How Roberto ‘Cyborg’ Abreu Changed My Life (Before Ever Meeting Him)

“Coincidences are real and there are no such things as coincidences.”

-Seth Godin

As I have said before regarding my martial art school, Kogen Dojo, lots of things went very right and lots of things went very wrong to get us where we are today. Today, my friend and business partner, Dwayne Bowie, and I got to meet super-heavyweight multiple-time world-champion Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitor Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu, but that was not the cool part. To be clear, that was pretty awesome, but what really made my night was what this moment meant to Bowie.

Several years ago, when I had only just started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), one of my teammates, who I had become fast friends with, Bowie, a BJJ blue belt at the time, came back from an annual business trip in Miami, FL. While there, Bowie trained at Cyborg’s gym and was inspired by both the quality of instruction there and the professional environment. Bowie was ecstatic, bubbling over with excitement about the experience, wanting to share what he had learned from a world champion with our school. This only lasted for a short while, however, because, after class, Bowie was pulled aside by the owner’s girlfriend and told that the owner didn’t want him talking about or teaching techniques from other schools he visited. His school. His rules.

I did not think much of the encounter at the time, other than being slightly disappointed to see my friend so deflated. I often think about the passages in The Bible where it talks about being like a child, that this level of innocence is a desirable state, and the bad karma (my word) one incurs when one takes away this state of innocence from the child-like. Witnessing the extinguishing of Bowie’s child-like exuberance in that moment reminded me of this Biblical warning, even if I may be misinterpreting the passages. I took note and moved on. Bowie did as well.

The following year, Bowie was scheduled to take another trip to Miami, now as a purple belt in BJJ. He was still excited about the trip, although I am sure he was less willing to show this excitement in front of our teacher. He went to Miami and came back, but this time he did not really talk about his trip. I do not usually remember people not talking about something, but, in hindsight, this was noticeable. Bowie often talks about putting people in his life into separate boxes, with the people he is trusting of and vulnerable with on one side and the people he deals with on a professional level, out of necessity, on another side. I observed him being more guarded about his enthusiasm after this trip to Miami. At the time, I assumed this was simply because it was not a particularly exciting trip.

Fast forward to today, Saturday, July 28th, 2018. Bowie and I are at the UMBC Event Center in Baltimore, Maryland, along with a bunch of our training brothers and sisters to support Mike Stewart Jr. and Logan Yox who were competing at Fight 2 Win 82. It was a great event, very professionally managed, and the matches were fun to watch. We were getting ready to leave because Mike and Logan had finished their matches and we all had different places to be. Then, a girl stepped onto the stage and Bowie shouted, “Fight Sports! That’s Cyborg’s school! She’s one of Cyborg’s students!” Then, he looked across the stage and exclaimed, “There’s Cyborg! I’ve got to talk to Cyborg.”

Cyborg was in the middle of coaching his student, who ended up winning her match. Cyborg is a busy man who travels a lot and I hate regret, both mine and that of the people I care about, so I told Bowie, “You had better go over there and wait for the match to be over, so you can talk to him. When he leaves, he is gone.” I think Bowie thought I was mocking him, as if I did not think he really knew Cyborg, but I was being sincere. I saw a small window of opportunity and it was closing. Either because he forgot or did not want to bother the man, Bowie stayed by us and Cyborg left with his student after she won her match. We all watched a few more matches and talked, until it was time for us to all go our separate ways.

Bowie and I were not parked in the same lot, but we left together and something amazing happened while we stood outside looking for where we had each parked our respective vehicles. Bowie turned around and became highly animated, yelling, “Yo! There he is!” I looked and there was Cyborg walking with his student and her family right toward us. Once again, Bowie was ecstatic. As Cyborg walked toward us, Bowie became more and more excited, “Man! You changed my life, man! You don’t even know! Rob, this guy changed my life! It’s Cyborg! You changed my life, man!” Cyborg was somewhat confused, but took it all in stride. Bowie continued, “Do you remember me, man? Cyborg, bro! It’s Cyborg! Everything happens for a reason, bro! You changed my life and you don’t even know it!”

Cyborg was gracious and curious. “Hey man,” he said. How’s it going?” “I went down to Miami and we met,” Bowie said. “I trained at your school when I was a blue belt. I trained at your school when I was a purple belt. When I was a purple belt, you told me to open up my own school, man, and I did it. I did what you said! I opened my own school. You inspired me, man! I’m so excited! You told me to and I did it. I finally did it,” Bowie told Cyborg who was now grinning. Now, after all these years, I finally understood why Cyborg meant so much to Bowie.

“You just made my night, bro,” said Cyborg to Bowie. “I’m so happy that you followed your dream. I’m happy I could help you.” Bowie was so excited that he was jumping around, fully animated. It was an amazing moment to witness. Cyborg asked us about our school. We exchanged information and told him we would love to have him out for a seminar at some point. He said he would be honored and we parted ways. As we walked away, Bowie turned to me and said, “Bro! I’ve always told you. This was meant to be. God is looking out for me. We were meant to do this. Did you see what just happened? If we didn’t stay late, if we didn’t go out that door, if we didn’t stop to look to talk and to look for our cars, we never would have bumped into him. He changed my life. It was meant to be.”

As I walked away, my mind flashed back to when Bowie was a blue belt and first visited Cyborg’s school, to his excitement upon returning, his bubbling excitement as he shared with others what he had learned. Then I thought about how disappointed he was when he was told not to share his experience at our school. I remember thinking at the time, “If I ever have my own school, not only will I let someone like Bowie share his experience training with a world class jiu-jitsu practitioner while out of town, but I will encourage it!” World renowned Brazilian jiu-jitsu teacher Pedro Sauer has been known to say, “I don‘t care if you train at other schools as long as you bring back what you learned and teach it to us.” That is how I felt and how I still feel.

Thinking back on Bowie’s purple belt trip to Cyborg’s school in Miami, I remembered that he didn’t talk about it much and I thought that either it was an insignificant trip or he simply did not want to cause trouble at our school. As I was leaving UMBC I realized that trip was pivotal moment in Bowie’s jiu-jitsu career. Cyborg, a world champion, believed in Bowie and encouraged him to believe in himself. Bowie’s martial art school, our martial art school, Kogen Dojo, was partly inspired by one comment from Cyborg to Bowie several years ago, a comment I knew nothing about or had forgotten about until this moment: “You should open your own school. I was a purple belt when I opened my own school.”

What we say and what we do matters. We may never know the effect. In fact, the ripple of the stones we toss into the water of life can be felt by others many years and many miles away from when they first leave us, but they are felt. We are noticed. The universe is paying attention. One man’s optimism and generosity combined with another man’s short-sightedness and those combined moments changed Bowie’s path. Then, Bowie’s path merged with my path and my brother’s path. The three of us have joined forces with several others to create a thing that is greater than the sum of its parts. This thing, Kogen Dojo, has affected and will continue to affect the lives of many more men, women, and children, a lot of whom we will never meet, and that will ripple across states and countries, for many years into the future. We each matter and we are constantly making a difference. Choose what kind of difference you want to make.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

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