First of all, I would like to congratulate you for another amazing accomplishment. After recovering from an ACL surgery, you decided, almost at the last minute, to jump in and compete at the No Gi Worlds. Stepping up to compete at that level, in such a great tournament, was already an accomplishment after the long recovery process but seeing you come back home with 2 medals – that was amazing! For sure, you made the Gracie Barra team, but especially the Gracie Barra Brossard family, proud of you.
Could you just get us started by telling us a little bit about your background – where you grew up and how you got started in grappling?
KG: I grew up in Bulgaria. On a subconscious level, I have always been a grappler. From a very young age, I just could not tolerate bullies picking on kids who they saw as weak and defenceless. So, I would always get involved in defense of the weaker kids even if they were complete strangers. But, while most kids would try to punch or kick, I just wanted to take the other kid down and make him give up. I wanted to teach them a lesson, not hurt them.
Naturally, the first grappling art I fell in love with was judo. One of my friends from school had joined a judo club and he managed to get me excited about trying it out. At the time, I was about 12 years old, and living with my grandparents. My grandpa was all about education. To him sports and games were just distractions that interfered with school. So, I started training judo without telling him, but it didn’t take long before he found out and put a stop to it.
Eventually, at 13, I returned to live with my mom in Sofia and my mom had no problem with me doing sports. I started training Sambo in Sofia, initially because I could not find a judo club, but I got hooked on Sambo. I trained almost every day, and miraculously stopped getting into fights. I also reconnected with my dad and later followed him as he came to Canada.
When I came to Canada, I did a bit of Sambo and wrestling at the Montreal Wrestling Club where I had the honor of training under the great coach Victor Zilberman for a while, but my focus soon shifted away from sports.
Over the following 20 years, I did not do any sports. I loved working out at the gym and staying in shape but nothing more than that. Instead, my focus was on my family and career. I fell in love with an amazing girl, convinced her to marry me and, together, we built a loving family environment. To me there is one thing that will never change: My family is the most important thing in the world. Period.
I first got interested in jiu-jitsu in 2013. I was at a company function, chatting with a new colleague about his hobbies. He mentioned to me that he was doing this great martial art called jiu-jitsu. He invited me to a training session which took place in one of his friend’s basement. For some reason, I decided to do it and I had so much fun. I had to do it again. Just had to!
A few days later, in October 2013, I officially started training in a jiujitsu academy. Then in December, a very good friend of mine texted me a picture of his son training at GB Brossard and the rest, as they say, is history.
RM: What are your thoughts on BJJ tournaments?
KG: I believe tournaments are very beneficial. Tournaments help you grow as an athlete and as a person. Yes, you get to test your skills but if you are a smart competitor you don’t show up unprepared. So, you learn to set goals, plan for, and execute your competition preparation which includes weight management, proper nutrition, physical conditioning, technical preparation, visualization of positive outcomes, etc. It’s a process that requires discipline and commitment, and, regardless of how well you prepare, the result is never guaranteed. But, real life is no different. Plus, competition helps you learn to manage your emotions and stress; it helps you get better at performing difficult tasks under pressure. You don’t always get to stand on the podium, but you always emerge better and stronger for having gone through this process.
Tournaments are also great for the community. They give an opportunity to people from around the world who share the same passion for the art to get together, exchange ideas about the art and test their skills in a friendly environment.
I must say, I hope that we can find a way to bring tournaments back to Quebec and Canada. The local competition scene was a great way for both adults and kids who practice BJJ to get some experience in a safe environment and make friends with students from other academies. It also helps athletes check their progress and see if there are areas that we need to improve on before competing internationally.
Things get even more exciting at the bigger, international competitions. That’s where we get the chance to meet and learn from the top competitors and the legends of our art. Many of them, you can see in action, competing side by side with you. Others are there to coach, give seminars and share their passion for BJJ. These events are a great way to unite the global BJJ community and keep developing the sporting side of the art in a safe and friendly environment. I highly recommend it to all BJJ enthusiasts, if not to compete in, at least to attend a major competition and soak in the atmosphere.
RM: What has been your greatest challenge to date, in BJJ, and what is your proudest achievement?
KG: If you don’t mind, I will answer the second part of your question first.
Seven days before the World Masters in 2015, I broke my right index finger. It was a nasty break in which I completely hyper-extended the knuckle as it bent 180 degrees past full extension, which caused the fold of skin on the other side to tear open. I required a finger cast and a few stitches to close it up. Everybody thought that would put me out of commission but the way I saw it, with 9 good fingers, I had more than enough to get the job done.
I went on to win gold in my weight class and then silver at the open weight. I submitted everyone in my division on the way to that gold medal. Competing in the open class was not even part of the plan but professor Rodrigo convinced me to give it a try. I did great but got stopped by an ultra-heavy former wrestling champion at the final. I remember that fight because I spent almost the entire match fighting to escape an armbar and even though I lost, I was very proud of myself for not allowing my opponent to submit me. I returned to Montreal as a champion and was excited to come back and start training for the following year with a new goal in mind: get double-gold in 2016.
But life is unpredictable. 2016 began with the promise of being the best year of my life. At that point in my life, everything seemed to be going great. Everyone in my family was doing great and I was building momentum in my professional life and as an athlete. Then in April, a couple of weeks before my birthday, life brought me to my knees and I battled a year and a half just to be able to get back on my feet. Literally!
I fractured my tibia and tore my ACL in my right knee during training. The injury was so severe that I could not walk or drive for months. I tried to avoid surgery and recover through physio. I worked with a great physiotherapist recommended to me by my professor, and after a few short months, I was back in training. I was doing fine working on my closed guard, but if I try standing up, my knee would not hold. After getting reinjured a few times, and after 8 months of strength training and physiotherapy there was still no improvement in the stability of my knee. So, I had to go through an ACL surgery, and then restart the recovery process and the physiotherapy from scratch.
This injury impacted not only my training but my family and professional life in a very significant way. My wife had to take on all of the household responsibilities and not only take care of my two girls but also of me. As a self-employed professional, she was under pressure to do all this while working on a number of stressful business projects and doing her best to minimise the financial impact on our family.
During these times, many people told me that the lesson was to forget about jiu-jitsu and start acting my age. I felt like a burden to everyone. It seemed to me that I was on the brink of losing everything.
But I refused to feel sorry for myself. I worked on my recovery each day. I love my wife, and my family’s happiness is the most important priority for me. So, I wanted to make sure that we get through this together. We decided that my injury was a blessing in disguise, that we will rebuild our life without compromises, together. The process is still ongoing, but things are slowly falling into place, and I was able to get excited about training and competing again because my family is behind me 100%.
It is now clear to everyone who knows me that jiu-jitsu has become a part of my identity and my dream to be a black belt world champion motivates me to strive to be a champion husband, father, and provider as well.
While the dream of getting double gold at the 2016 World Masters was dead in the water, I did my best to prepare for 2017. I even registered to compete and flew to Las Vegas with the family hoping to be ready to compete. But I was not ready. The fear of getting reinjured and putting my family through hell for a second time terrified me.
When I got back from Las Vegas, I started focusing more on my stand up and rebuilding my confidence in my knee. To help with that, I added the no gi class to my training schedule and slowly built up my confidence. There was only one more thing I needed. I needed to compete in a big tournament to prove to myself that I was back to my old self. I was ready and excited about a whole new challenge. What if I did something different, like the No Gi Worlds in California?
That was a scary proposition because my No Gi training up to that moment had been limited to one session per week. The No Gi Worlds was just scary enough to get me excited about doing it. I needed to do it. So, I told my coach and my team, and they all got involved! They believed in me more than I did! So, for a few weeks my team got 100% behind me. Everyone started training with me, without the gi even during gi classes. Many times, throughout my ordeal I had felt completely alone and having the team get behind me and push me in training, and just show me that I was not alone was not only helpful. It was in many ways a kind of therapy. The kind I really needed.
So, at the No Gi Worlds, I took on a new challenge and, even though I could reach the top of the podium, it was an unforgettable experience. I went there alone but I was not lonely. Thanks to social media, my teammates and my family were with me each step of the way as I won the silver in my division and the bronze in the open class.
As a BJJ fan, I met so many BJJ legends and watched some of the best competitors on the planet in action. While in California, I also took advantage of the opportunity to train at Gracie Barra Head Quarters and Gracie Barra Northridge. These are memories that will be with me forever!
You asked a simple question and I gave a long answer, but I hope others can find their silver lining in my story. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. We just have to keep moving forward.
RM: Where do you get the motivation to compete all the time?
KG: I don’t think I know for sure, but it probably has to do with some sort of personal demons I am fighting on a subconscious level. I’m always looking for goals that scare me. The battle within always starts long before the actual competition. All the reasons to give up without even trying start coming to the surface and you have to battle those until the very moment you step on the mat. As well, there is the desire to prove that you can submit a competitor who is 100% focused on submitting you.
Jiu-jitsu is limitless, and we all love exploring new techniques. During normal training, most times we keep soaking up new moves and techniques. We experiment, so submitting your training partners at the gym has very little to do with winning or loosing. That’s the process of learning through trial and error and it’s the most valuable part of learning the art.
Training for competition shifts the focus to selecting a winning style using only the tactics, strategies and techniques that work best for us. Competing under different rulesets and in the absolute or open weight divisions ensures that your style is submission focused. For me, getting the opponent to submit as quickly as possible has always been the ultimate reason for training BJJ.
On an intellectual level, competing is like winning an argument, or solving a problem. Many times, in our professional lives, for example, we engage in discussions and put forth arguments of how to do things better. Convincing others to accept your proposal, or see that you have the most elegant or effective solution to a problem, or even convincing a potential employer that you are the best candidate for a job, etc. These things are very subjective, and there are many things outside of your control. This causes negative feelings, and these build up inside of us over time causing all kinds of stress.
BJJ competitions help me sweat out and release this negativity and stress. Getting the opponent to tap in competition gives us something that we rarely get in real life: your opponent’s recognition. No one can argue about who put forth the better argument, who got the job done, or who deserves the credit and recognition. After a tap, there are no more arguments or negative feelings. Both the victor and the defeated show respect to one another and, in many cases, become friends. That’s something very special and very rare in our daily lives.
RM: Now that you have a fair amount of competitive experience, do you still get nervous before competition?
KG: Absolutely! And I believe that’s a good thing. There are so many systems in our bodies developed and fine tuned over millions of years of evolution. It’s the fight or flight response. Getting nervous, just means that you are making conscious efforts to choose fight over flight. If it didn’t scare me a little, If I didn’t get butterflies in my stomach, if I didn’t have to go through the mental exercise of fighting with doubts and fears, it would not be as exciting and rewarding an experience.
For me, the most important thing that helps minimize negative stress is not experience, but solid preparation and a simple and effective game plan. If you bring your best game and you do your best to execute your game plan, chances are you will be happy with your performance regardless of the result.
RM: What do you think is the most important lesson a person can take away from training, and/or competing in BJJ.
Most white belts learn very quickly that fighting with all your might against a more skillful opponent does not work. We need technique if we want to have a chance. Each technique our professors show has many hidden details and even after you have learned all the details you need to teach your body to execute the sequence. After you have learned to do that, you now must figure out how to make this technique work against an opponent who is often bigger and stronger than you and who is fighting you with everything he’s got. Oh, and he just learned the same technique! So, you quickly discover that even though you learned the exact same technique that one great champion used to defeat another, you can’t make it work on a fellow beginner. So, what is the lesson?
In life, we often try to get results fast by doing the same thing successful people do and hope to get the same results in 30 days or less. We get discouraged when we fail to do so. Some of us feel they were lied to, and others may feel that they just don’t have what it takes to succeed.
BJJ teaches us that it takes years to become an overnight success. Getting good at something takes time and dedication and hours and hours on the mats discovering, little-by-little each invisible detail that makes a technique work against an experienced and proficient opponent.
It’s a long, hard road but so is every road worth taking in life. In the end, if we are looking for success in life we must work on things we’re passionate about because there will be many obstacles on the long road ahead.
RM: What advice do you have about BJJ?
I started BJJ because it was fun, and it gave me a special kind of joy I could not find anywhere else. At some point down the road, I started wondering why, and what it all meant. Then BJJ grew and transformed into something much greater than just a hobby. But, the bottom line is we don’t need to have any expectations in the beginning. If you like it, just do it. Enjoy the journey! How deep it will take you, how it will challenge you or impact your life should not be a concern at the beginning. Just have faith, have fun, train, learn and who knows where your journey will take you.