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Jiujitsu: Beyond grappling and locking, a way of life

One-on-one with first Filipino Pan-Am jiujitsu champion

When the Ultimate Fighting Championships or the UFC exploded into the scene in the late 80s, a lot of assumptions about martial arts and physical combat were either challenged, questioned or busted.

Among them is that men should only fight standing and can defeat opponents mainly by striking, kicking or elbowing.

Or sometimes, like Mike Tyson, biting.

Classic kastigo militar as the lingo inspired by martial law would describe it.

Ground fighting, grappling, submission holds, arm bars and leg locks were seen as almost unmanly, unfit for the barako, uncouth for the macho.

Doc Sunny Diego, middle, with Royler Gracie, right, and Prof. Omar Salum Jr. Gracie is director of Team Gracie Humaita Jiujitsu while Salum is the professor. | Photo from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego
Doc Sunny Diego, middle, with Royler Gracie, right, and Prof. Omar Salum Jr. Gracie is director of Team Gracie Humaita Jiujitsu while Salum is the professor. | Photo from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego

Until Royce Gracie entered the octagon.

Plain-looking, unglamorous to some, his body absent of bulging muscles or rippling abs, Gracie fought his way elegantly to the championship, beating the likes of Ken Shamrock and practitioners of other martial arts from savate to Kokyushin karate.

Now a UFC Hall of Famer and widely acknowledged to have revolutionized mixed martial arts, Gracie is semi-retired but as he grappled with greats like Ken Shamrock, thousands watched the then fledgling sport on HBO.

Dumogay man na, daw away ka babaye (It’s wrestling, like how women fight),” some remarked but among those who watched was Sunny “Pin” Diego, a native of this city.

Doc Sunny Diego with Professor Marcus Norat, Master 4 IBJJF PAN American Champion. Norat is also of Gracie Humaita Jiujitsu Redlands. | Photo from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego
Doc Sunny Diego with Professor Marcus Norat, Master 4 IBJJF PAN American Champion. Norat is also of Gracie Humaita Jiujitsu Redlands. | Photo from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego

A motivational speaker who holds a doctorate degree in Humanities, Doc Sunny recently became champion of the PAN Americans Championship of the the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation in the light featherweight division.

He is the first Filipino to do so in the tournament’s history and the first male student of his professor, Omar Salum Jr., to win in the Pan-Ams in the Master 3 or 41-45 division.

Slices of the action on the mat as Doc Sunny grappled his way to a championship title. | Photos from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego
Slices of the action on the mat as Doc Sunny grappled his way to a championship title. | Photos from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego

In case you are wondering how big a tournament IBJJF is, just think: Pan Am refers to both North America and South America with countries like the United States and Canada, to name a few, in the north and Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil, and a lot more in the south.

Simply put: it is really a big tournament, considered the biggest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition in North America and one of the biggest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments worldwide.

Slices of the action on the mat as Doc Sunny grappled his way to a championship title. | Photos from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego
Slices of the action on the mat as Doc Sunny grappled his way to a championship title. | Photos from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego

Doc Sunny, a motivational speaker in the United States, was attracted to jiujitsu because of Royce Gracie “who simply beat up all his competitors,” Doc Sunny recalls.

The Bacolod native had gone a long way since those days he spent cheering for Royce Gracie.

Today, he wears the gi for Team Gracie Humaita Jiu Jitsu and is being mentored by no less than one of his inspirations, Omar Salum Jr. who is also ranked number one in the world, Master 3 black belt in the light featherweight division.

Doc Sunny’s other inspirations include the other Gracies – Royler and Rickson, Kleber Gadelha, Junior Cardoso of Team Cardoso in Manaus-Brazil, Marcus Norat, a five-time world champion, Megaton Dias (Rank Number 1 Master 5 Black Belt in the World), and George St-Pierre.

Doc Sunny describes Royler Gracie as a “great guy” who is “always happy with a positive attitude and energy; very humble but very deadly.”

“He has been so helpful with me and has become a good friend,” he adds.

Beyond the medals and the accolades, Doc Sunny says “jiujitsu is life” a discipline that has “become a part of my lifestyle, character and attitude.”

“It is my work. It is life.”

Brazilian jiujitsu, by the way, evolved because of a guy named Helio, one of the Gracie brothers who was smaller, weaker than the others.

Doc Sunny's champion's medal. In foreground is the fight area at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida, USA, where the championships were held from 8 October 8 to 11 October 2020 | Photo from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego
Doc Sunny’s champion’s medal. In foreground is the fight area at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida, USA, where the championships were held from 8 October 8 to 11 October 2020 | Photo from personal collection courtesy of Doc Sunny Diego

The story goes, Doc Sunny says, that when some jiujitsu and judo practitioners went to Brazil, they met Carlos Gracie and taught him all they knew about the martial art.

Since Helio Gracie was smaller and weaker than them, Carlos and his brothers developed moves and techniques for him to subdue his opponents.

From throws to take downs, arm bars to chokes and submission holds, the moves evolved until the original jiujitsu became what is known now as Brazilian jiujitsu.

Among those who practiced jiujitsu was the famous chef and television host Anthony Bourdain who constantly hit the mats.

But beyond sweating on the mats and winning medals, what good can jiujitsu really do?

“Everything about Brazilian jiujitsu is a motivation,” Doc Sunny says.

He explains further that if “you are really into the martial arts, the discipline, the drive, the respect, the honor, your character, humility, all those are part of BJJ.”

We say in our world the words of Renzo Gracie, “A boxer is like a lion, the greatest predator on land, but you throw him in the shark tank and he’s just another meal.”

These quotes from Doc Sunny we print in full:

“It is really a different world in BJJ. It helps you build your character. It helps you build discipline. It helps you to become a better person. It also makes you humble. It makes you greater than who you were yesterday. In which I can take all that to my speaking events and trainings.

Being on the mats is already a lesson. Being on the mats everyday is a lesson everyday. And it is just like life itself. Sometimes you win, all the time you learn. There is no losing in BJJ. At least not for me. And I incorporate that to my speaking and seminars. I also want to inspire, push and motivate other Filipinos through my BJJ, Hard Work. Achievements. Trainings.”

Doc Sunny might be living the life that some can only dream of.

Asked if he finds it surreal, he says:

“No, I don’t find it surreal. I knew from the very start I can achieve it. My faith was so big. I have put in the work. I somehow knew it was going yo come. Everyday for 6 months of training I was telling myself “I am the Champ!”. Everyday before training. When I was on the mats getting ready to be called for the fight…I was still telling myself “I Am the Champ, this guys will not beat me.” And it all happened. The Words became Flesh. All glory to God! But faith without works is dead. We as humans, whatever race, must put in the work.”

Amid seemingly big problems we are facing today, problems that might seem to make us look like dwarves, perhaps it is fitting to be inspired by a quote from Royce Gracie, Doc Sunny’s idol: “The idea of jiujitsu is to give the little guy a chance to beat the big guy.”

Julius D. Mariveles
Julius D. Mariveles
An amateur cook who has a mean version of humba, the author has recently tried to make mole negra, the Mexican sauce he learned by watching shows of master chef Rick Bayless. A journalist since 19, he has worked in the newsrooms of radio, local papers, and Manila-based news organizations. A stroke survivor, he now serves as executive editor of DNX.

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