Last year while visiting my parent’s home in Los Angeles I happened to see a sign for a new Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy…
Last year while visiting my parent’s home in Los Angeles I happened to see a sign for a new Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy that had opened up in the area. I was pleasantly surprised to see a BJJ school nearby and wanted to take a look and introduce myself to the instructor and was delighted to see that Rodrigo Gracie, one of the most respected and accomplished competitors of the Gracie family, teaching class that evening. Just as exciting If not more so was that I noticed Royce Gracie there watching the practice and he seemed just as staunch and stoic as when I first saw him on a grainy VHS tape in 1995 competing in the first few Ultimate Fighting Championships. After class ended I spoke to Rodrigo briefly and mentioned that I was a visiting Black belt and was currently teaching in China. Royce’s ears perked up and he asked in a somewhat serious tone, “Black belt in what kind of Jiu-Jitsu?” I replied, BJJ, which then of course he asked who my instructor was. It felt a little tense, as he seemed more than ready to call B.S. if he didn’t like the answer. I was both happy and relieved when he liked my answer of Machados/Egan Inoue/Baret Yoshida and Royce mentioned he was going to Egan’s school the following week to conduct a seminar. Both he and Rodrigo were very polite and we began talking and discussed the beginning of BJJ in America (We taught out of the garage for years, man!) and how it is progressing in China. During the conversation, I wanted to tell Royce that watching VHS videos of him in UFC 1 changed the course of my life; I didn’t know it right then and there in my small bedroom back in 1994, but what I saw stayed with me since that day on. The honor, discipline and courage that Royce Gracie displayed was awe-inspiring and seemed like a true-life superhero to a 17 year-old kid. While I had no idea what BJJ or MMA was at the time, I was fascinated with the sheer excitement I felt while watching grown men battle it out and in the back of my mind I too wondered if I would ever be able to train and fight like a gladiator. For fear of coming off as a psycho fanboy, I didn’t share this with Royce, but I’m pretty certain most if not all non-Brazilian BJJ practitioners during the mid-1990s felt the same inspiration I did watching Royce in the early UFC events and that was the spark that got us started in training and for some became an obsession.
In the 20 years since first putting on the Jiu-Jitsu kimono, it has been an amazing adventure of training, competing and now coaching BJJ. I can fondly recall my first BJJ class at the RCJ Machado Academy in Redondo Beach, California, where I was asked to try and pass the guard of a slender Brazilian purple belt. I had done some wrestling in high school so was confident I could do it since I was young and also an avid reader of ‘Flex’ magazine and could boast a solid bench press and bicep curls to go along with my high school nylon singlet days. Three skinny purple belts and tapping to several triangle chokes later, I was hooked! Since that time I have had the pleasure to train with some of the best in the business and have great admiration and respect for all the professors and teammates who made BJJ an exciting and worthy journey for me. Now that I have students of my own, it’s great to see new people that have that beginner enthusiasm as well as the deer in the headlight look I had back in 1996! I try to spend time with each new group of white belts and explain to them the dedication, discipline and determination it takes to learn a worthy martial art such as BJJ. I would like to share that same advice I give to my students and hopefully you can find some usefulness or at least a chuckle or two.
Five concepts I share with my beginner students, based on my own experiences and observations:
1. It takes two types of courage to progress in BJJ; the first is the courage to get started and the second is to stay with it even when you are feeling discouraged. BJJ is based on learning as well as being able to reasonably apply the techniques, which means everyone will develop on a separate timeline. If people get promoted before you or they seem to be learning the techniques quicker than you do, don’t get discouraged, keep going. There is only one way to get proficient at BJJ and it’s staying the course, putting in the time and hours on the mat and when, not if, you get beat in sparring and competition, use that as a spark to learn more about your game and make the necessary adjustments and improvements. I asked top-notch BJJ coach Thiago Santos once, has he ever heard of a BJJ guy who went undefeated through all the belt levels and he laughed heartily, “That would be impossible, my friend.” Indeed it is impossible. So don’t get discouraged if someone else gets their hand raised or gets to the next belt before you do; that’s a part of what makes BJJ special, we’re in this for the long haul and learning from our mistakes is a key part of that growth.
2. Rickson Gracie said it best when he said Blue belt is the most important belt in BJJ; this is the time a person develops the mental and physical toughness to be able to apply the techniques they have learned and will learn. Everyone gets tired of wearing a white belt at some point but getting to Blue belt is more than just knowing a set of techniques. 1st stripe white belt in my club does not mean you are a bad ass, it means you came to class, you lost a few times and you came back to learn some more. Personally, I’ve competed and coached at the UFC and ADCC levels; nobody cares at that point what your rank or belt is, the only thing they want to know is how tough of a competitor you are, who have you competed against and how dangerous you are to them. In other words, respect for your gameness and skill is what is going to matter in the long run, both in the academy and on the competition mats so don’t rush it, develop your fundamental skills and mental/physical toughness and get to each belt, most importantly the Bleu belt, the slow and right way.
3. Only secret in BJJ is hard work and dedication. What attracted me to BJJ was while watching the first few UFCs, I quickly came to the conclusion there are no secret techniques in a fight. I came from the era of watching a lot of Kung Fu movies where if you practiced your qi long enough you could someday learn to fly from trees to a mountain top. No one ever told me, but as soon as I watched that grainy VHS tape of Royce, my gut told me, this is the real deal. And while training all over the globe, that’s been the best part, the best guys in the world all have one thing in common, they put in the time to get better and when they practice, teach or share techniques, it’s always about position and leverage, never about mystic rituals, potions or even worse, more money to learn the top secret techniques no one has ever revealed before. Develop passion for training and improving and put in the necessary time with your trainers and teammates; don’t avoid the hard work!
4. Competition is equivalent to three months training. I got this gem of advice from Baret Yoshida when I was starting out and he was already competing like mad as a Blue belt in Hawaii and is still competing like mad 20 years later with the elite Black belts. A requirement for promotion is my students must compete at least once at their current belt level before they move on to the next. It can be a small in-house tournament or the IBJJF Mundials for all I care; I just want them to feel the growth that comes from putting it on the line, win or lose. At the IBJJF Asian Open in Tokyo a couple of years ago, I ended up being in the same bracket as good friend Alberto Crane, who is a well-respected Black belt instructor and competitor. Over some nice Japanese food, we talked about what kept us in the game even though we were approaching our 40s. Alberto mentioned how much he enjoyed learning new aspects of his own game each time out, which he can then use to improve himself as well as his students. Seeing how Alberto is a 4th degree Black belt, former UFC fighter and current high level BJJ competitor, if he is still learning new things in competition, there is no reason the rest of us can’t as well.
5. Cross train. I once asked Rigan Machado what was better, Judo or BJJ. He told me the story of a Brazilian judoka who a long time ago went around to different BJJ gyms in Rio and used a unique choke on a bunch of BJJ guys who thought they were too cool for Judo. The choke was so effective, it became known as the Ezekiel choke, named after the traveling Judo man. But one of my pet peeves is when people say “BJJ is better than Judo or, He’s just a wrestler.” Go train with some high-level, competition tested Judoka and it’ll open up a whole new world for you. Same can be said for wrestling, sombo, etc. Fact is that some of the best BJJ competitors of all time, such as Royler Gracie, Saulo Ribero and Terere, just to name a few, were also dedicated Judo practitioners. If Judo is good enough for those guys, it is certainly good enough for the rest of us to at least respect, if not practice ourselves. Don’t denigrate other styles, schools or instructors until you give it a try.