It takes an incredible amount of hard work and talent to get anywhere near the podium at the ADCC Trials. Most of the time, it also takes years and years of hard, consistent training. But for Nick Rodriguez, it only took six months.
Rodriguez, who earned bronze in the +99 kg category at last weekend’s ADCC East Coast Trials behind winner Tex Johnson and runner-up Hudson Taylor, is a newbie to the sport of jiu-jitsu, but like many great BJJ athletes, he started off as a wrestler. Originally from South Jersey, he finished his senior year at Clayton High School with a record of 111-17 in the 170 lb weight class. He only wrestled during his freshman year at Ferrum College in Virginia, but he finished strong with a record of 34-4 at 197 lbs and a rank of #12 in the country.
He switched gears during his sophomore year and focused on fitness modeling. The dedication paid off, and Rodriguez was able to drop out of school to pursue a career with Wilhelmina Models. Surprisingly enough, that’s where jiu-jitsu comes in. “I started jiu-jitsu, honestly, just to get in better shape for modeling,” says Rodriguez. “But once I stepped back on the mat, I realized how much I missed competing.”
Rodriguez hasn’t taken his training lightly, either. During the six months he’s been training in the sport, he says he’s practiced two to three times a day and training at some of the highest level academies in the area. His trips to Renzo Gracie Manhattan, Ricardo Almeida BJJ, South Jersey BJJ, Grindhouse MMA, Precision Jiu-Jitsu Spring Mount, and Rutgers and Princeton University (for wrestling) aren’t quick trips — all are between an hour and 2.5 hours from home for him, and he spends about five hours each day in the car just getting from gym to gym.
For South Jersey BJJ coach Jay Regalbuto, Rodriguez’s potential was apparent from the very start. “I’ve seen plenty of really talented people start jiu-jitsu and be able to handle themselves and defend against a group of advanced technical students, but this was different,” says Regalbuto. “He literally would just pass guard to armbar over and over and over no matter who the opponent. It wasn’t technical — he just knew to get past the legs and straighten the arm.”
Regalbuto knew he was looking at a lot of potential from the get-go. “I told him he was like Cyclops (Marvel/X-Men) without his eyewear: just destroying everything he looks at. I said, ‘Lets put the glasses on and learn to control it.’ I said if he did he could be a legend. Not just good or great, but a legend.”
After a month of training, Regalbuto encouraged Rodriguez to enter a local Grappling Industries tournament. Rodriguez went head-to-head against grapplers ranked from blue to black belt in the expert super heavy and expert absolute divisions to come out 7-0 with five submissions. From there, Regalbuto knew he needed the young prodigy to compete at the upcoming ADCC Trials. He arranged for him to train at many of the best academies in the area with athletes like Gordon Ryan and Tom DeBlass, and in the meantime, Rodriguez entered (and went 3-0 in) the heavyweight expert division at NAGA.
“Honestly, he’s a freak,” says Regalbuto. “Wants to win, trains with zero ego, has a gas tank, and wants to be the best that’s ever lived. We are very fortunate to be a part of the Renzo Gracie family and have guys like Gordon Ryan, James Booth, and Tom DeBlass that have helped and will help in this 22-year-old phenom’s journey to greatness. Now we just need sponsors to help with this travel. He’s willing to do whatever he must do to become great.”
While Rodriguez didn’t qualify for the ADCC Championship this time around, he did go 3-1 at the East Coast Trials… and earn his blue belt on the podium. He says he knows he has “a lot of catching up to do,” but he sees a victory at both the Trials and the ADCC Championship in his future. “I want to compete as much as possible. I’ll take any super fight against any belt. I want Combat EBI, I want Polaris, I want Kasai, and over all, I want ADCC. Give me six months I’ll give you 3rd [place]. Give me a year, I’ll change this sport.”