The nicest instructor in BJJ offers some insights into his teaching methods, his famous students like Keanu Reeves and Stephan “Wonderboy” Thompson, how to succeed in business and what he has in store for the MAIA SuperShow.
by Perry William Kelly
“Life in the martial arts is all about opportunities. Each student offers the instructor the chance to make a difference. His or her life will be changed if you do it right. In the process, your life will be changed as well. It is the greatest reward to make a living by changing lives.”
- excerpt from Carlos Machado’s Putting the Pieces Together: Truths You Learn AFTER You Get Your Butt Kicked!
While growing up, Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Carlos Machado’s nickname was Soneca (Sleepy) for the naps he used to take between training sessions. It’s good that he took the chance to rest while he had it, because these days, everyone wants to roll with now-black belt and instructor Machado! The list seems endless: John Wick’s Keanu Reeves’s, Kickboxer’s Alain Moussi, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. While this world-famous BJJ coach has probably sent more people off to slumber-land than sleeping pills, many consider the chance to work with him a “dream” come true!
Carlos Machado was born in Rio de Janeiro on November 9, 1963. From birth, it seemed almost predestined for him to be raised on the mats, as members of the Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu clan are his cousins (his aunt Layr was married to Carlos Gracie Sr.).
Although Carlos is the eldest of the world-famous Machado Brothers, his little brothers also have some serious BJJ chops. Rigan Machado is an eighth-degree black belt who won the Brazilian National Championships every year from ages fourteen through 21. Jean Jacques Machado, a seventh-degree black belt, was Brazilian National Champion for ten years and is a multi-time ADCC champ. Youngest brother John is a sixth-degree black belt and a Pan American Sambo Champion. Last, but certainly not least, is sixth-degree black belt Roger, who embodies a zen-like calmness perhaps due to his other love: yoga.
Carlos enjoyed a 34-year competitive career, winning many titles including Brazilian State and National Champion between 1982 to 1993, Pan American Champ 1997 and 1998, U.S. Open Champion 1998 and 1999, and World Mater Champion (in both middle and open weight divisions) in 2000. Perhaps the most amazing of his victories on the mat, at least in the eyes of this writer, was pulling off the fastest submission at the ADCC in 1998 – which he did while competing with a broken foot! It seems almost unbelievable, but for Carlos, it’s just another day on the mat.
The Machado brothers moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990’s when BJJ was beginning to shock the world with its success in the Octagon. They were teaching private lessons one day when, out of nowhere, in walked martial arts icon and movie star Chuck Norris! Norris was interested in learning more about BJJ, and knew the reputation of the Machados. Thus began a lifelong friendship and collaboration between Carlos and Norris.
In 1995, Carlos moved to Dallas, Texas, where he opened a BJJ school inside the same warehouse where the indoor scenes for Norris’s Walker, Texas Ranger were being filmed. This allowed him to teach Norris (who later became a black belt under Carlos) and work on the show on an almost weekly basis. Eventually, Carlos would appear in over twenty of the show’s episodes and choreograph the grappling and ground-based elements of the fight scenes.
Carlos has been inducted into eight Martial Arts Halls of Fame for his efforts in BJJ and martial arts. His affiliate school system reaches across the United States, Canada, England, France, Australia, Mexico and of course, Brazil. Perhaps one of the secrets behind his success is that while completing his law school studies at university, young Carlos lived with his uncle Carlos Gracie Sr. for five years. Talk about having an opportunity to get extra help with your grappling game!
Master Machado graciously gave MASuccess some of his valuable time to chat while he was getting his brother-in law-Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson ready to meet Anthony Pettis at UFC Fight Night 148 this past March in Nashville.
MASuccess: What is one stand-out memory you have of working with Chuck Norris?
Carlos Machado: One memorable moment with me and Chuck was being at the UFAF (United Fighting Arts Federation) convention in Vegas when he was a blue belt. In the old days, we would line people up and tap them all out in sequence. The biggest guy at the seminar was in the line that Chuck was supposed to get. This guy wanted to be last, maybe to catch him when he was tired. Chuck made the whole line tap including the biggest guy. To make a long story short, (as his instructor) he made my day.
MAS: Through film director Chad Stahelski (an instructor under Jeet Kune Do legend Guro Dan Inosanto) you have had the opportunity to train Keanu Reeves for the John Wick movie series. Reeves often refers to your teaching him how to “breathe” while doing BJJ. Can you elaborate on what techniques you taught him?
CM: It doesn’t matter if you (have the cardio of a) marathon runner; if you don’t know how to breathe for jiu-jitsu you will die out in the first few minutes. Jiu-jitsu is (like) swimming: if you don’t know how to breathe, you drown. Inhaling is natural, but you must teach students how to empty their lungs. Jiu-jitsu is about being relaxed and seizing opportunities. I have a simple system. You do three short exhales and one long one, like a train: “Choo, Choo, Choo, Chooooh.” I got Keanu to do a sequence of moves with me and told him to focus on his breathing. Low and behold, he was able to do the techniques with more dexterity and motor skill.
MAS: One of the things that most impressed me while attending your seminars is your humble manner of teaching. However, being such a nice guy, how do you deal with the “problem seminar attendee” who tries to challenge what you are teaching?
CM: Anyone that walks into my gym or into a seminar, they know I am there to help them. I am not there to fight them, (or) to take anything away from anybody. And, if anybody can contribute to what I am showing, I have no problem asking them to show it. I have done a lot of brainstorming sessions with people skilled in a certain aspect, asking them, “Show me how you like this certain thing. Show me what you can add to it.” I am open to learning too if I don’t know the answer.
MAS: So, you use the height of strategy by turning a potential enemy into a friend?
CM: Yes. The whole thing about being on opposite ends is an illusion because in a similar way, we all want to grow. Either we grow from me giving what you need. And, I ask seminar attendees “If you had to accomplish one thing at this seminar today what would that be?” Or “If you had one aspect of Jiu-Jitsu you could walk out happy with what would it be?”. And, I try to map out the class not only according to the lesson plan already to go, but I mold in what I feel the group needs or expects the most. Once you blend in that interaction you break the ice. People realize that I am not there to fight anybody or challenge anybody. I am there to grow with everybody and have everybody grow with me.
MAS: You once told me that your strength as a coach is to teach a technique that the student already knows, but to break it down in such a way that they can apply it more effectively than before.
CM: My goal when I teach a seminar is to not teach a technique, a move or a topic, but to cause an experience. I want everybody there to not be the same when they are done with the class.
I want to teach everybody, from the guy who has a little knowledge and experience [or is a] small individual up to the black belt who has skill and all the physical attributes of size, speed, physicality. How do I cross this range? I start at the core; I don’t teach anything fancy. I break things down into small details. Everybody can relate to that, even a guy who is very accomplished. There might be one tweak that he might be missing that will make the skill he possesses stronger and better. I have had guys who were studying with me that day and who were also competing that day. They trained in a move and were able to go out that day and execute the move in three different matches.
MAS: Can you give an example of your teaching process that other instructors can benefit from?
CM: In terms of methodology of teaching, I like to slow things down. If you can’t slow things down, it is sometimes hard to see when and how [a technique works] and where you are going to apply the technique.
When I train someone, I have his training partner move in random ways, unexpectedly. It’s not always going to be the same reaction. And [I tell the student], “You just focus on just slowing this guy down. Once you’ve accomplished that, then how can you set this guy up?” It’s like trying to shoot a moving target if you are trying to set a guy up and he is moving too fast. Unless you are an accomplished shooter, the only way you can hit the target is by slowing it down.
Also, you start from the smallest things, like how your fingertips grip the gi. It is a small adjustment, but it can give you [big returns]. Then you move to weight distribution to slow someone down. If you are a lighter person, but know how to use your weight distribution, you can use this to change angles. You can make a person suffer a lot to get out of a position and slow him down enough to get you into a better position.
MAS: You paint vivid word pictures, like “Zombie Surfer,” for your students to grasp different positional set ups and techniques. In your opinion does this process quicken their mastery of BJJ?
CM: No question about it. When it comes to a method of teaching, if you’re going to accelerate and improve the person’s method of learning and retention of a technique, it must be through imagery. In jiu-jitsu, if you can see it [in your mind], you can do it. I have lot of terminology that work especially well when doing a seminar, because in a seminar I may never see these people again, so I want to make sure they learn and never forget.
[When] I say, “don’t pass the guard, just be a “Zombie Surfer,” you [envision] always moving your head from one side to the other of the middle line, and you are not a stationery target. And, when you start to surf, your leg starts to breach through your opponent’s defence, and you start to create angles that allow you to keep your balance more easily. Eventually, you accomplish a transition and control position without having to go through too much hardship. The other guy fights and sweats and you just enjoy the surf. The thing that is ironic, is that they will never forget how to do that move because that visual is so strong in their minds.
MAS: Olympic Judo champion Anton Geesink once told me that you should focus on a few techniques you can always pull off rather than learning many techniques. What do you think about this approach?
CM: If you look at my uncle Helio Gracie, his two main positions were the choke and the ankle lock. He would choke you if you gave up your neck and if you gave up your ankle, he would ankle lock you. He would go either high or low.
I call [always being able to always pull off a technique] the 360 Method. I will give you an example for a move like a choke. You start by choking the guy from the bottom, then on your side, then when you are on top of him, then the turtle position, and when he tries to get up. You try to exhaust all the different situations where you can apply a choke. Sometimes, it’s the same move [but] from a different angle. Other times, you just adjust a little bit. In fact, my students are learning to choke from any angle.
MAS: You are famous for being able to apply a submission while escaping from your opponent’s attempt to submit you. How do us mere mortal BJJ players pull something like this off?
CM: The definition of the “Escape Game” is that it is “the art of (ticking) people off.” When somebody tries to get a submission, your goal is not to escape, your goal is just to delay how long it takes before the guy gets you. The other thing is how do I protect my breathing, (because) the first rule in jiu-jitsu is “don’t drown.”
Anyone who wants to be good at escaping or become savvy at being elusive and evasive, the first thing is to be able to deal with pressure, which has to do with protecting your breathing. Someone can take the air out of your lungs if you are caught in kesa-gatame (side-control hold) simply by the pressure on your lungs. The first step is to learn how to deal with pressure. You can minimize the pressure by keeping one shoulder off the ground at any given time. Or, if you are flat, you must be on your toes slightly, keeping your hips off the ground. Your diaphragm can dilate through your kidneys. If you are completely flat and have pressure on top, your lungs have nowhere to expand. You must be savvy in finding space to keep on breathing.
There’s another rule in jiu-jitsu: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” When the guy wants to crush you, the more you grab and pull him to you, the more it deflects and dissipates the pressure. When you try to push the guy away, it gets a lot worse.
MAS: Who have been your mentors, and how did living with your uncle, Carlos Gracie Sr., influence you?
CM: My two main mentors were my Dad and my uncle. You have two parallels in life, careers that are laid out for you and careers that you follow for your heart. [They taught me] to keep my head in the clouds but my feet on the ground.
My dad was a judge and he had set a path for me that would have been an easier one, because he had all these connections to assist me. He was more [focused on] a practical side of life. But I didn’t see myself as a lawyer. I was more comfortable wearing a gi than a suit. I wanted to help people using martial arts.
Uncle Carlos was more the guru side of life. He became a healer, a nutritionist, and an herbalist. He created the Gracie diet. He was a spiritual person who kind of mentored me more on the character aspects: Be humble, treat people with respect. Try to take care of your body – that’s your temple. Be a good example to others.
When I and my brothers first came to America, we based our motto for all the Machado Academies, “Leave your ego at the door,” on a conversation that I had with my uncle. (He said,) “Remember, be humble. Be respectful, and remember you are never too good to learn.”
We were always respectful of every martial arts instructor who showed up at our gym. We are always open and willing to share.
MAS: How are you able to find time to travel the world conducting seminars, training UFC fighters and action movie stars?
CM: Everything is related. When I am off to a seminar, I am often training guys who are fighters at different gyms. I was at one of my affiliates, Tri-Force MMA in Boston, and they had a guy who fought the following weekend for a belt. I connect everything. I will be in Indiana in June teaching the Purdue wrestling team and there will be quite a few MMA fighters who will be there.
MAS: What are the most challenging obstacles you face and what success tips would you offer to other school owners?
CM: There are three obstacles for every instructor: yourself, your training, (and) your business. What I found out is that I must be okay with myself regardless of whatever happens with my training or my business. I must be okay with my training regardless of what happens with my business. And, ultimately and decisively, I must be okay with my business regardless of what is happening with my training or my personal.
Students, for me, are family members. I’ve had situations where students I created became rogue and started to compete against me and tried to take me out. You are due for heartbreak because it is an impossibility that you are going to keep every person with you forever. My constructive approach is that I just want to know what I could have done better to not repeat the reason the guy left, so other people won’t follow.
In regard to business, it is an animal. It can become a monster if you don’t keep that in check. More often than not, it becomes so all-encompassing that on a personal level everything gets swallowed. You don’t have time to spend with your kids, don’t have time to spend with your spouse. If you work with your spouse, which is the case with my wife, we don’t take time to talk about stuff about ourselves; we talk about stuff about the business.
Sometimes you are going to have personal issue in there. You got to work on it. Sometimes you’re going to have training issues, like injuries, where you cannot train. But you cannot let the business drop because that’s the biggest house of cards. If that one folds it can affect everything else.
It took a long time for me to understand, if you want to be in the game, you have to learn how to play the game or you won’t be able to (succeed). There are certain rules you must follow. You must track your numbers. You must spend less than you make. You must hire staff and re-invest in your business. And, fire people when they don’t fit. Some instructors I know say, “Slow to hire, quick to fire.” I think you should adopt a personality test as part of the job interview and have a ninety-day paid trial. People will not show their true selves in one week. If people have something they are hiding, they are going to slip up within the three-month period.
As an instructor I have a mission to hold the torch for others, so I can’t drop the ball on my health, my fitness, and everything that I do that led me to where I am. You’ve got to find the medium. You’re not going to be even with everything, but don’t drop the ball. You’ve got to be good at all.
MAS: Your brother-in-law, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is fighting Anthony Pettis at UFC Nashville. Since we are chatting on the eve of the fight (so this info won’t be published until after), what have you added to Wonderboy’s submission game for his bout with the man called “Showtime”?
CM: I know this will be post-fight [laughs] but, as usual, we don’t comment too much on the specifics. But I can tell you in general terms, this is a business. Mr. Thompson, Wonderboy’s dad, he’s the one that oversees everything that happens around and within Stephen’s camp. He studies anyone they are going to fight. He breaks it down for Stephen. And, he molds training camp as to what he feels will give Stephen the most chances. I try to assess what Stephen is doing and try to add whatever jiu-jitsu strategy that will maximize his dominance for the event. Stephen does have a photographic memory, as well, so it’s not by accident that he is so talented. He has gifts but he is also tremendously coachable. When I am in the corner, I relay to his dad my thoughts. Stephen and his dad have a synchronicity that he can dissect his dad’s voice out of a million people yelling at the same time.
MAS: Your seminar at the upcoming MASuperShow is called “Big or Small, Sweep Them All: The Most Effective Sweep Techniques.” Can you provide readers with a taste of what to expect?
CM: I have a quote: “Big and Small, Take Them All.” Size, of course, is always an issue. But when your opponent doesn’t know enough, you can get around it by overcoming with more positions, skills and leverages. Then you have all the other factors, the different things that are in the mix: timing, setting it up, different entries, the baits. But when the guy also knows the same stuff, how do you make it work? Now the guy knows what you are doing, and he is able to counter and has a size advantage on top of everything.
For example, I looked back on my training, and all the times I could not use a sweep on a guy, it was because he had a “beer belly.” My legs could not fit and kick from underneath the guy. That is when sound mechanics come into play. Everything works in synchronicity: your body, your timing, your leverage. I call that sound mechanics. You synchronize your body [so that] all the moves you do are with the whole body. And, once you’ve got a position, if you are set and strong, then every time you set that up, the sweep is bound to happen.
MAS: Is there any last thing else you would like our readers to know about you or your career success?
CM: Just to summarize: If I teach a seminar, I want to cause an experience. What I try to do with my business, whether it is my academy, how I change the life of a student, my affiliates or my association, RCJ Machado – I try to cause an experience. I can help people in more ways than one, not just make them a better fighter or instructor. Part-time instructors can become full time instructors, or school owners can buy their own buildings through working with me. If I can give them some clarity on a path, so they can become for self-reliant or successful, then I have changed the lives of all those people around them, like their family members.
There is no man who is an island. We all need to build upon the shoulders of others who came before us. I have tremendous people helping me out, like my wife Lindsay and partner Adam Carl, who are instrumental in making my vision become a reality. My vision has become clear. So much more must be done. I have a motto that I believe in, in martial arts, in business and in life: “The job is never done but always a work in progress.”
It would seem that Carlos Machado’s work-in-progress is to create experiences for those who learn from him. From some, that experience can be life-changing. If you have the chance to attend his seminar at the upcoming MASuperShow, who knows what might happen to your life in the future? This humble writer’s next article might be about your success as a competitor, instructor or school owner!
Perry William Kelly is the 2017 World Police and Firefighter Games Karate Gold medalist and a 2018 Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award recipient. A fifth-degree jiu-jitsu black belt, he is also an instructor in four other martial arts. He may be contacted for seminars and interviews at [email protected].
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