Ricardo de la Riva is a slight unassuming man with a gentle smile. Talking to him it is hard to imagine that this man is on the cutting edge of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Voted as one of the top five technical fighters of all times by his peers, every BJJ school on the planet is teaching his famous de la Riva guard.
Nobody could have imagined the impact this skinny 15 year old kid would have on the jiu-jitsu world, when he walked into one of Carlson Gracie’s affiliate schools in Copacabana and started training under the then brown belt Marcus Soares. When Marcus closed his gym, de la Riva started training at Carlson Gracie’s main academy; de la Riva had previously impressed Carlson by beating Carlson’s nephew in an inter-academy tournament.
The young de la Riva helped teach classes as a blue belt, and within six years Carlson awarded him his black belt. We recently a chance to train with de la Riva and asked him how his guard came about.
Carlson Gracie had his own approach to teaching Jiu-Jitsu with an aggressive style of training and a reputation of not holding back any information from his students. His academy was only the second jiu-jitsu academy to open, and Carlson, at the time still in his twenties and being a very aggressive fighter himself, attracted the most athletic and talented fighters around.
De la Riva still remembers well the extremely proud and competitive training atmosphere of the training at the legendary Carlson academy. Even getting onto the Gracie Competition Team was a very tough process, and once on it you had to compete against the other schools. The rivalry between Helio’s style of “technical” jiu-jitsu and Carlson aggressive style of jiu-Jitsu went back a long way and there are still Carlson student today claiming that no Helio fighter has ever defeated a Carlson fighter.
De la Riva also remembers how future champions like Mario Sperry, Murillo Bustamente, Allan Goes and others started training at the Carlson’s famous Rua Figueiredo Magalhaes academy as white belts. “Their talent was obvious and the level of jiu-jitsu was very high. You could see right from the beginning how gifted they were.” He especially remembers Amaury Bitetti and Ricardo Liborio sparring with their teammates.
De La Riva also remembers the “original bad boy” Wallid Ismail walking in as a young blue belt from an affiliate academy; “He always had a temper and would fight like crazy.” The eighties turned out to be high watermark for the Carlson Gracie team producing many of the famous champions among the more then 100 black belts promoted by Carlson.
With his small stature de la Riva found a way to survive in this aggressive atmosphere by fighting mostly from the bottom, trying to keep his stronger opponents from passing. This led to his innovation: the famous de la Riva guard position. What is only known to his students, however, is that it also led de la Riva to develop a very sophisticated half guard and butterfly guard game. “We never gave it names back then and just used to call all of it the open guard,” he says. The technical expertise in this open guard allowed de la Riva to compete successfully for years, beating notables like Royler, Rolker and Royce Gracie.
In 1986 he opened the de la Riva jiu-jitsu academy, teaching his very own technical and creative style of BJJ. Over the years he produced dozens of black belts, training people like Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira and Marcello Montiero along the way. As time went by and he continued to beat the best fighters in Brazil, including Royce Gracie twice, his fame started to spread beyond Copacabana. De la Riva academies started to open across South America, North America and Europe.
These days, de la Riva spends his time teaching seminars around the globe, as well as teaching at his own academy. He even has a whole BJJ tournament series named in honor of his achievements. The de la Riva Championships in Japan attract the best and brightest of the grappling community in that country every year.
When asked about his success he proves to be very humble. In his typical modest style that never really takes himself too serious. He thinks that it was partially genetics that helped him succeed: “I share very flexible ankles with my brother, and that helped me to survive as long as I did.” He finishes jokingly: “I really didn’t have a choice. When I was young I only could either play soccer or do jiu-jitsu and these ankles sure were no good for soccer.”
Original Video explaining the De La Riva Guard.