Over the past few years, a few gyms have been hailed as The Talent Factories of jiu-jitsu. Workplaces such as Atos Headquarters, Gracie Barra Northridge, São Paulo’s PSLPB, or Renzo Gracie Manhattan. There is, however, one California gym that is often missed from grappling’s “production line” discussion. One we believe is very worthy of mention. We are talking about Lucas Leite‘s Checkmat Academy in La Habra.
After developing household names such as Nathalie Ribeiro, the Luna Brothers, Jackson Nagai, or Pati Fontes, the La Habra gym now building a new class of grappling stars, a cast where you will find 2020’s American Nationals brown belt double gold and 2020 Pans Champion – Thami Monteiro, blue belt Pan American gold medalist Dory Aoun, and 2020’s Blue Belt Breakthrough Competitor Erin Quillen.
Another big part of Leite’s grappling program is Honduras born, Elder Cruz, commonly known on the internet as “El Monstro”, an adequate label if you have seen him compete as he is a natural-born bulldozer.
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Cruz’s medal tally over the past couple of years has been nothing short of impressive as seen below:
– 2020 IBJJF Pan Championship double gold
– 2020 IBJJF Pan Championship NOGI HW bronze
– 2020 IBJJF American Nats double gold
– 2020 IBJJF American Nats NOGI double gold
– 2020 WSOJJ World Series ABS gold
– 2019 IBJJF World Championship NOGI gold UHW
– 2019 IBJJF World Championship NOGI silver ABS
– 2019 IBJJF Pan Championship NOGI silver
– 2019 IBJJF American Nats double gold
– 2019 IBJJF World Championship silver UHW
Currently 26 years old, El Monstro moved from his home country at the age of 4, settling with his parents in La Habra, California. Cruz’s love for grappling came in high-school where he earned a respectable 6th place at the CIF State tournament for La Habra High School.
After his high school wrestling career, Elder decided to turn his focus towards mixed martial arts, joining the UFC Gym in La Mirada, CA. It was while trying to advance his MMA career that Cruz first tried our jiu-jitsu, in March 2018, with coach Jeff Nolasco.
With time his combat sports aspirations started shifting towards grappling: “I was pursuing MMA but started paying attention to everything going on with jiu-jitsu. I fell in love with the competitive scene [of BJJ],” Elder explained to BJJ Heroes in January 2021. Understanding his mood change, Cruz soon set up a plan – “I created goals that I wanted to accomplish and I jumped in.”
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And jump in he did. Diving headfirst into jiu-jitsu’s competitive scene, Elder soon realized his career required a more focussed workgroup – “After my goals in jiu-jitsu started getting bigger, I felt that I needed to go to a gym that was more competitive. I looked around and saw that Lucas [Leite] was a legend in the game, so I went to him” – then joining Checkmat.
Elder’s meteoric rise to the top saw him earning his blue belt with just 5 months of training, with his purple belt promotion taking place in December 2019, 21 months after he started taking jiu-jitsu classes. Although clearly merited and supported by Elder’s competitive record, this has been one of the quickest climbs through the belt rankings in our sport, in recent memory.
A very physical grappler, Cruz has delighted BJJ takedown fans with his power doubles and singles, positions he uses to maul his opponents from the top position. Elder’s dynamic grappling has made him one of the most entertaining athletes to watch in the new generation of heavyweights and we hope to see plenty more of the Honduran power-house this year.