FFA’s Fighting Avellan Brothers

The Fighting Avellan Brothers: From Garage Jiu Jitsu to Nationals To ADCC To Successful Business Men

FFA Interview

Recently, JiuJitsuMania sat down with Marcos Avellan one of the head instructors and co-creators of the Freestyle Fighting Academy (FFA) in south Florida. Their incredibly humble beginnings after just a few years of high school wrestling and training in a hot Miami garage was fueled by intense desire, detailed planning and incredibly hard work. Their incredible successes in grappling, MMA, as instructors and in life serves as motivation for anyone who has a dream.

Marcos, please tell the JiuJitsuMania audience about your background in Grappling.

My brother David and I have been training martial arts since 1995, giving each of us about 15 years of experience. We both have extensive experience training in boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu.

With regards to grappling, we started out with high school wrestling under the guidance of Coach Tirso Valls. Tirso wrestled in Division 1 for Lock Haven University and is an outstanding wrestler and coach. He is actually still the wrestling coach at FFA today! He is currently a Purple Belt and has a pro fight record of 3-0. Tirso was an outstanding coach and gave both of us a great foundation on how to train hard, set goals, and achieve them. The training style and work ethic he instilled in us created a domino and effect, influencing everything we did for the rest of our lives. His influence was definitely life changing for my brother and I and he is without a doubt one of the most positive influences of our lives.

Once we graduated from high school, we started submission grappling with Master R.I. I’m just going to leave his initials because do to personal reasons, he has requested that I don’t print his name on the internet, but this man was a tremendous influence on our martial arts. He was cross training in martial arts back when the term “MMA” literally didn’t exist! It was called “NHB”, which stood for No Holds Barred, and that is what our sport was called. We did some hardcore, old school training, and did all our full sparring with the little Harbinger gloves! I remember it was common to break a partner’s ribs, which probably happened at least 8 or 9 times while I trained there over 3 years… that’s pretty high percentage considering we never had no more 14 or 15 students in our entire program!

Under Master R.I., we started competing for the first time in amateur MMA and submission grappling. We did very well and scored a nice string of wins. It was actually back then that my brother, at 18 years old, fought Pablo Popovitch in a shootfighting event. I think Pablo was a brown belt back then and my brother won by a close decision. In that same tournament, my brother lost to Minotauro Nogueira – this is back before Minotauro was fighting in Pride and back before Popovitch was ADCC World Champion! That’s old school! hahaha

Eventually Master R.I. got relocated by his job to move a couple hours north of us, so my brother and I ended up training on our own. We started a small club we called “Avellan Grappling” and were teaching out of a TKD school. It was during this time that we were training Charles McCarthy and Enrico Cocco. Charles would get into the UFC three years later and Enrico would eventually compete in the ADCC. We had some good times in that little program.

My brother and I taught at the TKD school for about a year before we ended up opening our own gym in 2001, which is the Freestyle Fighting Academy, which is still at the same location today – except that we have expanded the size five times in the past ten years.

At FFA, we have had a lot of grappling influences. We have had a lot of decorated wrestlers train at our gym – collegiate wrestlers, national champion wrestlers, and even an Olympic bronze medalist, so we have been able to stay very competitive with our wrestling abilities, which won us a lot of tournaments and key matches throughout our careers. With submission grappling, my brother and I are mostly self taught, but we have had large influences from BJJ black belts Efrain Ruiz and Ricardo “Hellraiser” Teixeira. Ricardo Teixeira, a black belt under Joe Moreira, would recognize us with our black belts in BJJ.

I’ve also picked up some great training concepts and principles from Master Lloyd Irvin. Lloyd Irvin is a BJJ black belt with his own school, Lloyd Irvin Martial Arts, and has pumped out a lot of great MMA and BJJ competitors. I’ve trained there a few weeks at a time and have maintained constant communication with Master Lloyd over the years, since 2004 or 2005, and he is definitely one of my biggest influences as to how to lead my team, how to teach my classes, and as a life and business mentor. Overall in my life, my biggest influences have been my parents, my brother, my wife, Coach Tirso, Master R.I., and Master Lloyd Irvin.

With regards to our competition grappling accolades, my brother and I have won lots of competitions and beaten a lot of big names. We have both won numerous pro grappling national titles with Grappler’s Quest and NAGA, but our biggest wins have to be with the ADCC. I won the USA ADCC Trials in 2003 and got to compete in the World Championships representing our country. My brother got to compete in the ADCC not once… not twice… but three times in a row – finishing the Bronze medal in ADCC Barcelona in 2009. For those that aren’t familiar, the ADCC is the most prestigious grappling tournament in the world, there are only five weight classes and only 16 grapplers are invited from around the world to compete. The event is held once every two years – so my brother has been able to compete in the event for the past six years! At the ADCC, my brother got to defeat world champions such as Xande Ribeiro, Tarsis Humphries, and Cyborg Abreau. Outside of ADCC, my brother has also locked in some big wins such as victories over Rener Gracie, multiple time world champ Amaury Bitteti, Rickson Gracie Black Belt Jorge Pereira, UFC fighter Roy Nelson, and BJJ black belt World Champion Rafael Lovato Jr.., to name a few.

How do you prepare for these tournaments and do you do anything “special”. Who else do you train with?

At FFA, when it comes to training, we train hard – all the time.

Whenever my brother or I have a competition, we plan out a two month training camp, between four to six hours a day, and have every workout planned 8 weeks out. We train six days a week (only once on Saturday), so that means that we plan out about 88 workouts, by the minute, in advance. That is one of our keys to success – planning and hard work. I’ve had a few of our top fighters get cocky and slack off a bit on the seriousness of the training… and I’ve seen the negative result. There is no substitute for hard work and proper planning – and that is with regard to EVERYTHING in life.

With regards to how we train, it depends on the sport, but with regards to submission grappling, we do lots and lots of intensive drilling. We don’t really focus on cross training style strength and conditioning workouts, which seem to be the popular fad right now, but rather we drill at 100%. That may not sound so hard – but if you drill 100 takedowns each, all the way to the mat, with the person on bottom being forced to scramble back up with the person on top keeping top pressure… if done at 100% (not the average person’s drilling speed but rather at competition speed), this is VERY exhausting and just as exhausting as any cross training workout except that it is 100% sport specific. That is my old-school belief anyways! Yes, we sometimes flip tires, slam heavy bags, etc., to mix things up – but it isn’t a big part of our routines. The lion’s share of our routines is definitely drilling. We train with our top guys within our camp. For MMA, if we have a particular opponent with a style we can’t duplicate in the school, like a talented southpaw or someone really tall, we fly people in. For grappling though, we don’t fly people in, we work exclusively in-house. We have plenty of animals in the gym to keep us on our toes!

Like other Grapplers, you had made the transition to MMA. What do you see as the major differences in the transitions? What are the unique challenges?

Well, I was never an exclusive grappler. My brother and I have been training in boxing and kickboxing since we started martial arts back in 1995. We did grappling training as a training tool for fighting – not for sport grappling. We got really into sport grappling because back when we were training, MMA was illegal in Florida and in most states, so the only outlet for competition was grappling. Then once MMA got legalized, we were already really into the grappling sport, so that is why most of our competition credentials come from grappling.

However, my brother and I each have about 10 amateur MMA fights and 3 pro fights each. But we did kickboxing for several years under 3-time kickboxing world champion Eric “El Tigre” Castanos (former boxing training to boxing world champ Jermain Taylor), and have always worked striking into our day to day training. To be honest, in the past two or three years, I would say that about 80% or more of my training has been in kickboxing rather than grappling. My brother and I traveled last year to Thailand and did a month of training at Tiger Muay Thai and last year I did a few weeks of boxing in Cuba with famed Coach Miranda.

So to answer the question, I really didn’t feel any changes for my training for MMA. I hardly ever put on a gi and have always avoided sport grappling moves that wouldn’t work in a fight, so I never really noticed big changes. Even when I was training for grappling competitions, I would still kick box and spar to keep improving myself as a fighter and martial artist. I remember grapplers laughing about me cutting weight at ADCC by shadow boxing off 3 pounds :)

What advice would you give to advanced belts who want to compete? What should they concentrate on?

This is a touchy subject for some people… but in my opinion, I would drop the gi, work a lot of wrestling, and never grapple from the knees without MMA gloves on and punching each other. I’ve seen high-level BJJ guys training for a MMA fight but grappling on the knees without striking… big mistake, in my opinion. Grappling only has its place as a training tool when learning how to grapple… because if you start a beginner with punches, he will get discouraged to go for armbars, foot locks, etc., because if he is getting punched, it will be easier for him to just try to punch back instead… so in the beginning I prefer to teach my students grappling-only for live application… but once a fundamental amount of knowledge is acquired, much more gains will be made by training with strikes when focusing on groundwork. But once again, that is only my opinion!

One other piece of advice is to not get brainwashed by the whole “Ultimate Fighter” image and not try to come out like a kickboxer. If you are a black belt grappler – be a black belt grappler. There seems to almost be a sort of shame from some of the high level grapplers – that they have to prove themselves as fighters by coming out swinging. Come out focusing on your strengths rather than trying to fit the cookie cutter mold that we see most fighters falling into. Like, whatever happened to passing the guard? Very few fighters really attack the guard pass. I think that as the sport of MMA continues advancing, we will see more aggressive guard passing in MMA – especially if they ever bring back knees to the head from side control!

What advice would you give to beginners, where should they spend most of their time in their training?

  • I recommend to balance out their training and focus heavily on how clean their technique is.
  • Train often, create a plan, and listen to your coach.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses – and adjust your training as needed.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all formula for any person, it really depends on the individual.
  • If you are truly dedicated, you should be thinking about your goal all the time
  • When you aren’t training – read about martial arts, self-help mental focus, nutrition, etc.

You also own a very successful school. Tell us a bit about your school, size, number of students, location and about your outstanding competitors.

We have two schools, we have our MMA gym in Miami and our MMA gym in Broward. Our gym in Miami is the original school, which turns 10 years old this November. Between the two schools, we have about 1,000 students. Our Miami gym is also open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so it is a busy place. We run classes from 6am to 1:45am… so it is common to have one to two hundred people come in daily for classes. We have had a lot of outstanding competitors that were built from that gym.

Over the past ten years, we have trained lots and lots of people that got their start with us and moved on to open their own schools or train at other gyms. For example, on the TV Show “The Ultimate Fighter”, four fighters have trained out of our gym – Alex “Bruce Leroy” Caceres, Kimbo Slice, Charles McCarthy, and Marlon Sims. Guys like Enrico Cocco, Jorge Masvidal, and Mike Bernhard got their black belts with us and since moved on to other gyms, Charles McCarthy fought in the UFC under our flag before leaving, etc. There are plenty more standout fighters and competitors that either started out with us or trained a significant amount of time with us and that is an honor.

Currently training in our stable we have some superstars in the making:

  • Brown Belt Tulio Quintanilla, who is 4-2, and currently fighting for Bellator
  • Purple Belt Shah Bobonis, who is our most experienced fighter with a record of 10-6
  • Purple Belt Robert Rodriguez at 3-0
  • Amateur kickboxing phenom in Christine Alvarez, who won the boxing golden gloves, and has a kickboxing record of 4-1, she’ll be making her MMA debut hopefully this year
  • And our up and coming stars in Jason Soares, Devin Genchi, Cesar Serje, Miguel Baeza, and Edir Terry, who will all be making a nice splash in the MMA scene this year.

After that, we have a nice squad of about 15 to 20 amateur and newly pro MMA fighters we are getting ready to make their mark soon – they all deserved to be mentioned but it would take too much to list everyone in this interview!

If you noticed, I didn’t mention any grappling guys because our competition team has moved drastically into MMA over the past few years. We do have some guys that compete in grappling but more as an exercise.

What are the good things about owning your own gym? What are the challenges associated with it?

The good thing about running my own gym with my brother and wife is that it is the best job in the world! It is extremely challenging to run because of the size, 24 hour schedule, amount of programs and students. However, a lot of these challenges have been met head on with amazing advice from my mentor Master Lloyd Irvin. He has a martial arts consulting group, www.MMAmillionaires.com which helps lots of MMA gym owners tackle these challenges and get the kind of results I’ve been getting. I also work as a consultant with his group.

Despite the hard work and challenges, the great thing is that I get to do a job that I love, I get to work with lots of amazing people, and I support my family with it – what more can I really ask? My favorite part though is mentoring my students and helping them come up as martial artists, teaching them important values such as discipline, honor, and work ethic – the same values passed on to me by Coach Tirso, Master R.I., and Master Lloyd Irvin. Of all my students, I get a special pleasure working with Kevin Perez, Chevenne Moreno, Jorge Ayala, Jason Soares, and Devin Genchi. I love working with ALL my students and staff – but these particular guys spend the most time with me and do a ton behind the scenes…so they deserve an extra special shout out.

What was your most memorable grappling match? Why?

My most memorable grappling match was with Pedro Brandao. He recently passed away, my respects to him, his family, and his students. He was a brown belt Mundial medalist, and when he arrived to Florida, he was a Gracie Barra black belt and was destroying everyone. He was a lightweight like me, but was entering absolute divisions and submitting big names that were much heavier than him. There was a great buzz going on about him. His school was close to mine and there was gossip between students about who would beat who. Then in the finals of a NAGA tournament, we both met in the finals and he tapped me out with his signature De La Riva sweep to rear naked, he had that move down perfectly. Then we had a much anticipated rematch in a boxing ring as the main event of a grappling/kickboxing show. There were lots of trash talk between the schools and it was nuts… it was literally a sold out crowd, with almost a thousand spectators, which is a LOT for a grappling match, and I’ll never forget the noise going into the match. People were chanting, banging on the ring, shouting, etc. The match went back and forth, but I would dramatically win the rematch with a guard pass with three seconds left… I remember the ref awarding me the points and then shortly after hearing the bell go off. It was my favorite match of all time because I was nervous going into the match. The two of us had gotten into a shoving match at another show earlier, there was a lot of trash talk between the gyms, and the pressure was definitely on for me to win. And obviously the memory of getting tapped out was still fresh in my mind, and back then, he was beating everyone… getting that win was huge for me. We would later have a rubber match in MMA and get a draw :) We laughed about it afterwards in the locker room and hugged and that ended the heated rivalry we had. There was never any talk of a rematch or anything like that, both of us respected the other and were both glad to leave our rivalry at a draw.

He would go on to serve our country as a soldier and fought abroad. He died recently back at home of a brain aneurism. Very tragic, may he rest in peace, he was a great competitor and from everything I heard he was a great human being.

Add anything else you think that our fans would like to hear?

I would like to invite anybody from the Miami or Broward areas in south Florida or anybody who comes here to visit to come and check us out. We are offering a 30 Day Free Trial for anybody interested in training – there is nothing to sign or buy to try us out for 30 days. We are open 24 hours a day.

For more info, visit www.BestFreeTrial.com.

I would also like to thank www.MMAmillionaires.com for all the help and would like to invite all the gym owners reading this to check it out ASAP, there is a big event coming up in August.

Thank you JiuJitsuMania.com for the interview!

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