When you’re a black belt leg lock enthusiast who’s been training jiu-jitsu for sixteen years, you almost expect to suffer a few injuries on the mats. But when Colorado-based black belt Vellore Caballero ruptured his Achilles, it wasn’t due to a submission gone wrong — he just took a bad step.
Caballero has always been a seriously tough dude. When he was bullied as a kid in high school, he decided to take up wrestling. Once he’d left college and was “itching” for a sport that could give him the same spark that wrestling had, he started Judo after a friend’s recommendation. He then discovered jiu-jitsu, and since then, it’s become his whole life. He runs the very successful Easton Centennial academy (which is part of the Easton Training Centers family) and is still a relatively active competitor himself, having gone 3-1 at Fight 2 Win.
Jiu-jitsu is far more than just a hobby and career for Caballero, however. He served in the military for seven years, working as a combat medic for an artillery unit in Korea and a Cavalry unit in Colorado. “My unit here in Colorado reflagged once and then we deployed to Iraq,” he says. “My time in Iraq was split between two locations. The first place was a small area up north that was absent of action. The second place…not so much.”
From the day he arrived in Iraq, Caballero’s time was spent treating patients. “I earned my combat medical badge over there for performing medical treatment under fire and some PTSD to go along with it,” he says. “This is another reason I am so grateful for jiu-jitsu. When I came back, it was training and the community that kept me going. It saved my life for real! It gave me a positive outlet for the emotions and feelings I was dealing with.”
Caballero’s time on the mats came to an abrupt and painful pause in July of 2017 when he took a wrong step in the back of the academy. The foot-and-a-half fall managed to rupture his Achilles, but Caballero didn’t want to put his life on pause for something as silly as a major injury.
“I was supposed to leave that night for a Bellator fight with ‘Big Bird’ Britney Elkin. I told the doc to hold off on the surgery until I got back and went with Bird for her fight. When I got back, I had surgery to repair the Achilles and got on the recovery.”
Caballero’s crazy level of fitness is enviable by people far younger than him, so it was understandable that he thought he’d be back on the mats in no time. He soon discovered, however, that his recovery time would be far longer than expected. “They told me it would take a year to fully recover, which I laughed at. I had beaten every recovery time ever said to me by about half, and this would be no different. Only it was! The Achilles itself wasn’t too bad, but the imbalances created from the way I had to compensate for not using that leg took me every bit of a year to address. It’s been a long journey back, but it feels pretty good now. I still go after leg locks… so it must be alright!”
As soon as he could compete, though, Caballero went big. He returned to the Fight 2 Win stage in November 2018, and tonight, he’ll be back up there to compete against Sergio Castillo in a 150-lb no-gi match at F2W 101. It’s a big deal for anyone to compete in front of such a large hometown crowd, but considering that Caballero almost quit competing for good after his Achilles injury, every competitive endeavor is a win.
“I had even said that if I had another major injury (I’ve had a few), that I’d be done competing. Needless to say, that hasn’t been the case. The Achilles is stronger than ever, and so is my will to win. The only difference is that I only do competitions or matches that I’m really excited about. At my age, having so many bad injuries is a reminder that the final act is coming. Eventually, and probably sooner than later, I’ll hang up the competition hat. Finding other things to focus on that bring me joy and fulfillment is more and more pressing. But until then….wheeeee!”
Caballero expects that his match will live up to the hype that F2W brings to every event (and that he’ll come out on top), but says that his time and love for competitive jiu-jitsu is “being slowly replaced by coaching and a newfound love of business.” He intends to focus more on growing the community, especially the ever-expanding one at Easton Training Centers. “What we do so powerful, and more people need to experience it. My days remaining of beating people on the mat are numbered, but there is so much I can do to spread the message of jiu-jitsu.”
While making an amazing recovery from a ruptured Achilles to return to one of grappling’s biggest stages is certainly a victory in its own right, the biggest accomplishment for Caballero has come slowly over time. “My proudest achievements in jiu-jitsu all have to do with how it’s prompted me to change,” he says. “I’m not sure if this is true of all jiu-jitsu academies, but Easton has made me truly care about the man I am to the world. It’s made me stare at myself in the mirror and ask how I can be better — better at coaching, better to the people in my life, and a better person in general. Jiu-jitsu/Easton (they’re one and the same to me) has made me more than I ever thought I’d be, and then shown me that there’s further to go. I can’t explain how much that means to a kid that grew up with no real role models in my life.”
Catch Caballero’s match and many others when F2W 101 streams live tonight on FloGrappling.