This is the fifth in a series of interviews with the major players in the fight scene on the island of Phuket, Thailand. These are the stories of survival during the Covid pandemic and its rippling effects.
The gym is nestled on a hill, overlooking a lake in picturesque Nai Harn, Phuket, surrounded by traditional Thai architecture on cobbled streets. It seems a peculiar place to stumble upon a world-class Brazilian jiujitsu school.
Yet, there it is.
This unique setting has now played host to the aptly named Temple BJJ academy for close to a year. With a stunning beach just a short walk from the martial arts school, lifelong surfer and head coach Olavo Abreu has no inkling of moving any time soon.
“The world changing, [it] changed my life – and I ended up here,” he told The AllStar in a December interview. “It was a good change.”
In June 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Abreu, along with fellow founders Campbell Symes and ‘Mr. Louie’ seized the opportunity to build what was to be the culmination of their life’s work to this point: A traditional Brazilian jiujitsu school where students can hone their craft.
The following story recounts Abreu’s journey as a disciple of the ‘gentle art’ in Thailand. It encompasses the difficulties he faced throughout the global pandemic, the birth of ‘Temple’, and their dream for the future of BJJ in Thailand.
As an avid surfer raised on the sunny beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it’s not difficult to imagine how Abreu might have found himself residing on the island haven of Phuket.
The relaxed atmosphere stretches of white sand beaches and tropical scenery of the island beckoned almost 10 million beach-goers from around the globe each year before the pandemic hit.
Abreu’s journey, however, spanned multiple continents over several decades before he’d eventually set up shop on the sandy shores of Thailand.
It was by coincidence, through a shared love of surfing, that the Brazilian was introduced to jiujitsu and its most famous family: Several members of the Gracie family were also partial to the board sport. In 1994, a 27-year-old Abreu set foot, for the first time, in the Carlson Gracie Academy, oblivious to the impact that decision would eventually have on his entire life.
By 1998, under the eye of BJJ masters Marcelo Alonso and Carlson Gracie Jr., among others, Abreu had claimed first place in the CBJJ (Confederação Brasileira de Jiu-Jitsu) Brazilian National tournament as a purple belt. He would go on to place third and second respectively as a brown belt in the following years.
The next two decades saw the now fifth-degree black belt establish himself as one of the world’s most highly regarded BJJ practitioners. Abreu helped found the Brazilian Top Team – in time stepping into the role as head coach – and became an instrumental figure in the spread of the sport outside of the borders of Brazil.
His influence was particularly evident in the eastern hemisphere, where he helped establish a national school grappling program in the United Arab Emirates, residing in the country for eight years before a move to Russia.
Abreu eventually landed in Thailand around 2011, filling the role of head coach of BJJ at Phuket Top Team for nearly 10 years until the emergence of the Coronavirus effectively shut down the island. The gym’s timetable was reduced to a meager two Muay Thai classes per day.
“Covid and this whole situation that happened with us was very difficult,” the Brazilian claimed, later noting he was forced to train out of Symes’ home gym.
It was around that time Symes introduced Abreu to ‘Mr. Louie’, and the trio began dreaming of opening their own BJJ academy on the island.
Despite the turbulent and uncertain nature of the pandemic at that point, Abreu and his partners were intent on realizing that dream and focused their efforts on finding a suitable location for their future school.
The Brazilian described “a solid one year of work” going into finding the perfect site for the facility, admitting he “didn’t know what was going to happen” in regards to the rules and regulations surrounding the pandemic.
“Then we found this place.”
The trio of BJJ practitioners was initially drawn to the location and atmosphere of the Chivitr area that now hosts the academy.
The name “came right to our head,” Abreu said. “If you walk down here it’s pretty much a temple,” he said, gesturing toward the outside architecture.
Temple opened its doors to the public in June of 2021, still encumbered by the array of restrictions enforced by the Thai government. As these measures finally ease, Abreu feels things are starting to fall into place.
“We’re starting to get back on track again.”
The BJJ veteran offered a jiujitsu analogy to summarise the situation: “We overcame a difficult situation. That’s jiujitsu – the cliche… it wasn’t easy, but as jiujitsu helped me a lot to overcome, keep calm and try to sweep my opponent – that was the Covid – get on the top, pass the guard now I’m almost arm locking the Covid.”
Looking ahead to the future of Temple and BJJ in Thailand, Abreu is determined to establish a flourishing local scene built around the martial art.
“I was [pretty much] the first one to teach jiujitsu [in Thailand] – before me it was Ray Elbe, but Ray was more no-gi,” he said. “Now [our] focus [is] to build a jiujitsu community – bring my affiliation, bring my friends, everybody’s welcome.”
In time, Temple academy plans to form a competition team, and hopes for Phuket to host tournaments sanctioned by the International Brazilian Jiujitsu Federation.
“The IBJJF is my house, and I wanna bring IBJJF high-level competition to Phuket… it’s a lot of negotiation but we’re [getting] there. We’re trying.”
“All over the world will come… in a good five years I think you can have one of the biggest” tournaments, he said.
The Brazilian hopes that with more locally held tournaments, interest in the sport will grow in Thailand. That’s not just good for his business, but the nation’s youth as a whole, according to Abreu.
“For me, bro, to change a country you need two things: Education and sport. We did change a country,” he said, referring to the UAE.
“The countries that don’t invest in sport and education are losing – you’re losing your youth,” Abreu said. “Of course, everyone wants to party, but sports and education give you goals.”