The idea of spending a whole month in Rio was both thrilling and frightening. Marcus and I were both looking forward to the amazing BJJ training opportunities and also I couldn’t wait to start practicing with one of the pioneers of Ashtanga Yoga in Brazil, Dany Sa. However, Brazilian and non-Brazilian friends alike had abundantly warned us about safety in Rio so, by the time we set foot in the cidade maravilhosa I had honestly resigned myself to the idea of being robbed (to say the least) at some point! But the truth is, if you take the usual precautions (don’t wander at night in unsafe areas, don’t flash your phone around, don’t visit a favela just for the sake of tourism) you’ll do just fine in Rio.
We rented a one bedroom flat in Copacabana on Airbnb and got a pretty good rate for a month’s stay. It was safe and central and we could easily cycle to/from the various gyms using the orange city bikes (Rio Bike) – you can register and download the app here (https://bikerio.tembici.com.br). However looking back we probably should have stayed in Ipanema/Leblon, as the neighbourhood is nicer, you get more choices for cafes and quieter beaches. We almost rented a flat high up in one of the favela’s (there are some super stylish, very cheap ones on Airbnb) but decided against it just in case. It was fortunate that we did because while we were in Rio there were some dramatic episodes involving the police and military presence in some of the favelas which would have been pretty tense.
We decided to use the first week to try out different gyms around our area. First on the list was Fightzone in Ipanema; we got there for the 10:30am class (50 reals for a day pass) and Ricardo Vieira invited us to join the open mat that day (Wednesday morning is open mat). The class started with a light warm up and then went straight into sparring, which was intense. The coach will generally pair you up for rolls so don’t worry if you are shy, and most of the students are able to speak a bit of English as they have probably travelled the world to compete.
The next day we decided to try Nova Uniao in Flamengo (first trial class is free). We were looking for a place where we could train gi and no-gi, but we found that Rio has surprisingly limited options as the vast majority of academies focus more on the gi game. Nova Uniao has one of the best MMA teams around, and came recommended from several friends of ours so we decided to give it a try. The no-gi classes are led by Ronys Torres, a professional MMA fighter and Jiu Jitsu black belt with a killer record (never been submitted in a pro fight). The team there is very welcoming even though most didn’t seem to speak much English, but they take their training very seriously as many of them are professional fighters (you’ll often be sharing the mat with UFC and Bellator fighters). Classes are generally one hour (but sometimes go for longer), and the focus is generally always sparring, with maybe one or two techniques at the start. Rolling is always intense, and the mats get super slippery at the end of the class because everyone is absolutely dripping in sweat.
Nova Uniao is located inside a gym called Upper Flamengo, conveniently right next to the Flamengo metro station – membership is affordable at 300 reals a month or 200 for a fortnight, and includes use of the pool and gym areas.
Next, we stopped by Felipe Costa‘s gym (called Brazilian Black Belt) located on a Main Street in Ipanema. Despite being 2-times world champion and one of the best rooster-weight of all times, Felipe has a reputation as being one of the nicest guys in the sport and absolutely lived up to that expectation. He speaks perfect English and his teaching is incredibly clear and detailed – and very effective for lighter fighters such as Marcus and myself. We paid 60 reals for a day pass and went to both the morning class which was relatively quiet and had a big focus on technical detail (Felipe was working on a very interesting leg drag variation that day) and returned for the evening class which was busier and had more sparring. If you are a lighter fighter in terms of weight or size, Felipe also has specific sparring sessions for lighter guys, unfortunately we weren’t able to make it to one but we loved the idea!
Finally we decided to check Murilo Bustamante’s Brazilian Top Team academy in Leblon. It was a bit out of the way for us and unfortunately, on the day we visited there weren’t many people on the mat and Murilo wasn’t teaching (he focuses more on the MMA team) but we worked on some nice drills from closed guard with the lead Jiu Jitsu instructor.
Also during that first week in Rio, Marcus dislocated his knee that evening during sparring (a recurring injury of his since he started Jiu Jitsu). Luckily it wasn’t too bad and he was back on the mats in a couple days, but he had to be very mindful and wary of his knee when rolling for the rest of the month.
There were many other gyms in Rio that we would have loved to try, but after being on the road so long, we were looking forward to regular training everyday with familiar faces rather than always visiting new gyms. So after trying out a few we decided that Fightzone would be our home gym for the rest of the month – we liked the environment and their classes fit well my yoga schedule too.
Fightzone also happens to have a great location only a couple blocks away from the beach 😎 and around the corner from a cafe called Apetite which has good coffee and pastries. Marcus also signed up to Nova Uniao so he could join their no-gi submission grappling sessions, as the one downside is that Fightzone did not have a regular no-gi class. I would have also loved to but I had my yoga classes and you know, an empty wallet.
Fightzone offers several classes a day (10.30am and 8pm every day, 4.30pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Saturday morning is open mat at 11am). Ricardo teaches most of them, and he often goes out of his way to accommodate visitors, teaching classes in Portuguese but then explaining in English afterwards as well (something we really appreciated!). There’s also ladies class on Tuesday and a Thursday evening at 9.30pm, led by Gabriela Fechter, an incredibly talented and dedicated world champion brown belt with a slick guard game (also speaks fantastic English).
For the month we were there, Ricardo focused heavily on passing half guard. His teaching style was often very conceptual, rather than only showing structured techniques, he would spend a lot of time to ensure his students fully understand the possibilities of the position and pressure. The only downside was that our limited Portuguese skills meant that we couldn’t get the most out of this as we would have liked.
Sparring at Fightzone is challenging as you’ll find a lots of higher belts and serious competitors on the mat such as Gabriela and the the Gomes brothers; as well as several black belts. However the atmosphere is very welcoming and chilled, so if you’re tired no one will judge you for skipping a round (like me!).
Rio’s lifestyle was good: we’d go train in the morning and hit the beach straight after – The cold sea was great for recovery after training. In the afternoon we’d either go back to training or we’d drag ourselves to go explore the various attractions around the city even if we were exhausted. And there are many of them: Sugarloaf mountain, Christ the Redeemer and Escadaria Selaron are totally worth an early morning or late afternoon visit.
In my opinion, Barra de Tijuca has the most beautiful beaches and clear sea though I’d recommend going during the week as it gets crowded on the weekend (like all of Rio’s beaches!). If you are heading toward Barra’s beach is probably worth going to Pedro do Telegrafo too, since it’s in that direction, although it can be a bit of a mission getting there.
Santa Teresa, a hilltop district with a charming village vibe, is a nice choice for lunch and views but can get pretty dodgy in the evening. We also had time to visit some of Rio’s museums and galleries and really liked the Museum of Tomorrow and Instituto Moreira Salles (there’s a very good coffee shop in the IMS with great croissants – definitely worth a stop).
We also spent time paddle boarding, did a free walking tour around Copacabana and watched lots of live music and went to see some of the Nova Uniao team fight at the Shooto Brasil event.
We absolutely loved our time in Rio: its natural beauty, its people, the lifestyle, and for Marcus especially, eating acai – Every. Single. Day. But we still had more of the country to explore, so with some reluctance we left to continue up north to Bahia and Ceara. Till next time, Cidade Maravilhosa – we will be back! ❤️
Alessia and Marcus