In the Brazilian jiu jitsu world, the very best competitors can be seen coming from a long way off. Very few people explode onto the scene as a black belt - although several legends in the history of the sport have done so - and most of the elite grapplers can be seen winning at each of the lower belts along the way to BJJ fame and (hopefully) fortune.
It turns out that the very first person I ever rolled with in a BJJ class is now a brown belt world champion. After graduating from SUNY Albany and returning downstate to his home of New York City in 2009, Matthew Maldonado dedicated himself in full to becoming an elite competitor on the BJJ circuit in the U.S. - and it worked. At the 2012 Mundials (the BJJ World Championships), Matthew closed out the tough light featherweight bracket with an Alliance teammate. For purposes of recordkeeping, Thomas Lisboa "won" first place and the silver medal, while Matthew got "second" and the gold medal.
The last two years have shown Matthew's consistency and stubbornness in chasing medals and a full time career in the sport he loves so much. Unfortunately, I couldn't take full credit for his hard work and achievements, but in the last two years alone, he's had incredible results at elite grappling tournaments:
2011 IBJJF No Gi Pan Ams: 3rd place pena
2011 IBJJF No Gi Worlds: 2nd place pluma
2012 Renzo Open Championships: 3rd place Gi brown/black 161 and under
2012 IBJJF New York International Open: 1st place Gi pluma
The Mongoose is already 1-0 in amateur MMA and is training and teaching at Team Coban Muay Thai in NYC in preparation for a possible MMA career.
After the jump, a full interview with Matthew.
Matthew's Facebook Athlete page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Matthew-Maldonado/239357956115400
Ben Thapa: How old are you?
Matthew Maldonado: I turned 26 this past April.
BT: Where are you living and grappling at? What's on your agenda these days? Are you teaching BJJ as a full time job now?
MM: I am currently living in NYC and grappling at Alliance NYC. My agenda these days are to compete in the major No Gi tournaments remaining this year as well as branch off into mma. Also finding sponsors to help me do those things. Yes, I am currently teaching BJJ full time, 6 days a week for a total of 8 classes.
BT: Let's jump back to the beginnings. How did you get started with BJJ/submission grappling?
MM: I got started in BJJ/submission grappling while I was going to college in Albany NY. I had a friend named Bill Schwartz who would always tell me about BJJ and how I should start training with him at this school called Victory Jiu Jitsu. I finally gave in and tried out a class one day. I have been training consistently ever since.
From left to right: California Luke, Victor McLeod, Bill Schwartz, Matthew Maldonado (Photo from 2007/2008)
BT: Was there a specific "lightning strike" moment when you knew the competition circuit was for you?
MM: Yes. I would have to say when I won the No Gi Pan Ams at blue belt. I was sick the entire week before the tournament and just stayed in bed. Then I went to the tournament and submitted all of my opponents. I thought to myself that if I took my training more seriously I could make a lot more out of this then a hobby. And thats what I did!
BT: What'd you have to sacrifice to be able to do this as a job?
MM: I had to sacrifice my way of living, how much money I made, most of my social life, and a few other things and relationships. I was making way more when I was only training bjj part time and not teaching. The difference is I was stressed from not doing what I was passionate about. So I left my job as a personal training manager and now I teach and train BJJ full time.
BT: During your run to the top of your light featheweight division, I noticed that you seemed very familiar with your opponents. At that level, do the elite competitors pretty much all know each other?
MM: The elite competitors pretty much all know each other. Maybe not on a personal level but they are aware of the top guys out there that they will face. The top guys usually compete a lot, as well as pay attention to social media and forums on each other. The sport is becoming bigger so there are always new competitors that you will see or face at these tournaments that you are not aware of.
Left to right: Matthew (co-champion), Thomas Lisboa (co-champion),
Yuto Hirao (bronze), Ronaldo Oliveira (bronze)
BT: In the development of your own grappling game, what's the next big step for you? Where are you going to make the most improvements? Who are you patterning your game after?
MM: The next big step would be to make sure my No Gi game is sharp for No Gi season. I would have to say I am still focusing on making improvements everywhere but mostly with my passing. I used to only like playing guard but now I like passing guard just as much. I am not patterning my game after anyone, but I am taking little pointers and moves from many top guys out there and seeing how these things can fit into my game.
BT: As a much lower level grappler and spectator, it seemed to me that the structure of competitive tournaments really dissuade most grapplers from opening up their game and showing what they can do. Is there anything thatyou can think of that can help open up the grappling we see a bit more?
MM: The only thing I can see do that is tournaments being submission only, some illegal submissions being allowed, or more strict rules on stalling. If none of these things happen then a lot of grapplers wont be able to show their full potential.
BT: Why is it that there's almost a clear demarcation between the "regular" elite grapplers at each level and the very best in the division? It kind of blows my mind that there's this group of 2 to 4 grapplers at each weight class that are just that much better than everybody else in the division and they show their success again and again. How is this possible in this day and age of "Ratatouille-style BJJ" where a champion can come from almost anywhere?
MM: It is hard to explain but I believe this is because some people just have what it takes as well as dedicate themselves. Some of those regular elite grapplers probably go out for drinks once in a while, take days off to do extra curricular things, train everyday but maybe once or twice a day. The very best don't go out and drink, train 4x a day, drill techniques instead of going to a bbq or beach party, go to sleep early. They are just more dedicated and disciplined and it shows. Also some people are just straight up better even if you do everything the same and are just as disciplined.
BT: Your sacrifice question really brought home to me just how much you gave up. The occasional videos of the training camps of the elite showed me the dedication to the craft that they do. What kind of training were/are you doing? What's your strength and conditioning program like? Are you doing gas mask circuits like Wanderlei or shakeweight stuff?
MM: Initially I was training BJJ about 6 days a week and working out maybe 2x a week. Now I am training BJJ 2x a day, teaching, training Muay thai, as well as doing strength and conditioning 3-4 times a week.
My strength and conditioning program is specifically designed towards what I want to do in BJJ. Almost everything I do is functional, all of the workouts are tough and I have an amazing coach. His name is Kevin Paretti and he has taken my game to the next level with his workouts.
BT: Right now, very few tournaments give out monetary prizes. I think I saw black belt grapplers like Caio Terra and Ian McPherson sit out essentially the entire season and just show up for Abu Dhabi Pros, Pans and/or Mundials. You appear to compete in just about every tournament possible. Is it actually worth it for you at this point?
MM: It is still worth it for me at this point. I like to compete as much as I possibly can. In my opinion the experience from competing as well as the status from winning is well worth it. I plan on teaching and possibly running my own school in the future and me competing in these tournaments help build my grappling resume. Of course, I am still all for tournaments starting to pay competitors, as well as building a drug testing program.
BT: Assuming that the black belt is reachable within the next few years, will that competition circuit draw you away from MMA or is the lure strong for MMA? Or will you try to do both?
MM: If most tournaments start paying black belts to compete then there would be a very small chance to lure me away from MMA. At the end of the day, I will definitely do both because I am a competitor and I love both sports.
Matthew with Coban of Coban's Muay Thai
BT: Is MMA something you're interested in? Did you get the taste of it a while back in your amateur fight in Virginia and decide to put it on hold or is it off the table for now?
I am definitely interested in MMA. After the MMA fight I had in Virginia [a first round KO victory], I ended up changing schools just months later. That move to Team Alliance NYC, which didn't have an MMA program, was to focus on BJJ. I also changed jobs to just focus on BJJ and slow down on the Muay Thai and MMA training. Now I am back at it and ready to jump in the cage.
BT: With BJJ being essentially your entire life, do you ever get burned out at times? What do you do or pay attention to other than athletic stuff? Are there any specific blogs or sites you frequent?
MM: Everyone gets burned out at times. Whether its physical or mental, it is always good to sit back and take a breather. I usually remind myself of what my goals and motivations are, which changes my mood when I feel burnt out. No specific blogs for me, but I do visit the NHB Gear forums, Sherdog forums, Bloody Elbow, GracieMag, Grapplers Planet, and a few others.
BT: What's the best berimbolo defense?
MM: I personally think the best berimbolo defense is to stuff the legs and not let the guy get underneath you. So stop the de la Riva hook from getting too deep, as well as stopping the other leg that helps the guy invert. You let any move get too far and you are doomed. So stop it before it happens.
BT: Any sponsors or people you really want to show appreciation for and emphasis?
MM: I would like to thank my family and my instructors, Fabio Clemente and Babs Olusanmokun. I also want to thank my teammates from Alliance NYC and my students from Coban's Muay Thai Camp.
I also would like to thank my sponsors: