Rodrigo Cavaca on His Early Days in Jiu-Jitsu, His Success as a Coach and Competitor, and Building a Positive Environment at Zenith
Professor Rodrigo Cavaca is a World, European, and Brazilian National Champion as well as the co-founder of the Zenith Jiu-Jitsu Team. His accomplishments as a competitor and a coach have made Professor Cavaca one of the most revered coaches in the world. He continues to spread the techniques and the mindset that led to his success in his hometown of Santos in Brazil. We caught up with Professor Cavaca to hear about his start in the jiu-jitsu, his successes as a competitor and coach, and building a positive environment at Zenith.
You started training jiu-jitsu in your hometown of Santos. What was the jiu-jitsu scene like in your hometown at the time?
I started training in December 1999. I would be 20 years old in January 2000. I was in my second year of college, studying at night, doing an internship in the morning, and training in the afternoon. There was a big stigma because of the fights between jiu-jitsu and luta livre practitioners, which kept a lot of people away from the sport. This was one of the reasons why I had a resistance to practice jiu-jitsu. I ended up going due to the insistence of a great friend, Vinicius. I remember the first day perfectly, with a borrowed kimono, that strong smell of the mats, the kimono, and the gym. I was well received from the first day, as I had some acquaintances who were already training at this gym that was a branch of the Alliance team in Santos.
When did you first get interested in competing in jiu-jitsu? What are some of your earliest memories?
I played futsal for a few years and participated in several competitions when I was younger. I was always very competitive and still am. By the time I started, I was already interested in competing in jiu-jitsu too. I remember that after about three months of training, I had my first knee injury. I was a little absent, and in that period my teacher at the time was organizing a Santos championship and I went to watch my friends fight. When I arrived at the gym, he asked if I would like to participate. I said no because I wasn't training and he motivated me and insisted. I then ran to my house, grabbed my kimono, got on my bike, and went back to the gym to participate in my first jiu-jitsu competition as a white belt. The result was three fights and three wins. That fueled me. My first experience with jiu-jitsu competition was positive. It motivated me a lot to continue and was the initial push that got me here today in the year 2022.
You won World, European and Brazilian National titles as a black belt. What were some of the keys to your competitive success?
I've always really enjoyed studying jiu-jitsu. I've always known all the characteristics of my opponents and all the opponents of my students. Here’s an example of what I’ve been doing since I was a blue belt. I arrived at Tijuca Tênis Clube to fight as a blue belt and I fought on the first day and returned to the gym on the other days to watch all the fights of the other categories and belts. I only returned home after the absolute black belt fight that ended the event. When I was already a black belt, I kept arriving at the gym on the first day, when the blue belts fought and I kept watching all the belts and categories to see what they were doing again, until the last day of me fighting. I fought and then I kept watching all the black belts and only then returned home. It was a habit I created and it helped me a lot to create fight strategies for many of my victories as an athlete and also for my athletes. Jiu-Jitsu for me is a game, just like life.
You've coached some of the best jiu-jitsu competitors of all time, including Buchecha, the world record holder. What are some of the qualities that made you successful as a coach?
As I said in the previous question, I've always studied all my opponents since blue belt and prepared strategies for fights and I kept looking for that same path as a coach. I’ve trained 14 IBJJF World Champions in my coaching career. It's a good result that shows me that this path I've taken is correct. I always try to follow the development of jiu-jitsu. Many new techniques appear on the world stage and I am always looking to learn them to teach my students, not necessarily so that they can practice them, but so that they know at least to defend themselves against them and aren't be taken by surprise.
As someone who helped popularize the straight foot lock in competition, you've been at the forefront of the technique for a long time. What are your thoughts on the technical evolution we are seeing in jiu-jitsu?
I learned the straight foot lock on a trip to Little Rock, Arkansas at Roli Delgado’s academy. He showed me the technique after using it on me in sparring. I was impressed with the power of the attack and asked him to teach me, so that's when he showed me and asked me if I'd like to learn from his teacher, Max Bishop, and I replied yes of course. So he invited Professor Max who gave me a 5-hour class, but everything was without a kimono. I filmed everything and went back to Brazil and already started studying on the plane. When I arrived at the academy in Santos, I started to apply it until I had total mastery of the technique. After a month of doing this every day and after having made the adaptation to the kimono, I gathered all my students and told them that I would start from that day on teaching them a new technique, the straight foot lock. That's where we stayed for three months, all the trainings of the day, training only foot locks. That's when the foot lock started to be the best known technique of all my students. At that time several champion athletes were in Santos using it. Buchecha, Renato Cardoso, Michele Nicolini, Luiza Monteiro, Nivaldo Oliveira , Silvio Duran, and Piter Frank were there, among others. In 2010 I started the year reaching the finals and winning all the IBJJF Grand Slam championships using the foot lock, ending with the victory of the World Championship in the ultra-heavyweight category and placing third in the absolute. There were eight fights and seven submissions with my only defeat coming in the semi-finals to the champion Roger Gracie. I was the only athlete that year to finish my opponent in the black belt finals. From there, everyone started looking to me for foot lock seminars all over the world.
The Zenith Team was founded in 2013 by you and Robert Drysdale. What were your goals as a team leader when you started and how have they evolved over the past decade?
My goal was and still is to teach people who wanted to make a living from jiu-jitsu in Brazil. I wanted to do that because I think it's very unfair for people to have to choose between everything they have in life and making a living from their profession in another country. Why not be able to live from jiu-jitsu in your city, next to your family and friends? I'm getting close to achieving this goal. I'm studying more every day to be able to develop professional work and pass on the results to people. This is one of the reasons I’ve opened my Instagram for questions every day for over a year and a half.
How do you build a cohesive environment in a gym and what are some of the values you expect to be present in Zenith schools?
To live in harmony in a company you must create a culture, and to create a culture it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. We need to respect the process and that's what I've been doing for years until today. I cleaned up my personal life, I started to generate results, and after that I started teaching and training my team so that they would go through this same personal process and then become more professional. Finally, all together, we passed it on to the students. Today I can say that the values that we transmit daily to all the people who are with us are really important. They are values that we increasingly see disappearing in the real world.
You became a jiu-jitsu reference in Brazil through your social networks and your YouTube channel. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to share your knowledge to a wider audience or is it something you do for fun?
It has never been for fun. It has always been and continues to be with the aim of transmitting everything I learned to as many people as possible so that they could enjoy the teachings and be closer and closer to living from jiu-jitsu in Brazil, as this is the reason I live in Brazil until today. It is also for the mission of replicating the teachings that life has offered me, so that people can apply and succeed without so many battles.
What do you want your legacy to be as a competitor, coach, and team leader?
I work every day to be better and better at what I do. I stopped being a professional competitor but I continue to compete every day as a coach, teacher, leader, and especially a human being. As a husband, father, and friend, I’m trying to learn from my defeats every day and pass these lessons on to the greatest number of people all these teachings of life so that they can suffer less than I do in these battles. This for me is the true role of the teacher, learning from pain and transmitting the lessons with love.