Zé Marcello (sixth degree black belt) went from training on wooden floors in Brazil to creating a jiu-jitsu association with more than 140 affiliates.
Icon Jiu Jitsu team founder and head coach, now living permanently in England.
Zé Marcello– real name Jose Rodrigues– was born and raised in Niteroi, near Rio de Janeiro. His first contact with jiu-jitsu was at the shop he was working at. All his co-workers were training jiu-jitsu or luta livre (MMA), but he was training karate and had no interest in trying any other martial art. His co-workers, however, were jiu-jitsu addicts and after hours they would make some space in the middle of the shop and start rolling. They didn’t have a mat so would train directly on the wooden floors! One day, these same friends took him to the Luis Paolo’s gym, one of them bought him a gi and his jiu-jitsu journey began in earnest.
In search of a more professional focus on competition, Zé changed teams and started training with Sergio ‘Bolao’ and Murilo Bustamante, who were Carlson Gracie affiliates. With his new team, he could train full-time as a professional athlete and he began winning various significant titles including those of Brazilian champion, Pan champion, European absolute champion and World champion amongst many others. “That was the best time of my life as an athlete. I remember winning the Brazilian Championship title as a team, having just brown belts but beating other teams with black belts. The feeling of learning, how we supported each other all the time, the level of the team was great but it was because we were very very close to each other.” Zé got his black belt 20 years ago from the hands of Sergio but, as his coach stepped away from teaching, he stayed under Murilo at the famous Brazilian Top Team.
Zé went to France to teach for the first time in 1998. Mauricio Gomes (father of Roger Gracie) was teaching in the U.K. but there were very few black belts in Europe at that time.
He would teach seminars in Europe every few months, and decided to move to England permanently in 2005. In 2010 Zé talked to Murilo and they agreed on him leaving BTT to build his own team. That same year– with the support of Anderson Pereira in Switzerland and Sergio Vita in Portugal– they created Icon JJ.
Icon Jiu-Jitsu Team now has around 140 affiliated academies around the world. The majority of these academies are in Europe but there are some to be found in the United States and even Brazil, where they also have a social project to help people with limited opportunities to become professional athletes. The project is supported thanks to the help of all the affiliates enabling athletes to train and compete in different countries, getting to know new languages and cultures.
The team has consistently done well in competition with top results at the Novices and Masters divisions of the Europeans; winning first place two times previously.
“I am proud of how we are growing, I know that the number of athletes also counts, and we are still working on having more athletes training with us in the adult divisions. We have many kids too that one day will compete and I know it’s just a matter of time. Vita and Anderson are doing a great job in that respect, people train very hard and they are getting good results, this is why I would never say that we just have one gym as Headquarters, but multiple ones.”
Teaching jiu-jitsu in the gi is what Ze likes the most, “There is something very special about seeing a person growing from the white belt to the black belt, watching all the changes from the inside out, working with them until they become World Champion or Brazilian Champion and seeing their evolution. It’s harder for me to see them lose because of how well I get to know them in the process, not because of the team, because I know how much work and effort they put in, how many problems they overcome to get there.”
Despite his competition goals, Zé feels like the most important thing– and what he values the most– is the positive mindset jiu-jitsu can help develop. “Sometimes people come to the academy for the first time and they have weak minds, they are shy, they don’t have enough self-confidence. Sometimes, they are even scared to talk! It’s nice to see the change in only a few months… or years. That’s the most amazing thing for me, being able to change people’s mindsets, to see them become stronger in that sense, through the sport.”
“This is what jiu-jitsu gave to me, it gave me the opportunity to travel around the world, meet a lot of different people, to be more confident so I can learn more and better things. It is the most special thing to share with my students now.”