Black Belt Joel Tudor To Fight At U.S. Open of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

As reported on

Former world longboard champion Joel Tudor is in town this weekend. He motored up to Santa Cruz from his home in San Diego, a road trip he’s made countless times over the years for surf contests and waves. But this time Tudor’s itinerary involves arm bars and choke holds instead of surfing First Peak and Steamer Lane.

Tudor is in Santa Cruz, along with nearly 800 other international competitors, for the 13th annual U.S. Open of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, hosted as always by the local academy of Claudio Franca Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

While his appearance doesn’t exactly intimidate — Tudor’s slim frame is often adorned with thick black spectacles, sweaters and slip-ons, and sticks out amongst the sea of shaved heads and tattoos at most martial arts events “” don’t be fooled, he’s no slouch. For the past six years, Tudor, 32, has been training under former BJJ world champ and black belt Rodrigo Medeiros at his studio in Pacific Beach. Tudor regularly spars with members of Medeiros’ BJJ Revolution team and has won numerous tournaments on his way to earning a black belt in a freakishly short period of time.

Today at 2 p.m., in just his third match at the black belt level, Tudor will fight Brazil’s Felipe Lattari for the U.S. Open black belt featherweight title. While scoping out some of the earlier rounds of competition Saturday, Tudor took some time to talk about his transition from the waves to the

Leo Maxam: So Joel, how long have you been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

Joel Tudor: I got into this about six years ago. At that point I had already won world titles [in surfing] and done all that, and I had a kid. So in a way it was sort of like an excuse to get away from surfing professionally and devote my time to my son. And that’s pretty much what I’ve done the last four years, just been with him and done this [jiu-jitsu]. And really, for me, it’s more of a challenge than surfing. Surfing was a challenge, but it kind of came easy. This isn’t easy by any means. And when you’re climbing belts, it gets crazy. I enjoy the competitive side. Like I said, I’m a very competitive person, but this was the most humbling route.

LM: And how did you get into it?

JT: I got choked in Hawaii about seven years ago. The guy knew jiu-jitsu and I didn’t. Surfing’s a very violent sport. As much as people think it’s all this Zen, relaxed thing, it’s actually really selfish. And you’ve got some really twisted people that do it.

LM: Where were you surfing?

JT: I was on the North Shore. I’ve lived in Hawaii off and on my whole life.

LM: You were surfing at Pipeline?

JT: Yep, and I got into a little altercation afterwards and I got choked. So I came home and started training. And then I realized that I had a knack for it after a while. I competed in my first event and got second. Then I started competing on a national level in everything — Mundials [the world championships], nationals, U.S. Open, Pan-Ams, all the no-gi tournaments [where jiu-jitsu competitors wear shorts and t-shirts instead of the traditional gi, a uniform consisting of pants, jacket and a belt]. I basically just put away surfing and worked towards [jiu-jitsu]. Surfing is still my profession, it’s still how I make a living, I still do it all the time, but as far as competition, this is all I do now.

LM: Would you say jiu-jitsu is your main passion now?

JT: Yeah, at the moment. I mean, surfing is still my main passion because it’s how I make a living. But as far as competition, seeing me put on a [contest jersey], you probably won’t see it in surfing anymore. I did what I wanted to do and accomplished what I wanted to in that, and now I’m focused on this. And I really only have a short window of being an adult and competing. I’m already in masters but I’m competing as an adult. In another couple years I’m going to stay in masters. As you get older, this is a pretty rough sport, it ain’t like falling in the water — someone’s trying to break your arm. So it’s a different deal, you know. You’ve been watching, yeah?

LM: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of guys pretty much hobbling off the mat.

JT: It’s a very egoless sport in the sense that you get humbled a lot. And you’re forced to rethink whatever problems you’ve got going on, so it’s good.

LM: What do you have to do to earn your black belt?

JT: You want a list of injuries? In six years I broke my tibia, I blew both knees, I’ve knocked my front teeth out, I broke my nose, I’ve pretty much had tendon damage in both arms. With a free schedule and not having a full time job, I was able to devote all my time to jiu-jitsu. It would probably take most people 10 years to get their black belt — between eight and 10. I got it in five and a half. But then again, it clicked a lot quicker with me than most people.

LM: But do you have to pass an exam or something to get a black belt?

JT: I basically won at every level of a belt. I won almost every time I competed. And black belt is a totally different deal. It’s not the same as the other divisions. It’s basically like the true test. But now it’s just for fun. There’s no money involved, none of that.

LM: Is there anything you’ve learned from surfing that carries over to Brazilian jiu-jitsu?

JT: Humility. Because the ocean can knock you back into place at any moment in time. And in this, some little guy that weighs 120 pounds can just tie you up. So it’s very much the same. You have to leave the ego at the door.

LM: It seems like a lot of surfers are getting into jiu-jitsu, especially in Hawaii where it seems like every person in the lineup is training for their black belt. Why do you think that is?

JT: Well, it’s very similar in the mental aspect because when you surf nothing stays the same. No situation is the same. No wave is like the one before it. And fighting is very much the same thing because it’s all based off a certain situation where an opportunity or window that you see gives you a chance to one-up the person. And surfing is the same thing. When you take off, you have to adjust to what is thrown at you. And it’s the same thing when you fight. The guy’s not gonna come out and be like, ‘High five. Ok, now I’m gonna try to choke you like this,’ you know. You have to really figure out a strategy and be able to adapt quickly. And I think that’s the mental deal why surfers are really getting into it. It’s mentally challenging in the same sense.