Ricardo “Franjinha” Miller — Journey From Delivering Pizzas to World Champion

Ricardo-Franjinha-millerIn a crime ridden section of Sãu Paulo, Brazil, a man walked up and put a gun against Franjinha’s head.

Franjinha was robbed at gunpoint – his life was threatened over a bicycle.

Brazil can be dangerous with over 50,000 murders per year. A place where there is always a fear that someone can steal everything you’ve worked hard to get.

Many would be grateful for that crime if they knew it drove Franjinha and his pregnant wife to start a new life in Santa Barbara, California. Without speaking a word of English, they sold everything and made the 15 hour flight to America.

Since then Franjinha has built a thriving business and become one of the most sought after BJJ instructors on the California Coast. Today there are thirteen schools flying his Paragon Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brand, 36 black belt students beneath his lineage and countless world championship medals between Franjinha and his students. 

I meet up with Franjinha to continue my study into what distinguishes high level performers from the rest.

Regardless whether you’re an entrepreneur, athlete, or just want to excel in life, there are traits we can adopt by studying world class performers.


Before we headed towards the beach for lunch, Franjinha invited me to his class on guillotine chokes at the Paragon Jiu-Jitsu in Ventura, California.

When I walked in I was reunited with a friend I met in Brazil. When I saw him, I remembered that Franjinha’s wife has once joked that their California house has become the unofficial hostel for Brazilian athletes who want to train in California.

Franjinha has an obvious desire to help people, but after a decade as his friend and student, I never knew what fueled his passion. 

I want to make the world a better place,” he says, but the cynic in me wants more, so I probe a little deeper for his altruistic motivation.

Franjinha says he loves how it feels to win, but helping others grow is far more rewarding. 

He told me about a homeless man he met on the street and brought home for a place to stay. Franjinha starts laughing as he explains his wife’s startled reaction when she discovered an unexpected stranger in her shower.

What the hell are you doing with this guy?” she asked. Franjinha’s wife is always supportive, but occasionally he pushes his limits.

Franjinha is passionate about helping people, maybe that’s why some call him “Doctor Franjinha.”

Students routinely pay premium rates for private Jiu-Jitsu lessons, but instead of training, they often want to spend the hour talking about their personal problems. They open up as if he were their therapist.

Franjinha tries to offer insights, but he believes his greatest impact is through Jiu-Jitsu.

They say you can’t teach heart, but I’m not sure about that.” Franjinha says.

He explains that some people have what it takes, but they don’t know it. “Sometimes you have more confidence in the kid than he does.”

Franjinha believes you can take an insecure guy and build his self-esteem a little at a time.

If I put them through a little punishment, they learn they can overcome it.”

He explains that many students are surrounded by negative people who fill them with doubt. A good coach can be the guy that encourages them when they’re down. They already have the tools, but they do not always believe it.

When I asked about tournaments, he says competing is not essential, but fighting makes you a more successful person.

Life is a competition.”

Franjinha told me that Jiu-Jitsu is a metaphor for life. It’s where you learn to come back stronger from losses.

Everybody has bad days, but you have to learn to get back up and keep fighting. How many successful business men go broke and come back stronger?” Franjinha asks, then says, “You’re only a loser when you don’t get back up and try again.”

When I ask how important it is to win, Franjinha says, “I hate losing.”

When he was younger he lost a lot of tournaments. In fact, he lost more often than he won, but it helped him grow faster. Whenever he lost, he couldn’t wait to get to the next tournament.  He would obsess about his mistakes and commit to never repeating them.

When he was younger he wanted to reach the top to prove he belonged to the elite group of black belts. Today Franjinha feels he has nothing to prove. Another win or loss will not change his reputation.

I ask why he still competes at age 46 and he says, “I’d rather be the general standing next to my men instead of ordering troops into battle from the security of a desk.”

He has already won all the championships he can. A win today is just another number. Today he competes to motivate his students and to help the sport grow.

I ask Franjinha to list his championship medals and he says, “I don’t know man.” He remembers some of his recent wins, but I was forced to search online for his championship rankings:

  • World Champion – brown belt
  • 7 time Pan American champion – black belt
  • 6 time World Jiu-Jitsu No-Gi champion
  • 5 time American Nationals Jiu-Jitsu champion
  • 3 time World Jiu-Jitsu Champion Master & Senior

There have been multiple, internationally recognized world champions to come out of the Paragon schools, so I wonder if Franjinha can tell in advance who will rise to the top.

He says it’s difficult to motivate someone who lacks internal drive, but the students that come to the academy ready to change something about themselves are the ones who excel. “If they don’t want to change, they will not stick around.”

It’s hard to know who will last, but those who stick around are often like a drug addict who has hit rock bottom. “You cannot tell an addict to quit, but when he’s ready you can be there to support him.”

In a good gym, students will find a supportive atmosphere where they often refer to each other as family.  At 19 years old in Rio de Janeiro, a friend invited Franjinha to take a Jiu-Jitsu class with Romero “Jacaré” Cavalcanti. He was immediately hooked. 

Perhaps Franjinha was also seeking the same family support that his gyms provides to countless others today. When Franjinha was very young, he was often left with people he did not know because his father was at work and his mother was in school. In hindsight he wonders if he was pushed to be independent a little too young.

Franjinha was never close to his father, but he admired his hard work ethic. Like many fathers of that era, he was not nurturing and spent most of his time providing for the family. 

After his parents divorced, Franjinha resented that his father was not around, but today he understands how difficult it is to balance work and family.

To this day, it haunts Franjinha that he did not make more effort to spend time with his dad. At only 23 years old, Franjinha lost his father to a heart attack.

Only 45 days later, his stepfather also died. The loss of both his father and step father in less than two months was devastating.

Twenty years later, death hit Franjinha again, but it changed him in a different way. In November 2013, his longtime friend and student, Paul Walker, died while filming Fast and the Furious.  

Paul’s death impact me good, man,” Franjinha says in his thick Brazilian accent. “I started thinking differently about life.”

Just before Paul died, Franjinha spent a month on the Fast and Furious set in Canada. Franjinha realized that Paul had wealth and fame, but he struggled with the same troubles many of us share – he wanted more time with his loved ones.

Franjinha said that when Paul left 80 million dollars behind, money seems less significant now. Franjinha is learning to spend more time with friends and family and often skips teaching private lessons to catch waves on his paddle board.

Franjinha says he never used to take time off work, but at 46 years old, he is beginning to change his priorities.

You can become a slave to success,” Franjinha said. “It’s easy to get caught up chasing a big house and expensive cars to impress people, but it’s not really worth it. We don’t need much to be happy.”

When you want to be successful, you have to make a lot of sacrifices,” Franjinha says. Then he pauses and changes his mind. “Maybe sacrifice is the wrong word.”

He cautions against picking a career just for money. “You’re successful when you follow your dream.”

Franjinha has made many sacrifices to get where he is today. When Franjinha and his pregnant wife arrived in California, he had to navigate the frustrating immigration hurdles before he was able to open the first Paragon Jiu-Jitsu academy in 1999.

Franjinha took English ESL classes in the morning, taught Jiu-Jitsu until 8:00 p.m. and then delivered pizzas until 2:00 in the morning. The gym lost money for two years, so he did the best he could to feed his young family with his pizza delivery job. Things are different today, but Franjinha often works from 8:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m.

I think most young men are drawn to martial arts to learn to fight, so I ask what lured him into the sport that has consumed twenty-seven years of his life.

The dangers of Brazil made self-defense appealing, but the real attraction was the family environment in the gym and the physical challenge. He spent his youth playing soccer on the beach, but BJJ was a far more addicting way to stay active. 

Not surprisingly, Franjinha was a hyper kid — decades later it’s still hard to get him to sit still. By the time Franjinha was eight, he had been kicked out of two schools. He laughed when he told me the school principle told his mom, “I don’t think your kid fits our school’s philosophy.”

He described himself as a bratty kid, but when I dug deeper, I realized he was merely developing the traits that made him a leader. As a kid, Franjinha questioned everything. Not much has changed, but he admits he is less abrasive about it today.

If anyone tells Franjinha he cannot do something, his immediate question is, “Why not?” We agree that independent thought is not appreciated much in school, but it’s often an asset later in life.

Franjinha has never been a follower and I suspect that attitude explains how someone from Brazil who spoke no English can become one of the most sought after Jiu-Jitsu instructors on the Central Coast of California.

Did you enjoy this interview? Click HERE to get the book with all the other interviews.

Photo: Thank you to Dion Guy Watts

motivationsmallThis interview is part of the book, “Motivation: Stories of Life and Success From Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts.”

Click HERE to get it at Amazon.



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