Johnny Tama couldn’t have been more determined going into this year’s IBJJF No-Gi Worlds, and he wasn’t afraid to let the world know it. Just before he set out to achieve his goal of becoming a gold medalist at the prestigious competition, Tama wrote a Facebook post that confidently predicted his victory:
“This weekend is when I will become what I’ve dreamed so much for so long, watch me!”
While many similar premature declarations of success are often followed up with an all-too-familiar “Tried my best but couldn’t get the W” update, Tama delivered on his prediction. He brought home the gold in the 73kg division and became the first Ecuadorian to win an IBJJF World Championship title at the black belt level.
Tama’s journey began ten years ago following a “street altercation” that he says left him badly injured. After the incident, his stepfather began teaching him self-defense and ultimately encouraged him to start training jiu-jitsu. Tama’s skills grew under the tutelage of JM Iturralde and Fernando “Soluço” Di Piero and the rest of the Alliance Ecuador/Iturralde Arte Suave team, and as he moved up the ranks (and eventually moved to the US in 2016 to join the Stronghold BJJ team), he accumulated a number of titles that include a win at Pans as a purple belt, No-Gi Pans as a brown belt, and SJJIF World Championship titles in gi and no-gi as a black belt. Among all those impressive victories in jiu-jitsu, though, is a far more surprising victory. “I once won a burger contest before competing at Pan Ams,” he told the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I said if I win the burger contest, I’m winning Pan Ams, and so I did it!”
Tama is building a pattern of making his jiu-jitsu live up to the promises he tells himself and others, and as his pre-No-Gi-Worlds post indicates, he knew that this year’s competition would be his most successful yet. “I’ve been training really hard the past ten years, and this past month or two, I felt something click on the mindset, and it was that I was ready to lose or die on the battlefield,” he says. “Once I accepted the fact that I was dead, I could only enjoy the present moment and be mindful of it. I believe firmly that the grace of Jesus Christ, gave me light and strength to overcome all the hardship I went through to win this title.”
The significance of being the first Ecuadorian World Champion isn’t lost on Tama, either. “This meant everything to me because I went against all the odds. I dropped [out] of college, my office job, my team, my family and friends to live the BJJ Dream. Many people didn’t believe I could win it. I became the first Hispanic to win the black belt world championships [in the] Adult division and the first black belt world champ from my country, which had many people placing, but never winning the big one at adult black belt. It means that God has perfect timing, because I had to open to Sinistro Iturralde and Prof. Lepri at Pan Ams and Worlds. I felt really sad ’cause I felt ready for the challenge, but my time wasn’t up yet.”
Although Tama has planted roots in the United States now, he remains very much in touch with his home country and praises the growing jiu-jitsu culture in Ecuador. “The jiu-jitsu culture [in Ecuador] is growing at an amazing fast pace, and people are very into competing so I would say is big and becoming bigger sooner than later, with a very modern touch. There’s a lot of young talent over there too. All of that to the efforts of good people like professors Soluço, and many others that support his vision.”
Tama, of course, isn’t done setting goals for the future. But just as he has been since his early days of jiu-jitsu, he’ll be looking toward the future with confidence and the support of those who have been behind him from the start. “I want to say thanks a lot to all my BJJ mentors, all my teammates throughout the course of my career, my good friends, and the people that gave me money without expecting anything in return just to help me achieve this dream. In your honor I will achieve bigger stuff and make you feel proud!”