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How I Met Your Professor

Professor Diego is the head of BJJ in Onyx MMA!

The scene is familiar: Diego standing at the front of the class, white drape billowing behind him, and members seated in neat rows, cross-legged and looking up expectantly. He gestures and the class listens. The fan rustles the sleeves of their Gis, blue and white and grey and navy, but they remain still. It seems like an ordinary Monday, but 30 April 2018 was anything but: it was Promotion Day! 13 members were promoted to blue belts that evening, and another 5 were promoted the week earlier and the week later. It was a heartening hour, watching Diego say a few words, the students walking to the front one by one, his tying of the blue belt on them, the look of pride on both their faces, one loving to teach and of another eager to learn, and applause and grins all around. After that, the newly-minted blue belts took to their pens and took on the other members, one after another, non-stop rolling. There were squawks and sweat-slicked hair. Members staggered out to buy 100 Plus and protested that they are not being able to roll anymore. They pretended to collapse on the mats, feigning ignorance. But everyone continued anyway. There was a cheery, radiant glow on the mats that evening. It has been a long time coming.

Onyx BJJ Promotion Day!

It has been one-and-a-half years in the making, to be exact. How Diego came to be at Onyx was really the alignment of random luck and fortune. In October 2016, we received an email from a stranger, out of nowhere, asking if our gym needed a BJJ instructor. The language was a little broken, there was no self-introduction, no photographs or videos. We had no idea who this person was, their background in the sport, what his agenda was, was he a troll or cold-caller!?

Professor Diego's first email to us.

But at that point, we had indeed been considering to shake up the Onyx BJJ programme. Classes were going okay, but okay is not something to be satisfied with, so before Yilong had another headache on his heads, we decided to #YOLO and reply to this guy with 4 parts to his name: Diego Souto Maior Colino. Like a new Tinder match, we googled extensively to find out who he was. There were videos of his fights on Youtube! Okay, his skills looked pretty legitimate. He also had an active Instagram account! Cool, he really was a black belt from Gracie Barra and took classes for the school in Pantanal. He did win all those South American Jiu-Jitsu Professional and World Black Belt No-Gi titles. He was not a spam bot! That is one worry checked off. But we still hadn’t figured out if we wanted to hire a new instructor, or if he had other offers, or how serious he was about uprooting himself and flying across 12 timezones to Singapore.

Winning his first Super Fight in Singapore!

Then, we totally forgot about this Diego person as running the gym took its natural priority. Life went on as usual for another month before we snapped awake and realised, “hey! There’s no harm in finding out more about who he is”. So we hastily arranged Diego for a meeting over Skype. Thankfully, Diego hadn’t accepted anything from anyone as well, and agreed..

That Saturday in November rolled around; it was Skype interview day. It wasn’t us getting interviewed, but damn, we got nervous too and prepped a long list of questions and rehearsed what to ask. That night, we had an overnight MTV shoot at Onyx so most of the staff hung out and around. Beer and pizza and chicken wings were ordered. It was becoming a real party, but a couple of us abstained from it all. How was Diego going to be like! Was he serious? Would he think we were serious? Could this be the start of something from nothing at all?! There were many questions bouncing around, which led to a real headache, which was made worse by spotlights and the incessant replay of a Chinese pop song.

It was midnight in Singapore, and 2pm in the afternoon in Brazil. We logged into Skype and there Diego was, a green bubble next to his name, waiting online already. We clicked on the ‘call’ button and it was underway!

The screen flickered briefly before settling into pixels of the face we now know so well. He was nervous, way more than us. We could tell from the slight crinkles on his forehead, the way his eyes darted unsurely between the monitor and camera, the “umm”s and “aah”s that punctuated his English, and the impatience with himself for not expressing himself more clearly. Of course, he would be nervous: he was only one person against our two, this could mean a huge change for him, and the whole process was not conducted in his mother tongue. The conversation was slow and halting at the start. I don’t remember much of what we had asked, but I remember how he tried his best to answer every question as best and sincere as he could. Sometimes, he got stuck on a word or phrase, but he would keep going, finding alternate ways to express his meaning. That struck us most from our first ‘meeting’ with Diego: his sincerity.

He told us he sent out the email because he wanted to forge a better life for his family. There were more opportunities abroad and he was looking to move his family too, because some parts of Brazil could be unsafe. He was also interested in teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in a place where it wasn’t a cultural norm. Diego firmly believes in the positive attitude and lifestyle that doing BJJ could nurture in people and wanted to grow the BJJ scene in other countries too. Despite the difficulties Diego had in expressing himself in English, we were moved by his fervent desire to help his family, help grow the Onyx BJJ programme, help grow BJJ’s reach and competitive scene in other countries. He was confident yet humble, realistic yet earnest, and an all-around Good guy. He did not have agendas other than those he had brought up: to make a decent and honest living in a new place that is safe, welcoming, and family-friendly. We only spoke to him for 45 minutes, but we liked him already. His heart is in the right place and we believed he would be the right guy for us.

Five days after the Skype interview, we emailed him a letter to come aboard. He accepted right away, excitedly, thankfully. He thanked us for the support and opportunity, but it was far from a done deal! The following month (December 2016) was spent dueling with different ministries and administrative work. We had to find a place to rent, which was dependent on the pass, which was dependent on the educational certificates, which were dependent on the translation agency, which were… Diego also had to give notice to his former workplace, make housing and financial arrangements for his family, pack and start saying goodbyes to his friends and family. Even buying plane tickets were a problem because multiple stopovers were required for the 18,000km between Mato Grosso do Sul and Singapore.

Finally, on 14 January, after a 30-hour flight, Diego landed in Singapore. The first thing that struck me as he walked through the gates was “WOW, he is huge”. He dwarfed Yilong easily, with a hulking and intimidating frame. But upon seeing us in Onyx shirts, he broke into the biggest smiles, offered out the heartiest handshakes, and thanked us effusively once again for the opportunity. We didn’t know it then, but it was the start of his trademark “thank you so much”.

When we first picked Professor Diego up from Changi Airport

It was an exciting time, as all starts were. We were buzzing with the possibilities and probable good times to be had in the future altogether. Our accents befuddled Diego from the start, but he tried his best to understand. He nodded and asked us to repeat what we’ve said and listened some more. We went for a group dinner at Ministry of Ribs that evening. It was a huge feast: there were ribs glazed with honey, flaming steaks, and plenty of beer to go around. Diego joined in the festivities as well, enjoying the sumptuous food and talking about how it is in Brazil, their usual diets there, what the cities are like.

In the middle of dinner, I recall Diego asking Yilong if he could tether to Yilong’s hotspot. When that was done, Diego called home. When his family picked up, Diego’s entire demeanour changed. His face lit up, Portuguese poured out of him in a breathless rush, he grinned and passed the phone around the table for us to say hello to his family, before jabbering away happily with them again. It was then when it hit me again, that he is alone over here, starting a new life from scratch, 18,000 km away from home. Diego sold his car, sold his shares, quit his job, bid an indefinite farewell to his family to follow a dream, to chase a promise that Onyx had given him. He could have reneged at any time, he could have his pick of less foreign environments to teach at in the world, he could have held out or stalled on us, but he did not. He is a family man through and through, an honourable man with honest aims. Could we have lucked out? Well, we haven’t seen him conducting classes, so let’s hold that thought first…

For the rest of January 2017, we rushed to get Diego settled in. We got the pass issued, phone and SIM card settled, bought furniture and homeware for his apartment, settled the electricity and water bills, got the broadband up and running, helped him open a bank account, showed him how to take public transportation. On his own, Diego was also asking questions and improving his English, as well as conducting some classes for staff and members. The response was good. The Gracie Barra way of doing things was very different and structured. It was going to be the dawn of a new era, we hoped.

The first batch of Professor Diego's students

1st February 2017: the official start of Diego’s classes! For the first time, BJJ classes would be conducted in the day, aka sauna sessions on sunny mornings. But the initial response wasn’t great. Class sizes were erratic and there were a few classes when there were no students at all! Slowly, somehow, over the weeks, the class size began to swell. It hovered at five students, then ten, then consistently fifteen, and then on fine evening, there were twenty students in Gis doing jumping jacks and shouting “seis, sete, oito, nove, dez” in the golden hour. Then, some time after that, there were thirty, and we held our first ever BJJ Sparring Night with 12 exciting match-ups, and the second Sparring Night a few months after. In between all that, we had members taking part in their first local and overseas BJJ tournaments. Diego also found the time to win some Super Fights and criss-cross the globe to compete in several IBJJF competitions. There were casual Sunday rolling sessions held in the middle of West Coast Park and group barbeques by the poolside. So much has changed and happened in the past eighteen months since Diego got here.

Some things remain the same though: Diego’s unwavering attention to each student, his focus in breaking down techniques so that everyone can understand, his open and approachable demeanour, his unfailing encouragement for others, wanting them to do and try their best always. And of course, his sincerity and good cheer, always greeting people with sturdy eye contact and a smile, with a handshake, with a wave, with a “thank you”. At the beginning, we had worried about how Diego would fare in a brand-new environment, without friends or family and with a lot of pressure to make things work. But we needn’t have worried too much: this was a guy with a killer zombie guard after all. Diego is cool and calm; BJJ is his life and he has got that part sorted.. For everything else,, he is genuine and kind, qualities which helped him grow roots quickly.

And so, somehow along the way, this Brazilian transplant is now part of the Onyx ecosystem with our ‘leh’s and ‘lor’s and penchant for eating spicy food. It is funny how organically things have unfolded and how fates have intertwined. It all started eighteen months ago with the bravest yet simplest word: “hello”.








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