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Cornelius News

International Jiu Jitsu star lands in Cornelius

Wander Braga is a sixth-degree black belt

Aug. 8. By Erica Batten. The sign hadn’t been up long at Wander Braga Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when a man, grabbing pizza at Hungry Howie’s on West Catawba Avenue, looked across the parking lot.

Is that the Wander Braga? I’ve been following him since the 90s, the man thought. Soon, he was making time for classes and training with a competitor he had once seen only on TV.

Through the vision of Iggy Sanchez and Wander Braga, both national and international martial arts champions, the Wander Braga Academy opened in March and has since added almost 100 students.

After an injury forced him to retire from kickboxing at age 32, Sanchez trained in jiu jitsu with the legendary Braga in Brazil. But when he moved to Cornelius three years ago, Sanchez quickly realized that the jiu jitsu style he had learned with Braga wasn’t available here. Meanwhile, Braga had returned to the United States after 13 years back in his native Rio. Sanchez invited Braga to North Carolina in hopes of starting a partnership.

“As soon as I landed at his house, he showed me the lake, this city,” Braga said. “I fell in love. It was a message from God.”

Braga shared Sanchez’s vision to create a community atmosphere surrounding Brazilian jiu jitsu.


“We both come from a fighting background, and that’s something we wanted to stay away from,” Sanchez said.

Growing up in a culture where bullying was normal, Braga began training at age 12. Learning martial arts gave him skills and confidence to offset his small-ish stature; he’s 5’8”. But the training was highly competitive and unforgiving. Better-skilled fighters at a typical training gym would treat newcomers as “fresh meat,” Braga said.

Sanchez found the same attitude in kickboxing.

“I’ve been to many places and trained. And one thing that’s always hard to find is a community environment,” he said.

At their school, Braga and Sanchez work to create an inclusive atmosphere. During initial classes, one will demonstrate techniques while the other shadows the students and explains what’s going on. The students range from young kids to middle-aged professionals training on their lunch breaks to women who’ve never trained in self-defense.

“Once you’re on the mat, everyone is pretty much equal,” Braga said.

6th degree black belt

That being said, it’s rare to have a sixth-degree black belt like Braga coaching young kids, Sanchez said. Starting in the 1990s, Braga went on a 15-year unbeaten run. He was known as The Crusher for the way he completely rolled his competition.

With kids, though, it’s play time. In one game, called Sleeping Crocodile, Braga lies on the mat and pretends to be asleep. The students, barefoot, crouch low in a fighting posture and approach the “crocodile” as silently as possible. If they wake the crocodile, the crocodile rolls them. Through the game, the kids practice correct rolling techniques in order to control their opponents.

“My kids know: every class they’re going to have a game. But they’re going to learn,” Braga said.

Unlike the strict teaching style he grew up with, Braga also likes to have upbeat music playing during warmups. He likes to joke around on the mat.

Photo by @wanderbraga_bjj

But behind the joking is a serious mission, a whole new lifestyle.

“Combat sports has been a healthy outlet for me. It has given me so much opportunity to grow as a person,” Sanchez said. “You start to look at life through a different tunnel. You start focusing on your health. So rather than going home and having a beer on the couch, you turn to the community.”

Over the years Sanchez has encountered hundreds of people who have overcome bad habits, even addictions, through martial arts.

“You’re not just going to a regular gym,” he said. He estimates that half of the students have at least one other family member training at the school. The trainers host community barbecues and days on the lake.

Kiryn Haynes, 18, started training after seeing how much fun her family was having with jiu jitsu. Now two months in, Haynes said her confidence has grown, along with her ability to defend herself.

“I think it’s powerful to be able to choke a grown man out,” she said. “Then I’m just a beast. Every woman should know some form of self-defense.”

More skills

Aside from the physical benefits, jiu jitsu develops problem-solving skills, Sanchez said. “I have to think two, three moves ahead. It really is a mental game, which is why it’s so attractive to people who are intelligent,” he said.

For all the benefits of practicing jiu jitsu with highly qualified trainers, the students at Wander Braga school are eager to give back, sharing responsibility for operational duties such as social media, accounting, and even helping Braga and Sanchez prepare to re-enter the competitive circuit.

Despite being open only a few months, the school’s owners are already looking for a larger space. But success hasn’t gone to their heads.

“There are no egos in here,” Sanchez said.

Wander Braga Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy

• 18047 West Catawba Avenue, Suite C

• (704) 303-0896