Last July, Jiu-Jitsu Times published a personal essay, Jiu-Jitsu Belts and Friendships Must be Earned. It was my love letter to the gentle art. In that piece, I named a few people with whom I’ve trained that I predicted would be the future of competitive Jiu-Jitsu.
One of these individuals was a 16-year-old blue belt named Cole Abate.
Jiu-Jitsu practitioners are passionate folks, so it wasn’t at all a surprise that I received pushback on my declaration about Abate. People claimed I didn’t know what I was talking about. I am a 40-year-old Jiu-Jitsu hobbyist, so I’m not qualified to make such an outlandish proclamation. Many claimed I should leave prognostication about the world of Jiu-Jitsu to the professionals.
Then, on Sept. 25, 2021—about two months after my essay was published—Cole competed in Who’s Number One Championship against some of the top black belts in the sport.
“Many people felt he didn’t deserve to be there,” said Jeremy Abate, Mendes brothers’ black belt and Cole’s father. “My son’s performance proved them wrong.”
Cole beat No.1-ranked opponent Geo Martinez but lost his next match via split decision to Gabriel Sousa. Many felt Cole won and was robbed. While not winning the competition, Cole made a statement loud and clear: He’s going to have a long career wreaking havoc in the world of competitive Jiu-Jitsu.
I’m a firm believer in losing and winning graciously. That said, I’d love an apology from all the individuals who pushed back on me regarding Cole.
“I think it’s funny when people say Cole is sandbagging,” Jeremy Abate remarked to me. “They’re claiming he’s better than his belt. It’s a compliment. He could’ve been promoted to black belt, and nobody would’ve batted an eye. But the goal for Cole’s career is to compete in IBJJF, so he’s too young to be awarded his black belt.”
Jiu-Jitsu was never part of the plan for Cole. “He had a baseball mitt and ball in his crib,” Jeremy said. His son’s experience with Jiu-Jitsu started when he was five years old, growing up in San Antonio, Texas. He took Cole to a trial class at a local academy. After a few classes, Jeremy figured it wasn’t for him. But every time they drove by the academy, the young Cole asked to go back. Relenting, Jeremy enrolled his son.
There is no shortage of inspirational Jiu-Jitsu social media posts that mention every champion was once a beginner, and this is certainly true for Cole. During his first competition as a grey belt, his only fight was against a girl. “Dad, I’m fighting a girl,” Cole said. Jeremy told his son to be respectful and not hurt his opponent. The plan was to take it easy on her.
Well, things didn’t turn out the way either one of them expected.
“She kicked his ***,” Jeremy said, chuckling. They both filed this experience in the “never underestimate an opponent” category. Especially the young athlete. When Cole learned that his father had told me the story about his first competition, he pleaded that it not be included in the article. “It happened 11 years ago, and it’s still bothering him,” Jeremy said.
After nearly two years of watching his son train, Jeremy began his own Jiu-Jitsu experience. And, Cole said, it’s been beneficial to have his father training with him. “My father is my best friend on and off the mats,” Cole said. “He’s been by my side throughout this whole journey.”
While still living in Texas, Jeremy asked his son where on the planet he would want to go in order to continue his training. Cole had the answer at the tip of his tongue: Art of Jiu-Jitsu (AOJ) in Costa Mesa, California, operated by Gui and Rafa Mendes.
Bam! Jeremy, Cole and his mother, Chimele, immediately pulled up stakes and moved to Southern California. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Even Mom, who admits her only involvement with Jiu-Jitsu is filling in as a practice dummy when the need arises.
And Cole is very aware of the lengths his parents have gone for him. “The fact that they sacrificed anything in order for me to reach my dream just shows me how much trust they have in me being successful with Jiu-Jitsu,” he said.
Two and half years ago, Cole walked into AOJ as a green belt. “We started our walk together on this path, and we set big plans that require a lot of attention and work,” Gui Mendes said.
When he started training at AOJ, Cole admitted his only goal was to be the best green belt. “Professor Gui changed my mindset,” Cole said. “He told me that his goal for me was to be the best in the world at my weight. It doesn’t matter what the opponent’s belt is. If there’s a black belt my size, I should be able to hold my own with them. It was like a switch was flipped in me.”
It has become clear that others recognized Cole’s potential, too. The organizers of Who’s Number One Championship reached out to Cole to see if he’d be interested in competing in the 155-pound division tournament. “It was an honor to be considered,” Cole said. “The division was stacked with some of the best guys. They weren’t just regular black belts—they were the top guys in the division.”
Jeremy is grateful for his relationship with Gui. “We are partners in Cole’s development,” he said. “We bounce ideas off each other to decide what’s best for Cole.”
There was never any doubt or hesitations for Gui Mendes about Cole competing against top-ranked black belts. “Cole is disciplined, and I knew he was not going to fail when it comes to preparing for a competition,” he said. All parties decided it would be an excellent opportunity to display Cole’s skills. “People who had never seen him training might think he was not going to do well because he was 16 and less experienced than all the other opponents. But for those of us who watch him daily and know his level of Jiu-Jitsu, we just knew he was going to shock the world.”
Before the dust settled from Cole’s upset performance, he was already preparing for the ADCC North American Trial 2021. “We celebrate great achievements, but it doesn’t change our approach,” Mendes said. “All these victories along the way will be collected and appreciated, but it’s not even close to being the final destination. I expect him to arrive at the event very well prepared. Not only to win but have an amazing performance.”
At the age of 16, Cole is officially the youngest competitor to win the ADCC trials. His goal is to be the youngest competitor to win the championship. Rafa Mendes currently holds that distinction, winning the ADCC Championship back when he was 19. “Professor Rafa joked with me the other day about coming for his record,” Cole said. “My goal isn’t to break his record, but I do want to win. My goal is to win.”
“My mission as a coach is to impact the new generation to do great things,” Gui Mendes said. “Rafa wrote down his name in the history of this sport forever, and we both achieved all of our goals as competitors. But records are meant to be broken. Cole winning ADCC is not only his goal but ours, too.”
I interviewed Jeremy Abate at World 2021 IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Anaheim, California. Two blue belts were competing during the quarterfinals on a nearby mat. When one of them won by a slim margin on points, the blue belt ripped open his gi top, exposed his bare chest, and hollered to the heavens like he just won gold. Jeremy sighed. “I’m glad my son doesn’t do that,” he said. Jeremy taught his son that a true champion loses and wins gracefully. “It’s important that he acts like he’s been there before.”
Before the World 2021 IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu Championship, Gui promoted Cole to purple belt. To me, it appeared to be a coincidence that no competitors challenged Cole. While Cole was standing on the sidelines watching the matches with his mother and father, I asked him if he was disappointed that he didn’t have a match. With his gold medal hanging at his side like an afterthought, he surveyed the matches underway. Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah, I’m disappointed.”
I reminded him how successful his year was, and his mother and father both nodded their heads in agreement. I suppose that’s what makes Cole Abate who he is—he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished because there’s so much more he wants to achieve.