California hosted the 23rd IBJJF Pan American Championship this year, which gathered the cream of the crop BJJ has to offer. Among these elite international athletes were 4 SJJA competitors from Crows Nest who showed the world what our club is made of.
Mike Johnstone: Brown / Masters 5 / Male / Lightweight (Gold)
Igor Almeida: Brown / Adult / Male / Light-Feather (Bronze)
Gilgamesh Blanch: Purple / Adult /Male / Rooster (Silver)
Tom Strembickyj: Blue / Adult / Male / Heavy (QF)
Considered to be the 2nd most important gi tournament of the year in the Jiu-jitsu amateur circuit, the 2018 Pan Ams did not disappoint – with big upsets, fast-paced action, insane athleticism, and all the usual blood, sweat and tears. In the week following the comp, I caught up with Mike, Tom and Gil to find out how it all went down.
How did you prepare your body for this huge competition?
Mike: The hard part is always the 8 week pre-comp build up. In previous years that meant 7-10 training sessions per week, including as many heavy sessions as I could physically tolerate plus several weight sessions squeezed in between. In hindsight this might be okay for a 20 year old, but it didn’t scale well for a 50-something. Last year I had 5 bouts of cold, as many as I’d had in the decade previous. The strategy was wrong considering my age and responsibilities outside of the club. This year, the hard sessions dropped to 2-3 per week plus a couple of light free roles in the sparring classes. In place of the hard roles, I have added a couple of CrossFit sessions with Bruno and Igor which, for what it’s worth, are so crazy hard they ruin my day just thinking about them.
Was there a part of your prep that proved most valuable in the comp?
Tom: Rounds of intense sparring and conditioning were really valuable in building my match endurance.
Gil: Hard competition rounds and strategic planning for specific opponents really paid off. The hard rounds kept me physically sharp while the strategy element worked the mind and kept the training specific to key opponents.
Mike: Igor and I have a running joke about my Jits; what doesn’t fit into a matchbox doesn’t go to comps – hence my game, guard pull into closed guard, tire my opponent and hold tight to any points or advantages scored along the way. Don’t be offended old school guys, this is competition Jui-Jitsu, and I’ve no plans on street fighting anytime soon. Any extras that go into my comp box are carefully selected to compliment the main game. Of course time’s improved my wider comprehension of the martial art, but when it comes to competitions, my strategy has to fit in that matchbox.
Tell me about the final days leading up to the comp.
Mike: Comp days are the ice-cream. Aside from the odd shoulder dislocation or involuntary nap they’re the fun part. In the days leading up, we scored temporary memberships at the local UFC gym. Tom and Igor were ideal training partners for me as they know the drill in those crucial final days. Don’t get injured, don’t injure teammates. In this time we mainly did cardio & light weights with more drilling than rolling. While Igor and I were both feeling the impact of a cold we’d picked up on the plane, we were cool with it.
And comp day?
Mike: By the time I reached the marshalling pens I’d blocked all thought of the cold. My main issue was unpunctuality. If you’ve ever travelled with me, you’ll know I’m usually that annoying last person on the plane. At comps I’m that guy who gets called to the Marshall for being late. This time I had a good excuse though – I was watching Igor, as our start times were barely an hour apart. While I have gotten used to hearing my name preceded by the phrase “last call”, I do need to be more disciplined in that immediate hour before the marshalling call. Particularly since the International Federation runs to the minute, which is obviously a world away from the shambles of our local comps.
Tell me about your fights.
Gil: The best match for me was my semi finals against Brad Johnstone because it was a tough and gruelling match. I stuck to the game plan and it paid off. My toughest opponent was my finals match against Thalison Soares. Due to a small mistake at the start, my opponent was ahead early and then stalled for most of the match. He knew how to hold his position well, so was able to stop any movement and keep the time shrinking.
Tom: My first match was my favourite. I was up against a guy from Atos who was tipped to win the division. The pressure was on, but I stuck to my game plan and it was over before I knew it.
Mike: In my first fight I faced a stocky Russian and alleged Sambo wrestler. On our first grips I knew he had more strength than me, but guessed once caught in closed guard, the fight was mine, which is how it turned out. In the final I faced a much more lively competitor whom I’d spoken with in the bull pen. Physically he was very lean, so my guess was the match would come down to power, which it did. In fact, in the middle of the fight he blurted out something about my strength (which unfairly drew penalties for both of us). It happened in a moment of panic, about the same time he realised the fight was all but mine.
Did you catch any other fights?
Tom: Gilgamesh Blanch vs. Thalison Soares – what a battle. Really impressive performance from Gil. Thalison is one of the biggest prospects fout of multiple time IBJJF world champion Cicero Costha’s camp. For Gil to have such a tight match against him shows he has a big future ahead in the sport. Keenan Cornelius vs Mahamed Aly, the super heavy finals, was another intense match. Keenan has been on a tear lately, submitting everyone. Absolute freak of nature.
Mike: The best fight I watched all tournament was in Igor’s division, between Igor’s Ze Radiolo teammate Gabrielle Souza & Kennedy Maciel, the eventual winner and world #1. Gabrielle was up on points holding back position, but instead of waiting out the win, went for the sub. Gabrielle escaped the sub, got the back and held on for the win. Same happened with Igor’s 3rd round fight with Vagner Reis. One miniscule mistake that I barely noticed gave Reis the back & that was it. Internationally at Igor’s level there’s no mistakes.
Same goes for Tom. He was really exciting to watch. Man oh man – when he let rip that flying triangle in the opening seconds of his first fight?! We all stood up yelling. I’d seen him do similar in our gym, but it never occurred to me he could pull the same at this level. I’ve got plenty of pics of some sensational Strembickyj triangles for the photo album. Unluckily for Tom, in his 3rd fight, he got pulled on a verbal tap, which was no more than a grunt for strength to escape from side control. Problem was, his opponent had just tried and failed to execute Kimora and the ref called a tap. A marginal call, but the ref was technically correct. That was it. One tiny mistake that 95% of Australian refs would never have even noticed. Bummer.
Gil, how is Sol recovering from his injury?
Gil: Sol is recovering well. He’s regained strength in his arms and legs and he’ll be back to drilling this Monday, but taking things easy.
What’s next for you guys?
Tom: I’m excited for the World Pro in Abu Dhabi.
Gil: Worlds in June.
Mike: Bring on the Worlds. Just one more eight week pre-comp camp to go. As for now, a bottle of Veuve over Easter with my tea tooting brother, perhaps some toast and avocado.
Written by Chris Burke