Jessica Branco Trades One Graceful Art for Another
On the surface, it appears there is little in common between the brutal sport of mixed martial arts and the gently expressive sport of figure skating. One involves breaking down opponents with punches, kicks, knees, elbows and with submissions that hyperextend tendons, joints and bones or put a person to sleep altogether with blood and esophageal chokes. The other is almost a dance – free-flowing and graceful, with competitors pitting individual or partner-based performances against one another in the hopes of impressing the audience – and it always goes to the judge’s scorecards.
But when we delve deeper into the subtle nuances of the two generally disparate sports, we find some similarities – notably between figure skating and a single facet of MMA: Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Both have basic techniques through which practitioners can perform moves which, in turn, can transition seamlessly into other actions. How each person develops and performs these techniques makes up their overall style, and though the basics remain the same for everyone, it is in their execution that their user’s skill is essentially judged.
Amateur mixed martial artist and Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt Jessica Branco was a figure skater for 15 years, between the ages of four and 19, in her hometown of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It was an ideal sport at the time for the current American Top Team member, considering the region’s climate. Eventually, however, her affinity for the sport waned and she parted ways with it.
“It wasn’t that hard for me to quit because, basically, it’s a really young sport,” says Branco. “Most of the girls, they get onto the international team and they try to compete in the Olympics, and they’re all about 14 or 15, so by 19, which is the age at which I stopped, if you didn’t make it to the top, basically it’s pretty much over for your career. I just stopped because it was more of a school issue for me; I was doing sports and school, but I was putting so much time into sports that I wasn’t doing my schoolwork. I didn’t have a passion for it anymore because I had been doing it for so long, so I stopped.”
Four years later, a coworker at a restaurant suggested she try BJJ. She went to the gym in Montreal where she met her first coach. She fell in love with the sport the second she stepped onto the mat. After two years of solely training jiu-jitsu, so grew curious about mixed martial arts, and although MMA’s popularity in Canada was and still is undeniable, Branco felt as if her potential wasn’t being reached where she was and she made the move down to South Florida to train at the world-renowned American Top Team in Coconut Creek.
“At the time, there was only one other girl training MMA over there – she’s down here now training also – and I didn’t have everything I needed over there, so I just decided to move here,” she says. “Obviously, the weather helps a little bit too, because it’s really cold up there. [American Top Team] is really amazing. Whatever you need, there’s always somebody there to help you. If it’s not a coach, it’s another fighter. We have a lot of people to look up to that are already good and who have been through the situations we are going through, which helps a lot.”
Though she implements other facets of combat into her skill set on a daily basis in her MMA training, Branco maintains an unwavering focus on her first martial arts love, participating in several world grappling competitions such as the 2013 World Jiu-Jitsu No-Gi Championship and the Pan-American BJJ Gi Championship, both of which she placed third in.
“My real love is for jiu-jitsu,” she confides. “Obviously, we don’t use the gi in the cage, but I still want to compete in gi and I hope to earn my black belt and become world champion one day. I actually started with no gi. My first class, I didn’t even know you could do jiu-jitsu with a gi. I just showed up with some shorts and a t-shirt and stepped on to the mat, and then somebody told me – one of the guys that was teaching – he said I should do it with the gi because it would help me become better.”
She began competing in MMA as an amateur in December 2012, winning by first-round armbar. A little over eight months later, she competed for the second time and lost a unanimous decision. Next Wednesday, she will try to get back into the win column when she faces Sheliska Silva, who trains at Team Assassin in Tampa, in her Xtreme Fight Night debut at XFN 2 at Knockers Sports Bar. Branco claims she hasn’t been able to find out much about her opponent.
“Honestly, I don’t know anything about her,” she says. “I saw something posted saying, ‘Submission specialist Jessica Branco is facing striker Sheliska Silva,’ so that’s the only thing I know. I didn’t even know before that that she was a striker, so I have no idea.”
Coming from a grappling background, Branco is well aware where her fighting deficiencies lie; she has been putting a great deal of effort into her striking, and though she is under no illusions when it comes to where she believes she has the edge over most opponents, she is making strides in filling in the holes of her overall game.
“[Striking] is pretty much what my weakness is,” she admits. “I get to wrestle, since every jiu-jitsu match starts standing, so I can get more comfortable with the takedown part. My boyfriend comes from Capoiera, so I’m training with him, but I don’t really know what my striking style is. I don’t really like to kick much, but when I train with him, obviously there are a lot of kicks. I’m just trying and experimenting.”
Branco’s boyfriend is Bellator fighter Cristiano “Soldier Boy” Souza. Many were first introduced to the undefeated welterweight during his stint on Bellator’s Fight Master series which aired on Spike TV. They train together at American Top Team, and when she competes he is often in her corner. She believes the support they show each other both competitively and outside of the gym strengthens every aspect of their lives.
“I think it just makes my lifestyle, in general, easier,” she says. “He’s training too, you know, so we go through stuff that people – normal people – don’t understand. I know he’s never going to get mad at me because I spend too much time at the gym, and I’m never going to get mad at him because he’s at the gym too much, either. It’s nice for me, mentally, because I’m the kind of person who can get nervous and he usually comes with me for my fights, so it’s better for me because he knows me really well and he can tell when I’m stressing out. He knows what to tell me to react in a good way. He makes me feel better – stronger. I would say that a fight is 90 percent mental, to be honest with you. So far, it’s that way with me. In training, he knows more about MMA than the people who I’m fighting, so he puts me in situations that, I know when I fight, will never happen – or if they happen, I’ll be ready for them and I won’t be surprised.”
Jessica Branco will be facing Sheliska Silva on January 15th in the fifth fight of the night at XFN-2 at Knockers Sports Bar, inside of Tootsie’s Cabaret in Miami Gardens, FL. Doors open at 7 p.m. The weight-ins occur the night before, also at Knockers, at 8 p.m. You must be 21 or over to attend both events. For more information, visit XFN’s Facebook page for hourly updates.