Gezary Matuda on Chasing Passions Beyond the Competition Mats: “When Hard Work Meets Opportunity, Success Happens”


Once upon a time, Gezary Matuda – three-time black belt world champion, two-time color belt world champion, and owner of one of the most notoriously dangerous armbars in elite competition  – didn’t even own a laptop. 

“It’s very hard for us, as professional athletes, to live without challenging ourselves,” Matuda tells The Jiu-Jitsu Times, “so we’re always looking for new challenges. But at the same time, when we find those new challenges, we discover that we don’t know how to do anything else besides our sport.” She laughs. “We’re like white belts at everything else in life! We’ve spent so much time doing only one thing that we’re really good at, when that ends, and we try to transition to something else, it’s like, ‘oh man, I’m a white belt here!’” 

Matuda is certainly no white belt when it comes to computer fluency now. Boasting a highly active Instagram account with nearly 200 thousand followers, a successful virtual jiu-jitsu and fitness instruction program, and natural ease with video conferencing and online communication, she’s one of many modern jiu-jitsu superstars leveraging the power of the Internet to develop a fruitful second career. 

Building a career beyond the tournament scene hasn’t always been easy, though. An athlete whose longevity in elite competition has extended well into her mid-thirties, Matuda explains that there’s a unique and dangerous thrill to succeeding as an older jiu-jitsu player against younger contenders. “As professional athletes, we don’t know our own limits,” she confides. “First, we just want to prove that we can fight. And after a certain point, we want to prove that we can still fight. It’s like, ‘everybody knows that I can fight, but now I want to prove I can still fight!’ Against twenty-year-old girls, I’m like ‘no, I can do it!’” 

Of course, the fact that Matuda has collected her fair share of victories as a thirty-something against those twenty-year-old upstarts has only fueled her competitive drive. Matuda describes the life of the elite jiu-jitsu athlete as an addictive cycle. “There is nothing that compares to this great feeling of being a world champion as a black belt,” she explains. “The feeling that all that hard work’s paid off. It’s hard to find something else that’s going to give you the same pleasure in life. So that’s why you want more, and more, and more. Every year you win that title, it feeds that adrenaline. You get addicted to this feeling. Everything else feels boring. Everything! If you ask me if I do something outside of jiu-jitsu, my answer is just ‘eat, sleep, and train.’ This is what brings us pleasure – the serotonin, the adrenaline, all the things that make us feel great. That’s why I think it’s so hard when you start to think about stopping.” 

She poses a question that’s haunted her on occasion: “Who is Gezary Matuda without a gi?”

It’s been a sobering identity crisis of sorts. “Who am I going to be, if I’m not there at the world championships, bringing more titles home?” Matuda asks. “What are people going to say? Are they still going to love me? What’s my value outside of jiu-jitsu?” She pauses. “You kind of start to feel lost, you know?”

instagram: @gezarymatuda

Matuda credits her Shoyoroll sponsor, Bear Quitugua – better known simply as “Bear” – with finally pushing her to expand her horizons. “He was always the one who’d be like ‘Ge, what’s next?’” Matuda affectionately mimics Bear’s gruff intonation. 

Matuda reacted defensively at first. “What do you mean, you think I cannot beat these girls?” she recalls demanding. “Oh, well, if you don’t believe in me and don’t want to sponsor me anymore, then just tell me!” 

“Ge, it’s not that,” Bear replied patiently. “If you want to stay on the mats for the rest of your life, fighting and competing forever, I will support you. But I just think you’re capable of so much more than just jiu-jitsu. I just want you to open your mind and think outside the box.”

According to Matuda, Bear has never been afraid of serving as her voice of reason. In response to Matuda’s stubborn insistence on training harder and harder with each passing year, Bear asked a simple question of his athlete: “You already have five world titles. What more do you want?”

Matuda pondered this for a moment before answering, “Well, how many can I have?” After all, what could be more important than another world title? The notion sounded insane to her at the time. 

“Ge,” said Bear, “you could have five, six, seven, ten world titles, but nothing’s going to change in your life. You know this.”

Matuda knew he was right. She remembers her thoughts on her very first world title, and the expectations she’d built up around that early dream. “I thought to myself, ‘After I have my first world title, my life is going to change,’” she confides. “‘My life is going to be completely different. Sponsors are going to show up, everybody’s going to know me!’” She grins, all self-deprecation. “And guess what? After that first-world title, nothing changed. Your life won’t change – the changes happen internally. If you let your ego get in the way, you will just be another world champion. Today, I understand that Bear wanted to show me that it’s not my titles that define who I am – it’s my attitude.” 

Matuda encourages her fellow athletes to develop a strong support system, much like hers and Bear’s – particularly when they’re considering a career change. In her view, it’s important for high-level performers to get comfortable sharing their feelings with someone they trust. “Professional athletes, we don’t show a lot of emotion,” she explains. “We train to be killers. We train to be strong. We don’t want to show a weak side. If you have a moment of weakness, you clean up your tears and keep fighting. So, to open up to someone you trust, and admit that you’re feeling kind of weak, and to have someone listen – that makes a huge difference when you’re dealing with a career transition.” 

Athletes need to do a lot of work to prepare themselves – psychologically as well as physically – for that transition, Matuda believes. “Otherwise, one day, you’re going to be forty years old, wondering what comes next,” cautions Matuda, who warns other athletes to be prepared for feelings of guilt. “I’d think to myself, ‘I’m so good at what I do, what am I going to do next? I don’t know how to do anything else.’” She elaborates, “That’s when you feel so lost. And that’s when depression and anxiety happen. That’s why you have to know yourself.”

There is, however, a silver lining to the stubbornly competitive mentality of a professional athlete. “What’s cool is that we have this attitude where we’re determined to come back and find a way to become champions, even when we’re really down,” says Matuda. “And that attitude applies to anything else we do in life. If I decide now that I’m going to be a chef, even if I have zero cooking talent, I know that I’m going to find a way to be a chef.” Matuda may be a self-described white belt at life outside of jiu-jitsu, but she’s proud of her black belt mentality, which translates into a steely discipline in every new project she tackles. 

She’s also, after a long struggle, finally learned how to give herself a bit of a break. “Now, I understand that I don’t need to be the best at everything,” says Matuda. “Because when I started jiu-jitsu, I was not the best either. So I know that what I decide to do now, it’s not going to be easy. It’ll be hard. But I’ll overcome that because I have the discipline to conquer those challenges.” 

One of her greatest learning experiences on that front was taking up yoga. “It made a huge change in my mindset,” says Matuda. Then, with characteristically cheeky frankness: “Because it’s super hard and always boring! In my first yoga class, the teacher looked at me – while I was shaking, trying to hold a pose – and asked, ‘you’re a jiu-jitsu fighter, yeah?’”

The yoga teacher advised Matuda to let the pose go – something the latter was decidedly unaccustomed to hearing. “No, I can do it,” Matuda insisted. 

The yoga teacher pushed back gently: “Don’t be too hard on yourself.” It was the opposite of the mentality Matuda had spent her entire life cultivating. “It was like opening a new window in my brain,” says Matuda. “That’s how you find balance – even if you’re a fighter, we have to have this soft side. Most of the time, we hide it, because we think it’s weak. But weakness is actually what makes you strong, if you know how to control and balance your emotions.”

What about those rumors about Matuda entering the world of mixed martial arts? The MMA allure isn’t without its shine for Matuda, whose personal circle of girlfriends includes several highly successful female UFC fighters, including current top five strawweight contender Mackenzie Dern, former two-division champion Amanda Nunes, and Matuda’s own jiu-jitsu student, Muay Thai specialist Joanna Jędrzejczyk. 

Instagram: @gezarymatuda

As the only jiu-jitsu black belt world champion currently at American Top Team, Matuda has proven a valuable coaching resource for Jędrzejczyk, who seeks to complement her elite striking skills with a grappling game to match. Unlike a typical kickboxing specialist whose grappling repertoire focuses almost exclusively on basic defensive wrestling and sprawl-and-brawl tactics, Jędrzejczyk – under Matuda’s watchful eye – has developed a true hunger for mastering the art of jiu-jitsu. 

“Working with her is super easy,” says Matuda, likening Jędrzejczyk’s mentality to that of MMA legend Anderson Silva. “She’s a professional athlete, a martial artist. And she wants to learn, that’s the thing. She told me that she wants to compete at ADCC! She wants to be an IBJJF world champion! She loves jiu-jitsu, and she wants to do everything. She asks me so many questions – she’s one of the hardest working athletes I’ve ever seen. If you let her, she’ll train all day. She has a lot of energy. Sometimes, my job is to calm her down and make her relax.” 

Laughing in fond exasperation, Matuda adds, “When we go to the beach, it’s so funny, because she’ll bring a soccer ball, a volleyball, a board, a snorkel, she’ll bring so many things! And I’ll be like, ‘J, can we just relax?’” 

Surrounded by friends like these, it’s hard to fault Matuda for being tempted to step into the cage herself. But she’s also far more aware than most of the countless sacrifices cage fighters make – and isn’t so sure she wants to pay that price. Figuring out the optimal weight class alone would be a challenge. “In ONE FC, the lowest weight is 115. J – Joanna, she’s twice my size, and she weighs 115, so I’d probably have to cut to 105,” says Matuda. 

Weight cut aside, there’s also the matter of how much space would be left in Matuda’s life for her other passion projects. “I always think, ‘Should I fight? Do I have to, or do I want to? Is it something I really want to do, or is it just my ego wanting me to prove something to someone?” Matuda knows herself well by now – and she knows that her inherent drive as a professional athlete would push her to go all in on any endeavor she tackles, whether it’s in the cage or elsewhere. “If I do MMA, it’s going to be ‘eat, sleep, train’ all over again,” she explains. “So all my projects, everything I’ve started to do that I’m working on – everything where I’m still a ‘white belt’ – would fall to the side.” 

Right now, Matuda’s biggest passion project by far is developing herself as a teacher. According to Matuda, it was Emily Kwok of Princeton Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – herself a black belt world champion and renowned jiu-jitsu instructor – who first convinced Matuda that the latter had real teaching chops. During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, Matuda chatted with Kwok, who encouraged Matuda to create remote learning opportunities for jiu-jitsu students stuck in quarantine.  Matuda’s first virtual workshop was free and taught on behalf of her sponsor, Shoyoroll. Focusing on the fundamentals of bodyweight fitness for grapplers, the class attracted over three hundred students – including combat sports luminaries such as Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida, Anderson Silva, Lucas Lepri, and the Ruotolo brothers. 

Granted, given the pandemic, none of them were exactly fighting fit at the time. Matuda chuckles, remembering, “Buchecha was sweating and drinking water!” 

Matuda couldn’t resist teasing him a little: “It’s not too easy, is it, Buchecha?”

“Man,” Buchecha protested, “I’m on vacation!” 

Kwok, who attended the class, wasn’t about to let Matuda’s teaching talent slide by unnoticed. “You were so natural,” she told Matuda. “You’ve got to set up these classes online.” 

Matuda – at the time, still a self-described “white belt” in computer literacy – balked initially: “I don’t even know how to set up a Zoom meeting!”

Matuda expresses gratitude for Kwok’s patience, as the latter carefully walked her through the basics of virtual teaching. “Emily, I don’t even have a laptop!” Matuda complained.

Bear, unimpressed with this predicament, chimed in: “I pay you every month, what do you do with that money?” 

“I don’t know,” said Matuda, a little cowed. “What should I buy?”

Bear’s answer was immediate and merciless: “A laptop.” 

The first lesson Kwok ever taught Matuda? “Open your email,” Kwok told her, no-nonsense as ever. 

Much like a jiu-jitsu curriculum, sometimes the fundamental lessons are the most valuable. Since that first piece of advice from Kwok – and the acquisition of a laptop – Matuda has been teaching an all-levels class to a group of regulars who meet online every Saturday, and have remained loyal students for over a year. It was the first time since winning a world championship that Matuda felt something akin to that same thrill of victory. 

When asked if this is evidence that Bear was right all along – that Matuda would eventually find happiness, self-value, and a true passion beyond the competition – Matuda laughs. “Bear is always right,” she insists, adding that she’s happy for The Jiu-Jitsu Times to quote that admission in print. “You know,  in 2014, he told me I had to get an Instagram.” Matuda had refused. “I have no time,” she’d insisted. 

Bear refused to back down. “Ge, it’s going to be very important.”

Matuda finally caved to the request – reluctantly.

Not done pushing his luck, Bear told Matuda, “You should post a selfie.”

“Bear,” said Matuda, balking once again, “you will never see me post a selfie.” 

This insistence – as anyone who scrolls through Matuda’s vibrant Instagram presence can attest –  did not last. When Matuda posted her first selfie to the account,  Bear refused to let her live it down. “Selfie queen!” he crowed playfully. 

“He’s always right – his vision is always looking ahead,” says Matuda. “That’s Bear. Whatever Bear does now, that’s what people end up doing later. He’s always thinking outside the box. It took me a few years to understand what he was trying to say to me, but he really guides me.” 

While jiu-jitsu may technically be an individual sport, Matuda is a team player at heart in more ways than one – an attitude she’s also applied to her budding teaching career. In 2017, she collaborated with fellow jiu-jitsu phenom Dern to co-host an all-female training camp in Cannes, France. Matuda speaks highly of Dern as both a close friend and valuable partner in her teaching endeavors: “Me and Mackenzie are very good friends, so we know each other not only on the mats but also outside the gym. Out there, we barely talk about fighting or jiu-jitsu – when we’re together, we talk more about life. Which actually works very well on the mats – when she gives me a look, I know exactly what she’s thinking. That connection makes everything easier.” 

As for the differences in their grappling styles, this proved more of a boon than a hindrance. “Of course our styles are different,” says Matuda, “but the concepts are the same. We’ll show a position, and Mackenzie will show what she likes to do, then I’ll show what I like to do.” This, explains Matuda, offers students with different body types and attributes a greater variety of customizable technique options – but built on the same solid foundation of fundamentals. 

Dern and Matuda’s synchronicity – and easygoing affability with each other – worked wonders for their all-female class as well. As Matuda explains, “The girls doing this camp, they can feel that energy, that there’s no competition between [me and Mackenzie]. Society has raised women to compete against each other, like ‘Oh, I’m better than her. If Mackenzie’s position is here, then mine has to be a thousand times better, because I want to have more attention.’”

Matuda offers a hypothetical here: “Now, imagine a camp of forty-five girls, and what would happen if they saw these two strong female instructors at the front of the class constantly competing against each other that way. The girls would try to kill each other!” Instead, by modeling her naturally strong bond with Dern, Matuda hopes to encourage their students to emulate the same collaborative attitude. “This is why I like to work with strong women. They don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Instead of competing, we raise each other up. The more I raise Mackenzie up, the more I know she’ll raise me up too. That’s how we open up jiu-jitsu to more women.”

Working with women and girls proved the true turning point for Matuda’s search for a purpose beyond the addictive grind and elation of elite competition. “It was really hard for me to find something that gave me the same kind of pleasure, and then I found this. Now, it’s my life goal: bringing women to jiu-jitsu. This is my next world title.” 

Matuda’s passion for lifting up other women in a male-dominated sport has also been informed by bitter experience. She recalls the difficulties of navigating the color belt ranks, usually as the only female student in an academy. “I know how hard it is to be a girl in jiu-jitsu,” says Matuda. As a fresh purple belt, Matuda found herself at the mercy of one coach who tried to convince her to quit jiu-jitsu. “Jiu-jitsu’s not for you,” he insisted, according to Matuda. Knowing that she was the only girl in the academy, he’d tell her that none of her teammates wanted to train with her. “I think there’s something in the structure of your brain that can’t put the pieces together,” he told Matuda. “You should do something else, but jiu-jitsu is definitely not for you.”

She almost believed him. She cried, mulled over his words for a few weeks, then changed gyms. It was, to put it lightly, the right call.

Matuda won her first world championship as a purple belt that year. It was the best possible revenge against the coach who had nearly bullied her out of her life’s calling. “I had so many hard experiences,” says Matuda. “And I just want to make it easier for the next generation. I’m lucky to have so many friends like Mackenzie, Amanda Nunes, and Joanna – and I just know that if we lead the way, and create space for them, it’s going to be easier to bring in more and more girls. I’ve worked with kids’ classes for the past eight years, and I can see the difference when there’s a woman on the mats. Parents bring their boys to class all the time – but then the boys’ little sisters see, ‘Ah, there’s a girl! She’s a black belt! I want to try this too.’ So they see that jiu-jitsu isn’t just for their brothers, it’s also for them.”

It’s not only men who serve as gatekeepers in jiu-jitsu, either. Some female jiu-jitsu practitioners – perhaps internalizing the old boys’ club mentality of combat sports – develop an animosity toward fellow women they deem “too” feminine. Matuda explains, “Other girls will be like, ‘What’s this girly girl doing here? Surely, she doesn’t want to fight. She’s just here because she wants attention, so she can take selfies.’”

Matuda frowns on this type of stereotyping, insisting that there’s no such thing as “too girly” for jiu-jitsu. “You have to tell [new girls] the rules,” she says. “Take the time to explain that they need to cut their nails and watch the makeup – you can’t expect them to know that automatically when they’re just starting. We can guide them. We can make it easier.” 

She encourages women of all gender expressions and body types to try the sport out. “It’s not just for big and strong girls – it’s for everybody. You don’t want to compete, that’s fine too – you can still do jiu-jitsu.” She also speaks out sternly against women who become overly territorial of their status as the only female jiu-jitsu player at a gym: “There would be this mentality among women like, ‘Oh, if this other girl comes to my gym, we’re gonna smash her! She’s not going to survive.’ No, we’ve got to change this. If we want to bring everyone into jiu-jitsu, we’ve got to deconstruct that small-minded mentality. The white belt girl who’s too intimidated to walk into a jiu-jitsu gym – it’s because of this attitude.”

Matuda’s passion for passing the torch to the next generation of female jiu-jitsu practitioners isn’t just about success in the sport either – she also believes strongly in the power of jiu-jitsu as a no-nonsense self-defense system against a world that remains physically hostile to women. “Every single girl – every woman – on this planet should learn self-defense,” says Matuda. “At the very least, they should know two or three positions where they can defend themselves.” 

Matuda herself received an unwelcome reminder of the grittier applications of jiu-jitsu at a recent tournament. According to Matuda, a man in the audience – whom she’d never seen in her life – grabbed her with sexually aggressive intent. Luckily, for the five-time jiu-jitsu world champion, muscle memory – and righteous fury – kicked in. Wrenching the aggressor’s arm into a kimura grip, she forcibly removed his hand from her body and shoved him away. 

“Man, don’t touch me!” she yelled at him. “Don’t touch people like that, are you crazy?”

“You don’t know who I am,” he scoffed in turn.

“I don’t give a ****,” responded Matuda. “You touched the wrong girl.”

At the time, her well-meaning male companions tried to imply that she’d overreacted. One of them, a police officer, explained to her that such incidents were commonplace. “Ge, that’s pretty normal,” he’d said resignedly, according to Matuda. “Sometimes, the girls even like it.” 

Matuda was outraged. “That is not normal,” she insisted. “That should not be normal. Don’t tell me that. Do you know why? Because you’re not a girl. You’re not a woman. You have no idea how we’re feeling. Don’t come to me and tell me that a man touching a woman that way is normal because you’re not a woman. You’re never going to feel that way in your life.”

According to Matuda, it’s been fifteen years since a man has harassed her personally. In Brazil, during her younger years, she endured garden variety street harassment, but none since she began her martial arts training, first with Muay Thai, and eventually with jiu-jitsu. “Martial arts gives you confidence,” says Matuda. “People who attack others know who to target – and they usually go for the weakest. People will read you – even little things like posture. They know who to attack.”

“Can you imagine what would happen in this situation, for a girl who doesn’t have the training or the confidence to tell him ‘no, don’t touch me’?” she asks. Knowing how frequently women deal with incidents like this one infuriates Matuda. “I can’t believe that in 2022, these things still happen daily. We’ve got to do something,” says Matuda. This is also why she has no patience for drama or petty egos in women’s jiu-jitsu. “We need to stop with this attitude of ‘oh, I want to be the only girl on the mat.’ We’ve got to work together – and fight for ourselves – because nobody else is going to do it for us.” 

Matuda’s still processing the unwelcome incident at the tournament. “I’m not proud of the way I reacted,” she confides. “I wish I could have solved the problem in a more sophisticated or classy way, somehow. I feel embarrassed – I know I shouldn’t feel embarrassed – but I feel embarrassed over the situation. It really hit me hard.” 

Instagram: @gezarymatuda

But it was also the sign she needed to start tackling one of her greatest goals as a teacher: making the self-defense side of jiu-jitsu more accessible to women. “This is why it’s so important for girls to know self-defense – and I say self-defense, not jiu-jitsu,” says Matuda, “because if you say jiu-jitsu, people have this mentality that you have to be a fighter and competitor. That’s not what this is. We have to teach young girls how to protect themselves. How to posture up, look someone in the eye, and say, ‘Stop. No. Don’t touch me.’

“It’s crazy, how the world puts you in these situations because this self-defense program is something I’ve always wanted to do, but kept telling myself I’d do it later. But now? Now I’m definitely going to do it.” 

Does Matuda have any general words of wisdom for those who seek mentorship from her? “One thing that I always tell people is that everything that makes you happy – go for it,” Matuda advises. “Do it. I always say that I wake up every day, I put on my gi, and I go chase my dreams. People may not believe in you, and people may doubt you, but if something makes you happy, and you have this feeling that it’s important, keep going. The goals you set in life should not be easy. They should push you to the next level, and you have to believe in yourself. That’s it, nobody else. Only you.”

Matuda practices what she preaches. She still wakes up every morning, puts on her gi, and chases her dreams – and while those dreams may not always be on an IBJJF podium, Matuda remains determined to use jiu-jitsu to change the world for the better. “You cannot put a limit on anything,” says Matuda. “The only limit is you, your mind. When hard work meets opportunity, that’s when success happens.” 

You can book virtual group fitness classes and private lessons with Gezary Matuda at her official website. For updates on her ongoing projects, follow her on Instagram


LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here