The laid-back and soft-spoken man dining by himself at Spencer Makenzie’s in Ventura could easily be mistaken for a native Southern California surfer. From a distance, with his tanned skin and toned body it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see him gracing the cover of a magazine modeling the latest Patagonia fashions. But upon closer look, his features tell a different story. Perhaps it’s the cauliflower ears or the faded scars that run along his eyebrows or more prominently, a newly acquired black eye. No, these are certainly not the physical traits of a surfer or a male model.

The man at the counter is Brazil’s Fabio Leopoldo, three-time jiu jitsu world champion.

Before we get to what exactly a martial arts world champion is doing in town, a quick briefing on jiu jitsu. With origins dating back to 17th century Asia, it’s a martial art characterized by a method of close combat, used at that time for an unarmed fighter to deal with an armed opponent. Over the centuries, many variations and styles of the art have sprung from the original, and even its spelling is the subject of debate. Jiu jitsu has a complicated history, but to fast-forward a few hundred years, one of the forms of the sport that has emerged is Brazilian jiu jitsu and it’s this style that has gained prominence with the dawn of MMA (mixed martial arts) as a major sport. MMA’s biggest league is the UFC, and in its early incarnation, when it was a winner-take-all tournament to see what fighting style was the superior one, Royce Gracie proceeded to be the sport’s first superstar, winning UFC 1, 2, 3 and 5. Since his primary discipline was Brazilian jiu jitsu, and the style was soundly defeating virtually everyone with its emphasis on ground fighting and submission holds, the world took notice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the entire extended Gracie family become synonymous with the sport.

That’s where Leopoldo steps into the picture. As a youth growing up in Brazil, he was a natural in martial arts.

Beginning in judo and karate till a cousin turned him on to jiu jitsu and the 16-year-old found his calling. In a short time, he began training under the tutelage of the Gracie family in Sao Paolo, achieving his black belt in just five years. The only stipulation set by his parents was that he had to attend and finish college, which he did, majoring in business administration in 1999. As a competitive fighter in the sport, he went to the very top of the heap becoming the three-time world champion, four-time Pan-American champion and two-time Brazilian champ. With the accolades and his knowledge of the sport, he opened his own academy in his native Sao Paulo, passing on the knowledge of the Gracie style of jiu jitsu.

Jiu jitsu alone garners more respect than financial gain; and despite being the best in the world and a burgeoning trainer, Leopoldo had little choice but to head to the States to try his hand in the big-money world of MMA where many of his friends and teachers previously found success. Going a respectable 5-3 in MMA world and competing around the world in the process, when the league he was fighting under folded, Leopoldo, who had been living in the New York area working with the Gracie Family for training purposes, found himself at a crossroads.

Fate intervened, though, and while on a business trip to Southern California, where he did a little surfing in the process (Leopoldo is an avid surfer), he found himself in the Ventura area and instantly fell in love with the weather and the people. That’s when, almost spontaneously, he decided with his wife to relocate to the area and open another academy in the city in 2008 and let his accomplished students handle the-day to-day running of his Brazil location.

While most gyms and academies take a long time to establish a base of students, a mixture of the popularity of MMA and Leopoldo’s impeccable credentials left the Gracie Morumbi Academy (named after his teacher and the neighborhood he grew up in) with an instant student base eager to train under the third-degree black belt, former world champion.

The academy’s popularity led to the opening of another location in Thousand Oaks in 2009, and now both schools are bursting at the seams to the point that later this month, Leopoldo and his team will be relocating from his current location to Thompson Boulevard, where there’ll be more space.

What’s most surprising and refreshing about Leopoldo’s gym is that despite preconceived notions of tattooed tough guys pounding each other to death in a dingy basement, it’s quite the opposite. The gym is spotlessly clean, the walls adorned with photos from Leopoldo’s career. In fact, when empty, it could easily be mistaken for a dance studio with its classy aesthetic. Beyond the look and feel of the place, it’s the range of students that’s really impressive. Although professionals come from the world over to train under Leopoldo, he’s proud and quick to acknowledge that the majority of his students are not only beginners but kids learning martial arts for the first time.

Traveling back and forth to both gyms to teach classes, Fabio, known to his students as “Professor,” is an understandably busy man. Taking a break between classes and enjoying a rare solitary moment at his Ventura location, the 34-year-old is more excited to talk about the family and friends that are made at his schools than his lifetime of fighting.

“Any age or experience level is welcome,” explains Leopoldo. “We have students from 3 years old to 67 years old. We make sure everyone feels comfortable. We put on events and parties. It’s a family environment. That’s much more important to me than my fighting career and I think that’s why it’s been successful. People come here and make friends. That’s what I’m most proud of.”   

For more information on Fabio Leopoldo and his Gracie Morumbi Academies, visit: www.graciejiujitsufabioleopoldo.com.

chris@armyoffreshmen.com