By Terry L. Wilson
A Low Kick
People often say of a martial artist, “He was training as soon as he could walk.” In Joao Gabriel Rocha’s case, this was almost literally true. His introduction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu came from a summer camp for toddlers. At a mere two years, eight months, Joao had embarked on the journey of a lifetime. But this path would not be without struggle.
Joao worked hard and saw payoffs, in the form of a series of impressive victories as a junior (not yet black) belt. In 2013, Joao was promoted to black belt, earning him a spot to compete in the elite Submission Wrestling World Championships.
This grappling competition involves professional athletes of the highest level, from a variety of grappling styles, including jiu-jitsu. Joao worked his way to the finals in the 99 kg division but lost to Marcus “Buchecha” Almelda in the finals.
Despite the loss, Joao was skyrocketing to the top of his profession. He was a rising star in complete control of his own destiny, until an errant kick changed his life forever.
Getting injured goes along with being a professional competitor. Jiu-jitsu is a contact sport. Bumps, bruises, bloody noses and occasional black eyes are worn like badges of honor. Often, a minor injury is the price a competitor pays to take home a trophy or a championship belt.
However, even the machismo of a hardened competitor has its limits: when an elbow snaps so loudly it can be heard in the fourth row, or an ankle suddenly appears boneless after a blocked kick, it may be time to see a doctor. In Joao’s case, it was a painful kick to the groin that took him to E.R.
A Life-Altering Diagnosis
“(In 2014) Joao was training with a friend when he was accidently kicked in the groin,” remembers his wife, Gabi Rocha. “The pain was instant and severe. He’s been injured many times and he never once complained. But this time was different.”
“I have been kicked before but nothing ever hurt like that,” says Joao. “I thought the pain would go away, but it didn’t. Gabi insisted that we see a doctor.”
The first doctor the Rochas went to put Joao through a battery of tests and examinations. One scan showed that Joao had a tumor. However, the doctor assured them it was benign. He dismissed their concerns, and told them there was no reason for Joao to be in pain.
“That didn’t make any sense to me,” Gabi says. “I know how to read scans, and I knew he was wrong, so we went to a different doctor.”
Luckily for Joao, Gabi’s instincts were spot on. The second doctor made a terrifying – but crucial – discovery.
“The new doctor saw the scans and instantly recognized that Joao had a serious problem,” she says. “He knew it was cancer and recommended immediate surgery and chemo. This doctor was really good and moved quickly. I don’t know what would have happened if we had stayed with the other doctor.
The doctor diagnosed Joao with testicular cancer. The tumor he had was a kind that typically affects men ages 20 to 25. Joao was 22. His cancer was also a particularly aggressive variety. It was spreading from the site of the tumor to his abdomen and lungs, with no sign of stopping its march.
The diagnosis left Joao more confused than scared. A young man in his prime who was physically active, Joao had never considered that the greatest threat to his health would come not from across the mat but from within his own body.
“When the doctor told me I had a malignant tumor, I didn’t understand what that meant,” says Joao. “I was very innocent – by that, I mean I was very young and didn’t realize he was talking about cancer. To me, a tumor was just a bump that needed to be removed.”
It’s easy to understand the black belt’s mindset at the time. Everything was happening at warp speed. Joao was still riding a professional high after winning gold at the Brazilian Nationals and silver at the Worlds. His only loss was to Marcus “Buchecha” Almelda at the Submissions World Championships. At the time of his diagnosis, he had put that behind him and was training for another shot at the title.
But images of standing center ring with hands held high in victory were soon replaced by visions of hospital wards, needles and scalpels. His next fight would not be for a championship title, but for his very life.
Round 1 Of A Five-Month Fight for His Life
The second doctor the Rochas consulted quickly scheduled him for surgery and performed an operation to remove the tumor. Then, they sought out a third specialist for chemotherapy to kill the remaining cancer cells.
“Joao went through four cycles of chemo, five days in a row, and each treatment lasted eight hours,” explains Gabi. “That was followed by another treatment the next week. But he was so weak from the previous treatments that he needed to rest and recover before undergoing the fourth cycle. Joao underwent these treatments for four terrible months. He was very brave and faced everything like the champion he is.”
And, as it turns out, there are worse places to approach chemo from than the mindset of an athlete used to grueling endurance workouts.
“I looked at chemo treatments as if they were part of my job,” explains Joao. “And my job was to get well so I could train again.”
Like every job, getting well had its particular challenges:
“Because of the chemo, my veins would disappear,” Joao says. “Sometimes, the nurses would try for hours to stick a needle in them. I didn’t like that very much. But I stayed positive and focused on my goal, which was to train again.”
“For Joao, the worst part of dealing with his cancer was that he couldn’t train,” recalls Gabi. “His immune system had to be protected (by keeping him off the mats). After each chemo treatment and after every blood draw he would ask the doctor, “Okay, now when can I train?’”
In It Together
In a BJJ tournament, matches are fought one-on-one. Although there may be spectators, all the effort is exerted by the one in the ring.
Cancer is exactly the opposite. Family and friends are all affected by a loved ones’ diagnosis. Fear for the person with cancer can be a paralytic – or they can step up and fight with them. Gabi didn’t waste a second getting into the metaphorical ring alongside Joao.
“Dealing with his cancer was very difficult for me too,” she says. “I was his girlfriend at the time, and I knew exactly what he had. I’m not a doctor, but I am a dietitian and study medicine, and how best to treat cancer.
“I began to help him fight his cancer with nutrition and diet. I gave him all the support I could. Joao’s father and I took turns driving him to his chemo treatments.”
Joao, for his part, gushes over Gabi’s skill and care: “She taught at a private University in Rio de Janeiro,” he brags. “She knew exactly what kind of food I needed to fight the cancer – and the chemo.”
Often, the chemotherapy needed to counter aggressive cancer can ravage the body nearly as much as the disease itself. In addition to causing nausea, fatigue, and weakening the immune system, chemo causes hair loss and water retention leading to weight gain. It can very difficult and demoralizing for a cancer patient to look into a mirror only to see a stranger peering back at them.
This was especially true for Joao, as a professional athlete. His body was the tool he worked with. Each muscle had been hard-won and honed for a specific purpose. As chemo took its toll, he saw decades of hard work disintegrate in a matter of weeks. In a way, the psychological battle he faced was as great as the physical one. But Gabi stuck with him.
“When Joao lost his hair and gained a lot of weight, I’d tell him he was still handsome, and tell him, “I love you,”’ she says. “I did my best to support him, but it was hard. He was always very fit and in excellent shape so it was difficult for him to deal with being so overweight.
“I always believed he would get well because I know how strong he is, but he could also see how worried I was for him.”
Even with Gabi’s encouragement, chemo wore on Joao. He was unused to being inactive for any long period of time. The treatment didn’t just make him gain weight; it sapped his energy so that he couldn’t do anything to work it back off. He tried to pass the time and maintain a semblance of his old training routine by reading articles and watching YouTube videos, but those fell short.
“It was a very difficult time for me,” Joao admits. “I’ve been doing BJJ since before I was three years old. Jiu-jitsu was my life, and during my treatments I felt as if I had no life. I had too much time to think about the past and to wonder about what was going to happen next.
“Because I was young, I knew I had a lot of life ahead of me. I had confidence. If I were 60 or 70 and fighting a serious cancer, I might not have been so positive. But I had confidence that I would get well and train again because I was young and in excellent shape. And I think that positive attitude played an important in my recovery.”
And recovery did come – not a second too soon for Joao, who had been chomping at the bit to return to his beloved BJJ.
“When the chemo was done, he immediately went to the doctor and asked, again, ‘Hey! Can I start training now?’” remembers Gabi. “After seven months, the doctor finally gave Joao the okay. He started training the next day.”
Feeling Like a White Belt Again
Bouncing back proved harder than Joao had hoped.
“(Even without chemo) it was very difficult for him,” Gabi says. “Joao still wasn’t feeling very good. He told me he felt like he was a white belt again.”
Joao was coming from a five-month layoff, and every day of those five months, cancer and chemo had taken turns using his body a punching bag. But he had a game plan.
“I had to start slowly and rebuild my strength and endurance first,” he says. “I didn’t think about being a champion again. I focused on getting back into the lifestyle of BJJ. That centers on workouts, preparation, and diet, which included the first steak I’d had in almost a year.
“Training after chemotherapy was hard, but I was so happy just to be able to step on the mats again. Going back to competitions was also hard. I lost at Pan American in 2015, but I was runner-up at Worlds once again.
“My first tournament was so terrible,” Joao says with a laugh. “I only had enough cardio to last me for about two minutes. I don’t know how I did it, but I won my first match. My second match I lost to the guy who would win the championship.
“Right after the Pan American event I fought in Brazil (Rio Open) and managed to be the champion at that event.
“I knew I had to train harder, but my body stilled needed to rest. Sometimes I would need to sleep for 12 hours. I knew it would take time for me to increase my endurance, but I also knew I had to give my body the rest it needed and rebuild slowly.”
A BJJ Super Fight in Abu Dhabi
By 2019, almost five full years after his diagnosis, the relentless training regimen undertaken by Joao had rebuilt his cardio and sharpened his skills. His unyielding determination and competitive spirit had carried him back the competitive brackets – but would it be enough to place him at the pinnacle?
The first hint of an answer came when he successfully defeated Marcus “Buchecha” in a BJJ Stars Superfight event in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Fans hailed the match as the first time Joao had been able to defeat Marcus since they met at the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships. But the true victory came after the match: Joao’s oncologist declared him officially cancer-free.
Next, Joao entered the United Arab Emirates Jiu Jitsu Federation (UAEJJF) World Pro Championship in Abu Dhabi.
Immediately, Joao’s conditioning was put to the test. First, he had to win three matches to qualify for the main 110kg bracket.
After successfully defeating those opponents, he had to win three additional matches to make it to the finals.
He did. In the final match, on the world’s stage, Joao bested his opponent. To the roaring cheers of the crowd, he was declared champion.
Today, cancer is behind Joao, and a very bright future as one of BJJ’s stars is ahead. Still, he will always have that time as a reminder of just how much he overcame.
“Five years flew by very fast, but it wasn’t easy,” says Joao. “I want to thank everyone for all the support given. Without that support, I don’t think I would be here to express my gratitude.”
Terry Wilson is a lifelong martial artist an Emmy Award winning TV personality and freelance writer. He may be contacted at [email protected]
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