In South Florida, many have heard the story of how Ricardo “Loco” Valdez earned his nickname. Some even heard it in Cuba, where he had a confrontation with an ape and lived to tell the tale.
Valdez, now 82, is a fixture in the world of judo and jiu-jitsu in Miami, having taught martial arts for many years both in the Magic City and his native Cuba.
“I’ve had a full life of Judo,” he said in a phone interview.
In Cuba, he worked as an electrician, he was also a respected sensei who taught many students, among them policemen and soldiers and a large number who later became masters themselves or competed in the Olympics.
But for many, Valdez is a legend because of a story he has told countless times and that has been shared in dojos across the island to inspire students.
“One time I wrestled with a chimpanzee,” Valdez told Fox News Latino. It happened at an American circus that was traveling through Cuba. “There was a wrestling monkey who faced off against kids and adults.”
Ordinarily, the chimp was gentle with its opponents, Valdez says, “But if you acted [tough] with the monkey, the monkey would fight back. He knew how to wrestle well.”
Valdez recalled, “I said I could suplex him” – picking him up and slamming him on the mat on its back – “for $2,000. I tried, but it was impossible. He was strong. He was crazy inside the ring.”
But then again, so was Valdez. “I was crazy when I was young,” he told FNL. “They called me Loco because of my aggression. I would fight all the time.”
When he moved to Florida in 1968, the octogenarian sensei began working in the boating industry, but he opened a dojo and continued teaching martial arts after work. He recently received at the Club de Judo Ricardo Tuero in South Florida his red belt – an honorific also referred to as a ninth-degree black belt awarded to “those whose influence and fame takes them to the pinnacle of the art,” according to the book, “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Theory and Technique.”
Valdez was raised by his mother, and he started learning judo at the age of 12 after having observed Sigetoshi Morita – a Japanese migrant to Havana who opened one of the earliest dojos in Cuba in 1946 – while he was teaching diplomats’ children in the American embassy.
“He taught judo,” Valdez remembered. “I would watch them, and one day he asked me if I wanted to join them to train.”
Valdez was Morita's first jiu-jitsu black belt, and one of the first Cubans to receive such a ranking.
Valdez competed in judo and jiu-jitsu and wrestling at the international level, even competing in the World Games – the Olympics-style event held every four years for sports not competed at the Olympics.
His departure from Cuba was almost simple. Valdez asked the Cuban government permission to visit Mexico – it was granted, and he never returned to the island.
Valdez’s own student, Jorge Delgado, calls his master a living legend.
“There were others, but he was primarily the one everyone wanted to follow in his footsteps,” he said.
He got married and had two kids, but that never pulled him entirely away from the martial arts.
“Judo is a way of life,” he says. “It has played a role in everything in my life from discipline to everything else.”
Valdez last competed professionally eight years ago, but he had to give it up because of knee injuries. Even so, he still teaches twice a week. The Miami resident said he plans on teaching martial arts as long as he can, and he is working toward receiving his 10th level black belt.
Delgado says he would love to be in the same spot as his sensei when he gets to be 82.
“I hope to have the fortune to get to his age and have the people that love him like they do,” he said. “If I have people that respect me at that age, then I think I would have had a successful career.”
Valdez still follows international judo and jiu-jitsu, but he seems more enamored with mixed martial arts these days.
He watches the fights when he can. He admitted, “If I had the age, I would have probably competed in MMA.”