Rene Lopez Explains How a Loss to Gianni Grippo Led to a Career in Jiu-Jitsu

Earning a spot on the podium for the adult black belt division at the IBJJF Worlds is an impressive feat. At the 2021 Worlds, Rene Lopez used his ultra-dangerous guard to capture third in the featherweight division. Making Lopez’s performance more impressive is that, unlike most of the elite IBJJF competitors, Lopez started jiu-jitsu in his 20s and is now finding success in the adult division while in his 30s.

Lopez recently appeared on the Open Guardcast and spoke about his journey in jiu-jitsu, the moment he knew he wanted to pursue jiu-jitsu full-time, and changes he’d like to see in the IBJJF.

Like many of us, Lopez gained a bit of weight during the COVID-19 pandemic. He started training seriously for Worlds in August 2021.

At quarantine peak I was 173 [pounds]. I was 173 with multiple tires… My clothes didn’t fit, my wife was making fun of me. There was a time where we were training on the down low, and my training partners, my good friends, they were just stack passing me. I’m always really good with stack defense but man, when you have the extra belly, it’s really hard.

Jiu-jitsu has changed considerably since Lopez started. A visit to Brazil to train with Rafael and Guilherme Mendes opened Lopez’s eyes to new possibilities in jiu-jitsu.

I first started at the end of 2007, 2008. American jiu-jitsu, it was barely kind of blossoming a little, it was barely popping at that time. Jiu-jitsu was very different, very old school… Being on your back, being in the guard was all defense and countering. Throughout the time, obviously a lot of Brazilians, champions, moving to the states, you start seeing the shift of how jiu-jitsu was changing. I went to Brazil to train with the Mendes brothers in 2010. I was a purple belt. When I went down there I noticed that the guys that played guard were very offensive. They’re just trying to kill you off the back. It was pretty cool to see, a different way of thinking when you’re on your back.

Lopez vividly remembers the moment that he realized he wanted to pursue a career in jiu-jitsu.

It was 2009. I was just a blue belt. I made it to the finals of blue belt Pan aAms. I think I had four or five matches that day. It was like 60 people in my division, and I fought Gianni Grippo in the finals. I lost by two advantages I believe. And after that I was just like ‘oh dude, I’m good at something. I’m really good at this. I’m digging this.’ I digged it from the first day but it was just me making to the finals, five matches, I was like ‘wow I think I really want to pursue this.’ So I turned purple belt a couple months after… The Mendes brothers ,they were doing a seminar in San Diego… I went down there, I did a seminar, I told them, ‘Hey man I want to come down.’ They were like ‘ok’… Next thing you know I was in Brazil… Their city was like 3 or 4 hours away from Sao Paulo. I don’t know how I got there but I made it there and trained with them.

Lopez appreciates that the IBJJF makes it possible for new competitors to make a name for themselves. However, if he had to make changes to the IBJJF, he has a couple in mind.

Sometimes the referees are a little biased, for sure. I know everybody says they’re not but I feel like they are sometimes. Obviously it’s the job of the competitor to know the rules, too, because they change the rules every year and you gotta keep up to that… I think they’re doing pretty well with the rulesets and stuff they have now. Maybe, obviously, do more fighter pay or tournament pay, if you win, a little bit more prize money. IBJJF makes a lot of money so I don’t see why they don’t have that more often… Maybe help out people that win these tournaments to get sponsorships, whatever you can do to help them out.

Ben Coate

Ben has been involved with grappling, whether through wrestling or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, essentially his entire life. After wrestling throughout his childhood, Ben found Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a young adult and quickly fell in love. He has been training for over ten years and currently holds the rank of brown belt, and remains involved in both the MMA and BJJ scene. Ben has been writing about combat sports since 2017. He has interviewed and profiled some of MMA's biggest stars, including multiple UFC champions.

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