When Fabio Novaes first moved to the United States from Brazil, he was taken aback by the ease with which martial arts students could acquire belts.
Novaes, a Carlson Gracie black belt in his native country, took a job teaching in Lakeland and watched his employer "award" students higher belts without proper training.
"The schools are all over the place now, and they just hand out belts for money," Novaes said. "I couldn't have my name associated with that."
And now, Novaes' name is associated with the best in the country.
Novaes, who owns and operates a pair of Brazilian jujitsu schools in Brandon and Lakeland, was recently awarded the 2009 Coach of the Year by the North American Grappling Association.
"You have to be proud of your name," Novaes said. "I believe in what I am doing."
What Novaes, 35, does is spread the technique of Brazilian jujitsu, a form of martial arts. Brazilian jujitsu is a derivative of judo, with a few differences in style. Where judo emphasizes throws, Brazilian jujitsu training focuses on ground work or grappling. Students defeat their opponents through submissions involving joint locks and choke holds. One of the many reasons people get involved in Brazilian jujitsu is that it teaches that a smaller opponent can defeat a larger opponent by employing better technique and proper weight distribution.
"In boxing and muay thai (another popular form of martial arts), you strike with fists and knees and elbows," Novaes said. "Brazilian jujitsu is all about leverage."
This has made it popular with people of small stature. Novaes currently has about 200 students, a number of whom are women and children.
"It teaches you to use your opponent's weight against him so you can defeat bigger guys," Novaes said. "It is great for self confidence knowing that you can do these types of things to bigger people."
Brazilian jujitsu is similar to counter punching in boxing. When an opponent makes a move, the idea is to look for that opening to turn things against them.
"You push, I pull," Novaes said. "That's the thinking behind it."
Novaes' credentials in Brazilian jujitsu are extensive. His schools were recently named by Tapout Magazine as one of the "Best Grappling Schools in America." He has trained the troops of the Army's 101st Airborne in Kentucky and worked with the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base. Novaes' students have competed in grappling tournaments throughout the state and across the nation.
"He has dedicated himself to his students and training, and that's why he's been so successful," Roberta Noveas, Fabio's wife, said. "He loves what he does, and it shows."
Although Novae makes a living by operating his schools, he believes his success lies in the methods. He doesn't advertise, but relies on word of mouth. He believes passing on the traditions of Brazilian jujitsu are more important that "selling belts." Like most martial arts, Brazilian jujitsu instructors hand out belts as a symbol of achievement.
"You go to these other schools and they sell you a T-shirt, a DVD then sign you up for a 12-month contract," he said. "When my students get a belt, it's because they earned it. At my schools, there are no contracts."
Novaes doesn't have requirements for earning a certain level of belt. He hands them out whenever he feels the student has progressed to that point.
"I don't want them thinking about belts," he said. "I want them thinking about their technique."
After branching out from its judo roots in Japan, the martial art that would eventually become Brazilian jujitsu caught the eye of the Gracie family of Brazil. The family tweaked the fighting system into what is now known as Brazilian (or Gracie) jujitsu. The extended Gracie family became known throughout Brazil for this style of fighting, and the United States began to take notice in the 1990s when Royce Gracie defeated men much larger than him to win three of the first four Ultimate Fighting Championships. Brazilian jujitsu is now considered a major component for most mixed martial arts fighters.
Novaes said the skyrocketing popularity of MMA has both helped and hurt Brazilian jujitsu.
"Everybody wants to be an MMA fighter these days," he said. "But I don't teach MMA. I teach Brazilian jujitsu."
Novaes recognizes that the increased profile of MMA has drawn attention to Brazilian jujitsu, but it has also watered down the training, he said.
"You have guys who teach swimming classes turning around and trying to teach Brazilian jujitsu," Novaes said. "You can't buy your way into this. You simply have to train."
Brandon Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.