Eduardo Rocha returned to Sitka to teach a Brazilian jiu-jitsu workshop at Sitka’s Hames Center. He’s operated a gym in Oakland, California since 2011. Rocha was the first person outside the Gracie family given permission to open a gym in the Brazilian family’s name. He is pictured here with students at last year’s workshop. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

In the world of martial arts, the name Gracie is a major heavyweight. The Gracie family is synonymous with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and brought the sport to the United States over 40 years ago. Eduardo Rocha, a competitor and former student of the Gracie family, recently brought his teachings from Brazil to a local gym in Sitka.

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In a brightly lit room, a dozen Sitkans donning belted robes are in a low lunge. They drag their back legs behind them, noses practically grazing the floor as they slither across. It looks exhausting. I wonder, “Doesn’t a good fighter stay off the mat?”

But the floor is actually one of your greatest allies in the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

“Now, using the leg that is up, I’m going to lift my hips a little bit and I’m going to puuushhhh my hips up,” says Eduardo Rocha demonstrating. He’s not a big guy, but tough and a total stickler when it comes to form. He shows his students the right way to move, to grip.

Keeley LaRose says jiu-jitsu has strengthened her legs for softball. She grew up watching UFC and other mixed martial-arts contests. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

If fighting takes maturity, then Rocha compares them to babies just learning how to crawl. “Still crawling,” he says with a laugh. “They have a long, long road to go.

Some of his students are just kids. Cadence LaRose is here with her older brother, Ryatt. She boasts that even at 59 lbs., jiu-jitsu technique makes her a fearsome opponent.

Cadence LaRose: I’ve took him down and pinned him.
Ryatt LaRose: I pinned you!
Cadence: I pinned you!
Ryatt: We’re both the same. We’re both good…ish.

(Sounds of grappling)

Core to the philosophy of jiu-jitsu is that weight class doesn’t matter. A smaller person can take on a bigger person…and win. That happened back in 1993 during the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Royce Gracie defeated seven other competitors – with more physical strength than him – using a unique style of fighting his family developed in Brazil.

(Announcer: Gerard [Gordeau] has his chin down. These Gracies are anacondas. It’s over. That is the power of Jiu-Jitsu in action. Simply incredible.)

Here’s a clip of that famous fight, which helped catapult Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to international fame.

Rocha brings the Gracie legacy up in class. “A skinny guy, looked like a lawyer? Beat everyone!,” he tells his students as they sit cross-legged on the floor in a row.

Rocha was born São Paulo and trained with the Gracies as young man in Rio de Janeiro. He’s now a 4th degree black belt and was the first person outside the family to get permission to open a gym in the United States. Rocha Jiu-Jitsu has operated in Oakland, California since 2011.

Brendan Jones, one of Rocha’s students, later moved back to Sitka to commercial fish and a write his novel. Jones helped begin a BJJ class at the Hames Center and said the martial art is not all that dissimilar to fishing. “Trolling is really, really similar to Jiu-Jitsu in the sense that when you’re on the drag, you’re thinking about ten things at once. When you start to think about them all at once, it’s this mosaic that starts to form into a larger single picture. All of a sudden you’re moving in real time and really fluid, dynamic things are happening,” Jones said.

Students attend Eduardo Rocha’s class in Sitka (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

It was at Jones’s invitation that Rocha came to Sitka last year to teach a one-day class at the martial arts facility at the Hames Center. Rocha liked it so much, he came back again this year. Caleb Storm Harris can scarcely believe his luck. “As far as getting pure, accurate training, this is the closest thing that we can get without actually going to Brazil,” Harris said.

Four months ago, Harris couldn’t touch his toes. Now, he’s at the Hames Center at 5:30 in the morning five days a week. He considers Jiu-Jitsu a form of mindfulness practice. “You know, the world is really, really busy. And you can’t be anywhere else if someone is on top of you trying to get at you. And then you learn how to be wherever you are,” he said.

Growing up in Rio, Rocha describes himself as a shy kid, always afraid. “We have only five channels on TV. No video game. You have to go out to the street to play. Every time I go out to play, the other kids beat me. And then when I turned 14, I thought, ‘This is going to end.'”

A poster of of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu founding father Hélio Gracie hangs in the martial arts training room at the Hames Center. The gym also offers classes in boxing, judo, MMA, and Muay Thai kickboxing. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

A poster of the founding father of the sport , Hélio Gracie, hangs on the gym wall, above us. That was Rocha’s first teacher and his lessons have gotten him through the stress of the past few years: leaving Brazil, his marriage ending, and opening his own business.

“I had to live here for five years by myself, dealing with the different language, different culture, different people. Away from my family, my culture, away from everything. I know for sure, because of jiu-jitsu training, my mind and my heart [could] support that kind of pressure. You have to really break your body in a thousand pieces and rebuild piece by piece, but once you’re able to do that, you’ll be reborn a new person,” Rocha says.

“If you’re in a fight,” he tells me, “and you don’t know what you’re doing, you have to know how to fall.” The lessons of jiu-jitsu readily translate beyond the mat, but spending time with Rocha you realize how putting them into practice can take a lifetime.