With all the exciting characters put my way by various sources in the martial arts industry it is rare that Martial Arts Illustrated’s editor, Bob Sykes, asks me to take time out to write a piece on a particular person. Nevertheless, a certain character had caught Bob’s attention in the February issue of MAI. This individual is not even a black belt in his chosen discipline and is only just 21 years of age. However, if you ever get the opportunity to train with him, there is no doubting his ability. In fact, I would go as far as to say that he is set to be one of the best international grapplers of the modern era.
I have been training with him at “Stevie B’s Gym and Martial Arts Centre” for just over eighteen months now. This full-time training establishment is a hidden treasure, tucked away down a back alley in Acocks Green, Birmingham just off Station Road. It really is a case of blink and you will miss it – my car brakes have been tested a few times when I have rushed over at night to train in the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes. The venue is like no other, it is the physical embodiment of its original hardcore training roots and fiercely unconventional. When you enter the place your senses are immediately hit by the noise of a 90s dance mix, which seems to be on an endless loop, regular hard whacks into kick-bags on the ground floor, the clank of metal weights descending from upstairs and the unmistakable smell of joss-sticks. All of these intangible commodities help make up the atmosphere many of us love and fear in equal measures; for this is the place where we will improve, but we will certainly have to work for it. Today, however, my interest is not centred on what I can learn from Braulio Estima, the BJJ maestro given charge of Gracie Barra Birmingham, but on the life of his younger brother and protege, Victor.
“I’m just remembering” Victor Estima laughs as he picks up a discarded purple belt and wraps it around his waist. The site certainly does bring back very recent memories for most of the students who share in Victor’s flippant reminiscing. When I first joined Gracie Barra Victor was a purple belt, a grade his brother had made him earn through the hardest tournaments the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has to offer. His promotion to brown belt was even harder, with him getting a silver medal at the 2005 World Championships before being given the grade. Just to put this into perspective for those who are not familiar with the workings of the BJJ industry, unlike many other combat sports, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has a set hierarchy of competitions, in short, there is only one World Championships and all the different associations fight there.
With such high standards being set by Braulio’s younger brother, I remember one newly appointed purple belt saying that he wanted Victor to get graded almost as much as Victor did!
Yet there was a time when Victor claimed that he was too weak for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.Â
He would moan as his brother frog-marched him to lessons, finding them boring and eventually substituting them for more practice on his guitar and an interest in Volleyball on the beach. “I always wanted to be in a band” he tells me, as we chat after nearly four hours of training on a Saturday morning-cum-afternoon. “I don’t think your fingers would be much good plucking those strings now” I reply. Through six years of sparring and fighting with some of the best grapplers in the world with and without a gi, it is inevitable that Victor has developed a grip of iron ideally suited for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but lacking the sensitivity required for a professional guitarist. So, why was Victor first reluctant to follow in his brother’s footsteps and what events turned him back to the path with a burning desire to dedicate his life to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Victor Estima grew up with Braulio and his parents in the middle class area of the coastal city of Recife, Brazil. At about eight or nine years old the first martial art he took up was Judo alongside Braulio. By the time he was twelve he switched to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Charles dos Anjos, again following Braulio’s example. However, he faced problems from the start:
“At the time all of the students [in Recife] were much older than me. They were all eighteen, nineteen years old. I didn’t want to train, even though my brother encouraged me. So I gave up for two years”.
Nevertheless with Braulio about, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was never far away from Victor. He would attend every tournament that his brother entered and back home Braulio would use him to drill different positions. Victor would later consider that perhaps this constant drilling and observation of his brother in action soaked into his subconscious, for two weeks after being inspired to take up BJJ again by seeing his brother’s victory at the Pan-American Championships, Victor Estima, at just 15 years of age, would win his first regional competition.
Despite describing himself as being “skinny, unhealthy and sedentary”, we can assume that Victor is one of life’s great naturals. He may have not been as good as the Gracies or Braulio at the popular Brazilian past-time of surfing or had any other physical interests other than guitar-playing and volleyball, but it appears that this was because BJJ was waiting for him. This is not taking anything away from the obvious hard work he puts into his personal training or the superb instruction he receives from Braulio and their instructor, Ze Radiola, who took over from Charles dos Anjos, but Victor just seems to live in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with an ease that can thoroughly frustrate most who spar with him. Such ability can be seen through his rapid rise through the ranks from his first competition onwards:
“Since my first competition I have been winning. I have never lost in a competition held in my city. The only time I started losing was in the finals of the Brazilian Championship and the World Championship. Before that I won everything in my weight division”.
It was on the proverbial road to the Brazilian Championships that Victor made his decision to make Brazilian Jiu Jitsu become his profession. Before then his reasons for training were mixed, from wanting to improve his fitness to sharing some his brother’s glory. However, at just sixteen years old Victor had already gained his blue belt and was about to compete in an inter-club competition. His success at this event, where the odds would be heavily stacked against him, would help him choose a life dedicated to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu:
“They didn’t have my division, juvenile, only adults. So I had to compete against fighters who were as old as twenty. I was only 68 kilos and there were only two weight divisions under 75 kilos and over 75 kilos. I beat everyone, even the guy who had won the last year’s Brazilian Championships, through four very hard fights. After that my brother said, ‘Man, you are ready to compete at a bigger competition’.
After that guitar-playing was discarded as Victor became totally focused on his chosen art. He spoke about BJJ all the time at school and even used it to win a sport scholarship by coming first in Judo competitions, even against black belts, with his superior Newaza (groundwork) skills. After winning silver at the Brazilian Championships, Victor got third in the absolute weight division of the 2002 World Championships and came second the year after that “after 7 fights”. He returned to competition after taking a year out to recover from injuries and, as previously mentioned, had a very successful showing at the 2005 World Championships.
Victor believes that teaching, on the whole, has really improved over the years he has been studying:
“Before everyone just seemed to be copying the instructor without much questioning. Now there is a lot more reason and explanation being given for certain techniques. BJJ is a very open martial art, so everyone develops according to what they find works for them personally. My own game has been the same since I was a blue belt. That was my base, the spine of my style. I work on both my top and bottom game equally, but since my early days I have fought more from the guard. I like hook-guard and closed-guard, but am happy to fight on the top or on the bottom. My style is similar to my brother’s. Since blue belt I have just improved upon my individual style, assimilating new techniques into my previous knowledge.
It is an open-minded attitude such as this that has helped build the reputation of Victor and Braulio's chosen art. BJJ has only been taught in the UK since the 1990s, but interest in the sport is rapidly growing with at least two large annual championships held by Gracie Barra at Seni in Birmingham and Alliance’s Open Championship in London. Gracie Barra Birmingham has produced gold, silver and bronze medallists at both of these competitions over the years. Outside of the UK Gracie Barra Birmingham’s Neil Simpkins (featured with Victor in February’s edition of MAI) won silver in his weight category and bronze in the absolutes at the European Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championships. It is not just the sport or art alone that attracts enthusiasm, but the fact that it is very often the choice for the growing culture in cross-training and Mixed Martial Arts. This has cultivated a “college” feel to training in the style for other martial artists. Likewise students of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu have a tradition in cross-training, a tradition held up by the likes of Victor and Braulio. With regards to other grappling sports, Victor has found that they compliment his BJJ training very well:
â€œWrestling is good to develop Submission Grappling and Judo is good for the gi work. When I go back to Brazil I will be going to get my Judo black belt.
Stevie B’s Gym has a strong eclectic ethos. Not only does it hold classes in Boxing, Muay Thai, Eskrima, Submission Grappling alongside the BJJ, it regularly produces Mixed Martial Arts fighters and has events that are filled with a variety of activities. Gracie Barra Birmingham has more no-gi classes than any other BJJ club in the UK. In fact, the number of Submission Grappling classes almost equals their extensive gi timetable. These classes attract grapplers from many different backgrounds who help to add to the BJJ student’s experience. To demonstrate his interest in producing good no-gi fighters, Braulio regularly holds his own “Submission League” tournament in association with Stevie B’s. Victor tells me that they hope to produce good fighters that can one day compete in the largest Submission Grappling tournament, the Abu Dhabi Combat Club. Victor plans to follow the lead of Roger Gracie and Braulio who compete in the ADCC as well as the large gi BJJ tournaments. All have their eyes set on Mixed Martial Arts as well:
“I will be looking into something like Thai Boxing because I am going to need it for the Mixed Martial Arts. I am definitely going to try [Mixed Martial Arts], but don’t know whether I will do it for a career”. Then, with a smile that cuts through the focused and serious attitude he applies to his future in martial arts, he adds “I’m still young”.
Victor’s immediate plans are set on the PANAMS (the Pan-American Championship), where he will fight at brown belt level. Under the direction of his brother, who will also be competing along with three of his British students from Gracie Barra in Birmingham, Victor has been drilling specific exercises to improve his competition technique. In addition to this he has been running to improve his cardiovascular fitness, weight training, which includes the infamous BJJ gi pull-ups, under the professional guidance of Stevie and Sarah B, and following a special diet.
After the PANAMS, the Brazilian and World Championships are on the agenda, as is the trials for the Abu Dhabi. With regards to his life in general, Victor wants to move to the UK on a permanent basis to help his brother with Gracie Barra UK. Having trained with him, I can say that this can only be a good thing for BJJ in Great Britain. He has an uncanny eye for detail in an individual’s technique and is fantastic at pointing out crucial areas for improvement. His desire to move to the UK matches the enthusiasm we have seen in his BJJ. During his stays over here many of his fellow UK students have remarked on the speed he has picked up the English language, despite all attempts to thwart him! I could not help but notice how he has even come up with own variation on the rhetorical Estuary English expression “ennit”, which he exchanges for the more polite sounding “isn’t it”.
My thanks go to all those at Stevie B’s who allowed me to interview Victor long after lesson time was over, to Victor himself, his brother Braulio and to Jeet Kune Do student and fellow trainee at Gracie Barra Brum, Steve Fan for being first in with the interview he conducted with Victor for the February edition of MAI.
(c) Copyright Jamie Clubb 2005