Interview with Raquel Pa’aluhi Canuto
“I hate competing.”
She’s known for her honesty, heart and putting up fights that are all-out wars where she leaves everything on the mat. We talk with black belt Raqual Pa’aluhi Canuto (Checkmat), about competing with a belly full of nerves, her MMA/jiu jitsu career, and sharing the mat with your partner.
You grew up in Hawaii, where your dad was one of the pioneers in MMA. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I grew up around martial arts. My dad was a wrestler who won the very first MMA event ever in Hawaii, held in 1996. It was held in a bar. It was an eight man tournament with no rules, no time limit and they didn’t even have gloves. He’d go on to finish his career with an 11-1 record. We were always in the gym or at the events on the weekend. Watching my dad fight, I grew up around the sport!
“My dad fought the first ever MMA event in Hawaii. It was held in a bar.”
At what age did you start martial arts yourself?
I did karate and some basic grappling growing up. I wrestled in high school and college. But I really started training MMA when I came home the summer of 2009. I took a lot of hard fights early in my career. It’s been tough for me.
Losing a few fights by submission was the main reason for me to start training in the gi, at the end of 2012. This was at home in Hawaii at Gracie Technics Honolulu under Rylan Lizares.
And then jiu jitsu started for you…
Yes. When the Abu Dhabi Trials came to Hawaii, I decided to compete. I was a white belt at the time. After 6 matches and 5 submissions I won the ticket to Abu Dhabi. It was there that I got to see from so close how big jiu jitsu was! I decided to go to the Worlds that year and left with a bronze medal at blue belt. I think this is where I really fell in love with jiu jitsu!
How did things go from there?
The next year, in August of 2014, I visited Las Vegas for a month to train at Robert Drysdale’s academy. In August of 2017 just shy of 5 years of jiu jitsu, I received my black belt from Drysdale after 3.5 years of training at his academy.
“I loved jiu jitsu so much, that I went home, packed my bags, sold my car and moved to Las Vegas.
And you recently joined Checkmat?
My husband Renato, who came from Checkmat originally – but became Zenith when Cavaca left – decided he wanted to return to the team in early 2018. So we both joined Checkmat this year March. Because we still live in Las Vegas we travel back and forth to the HQ in Long Beach. In Las Vegas, we train at Dunham Jiujitsu with a bunch of competitors who live here, like Mikey Musumeci, Rene Lopez & Roberto Jimenez.
You train with your husband Renato, who is also your coach. What’s it like to have him in this double-role?
It has its positives and negatives to it! It is absolutely amazing to be able to share this journey with someone who has the same goals and mindset as me. Although I am older than him we are both at the same place in our careers. It’s not like one of our time has already passed or one is trying to catch up to the other. We’re both at black belt and climbing the ladder in our divisions!
We are constantly pushing each other. We train together, talk about training, positions, what we need to do. We eat the same foods and follow the same diet. So our everyday is exactly the same.
Him being my coach is sometimes hard, because he is also a competitor himself. So when he is focusing on his training or his tournaments coming up, he can’t take any rounds off to be able to sit there, watch me and correct me. In those moments, I feel a little behind because I don’t feel smart enough yet to do this for myself.
This is because my understanding of jiu jitsu is all by feeling movements. I don’t know why I’m doing something but I know that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. My body just reacts while I’m rolling but 9/10 times I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I did. So sometimes I have to adjust and figure it out for myself.
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Happy to have my best friend back here with me after a crazy two weeks of travel & competing. 3 countries & 4 tournaments in 13 days 😰 I am so thankful for your hard work @renatocanutobjj! Ready for one more worlds camp together — this is a throwback from last years worlds weekend at the @shoyoroll @albinoandpreto studio. Instagram story photo by @arvieg lol #gangsters #notreally #bestfriend #jiujitsu #bjj #marriage
He can also be tough on me, because he knows what I am capable of and sees so much in me. Even more than I see in myself. This makes it difficult sometimes, as he always wants things to be perfect. But I am thankful! He’s always pushing me to be better.
Can sparring between you get heated?
When we train together it’s always funny, because we know each other’s games. So even if he is far better than I am, I know everything he wants to do, because I watch him so much! We can go back and forth trying to kill each other and by the end of the round we’re laying there, out of breath mumbling something like “I hate you” with a smile on our face haha.
Now you’re competing in the black belt division, you find yourself – probably more often than not – fighting against girls you’ve already fought. Does fighting the same opponent more than once change your gameplan?
Lately, I’ve been able to come back and win matches to girls I lost to the first times. Fighting the same opponent doesn’t change my gameplan. I will fix mistakes, yes. But I always know what I want to do. I just have to make sure I am better at it the next time.
“I don’t change my gameplan, I try to improve it.”
How does it feel to be a “rookie” black belt, knowing you can face girls who have been black belts for a long time already?
I actually think a plus side for me is that I’m still very new to jiu jitsu. So my game is constantly changing and evolving. Not to say that everyone isn’t, but compared to someone who’s been training for 10 years, they’ve already got their game and what they’re strong at. Also, I’m really lucky to train with so many high level people who can help give me different answers or viewpoints.
How has jiu jitsu affected your MMA career?
“Jiujitsu changed everything.”
I feel like a much smarter and wiser person and fighter now. I feel like I have a much better understanding of what I’m doing and why. I’m fighting a little more strategically now, and not just with heart only. Every fight I get better and that’s largely because of jiu jitsu and my experience on the mats.
Do you still wish to pursue a career in jiu jitsu and MMA?
I have always dreamt of being the UFC Champion. That’s still one of my goals. But I understand my journey is a little different these days. I am a wife, dog mom, jiujitsu athlete, and Renato’s self proclaimed manager (haha).
I’ve slowed down on my MMA training to focus on jiu jitsu the last few years and also being a wife and building a more stable life for us. But I am far from done! I’m taking it one fight at a time right now. My management and myself will have to make good choices to get me to where I want to be!
“I am far from done.”
You’ve mentioned in another interview that you “hate competing”. How’s that?
Honestly, I am a shit show inside. On the outside I look really calm and collected but I’m a mess inside. I don’t want to be like this. My belly is always a mess. I can’t eat normally and pee all day long.
“I am nervous and sometimes even a little afraid… Not of my opponent, but afraid of not doing what I know I can do.”
But you still manage to put on great performances in your fights!
I surprise myself all the time. When I go back and watch film of my matches I’m always in awe like “wow is that me?!?!” Haha. And then I can see why my husband and coaches believe in me so much. It’s just a matter of me believing in myself a little more.
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As this year comes to an end, I want to share the most important thing that I learned in 2017. That is the power of believing in myself. I have always known what I was capable of. My husband, my coaches and my team has always known what I was capable of. But I always second guessed myself. I lost the finals of the worlds(gi)at purple belt last year, brown belt this year and then I lost the fight for the Invicta belt in August. No amount of hard work or having the perfect camp matters if you don’t go in there with the right mind set. After the fight I decided, no more runner up BS. I got my black belt 3.5 months ago and am on a 3 tournament winning streak. I decided to stop second guessing myself, to put myself up and not accept anything less. Because I’m working hard, I’m sacrificing a lot and I deserve it too. It is a process, yes. Everyday I am fighting with my mind! But I am proud of myself. Driving down to California before the no-gi worlds I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m gonna win this shit…. I’m gonna win this shit.’ This photo here captures the moment I’ve been working so hard for. The moment I conquered my mind and became what I always knew I could be. Though it is a small step and the first step of many at black belt. I’m so excited about the fighter and martial artist I am about to become. Mahalo ke Akua // #rantover #blackbelt #nogi #worldchampion
The nerves are there, because I want to perform to the best of my ability and prove to myself that I am what I believe I am. I am actively trying to fix this part of having too much nerves! One day it will be better.
You and Renato travel a lot, but you also have a super cute puppy dog, Anela. Does she join you everywhere you go?
If we can drive there, we take Anela with us. Our whole life has changed because of her. We take her everywhere: to the gym (every day!), to our friend’s houses, when we go out for food. We actually don’t go to movies as much anymore because of this.
So when we travel it’s difficult to be away from her! Luckily, we are super lucky to have amazing friends who she adores. They also have dogs, who are her best friends. So she’ll play with them all day long, and when we get back she sleeps for 5 days straight, haha. We are super lucky to have them. I know that when she’s with them she doesn’t miss us that much.
What are your plans for the future?
As of right now, I want to get back to my training for MMA. I’m planning to take a little bit of down time to start striking, lifting and preparing mentally for that. I don’t have anyone confirmed yet but I do have a date already! So I’m hoping everything will be sorted soon.