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FRINGE: Odyssey

Gerrit Gray Doppenberg
Greg cover photo
Gregory Watson - the head coach of Rollone  Gerrit Doppenberg

How far would you go, where would you travel, in what conditions would you live in to follow your dreams? Greg Watson travelled to the fringes of the Brazilian slums - in pursuit of his calling.

By his own admission, Greg Watson was never supposed to be successful. 

He sits in his home in Bryndwr, sipping a cup of tea, a wry smile on his face. His two dogs playfight on the ground beside him. His dark red hair is unkempt, and a 5 o’clock shadow peeks through his jawline. 

“I’ve achieved all my dreams. I have a black belt, I’ve got my dream car, I have my own gym. It’s all I ever really wanted.”  

It took Watson 14 years to achieve his black belt – a ranking in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu few achieve. It’s been his life's ambition, one that has taken him from New Zealand all around the world.  

His limbs are long and skinny, and he walks with a laid- back, relaxed composure. You might never know that Watson is a high-calibre martial artist.  

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)  is an evolution of Judo developed in Brazil, a type of ground-fighting. Watson is the head coach of Rollone, a gym in Sydenham and he has over a hundred students.  

Watson is the beating heart of the gym, living proof of the transformative power of hard work and dedication. 

Born on November 1st, 1983, Watson was almost named Kiwi, after the horse that won the Melbourne Cup in the same day.  

“I’m glad they didn’t name me that,” he laughs.  

Growing up in Dunedin, Watson was allowed a lot of freedom, but found himself unengaged with school life, as much as school was unengaged with him.  

“They thought I had a learning disability for a while. You don’t really get help in schools.  

He was bullied at school due to his red hair, and in turn started to bully other kids. Dropping out of school at a young age, he roamed the streets of Dunedin, becoming a painter by trade. But his bad habits thrived as he grew older.  

“I’d fight all the time when I left high school.”   

His forays into street fighting quickly grew out of control. After a friend was attacked by a group of people with golf clubs, a vicious back and forth ensued on the streets of Dunedin.  

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Watson chatting with one of his students, Paul Christian Gerrit Doppenberg

But a chance encounter with a friend ended up changing the trajectory of Watson’s life.  

“I thought fighting was punching, kicking, going hundies. A friend of mine told me, Greg, if you’re gonna get in that many scraps you need to learn how to fight.” 

“Then this little tiny dude, my mate, choked me out with a triangle - I was like what was that? I want to learn that. That’s sick! I don’t know what it is but I want to do it.” 

Watson started training under one of the only black belts in the South Island shortly after. He knew it was his calling.  

“I think the first day of BJJ, something ingrained in me, I just thought, man, this would be a cool job, do this all the time.” 

Watson gave up fighting, and took up BJJ. In two years, after achieving his blue belt, he made the step to continue his career and left for Australia.  

“My coach left and there wasn’t really good jiu jitsu in New Zealand. So I left to Aussie and hunted the best gyms out and found good black belts and trained under them.”  

Returning to New Zealand a year later, Watson dabbled in other martial arts.  

“I did a bit of Muay Thai and MMA but BJJ was the thing for me.”  

He made the decision to follow his dreams and move to Brazil, the homeland of the art. He arrived in Rio De Jainero in 2012, staying at a hostel for travelling athletes – with dire conditions.  

“I lived in a hostel which was the dirtiest hostel in Rio. It was the only building that hadn’t been destroyed and replaced.”  

The hostel was infested with pests.  

“You’d wake up with giants rats on your arm. I remember looking at my mates wall and thinking it was painted red, like a red paint brush, but it was dead bed bugs he’d been popping and killing who’d been eating him. It looked like I had a disease the first few weeks because you’d wake up and your whole body was covered in bites.”  

But Watson stuck it out. He was able to train four times a day, and finally found a gym that ticked the right boxes.  

““I found Checkmat there and it was the home I’d always looked for.”  

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Watson in front of the Checkmat logo in his gym Gerrit Doppenberg

Checkmat is the gym ran by two legendary Brazilian Jiu jitsu competitors, the Veira brothers. He knew right away that the place was right for him.  

“I went holy f***. I’d never seen anything like it, the way Ricardo teaches. The level of the guys.”  

And it wasn’t just the level of jiu jitsu that kept him, but the hospitality. 

“The first day I met Ricardo, I broke the gym shower. I was real worried, like these guys are gonna hate me, and he just laughed said it’s algood, don’t worry, how long you gonna stay?”  

Eventually, the conditions at the hostel became too much for Watson, and he moved into the Favelas – the slums of Brazil. He preferred it to the hostel.  

“Some of the slum houses are okay. They’re tiny, but they’re nice. They have a toilet, a shower, your own room. It’s about 15 minutes straight upstairs to my home. That’s the funny thing about Brazil, the poor people have the best views.” 

The favelas are known for their danger – as little investment has been made into the area. Watson’s first stint came during the Olympics however – where culture shifted.  

“It wasn’t as bad as people said. At the time, a lot of the favelas on the south side had been pacified. They ran the gangsters out. There were people with guns and stuff, but it was more low-key.” 

Most of the people living in the Favelas live in abject poverty.  

“People don’t have anything. I threw some clothes out, the next day I saw people wearing them. They ain’t got nothing.”  

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Watson teaching technique to his Saturday morning class Gerrit Doppenberg

But Watson is almost nostalgic about his time there. 

“I love the culture there. I like living in the slum. I didn’t have a washing machine, couldn’t flush toilet paper, I didn’t have much food but I liked living on the edge.  

"There’s guys with guns on your street –I didn’t know if I’d be robbed or shot. Third world places are just totally different to our reality. Someone pulled a gun on you here, you’d freak out. Over there? People are getting shot every day.” 

Being a white New Zealander in Brazil, he found it tough to fit in at the start. But through his dedication, he was able to show he was there for the right reason and became friends with his gymmates.  

“It was hard. They even said to me later, you’re the only gringo we’ve ever liked. They realised I was just there for the jiu jitsu. I was training four times a day, and just getting smashed, and ended up accepting me as one of their own. 

“A lot of gringos found that hard. They’d go to the gym, and get no support, and be there for three months and leave. They don’t stick it out. I was getting smashed all the time until they started inviting me to hang out. 

“We’d share food after training. One day this Brazilian guy took this apple out of my hand and just started eating it. A couple days later he was eating a sandwich and I took it and started eating it, and he didn’t care. It’s a sharing lifestyle.” 

He returned to New Zealand in 2013, and trained at a Christchurch gym, but didn’t feel as comfortable.  

“It wasn’t the vibe I was used to, the Brazilian vibe. I try do it just like they do over there, with the warm ups, everyone having fun.”  

After receiving his brown belt from Ricardo, he was instructed to start a gym in New Zealand. And so, Rollone was born – with only two members. Originally Watson was coaching out of his garage, but was able to move into a larger gym.  

“I always wanted to coach Jiu jitsu. Seeing people getting better, progressing. It’s just great. Watching the kids grow, watching some of my students get sponsored and smash tournaments.  

Watson has made sacrifices to be in the position he is.  

“I don’t have much money, I’m not rich. I worked three jobs at one stage to keep the gym going. I sacrificed so much. I had to give up having a family and kids, everyone my age has a family and kids, and I went the other way.”  

But Watson’s family congregate around him. They train with him six times a week, and they wait for him to return to Brazil. They see the sacrifices he has made, the journey he’s taken. The black belt wrapped around his waist isn’t holding his gi together. It’s the sign of a lifetime spent in the pursuit of a fringe dream – from the slums of Brazil to his new home – Rollone.