PHOTO: John Ribeiro and Matheus Dantas train in the early hours of Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at the Ribeiro home in Nolensville, Tennessee.
By RACHAEL LONG / Photos by Rachael Long
It’s 5 a.m., and the streets of the Bent Creek subdivision are dark. While the small town of Nolensville, Tennessee is fast asleep, John Ribeiro steps into the still cold garage at his home and onto a large blue mat.
His friend, Matheus Dantas stretches his sleep-stiffened limbs while John sets his cell phone timer to five minutes.
After both boys have sufficiently loosened up, they begin to fight.
But it’s not the kind of fighting you might imagine. They’re both Brazilian Jiu Jitsu athletes, training for the chance to compete in the World Championship.
The clock ticks down to zero, and John resets it. For what seems like an eternity, the boys practice the same moves over and over, teaching their muscles to remember every quick turn, every fall, every motion of their opponent.
As the sun begins to rise, the boys finish their training for the morning. John offers a hand to Matheus as he rises from the mat, and they share a quick, yet sincere embrace.
That was on April 24. In a matter of five weeks and two days, John would compete for the World Championship title.
He didn’t know it then, but the 16-year-old fighter would soon earn the recognition of second place in the world.
A way of life
John can’t remember a time before Jiu Jitsu.
His father Marcelo is a fourth degree black belt who began studying the sport at age 12 and teaching at 16. But Marcelo says he really began practicing at six years old.
The Ribeiro family — made up of Marcelo, his wife Renata, John, 16, Gabe, 11, and Maria, 7 — owns and operates the RMA Jiu Jitsu studio just south of Lenox Village. The family will be opening its new location at the Hillside Center in Nolensville on June 22, construction timeline permitting.
The family moved from Brazil to the United States with the goal in mind to bring Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to America. They first lived in Florida, then Texas, and in 2011, they moved to Nolensville to open a Jiu Jitsu studio in the Nashville area.
John and his younger brother Gabe are both junior instructors at the academy and the youngest, Maria, takes classes. All three kids attend different schools within the Williamson County schools system in Nolensville.
John — who helps his father with every kids’ class that fits in his schedule — also trains during the adult classes.
Matheus trains with John and also spends time at the gym. He is a good family friend who lives in Brazil but stays with the Ribeiro family before big tournaments. He travels to the United States to be trained by Marcelo, and Renata said they “love him like our own.”
Students of all ages come to the Ribeiros to learn their craft, and three core values always remain at the forefront of Marcelo’s teachings: loyalty, respect and love.
It may seem strange that a combat sport would be taught this way, but any member of the Ribeiro family would tell you that those values are what drive their passion for the sport.
And those values don’t just live inside the walls of the studio. In fact, they color the way the family interacts.
“It becomes a lifestyle,” Renata said. “It’s the way you eat, it’s the respect with your peers, with your parents. I think it’s something bigger than just a sport that you sign up for.”
Students at RMA Jiu Jitsu wear patches on their uniforms which read, “Way of life,” a reminder that the lessons taught on the large blue mats carry weight far beyond the sport.
Preparing for the world stage
The 5 a.m. practices were just the tip of the iceberg where John’s training for the world championship was concerned. Though Jiu Jitsu is a year-round practice for him, John said his more intense training really began at the end of February.
On a regular basis, he helps teach kids’ classes Monday through Thursday from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m. and another class from 6 to 7 p.m.
Afterward, John’s training would take place from 8 to 9:30 p.m., and they pushed heavily on conditioning and intensity. Along with the technical training, John also had to have a lot of endurance because the world championship matches would take place back to back.
Along with an intense training regimen was a strict diet. John said he had to cut weight, as the competitive divisions were split by weight.
“He lost about six pounds, total,” Renata said. “But very balanced, just a lot of veggies and chicken and healthy stuff. And a lot, a lot of water.”
With Jiu Jitsu constantly on his mind, it would be easy for John to get burnt out on the sport.
“If I’m thinking about it every single day, it’s going to get to a point where I’m mentally tired, and I’m not going to be able to come into [the gym] and focus,” John said.
One of the best distractions John discovered to avoid wearing himself out mentally was a flag football league. Every Thursday, John would play flag football at Rocky Fork Park as something fun to do besides training every night.
Going for gold
There’s a reason why John’s early morning training was so repetitive, so disciplined.
One misstep can cost the entire match.
John has competed in the world championship before, last year, earning the third place title.
On May 31 in Long Beach, California, John competed in an 11-man bracket in the “Juvenile 2 — middle weight” division in the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) World Championship. He won his first and second match, the first by submission and the second by points when the clock ran out.
The third match was different.
John’s pre-fight ritual includes listening to music. It’s a way to calm his nerves and keep away the “bad thoughts.”
“You always have those bad thoughts that come into your head, like you’re not good enough [or] you’re going to lose,” John said. “But you have to try to block those out.”
In the moments before the third and final match of the championship, John said he tried to remind himself of all the ways he had prepared for months in preparation for this match.
“During the fight, most of the time I’m not really thinking. It’s more of like an autopilot,” John said. “I’ve done these moves so many times, it’s like my body is doing it on its own.”
But there was a moment in the match that John said basically determined the outcome of the fight — a moment he remembers well.
“I got this grip, and I messed it up, so when he brought his leg out, he eventually got to my back which is really bad in Jiu Jitsu,” John said. “So he ended up getting my back, and then he made me tap.
“When you’re in a competition against someone who is as good as you, or maybe just a little bit better, [if] you make one mistake, they can capitalize,” John said.
Once he messed up that crucial grip — a move that would cost him first place — John said he started to panic.
In the moment, John said he was able to get out of one of the holds he was in. But his opponent linked one move to another, and the next thing John knew, he had to tap out.
“You always go out there to get first,” John said, days after the competition…I’m a little mad because of the results, but I’m also proud. It’s a big accomplishment.”
When asked how she felt about her son’s performance, Renata didn’t miss a beat.
“We are so proud,” Renata said, smiling. “Extremely proud.”
Though he didn’t earn first place this year, for John, this is far from over.
He’ll compete again next year, but he’ll be in a different division — for adults — with a lot more competition.
“I’ll still be up for it, I’m still going to train,” John said. “I’m still going out there for gold.”
‘This is what I want to do’
The constant training and teaching of Jiu Jitsu takes up most of John’s life. For a rising junior in high school, that’s a big commitment.
Time with friends is important to John, but nothing beats his love for the sport.
In the summers, he helps his father teach kids’ summer camps in the mornings.
When asked if he ever wished he could spend more time away from Jiu Jitsu, his answer came easily.
“No, not really,” John said, smiling. “It’s not like I’m trapped in here.”
John said his weekends are always free. He might have training for an hour in the mornings, but he gets the rest of that time to himself.
The weekdays are busier, especially during the school year, John said. There are times when he has to put Jiu Jitsu before spending time with his friends, and that’s perfectly OK with him.
“I have to focus on the sport I love, the sport that I’m hoping to make my future.”
Because it’s such a big part of his life, John says the values he’s learned from Jiu Jitsu are integral to his character.
When faced with a choice to go in another athletic direction, John didn’t waver.
“The first year of high school, I asked John, ‘Do you want to do football? Because I know in school, you’re not going to be able to do Jiu Jitsu,’” Renata recounted. “And he said, ‘No, mom. I found my passion very early. This is what I want to do.’”
Ribeiro Marcelo Academy
A dozen young Jiu Jitsu students sprint around the large blue mat which covers the floor of the Ribeiro Marcelo Academy (RMA) gym. Twelve brightly colored hula hoops line the mat.
It’s like musical chairs, but with hoops. Professor Marcelo tells the students when to run and when to stop by saying the names of random colors. Those who don’t make it into the right color hoop are eliminated.
This goes on until there’s only one winner, and it’s a surefire way to get out any leftover energy.
It’s also a way to end each kids’ training session on a high note.
“You can’t come out here and teach the kids and be super mean about it,” John said. “You have to teach them with care and with love. You’ve gotta encourage them. You’ve gotta save some time at the end like that to play some games and keep them engaged.”
Marcelo has taught Jiu Jitsu for more than 20 years, Renata said. He sustained a neck injury at the age of 19 and was not able to compete in world championships.
Now, he has the joy of teaching and seeing his sons compete in high-level contests.
“It’s very rare that you find a world medalist in a gym in such a small town like ours, because usually the first, second and third place [at the world championship] come from big gyms,” Renata said.
Her youngest son, Gabe, has also competed at a national level.
“It’s for kids, but it would be a similar level as the world championship for his age,” Renata said. “Gabe is a national champion.”
Renata said there are actually four RMA students who earned Pan American championships this year.
About 40% of the students at RMA focus on competition, Renata said, and the rest practice the sport for learning, self-defense, self-discipline and for sport.
The new location opening next weekend is much larger and will feature a bar-top area for parents or guardians to work or lounge while they wait.
The current location, at 6444 Nolensville Pike, serves about 150 Nolensville families as well as Brentwood, Smyrna and Antioch, Renata said. RMA’s second location is meant to help better serve the Nolensville community.