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Rule of Two: Rafael and Guilherme Mendes

Rule of Two: Rafael and Guilherme Mendes
Rickett & Sones

"Be humble."

That's No. 22—coming just before "Believe & Achieve"—on the Code of Conduct hanging on one of the sparkling walls found in the glistening, very white gym of Rafael and Guilherme Mendes. The Art of Jiu Jitsu (AJJ), located on 17th Street in Costa Mesa, isn't what you'd call clean; that doesn't do its glimmering sheen justice. It's immaculate and stylish; it's an interior of contemporary furnishings, sharp angles, modern art. The complete absence of anything even hinting of that which is untidy, unkempt, dusty, dirty or disheveled suggests its design is the product of a private-public partnership between Crate and Barrel and the Centers for Disease Control.

Clean?

Look at those mats; those white, white mats. Cleaned five times a day—cleaning personnel are ubiquitous here—you could eat off those mats, though you wouldn't (i.e., No. 21: "No shoes, food, or drinks on the mat"). Since opening in the summer of 2012, AJJ has quickly become one of the most influential martial-arts gyms in Southern California, with students of all ages, genders and skill levels attracted not only by the digs, but also by the opportunity to learn from the Brazilian born-and-bred Mendes brothers, who, between them, have claimed six black-belt world championships as competitors.

If the gym resembles a place you'd want to not only work in, but also live, understand that the Mendes practically do. Their apartment, where they live together with their wives—who smells a sitcom?—is just around the corner. Ask them what they do on their off hours, and they kind of mutter about taking a walk or going to the beach because mostly they prefer being in the gym, teaching.

Not coaching, not fighting, but teaching—No. 2 ("Always address Rafael and Guilherme as Professor . . ."). To them, jiu jitsu is a way of life to be learned.

"We've always had the dream to teach kids," says Guilherme, 25, called "Ghe" by almost everyone who isn't a student. "Jiu jitsu is not just a martial art; it's a lifestyle. It teaches you a respect for all things: your health, your environment, elders, training partners. It's a way of life, and our goal has been to pass that along in our own academy, where everyone can train, no matter their age."

Respect is a big thing for the Mendeses. The word appears three times specifically on the Code and is suggested in pretty much each of the 23 items, whether it's how one watches instruction (No. 6: "Every student must sit or stand in good posture") or how one presents oneself (No. 14: "A dirty uniform is a sign of disrespect").

The Mendeses are respectful to a fault. And humble. They view what they do and where they do it as transformative because it changed the course of their lives. Born and raised in Rio Claro, Brazil (about two hours northwest of São Paulo), they were introduced to jiu jitsu when Ghe was 12 and Rafael was 11, around the time their parents' marriage was breaking up. They saw their father infrequently, and their mother worked long hours to support the family. Jiu jitsu provided not only structure and strong male role models—especially their teacher, Brazilian jiu jitsu legend Ramon Lemos—but also a safe place to be. Well, to a certain extent.

"The gym we started out in didn't have any kids, so we had to train with adults, and they didn't want to get beat by this little kid, so they went hard on us," says Rafael, 24, called "Rafa" (prounounced "Hafa" in Portuguese). "It made us better because it made us understand that we needed to learn technique to counter their strength."

Indeed, when you first see the brothers, you'd be forgiven for having an "Oh, I could take them" moment. Slight in build and baby-faced, they are not in any way intimidating. Rather than a show of strength, jiu jitsu is an intellectual pursuit for them. To the uninitiated, the sport can resemble two people just rolling around on the ground. But check out any of the Mendeses' numerous instructional videos online, ones in which they break down the specifics of the Anaconda Choke, Spider Guard or Collar Drag, and you'll see an intricately choreographed dance dependent on timing, knowledge and patience.

"It's like chess," Ghe says. "We fake something to get to something else."

They learned as children that sometimes it is better, ultimately safer, for one to accept aggression and hardship, rather than resist it. "As kids, we learned to use our opponents' own strength against themselves," Rafa says. "You're fighting someone who is stronger than you, you need to stay calm and use leverage, your mind, to put yourself in an advantage. You don't always want to push real hard; sometimes, you need to accept a push, and then change its direction. That's life; sometimes, you have to roll with it."

Their style, variously referred to as academic and intellectual, got them noticed at a young age. One of those who noticed was Pat Tenore, a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt himself and the founder of RVCA. He told the boys that if they ever won a black-belt world championship, he'd set them up in a studio around the corner from his house.

"They've won [world championships] three times now, so I guess I had to step up to the plate," Tenore joked the day of AJJ's opening.

It's Tenore who is most responsible for the gym's look; the interior very much reflects RVCA's artistic collective vibe. The brothers love it, most especially because they believe it communicates that this is a safe place to learn, whether it's cleaning mats five times a day to ease parents' concerns about their children picking up infections, or easing the children's concerns about their parents with a strict adherence to No. 3: "Absolutely NO coaching your children or other students during class."

Though they aspire to not only be the biggest kids' program in OC, but eventually "the biggest kids' program in the whole United States," as well, Rafa says, all are welcome. In fact, the brothers find it helpful to have parents and kids working out together.

"We see parents at kids' soccer or baseball games, and they just watch," Ghe says. "And the frustration builds because they expect everything from the kids. I think here, when the parents train with the kids, it provides not only a connection, but also an appreciation of how hard it is. They're less likely to push if they're struggling to do the same things. Instead of pushing, they're more likely to help each other out."

"That's what we want: a safe, family environment," Rafa adds. "If you have a gym with black walls and a cage and guys walking around without shirts and a big painting of a monster ripping his T-shirt off, it's too scary. You come here—the walls are all white, there's art, it's calm. We didn't want this to be a fight club. We wanted this to be a place where people come to learn jiu jitsu: the techniques, the lifestyle. You don't come here to fight; you come here to learn."

And that's rule No. 1. Well, actually, rule No. 1 is "Always be respectful," but you get the idea.

Design: Dustin Ames
Photography: Rickett & Sones

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