Cobrinha black belt standout Hector Vasquez – affectionately nicknamed the “underground coach” by some of his students – regularly works as a jiu-jitsu coach for the biggest names in both MMA and sport jiu-jitsu, including the UFC’s newly crowned interim flyweight champion, Brandon “The Assassin Baby” Moreno. Still, you’d never know as much from Vasquez’s easygoing demeanor.
“People say, ‘Oh, Professor, you’re like the underground coach,” Vasquez tells The Jiu-Jitsu Times with a self-deprecating laugh. “I kind of just stay quiet, and keep to myself. I don’t need anybody to know. I always let actions show for themselves. And I think that’s what kind of gets me where I need to go. Being quiet, laid back, and just focusing on myself.”
He credits the tutelage he received from Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles Maciel – all the way from blue through black belt – with exposing Vasquez not only to excellent jiu-jitsu, but also to a functional knowledge of how jiu-jitsu works in an MMA context. “Thanks to my professor, Cobrinha, I had the opportunity to work with Kennedy [Maciel]. He also gave me the opportunity to learn so much about MMA while I was there – when [people like] Cyborg trained with Cobrinha, I got to watch, and I got to learn.”
His experiences under Cobrinha inspired Vasquez’s dreams of one day opening his own academy. Opportunity struck when he was invited to teach in Vegas. “Everyone’s scared when they open their own gym,” admits Vasquez. “But we started getting some good kids to come and train, and created our first world champion right off the bat – Michael Alvarez, who now has his own gym, in Las Vegas, Cobrinha Jiu-Jitsu South. And then it just went from there – other noticeable guys started joining us.”
According to Vasquez, he’s sponsored budding jiu-jitsu superstars from Brazil, such as Mica Galvão, Anna Rodrigues, and Talita Alencar, all of whom have trained at his gym. “A lot of talent came to the gym [as] we were growing,” notes Vasquez. “It was good for me, good to build a brand, and I was just blessed.”
The arguable turning point in Vasquez’s career arrived when former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, offered Vasquez the opportunity to work with some of his athletes. “I’ll forever be grateful for Ali,” says Vasquez. “He really opened the doors for me for MMA. From there, I got to work with Henry Cejudo, Kayla Harrison, Valentina Shevchenko, just names after names.”
“It wasn’t something I was looking for – it kind of just fell into my lap,” Vasquez marvels.
He’s also become highly aware of the differences between jiu-jitsu for the MMA cage, versus jiu-jitsu for the mats. “I had to develop [that understanding], honestly, from watching Khabib and all those guys train at my gym – they did their camp inside my academy when they fought Conor [McGregor] – and I sat there. And I learned. I talked to Javier Mendez, who’s an amazing coach – I saw what they were doing, and I was always like, ‘Okay, how can I transition my jiu-jitsu from here, and learn how to be heavy?’ I would say the [main thing] about adding to the jiu-jitsu style in MMA is that it would be more of a [focus on] pressure and pressure passing, and adding control. Not so much open guard and outside passing because of the scrambles and whatnot, but staying heavy, and kind of making them carry your weight.”
“All these things, it just takes time to learn and kind of put them together – but you’ve got to be a nerd,” adds Vasquez with a chuckle. “You’ve got to want to sit there, and put all these puzzles together, and geek out on it, because if you don’t, then honestly, sport jiu-jitsu will help you up to a certain point, but it won’t help you in MMA, because those punches will turn you into a white belt.”
While Vasquez may have built the bulk of his career as a creator of champions, he’s also a highly decorated athlete in his own right, and owner of no less than five world titles in jiu-jitsu. “I think that once I stopped competing, I decided that I had to choose one – I can’t be selfish,” says Vasquez. “Before I decided to open my academy, I had sit down and ask myself if this was truly what I wanted to do, because I know that as a competitor, you really need to be selfish. You need to focus on yourself. And if I was going to open an academy, and still compete, I couldn’t give my students the opportunity to live their dreams as well.
“So I decided, ‘Hey, you know what, let’s just focus on my students.’ And honestly, creating world champions feels way better than me winning a world title – just to show them the tools that I was given from Cobrinha. It just opens the doors to them, and now to see them competing at black belt after seeing them through [the colored belt ranks], it just gives me that [feeling] that I made the right decision for them. Focus on your students, instead of focusing on yourself.”
Which isn’t to say that Vasquez isn’t occasionally tempted to make a return to the competition mats. “Do I still get the itch? Absolutely,” he confesses. “All the time. Because I roll with [active competitors] still, and I’m like, ‘Man, I can still hang!’” He offers a slightly rueful little laugh. “But I told myself, ‘Listen, your time is done. Focus on your students. Build great athletes. Give them the opportunity to live their dreams as well.’”
Part of the challenge lies in striking the right balance between prioritizing his students’ progress and making sure he’s still good enough to train with them himself – even if he’s not chasing medals anymore. “I still try to train at least four to five times a week with my students in class,” says Vasquez. “If I teach class, and see that everything’s okay, everyone’s safe, nobody’s getting hurt, then I’ll jump in and train. I train in the mornings, and I find myself always trying to learn other martial disciplines, like boxing and Muay Thai – because I have that white belt mindset. I think that’s going to make me a better coach.”
He’s also learned how to work with fighters not just as an independent instructor, but as a member of a complete MMA coaching team, collaborating with striking and wrestling coaches to build strategies for the athlete. “A lot of coaches say, ‘Oh, I’m an MMA coach,’” Vasquez observes. “Honestly, I don’t feel like there’s a true ‘MMA coach’ – because that means you specialize in every art there is. You’re a black belt in everything you do. When people ask me, ‘Professor, can you be my MMA coach?’ I say, ‘Listen, I specialize on the ground. But if we need to get a boxing coach, or a wrestling coach, [we bring those guys in].’ You need different coaches to get together.”
What’s Vasquez’s secret to success as an instructor? He smiles. “Teaching the kids’ class,” he answers without hesitation. “Why? Because it taught me to be patient. It taught me to feed them small little basics: the fundamentals, the foundations, and how to understand that. I tell people that if you want to be a great instructor, if you can teach a kids’ class, you can teach anyone.”
Vasquez is also a strong believer in sharpening the tools that his students already have, rather than attempting to simply mold them in his own image. “What I’ve learned, and from what I’ve seen, a lot of coaches want all their athletes to fight the same,” observes Vasquez. “It’s just not possible, because everybody moves differently, and everybody feels comfortable in different positions. So what I do is I just let them fight their game, and I just refine what’s there, and add more tools to that situation – but keep building on top of that. I don’t want to rebuild the person, because it takes a long time, and you already have these tendencies, and it’s gonna be hard, and it’s gonna take longer. So I’d rather just add on top of what they’re already good at it, and also just focus on the weak points.”
As an example, Vasquez offers the following scenario: “Let’s say he’s a guard passer. I’ll tell him, ‘Hey, you know what? One month, you can’t play on top.’”
Vasquez also avoids imposing an overly strict methodology to their technique, pointing out that different athletes have different means of accomplishing the same goal. “Everybody has a different body structure,” he explains. “Everybody has different limbs, some people are shorter, some people are taller, and you can kind of find what works best for you. And if that’s what you prefer, then by all means, try it, and if it’s working for you, then why reinvent the wheel? That’s my opinion.”
He’s quick to point out that many of his most impressive students already arrive at his gym with an excellent skillset – Brandon Moreno being one of them. “Brandon had amazing jiu-jitsu even before he got to me. That’s why I don’t like to take all the credit, you know what I mean? A lot of coaches take credit for what somebody else already created. But [Brandon] was already amazing when he came to me – I just added on top of what he needed.”
Vasquez began working with Moreno during the latter’s camp for his second showdown with Deiveson Figueiredo – which revealed just what a phenomenal workhorse Moreno is. “There’s no sitting back – he trains three or four times a day,” says Vasquez. “And that’s what you really need, unfortunately – you can’t take time off. He doesn’t take time off.”
In fact, according to Vasquez, as soon as Moreno defeated Kai Kara-France at the end of July, he was already on the phone with Vasquez about getting back to work. “He was already calling me like, ‘Hey, Prof, when you get back, we gotta get back to work, we gotta fight Figueiredo again.’ And why wouldn’t you want to help somebody like that?”
For Vasquez, his coaching career has truly been a dream come true. “I don’t do it for the money,” he confesses. “I don’t live off my gym. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize – I don’t live off my members. They’re like family to me, and I want to create a family environment in my gym.” Instead of making his living off the gym, Vasquez worked in civil engineering for eighteen years, and retired comfortably at the age of thirty-six.
“I teach because I love to teach, and I have passion for it,” he explains. “The moment that I lose the passion, then I’m just going to close the doors – but I still have it. I still love doing what I do.”
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