in another country. People have no idea how good this country is. I love Brazil. It's beautiful and there are a lot of great things about it, but unfortunately I have to say that in America we have way more respect for the human being than we have in Brazil.
In Vegas you trained some of the biggest names in the UFC. Do you ever miss the big time?
Let's put it this way: I had a friend, Rick Davis, who was a school teacher. He was getting paid 700 dollars to fight Henry Matamoros, who by the way became a good friend of mine after this fight. Anyway, Rick went into a war with this guy, a draw, and it was one of the most exciting fights I have ever seen. The fight was in Chicago. I paid for my own airline ticket, and Rick's check bounced. I never told him that I paid him the 700 dollars from my own pocket. Let's just say I was very very happy with the outcome.
A few weeks later Frank Mir fought Tim Sylvia for the title. Frank won but not the way he was hoping, and the reporter asked me how I felt about having one of my fighters go from nothing to becoming the UFC heavyweight champ. I won't lie to you, I gave him the answer thinking about Rick's fight, because I needed to feel enthusiasm and I did not.
I was not worried about the fame, or the crown, but I still had the brotherhood mentality. Frank was a friend too-he became like a son to me-but the training and outcome weren't like Rick Davis. So I can compare that with the choice between Cleveland and the UFC. So if the question is why be here and not in Vegas training pro's? The answer is, I get way more pleasure out of training friends than training pro's.
You work a lot. How do you manage to always have a smile on your face?
I don't! ( laughs ) The truth is, this is my playground. Can you imagine doing what you love doing for a living? I don't call this working, I call this my retirement. Also, as a BJJ instructor, I put myself into the student's shoes. You leave your job, your family, you drive a long way to get here. We have a guy who drives an hour and a half three times a week to come here. I have no right at all to be here and not smile.
How do you stay in balance?
I have a beautiful wife and kids. I can be any place in the world and if they're with me, I'm in balance. Physically, I have to work on it. I don't drink, which helps. I just don't like alcohol, I never have. I like to be in control of myself. I've never used drugs or steroids. Let's face it, in 2010 you can't just close your eyes and say steroids won't help. Steroids do help, if you get the right doctor and the right dosage, but what's the point?
I'm very sensitive to medications. If I take Dayquil I can sleep for two days. Also, because I was in sports for so long, I enjoy being in shape, it just feels right to me. I like to roll on the mats so much that as soon as I notice my technique or performance is going down, I do something about it. I just started running again. I never worry about my belly or the way my biceps or legs look, but if running gives me another day of training, I'm going to run. I don't know what will happen after 50, I'm just going to say screw the odds and move on. I'm not worried about what will happen in the next 40 years, I'm worried about the next forty minutes!
What's your pet peeve?
Gossip. There is a fun gossip that is the best part of training, talking trash and making jokes, but there is bad gossip, trying to denigrate somebody or mess with their reputation just to feel important. I really, really hate that, and even though I try not to use the word hate-I taught my kids not to use that word-but I hate badmouthing.
I have so much respect for those blue belts and purple belts that are out there teaching jiu-jitsu. They're not making money, they probably have a regular job and they spread the word. I give those guys a lot of credit, and I don't like to hear them criticized just because of their belt ranking.
What is your greatest fear?
I don't have a huge one. If anything, not being healthy and having to stop sports. When I was a kid I was more afraid of losing my father than losing my life, and that happened a few years ago. Unfortunately, as you get older you start expecting things, and when you expect things they don't hurt as much.
How do you define happiness?
Achievement. When you achieve a goal, you're happy.
I remember, years ago, I was making a lot of money with my business, and my brother was making just enough to pay the bills, but I noticed that he was happier than I was! And I thought, Is this what I want from life? That's when I started concentrating more on BJJ. I flew to Boca Raton and called Marcelo Silveira up to have lunch. I came in my nice suit and my expensive car, and Marcelo showed up in flip-flops, shorts, and a shirt over his shoulders. I said, You're not going to work today? And he said, I just did.
I said, Marcelo, it's 12 o'clock in the afternoon! When do you have to go back? And he said, Not until tomorrow night , and I said WHAT ??
And I thought, something's wrong, he probably does not have the money to pay the bills, and we get to his apartment, and it's really nice, and he has a nice car, and all his bills are paid off. And I said, Something is wrong here, and it's not him, it's me . So I put two and two together and I said, Screw this .
So you gave up the company?
No, I didn't give it up. I went broke for the first time in my life, so I said I'm just going to do what makes me happy. And I couldn't stop thinking about my brother and Marcelo, they're really happy and I'm not. And I said, I'm not going to try to make a million dollars, for what? And that's when I moved to Vegas. That was 1999.
If you could go back and do it all again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I think all the mistakes I made helped me. When I was in my MBA class, you have to talk about yourself, you know, introduce yourself to the class. I remember saying I was there for one reason only, to learn why the things I did worked out well, and of course learn about my mistakes too. Mistakes are a good thing, if you take them the right way. Just like relationships. I was married before and I learned from that. Friendships too. If somebody does something you don't like, you don't just walk away, you try to fix it.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
( Laughs ) Not 20 years, 20 minutes! My goal is to roll for 10, rest for 5 and roll another 10.
Do you have a hero?
Do you have a motto?
Two. There is no right way to do wrong. And a half-truth is a full lie.