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"Shawn (Williams) taught me how truly loving something can be a pathway to mastering it!"

About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.

I received my black belt in 2007 from Fernando Yamasaki at the Yamasaki Academy Headquarters in the Washington DC area. While I spent a good chunk of my training time at the colored belts training at Yamasaki HQ under Fernando, Mario Yamasaki and Francisco Neto (earning my purple and brown belts from them after moving there from Atlanta where I earned my blue belt from Alliance co-founder, Jacare), my “real job” relocated me out of the state a few times. While I missed my home-academy and team, relocating offered me the opportunity to train with and learn from other great coaches from different teams including  ADCC and No-Gi World Champion, Pablo Popovitch and Renzo Gracie black belts Shawn Williams and Paul Creighton. While there was a lot of overlap, as they were/are all great coaches, each coach had unique strong suits and helped shaped different parts of my BJJ world-view.  Here are a couple of the best things I learned from my different coaches

Jacare: The Importance of Loving What We Do

I lucked out in starting my BJJ journey under the legendary Jacare Calvalcanti, who opened up an academy in the late 1990s in Atlanta, Georgia. Most people know him, along with Fabio Gurgel and Alexandre Paiva as the head of the multiple-time world champion Alliance team. I got to know him as a day-to-day coach and, in that role, he impacted me in many ways.

The most profound thing I took from my time with Jacare was his obvious love for coaching. Jacare taught almost all the classes and did it with incredible enthusiasm. He seemed to even love the long tournament trips whether they were to small events in Alabama or cross-country international ones. It was all “fun” for him…working with us and guiding us through the process of getting better.  

After classes, Jacare always seemed to have time to tell us stories about his former students that always inspired us and fed our love for the sport. The stories were especially important as, at that time, we did not have the access, via social-media and streaming services, that we do today to the stars of the sport. Jacare, and pioneers like him, were the vehicles by which we learned so much of the history that laid the foundation for the global sport and community we have today.  

Jacare did all of this in a way that communicated that there was not anything else he would rather do. He was a coach doing what he loved and that made me hold every coach and leader in my life to that same high standard.  Jacare’s example showed me the power we can have when we love what we do! It makes us effective and gives us the ability to positively influence so many around us!

Yamasakis/Franciso Neto: Respect!

As mentioned earlier, I spent the “meat” of my colored belt life under Mario and Fernando Yamasaki and Franciso Neto. I could write an article on just what I learned from these men but the one thing that sticks the most is how important respect is in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. BJJ is more than a sport…it is also a martial art and it represents a lifestyle that impacts lives. With that in mind, the participants bear some burden in terms of behaving with proper respect.

Neto moved to the United States when he was a brown belt so we got to see him as both an instructor and an athlete. Not only did he provide guidance by way of his coaching but he also gave us an example of how to be a senior student under both Mario and Fernando Yamasaki and then a head coach in his own right. Neto was the personification of respect for the mat via his commitment to training, his dedication as both student and coach, the way he carried himself and how he treated others with care at all times. As students, we had the standards the Yamasaki Academy stood for fleshed out in not only the Yamasaki brothers themselves but also in someone we saw “come up” under them. Neto had real impact on his teammates and students simply by being there so we could observe his actions.  And one of the main common threads throughout was the importance of respect in BJJ at all times, to everyone, for the work needed to improve and for the sport itself.

Neto’s example resonated with me and challenged me to hold myself to that standard as an athlete (and even later as a coach).  It imposed on me how infectious respect can be when championed in an environment by the right person and how it enables people around that person to thrive and succeed!

Pablo & Jorge Popovitch: The Power Of Fun

ADCC winner and IBJJF No-Gi World Champ, Pablo Popovitch is most well-known for being one of the very few men to beat Marcelo Garcia in his weight-class.  I had the privilege of  training with him and his father, Jorge Popovitch, for a year while he was in his prime in the mid-2000s and it was very instructive.  In addition to improving my BJJ in many ways, Pablo and his father role-modeled the concept of “making BJJ fun” everyday.  We worked hard but Pablo and Jorge never failed to greet everyone with smiles and always found ways to incorporate fun into training.  It was common to hear laughter and see smiles on the mat in the midst of a tough night in the room. They left a lasting impression on me and I have strived to emulate the Popovitchs’ example of tone-setting as ever since on the mat and in other environments. Pablo and Jorge taught me how powerful laughter and fun can be in any setting!

Shawn Williams: Love For Your Craft

I often refer to Renzo Gracie black belt and head coach of 5 Star Martial Arts/Renzo Gracie Los Angeles, Shawn Williams, as a BJJ encyclopedia. I spent a few years training with Shawn when running a portion of the West Coast of the United States for the sales division of a large telecom company.  I knew of Shawn via his teammate and great friend of mine, Paul Creighton (more to come on him later) and Paul told me I would be crazy to train with anyone else if I was anywhere near Shawn’s gym.  I listened to my friend and in doing so learned a great lesson in how impactful a true love for one’s craft can be.  I spoke earlier about how Jacare loved being a coach and, on the surface, it may seem like I am repeating myself.  Actually, there is a subtle difference in the outstanding takeaway I have from my time with Shawn…Shawn loved and took great pride in his mastery of the craft itself. 

Shawn had a grasp of positions and tactics that was simply amazing.  It was impossible to “stump” him and he seemed to enjoy when people challenged him with our questions and scenarios. It was a mastery that could only come from a deep love and commitment. Now, Shawn’s love for his craft is there for everyone to see as he is one of flograppling’s main announcers for the large IBJJF events. That position is perfect for Shawn as he is an excellent communicator with a tremendous library of knowledge at his disposal.  My time with Shawn lit a fire of curiosity within me and sparked a desire to hold myself accountable to continued growth in the technical and tactical aspects of the sport. Shawn taught me how truly loving something can be a pathway to mastering it!

Paul Creighton: Commitment To Excellence

Before opening my own academy, I spent 4 years training with Paul Creighton at Creighton MMA/Renzo Gracie Atlanta. Paul is an incredible instructor who runs a great facility but the biggest thing I took from him was his commitment to providing an excellent experience for all his students. There is a saying attributed to Roger Gracie that I often quote, “You don’t practice until you get it right, you practice until you can’t get it wrong”.   Paul not only took that approach to training but off the mat as well in how he ran his classes, the accountability he held his staff/instructors to and every aspect of the day to day operation of his school.   Paul’s passion for a standard of excellence set a tone that provided a world-class experience for students whether they were hobbyists or international competitors. Paul’s example taught me how truly committing to and setting the mark at excellence will yield fantastic results.


I have been really blessed to spend quality time with incredible coaches and instructors via Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I hope this piece gives you the opportunity to take at least a little of the massive amount of good I got from them.   

See you on the mat!

June 11, 2019 — Jiu Jitsu Style