At first glance, Eduardo Rocha seems like just another muscle-bound bald guy, the kind you find brooding on weight benches between sets. At second glance, he’s intimidating. With copper-colored eyes that pin you to your spot like a memo on a bulletin board, Rocha doesn’t look like he has too many problems in dark alleys.
At 43, Rocha is a fourth-degree black belt and a world-class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter. When not training for competitions, Rocha keeps busy with a rapidly-growing academy, an even more rapidly growing son, and the hobbies typical of a Libra: surfing, snowboarding, and avoiding conflict.
Although a peace-loving nature may seem at odds with his chosen profession, Rocha’s long years of fighting have taught him to choose his battles with great care.
“Sometimes drunk guys want to mess with me,” he says. “And I think Man, you have no idea what you’re doing. But I just let it go. It’s not worth making a problem.”
Rocha’s Libran equilibrium comes in handy for more than just ripping waves and avoiding bar fights. The process of immigration requires surfing skills of the soul. An émigré leaves not only home and family, but his sense of identity behind. Experiencing a new culture, a new language and a new lifestyle means seeing the world through new eyes. The World becomes a 3D version of Where’s Wally, and you’re Wally. It takes a while to find your new self with your new eyes in your new world in the constant cycle of learning and forgetting, departing and returning, connecting and letting go. When you throw running a business and raising a kid into the mix, anyone could feel overwhelmed. But Rocha seems to take it all in stride.
“When I first came here, everybody said to me, ‘Watch out, there’s some bad neighborhoods here.’ They never saw the favelas in Brazil. This place is Disneyland.”
Born near the sea, Rocha’s first love was the water. But when his family moved from the tranquil beach town of Gavea to the gritty reality of Rio, then-adolescent Eduardo discovered a new priority: survival. So he traded his fins for fists and his goggles for a gi and began his long love affair with the art of war.
Having started training in his teens, Rocha was awarded his black belt at the age of 27 by BJJ legend Royler Gracie. Now a fourth-degree black belt, Rocha has competed over the years in a seemingly endless array of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments-with bewilderingly similar names-both here and in Brazil. Rocha has also competed in a discipline known as Vale Tudo, which translates as anything goes. As the name implies, Vale Tudo is a no-holds-barred, knock-down drag-out whack-’em-with-a-chair affair integrating elements of Thai Boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and plain old meanness.
Besides the technical niceties of strategy and form, Rocha’s preparation involved countless hours spent perfecting the exquisite art of taking a punch.
How do you learn to take a punch?
Rocha smiles his crocodile smile. “You let somebody punch you until they get tired. Then, you let somebody else punch you.”
Needless to say, Vale Tudo has a high rate of attrition, and Rocha’s affection for his teeth eventually won out over the dubious attractions of the testosterone-soaked poundfests of Vale Tudo. Since then, he has dedicated his time and energy exclusively to teaching and training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Rocha’s life has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, but he speaks of it with the even tone and emotional detachment of an accountant performing an audit. The eldest of three brothers, Rocha felt the weight of responsibility at an early age. His fighting spirit appears to have been inherited from a feisty Libra mom who kept her postmodern family in balance with a smile on her face and samba music in the background.
“It used to bug me,” says Rocha, echoing the sentiments of every teenager since time began who has been embarrassed by a parent’s musical preferences. “Now, I see why she likes it. It makes you feel-you know-happy.”
Blood and betrayal, sun and shadows, divine intervention and evil spirits-all are part of Rocha’s own personal Brazilian soap opera. Following a near-death experience in a car accident, a fight that went the wrong way and the birth of a son, Eduardo Rocha decided it was time to start thinking seriously about the future. Rocha came to the East Bay in November of 2004 with a suitcase, a surfboard, and a dream of building something that would last for himself and for his family. His unique style attracted an immediate following and Rocha became their Prophet of Pain, on a sacred mission to free the real men of the East Bay from their inner sissies.
The obsessive-compulsive behavior BJJ inspires in practitioners along with his undeniable skills have been a recipe for success for Rocha in Oakland. In a sport where black belt instructors are treated like rock stars, Rocha is King of his own brand of Rocha ‘n’ Roll. The fanaticism accompanying the sport can perplex those who have not yet heard Jiu-Jitsu’s call, but those who have appear to think and talk of nothing else. The conversations of BJJ fighters revolve around three things: the submission they almost got; the new gi they did get; and whatever new style is going to revolutionize the game forever-or until next week, whichever comes first.
Eduardo Rocha maneuvers through the changing styles and conflicting loyalties of the California Jiu-Jitsu scene with seemingly unflappable Libran aplomb.
When asked to explain his success, the crocodile becomes suddenly coy.
“It’s my charisma,” says Rocha.
Could be. But with a rosy future on the horizon, Eduardo Rocha talked to me about the past.
Why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
My city, Rio, is very violent. I needed to find something to protect me and my brothers.
Why not a gun?
Because a gun will put you in jail, fast. There are a lot of fights in Rio, but most of them don’t involve guns. The guns are in the favelas. At least, that’s the way it was when I started out. Now it’s different. Now it’s a war.
What’s with all the fighting?
If you want respect in Brazil, you need to be able to prove you’re strong.
Wait a minute. Is Jiu-Jitsu a fight, or a game, or what?
Jiu-Jitsu is everything. A fight, a sport, and a game.
In America we have a saying: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” What’s important to you?
Winning. In Brazil, there is no space for second place. You’re either the first or the last. In Brazil we say: “Second place is the first place of the losers”.
Is that why you moved to California?
I’m in California because a door opened for me at the right time. California is the capital of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in America. I was here before for tournaments, and when the door opened, I walked in.
Jiu-Jitsu seems like a pretty macho game. How does your school fit into the diverse population of the East Bay?
There are a few macho guys in the East Bay too. Not very many, but some.
Can people who aren’t macho gain anything from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
My school is open to everybody, but Jiu-Jitsu is not for everybody.
What’s your greatest fear?
In this world, sharks. In the other world, bad spirits.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
On a big boat, traveling alone. The ocean will be my next challenge, when I can’t use my body to fight anymore.
I hear there are sharks in the ocean.
(Rocha laughs) That’s a good thing. I like fear. The adrenaline makes me feel alive.
How about pain?
No. I don’t like it, but you have to learn to live with it.
Your name means “rock” in Portuguese. Do you feel like a rock?
I try to be strong like one.
Rocks are cold.
They heat up in the sun.
So do snakes.
We all adapt to the situation.
That’s the bad thing about rocks.
I guess nobody’s perfect.
If you could be somebody besides Eduardo Rocha, who would you be?
Somebody who doesn’t need anybody.
Like a rock?
Or a shark.
If you could turn back the clock, is there anything in your life you would change?
Everything. I made a lot of mistakes in my life. I had to learn the hard way. Sometimes you have to walk through hell to find the way to live.
You have a lot of medals and trophies. What’s the one you’re proudest of?
Medals don’t make the fighter. You are what you are. The thing I’m proudest of is surviving here, in a strange country. Showing people that I can do everything, not just fight like a bull.
What’s your pet peeve?
Weak people. People who are always looking for the easy way out.
What do you like best about America?
The way Americans do business. Here, you can actually get something done. In Brazil, it’s all about having a good time.
How do you define happiness?
Beautiful women, my son, and a great day to surf.
Is there anything else Jiu-Jitsu gave you besides muscles and a lot of trophies?
Jiu-Jitsu gave me balance. It teaches you to survive when you’re not on top, and how to adapt to bad situations.
What’s your primary motivation as a fighter?
Do you have a hero?
No. But I like Batman.
This interview was conducted in 2006 in Oakland, California.