LONG BEACH, Calif. — For three-time jiu-jitsu world champion Jeff Mata, seeing isn’t necessarily believing.
We caught up with him at a gym in Long Beach as he practiced his moves with his longtime friend and sparring partner.
Take downs, armlocks, submission holds—they’re all part the Brazilian jiu-jitsu technique. It's a martial art that focuses more on full contact grappling instead of striking, like other martial arts. This puts Mata at an advantage.
Mata is completely blind, having lost his eyesight in 2008, training for another combat sport he loved: boxing.
“I got a retinal detachment in my left eye and an inflammation called uveitis,” said Mata. “And my left eye followed after.”
But when he hits the mats, it’s not his eyesight that he depends on. He said his other senses developed more awareness.
“Feeling, touching, and listening. Its like our bodies are just flowing,” said Mata.
Off the mat, Mata depends on friends and family for daily activities. At first, losing his eyesight sent his whole life into darkness. He couldn’t work or drive, and he had to move back in with his parents after his house foreclosed. He fell into a deep depression for years. Then he found hope in his desire to pursue jiu-jitsu, but he faced another set of challenges.
“A couple schools turned me down because I was blind,” said Mata.
Eventually he found a gym in San Marcos that would accept him, and he gladly navigated the 2.5-hour bus ride each way by himself for the chance to train.
Since then he’s been unstoppable. He went on to win three championships against people with sight. He also graduated college and now he gives motivational talks to spread the message of hope and perseverance.
“I’m more happy being blind than I was when I had sight,” said Mata. “And I really feel that this blindness was a blessing in disguise.”
As Mata likes to say, he lost his sight but gained his vision.