Ricco “Suave” Rodriguez is a name that resonates in both the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts. His journey is a story of triumph, adversity, and the complexities of fame. As the first U.S. national to earn an ADCC gold medal, the second American to secure a world title in Jiu-Jitsu, and the first UFC Champion of Puerto Rican & Mexican decent, Rodriguez’s contributions to martial arts are undeniable.
This article will explore his achievements, his turbulent career in MMA, and the challenges he faced both inside and outside the octagon.
Early Life & Jiu Jitsu
Ricco Rodriguez’s journey into the world of martial arts began with wrestling. He competed at Toms River North High School in New Jersey and later for Tottenville High School in Staten Island, New York. However, it was his move to California and his job at Gold’s Gym in Redondo Beach that introduced him to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, thanks to his friendship with legendary coach Erik Paulson.
In 1997, Rodriguez made a significant impact in the Jiu-Jitsu community by becoming the second American to win a CBJJ World Championship, competing in the blue belt division’s open weight category. He continued to compete in the purple belt division, and in 1998, he became the first +99kg champion at the prestigious Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) Championship, showcasing his grappling prowess.
Mixed Martial Arts
Ricco’s journey to the UFC title was not without its share of trials and tribulations. He began his MMA career in the late 1990s, competing in various promotions before making his way to the UFC.
Rodriguez’s success in ADCC caught the attention of MMA promoters, marking the beginning of his career in mixed martial arts. In 1999, he made his MMA debut at the Extreme Cage tournament, winning two fights in a single night. He also became one of Mark Kerr’s primary sparring partners, helping him secure his first MMA contract with PRIDE Fighting Championship.
Rodriguez moved to Japan in 2000, where he trained with Takada Dojo and fought against formidable opponents, including Gary Goodridge. He eventually returned to the United States and joined Team Punishment, training alongside fighters like Tito Ortiz, Rob McCullough, and “Rampage” Jackson.
Rodriguez made his UFC debut in June 2001 at UFC 32, where he quickly made a name for himself by defeating future UFC heavyweight champion and #1 ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the world Andrei Arlovski via TKO. His success in the UFC culminated in him winning the heavyweight championship in 2002, but his celebratory lifestyle ultimately led to a drug addiction that cost him his title and UFC contract.
Becoming A UFC Champion
Ricco “Suave” had several notable victories over some of the sport’s biggest names en route to the UFC heavyweight championship. He went on to beat Pete Williams, Jeff Monson and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka to earn a shot for the vacant title against future UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture at UFC 39. Rodriguez was losing on the scorecard in the initial rounds. In the fifth, he was able to achieve a ground-and-pound victory with a stoppage by verbal tapout.
After beating Couture, Ricco cemented himself as the first person of Puerto Rican descent to win the UFC heavyweight championship. He is also technically the first of Mexican descent, which is often credited to Cain Velasquez. Despite not getting that recognition, Rodriguez is the first Hispanic American to ever win a UFC heavyweight title.
In his first title defense, he was knocked out by the 6’8 up-and-coming striker Tim Sylvia in the first round, thus losing the belt.
A Controversial Figure
Rodriguez’s journey through the world of MMA was marked by controversy, most notably being the first MMA fighter ever suspended by an athletic commission for using cocaine. With his newfound fame, it unfortunately led him down a self-destructive path of excessive partying and drug addiction.
Despite battling his personal demons, Ricco Rodriguez remained involved in the MMA scene in the ensuing years. In 2006, he earned a black belt in jiu-jitsu from Jean Jacques Machado and made his professional boxing debut in October, defeating Brandon Baker by knockout. Yet, in the same year, he faced a suspension by the California State Athletic Commission after testing positive for marijuana and cocaine following a victory over Imani Lee in MMA.
The descent from stardom continued, with a bizarre incident reported by Cage Potato. Rodriguez, while under the influence, crashed into an 18-wheeler and then a wall, attempting to swap positions with his girlfriend, whom he mistakenly believed was dead. This series of drug-related episodes, including a domestic dispute with his girlfriend and losing custody of their son, resulted in a six-month suspension by the CSAC in 2006.
Life Beyond MMA
The incidents above, among others, prompted Rodriguez to appear on the first season of the VH1 reality TV show “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.” The show chronicled his struggle with substance abuse, a decision he made in an effort to regain custody of his son. Despite his ongoing legal issues, Rodriguez remained active in combat sports. In 2019, Ricco was seen competing on the first-ever BKFC card, defeating Lewis Ramsey via unanimous decision.
Ricco’s legacy is a complex one, characterized by his achievements on the mats and in the cage, his struggles with addiction and personal challenges. His story serves as a reminder that even in the face of adversity, determination and a love for martial arts can help individuals rise above their circumstances. Despite the controversies that marked his career, Rodriguez’s impact on Jiu-Jitsu and MMA, cannot be denied.
Today, he is training and teaching at AKA Thailand where he has been passing down his wealth of knowledge to the next generation of combat sports athletes.