With the sport of MMA on its continual rise, when competitors from the high levels of other sports decide to make a move into MMA, it is news. This ranges from the freak-show side of it with guys like Jose Canseco, the more legitimate side of it with guys like Herschel Walker, and the very legitimate and interesting side of it with guys like Ben Askren, Robert Drysdale, and the subject of this interview, 2009 ADCC World Submission Wrestling Championships 67-77 kg Champion, Pablo Popovitch, who will make his MMA debut on June 4 at Rock and Rumble 3.
Take a moment to get familiar with Popovitch’s numerous accolades in grappling competitions. For those who may not be as familiar with grappling as MMA, it may be less advantageous to list the numerous titles he has won but instead, list the names of some people that may ring a bell, all of which Popovitch has defeated in grappling competitions: Marcelo Garcia, Gregor Gracie, Ben Askren, Jorge Patino, Saulo Ribeiro, Jake Shields, Roan Carneiro, Renzo Gracie, Marcus Avellan, Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, and Hermes Franca, to name a few. A rumored match against GSP in the first-round of the 2009 ADCC never materialized due to GSP’s MMA commitments.
Over the last few weeks I spent some time exchanging emails, phone calls and text messages with Popovitch and his long-time friend and student, Mike Yanez about Popovitch’s upcoming MMA debut.
Popovitch began training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at the age of four, under his father, Jorge Popovitch. At the age of 16, Pablo began training in some freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling, and began teaching classes at the same time at the family’s first school in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
I was so impressed with the effectiveness of jiu jitsu that I felt in love with it. Even at 16, I knew that jiu jitsu was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Mike Yanez began his own training around this time, and had this to say:
I started training in 96. I met Jorge Popovitch first. He’s an old school cat with a way about him that was different than other instructors. He was like a father, and he loved jiu jitsu and he loved his students like family. Jorge was a no B.S. guy that always spoke his mind. One time a new student asked Pablo what he did to stay in shape, “Jorge, do you run? How do you stay in shape?” With a leg folded to chest Jorge replied, “Why I need to run? I’m no thief.” I met Pablo for the first time on a no gi Saturday, and I’m sure he will deny it but I took him down about six times [laughs]. At the time he didn’t have much of a wrestling game but his jiu jitsu as a purple belt was like trying to swim with a boa constrictor. Even at that age I knew Pablo was going to be a legend. The Popovitch family is big on loyalty, and they passed that on to me. They are the only instructors I have ever been under, from white to black belt. I received my black belt in 2007 under Jorge and Pablo Popovitch. I was part of the family, I made it, and nothing in my life has meant more.
Popovitch’s wrestling improved, so much so that he received scholarship offers to wrestle for various colleges, but he chose instead to continue on his path with BJJ. Why didn’t he take these offers?
My dream was always to win the ADCC and be one of the best Grapplers in the World, by accepting to compete at the higher level of wrestling meant I had to work on positions and techniques that would not be beneficial for my grappling game. My focus was always to have an all around grappling game, not to be the best wrestler. I have trained with many All Americans, NCAA Champions and Olympians and I feel that my takedowns are as good, or better than most of them. If I wanted I could probably have won All American Status, and maybe if I trained only wrestling, could’ve hoped for a National Championship.
This author first met Pablo at a mixed martial arts show in Tennessee. There to support members of Team Popovitch, and with his long-time friend and student, Mike Yanez, I spoke with Pablo for a few moments about his history in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It was immediately clear that Popovitch was a gifted instructor and true student of the game in the way he spoke not only of his own time with BJJ, but also about the time he spent training his students. Later that night, when my co-host of The Cageside Beat, Mike Menninger, and myself were hanging out with Yanez and some of his fighters I asked Yanez the question that popped into my head about ten seconds after meeting Pablo – when is he going to start actively competing in MMA? Yanez’s answer was simple – Popovitch was going to wait to concentrate on MMA until he had won his division at the ADCC. No small feat considering that the man who stood between Popovitch and the division title was one Marcelo Garcia, the only man to defeat Popovitch in both the 2005 and 2007 ADCC tournament.
That all changed with the 2009 tournament. After having defeated Ben Askren by a footlock and Gregor Gracie on points, Garcia and Popovitch faced off on the ADCC mat for the third time. But this time, the result was different. Popovitch defeated Garcia by points (3-2) in the closing seconds of the match. When asked about how it felt to defeat Garcia this year, Pablo stated,
It felt great, mission accomplished. I’ve trained so hard and I was ready for the challenge. It was a great match but the result was what I was expecting. Hard fought match won in the final seconds of regulation.
Even Yanez, who has spoken to me at length over the years about his friendship with Popovitch had this to say:
Pablo and Marcelo – the interesting thing about that is Marcelo was the only person on the planet that had Pablo down. For three to four years Pablo never lost a match unless it was against Marcelo- Pablo is a 1%er, so it was only a matter of time. I, for one, was glad it was in the final of the ADCC.
Oddly enough, after defeating his white whale, Popovitch chose not to compete in the absolute division of the ADCC. When asked about this, he stated,
My head wasn’t there, I was there to win my division and that’s what I did. Everything I do comes with planning, my plan was to win my division and defeat Marcelo Garcia. In 2011 I’ll win the 77Kg again and give it a shot in the Absolute. I will defend my title for sure, I love competing at the ADCC.
Even though Popovitch achieved his goal, defeated Garcia and won the division, I was curious why he chose to transition to MMA as opposed to continuing his run as one of the best grapplers in the world.
I need a new challenge, I’ve won all the grappling tournaments that are important to me. The Worlds, Pan Am, Grapplers Quest, ADCC, Pro Invite tourneys etc… It’s time to try something new, challenge myself to new levels, I’m too comfortable with the grappling. I want a challenge, something that will make work really hard. My game is built for MMA. Great wrestling with jiu-jitsu is what everyone hopes for. Now I only have to blend the striking with everything, I’m hoping that in 2 years I will be a TOP LEVEL MMA fighter. If I had to compare my style to someone it would be Jacare. We both like to play top and have strong takedowns. Plus we are very strong and athletic. I will do my best and try to overcome whomever I face, regardless of who they are or if I competed against them [in grappling] before.
Yanez’s comments on Popovitch’s transition were of the same sentiment:
He has beaten Jake shields, Ben Askren, he was supposed to take on GSP first round in ADCC 2009. I feel he can beat anyone out there – as it has been seen with Roger Gracie and Jacare recently in Strikeforce, there are people who earned black belts to become better in MMA, then there are Black Belts that are looking for someone else to beat and the next challenge – I think Pablo is going to cruise through to a UFC championship like a hot knife through butter – you heard it here first.
Popovitch is ready for his MMA debut. Noting that his training camp has been “perfect”, he took a moment to list a lot of people who have helped him get ready for this fight: Vagner Rocha, Fred Moncaio, Jay Moncaio, Alex Gonzales, Larry Borden, Junior, Rafael Chavez, Guedez (Team Armory), James Brasco, Eric Bradley, and Popovitch even spent some time in London training with John Hathaway (who defeated Diego Sanchez at UFC 114).
On his upcoming MMA debut Popovitch stated,
I’m really confident that I am going to do well. I expect to take him down and tap him out, but I can ground and pound or KO him on the feet as well. Whatever he gives me, I’ll take. [Making a career for myself in MMA] is my goal, we will see what happens.
Wrapping things up, I asked Yanez what was something about Pablo that most people wouldn’t know.
He hates to lose. Who doesn’t, you might ask, but I’ve never known a person work so hard when they lose to never repeat it again. I asked him once, “It’s ok to tap to a choke in practice sometimes right? So you don’t get hurt?” Pablo replied, “Never. I don’t want to pick up any bad habits.”
Popovitch had this to say about Yanez:
Mike is like a brother to me. He is a great coach and doing a fantastic job in Tampa. To have so many successful students brings me great joy.
I want to thank Popovitch for taking time out of his packed training schedule to correspond with me over the last couple weeks, and thank Yanez as well, who has been busy with the opening of his new school – Highlander Tampa – which just opened today in Tampa, Florida.
Not forgetting who helped get him to where he is, Pablo thanked his training partners and long-time sponsors Brawl & Maul and Paul Goodkin Chiropractic.
If you have the opportunity, make sure to watch Popovitch’s MMA debut. As Yanez said,
I say I’m not good, my jiu jitsu is strong and I had good teachers – well, my teacher is fighting and it’s going to be awesome – don’t blink.
In the meantime, be sure to check out the website for Popovitch’s school, BJJCenter.com and take a minute to check out some of the videos below for a preview of what you might see in the cage on June 4th.