I take great pleasure in presenting to you an epic interview with Nelson Solari, chief instructor of one of the UK’s most prolific and successful competition teams, Carlson Gracie London.
Following on from my interviews with Lagarto and John Kavanagh, I take great pleasure in presenting to you an epic interview with Nelson Solari, chief instructor of one of the UK’s most prolific and successful competition teams, Carlson Gracie London. Whenever there is a major BJJ event, you can be sure that there will be a posse of hardened jiu jitsu warriors representing Carlson Gracie London on the mats, and more often than not these warriors will walk away with more than their fair share of medals and silverware.
This interview however, was a joint effort and I am not alone in taking credit for this piece of work; unable to make the trip down to the Big Smoke myself, I contacted Dickie Martin in the first instance and put forward the idea I was to interview Nelson and forwarded my questions to him; from here, step forward Simon Hayes, who actually recorded the interview and returned the finished article back to my good self. The interview was conducted at Carlson Gracie Academy London in March 2007 by Simon Hayes (Nelson Solari brown belt) and at various points in the interview, Simon has added noteworthy points of interest and expanded on my initial questions, the result giving a more complete picture of their jiu jitsu instructor. Therefore I’d like to thank both Dickie and Simon for assisting me with the interview and in giving a very interesting and personable jiu jitsu coach the chance to speak out.
Nelson when did you come to the UK to start teaching the Carlson Gracie style of Jiu Jitsu, and who brought you here, was it someone from the UK?
Nelson: No I come here for the first time in 2002. I was in Nice, South of France teaching at a Jiu Jitsu academy when Wilson called me to come here and open an academy he was already teaching with Luca Menagacci, and I come here for one month and then return to Nice in the same year 2002. In the beginning of February 2003 when Wilson was homesick and I already left Nice, I told him to go back to Brazil for one month and I will be covering him in the academy in the job that he was doing here. After one month when Wilson returned I realised the possibility of Jiu Jitsu and work in London in the UK. That was the beginning of Carlson Gracie Jiu Jitsu in the UK
Who is Wilson? (Wilson ‘Junior’ Cretaro Nelson’s BJJ black belt).
Nelson: Wilson is a friend of mine and I’ve know him for the last fifteen years; he was my student when I was under Sergio Penha Academy and he was living in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. He started learning Jiu Jitsu with me in around 1994-1995.
Since you’ve been in the UK can you tell me about some of the places that you have taught classes, one of the places that is already famous is the Boiler Room. Can you tell us about the Boiler Room and any other locations that you have taught Jiu Jitsu?
Nelson: In the whole of the UK? I started in the Boiler Room when Wilson was the head teacher you know, I was supporting him in everything because he was still wearing his brown belt and I opened an Academy at Clapham Leisure Centre in South London and I started teaching 100% my own students. I have also taught in Aberdeen with John for about 2 years, and also in White City, West London.
I have taught especially in London and when I left Clapham Common to focus more on the central Carlson Gracie team at the Boiler Room
The Boiler Room has a reputation in UK BJJ for being a tough place and also being called the Boiler Room because it was hot there, was it as tough there as the reputation?
Nelson: You know it’s not easy to find places to rent, to have an academy in London is very, very expensive. At that moment Luca found that place it was the basement of a building, it was the only place we could find at cheap rent. Almost no windows really it was HOT. About 20 to 30 guys at the same time were sparring and it was really tough with no air inside and I think it was the nick name of Boiler Room for our Academy not only because it was so hot, it is because in Carlson Gracie we are sparring really hard.”
Who else teaches at the club and where is the club now?
Nelson: The club has moved to Hammersmith, the address is 56 Glentham Road, London SW13 9JJ. There are directions to the club on our website at www.carlsongracie.org. The club is in an excellent location with free parking it’s very close to Hammersmith station for 3 tube lines and we have 100 squre metres of Judo tatame and hanging bags. It’s a big fighting area. I am teaching by myself and with Wilson Cretaro my partner at the academy and also we have Muay Thai classes with Attila Varga.”
NOTE: Attila Varga is a Muay Thai Coach from the highly respected Carlson Gracie Hungary /Thai Fight Team.
There are three teachers at the moment and I have two supervisors when I need to work somewhere else for seminars or to cover me when I am at Carlson Gracie Tonbridge, our brown belts Simon Hayes and Dickie Martin.
BJJ is taught at the club as well as Muay Thai; do you feel that it is important to offer Muay Thai as well as BJJ?
Nelson: Since I took over the Academy and had 100% control of the academy since I returned in June last year, I spent six months in Brazil trying to put the mentality of the academies in Brazil because this is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu you know? It’s not easy uh? We are in a different country from Brazil but now the students have an understanding what the best way is. The basic at this academy is BJJ, OK after that we have submission wrestling (No Gi), also Judo classes and because its part of the complete system of mixed martial arts, we have Muay Thai.
When you teach Jiu Jitsu what do you emphasise in your classes? Do you have any particular style of Jiu Jitsu and what do you concentrate on in a class?
Nelson: Well Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is mostly ground work most of the time. I know in tournaments you start standing up but it’s 98% on the ground and some skills in stand up from Judo as well, because I have a background in Judo. I try to focus on teaching how to be a warrior and never give up, and its HARD training because when you’re training hard you are going to do your best. The same thing you do at the academy you are going to do at the tournament.
In the last few years there has been lots of new techniques in Jiu Jitsu, some guys feel that the old school techniques are best because they are the simplest way to get a submission, how do you feel about the newer techniques and do you feel they have an important place in Jiu Jitsu?
Nelson: The newer techniques? Jiu Jitsu has a lot of evolution it’s still a very new martial art. It’s like chess uh? It’s a new game and it’s really…..I think old techniques are still working but you need to renovate, you need to keep contact with Rio De Janeiro
because it’s there that the new techniques come most of the time. You cannot give up and say I know everything I don’t need to learn anymore. NO. You need to learn, you always are learning new techniques and most of these techniques are coming from Brazil. Old style is still working but if you don’t know new techniques you and your students are going to have big problems.
Your association has a fearsome reputation in Jiu Jitsu circles as hard core competitors, how do you instil this mindset into your team.
Nelson: It’s not really that difficult because of my background, most of the academies
have their own backgrounds and my background is from Carlson Gracie and there it is
really hard core training you know? I have to teach and I have to put forward the same mindset, the same way as I was learning. So this academy here-Carlson Gracie London is following the same way as Carlson’s in Rio or anywhere in the world-Carlson Gracie is a style and is a hard training and never give up.
In Jiu Jitsu competitions there is intense rivalry between Carlson Gracie and Gracie Barra, does this rivalry bring out the best in your guys and are you friends with the Gracie Barra guys off the mat?
Nelson: Yes the rivalry is on the mat, off the mat there is no problem, we are friends.
But when we are on the mat, my students are on the mat, it’s a war my friend, it’s a WAR! I try to keep the same as what’s happened before in Brazil when all the academies try to beat Carlson Gracie Academy you know and especially the Gracie Barrra guys try to beat Carlson Gracie Team so I am really happy that this happens here in the U.K. when Gracie Barra and Carlson Gracie who are the top academies here and every time are going together to the tournaments-It’s a good fight. (Nelson laughs………..)
How do you keep your students motivated year after year?
Nelson: To learn Jiu Jitsu is not only to learn a martial art, so no no, the belts come after training, after sparring, after learning, after going to the tournaments- winning or not winning-it depends on the participation. It’s not only to reach the black belt, we have so
many things positive about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. You learn how to defend yourself and you are training and you keep fit. You are training and becoming a warrior, not only on the mats but in life as well and its like, especially in this city, everyone is stressed and you need to go to the academy and take that stress off and this is the best way to come to the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy where it is a REAL FIGHT.
Jiu Jitsu isn’t all about competition; is your club a hard core competition club or is there a mix of guys that train there who don’t like to compete?
Nelson: You know my teacher always liked it-to compete uh? In life we are competing
everyday, every time, so I really like when my students are going to competition and win.
Especially when they win, but I like more when they are warriors and show what they have learnt before. Most of the guys in my academy are going to competitions and there are few who are not going because I am not trying to push really hard because you really don’t like to go to the tournaments then you don’t need to go BUT at our academy most are going and it’s one of the ways you can learn to survive in Jiu Jitsu and LIFE.
How many Carlson Gracie Clubs are there in the U.K.?
Nelson: In England there is the main academy here in London and Carlson Gracie Tonbridge in Kent. The Tonbridge Team have just celebrated their first anniversary
and there are about 30 guys there. The average of each class down there is 20 guys
And they are very, very good after one year.
I know you have a tough group of guys in Hungary who have done well in U.K. competitions, can you tell us about the Carlson Gracie Hungary Team and how are they related to your academy?
Nelson: Since I came here to the U.K we started having contact with those guys especially their teacher who became our student Mihaly Sztraka (brown belt Carlson Gracie London Team). Hungary is a really tough country, after the fall of the Communists all the east European countries, all those guys living over there in those countries are really, really tough and for the first time 4 years ago I met Lajos Varga who is a Hungarian businessman living here in the U.K. He started learning Jiu Jitsu with us and he has a friend in Budapest his name is Mihaly. Wilson started going to Budapest a lot, so many times, and we are still going there to do seminars and to speak and teach Mihaly their teacher over there and he likes the style of Carlson Gracie so they became Carlson Gracie Hungary. The guys there are really, really TOUGH and anybody who has fought them can see how strong and determined they are to be the winner.
NOTE- Mihaly Sztraka’s Carlson Gracie Team Hungary have a superb competition record in MMA as well as sport Jiu Jitsu and Mihaly was the first person to be awarded the Brown Belt from the U.K. academy.
Do you have any more clubs in Europe?
Nelson: We are here in London and Budapest, Hungary. Gilles Arsene is in France
and Christian Kennedy is in Stockholm, Sweden.
Nelson, what is your background in Jiu Jitsu and who is your instructor and where did you train in Brazil?
Nelson: When I started training with Osvaldo Alves he called himself the Encyclopedia of Jiu Jitsu and he is a specialist. He is a black belt in Judo as well and he knows a lot, A LOT of jiu jitsu. I have never seen another person know so many techniques like him.
I started with him, and from there I met Amaury Bitteti who is one of my best friends and Sergio Penha , Ze Mario Sperry, Paulho Caruso, Rogerio Olegario, so many black belts who were very, very good under him as well.
After a few years Sergio Penha opened an academy; Sergio was his best student, he’s known because 18 years ago he almost beat Rickson Gracie in a tournament when he was winning about 12-0, but was submitted in the last minute by Rickson. For that he is well known-Sergio Penha.”
Note; the fight between Penha and Rickson has become a legend in BJJ History.
Sergio Penha was Osvaldo Alves’ best student; his game is something very, very different. I don’t know how to say it……Just different, very DIFFERENT. Anyway I stayed for one year with Sergio Penha at his academy then I had some problems at the academy and I was a Brown Belt, when I asked Amaury, ‘where can I go now?’. Well he talked to Carlson, at that time the head teacher at the academy was Liborio and Bebeo Duarte and they accepted me at the academy and I went on to be awarded the black belt from Ricardo Liborio and Bebeo Duarte under the supervision and permission of Carlson Gracie.
What is your competition record?
Nelson: My competition record in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu –I was Brazilian Champion in blue belt, I was World Champion in blue belt 1996,I came first in purple belt at the Mundials in 1997,and then I did a Vale Tudo fight at the end of 1997. I cut my finger on a glass before the fight so after the fight I needed to have an operation so after it was difficult for me. I won a few small competitions as a brown belt and then as a black belt I was focused on teaching. It was a hard time in my life economically and I needed to make a decision, am I going to carry on competing to make money or focus more to the maximum I can to start teaching around the world? I took the second option.
I understand you’re from Uruguay originally, not Brazil and that you were a Judo guy before you started Jiu Jitsu, did you start Judo in Uruguay or Brazil?
Nelson: I was born in Uruguay and my parents moved to Florianopolis in the south of Brazil when I was a child, so I was around 8 years old. Every summer my parents went back to Uruguay so during the winter I was in Brazil and in the summer I was in Uruguay. Around fifteen years old my parents went back to Uruguay so I stayed with my grand mother in Brazil. Around nine years old I started Judo so I did Judo almost all my life.
What rank are you in Judo?
Nelson: I am a 3rd Degree Black Belt in Judo.
Certainly in England and to an extent in America too it has become very fashionable for Jiu Jitsu guys to cross train in Judo, you’ve obviously been doing this all your life, do you feel Judo has helped your Jiu Jitsu?
Nelson: Of course, when I first started Judo I didn’t know anything about Jiu Jitsu because Jiu Jitsu is from Rio and at that point in Florianopolis there was nobody, but
some Carioca people from Rio talking about Jiu Jitsu you know……..
But I didn’t know anything about Jiu Jitsu so when I did all my Judo competitions I didn’t know anything about ground work. One day I met a girl from Rio and I fell in love, I was about 21 years old so when I arrived in Rio I thought what am I gonna do here, so I called a friend of a friend to help me about to find a room or a small apartment. When I went to his home, I saw a Gi on a chair and I asked him does he train Judo, he say “No No I train Jiu Jitsu”. He asked me am I black belt in Judo and I said yes so he invited me to come and do a class in Jiu Jitsu. At that time I was a little bit…..how do you say?……Suspicious. I didn’t want to commit to anything because it was not my martial art, but then the guy told me the Jiu Jitsu teacher is also a Black Belt in Judo so when I realised this I began to think a little bit differently. The teacher was Osvaldo Alves, so the next day I went there to train and after that I didn’t stop anymore with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo.
You obviously had some fantastic competition results. Did Judo help you in those matches?
Nelson: My Judo game changed A LOT since I started Jiu Jitsu because most of the Judo guys didn’t know a lot on the ground so I started really feeling really confident
on the ground so my stand up skills got better because I wasn’t afraid to go to the ground. In my mind I was thinking in Judo competitions any time I go to the ground
I have to be confident, nobody can beat me, so I was trying more of the stand up. When I went to the Jiu Jitsu competitions I was standing up and saying nobody can throw me to the ground and if you stand up in front of me I will throw you on the ground!
(Nelson laughs…….) This is what helps Judo to Jiu Jitsu and Jiu Jitsu to Judo.
At a lot of academies they only teach groundwork; at your academy, at least 2 or 3 times a week you are teaching takedowns to the guys before they start training on the ground, do you feel this gives your team an advantage over other academies?
Nelson: The problem is to teach stand up is not easy, to learn takedowns and Judo you need to be young and for most of the throws in Judo you need a flexible body and you only get this flexible body when you are young, as a kid, as a child BUT we have a Judo class in our club every week and everybody is welcome but the problem is you get less injuries training on the ground than in stand up. For that reason I have the option for them if you wanna train stand up come to the judo class because there are less injuries on the ground.
I have noticed when you teach Judo to the team you teach the “high percentage” techniques, techniques that are low risk and do not expose your back. Things like Tani-o-Toshi, O-Ouchi-Gari, Ko-Ouchi-Gari. Do you think these techniques are better because if you fail you haven’t lost anything?
Nelson: You know, as I told you before, most of the students are adults and it is difficult to learn Ippon Seoi-Nage, Uchi Mata, Tai-o-Toshi because you need to turn your back on your opponent and it is very difficult, but Judo has a lot of techniques where if you make a mistake on the take down you are not going to be in a really bad position.
Do you keep in touch with Brazil?
Nelson: Yes, all the time and always when I am going back I am going back to Rio
and always going to train with my friends Paulho Caruso, Amaury Bitetti and
Paulho Fihlo, to bring back what is new from there to the academy in London.
Last year was an incredible year for Carlson Gracie London, you had Carlson Gracie Legends Rodrigo Medeiros, Amaury Bitetti and Ricardo De La Riva come to London to teach seminars; do you feel it is important to keep in touch with those Carlson Gracie black belts?
Nelson: The best Jiu Jitsu of course is coming from Rio, from the hundreds of academies, and the people training every day and night. To bring those teachers
here who know the newest techniques makes it easier for my students in London.
To go to Brazil is so expensive for the air ticket and everything.
I had to leave my own city to go a long way to Rio to learn Jiu Jitsu so I think for the guys in London it’s a great opportunity because you have so many Black Belts from Brazil coming here to teach and do seminars you need to take advantage of that...
This year 2007 Amaury Bitteti will come, Paulho Filho and maybe Rodrigo Minotauro.
It was a sad day for everyone in Jiu Jitsu when Carlson Gracie passed away. How did you and your guys take the loss in the United Kingdom?
Nelson: Well it was last year in February when I was in Brazil, in Rio. I was at home around 11 o’clock when Amaury phoned and gave me the really bad news. I couldn’t believe it; I was keeping in touch with Carlson all the time. Any recommendation, anything, any new move I need to know, any doubt that I have for the academy or any technique, I was keeping in contact with him. So he was, for me, in really good health and everything. I was really surprised. It is so sad. Really sad. Until today I still cannot believe he’s not here anymore. He was the leader. People in Rio couldn’t believe it. I said to Amaury “Oh My god…..fucking hell” and started crying, ‘How has he gone…….How has he gone?’ And I was little bit lost because when you have the figure of your leader; of your teacher you are always more confident than when he is not here anymore. When the child has lost his father who is gonna support him? But as an adult we need to take over and do things harder and better to show him his legacy is still alive.
Who will take over his legacy within the association?
Nelson: It is going to be really hard to tell you because nobody was expecting him to depart from this world so I don’t know because a few years ago when he has those problems with the guys who after formed Brazilian Top Team so only a few leaderships, a few tough fighters are still in the academy like Amaury Bitetti, De La Riva, Manimal, hi son, Carlson Junior as well but he is in Chicago, and a few more. So I don’t know at the moment who is going to take this leadership. I think there will be a meeting and everyone will decide how it’s going to run, for the Carlson Gracie Academies around the world.
One thing’s for sure I think Carlson Gracie Senior would have been very proud of what’s happening at Carlson Gracie London right now.
Nelson: Of course, of course; every time we are going to tournaments and win competitions and every time my students fight, he would like everybody to fight and I am sure he would be very happy to see what is happening here at Carlson Gracie London.
It’s getting better. It’s getting better and I hope this club will be the best one, not only in the U.K. but in the whole of Europe.
What BJJ events are your team going to enter this year?
Nelson: Well we have just entered one in Bristol and the team did very, very well. The next one we are going to enter is the Seni event in London in May and another in June and after summer maybe two or three more.
The Mundials are in L.A. this year is any of your guys thinking of attending?
Nelson: Not at the moment because we focus more to take more fighters to competitions in the U.K. and around Europe and then maybe next year we are gonna send some fighters to the Mundials.
Do you have any guys in the 10K Ground Clash this year?
Nelson: Yes our representative of the club is my brown belt Simon Hayes and I hope he going to do very well. He is a very good representative of how we train here in the academy.
There are obviously some world class guys in the 10k Clash, such as Braulio, Monson, Lovato Junior. Who do you think will win the £10,000?
Nelson: Its going to be really hard, so many fights and so many good guys but I think the title for the 10k will be among Monson, Braulio or maybe Sukata.
What are your plans for Carlson Gracie England in the future?
Nelson: My plans are, we are almost on the top of the U.K. clubs and my plans are
in two years time I hope we have more than a hundred students and be for sure the biggest team in the U.K.
What do you think of the overall level of BJJ in the UK?
Nelson: Before I came here and began teaching in London I was travelling around the world and teaching in so many places and in my opinion I think the U.K. is becoming one of the number one countries in Europe for Jiu Jitsu because there are so many black belts from Brazil teaching and this has increased the level of the students because the opportunities Brazilians have here, not only to teach, but to work is good. It is so difficult in other European countries. It is difficult anywhere though to survive only teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Simon Hayes: Nelson, thank you for everything you have done over the past 5 years for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the U.K. and thank you for letting me interview you on behalf of Carl Fisher.
Nelson: Thank you.
For more information on Carlson Gracie London visit www.carlsongracie.org