Abu Dhabi-based fighters turn to jiu-jitsu to escape when they miss home, finds Gary Meenaghan.
Brazilians seek some solace in the 'soft art' of jiu-jitsu
It is hard to imagine a city more enchantingly exotic than Rio de Janeiro. Its most prominent mountain, looming dominant over the coastal metropolis, is named after a sugarloaf.
Its beaches, with their cerulean waters and lightly scorched sands, are of such a picturesque nature they have long been the focus of artists adroit in paint and prose and song.
Yet Marcos Oliveira, a Carioca based in Abu Dhabi, is one of a growing number of Brazilians who have swapped the Copacabana for the Corniche. The 33 year old moved to the Emirates three years ago to head up the Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Schools Programme and, according to the Brazilian Embassy in the UAE, is now joined by around 2,000 compatriots.
The term saudade is a uniquely Portuguese word that does not comfortably translate into English. It is often used by Brazilians to describe the sense of longing they feel: for people, for places, for home.
When Oliveira, taking a break from training at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club, stands contentedly with a couple of compatriots enjoying a chat, not surprisingly saudade creeps into conversation at regular intervals.
The muscular trio - the former grappling world champion is joined by Fernando Cosendey and Fabricio Nascimento - speak of their yearning for family, for acai (an antioxidant fruit), for feijoada (black bean stew) and for the freedom to walk bare-chested along the promenade in Ipanema.
"Abu Dhabi is very different to home," said Oliveira, one of around 100 Brazilian instructors of jiu-jitsu in the UAE. "But we all appreciate that and enjoy the cultural experience."
Since the turn of the year, Emirates Airline have offered direct flights between Dubai and Rio, but with 12,000km separating the two cities, neither are likely to figure highly on the other's list of recommended weekend getaways.
Oliveira travels home once a year; Cosendey likewise. Their sense of saudade is strong, but they know where to seek solace.
"When I miss Brazil, I go the gym to train. There I feel at home because jiu-jitsu always makes me feel better -it's a type of escapism, I guess," said Cosendey, who after his last visit to Rio, brought back to Abu Dhabi 10kg of farinha de milho, a maize flour used for making the popular Brazilian side dish faroafa.
The project to promote what Oliveira calls "the most efficient means of self-defence in the world" started in 2008 at 14 schools, primarily in the capital.
Since then, it has mushroomed and is now active at 10 military bases and 42 schools across the UAE. In 2010, there were 7,413 students enrolled.
This year, according to Oliveira, there are close to 20,000.
Nilson Lopes, from the southern Brazilian state of Parana, moved to the UAE in March 2011 after being interviewed by telephone for a position with the project.
Based in Al Ain, he teaches the nation's presidential guard, as well as the air force, the navy and at some of the Emirates' military high schools.
"When you are on the mat, your mind is focused in the same place it would be focused if you were in Brazil, so in that sense it's a chance to escape the surroundings and go home," he said.
"But actually, there are so many black belts here that it's definitely different."
The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation states that a black belt can only be worn by a practitioner aged 19 years or over and denotes an expert level of practical and technical skill.
It is the highest ranking common belt and those involved in the sport estimate it takes between 10 and 12 years to reach the required level.
At Lopes's training academy in Parana, he worked alongside nine other black belts; in Al Ain he is joined on the mat by around 20 fellow experts and has begun recruiting more from his home state, including his brother and another close friend.
"Soon, we will have another 10 to 15 black belts here, which is amazing," he said.
"Nowhere else in the world will you find 20 to 30 black belts on the same mat. Before I came, I thought my level of jiu-jitsu would decrease, but it's rising."
Meaning "the soft art", jiu-jitsu has its origins in Japan, but was adopted and developed in Brazil in the 1920s courtesy of the renowned Gracie family.
It does not involve punching or kicking, focusing rather on grappling techniques, such as throws, control positions and locks.
It does, however, provide the basic skill-set to compete competently in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Lopes is one of four Brazilians taking part in this evening's Dubai Fighting Championship.
"Jiu-jitsu is not violent," said Oliveira from the Combat Club training gym. "If you watch people grappling, it is not dangerous; nobody is punching anybody, it is about technique. It is the most efficient means of self-defence and teaches respect, confidence and self-discipline. MMA, on the other hand, is a level above."
Oliveira, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship wrestler, is contracted to fight only in the Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship and, as a result, has taken instead a managerial role in tonight's proceedings.
He will lead the four Brazilians as well as an Iraqi into the ring under the umbrella of Team Ready Fight Gear, the equipment company he founded in his home district of Rio, Santa Cruz.
The veteran of his squad is Nascimento, a 35-year-old unshaven Carioca with sunken menacing eyes offset by piercing aqua green irises.
As he stands having his boxing gloves - black with white lightning strikes - laced up by a friend, he explains in Portuguese that he lives in Italy now, but has been training MMA in Abu Dhabi for the past two months ahead of tonight's event.
"Jiu-jitsu is the same all over the world," he said, his tattooed forearms stretched out in front of him.
"We go to different countries where everybody speaks a different language and there are different cultures, but when we walk on to the mat everything is the same. We always have the same objective – to beat our opponent."