Ana Maria ‘India’ Interview
Words and pictures by Seymour Yang. Find him @ www.meerkatsu.com
Ana Maria ‘India’ is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt with over a decade of tournament success both at grappling competitions and at mixed martial arts events. She recently shot to fame in her home country after an extended stint in the reality TV show No Limits. Seymour Yang went to meet Ana Maria at her first ever UK seminar in London, and discussed life as a full time athlete, TV fame, motherhood and what it’s like to beat up guys everyday…
Before the start of her seminar, Ana Maria ‘India’ paces nervously on the tatame floor and nibbles at her immaculately painted red nails. “I like funky music…in Brazil funky music is like Jiu-Jitsu… you know what I am saying?” She is explaining to me the theme of her seminar, and she clicks her fingers and dances, to further emphasize her point. Moments later, Ana Maria rugby tackles and arm-locks men twice her size. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) expert has just conducted her first ever visit to the UK with a rip-roaring BJJ seminar that showcased her own special brand of female-powered Jiu-Jitsu.
Ana Maria (full name Ana Maria Gomes Soares) was born 31 years ago in a small village in the Brazilian countryside. With her impressively athletic physique and long mane of jet black hair, she epitomises the image of the ‘Amazonian’ female. She was given the nick-name ‘India’ in reference to her penchant for Pocahantas style double plaits and wearing copiously large native jewellery. She is something of a rarity, even in her own country – a female BJJ black belt.
Born on the mat?
The widely held view is that most of Brazil’s elite BJJ practitioners were ‘born on the mat’, that they began their training at an extremely early age. But Ana Maria only began her BJJ journey at the age of 21, when she chanced upon a class by accident. She explains: “I was in university studying biomedicine and I used to train weights in the gym, but one day I saw a BJJ class. I was amazed to see the instructor rolling around and flipping people much bigger than himself. I thought WOW! If he can do it, I’m sure someone my size could as well, so I tried out a class and it was love at first sight!”
Her own path to black belt has proved that not all top-level Brazilian competitors begin BJJ as toddlers. But it was a far from easy journey… “I trained four times a day everyday for the past ten years, I was very, very determined and dedicated to being the best in the world. At that time there were no other girls around so I just trained with the guys.”
But not everyone in Ana Maria’s life could understand her sudden new-found obsession. She recalls those early days, “I remember when I first began as a white belt, I would train everyday, and my father was very negative to me. He would ask me why I bother since it would never get anywhere and I would never amount to anything in the sport.”
Ana Maria’s intense dedication to her sport eventually paid off with a series of successful competition results, including one tournament where, in the purple belt division, she beat three men to reach the final of her weight category. “I remember I wanted to enter this competition but there were no girls to fight and I had to beg my coach to let me enter. I did enter and I won against three guys to get to the final and only lost on points. But I proved to myself and my coach that I had the technique and ability to do it.”
The late 1990s to early 2000s were a boom time for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Around this time, academies were spreading fast throughout Brazil and the rest of the world was waking up to the sport of BJJ, thanks to the success of Royce Gracie and the Ultimate Fighting Challenge (UFC) in the early 1990s.
For the first eight years of her BJJ career, Ana trained at one of the most prestigious academies in Rio – Brazilian Top Team (BTT). Run by legendary BJJ instructor and cagefighter, Murilo Bustamante, Ana Maria was to gain her Jiu-Jitsu education from some of the most successful BJJ stars of the day. “I trained with people like Mario Sperry, Ricardo Arona, ‘Minotauro’ (Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira)… these people were the very best champions of that time.”
A Heartbreaking Decision
Just as it seemed Ana Maria’s Jiu-Jitsu career was taking off, she unexpectedly became pregnant. “When I fell pregnant, I carried on training until I was six months gone and, after giving birth to my daughter, I went back to full time training one month later…”
In the tough training and competitive environment that is BJJ in Brazil, it seemed that Ana Maria would have to face a harsh decision – whether to leave the academy to raise her child, and lose everything she worked so hard to build, or, somehow, find another way… It is perhaps a decision that many women the world over have had to face during their own working careers. “When my daughter was nine months old, I realised I could not look after her by myself and still maintain a Jiu-Jitsu career. The academy is not really a good place to take a small baby everyday, so I decided that my daughter was better off being raised by my parents.”
At this point Ana Maria breaks down in tears during our interview. It’s a subject matter she has previously been unwilling to discuss, but decides to explain why she felt it was important to continue her BJJ career and sacrifice the precious time with her daughter. “It is not easy. I have lost friends because of how much Jiu-Jitsu takes out of my life. Yes, it is my job, my life, my passion but everything I do in Jiu-Jitsu now, I do it to make a better life for my daughter. My ambition is for us to eventually leave Brazil and for her to grow up in a country where she will have more opportunities in life. I really want to be an example to her – that you really can achieve your dreams if you believe and work hard enough.”
The Realisation of a Dream
In 2007 Ana Maria left BTT and joined the Checkmat BJJ Team run by nine times World BJJ Champion Ricardo ‘Ricardinho’ Vieira. She explains what it is like to train at her current academy. “‘Ricardinho’ is absolutely the most incredible instructor I have ever known. His Jiu-Jitsu is just beautiful. Checkmat is such an incredible place to train, the standard is so high because the team is full of world champions and yet everyone is so humble.”
During a live TV interview with Ana Maria, Vieira interrupted proceedings to present her with a black belt. It was the culmination of ten years of hard work but obviously took Ana Maria by complete surprise. The next few minutes of the interview showed an emotional Ana Maria sobbing wildly.
The years of hard training and tournament ups and downs have helped shape Ana Maria’s personal take on Jiu-Jitsu. During the course of the UK seminar, she implores participants to always “move, move, move…never stop!” She explains a little more about her Jiu-Jitsu philosophy, “Jiu-Jitsu is not about fighting strength against strength. It is all about movement and technique and using your intelligence. The way I play, I have to be two or three positions ahead. For example – if I am in your mount, I try to choke you using my arm, but actually I am not interested in the choke but in the way you defend yourself. I can anticipate how you would defend yourself from my attack and I take advantage of that. A lot of it is about faking the first move in order to get the second.
“Another example is I get into position for the straight arm lock, but I am not interested in this submission… I am actually looking for the omoplata (bent arm and shoulder lock) and I know this will happen when you defend the arm lock. This is what works for me. I always train with guys who are bigger and much stronger than me so I have to use my intelligence.”
In the Cage
The intricacies of fighting in a BJJ tournament are far removed from the brutality of a mixed martial arts (MMA) match. But it is not how Ana, with eight MMA fights under her belt, sees things. “The first time I saw my instructor, Murilo (Bustamante) fight I was like WOW, I must do this… to me it is not fighting but an expression of movement, just like with tai-chi, taekwondo, capoeira or yoga… I just love the movement.”
With the rising interest in pay-per-view MMA events, more female athletes are entering the sport. Last year, Cris Cyborg and Gina Carano held the first women-only headline fight with a major MMA promotion. The public want to see more women in the sport and Ana Maria could be well placed to enter the big time. Is this something she is keen to be part of? “Oh yes! I definitely want to do more MMA fights. Actually ‘Monstro’ Thiago [instructor at the Diesel BJJ gym in Canary Wharf, London] is currently trying to find a fight for me in the UK soon. I can’t wait!”
In the summer of 2009, Ana shot to fame in her home country by participating in the country’s biggest reality TV show, No Limits. Based on the US show Survivor, it placed nineteen contestants on a remote beach location and set them tasks and challenges. Each week the public would vote to eliminate a player. Ana survived until the 52nd day (out of 62 days) when she was finally voted out. Was she disappointed to have got so close to winning the show, and the coveted $260,000 prize? “I was not disappointed because it is the way God has decided. I entered the show because I wanted the challenge of all the games and tasks in the program. I had such an amazing time.”
The show proved to be a lucrative opening for Ana Maria. Straight after her exit, she was inundated with sponsorship offers and more TV work. But the fighter they call ‘India’ has currently only one thing on her mind – to win the prestigious ‘Mundials’ World BJJ
The ‘Mundials’ is the biggest BJJ tournament in the world. Every elite Jiu-Jitsu grappler wants to win a title here. Last year, Ana competed in her first Mundials, but a passport problem led to her entering only at the last minute, where she would meet the multiple female world champion Hannette Staack. Ana lost on points but has vowed to return better prepared and determined to take gold. “I really, really want that title. No one is going to take that away from me!”
Ana Maria’s success in the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a testimony to her immense self-belief and determination. It seems her dream of one day living abroad alongside her now seven year old daughter is one step nearer to reality when she announces that she intends to make the UK her home. “Before I came here I thought ‘who would want to learn from me?’ But after the incredible reception I have had since visiting here, I am really sure England is the place for me to make a new life,” she says.
The academy where Ana is teaching her UK seminar suddenly falls silent. She has just demonstrated a complex shoulder locking submission on her partner but he has yelled out in agony. Ana, bursts into fits of giggles as she apologises to him and the seminar continues once he reassures everyone that he is okay. For the students watching and participating, the incident is a prime example that a smaller, lighter person can use Jiu-Jitsu to beat a larger, stronger opponent.
After the seminar, Ana Maria inspects her nails again. She frowns when she sees one of them is broken, but bursts into more laughter and, as the students file out into the cold February evening, I am certain I can hear some ‘funky’ Brazilian music in the distance.