An Interview with Black Belt World Champion Andressa Cintra (with video and audio)

Andressa Cintra is the 2019 black belt world champion in the IBJJF women’s medium-heavy division. In this interview, we discuss many interesting topics including how she started training and the champion’s mindset. She also gives many tips that will help when you experience a plateau, prepare for a match or think about quitting. You can watch the video from YouTube below or listen to the audio version. There are some things in the video and audio version that I did not transcribe for brevity, but they are fun personal anecdotes that you might appreciate. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

(If the embedded audio player does not render, you may listen here.)

On her beginnings

GI: Can you tell us a bit about your background, especially how and why you started training?
Cintra: I started training in Campo Mourão. It’s a city in the south of Brazil, a small city, at 14-years-old. I’m 24 now. When I started I was a rebel kid, you know, doesn’t like to study, I just wanted to party, to go out with my friends. When I started Jiu Jitsu, I started because I looked for a new and different type of martial art that I didn’t know, and I really liked to try new sports. I thought it was really weird that (it) had no girl on the mat. So I asked a friend if she wanted to join me in the class at this gym that I used to go dance or work out and she agreed with me.

I tried other sports after, but Jiu Jitsu, I fell in love. It’s a great place to be. I don’t understand, I never felt anything like that in other sports. You feel like everyone there is happy to learn, it’s happy, even like to get smashed. It’s something so cool, every training it’s a new feeling, a new technique that you learn, even a detail that makes yourself better… and we don’t want anything easy in life. We are like that. We don’t like starting a sport that you’re already good at. You want to learn, you want to challenge yourself, so that made me keep going. I wanted to learn. I’m still here trying.

“Jiu Jitsu is essential”

GI: What do you think about women and children training Jiu Jitsu?
Cintra: I think it’s more important for kids and women than for anybody else. Women, and especially kids, we cannot control persons stronger than us if we don’t have skills. I usually train with the boys and I feel their strength, so that makes me more technical and I like that because on strength, I cannot beat them, but maybe on technique, I can. It’s really good, it makes my confidence level go up.

I see the kids sometimes, they come and tell me — I’m an instructor for the kids also — ‘Hey professor, someone’s bullying me at school, I don’t know what to do. He’s bigger than me.’ Then we have to deal with that. Imagine everyone who doesn’t tell us that they are being bullied. If they come here and they are shy, and they start to open (up) themselves like: ‘Hey, I can do this, I can protect myself, they cannot mess with me. I will not agree with that anymore.’ It makes yourself think out of your box, that box that you created.

Even a small kid can be confident to protect themselves when they don’t have their parents close to them. I think Jiu Jitsu is essential. It should be in all the schools, taught to everyone especially self defense, and they spar Jiu Jitsu also. It’s amazing because we have fun. It’s good (for) like, you control yourself, put yourself in bad positions and train your mindset like: ‘I can escape from here and do better, if I don’t, next time I will be better.’ Keep our mindset positive, even on bad days, like when we are passing out. We need to keep our positive mindset, everything’s going to be okay.

When I started it was kind-of a masculine sport. Even my mom was like: ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Maybe it’s my mission also, to bring more girls to the mats.

GI: How did you develop your game?
Cintra: What developed my game was the people I train with, everything I know I learned from someone that I train with, in Brazil or here, everywhere, I learn something new. And of course, I study a lot. I’m learning how to study Jiu Jitsu to improve myself. So every time that I go to a tournament, I want to be better. Like the last tournament that I fought was last week, and I don’t think that I had a good performance. Even though I got the submission, I think I could do better.

I already have some proposals to fight again, but I don’t think I’m gonna go in at least a month. Because the next time that I’m gonna step in to a show, to a fight, I want to do better than I did the last time. I think that a month or more, at least a month, I think I can do better, to not commit the same mistakes that I made before. I am always trying to challenge myself, trying to improve, and of course, everyone I train with helped me a lot to develop my game.

GI: The best people are like you, who are their worst critics, their biggest critics, and that’s part of what makes you great.
Cintra: Yes, I need to think about that because if I get comfortable, maybe next time cannot be good for me. I want to improve and next time, like, submit faster or sweep faster, get out of my comfort zone. I think this mindset will make me go higher than I think I can be, always improving, and not think like: ‘Okay I got this one, now I can chill, I can party, I can rest.’ No, I can’t. I commit a lot of mistakes, I need to go back to the office and work more.

On her passion for Jiu Jitsu

GI: I can feel your passion for Jiu Jitsu. When did you realize you were truly passionate about it?
Cintra: When I started Jiu Jitsu, everything was hard for me and I jumped in a tournament (on) my first month because I wanted to try. I was a kid, it was juvenile. So I went there and I remember it was four minutes. The girl pulled guard kinda wrong and I jumped into side control and I stayed there for the whole round. I got some penalties, but it didn’t matter, I won. So when I won that tournament, I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m good at this! I can do better! I’ll do it next time!’ So I got kind of chill. I was going to training, having fun, not taking it so seriously, even in my first month. But I still sucked, I’d still get smashed everyday.

When I went back to the school, to train, I changed my mindset. I was like: ‘I’m going to do everything I can in my power to be able to not feel this bad feeling again. I want to feel the good feeling, I want to go there and feel honor, I want to feel great, to win, to be able to improve my skills.’

Even when I was a kid, I wanted so bad to win. When I went home, I told my mom: ‘I want to go on a diet. I want to eat only healthy, I don’t want to eat anything bad anymore. Of course, weekends, one day, that’s fine.’ I went to work out, I wanted to plan and everything and I didn’t want to go out with my friends anymore because they didn’t understand me. I started changing my mindset and at the same time I spent more time with my mother on the weekends because I wasn’t going out anymore. I was so tired because I was training so much that my mom appreciated that, I spent more time with her on the weekends.

I started to change my mindset, like even if I won, I (thought) ‘I can do better next time, so I need to wake up earlier, I need to eat healthier, I need to sleep and rest more, train more.’So every time that I went to a tournament, I learned something on that day and the next day I started working on everything again. I think since that day, everything that I did was for Jiu Jitsu. Like if someone, like my parents, asked me what gift I wanted to receive for my birthday, I would choose a gi, I would ask them to pay for my registration for the next tournament. So I was always thinking about Jiu Jitsu.

GI: Were your parents supportive of your Jiu Jitsu career from the beginning?
Cintra: Yes, they are, especially (because) my mom felt the difference, (in) that rebel kid who didn’t want to do anything, didn’t want to go to school, didn’t take anything seriously… and then I started taking school seriously because if I don’t she didn’t allow me to train. So I started living, being more (like) an athlete, and being closer to her. She knew where I was all the time. She knew that I was doing good for myself… because a teenaged girl or boy is hard to control. I understand her, so she felt safe with whatever I was doing.

Of course she wanted me to study. She wanted me to go to college. And I tried. I tried to go to college. My city didn’t have the college that I wanted to go to, so I went to a public university that she didn’t have to pay anything for me to study. That was my excuse to go to that city. There, I had more training — instead of three times a week — I could do twice a day plus conditioning so that was my excuse to go to that city to study. Of course I studied. That year I did good in college, but I was focusing on the training. I just wanted to pass and for Jiu Jitsu, I want to win.

On competing at the highest levels

GI: You have been competing at the highest levels for some time now, winning Worlds at purple, brown, and black belt. At the Third Coast Grappling event on June 27, 2020, you won your superfight against an excellent competitor in Maggie Grindatti. It was an exciting, technical match. How does competing at black belt compare to competing at lower belt levels?
Cintra: Of course, the time, 10 minutes, so different than seven and eight (minutes), and the level, of course, changed so much. Because like, purple belt… I spent a long time at blue belt. When I was (at) purple I was already experienced, so I could handle a fight. I wasn’t a ‘new purple belt,’ I was already a tough purple belt. I was already getting more strategic, at brown also, but it was like everyone was at the same level because of the time that we had trained. But at the black belt, you can fight against a brand new black belt, or you can fight against a third degree, a fourth degree black belt.

So, imagine like, you just got your black belt and you’re fighting someone who has been a black belt belt for 10 years, who carries titles, they are much more experienced. The technique is awesome, everything you think of doing, you need to make a plan… it’s harder, in my opinion, but I really like the challenge. And I think at black belt, you cannot commit a mistake. Even within 10 minutes, if you commit one mistake, it can cost you a fight. A person who doesn’t understand Jiu Jitsu maybe doesn’t like black belt fights because it’s so strategic, everything is by the book, they don’t commit mistakes.

At purple belt, the scrambles are crazy. They don’t stop. They take the back and then the other person is on their back… it’s better to watch, we like seeing the scrambles, the craziness. At black belt, everything is planned. It’s hard to see a fight that has a lot of scrambles, a lot of jumping… (in) no gi, there’s more, but in the gi, you need to think of everything, every step that you do, because you cannot commit a mistake. In the other belts, you can commit a mistake and get over it after, but at black belt, no. You need to take it step by step and get your positions and don’t commit mistakes because it can cost you a fight.

On the champion’s mindset

GI: Everyone you face is high level, especially your superfights. How do you prepare yourself mentally for them?
Cintra: Training the physical body is really important, of course, we need to train in our skills, our toughness, cardio, but of course we need to train our mind also. And I’m starting to train my mind. I think it’s making a difference in my life because whenever you face a tough opponent, if you jump in thinking about: ‘Oh my gosh, she has this attack, she has this and I’m only gonna defend myself.’ If I think about that, I’m not gonna win. I need to think, to see, ‘okay, she committed a mistake here, I can do my position here… maybe if I start first, get in my position first and do my game, get her into my game….’

We need to study a lot. I like studying my opponents to be able to understand their games. Of course, I’m not going to change mine, just to see where I can put my skills on it and visualize myself winning also. I meditate to control my anxiety because sometimes when you are feeling anxious, it can cost you your energy and you are not able to do good. I need to control my anxiety and visualize myself winning.

I visualize myself getting out of bad positions, thinking about: ‘Okay I’m going to recover and get a sweep or get the back from here, or get a submission….’ I like to visualize myself with my hands up, I like to visualize myself getting a submission, getting my opponent down, and winning, of course. I respect the way, but if I think I’m not able to win, why am I there? I need to think that I’m the best on that day, the better player, to be able to get it. If I don’t think that, who’s going to think? It’s my dream. It’s not anyone else’s turn, it’s mine. So I need to have this positive mindset that I can do it.

GI: That’s a great insight into the champion’s mindset. You mentioned meditating, how long have you been doing that?
Cintra: Maybe a year and a half, maybe more but yoga helped me a lot also. Everytime after yoga, Coach Mariana (Scott Azevedo, yoga instructor and Gracie Barra brown belt) pushes us to do a meditation. It’s mindfulness, it’s awesome, I feel great after.

And Lucas (Valente, black belt and Worlds 2019 silver medalist), my husband, helps me a lot. He’s always getting better and seeing him like that… everything we do is for Jiu Jitsu, to improve our performance. Seeing him always studying makes me want to do the same because he’s my role model, my inspiration. Everything that he does, he also makes me do the same. He helps me a lot.

GI: I can’t even count how many times I almost quit, especially at blue belt like most people. Has it ever crossed your mind? Has it ever been too difficult for you that you wanted to quit training?
Cintra: If I thought about quitting, it was because of a bad day, or a bad tournament, or something quicker. But it was kind-of a negative thought that passed through your mind and disappears. I already had this thought, but it was really quick. It passed so fast and the next day I was training and loving (it) again. My only answer was to train more. Always. Even when I’m feeling my worst.

On plateauing

GI: Most people who don’t quit have experienced a plateau or they feel like they get stuck in a rut, that they’re not improving. What would you give as advice for them?
Cintra: Whenever you feel that you are not improving, you need to see the whole package, what you are doing to improve. Are you doing your best? Are you getting to the gym, trying to get better, or are you doing the same thing everyday? You’re not trying to make challenges for yourself.

Go to the school even if you have lower belts to train with. Do specific training. Imagine yourself like, ‘today I’m only going to do sweeps towards my right.’ Try it, even if the person gives you their left, don’t do it. Challenge yourself. This makes it fun. This makes you enjoy what you’re doing. It doesn’t make it boring anymore.

Whenever we feel that we are stuck, we need to change our mindset, not (just) what we are doing. If you think that you are not enough, so what do you think would be enough? If you do more drilling, do you think you’re going to be able to get this move that you couldn’t get? Maybe, so do drills. If you feel it’s strength or (you feel) weak, go do strength (training), get your body stronger. If you feel injured, go treat your injury, do more light training, get yourself better and then you will be able to come back to the mats and train harder again.

So everything is malleable. Everything, you can build. You can build your technique, doing drills. You can build a specific type of position doing specific training. You can build your strength at the gym. You can build your cardio training more tough, porrada, you know, rolling or running. Eating healthy, recovering better… everything comes from your willpower.

Sometimes we think that we cannot do this. It’s because we are making excuses to make ourselves stay in our comfort zone and then we don’t improve. Nobody wants to do that but it’s comfortable. It’s easier. If you make a challenge and you like the challenge, you’re gonna fall in love with making challenges, with making yourself improve in any way of your life.

On tough competition and motivation

GI: Who was the toughest competitor you ever faced?
Cintra: Oh my, there was a lot. At black belt, I fought against very tough black belts. But of course the biggest name was Luiza Monteiro. She beat me in my first tournament as a black belt in the open class, and I beat her in the Worlds last year. I think she’s the biggest name that I fought but all of them were really tough. All of them.

GI: Who is on your list of competitors you’d like to fight next?
Cintra: No, I don’t have a list. I’d like to fight anyone on my weight, of course, anyone that can make my weight. I want to fight on black belt, of course. I don’t want to fight a lower belt, I don’t think it’s fair because I worked so hard to get my black belt. I will not lower my level, I want the highest one so I can be the best I can be. I don’t have names but any high-level black belt on my weight, I want to fight. It’s a challenge, I like it.

GI: What motivates you?
Cintra: I am the kind of person who is easy to motivate. I like to watch successful people like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps, Ronda Rousey… I like to see those pro athletes, how they think, how they do it… always positive mindset, thinking about always getting better… I like to watch that to make myself get into the game and I want to be the best that I can be. I give 1percent better every day. I try new stuff, I like to study.

What motivates me is to be the best version of myself. If I’m doing good like this, what can I do better? I always want to improve. Of course I like to win but I want to have a complete game. I want to be comfortable playing any type of guard, passing any type of guard, doing every type of submission, takedowns also… I’d like to improve my Jiu-Jitsu besides competition.

Every time I fight, I want to try something new that I’m working on… Challenging myself to be better. I want to be the best version of myself, the best that I can be; not comparing me to anyone because their lives are their lives, mine is mine. So what I can do with my life, take that one step ahead in my dream, to be the best fighter that I can be.

On moving to a new country, joining a new team, and being married to another top competitor

GI: How was your move to Houston and joining a new team?
Cintra: I first came here in 2017, to stay here for a while, to train here with my new boyfriend Lucas. I came here to train with him for a while and I really liked it here. I was supposed to stay for two months and I stayed (for) six. I only went back to Brazil to get my stuff, to get everything and come back.

I really liked the training here. I didn’t speak any English when I first came but it was really good; everyone was tough and living the routine that Lucas lives. He is a champion in every part of his life so this inspires me a lot because he’s not only my boyfriend – husband – he’s my partner, he’s my best friend, he’s my coach also, my professor besides Draculino.

Draculino’s great, I have no words to describe Draculino – he’s such a mentor and I think he’s teaching Lucas well, you know, because he does a great, great job with everyone here at the school. I really like it, I felt more than… my first thought moving here was because of Lucas, but the good thing about us is that we are not only focused on the relationship, we have our dreams. I help him to conquer his dreams, he helps me to conquer mine. And after that, we are a wife and a husband. But first we are professional athletes.

So our dreams first and our relationship after. Everything is about being the best versions of ourselves on the mat and of course in the relationship. We are still learning how to be good partners in our relationship. We are better training partners [laughs then we talk about personal anecdotes including the time she had him do all household chores for 12 days for tapping her 12 times in 40 minutes].

GI: Do you have any competition or superfight coming up?
Cintra: I didn’t commit yet. We are thinking about it, strategically planning to do it.

GI: I can tell you and Lucas are very strategic about your matches.
Cintra: We need to be. We are on the highest level and we don’t want to get there (in a match) at 50 percent.

GI: What are your long-term plans?
Cintra: I want to be in the Hall of Fame of the IBJJF, conquer four times the world championships in the black belt. I want to live Jiu-Jitsu for my whole life because I love it. And I want to be the best version of myself in all ways. Of course I want to win every fight that I’m gonna do. I don’t know if I can, everyone, every fight is gonna be hard but I’m gonna be ready for anything because I work really hard. And I want to be the best that I can be, not better than everyone else, I want to be my best.

GI: Anything you want to say or anyone you want to thank?
Cintra: I want to thank my Professor Draculino of course, Lucas – he’s such an amazing professor also, where I am now, my Jiu Jitsu is getting better also because he pushes me hard every day. I want to thank my gi sponsor, Kingz. I want to thank Fighter’s Choice, the best supplements in the game. And Gracie Barra Texas for the amazing training. I’m not who I am alone, where I am is because of my partners that push me hard every day, help me improve.

GI: How can people follow you online?
Cintra: My Instagram is andressamcintra and my Facebook is “Andressa Mezari Cintra.”

“I hope I inspire someone to be the best version of themselves.”

Andressa Cintra

Jeff Liwag

Jeff Liwag is an educator of 20 years with specializations in Special Education and Instructional Technology. "Submission fighting" lessons in 1999 was his first exposure to grappling martial arts, eventually taking up Jiu-Jitsu classes in 2004 and 2005, only to start training regularly at Gracie Barra Texas in 2011, where he still trains to this day, earning every belt rank up to his current brown belt from Vinicius "Draculino" Magalhaes.

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