Surfing & BJJ: On The Mat & On The Board


Surfing and Jiu Jitsu have co-existed since four decades or more and rightfully so. Both represent a lifestyle and a mindset that is relaxed yet edgy in a way that it tests the limits of human potential to the maximum. These athletes train hard but at the same time also know how to wind down and have fun. It is about maintaining balance, composure and calmness in the face of odds and situations that ordinary folks would shy away from. The crashing waves, the playful and challenging camaraderie on the mats and having a good time with friends make for a fulfilling and wholesome lifestyle for surfers and BJJers alike.

Surfing and the Gracie family

The maverick Rolls Gracie was a trailblazer in all aspects of Jiu Jitsu and life in general. He was the first in the Gracie family to realize the importance of cross-training in Sambo, Judo and Catch Wrestling. He broke away from the traditional defensive strategy of Jiu Jitsu and incorporated attacking moves and techniques thanks to his cross-training that shaped the generations of Jiu Jitsu athletes to come. To top it all, he was also the first in the Gracie family to own a surf board.

In his later years, Rolls had gone on to open his own academy and it happened to be close to one of the famous beaches in Rio De Janeiro, Arpoador. Arpoador is the birthplace of the surfing culture in Brazil and at the end of this beach lies the Devil’s Beach which is still a popular place among youngsters and surfers to hangout and enjoy themselves over a few drinks or sips of cold coconut water. This is where BJJ and the local surf community formed a close bond, interestingly by getting off on the wrong foot. But as we all know, the best friendships are forged by grinding out our differences.

The story behind the first contact between Rolls’ school and the local surfers has undergone many juicy variations over the decades. But what is known for sure that there was an ego tussle between Daniel Sabbá and Rolls Gracie over surfing etiquette. In one variation of the story, Rolls cut off Daniel while riding on a wave which ticked off the latter.

While according to another variation Daniel had insulted Mario, a student of Rolls (who went on to become a famous soap opera star in the 1980’s) that led to Rolls keen on settling the score. Regardless of the incidents that transpired, it ended in the local surfing crew facing off against Rolls Gracie and his students on the beach.

In no time, about 30 of the surfers had either been choked out or they fled from the scene when the battle hardened BJJ guys put their skills to the perfect use. Soon enough, Daniel became good friends with Rolls and began training in Jiu Jitsu under him. A few weeks later, more surfers from the area realized the toughness of these martial artists and decided to join the training to improve their strength, endurance and general physical skills. What started off as an altercation proved to be something that cemented the bond between surfing and BJJ forever.

Surfing spots and BJJ heavens

Thanks to this early crossover between those who trained in BJJ and surfing, a subculture grew all over the world where BJJ schools would open up near beaches that were known surfing hotspots.

  • Hawaii

Relson, Roll’s cousin, got hooked on to surfing when he started using the latter’s surf board. He was so influenced by the combined lifestyle of BJJ and surfing, he shifted base to Hawaii in 1988 to continue training there alongside the waves. He was also a major influencer in the family that later got the younger ones like Rickson and Royler to become avid surfers.

Hawaii now boasts of a number of excellent places to train in BJJ that are located close to the surfing hotspots. It ranks among the top places in the world to train in BJJ and is home to champs like Keenan Cornelius and BJ Penn. As a sidenote: Keenan credits his competitive edge to the intensive training he received once he moved to US under the banner of Team Llyod Irvin.

BJJ academies under Relson Gracie Jiu Jitsu Association are present throughout Hawaii in several locations, including the main academy at Queen Street, Honolulu which is a favorite haunt for surfers.

Oahu boasts of surfing spots like Laniakea, Banzai Pipeline, Castles which offer quite the thrill to surfers looking to push the envelope with giant waves and rocky bottoms. Gracie Technics Jiu Jitsu Academy is worth the visit if you are looking to make the most of your holiday with some world class BJJ training. It is affiliated to the Pedro Sauer Jiu Jitsu Association and is often visited by champions like Caio Terra and Ribiero for seminars.

Maui is the second largest island in the Hawaiian chain and compared to Oahu, is less crowded. But it is home to world class academies like:

Apart from these major academies, you can also find places to train in Judo and freestyle BJJ. You can find an exhaustive compilation of training centers here –

  • California

The West Coast is home to world class surfers and BJJers alike. Most Brazilians who moved to the US to spread the art of Jiu Jitsu chose and continue to choose the state of California as their base. The state with its numerous beaches and surf spots offers a home away from home and their relaxed, fun vibes ensure BJJ naturally integrates into the daily life of the locals.

In Northern California, Santa Cruz is known as the “surf city” and is the place to be whether you are a beginner or a pro in surfing. You should definitely learn more about this paradise and the potentially dangerous spots from this guide.

Speaking of BJJ, Claudio França runs his academy in Santa Cruz. He moved to Santa Cruz from Rio in 1995 and introduced BJJ to the city. He is a 5th degree Black Belt in BJJ under Master Francisco Mansor. He is a well decorated competitor too with a Silver Medal in 2001 Mundials, two-time Pan-American Middleweight Champion (’97, ’98), four-time Lightweight Brazilian Champion, and three-time Lightweight State Champion. He also hosts the prestigious US Open BJJ tournament right in Santa Cruz every year.

Claudio França BJJ
1658 Soquel Dr., Suite C, Santa Cruz, California 95065
Ph: 831.476.7650

Surfer’s Beach in Half Moon Bay is a well known surf spot and a beach that is relatively less crowded offering the chance to unwind and relax. Raul Castillo runs a martial arts and BJJ academy in Half Moon Bay, Raul Castillo Martial Arts. He is a 2nd degree black belt in BJJ and holds over 40 titles in competitive BJJ and submission grappling.

Raul Castillo Martial Arts
765 Main Street
Farm Bureau Building, downtown Half Moon Bay
(650) 560-0100

Raul Castillo Half Moon Bay MMA

Southern California is the place to be for those looking to hit the sweet spot of surfing combined with the Hawaiian spirit of friendly locals and surfers. We will attempt to list down these spots with some of the renowned BJJ training facilities nearby.

Brea Jiu Jitsu is another must visit if you are visiting the West Coast.

  • Bali, Indonesia

Bali is another surfing hotspot, especially its south-west and south-east coasts full of such spots. On the lines of Phuket, there has been a recent exodus of many talented BJJ and MMA athletes to the island of Bali to pursue a lifestyle of martial arts and surfing.

The Leone brothers recently moved to Bali in 2014 to set up their own MMA camp. It’s a must visit if you are looking for a getaway combined with some serious training and surfing thrown in as the brothers are also known to be avid surfers.

Synergy Jiu Jitsu Bali is headed by Niko Han, its founder. The special thing about training Jiu Jitsu here is the focus on reality and effectiveness of Jiu Jitsu in a self defense situation that moves away from the recent obsession with the cool tricks and moves in the competitive sport world of BJJ.

Synergy MMA Academy –

In 2011, a Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy was also set up in Bali and was inaugurated by Royler Gracie. The Gracie Bali Academy is now known as Brazilian Cultural & Sports Center – Bali set up as a joint venture with the Brazilian Cultural Center, Singapore.

  • Brazil

Brazil, the homeland of sand, surf, playfulness and refreshing feminine beauty is where the love story between surfing and BJJ started. No list on BJJ and surfing can be complete without going over the almost infinite options one has to choose from.

Rio de Janeiro is probably the first name that pops into everyone’s mind when BJJ and surfing are mentioned in the same breath.

Copacabana is a rather well known area that is also home to what can be said to be the Mecca of Jiu Jitsu, the Carlson Gracie Academy. It attracts visitors from all over the world. But you have to keep your eyes open as it is a nondescript little gym located in the middle of the busy neighborhood.

The Checkmat BJJ Gym is also located in Copacabana and is a must visit whether you are a beginner or a black belt.

Then there is Barra da Tijuaca, the iconic place where Carlos Gracie Jr. started the journey of Gracie Barra and the Barra name has stuck ever since. Now it is the biggest alliance of Jiu Jitsu gyms the world over. The Gracie Barra HQ is located very close to the Barra beach. Apart from the famous GB, there are a host of other amazing places to train like Gordo Jiu Jitsu (run by 5th degree Gracie Barra Black Belt Roberto Gordo), American Top Team, Tata Fight Team, Escola de Jiu Jitsu (run by Prof. Leo Tan) etc.

Sao Paolo is home to a beautiful coastline with well known surfing spots at Maresias and Litoral Norte. Don’t miss out on training at the Alliance Jiu Jitsu HQ which is still led by the “General”, Fabio Gurgel. You might also want to seek out some tough rolling sessions at Barbosa Jiu Jitsu.

BJJ Surving Camps and Retreats

Beach camps and retreats at resorts near exotic surfing spots are becoming increasingly popular in the ever growing community of BJJ enthusiasts. Such camps offer a few days off from the stressful urban life and a sanctuary where everyone can immerse themselves in a languid lifestyle of good training, good waves and good food and drinks.

Academies located near beautiful surfing places are contributing to the trend of organizing such camps and retreats. Here we have listed a few of the well known camps that attract the best of BJJ talent. Make sure to ask your professors, buddies on online BJJ & MMA forums about more information on such camps. For example, the BJJ subreddit is a fast growing community that attracts visitors all over the world and it might lead you to find out a quality camp being held in a quaint spot that is known to a select few. Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram will also help you in filtering out information from the large number of BJJers on them.

Surf & Jitsu Gi by Ground Game

Emphasizing on the common philosophies that the lifestyles of BJJ & surf share, the brand Ground Game has come up with a Gi that they call the “Surf & Jitsu” Gi. Its color is inspired by the blue waves of the ocean and is very lightweight with a 450 GSM pearl weave. The Gi also has a rashguard lining and yellow contrast stitching that gives it a unique look.

Ground Game Surf & Jitsu Gi Review –

BJJ & Surfing: Going With The Flow And Keeping Your Balance

Champion surfers and BJJ world champions have often noted the similarities in mindset and philosophy that is a result of learning both surfing and Jiu Jitsu. Balance, understanding the forces acting on one’s body, managing fear and negative emotions are a few of the skills that inevitably become a part of athletes training and competing in either of these sports.

Rickson Gracie elaborating on the parallels between surfing and Jiu Jitsu:

“Truth is, surfing is like a martial art. Good martial artists use the most efficient moves for getting the body to produce more energy. In surfing you have to master the same things – base, balance on your feet, the act of turning, bend and extend your legs. I love watching two guys fighting. It’s like human chess”
~ Kelly Slater

“The mental aspect is very similar,” “A wave is constantly moving and unpredictable and the same goes for your opponent in a fight. You learn to think quickly and your body reacts quicker.”
~ Joel Tudor

Kelly Slater: Surfing Champion, Legend & His BJJ Lifestyle

Kelly Slater needs no introduction for the fans of surfing. At 42 years old, he is one of the fittest athletes across many disciplines and is a eleven time World Surfing Champion. He is known for having a grueling regimen that even young athletes would find it hard to keep up with. His diet is as natural as it gets with vegan smoothies, berries, nuts and yogurt making up a major portion of his daily intake. He is also known to cross-train in strength training and other disciplines to maintain his edge, especially Jiu Jitsu. He is currently a blue belt.

Slater was initiated in Jiu Jitsu by none other than Rickson Gracie when he became friends with members of the Gracie family. Slater exchanged his surfboard and Rickson taught him Jiu Jitsu. Recently he has been seen training with the MMA fighter, Vitor Belfort and Brazilian Judoka, Flavio Canto.

In an interview (translated from Portugese), he mentioned the effect of the philosophy of martial arts, especially Jiu Jitsu and MMA and Bruce Lee on his approach to surf.

Kelly Slater sparring with Jason Parillo:

Kelly Slater on his cross-training regiment:

Joel Tudor: Surfer Turned Jiu-Jitsu Champion

Joel Tudor is equally accomplished in surfing and Jiu Jitsu. He is a two time world surfing champion Longboard and has captured major NJJ titles at the Pan Ams and US Nationals apart from competing in ADCC. He is a black belt in Jiu Jitsu under the Carlson Gracie lineage as well as a black belt in Judo.

Joel got into Jiu Jitsu in 2003 after a fight in Hawaii left him shaken and searching for a realistic form of combat and self defense. He has also gone on record to state that his competitive drive in surfing is neutralized as he gets to channel his aggression on the mat which is far more satisfying than battling it out on the waves.

He runs his own MMA and BJJ academy, Surfight in California.

Makua Rothman is another surfer from Hawaii who is a purple belt in BJJ and also plays Ukulele and makes his own music. Check out a day from his training regimen and his skills on vocals and the Ukulele –

A short training clip of Makua doing conditioning and different forms of cross-training in a martial arts gym

Incidentally all the surfers mentioned so far (Slater, Joel and Makua) were seen at the inauguration of Mendes bros’ newest gym, Art of Jiu Jitsu. It just goes to show how inseparable these two sports have become and now have a thriving symbiotic relationship.

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