Marcelo Garcia’s Jiu-Jitsu Academy in New York is a mecca of sorts for grapplers the world over, and for good reason. He’s amazing. Not just for winning and winning and winning (he has five world championship titles under his belt, as well as countless submission grappling awards from ADCC), or for being a smaller grappler who has won so many absolute divisions against bigger, stronger opponents at the highest level (a testament to his technical mastery in the sport), but also for embodying so many characteristics which are not only admirable in their own right, but really beneficial for the sport.
In a world where many jealously guard their techniques, the 4-time ADCC champion is incredibly open about his. He even has an online video database updated daily; a veritable virtual academy which serves not only as a grappling database and resource guide but also a way of following what’s being learned in his academy no matter where you live in the world.
The database was designed by Josh Waitzkin, a chess guru prodigy and the author of the Art of Learning–an amazing book interwoven with Waitzkin’s experiences in competing in both chess and Tai Chi at an elite level. Waitzkin is brilliant and writes with so much beauty and precision. The website is no different. It is designed so that you can actually watch specific moves in live rolls to see a technique you just learned applied in action. And it’s only $25 a month. I was only a member for a short time period, since I was overwhelmed by the plethora of information which I was also getting at my new (and current) gym, but I hope to resubscribe at some point.
But enough about the database. You want to read about my visit to Marcelo’s real-life academy in New York.
First, the details. If you live in New York, you’re in luck–there’s a free intro class for beginners, or if you’ve trained before, you can take two free trial classes (1 gi and 1 no gi). If you’re visiting, a day pass will cost you $40 (with a $20 discount for MGInAction subscribers or Alliance affiliates.) $20 is pretty standard for a day pass (the least I’ve paid as a drop-in was $10 for a class or $20 for 2-3 classes in a day), but even $40 is a steal considering you can attend every single class the entire day…and, of course, learn from Marcelo himself. There are five to seven classes taught each weekday, and three on Saturdays. The Academy is closed on Sundays. (If you do decide to attend classes in the morning and evening, you need to bring two gis rather than wearing your sweat-soaked one in the evening. Don’t have to be that guy the instructor pulls aside to talk to about cleanliness. A friend of mine had that experience and was therefore unable to attend the evening classes, so I thought I’d pass it on.)
Just like all Alliance academies, there are classes for everyone. Fundamentals 1 and 2 are open for all experience levels. Fundamentals 1 has flow drills at the end of class (“designed to help students internalize the fluid body mechanics behind the concepts they are learning,”) and Fundamentals 2 has about 15 minutes of positional sparring at the end of class. There are two advanced classes; one is only open to blue belts and above, and an expert class open to purple belts and above. Plus there’s a gi-only executive class for 35+ grapplers, and open mat.
Since I’m still a white belt, but not brand new to the game, I knew I’d be able to hang at Fundamentals 1+2, Advanced, and perhaps the open mat. I was pretty excited about advanced because I’ve taken a few months of fundamentals classes at my own gym, Alliance BJJ in MN, and figured it’d be similar curriculum. Advanced 2 and Expert are for grapplers more experienced than I, and I’m only 33 so executive was off-limits. But I was actually in New York for the ASJA conference, which was Thursday through Saturday, and would be heading to Connecticut on Sunday night (and leaving town on Wednesday). I had to choose between Monday and Tuesday to train, and I knew I would have an easier time making the trek during the day. I ended up picking Tuesday to train for logistical reasons (since I was driving to New York to hear Joshua Foer speak on Monday, and going from CT to NY twice in a day is a bit much, even for me.)
Logistically, Marcelo’s academy is easy to get to. It’s located at 25 W 36th St., and I was really excited when I stepped away from Google Maps long enough to figure out that this is was walking distance from Grand Central Station in New York, since I thought I was going to have to take some dizzying combination of trains, subways and buses but ended up getting there in just one ride; less than $20 round-trip. The Academy is located on the 6th floor of the building. You take an elevator and you’re right smack dab in the gym. Everyone was super nice and helpful; I bought my pass at the desk and got a quick tour of the gym from a really nice guy with some of the best cauliflower ear I’ve seen in a while. The gym is very minimalist; there was a small women’s bathroom/changing room with a shower armed with Defense soap (plus a men’s changing area, of course), a coat rack, cubbyholes for gym bags, etc. and 99% just mat space. Real estate is prime commodity in New York City, and it’s actually really refreshing to see a building where every inch is utilized for training.
The first class I attended was Fundamentals 2 (gi), which was taught by Henrique. He took us through a series of warmups, which are pretty similar to the ones at my own gym, and then we worked on a series of moves: guy on bottom in seated upright guard (which Marcelo is phenomenal at), guy on top working for a pass, losing the underhook, taking a backstep. Guy on bottom locks up half guard, guy on top posts their leg, posts their hands on their opponent’s hands, slides to the side and then transitions to side control. I may or may not be missing some key components in the last couple of steps. The next technique series was attacks from the mount. Hiding your feet under your opponent, you wait for them to buck in several directions, and transition to an armbar when the timing and direction are right. We also worked on a collar choke from mount. After a quick review on everything we’d learned with our partners, we spent the last fifteen minutes or so doing positional training from mount: person on the bottom works to transition to half guard or guard; person from the top works their attacks.
If you have the chance to visit Marcelo Garcia’s academy but only to train with one of his other instructors, I would definitely encourage you to do so. I noticed several things which I believe are characteristic of this academy. First of all, Henrique and an assistant coach were always walking around and offering helpful suggestions or answering questions. In some gyms, coaches will show a technique and then just kind of hang out, or there’ll be way more students with questions than there are instructors. Having two people going around the room, even in a fairly small class, was incredibly helpful. Henrique was also quick to break things down into smaller steps when some students had trouble following the whole series. The second thing I noticed was such a relentless attention to detail. My half guard attempt in this series wasn’t very tight, and even though I wasn’t the one doing the pass, it definitely didn’t escape notice. BJJ is a sport in which detail is incredibly important, especially in the higher levels, so focusing on seemingly trivial or insignificant things becomes quite valuable. Lastly, there was a really nice vibe in the class. As someone who’s left more than one gym because the atmosphere was untenable, this is something I always appreciate. Creating a great environment where people can train and learn is frankly something I’d expected from Marcelo given his reputation. But even though I’m guessing he’s probably won more tournaments than I’ve ever competed in and been a black belt longer than I’ve been training, I’d never met or heard of Henrique before this class. I was pleased that he also held high standards of professionalism in addition to being a great instructor. In my experience, this is characteristic of all Alliance affiliates. I attended a seminar with Fabio Gurgel where he devoted an equal level of attention to helping a high school student work on her cartwheels during warm-ups as he did helping advanced practitioners master complicated techniques. And as far as beginner vs. advanced class, I just want to add that Fundamentals 2 is no joke. Though the steps were broken down clearly, this isn’t lowest common denominator jiu-jitsu. And it’s not easy. I was definitely tired after class, and not entirely due to my excessive traveling and sleep deprivation.
Still, I wanted to do the Advanced class, which was no-gi, so I slipped off my gi jacket and started warming up. (I wish I had brought dry clothes to change into, but I didn’t realize I’d work up such a sweat in the first class.) Marcelo’s warm-up started out like the typical BJJ warmup most of us know–jogging in circles around the mat, running sideways, one in and one out, shrimping drills, front rolls, standing base, etc. One thing I noticed was that it was hard to know where the room ended because there was a bag and some rope on the far corner of the side I lined up at, but then I noticed that the opposite side mat space ended before that area. I’m very non-visual so this is difficult for me to describe, but it looks like you don’t have to go to the very very far end of the mat against the wall in the far side of the room. Anyway, if you think those warmups are a cinch, the next ones were killer. Marcelo had one person on the floor, sitting with their legs out, and their partner jumping inside and then outside of their legs. But it was the timing that added intensity, as he counted with a rapid pace–all while performing the drill himself. I think we were supposed to do 50 of these guys and I did probably around half that. Then he had us do the same with our hands, ending with 15 in-place pushup-type motions. Again, I could barely keep up with the pace, and even my partner, who was a speed demon, was slowing down around the end. I will immediately start working plyometrics circuits and extra calisthenics into my training routine!
In this class, which was no-gi, Marcelo had us start in side control and had us working guillotines (my elbow was way higher than I’d have thought) and North/South chokes. The guillotines were Marcelo-style ones, which made me smile, and I have always really struggled with N/S chokes, so this was the quickest I ever picked up on it, but my training partner (and the really helpful assistant coach) provided some great pointers which helped me pick things up right away. I love helpful pointers. For some reason, I often get a lot of well-intentioned advice (such as “move like water” or “you have to be ten steps ahead of me”) which I’m sure is very useful for some people but to me is essentially meaningless, since I can’t easily convert it into strategic action. Anyway, you want to hear about the class, not my philosophizing! After these two techniques, we did about 4 rounds of training. As a rule, I noticed that everyone I rolled with had really amazing butterfly guard, great sweeps and, of course, good guillotines. After rolling, we worked on takedowns for 1-minute rounds. Sometimes landing (or avoiding) a takedown with one minute on the clock is a deciding factor in a tournament, so like the rest of the class, this was well thought-out, with the logic behind it explained clearly.
Since people keep asking me, I have to admit that I did not get to roll with Marcelo. I hear he rolls with every new student if he isn’t injured, but I’m not sure how that would even be possible. There were at least two other people visiting or taking their very first class with me, and we only did three or four rounds. I love watching videos of Marcelo rolling with some of my favorite grapplers, but to be honest I thought rolling with his students who were closer to my level would be more instructive for me anyway. I was more disappointed that I did not get to meet Josh Waitzkin, whose book was a real game changer for me, but I already met both Jonah Lehrer and Joshua Foer in the past month, so perhaps I’ve already gotten more than my fair share of books signed by the brightest minds of our generation.
I received several messages asking me to write about visiting the academy after I posted a photo with Marcelo on my facebook page, and I wasn’t really sure what to include. Marcelo is one of the most sought-after grappling instructors, and I’m not really sure anybody needs a white belt to express appreciation for his attention to detail, expansive range of techniques, ability to simplify complicated concepts, and the really great vibe in his gym. But I thought this might be helpful for newer grapplers who are wondering whether it’s worth it to take classes at the gym not taught by Marcelo himself (it is), whether they would feel welcomed and in a safe/controlled environment, and one where they’d get as much help as they need (they would), or whether it’s worth the price (it is). If you’re in NYC, stop on by. It’s not like you weren’t going to anyway.