I talk to Matt Thornton. Matt is the founder of Straight Blast Gym International or SBG and is a 4th-degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt under Chris Hauter. We discuss how coming up in the 90s lead him to emphasise training against resisting opponents in a concept he outlines further called Aliveness. Also, how cross-training in multiple arts can teach you the delivery systems of each style while also identifying the common themes between them all, which can then be considered fundamentals. And finally, how real-life testing can lead to scepticism and critical thinking to help you identify the truths found in martial arts.
Podcast Transcript – Episode 024
Sonny Brown: I hope you guys enjoy it. Now let’s go to the podcast. Hi, Matt, how are you today?
Matt Thornton: Good. How are you?
Sonny: Doing well, Matt, doing well.
Sonny: You’ve been in the martial arts game for a long time. You’ve grown up as a traditional martial artist. You’ve now started the Straight Blast Gym, which is well-known now worldwide. My understanding is that after growing up in a traditional martial arts background, eventually you ran into Hickson Gracie and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu around the ’90s. Then that really changed and informed your training practice and teaching methodology and led to the development of what you call aliveness. I’m wondering if you could start off just by explaining to people how that happened, what exactly is aliveness and how that’s important.
Matt: Sure. I had very little traditional martial arts training per se. I did a little bit of traditional karate when I was a kid. I was always fascinated by martial arts and very quickly became super interested in the question about what works in fights and what doesn’t work in fights. I got in fights in school and so even as a boy, it was a question that interested me. When I was in the military straight out of high school, I was doing some research because I knew I wanted to do martial arts pretty much all my life. I was looking for something that was functional and I knew I wanted to do boxing. I had kind of decided that boxing was the most functional thing to do as far as striking. I’d also been in some fights where I’d been taken down to the ground and put in headlocks and all those kind of stuff that happens when you get in fights as a kid. I knew that you also had to have some grappling and some ground fighting. This idea of being able to find at all the different ranges made a lot of sense to me and mind you, this is in the ’80s before the UFC or anything like that. Through research, it looked to me at the time like Jeet Kune Do concepts, as it was being taught by people like Dan Inosanto and Paul Vunak was kind of what– that’s what it was. That was what they said it was anyway. When I got out of the army, I started training in Jeet Kune Do concepts and eventually became an instructor in that. I moved to Oregon and partnered up with another Jeet Kune Do instructor who was an instructor under Dan Inosanto and I taught at a school there while at the same time boxing at the local boxing gym here for I think the better part of two years. In that time, I had a lot of exposure to the rest of Jeet Kune Do community, the other instructors, and I started becoming really disillusioned with it, which I’ve talked about before. We can go into that if you want, but a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of saying one thing and doing something else and what I found to be a real inability to distinguish between things that work and things didn’t work. On one hand, they would make side-by-side comparisons with an art, like Shotokan karate and talk about how boxing was a superior delivery system, which of course it is for striking. On the other hand, I see these same people doing the most absurd [unintelligible 00:05:17] C-lock type stuff. If I was going to design something that would get you beat up in a fight, it couldn’t even touch this. I had trouble with that view. It just wasn’t congruent to me. It was around that time when I started to question all that and think about aliveness and think about why some arts work and why some arts don’t work, that I had my run in with Gracie Jiu-Jitsu via Fabio Santos and Hickson. When I went back to the school and explained to them what I had found, which to me was the missing link pretty much, and everything I always looked for, it was clear to me they weren’t really interested and weren’t interested in what I was interested in. That’s when I opened up my own school and the question that it consumed me when I was younger and the one that I still got asked a lot and I think it was a far more common question before the UFC than it is now, but, does this style work? Does Wing Chun work or does this particular style of karate work? If so, why not? My conclusion from doing the Jeet Kune Do concepts and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and from those years of boxing, was that what determined what works and what doesn’t work is really the training method. The dead pattern, so traditional martial arts that had taken out aliveness. What can it help? The combat sports by definition because they cared about results had all kept aliveness. The one thing that all the sports that actually work in a fight or in a self-defense situation had in common, is they were all the martial arts that work in that situation is that they were all sports. What the sports had in common is that all sports train, combat sports train with aliveness. It’s not about sparring. You can spar with anything. You can take the ridiculous martial arts and spar with it and over a long period of time, you’re going to develop what looks like that MMA. It’s not sparring. It is the actual training method itself, which always involves timing, energy, and motion. After that then, what you have is not going to translate. You’re not going to have any timing, [unintelligible 00:07:23] . You may know the technique, but you don’t have the timing, you won’t be able to apply it. Timing only comes from an alive opponent. It doesn’t mean it has to be rough. Doesn’t mean it has to be– it doesn’t even mean sparring, because when we talk about drilling at SBG, we’re always talking about aliveness. All of our drills are alive, but it does have to be alive. It has to have that realistic energy movement that’s not in a contrived pattern and a timing that comes along with it. When you have that, then you can train. As you know I’m sure, an art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you can train in a very soft way for lack of a better term, if you’re coming off an injury, a way that’s not going to get you hurt, a way that’s is in no way rough, but actually still develop actual skill that will translate against an opponent because you’re training with aliveness. The thing I wanted to get across to people was not each art individually or making lists about what works, what doesn’t work or talking about the need for sparring, but to actually talk about aliveness, because my position was, anybody that really understood what I meant by aliveness would be impossible to be fooled again by bullshit martial arts. If you don’t understand aliveness, you can be a world champion and I’ve seen this in action, world champion fighters and boxers and kickboxers who will be fooled by some hokey fake martial arts demonstration, because they don’t have that toolkit, which is really what aliveness is to be able to distinguish between what works and what doesn’t work. That was what I felt was the most important thing about martial arts, assuming that you’re looking for something that’s true. That was the message that I ran with then, and have been one way or another talking about for the last 25 years since.
Sonny: That makes sense. I’m wondering if you’ve ever run across this, as you mentioned, with Jeet Kune Do, something I’ve found ironically that the famous Bruce Lee expression take what’s useful, reject what’s not, add what’s uniquely your own. I’ve found in some instances that people are now able to use that as actually a way of rejecting things that we know that definitely work, because they just say, “Hey, that works for me.” I can kind of say that with anything, “Hey, it works for me. Don’t judge.” Is the difference that makes that saying applicable aliveness?
Matt: Yes. The difference is the understanding of aliveness, because somebody that understands aliveness isn’t going to make that mistake, but that’s also where it’s helpful to talk about, you mentioned this when we started the podcast, and the reason why I started to refer to things as delivery systems. If you look at Jeet Kune Do concepts, we’ll use Jeet Kune Do world as an example, after Bruce Lee’s death they kind of broke off into two main camps, right? At one camp, they had guys who wanted to teach and fight exactly like Bruce Lee did. When he died, when he was 33 in 1973, with a limited exposure to things like Muay Thai and some of the other arts that we have now, but constantly growing in my opinion from just looking at his notes, being motivated by many of the same things that interested me, which is research and truth in combat. He was 33 years old, died 1973 and weighed 130-somewhat pounds. Right? They’re trying to mimic this particular fighting style. That’s one hand. The other hand, which was the Dan Inosanto Jeet Kune Do concepts camp, ran with that saying which Bruce Lee took from Mao Tse Tung actually, not a lot of people know, but research your own experience, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own, is the entirety of that saying, which is a utilitarian philosophy. It makes sense. That doesn’t mean that you can just go to treat martial arts as an all you can eat buffet where I’ll take a Muay Thai kick and I’m going to blend it in with a Wing Chun punch. I’m going to take this and then I’m therefore I’m going to understand combat, because that’s not how fighting works. How fighting works is there’s human beings with two arms and two legs. There’s only so many ways you can hold another human being down on the ground. Only so many ways you can escape, only so many ways you can throw someone down efficiently, only so many ways you can strike. Those ways are based on science and so from an actual scientific perspective, what we want to look at is what the functional, if we’re talking about clinch, what the functional clinch arts all have in common, Judo, Mongolian wrestling, Sambo, Greco Roman, freestyle, folk style. Once you start to understand what they all have in common, the core delivery system of clinch, then you really start to understand clinch. Then you’re going to break it into the fundamentals that all great clinch wrestlers, athletes that train in clinch have and share in common, you’re going to learn those and pass those on. Then through sparring and training alive over years and years, and usually it takes at least 10 years, if not longer, you begin to develop your own style. That style will be the setups that you like, the particular take down you like. There’s some guys who might like a high single and some guys who are going to go for a knee block and somebody else becomes a master of ankle kicks. There’s no better or worse in that hierarchy, but what all those guys have in common if they’re all truly capable of competing at an Olympic level is just rock solid fundamentals. What Jeet Kune Do should have been looking for or anybody that’s really interested in taking a scientific approach should be looking for is, what are the fundamentals of standup clinch, and ground. Then let’s create an environment where we can learn those fundamentals safely, pass them on to the next generation. Then through a process of Alive training in a way that’s safe, each and every individual have his own style. Just like every Jiu-Jitsu black belt has a very different style. Every MMA fighter has a very different style. For most fighters to imitate, for example, how one of our fighters fights, like Conor McGregor, will be a mistake because Conor has a very unique style. The fundamentals that make Connor capable of doing what he does, those every fighter needs to have. Those fundamentals, standup, clinch, and ground. If they come to SBG, they’re not going to learn the Conor McGregor style, what they are going to learn the good fundamentals of standup, clinch, and ground. Then through a process of a Alive training, they will develop their own style. To my way of thinking, that’s what Jeet Kune Do actually is and should have been. What I think Bruce Lee was shooting for, but not what happened. I think that that’s actually what we do at SBG.
Sonny: I understand that, and yes, the idea of using those different styles that even within those limitations, everyone’s going to find their own way. I’ve even thought myself, like everyone is probably romanticizes the idea of Jeet Kune Do, but if they were really following that philosophy, wouldn’t they all be looking more like Vale Tudo / MMA fighters these days?
Matt: They should have had a huge head start on everybody else. If they had even following what they said they were doing, which was pursuing truth and all the different ranges, they would have been light years ahead of everybody else when Rorian started the challenge. They would have been the first true MMA fighters. There were some real pioneers that came out of that community. I don’t want to overlook that by painting with to wide a brush like Erik Paulson, for example. Well, Erik Paulson’s great and was great because he’s a great kickboxer , great wrestler, and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He’s working those same delivery systems and that’s what allowed him to fight at the level he could fight at. He was the exception to the rule when the vast majority of those students weren’t really capable of defending themselves at those ranges because they hadn’t been introduced to those functional delivery systems. You can’t really pick and choose like just to use a more concrete example as well, someone who’s a white belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu isn’t going to be capable of effectively applying that utilitarian philosophy from Mao Tse Tung about absorb what is useful and reject what is useless, because they have no idea yet what the fundamentals of grappling are. When they become a black belt, they will, but even there, it’s not a conscious thought process. Most black belts don’t think to themselves, “You know, I don’t like that sweep. I’ll do this sweep instead.” You just develop that, your body develops it through Alive training, right? Then you find out as a brown belt or black belt, this is the sweep that really speaks to me when I’m rolling. Having a hard roll, these are the routes that I take. Well, it’s not like they started out and looks through a book when they were a white belt and said, “You know, I’m gonna use this sweep and I’ll take this piece. I’ll do Marcelo Garcia’s arm drag and I’m going to blend it with Rogers choke . This is not how fighting works.
Sonny: Yes, not that, definitely. There needs to be I think that fundamental, that base layer of something that we’re laying down for people as they come in. As you’re talking then, I’m just thinking about even going deeper than that technique with the idea of aliveness. I just thought when I’m listening to debates between vegans actually, which is where it’s coming from, but I’m not looking to get into the conversation about, let’s just save nutrition for another one. I’ve heard debates and often one thing they say to, because a common thing that we’ll be thrown their ways, “Why are you eating plants? There’s some scientific studies I can find that plants react to pain or things like that.” The argument that they use is that they don’t have a central nervous system and they define it as, if something’s alive, it has a central nervous system. If it doesn’t have a central nervous system, then it’s not alive essentially, I think, I might be. I’m not an expert on that, but my point is, do you think then that aliveness training could be people being aware of their own central nervous system and in some way, training and activating their central nervous system deliberately that gives it that aliveness?
Matt: That’s what goes on with Alive training. What really made it clear to me when I was a white belt was, it was actually a video I saw of Hickson after I first trained with him. Somehow I don’t even remember where I had gotten a bunch of VHS tapes of Hickson sparring and training from one of my friends I think that was a grappler. Anyway, one of them was he’d shown up at the Torrance Academy in swim trunks and just iron man wrestled one after the other, everybody’s in the room. There’s clips of it, pieces of it on YouTube now that has been watched many, many times. At one time, I had like a much lengthier version of it. It’s like a 45 minute video of him rolling with everybody. Then at the end, he was sitting up against the wall, like I am here just relaxing and a student was asking him why he thought he was so much better than everybody else. He explained that Jiu-Jitsu’s about timing or Jiu-Jitsu’s about knowledge or technique, yes, but it’s also about timing. Then he talked about training a triangle and he said, you start with the triangle tight and close to take away space. Then you make sure that there’s some failure and some success. As the success outweighs the failure, you open up the space more and you slowly begin and he’s basically talking about adaptive resistance. The moment he said that, and he said to– he was telling this person that was his key for how he got good. The moment he said that I realized instantly, that’s exactly what’s missing in all of these other martial arts. They don’t have that sense of aliveness. That’s not sparring. I mean it is, but it’s just a very small window of what happens, but Hickson did that with everything. What most Jiu-Jitsu instructors call positional sparring, for us in SBG, that’s what we call drilling. You can take that principle and you can apply it to boxing. You can apply it to self-defense against the blade. You can apply it to anything. I have SBG instructors who apply it to firearms training, and you can take the steps to break them down as far as introduction, isolation and integration back into the game. We took that little kernel of truth that Hickson was offering there and it blossomed into a whole series of training methods. Epistemology that we use here at SBG and we’ve been using it since to train, but most combat sports have some version or another of this. Wrestlers train this way, boxers train this way, Muay Thai fighters train this way. There’s always that sense of timing and sense of alignment you’re getting. Even good Thai boxers when they’re working the pads, they’re still getting timing from the person that’s feeding them the Thai pads. That’s what makes those guys really good at Thai pads. What makes them so valuable, what makes them so good to fighters, is that very thing. The fact that they can replicate that level of timing that that fighter might receive in the ring, so that they’re actually learning. If you take away that aliveness, that timing and you just do repetitions, like for example, imagine a stuffed dummy and you just do a hundred repetitions of an arm bar from closed guard bottom on a stuffed dummy. You’re practicing the movement, but there’s no timing, there’s no resistance. You could do that for 10 years, your arm bar is still going to suck. Or you can take five minutes and grab someone, put them in that position, let them struggle with you until you finish and then make it a little looser and a little looser the way Hickson said. In an hour, you can dramatically increase your ability to apply an arm lock. That’s the difference between Alive training and dead pattern train. The traditional martial arts by definition are really just a series of dead patterns. There are things that you memorize and the other person performs an action, like usually they step forward with some kind of punch, then they freeze and then the other person does all their cool shit which is rehearsed, but that has nothing to do with someone who’s going to be moving around trying to punch you in the face. That disconnect, understanding why that disconnect occurs is what aliveness is all about.
Sonny: It’s really being able to get that timing down of working with another live opponent, so a live partner. I guess when I was first thinking it’s about your own central nervous system, it’s actually really going to be then about the interplay between the two people. You can’t have one person who is, yes, aliveness and the other person who is not on board, right? It’s got to be that communication between the two?
Matt: Yes, exactly, because that’s where you’re getting feedback from. Let me use a different example which what I’ve used before about tennis. If I wanted to teach somebody how to work on a backhand– I’m a terrible tennis player, but let’s just say, for example, I was a tennis coach. He said, “Hey, I need to work on my backhand.” I could make up a tennis kata and we could put him in the garage and they could do an hour of tennis kata every day for a decade. I could criticize them as they go. “Your thumb is too far. Your left pinkie needs to be out more this way. You’re right shoulder is too back behind your left shoulder.” We could get really nuanced with it. You can imagine what’s going on. Nothing from that I think is going to develop good tennis skills. You can take someone, have him throw a backhand a couple of times in the air. We do have to do that. We call that the introduction stage just to make sure they have the rote mechanics of it which usually takes, if the person is just an average human being and it’s not something that’s too complicated, it usually takes 5 to 10 minutes. Then after that, what am I going to do? I’m going to stick him on the court and I’m going to lob balls at him. I’m not going to try and hit him as fast, as hard as I can, as fast as I can so they can’t hit the ball back. I’m going hit it slow, then as they start to hit the ball– and they’re going to miss sometimes because failure is an essential part of a live training. As they start to get better at hitting the ball back with the backhand, I put in more energy and fake a lot more. It’s just more resistance, but there’s no aliveness until that ball comes in. Aliveness now is me or whatever is shooting the ball, could be a machine, a moving target that’s different every time that they have to respond to, so the nervous system has to respond to that. Through that process, of course, they can develop a good backhand. Imagine teaching tennis the way we teach traditional martial arts.
Sonny: Yes, no one would do it, right? It wouldn’t work. It makes a lot of sense. I guess in tennis it’s easy to hit the ball at someone. That’s what they’re expecting. With, let’s say, Jiu-Jitsu, when guys come in, they start drilling. A common thing would probably be they’re either completely not giving any aliveness when they start or they’re at the opposite spectrum and they’re too alive and flailing around. I’ve always thought that’s a very crude method, but what we often use is we go, “Hey, guys, go 50% today.” 50% while we’re drilling. Like I said, I feel it’s a crude method but it can get the point across to somewhere, find that middle. What do you think? Is there a better way to actually teach people how to train with proper aliveness?
Matt: First of all, I think, you have to explain the process to people. At my gym anyway, we’ll explain to them what aliveness is, why we’re doing this, the importance of drilling that way so they understand what they’re achieving, and also so they have expectations going into it that they should be failing some of the time. If they’re not failing some of the time, they’re not learning at the level that they could be learning at, so that they don’t go in there thinking it’s supposed to work every single time and they’ve somehow messed up. Once we set those expectations, then you can talk to them the way you did and try to explain percentages of– but the problem is I’m sure you realize this, 50% is completely different to different people. One of the best ways to do it is if you have an experienced coach on the mat or teachers to pick partners for everybody which we often do. If there’s somebody who really has trouble relaxing and being able to tone it down sometimes, you might have them go with a more advanced practitioner who’s going to be able that kind of pressure without worrying about getting hurt. You have to adjust it, but you’re absolutely correct. The key to the whole thing is adaptive resistance. People sometimes think, “Well, it just means you’re just throwing people right into sparring,” which is not what we do at all. We’re throwing them right away into timing, but it’s adaptive resistance. We changed from using the word progressive to adaptive, because the word progressive assumes, in a way, that we’re always turning it up. Well, sometimes we turn it back down. You, as the training partner, can adjust that with your training partner however you feel like you need to. In the beginning, the coach will do it for the students until they learn how to do it. For sure, there’s going to be people who are much better training partners and other people that maybe you don’t want as a training partner because they struggle to use adaptive resistance. Sometimes that’s okay too because maybe sometimes you can just match people up by weight and belt level, and they’re just really good match for each other. For people who go 100%, it still works out fine. The coach and the students have to figure out how to make it work, but one way or another has to be alive. Otherwise, again, we’re just back to dead repetitions. Unfortunately, even with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, that’s often how it’s taught. They’ll show technique and then you roll. The saving grace for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the fact that they roll. Unlike striking, you can roll every day and not get brain damage, so people can roll a lot. The middle piece of drilling the technique that you just learned in class with timing is often non-existent in many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools. What happens is a lot of people get weeded out and a lot of people have a longer learning curve than is necessary. Then other people who are more, for lack of a better term, natural athletes are just tough to begin with can just survive that process and through the rolling will develop skill. You still get good. I think Hickson’s way is smarter and certainly faster.
Sonny: Yes, definitely agree with you on that. The idea of people having different percentage levels is always one that’s turn me off, because sometimes it would be like, “Hey, we’re drilling 50%,” and then I’ll say, “Put it up to 80%.” As the words come out of my mouth, I’m like, “How am I going to know what everyone’s different 80% is?” but I like the idea of that’s where paying attention as a coach and making sure people are matched up is correct. The other way I’ve started thinking about a good way to do that is then turning that drilling time into different types of games that people can play, because when people and kids, everyone is playing, everyone has the understanding of what a game is. If someone is taking it too seriously, it ruins the game, right? I’m thinking, is there any way that you’ve used games in your coaching? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Matt: Absolutely. You’re 100% right. That sets the right tone I think with rare exception. Is it helpful to have the attention too high? It should be a playful environment. It has to be an environment where the athletes, the students feel safe being vulnerable. That’s essential. If people don’t feel safe being vulnerable, they are not going to take risks. They are not going to want to risk getting arm locked or risk getting someone on their back or risk getting into a particular position because they’re afraid they’re going to get hurt. It’s really, really important that that environment is an environment where everybody, everybody, not just the top people or the upper belts or the athletes, but everyone feel safe. Then they go into the drill with the expectation of failing a good percentage of the time and having fun. To be honest with you, it doesn’t take people long to adapt. Alive training is fun. My experience has been anybody who’s done a lot of Alive training just can’t go back even if they wanted to, because you can’t teach it in a non-alive way because it doesn’t feel honest and it’s boring where you know that there’s a better way you can do it. Alive training, what it always does almost instantly is it engages you in an activity where you’re required to be present. You can’t sit around and daydream in your head. You can repeat a pattern and be thinking about whether or not you left the stove on. When you have to actually respond real time to someone else, then people get absorbed by that activity and people love that too. That’s part of what gets people hooked to Jiu-Jitsu. 100%, I think, treating the drills as a game is absolutely healthy.
Sonny: I like that. While you’re talking about people getting into dead patterns, I just thought, is that something where in an actual fighting where you might try and put your opponent into a dead pattern or make them follow a pattern while you’re still alive, you’re still alive to get an advantage over them? Is that something you can do like getting people into a rhythm and then you’re breaking the rhythm? Is that something that could be played with?
Matt: Yes. A dead pattern, by definition, means it’s rehearsed and the same every time. It’s something that you’ve memorized and just repeat over and over again and maybe every once in a while, you put in something– Did you ever train Jeet Kune Do or Kali?
Sonny: No, I’ve done a few classes of eskrima– sorry, arnis.
Matt: Usually, in those Filipino martial arts, they’ll have stick patterns you do. You click the sticks together in a particular pattern with variations of forehands and backhands, and sometimes you’ll do things then call Serrada, where you’re feeding an angle and going back and forth, but it is a pattern, right? I’m responding in a particular pattern, you’re responding a particular pattern, every once in a while somebody maybe might break the pattern and put in what they call a broken rhythm, but it’s still a pattern. That doesn’t really relate to anything that happens when you put a stick in somebody’s hand and they actually want to hit you in the head. That’s going to be a dead pattern. What you’re describing is knowing in advance what someone’s going to do, and being able to set up, for lack of a better word, an ambush for them, which we do often in Jiu-Jitsu. You’ll put somebody in a position where you know where they’re going to escape and their escape is your finish. For example, in the early UFCs or the go-to for self-defense as you get a fight with somebody that’s not also a trained fighter, you take them down, you mount them, you slap them in the face, you know they’re going to roll belly down and you’re finishing the job. That’s not really a dead pattern, but that is you knowing what’s going to happen because you’ve been there so many times with resisting opponents, alive opponents, and so the person has it, and you can predict with good accuracy where this is going to go and you can be there before they can with your body and with your movement because you have that timing. That really becomes even more apparent when the skill level, there’s a huge disparity in skill level where– What belt are you in Jiu-Jitsu?
Sonny: Black belt.
Matt: Okay, so as a black belt, you could be rolling with well, here, let me run this fight. Have you experienced rolling with a brand new white belt who’s super athletic, maybe not necessarily a wrestler, but let’s say played rugby or something like that and they’re a pain in the ass because they’re going everywhere and you don’t really know what they’re doing. Then when they first get their blue belt, they’re much better obviously Jiu-Jitsu, but they’re a little bit easier for you to deal with because you can now predict what they’re going to do when it’s not so spastic, right? That really what separates you as a black belt from them as a blue belt to a purple belt is not always knowledge of technique, very often they may know more technique. It’s that timing and if your timing is good enough, they can know exactly what you’re going to do. You could tell him, I’m going to take your left arm from cross sides, whatever, and do– That is an example I think of how powerful Alive training is, because you develop this level of timing and timing really is the ultimate superpower in fighting. Everything is predicated on timing and managing distance. If you manage distance and control the timing, you’re going to control that event, you’re going to control the outcome.
Sonny: Okay. Yes, I understand that. I know exactly what you’re talking about of when someone comes in off the street and you know that they’ll do something that you’re not expecting and throws you often. I’m lucky my coach Anthony Lang has always said, when people do come in for the first time, make sure you row with them, because that’s going to keep giving you a realistic look of what it’s going to be like if you did get into a fight with someone at the bus stop, he would say.
Matt: That’s so true. Because after a while, we started doing Jiu-Jitsu versus Jiu-Jitsu, and we’ve forgot what Jiu-Jitsus versus the world feels like, it’s good to go back and revisit that sometimes.
Sonny: Yes, yes. It’s so important, because, yes, you might not run into a blue belt at the bus stop, but [chuckles] — With those patterns then and the traditional martial arts, how do you think they lost that element aliveness? Did they have that spark at one point and it just faded out over time? How did that happen?
Matt: Yes, that’s a good question. Short answer, I don’t know. Long answer is I suspect that there’s a couple of different reasons and that different ways this occurs. The first way is we never had to begin with and I actually think that is the most common way. There’s a lot of when you start to look at some of these martial arts, for example if you take a look at Wing Chun just to pick one, but we could pick anything, you really can’t trace the history of that art past one or two guys before Ip Man, so Bruce Lee’s instructor. Once you go any further past that, it really becomes hazy and you don’t know where it came from. There have been scholars that have posited that it’s actually just comes from British boxing or the European boxing, and you kind of see so much of the similarities in the old-style boxing and people in Hong Kong being a port of so much great trade would have had lots of exposure to this kind of thing. They could have taken something like that and then ruined it by making it even more of a set of dead patterns. That could have been where it came from. Other situations where I know for a fact, it was just from the very beginning a con game, you know? I think of this also in terms of religion, because I see 100% parallels between traditional martial arts and religion, both in the epistemology as well as the rationalizations and excuses for them. If you think about it, religion, was there ever a kernel of truth to a particular religion? Oftentimes there is, right? Then in other cases, we know– You’re not Mormon, are you?
Matt: Okay, Just thought I asked ahead of time.
Sonny: No, that’s fine.
Matt: I think for anybody that’s not Mormon and hasn’t been indoctrinated that way. With a little bit of study, it becomes pretty clear that Joseph Smith was a con artist that he set out intentionally to create a religion, both to make a bunch of money and have sex with a lot of young girls. That was his thing. That’s what he did. It’s even more clear I think with Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, you go on YouTube and watch that guy, and you now he’s a sociopath who said himself, he wanted to create a religion so he could get rich and have sex with lots of girls and not pay taxes. That was this whole idea to get tax-exempt status which he achieved by the way. Sometimes I think it’s from the get-go, there have been, for example, systems of C-lock that I’ve seen, where I think they just made it up. Filipino martial arts, they see some people are a little bit credulous, maybe a little bit naive, they create a pattern or they take other patterns they’ve seen before then they’ll say they’re grandmaster, whatever, and now you have a system and you have a way to make money. That’s one aspect of it. The other aspect of it is sometimes I think it may have been functional and then it loses its function because sporting aspects are no longer there. I think Japanese Jiu-Jitsu is a great example of that. We know Japanese Jiu-Jitsu at one point was 100% functional battlefield art that was designed for Samurai and people were fighting in Japan on the battlefield. When they lose their weapon, you kick the guy in the back and stab him in the head before he stabs you and kill him. That’s the art. Then as that part of fighting, that kind of fighting phases down through peacetime or because of the evolution of firearms and warfare, whatever it is, it no longer becomes necessary to train in a functional way. Then sometimes it gets systematized and people put it into a series of pairs in some way to try and preserve it. The only way it’s saved as a functional art is if somebody turns it into sport, and then it’ll evolve according to the rules. Because they put so much emphasis on throws as opposed to the ground fighting in judo, they really evolved the upper body throws but their ground fighting is not on par with what happened in Brazil, where the rules were, we’re going to fight and then nobody, it’s a macho culture, nobody else is going to interrupt and we’re not going to break it up and nobody’s going to stand up and you can basically do whatever you want. In that tradition of South America, you then took what was really old Judo and evolved the ground fighting game because if somebody doesn’t come in and break up a fight, it stays on the ground, right? Usually for a long time. Depending on what happens culturally, you can have an art go and then now you have Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, which most places around the world in the United States in Europe that I’ve gone to is a Japanese Jiu-Jitsu black belt, who’s had no exposure to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Judo, is completely incapable of defending himself against a blue belt, and we all know that. They have all the same locks and the names, form and everything, but if you just touch hands and wrestle to submission, your typical blue belt with two years of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is going to wipe the floor with a fourth-degree black belt in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu because of A liveness . Long story short, I think it depends. Sometimes they’re created as cons, just like religions and sometimes the function it evolve– that society evolves in a way where the function is no longer necessarily there. Unless it’s turned into a sport where there’s people still care about the results, it seems pretty natural for things to devolve into dead patterns.
Sonny: Yes, okay, I think I get what you’re saying. I should say, I’m not a Mormon, but I have been a bit sympathetic to them recently due to their ability to take the joke of the Book of Mormon so well, apparently, okay, and they’re not so bad.
Matt: A disclaimer real quick, growing up in California, I have, and here on the West Coast, United States I’ve had plenty of opportunity to interact with Mormons and they’re always very nice people. If I was going to pick a city to live in and somebody told me it was like 80% Mormon in that city, it’d be fine with me. It’s a great place to raise your family, but I do think Joseph Smith was a con artist. I’m sure you can separate the fact that these are really nice people from that.
Sonny: I’m with you on that. It seems as long as something gets turned into a sport, then it will get that feedback element of aliveness just by definition.
Matt: That’s it. What you said there, feedback element is the key to it and that’s the opponent process.
Sonny: I guess with Scientology for example, it didn’t get that feedback because there’s no means for it to what L. Ron Hubbard wrote down is just dogma that will never change. Funny example I can think of that is apparently in their Sea Org organization to wash the windows, they’re only allowed to use I think vinegar and lemon or something still I heard, because at the time that was the best thing available and that was what he wrote down to use. They don’t use Windex or anything like that. Anyway, that’s a whole another topic, but that inability to update I guess.
Matt: What’s interesting in relation exactly what you’re saying is those arts, especially the ones that I think were designed to be that way– even if they weren’t designed to be that way, I think it happens anyway, where the arts that have stuck around for a really long time, there are dead patterns. Here’s another fallacy I run into all the time, you didn’t ask it this way, but the way a lot of people will ask it is, “It feels martial arts are all bullshit like you say, why they’ve been around for so long?” The unwritten assumption, unthought assumption in that premise is because something’s been around for a long time, therefore it must be useful which we both know is a fallacy. Things that are around a long time are around a long time, the only thing that tells us is they’re good at replication. Astrology’s been around for thousands of years, it’s not useful. It’s good at replication. When you talk about these dead patterns, these dead traditions, something like Scientology, they actually develop through a process of evolution that doesn’t require conscious thought or sometimes by a clever con artist like L. Ron Hubbard, they develop defense mechanisms that prevent feedback loops and opponent processes and prevent the whole scam from being revealed. The more feedback mechanisms they have to protect their dogma, to protect it from science, protect it from questioning, the longer they survive in many ways. That’s part of what happens. You can look at it and say, “Well, this has been around a long time,” precisely because you’re not allowed to question it. There’s all kinds of traditions they have that protect their weird ideas. You can see the same thing with make-believe martial arts.
Sonny: I think that’s really interesting, you mentioned that they’re good at replication, because I’d love to think that the idea that something’s been around, it’s true or it’s good or even if something’s popular, it must be great, a lot of people watching it, but we know that that’s not always the case, could be a matter of taste. With the replication thing then, I’m wondering if it’s like a personality part of human nature then, because I get the feeling that people who would be more resistant to change and more reluctant to open up to new ideas would probably be actually also better at replicating that same idea as well. That mindset seems to go hand-in-hand. “This is good, we’re just going to keep doing it over and over again and we’re going to get good at doing the same thing.” You think there’s something to it, that personality aspect?
Matt: For sure, I definitely think there’s something to that. I also think that the real piece to me, the thing that it really comes down to is what motivates the people who are following or choosing to believe in those systems. In my case, for whatever weird reasons, I was motivated to understand what works and what doesn’t work in fighting. As a young man in my early 30s, that meant I cared a lot about who I can beat, not beat and being able to be good. That eventually gave way to being a teacher and taking pride in my work in other ways. The fact that I was motivated by what actually works, that’s what kept me asking questions and created a volition to do aliveness. One way or another, I would have gravitated to something functional. I’ve seen other people that that’s not interesting to them. If their main goal in martial arts isn’t that it works or that it’s functional or to be able to defend themselves or that it has to be true, but more the social aspect of it or they just like clicking sticks together or maybe they like to collect patterns. There are people that like to collect things like stamps and things like that. That’s what motivates them. They’re not really going to be moved by you and I talking about aliveness because that’s not their main interest. I do think that there are also people who are motivated by the same things that drew me to marital arts, maybe the same things that drew you to martial arts. For a while, wind up getting fooled and/or wasting time. I know there are people like that, because I get thousands of emails from them over the years because they’re grateful. When that happens, when they all of a sudden realize, like for example my friend, Rokas, who edits a lot of our videos was an aikido instructor, who on his own said, “I’m going to try it out against MMA and see if aikido works.” When the obvious happened, he had a choice, “Do I now pretend that didn’t happen or do I let aikido go and take a path on towards functional martial arts?” He, thankfully, took the path towards what’s true, but what if he wasn’t motivated by what’s true, right? Could have gone back and decided to stay in aikido, but that’s proof, positively there are people in those systems who just don’t know, just like there’s people that get sucked into Scientology or Mormonism or whatever. They’ve never really heard the arguments for evolution or critical thinking applied to religious dogma. I hadn’t. I grew up in a fairly conservative, religious family and it wasn’t till I read on my own that I hadn’t learned anything about evolution. It’s not like you learn about a lot about that in American high school or secondary school. I think the conversation is worthwhile to have.
Sonny: I think so too. Just a quick side, you said the person who’s doing aikido, is he on Youtuber’s Martial Arts Journey I think?
Sonny: When he first uploaded, I followed his dealings with aikido and going into Jiu-Jitsu and it was interesting and he did take a good perspective on things. With that perspective, I was just thinking, as you said, you’re motivated by what’s good or being good and for us, that’s being good against alive, resisting opponents and I was thinking for the people that have fallen into that repetitive style of patterns, it’s probably their perspective is they are following what’s good but they’ve got good at those repetitive patterns, that’s their concept of good. They’re the best at repeating those repetitive patterns without a doubt. I guess, in society there’s some people– not some, there’s definitely a need for that, right? People who can just go out to work, that it’s the same thing over and over again, but then we also need the people who’re going to bring in the new stuff and the new ideas as well. Would you think that that’s roughly–?
Matt: For sure, I don’t have any problem with someone– of course, I want to live in a society where people are free to do whatever kind of martial art they want. We take that off the table, of course. I don’t have any problem with someone who really wants to train and learn aikido. What I have a problem with is when they start teaching aikido and they think that it’s going to help people defend themselves in what could be a life or death situation. What happens so often is you have aikido instructors, using aikido as an example but it could be any fake martial art, who will run into someone like me or you, who they know has a background or is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, would say one thing to us, “Well, I train it for cultural reasons. Aikido is about spiritual development and mastering the inner self. We’re not really talking about fighting people. We’re just on a different journey,” and it all sounds really good, but then if you were to drop in and have a hidden camera and microphone in their aikido classroom, you’re not around, that’s not what they’re offering. I don’t think that’s healthy for people. Let’s use another example, we talked about Rokas, I don’t think it would have been healthy for Rokas to continue doing aikido after he made his discovery because he’s smart enough to realize it didn’t work. What are you left with then after that? You’re left with trying to rationalize and defend the position that’s pretty indefensible and then teach it to other people. The whole thing is really dishonest in a way. Like you said, yes, doesn’t work, I’ve discovered it doesn’t work. If you want to learn how to fight, go do MMA, go do Brazilian Jiu-Jujitsu. I’m going to teach for and he has some other reason there, that’s fine. I just rarely see that happen.
Sonny: Yes, I hear you, I think that idea of it being dishonest is a big one, because from what you’re saying, it’s like if people want to say, “Hey, I do this art, and I’m really good at repeating these patterns, I’m really, really good at it.” Sure, you are good at repeating those patterns, no doubt, and if they want to say, “This is a beautiful art, this has so many elements of beauty, and look at how I’m moving, and it’s a beautiful thing I’m doing,” it’s like, yes, that can be beautiful, it’s beautiful, but I think the distinction is if they say, “This is a good combat martial art,” and you have to go, “Hey, that’s not true, that’s not the truth.”
Matt: Right, and on top of that, in a way, I’m still giving them too much credit, because anything somebody would say about Aikido as far as benefits, and usually they’ll chime in on things related to self-actualization or development of people’s personalities, I believe is, you found in much larger quantities in an alive martial art like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The things that have benefited me in terms of maturing as a human being, and using my job, my art, to be a better human being, those lessons through martial arts came about as a direct result of the pressure of alive training. It wasn’t that I got a belt or learned a certain volume of techniques or read Asian philosophy. It’s the trials and journeys of having to tap thousands of times for 15 to 20 years, and all that comes along with aging, and passing on the information, and dealing with your own ego when someone younger comes in. Do you still roll? Then, you roll, and the whole thing, and to avoid that process, to take yourself out of that process, out of rolling, out of the alive training, I think is bad for human beings. The most valuable to me about the art, personally, is a direct result of the fact that it’s alive.
Sonny: I’m with you there really a hundred percent. I’m probably giving them the benefit of the doubt, that other perspective, but in reality, there’s probably not a lot of people who do take that perspective, like, “Oh, no, this is no good for self-defense, I’m just moving around in a beautiful art form.” That’s probably not as common, and you do have to look at if you’re in a group that would allow a lot of dishonesty, because probably the majority of people would say that what they’re doing is good combat, and if you’re in a group that everyone’s not telling the truth, then how are you going to get those insights? It can’t be good.
Matt: You wind up like Steven Seagal.
Sonny: [laughs] He’s another kettle of fish, oh dear. Do you think then, with your talk on those delivery systems, are all the delivery systems, then, that you’re relating to, are they those alive martial arts, or is there anything you go, “Hey, we do a little bit of take something from a Wing Chun.” Do you ever take anything from that, or the aliveness is from those martial arts that have always had that in them?
Matt: Speaking for my curriculum, SBG is a big organization, and there is some variety in the different coaches. So, speaking for myself at my gym here, our ground fighting is all Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. There’s some wrestling mixed in there, but again, there’s some wrestling mixed into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, because of the influence of Bob Anderson, and Rolles Gracie seeing how that influenced Jiu-Jitsu. Then, the clinch is primarily derived from Greco, but also there’s some Muay Thai, and there’s some Folkstyle and freestyle and I learn anything awesome from another wrestler about clinch, we immediately put it into the curriculum. The stand-up is a variation of boxing. For me, it’s more boxing. For some of the other gyms, they might be more Muay Thai-based, but to me when you talk about boxing, or Muay Thai, or Boxe Francaise Savate, it’s essentially the same delivery system. If you’re really good at any functional martial art, it’s pretty easy to go back and forth between the other arts of the same range. So, a judo black belt, in my experience, is going to have a bit of an edge on somebody that’s not a judo black belt when they do Greco. I had the privilege in the past to work with really good Olympic-level Greco-Roman guys, and there were some things that they had to get used to with the grip and things like that, but man, they were still animals in the clinch, because the fundamentals that define a good, for example, hip toss, are the same in Mongolia as they are in Judo as they are in Folkstyle. So, it’s really easy to go back and forth, but you can’t do that with a traditional martial art, because it’s just not the same delivery system. Like I said earlier, what we should be looking for is what they have in common. A lot of the other coaches in the gym, for example, one of the things they’ll say is, “It’s just wrestling, it’s all wrestling.” I say, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, to give credit to my coaches, because that’s where I learned it from, there’s that level of integrity to say, “I’ve learned this from–,” and we pass that on. But, from a scientific perspective, saying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Japanese Jiu-Jitsu should, and ultimately I think, will sound a lot like saying Canadian geometry, or Japanese, and that’s where we should be going, to the point where we’re just talking about wrestling or Jiu-Jitsu, whatever word you want to use, but its scientific finding on the ground.
Sonny: Okay, I really like that and agree with you. It seems like your motivation, or your search in martial arts, is then finding essentially, the truth between all those different combat sports, Muay Thai clinch, Sumo wrestling clinch, Greco, Judo, whatever works between all those, is going to be the truth, the fundamentals.
Matt: The fundamentals of that delivery system, the things that everybody needs to know how to do, that everybody’s going to do more or less the same way, that define your ability to be able to play the game. That’s all based on human movement, as Connor would say, it’s all essentially basic human movement. It’s the same now as it’s always been, because we only have two arms and two legs. So, in many ways, we’re rediscovering it, and I’m sure if we were to go back in time, I suspect when the Greeks fought Pankration, we’d see something that looks very similar to what we’re doing now, because they had hundreds of years to work on it. That’s ultimately what our goal is. Then, the SBG way is to really limit yourself in class, and I try and do this when I teach. The actual curriculum and what we teach in class, to only the fundamental movements, and then what that does is, that actually creates more room for freedom of expression than you would otherwise have. A lot of people, I think, get this part wrong too, because the more you get into the weeds about, for example, your particular sweep– obviously, you’re going to have routes you’re very good at as a black belt, and if you pass that on, I go here and then they do this, then I go here, and then they do this, you have this long chain of movements, it may or may not relate to 90% of the people in that room ever. I’ve never seen another black belt Marcelo Garcia has taught that has his game, but if you focus just on fundamentals and then let the students play in an environment, like you create an alive game like you were talking about before, ultimately what you’re going to get is a room full of black belts who all look completely different, which is how I believe Jiu-Jitsu and fighting should be. That goes back to … no part of it. But, you really style as a coach and a teacher, you stifle that process, when you go beyond the fundamentals, because then you’re actually giving them a style, which I think is a mistake.
Sonny: That’s a really big concept for me to get, I think, but makes a lot of sense that you just focus on the truth. You’re just teaching students the truth of all martial arts that works across all styles, which you call, “Hey, those are the fundamentals,” and then from that foundation, their own form of expression is going to grow out of it, and that they’re going to end up looking different, but because they have the truth as their basis, it’s all going to be good, it’s all going to be efficient, effective martial arts.
Matt: It also means that conversations like Gi or NoGi, MMA self-defense, don’t really matter that much, because the fundamentals are the fundamentals. There’s no special mount escape I do if I’m caught in a 7-Eleven parking lot that’s going to be different from what I’m doing in Jiu-Jitsu at the gym. It’s the same fundamental human movement. So, when you have a school that focuses on fundamentals like we try and do at SBG, you’ll have some athletes that want to compete IBJJF, and I can go to that, and they can compete, and they can do well. You’ll have some that want to fight, a few that want to get in the cage. They can do that and they’ll do well. Some of them prefer not wearing the Gi, some would prefer wearing the Gi. It doesn’t really matter, because if you really are good at fundamentals, you should be able to play– you’ll be better at some than others, but you should be able to play at all those different theaters of operation and do well. If your game falls apart when you put the Gi on or take the Gi off, or somebody is allowed to punch you in the face, by definition you don’t have good fundamentals.
Sonny: Okay. That’s huge and then, would it be– a lot of people might even have misconceptions in of what your idea of fundamentals are, because it’s really that it’s fundamental movements that–
Matt: Yes. I get asked a lot, what is a fundamental? My basic answer to people is, I can list specific techniques, specific human movements, but the real answer is, it’s going to transcend venue, it’s going to transcend uniform, it’s going to transcend bodies, it’s going to transcend era and it’s going to transcend geography. Just like I said, there’s no such thing as Canadian geometry. Take a rear naked choke as an example, an efficient rear naked choke, you also have to define our goal. Our goal isn’t just working a fight, our goal is being as efficient as possible in a fight, which means to use as little energy, strength, risk, explosiveness as possible, use as little as possible to achieve our goal. As little as possible, but no less, right? That’s a never-ending measurement that hopefully, as we continue learning the art gets more and more refined, to when somebody can become a black belt, they’ll be doing the same movements they did as a blue belt, but just so much more efficient. That’s our idea. There’s also more efficient ways to mechanically do things. We’re always refining that, too. When we find a more efficient way to do a fundamental, then we will do it. For example, rear naked choke, there are the rough fundamental mechanics you can look at and to the naked eye, especially somebody that didn’t have a strong background in Jiu-Jitsu, they would not be able to tell the difference. The hands appear to be in roughly the same space and everything. You and I both know there are more efficient ways to perform that rear naked choke, if you know how to apply it the right way, in particular, get connection and all the things that Hickson and people like Henry Akins teach. That level of efficiency doesn’t change when you put the Gi on. It doesn’t change when you take the Gi off. It doesn’t change when I teach it to my tiny wife. It doesn’t change when I do it as a 275-pound man. It doesn’t change when a child does it. It doesn’t change in MMA and it’s not going to change in the street. That’s the efficient way to do that rear naked choke, and that’s a fundamental movement. It’s a fundamental human movement and we’re going to teach that to everybody that comes through our door, because I think it’s something they need to learn. Over time and it takes a long time, but over years, everyone will find their own best way to get into it, how they get into it, their own little way of getting into it. Then, the temptation is when you become a teacher is to teach you a way of getting into it, which I think is a mistake. I think what you want to go back to do is just teach the core fundamentals, and then create a game where your students can find their own way to get into it.
Sonny: That makes a lot of sense. We know that the setups are important, the entries are important. We know that’s everything and you’re not going to be able to get it if you can’t get there, so let me show you 20 different ways to get there. Again, getting there is that element of, I guess, personality and body type and–
Matt: Right. If, instead, you have a game where one side is starting on the back, for example, and the other side is maybe trying to do an escape or some particular movement. The person on the back is allowed to go for the rear naked choke and you set the timer and you do five minutes each side and switch and you do that for 45 minutes. Everybody in that room will figure out their own little ways to hand fight, their own ways to get that choke. You might show some things– I’m not saying we’re restricted in, like, we never show good entries like to do. But, by really keeping the curriculum close to the fundamentals, I think what you do is you accelerate the students’ learning curve, because they’re really only focusing on the things that really, really do matter, at least in class. Then, you’re creating an environment where each athlete has maximum room for freedom to develop their own way of doing it. When I go to schools that aren’t SBG sometimes and I watch their classes, I will know that the teacher teaches his own style or her own style because I’ll watch all the students that are all trying to do the same kind of guard, the same kind of sweep, they’re doing the same kind of pass. It’s just such a really inefficient way to do JIu-Jitsu, because I’ve never seen two black belts that should roll the same way, or do. Everybody has their own style and if I just taught what I do well at my gym, I don’t even know if I have any black belts, since I have my own way of doing it. Mechanically, what underlies my movement, under the surface, the structure, the skeleton of what’s going on, that’s the same for me as it is any of my other black belts.
Sonny: I really understand that because, for me, I feel confident showing something that, “Hey, this works in my game, get off your gut.” That gives me the confidence to actually teach it, just basically teach it with confidence. I’ve been figuring out the ways that we can allow people’s personality to grow. The way I’ve been thinking is, when they’re doing those techniques, instead of saying, “Hey, this is the setup, this is the way.” It is just paying attention, watching and then offering something from experience that a coach can say, “Hey, try this, see how it goes, you’re close to it already, maybe give that a go and see.”
Matt: Absolutely. I think the main thing is create games. This is actually really easy to do with Jiu-Jitsu. It’s a little bit harder to do with stand-up, but with jiu-Jitsu, it’s so easy because we can just make positional games. If we’re talking about a choke, for example, we can have people starting in the position where that choke occurs. So, I may have shown that choke in class, and then when it gets time to drill, I’ll have them start with a choke almost all the way on. Most of them are going to have close to 100% success, maybe 90% success, and then have the person resist and then we’ll do it, we’ll do it, we’ll do it and then like Hickson said, we’ll back up and back up and back up. Now, eventually, we’re back to a position where you’re just on the back, but your hands aren’t engaged around the neck yet at all, and now they have to start to get in and get the choke. Before that, we will talk on the fundamentals of hand fighting and how you efficiently get the choke on. Then, we’re going to let them play and the majority of the class, if it’s an hour class, for example, 40 minutes of that class is going to be drilling, and it’s going to be drilling in the position or the place where the lesson occurred today in class. We have 10 minutes of introduction stage where we’re showing whatever the fundamental technique is, fundamental human movement. We make sure everybody can do it without resistance, which honestly doesn’t take long for most people, 5 to 10 minutes maybe. When you see they have it, now you set up a drill. One of my requirements for SBG coaches is they should be able to create a drill for anything instantly like that. They can look at any problem, any skill set, whether we’re talking about, stand up clinch or ground, even firearms, whatever it is, and they can immediately come up with a live drill that the class can then do. The focus on the class is that drill, and through that process, they are getting time. At the end, sometimes we have 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the class, we’ll let them start in that position, just wrestle to submission if it’s Jiu-Jitsu, and that’s the context. So, we’ve isolated a piece of the game, we’ve introduced a piece of the game, we’ve isolated it with timing and then we integrate it back into the whole, whatever it is Jiu-Jitsu, MMA, and let them play with it. That’s our process for doing it. To be honest, it’s really simple with Jiu-Jitsu, because Jiu-Jitsu lends itself so well to positional sparring. You can think of any technique, you can think of a Jiu-Jitsu, you can make a simple drill really by just having people start where that technique occurs and giving them a particular place and then going back to it over and over again, so they get timing at that little spot.
Sonny: Just show them the finish and let them play to work their way there. I guess when you said drilling too, it’s fun drilling. It’s not, “Oh, drilling.” it’s, “Yes, drilling, we’re having fun.”
Matt: If you like rolling, you’re going to love drilling the way we drill. I can hear sometimes– so for example, before the virus hit, I was spending some time really focused on the Upa with my students, and because I found that a lot of people were doing it wrong or what happens is often they get away from it, partially because the elbow-knee escape works so well, especially even some of my black belts. We would do rounds during my competition team practice. We’ll see one side holds mount, one side escapes. Five minutes and then I let them switch. I like longer rounds because it gives your body time to problem-solve. They’ll go back to what they do best. So, if they are good at the elbow-knee escape, they will keep doing the elbow-knee escape over and over again. So, then, as a coach I now have to change the game. I say, “Okay, five minutes one side hold mount and attack and one side escape, but you’re only allowed to Upa . And you can hear some of the students in the class go, “Oh.” But, to me that’s fun and they are still having fun. Now, it’s a challenge, now they’re only allowed to do that one escape. They are going to have to get sneaky and figure out ways to , if they black belt on top of them, f igure out ways that he or she doesn’t quite see it coming so they could still make it work. What that does by isolating that piece is it gets them really good. Then, we can go back and put it back into the hole and their game is much better than it was before. Because with Jiu-Jitsu what happens is– I’m sure you discovered if all you do is roll. If you just teach a bunch of techniques and let the students roll, especially if its in an environment where its very competitive. Everybody’s going to do what they are good at. And you will get good at the routs, but people with have holes. They’ll have parts of their game that they don’t like to go to, so they avoid them. I think one of our jobs as coaches, as Jiu-Jitsu coaches, is to make people go to those places so they develop skill, fundamental skill in all the different positions, because we don’t want the first time they have to struggle out of that spot to be against somebody whose very good at that spot in a tournament or in other situations.
Sonny: Yes, and it’s yet making them go to those places that they are uncomfortable and don’t like but in a fun environment where there is no pressure on failing. Is that?
Matt: Exactly, where I am constantly saying every single time I’m teaching class or about to do a drill, “Failure is an essential part of the process. It’s not just okay, it’s mandatory. If you’re not failing through the whole thing, you’re still back at the introduction stage. You are probably not really acquiring any time.”
Sonny: Yes, and that was a huge thing for me. Recently, I had a chat with my friend Andy from School of Grappling and he pointed out that a lot of what coaches would often do is try and take their failures and say, “Hey, students, you don’t have to fail. I did the failing for you. Here is what you just do instead.” He said that’s catastrophic. You have to let people fail for themselves and learn, and you are just there to guide.
Matt: That’s very insightful. One hundred percent true. We can try and save on time. Obviously, that’s part of what our job is as a coach, but you can’t short-circuit that process for them. You can’t give people timing.
Matt: I can show them exactly what they need to do but you know you have to let them put in the work to be able to do it and that work requires failure. You can’t fail for them. My failures don’t give you timing, they give me timing. They don’t give any body else timing.
Sonny: Exactly, right. Yes, there’s a lot to take in from that conversation for me, Mat. Its been really excellent. I guess, in summarizing, if I’ve got an idea now of your martial arts philosophy maybe or just your ideas about it. We’re doing a physical activity that we’re searching for the truth in a universal human experience of wrestling and fighting. We are looking to help other people find that truth and have fun while doing it. Is that?
Matt: That’s great. Yes, that sums it up pretty much, what we try and do at SBG.
Sonny: Oh, that’s beautiful. Matt, thank you so much. I’d love to have you on again and talk about some other of your thoughts, stoicism and critical thinking.
Matt: Any time.
Sonny: Awesome. If people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to go about doing it?
Matt: Yes, for gym-related stuff, they can go to straightblastgym.com and a couple of years ago I started SBGU, which is my online university. I think we have close to a thousand different videos on there now, and I put up when I’m teaching, my classes go up there every week. Now that I haven’t been teaching with the virus, I’ve been putting up classes of training with my wife. There are multiple clips that go up every week. So, people that are interested in our stuff, they can go on there. For more essays and writing and things like that, not necessarily always related to martial arts, they can check out mattthornton.org, but straightblastgym.com usually has the links for all that.
Sonny: Awesome, I’ll be getting in touch with Ben Power from SBG Sydney as well.
Matt: Yes, he is very talented. Definitely probably worth having on the podcast and training with him, once all of this is over.
Sonny: Definitely. Matt, thanks so much. Hope you have a good day and we can do this again in the future.
I interview Rob Biernacki of Island Top Team. He also runs BJJConcepts.net and we discuss his thoughts on BJJ pedagogy, different teaching and cognitive learning strategies, gamification of jiu-jitsu drills which he calls micro battles and developing a training mentality for fun and longevity in the sport. Finally, we talk about how his geographic isolation forced diversity in his information set and lead him to develop a variety of training partners, his rank requirements for what makes a black belt which he states some students will not be able to attain and he delivers an epic rant on the proliferation of conspiracy theories in BJJ circles.
Podcast Transcript – Episode 023
Sonny: Good day, Rob, how are you today, mate?
Rob: I’m doing awesome.
Sonny: Excellent. Excellent. Now, we’re a big fan of your work. I see you online with your YouTube or when doing a lot of work with Stephan Kesting and you’re very vocal in some other podcasts that I’ve heard with BJJ Mental Models. I’ve got some strong opinions that I quite enjoy listening to. I’ve reached out to get in touch just to have a chat about basically what some of your thoughts are on teaching, and learning, and different styles of pedagogy within Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Just wondering maybe we can just start with, what was your background in learning Jiu-Jitsu, and how were you taught?
Rob: My background was a little bit disparate in that I was living in Toronto, Canada. I was training with– I had a friend at the time who was a- he was still a brown belt when I started really training with him. I started training, I guess, around 2002, but as part of overall MMA training. I was not a dedicated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guy. Like I said, I had a friend who was a brown belt. I trained at his gym maybe once or twice a week. I did a lot of No-Gi rolling at MMA clubs, that kind of stuff. Then I started getting a little more dedicated about the Jiu-Jitsu aspect of MMA when I started going down to American Top Team, which is probably around 2004. My coach was Charles McCarthy at American Top Team, but I wasn’t there all the time. I would go down a few weeks at a time. Then that became a few months at a time, probably around 2010 until I got my black belt in 2012. Because I was, to a certain degree, left to my own devices, I cobbled together a bunch of different things. I went through a pretty long phase of being the move chaser guy. In other words, if I lost a roll, the reason had to be that I didn’t know enough moves. If I got arm barred, it meant I didn’t know enough armbar escapes. If I couldn’t submit someone, it meant I didn’t know enough submissions. I kept going down this rabbit hole of learning 10th planet and then learning leg locks and learning this and learning that and just trying to amass moves. It didn’t matter how many moves I amassed. I would always get smashed by good guys. It was a really weird– I was the guy who would annihilate people who were even a little bit worse than me, but I would get totally destroyed by people who were a little bit better than me. It’s like there was no in-between. If somebody had good positional Jiu-Jitsu, they would be able to handle me unless they had a deficiency in their leg lock defense, and I could catch them with that. Then if somebody was not as good as I was at the positional stuff, then I can just catch them all over the place, but it’s almost like I never had competitive roles. I was either kicking someone’s ass, I was getting my ass kicked and it’s just because I didn’t have a proper understanding of what I now really try to promulgate, which is fundamental conceptual understanding of alignment base, partial strike, all this stuff I preach, which I was exposed to in, I would say, the best presentation of it that I was exposed to was from Ryan Hall because he was the first guy that spoke my language, spoke the language of physics, of biomechanics, and of comical nerd references in his instructionals, that kind of stuff. That was somebody that I really looked up to once I was exposed to his work. My training ended up being training with a lot of different people and then focusing exclusively on the Gi around 2010. I left leg locks completely alone and just did a lot of Gi training. Really didn’t start back up. I got my black belt in 2012 and then I didn’t really roll No-Gi for probably, I want to say, about three years. Then I started getting back into No-Gi. I did a competition in Portland and I started doing some No-Gi training for that. I won a match via heel hook and then I lost in the finals via heel hook. I was like, “Man, I’m never the guy who’s the worst leg locker in an exchange,” but that was from five years ago. That’s when I went out and I trained with Eddie Cummings and I got caught up on the leg lock game. Now, people probably know me more as a No-Gi leg lock guy, but for a little while there, I was just Gi only and very focused on fundamental conceptually sound positional Ju-Jitsu. I’m a mix of those two approaches. Then as far as my teaching approach, the pretentious word for it is I’m an autodidact, which is, I’m largely self-taught. Prior to opening my club which took away all my free time, I used to read probably a couple of books a week, all nonfiction, mostly science, and I tried to stay as abreast as I could of developments in cognitive science, anything related to sports, and training, and stuff like that. I’m not as up on it as I used to be, but luckily, I have one of my black belts now who is doing the same thing I used to do and just reading up on it. At our Academy between my previous research into it and my black belt, his name’s Callum McDonald, his current research into it. We try to keep evolving our pedagogy systems to reflect the state of the art in cognitive learning strategies.
Sonny: Beautiful. You mentioned Ryan Hall there early on in the piece. Was he someone you’d worked with personally, or was that just the influence of his–?
Rob: Yes. I traveled after– No, not after. Before I got my black belt, I traveled around for a little bit. I was at Ryan Hall’s Academy for a couple of weeks, and I was at Marcello Garcia’s for a couple of weeks. Then after that, I traveled around and trained with a few other people. I’m a pretty prolific travel-to-train guy. There’s certainly some people that I want to train with that I haven’t had a chance to yet, but the list of people that I wanted to train with and then got to train with. That bucket list is getting increasingly filled. I was very fortunate to get to train with him, not extensively or anything, but definitely something I wanted to do.
Sonny: Nice. You’re out there at Vancouver Island. I believe you previously referred to it as the New Zealand of Canada.
Rob: Of Canada.
Sonny: [laughs] I’m wondering because you’ve evolved into your own direction, even though I believe you’re associated or affiliated with Caio Terra at the moment.
Rob: Yes. We’re a Caio Terra affiliate.
Sonny: But you’ve certainly got your own style that seems to be pretty unique to what you’re doing. How much would you say that being isolated where you are has enabled you to be able to develop that?
Rob: I think it’s been a significant contribution. One of the formative bits of information that I got prior to opening my school was I saw an interview with, I want to say it was Jorge Gracie, and he was describing his thought process when he had moved to England basically as far as what he was looking to do in his Ju-Jitsu career and how he was able to achieve such incredible feats without being surrounded by really high-level training partners. I basically just stole his approach, which is take every student that I can that develops an aptitude or an interest in a particular game, and try to maximize that particular student in that particular games that I would have a variety of training partners that were challenging, even if the overall role might not be challenging against a blue belt. If I could make that blue belt a brown belt in one position, then I could battle them in that position. What that forced me to do is become as educated as possible in these different positions that I wanted to teach. I would seek out whether it was in traveling and training with somebody, or online, or DVD, whatever. Any kind of resources I could find that allowed me to model the best practices of the best practitioners at a particular guard, or submission, or whatever, and then I’d teach all this stuff that I was learning to my students once I felt comfortable enough to convey the information. There’s a difference between what I feel comfortable teaching to a class and what I feel comfortable giving to one person who’s working on something. My philosophy is I won’t teach something, let’s say, publicly until I’ve personally been working on it for about a year. I don’t like taking information that is still in development for me and teaching it. There would be things that I wouldn’t teach in the general class, but that I was working on. I would take a student aside and do a private training session, like a drilling session just for my sake, where I was using them as a training partner. I would say, “I want to work on this and I want you to give me these responses.” Then I would try to coach them through it. I took that Jorge Gracie approach of try to make different people as good as possible at different things, and so that created an ongoing process for me of, “I want to get good at this guard,” “Okay, now we’re going to get good at this, now we’re going to get good at that.” I would say that as far as my ability to teach different positions, there aren’t too many positions in Jiu-Jitsu that I don’t feel comfortable teaching at this point. Because it was just like, “I’m not awesome at them, and I’m not saying that I can play all these positions extremely well, but at the same where my wrestling knowledge is pretty good.” My actual wrestling is garbage like I’m a shitty wrestler, but I’ve trained like at American Top Team, I trained with some really elite-level wrestlers, and I train now with Yuri Simoes. Anytime he’s getting ready for ADCC, I’ve been part of his camps for the last three years, so I’ve had access to him. I think he’s easily one of the best wrestlers in Jiu-Jitsu, and so I’ve got to sit it on training sessions with him and his wrestling coach who’s amazing. I’ve got really good level of wrestling information that I might not be able to personally execute because I’m in my 40s and can’t put the time into getting good at it, so it’s the same thing with something like I’m not great at playing spider guard, but I can teach it pretty well, so I think that the geographic isolation forced me to become as diverse as possible in my information sets that I could pass on to students with the goal of making them exceptional training partners.
Sonny: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Then with the way that then you decided to present that information to your students to build them up in the different areas, did that mean that from the get-go, you were looking at changing how you were teaching your students as opposed to how you would taught yourself?
Rob: Yes, very much so. Prior to launching my club, I tried to sit down and design a curriculum, but not a curriculum in the sense that most people think of it. When most people think of a curriculum, they might think of the Gracie Barra curriculum or the 10th Planet curriculum where it’s like, “Here are these moves that we do, and we drill these moves and on this week we’re working on these moves, and the next week we’re going to–.” I really wasn’t trying to do that, although I did create modules that are based around positions. The first thing when I was creating our pedagogy system was I wanted to have the ability to focus people on a position for about a month. Every month we would do a module, and that module might be a specific guard, it might be a passing a format, it might be a submission control position, but everything had to be grounded in the fundamental concepts that I teach which are basically an expansion of the concepts that I got from Ryan Hall. The idea of focusing on base posture structure, frames and levers, and then adding in the emphasis on wedges after training with Eddie Cummings, that kind of stuff. That was the foundation of it was, A, have concepts that become entrenched so that people can solve problems when they arise that aren’t pre-programmed. One thing I don’t believe in and I think there will probably be some overlap and what I’m saying between what School of Grappling– I don’t know the guy’s actual name but–
Rob: Andy, there you go. What Andy–
Sonny: He’s a good guy.
Rob: Yes. For anybody who is watching this or listening who isn’t exposed to Andy’s work, @schoolofgrappling on Instagram, schoolofgrappling.com, I think is his website-
Rob: -just awesome stuff.
Rob: Like somebody who echoes a lot of the same ideas that I have about training, although he’s quite a bit more wrestling-based in terms of his techniques.
Sonny: Yes, Judo background, but now he’s all focused on wrestling.
Rob: Yes. He puts a lot of material out about this idea of, he calls it training the grey areas, and focusing on skills rather than techniques. I use maybe slightly different terminology, but if I could draw in a comparison to our fuck your Jiu-Jitsu drills, which are all based around– I know when you had Rory on, he explained fuck your Jiu-Jitsu, but those drills are all based around the idea of giving people problems to solve and gamifying the process of solving those problems and then putting them in positions to work on skill sets that are usually considered intangibles in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which I think is really wrong. Again, I’m not trying to like throw anybody under the bus, but the way that we teach people in Jiu-Jitsu is so just– it’s ass backwards because all the high-level competitors, they develop these skills that– Again, most people think are intangible, it’s like guard retention. Most people at most academies that don’t compete have garbage guard retention, regardless of belt. I noticed that in my travels to different schools, it’s like I would roll with a blue belt who competed a lot, and I’d have a really hard time passing the guy’s guard, and then I’d roll with a black belt who never competed and I would run through this guy’s guard. One of the things I used to do a lot in my own training was I would do what we call no hands guard, so I’d stick my hands in my belt and just defend my guard with my legs, so I had a guard that was pretty tough to pass. Again I would roll with brown belts, black belts, who couldn’t come close to passing my guard without my hands. That shouldn’t be a thing. Then I would roll with a good tough purple belt competitor and if I tried the no hands guard thing the dude would smash my guard. The underlying theme seemed to be that every good competitor has these subsets of skills that they get very good at, and guard retention is one of them. Passing is another. Being difficult to sweep is another one. When I was developing the fuck your Jiu-Jitsu drilling system, that’s what I emphasized– Oh, and sweeping too, like being good at chaining sweeps together, the same way that wrestlers are so good at chaining takedowns together. When you go up against the guy who’s an active competitor, if he goes for a sweep and you shut that sweep down because you know the counter, he’ll just go to another thing and another thing, another thing and then you’re on your butt. Those are the things that I emphasized is developing an ability to connect different sweeping movements together, regardless of what guard you play. There are subsets of sweeping, like chambering someone’s leg on your shoulder for X guard. That’s something that you can do regardless of whether you play X guard, regardless of whether you do the classic X guard technical standup sweep or not. That’s just a single leg done in a different way. Getting people good at iterations of those movements is what I was trying to achieve and that’s where fuck your Jiu-Jitsu was born, and then the gamifying of it was also born from just doing– one just personal experience and understanding how people roll, and then again watching guys. I’ve watched Ryan Hall roll quite a bit when I was at his school. I would come in for a class and I would do the class and often he would show up. If I did the noon class or the 11:00 AM class, I don’t remember but like the earlier class, he didn’t teach that class, he taught the evening class, but he would come in, and after that class was done, he would roll with Saff or whoever was there and I would just stay and watch him roll as much as I– to the extent that hopefully didn’t make him feel uncomfortable. I was just trying to watch as much as I could, and I’ve never seen anybody else roll the way that Ryan Hall rolls in training. It was so focused on allowing movement to happen, you can see clips of it online of him when he’s rolling at seminars or even there’s some footage of him rolling with blue belts, and he’s standing on them like a gargoyle. He’s just working on balance and sensitivity and stuff like that. When I was training at his academy, he gave a speech about his training attitude and how if you sweep him 99 times, on the 100th time, he’s going to walk into your guard like he doesn’t give a fuck about your Jiu-Jitsu and just try to get whatever experience you can out of it and that’s actually where the name fuck your Jiu-Jitsu comes from. That’s how influenced I am by Ryan Hall. It’s from that speech and then I took just the watching him roll and the attitude that he had towards it, and I tried to codify that with a set of rules that created a game out of developing these skills. When people first see it, they think of it as situational sparring, but it’s not because situational sparring is too aggressive. It’s too much like real rolling where if somebody is already skillful at a position, they’re just going to run their A-game in that position over and over again and it’s not playful enough. The idea behind it was to take again the most current research I had read at the time was based on a book by Malcolm Gladwell, which is a book called Outliers. It included the 10,000 hour rule, which has largely been debunked to this point, but it included another example of certain cultures that promoted gamifying, even like– I’ll use the specific example was the Brazilian soccer team. They would play this indoor soccer variant, which was like five on five or something where they got a lot more time with ball handling and passing and the walls were in place so they were basically just having fun. They did it like, they weren’t really trying to- obviously, you’re trying to win, but they were able to have fun with subsets of skills in soccer. That was one of the things that contributed to their skill level. Since then, I’ve become exposed to other examples like the Finns are unreal at car racing. There’s a saying in car racing which is if you want to win, employ a Finn. It’s because they get so much exposure to car control at an early age through Go-karts, through rally racing, through all these different things and so I very much wanted to try to develop these games because that was the science at the time and that has been born out by the more recent research as to how you can take athletes from a minimal level of skill to a maximum level of skill by focusing on certain things.
Sonny: That makes a lot of sense and yet big shout out to Andy from School of Grappling. I spoke to him previously because he really made a lot of big things click for me personally, with that idea of the gray-zone and gamification as a way to teach both techniques and concepts, because previously, I’d heard concepts used in Jiu-Jitsu obviously and I’m like, I know a concept, but what’s so, you got to be able to do the move. Then people would say, we’ve got to do situational sparring and I’m like, we already do it, what’s the big deal? We work from half guard, we work from closed guard, that’s situational sparring, but it was really through the conversations with him where emphasizing the gamification that really clicked for me that I could understand how it could all merge together. I’m wondering then aside from the Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu game that you’ve got, are there other ways of gamification that you’ve developed?
Rob: Yes, absolutely. Because Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu tends to be- it’s one version of a type of restricted drilling so when we design drills, and I’m actually in the process right now of filming a module for the pedagogy section on our site on how to design drills and we start with a very narrowly focused drill. One of the videos actually talk about chaos or chaotic versus linear progressions, and I talk about chaos theory, which is really arcane, but–
Sonny: You’d be surprised how often it’s come up in these conversations. [laughs]
Rob: It has to. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has so many analogous traits to chaos theory. When we’re designing drills, we can have a game be something as simple as, if we’re going to talk about situational sparring, we’re going to say half guard. We’re just trying to win an underhook. That can be a game. That’s an incredibly narrow game and if two people are relative beginners and they don’t have the skill to have a Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu type around, they can just sit there and pummel. As long as it’s explained to them what are the contingent parts of victory in a pummeling exchange, you can do that. That would be an example of a really focused drill that is a game. It’s like, as soon as you win an underhook, we stop. Then you can expand that to you win an underhook and you come up to your knees and we stop and so on and so. If you want to get really narrow with the games, you can do it that way. We have what we call Micro Battles, which are games like that. We’ll do something called an Arm-Drag game where one person is playing seated Butterfly Guard and we do this whenever we teach the Butterfly Guard module and whenever we teach the Arm-Drag module. You’re in a seated Butterfly Guard and– Do you know what Sticky Hands are in Wing Chun?
Rob: It’s almost like sticking hands where you’re not allowed to disconnect your hands from your training partner. Your handfighting, and the objective for the person that’s playing seated Butterfly Guard is to gain an Arm-Drag grip, pull the elbow and just hit an Arm-Drag just to the point where your body’s beside, you don’t have to take their back, you don’t have to come up on a single leg, you don’t have to do anything. It’s just as soon as you win the Arm-Drag and get past the centerline, the game is over and you start again. Then the person on top, if they win the handfight, they have to try to stand up and pass. Then the person on bottom just immediately puts butterfly hooks in behind their knees and drops to their back, to stop the pass. There are very definitive endpoints, and it’s not as narrowly focused as maybe pummeling for underhooks, but that’s a game that you can play. Man, we do that game so damn much that we know when people come to our gym, that have never rolled with somebody that’s good at Arm-Drags, man, they just get armdragged over and over and over and over. That’s just an example of gamification. If I just taught my guys the Arm-Drag and then was like, “All right, go roll now, try to hit an Arm-Drag,” they would never be anywhere near as good at it. We have a lot of different forms of games related to developing very specific skills. We’ll do a version of Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu that’s related to wrestling where we only handfight. There are no take downs. We handfight and as soon as you get to the hips, so you get to a bodylock or you get to the legs or anything like that, it’s done. I got to find especially for Jiu-Jitsu practitioners who are hobbyists or for guys like myself, who are like, I compete, but I’m not a competitor. I’m not a full time athlete or anything like that. If we want to work on our wrestling and we’re not full time athletes, so we’re not taking steroids and all that kind of stuff, we’re going to get injured, trying to bang it out on the feet the way that wrestlers do. We have to figure out ways to train our wrestling that puts minimal mileage on our bodies and that’s probably the best way is just to engage in the handfight, win the handfight. That’s another example of something that we have extensively gamified at our Academy. When I do go out and compete, what I’ve noticed is as long as we’re talking like guys in my category, masters, I’m not saying I’m going to be the better handfighter against someone like ADCC guy, that’s ridiculous, but competing with equivalent black belts in my age category, et cetera, et cetera and even going above my weight class, competing. I’m in my 40s so when I compete locally, I’m often put into a masters category that is guys in their 30s. I can only get equivalent age and weight-class, black belt competition by going to No-Gi Worlds. I have to compete at big tournament. In my local area, I might be competing against guys that are two-weight classes above me or guys that are 10, 15 years younger, that kind of stuff. In those categories, I have never felt like I was in any danger in the handfighting department. I know I can always win the handfight because it’s just something I do so much more than a lot of people. That’s another example of something that Jiu-Jitsu guys don’t do enough of.
Sonny: I’m a big fan of handfighting rounds, I do them all the time now, especially just as a warm-up and put all the guys through handfighting and it’s great fun. That brings me the question, how do you then structure your classes and split it between like game-time and full rolling time. Because even now when I get people doing some situational stuff, I can maybe it’s my own thoughts, but in the back of my mind, I’m like, they’re just wanting to go full rounds and just go crazy.
Rob: This is interesting because the thing that you mentioned earlier about like how did being geographically isolated contribute to my development? One of the ways that it contributed to my development as an instructor is when I moved to the town that I live in, I was the first black belt in that town and I was only the second black belt on Vancouver Island, which meant that if you wanted good Jiu-Jitsu instruction in my town, you had to come to me and if I said, “Drill for 45 minutes.” Everyone was like, “Okay, that’s what I’ll do.” Whereas if I had opened up shop in Vancouver, or some other big city, and I tried to teach the way I taught years ago, maybe people would have gotten bored and gone to the club down the road. Nowadays I’ve got a reputation for being a skillful instructor. When I say to do something people just like, “Oh yes. Well, he knows what he’s talking about.” Back in the day, that could have gone very differently. Over the years, we’ve developed a lot of different formats for our classes. The current format that we use involves– I try not to over teach. One thing that the longer I teach– In the sense of the length of my career. The more time I’ve spent as an instructor the less material I try to present. Whether it’s teaching classes or teaching seminars. I try to teach less. I want people to get an idea of the main concept and the movement that we’re doing. I want them to experience either a gamified or a restricted drill that involves that movement. Let’s say in an hour-long class, I’ll say, “Okay guys, we’re working on a knee cut pass.” There is a basic movement that we’re trying to do to just get to the knee cut position. We’ll go through that movement a little bit then I’ll immediately have them situation spar that position. When I say that position it’s like they’ll start with one person standing, and the other person on their back like a recumbent guard with their legs up. I’ll provide some basic rules so that we’ve gamified the process of sparring to get to the knee cut position. There usually will not be more than let’s say two minutes of instructions at the beginning. We want a very basic movement that acts as a warm-up. One thing I don’t like is the traditional warm-up. Like, let’s run around and do jumping jacks for 20 minutes. I can’t stand that. I hated it as a practitioner because I felt like I would rather be doing Jiu-Jitsu. I’m paying to learn Jiu-Jitsu, I can do calisthenics on my own at home. We warm up with a movement that’s related to what we’re doing that day. We might just do a couple of entries to a knee cut. Then I’ll give a little bit of instruction on what’s happening and then they will spar that. Then if I’ve designed the class properly, what will usually happen is there will be one obvious problem that arises when people are trying to get to let’s say the knee cut. Then the next segment of the class will address that problem and hopefully get them to the next stage. Then sometimes we’ll work backwards. We’ll go from you’re already deep in the knee cut position, and you’re facing a frame like an upper-body frame. Their arms are in your way. How do you get that? Once you beat the legs, you are at the hips, how do you finish the pass? Then again, they’ll just spar that. Then after that, we will do a Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu type round that’s just sparring, getting to the knee cut, and completing the knee cut. Then we’ll do a Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu passing round. Where you can do any kind of passing, but I tell them, try to get to the knee cut, try to use all the other passes to get to the knee cut. That process will take about 45 minutes. Then we’ll do a couple of other just general Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu rounds. It might be top control, it might be something else. There will be 10 to 15 minutes of warm-up and instruction, then around that gamifies what we did. A solution to a problem, then another round that gamifies what we did, and then maybe a short Q&A where I’ll like, “Hey, does anybody have any questions about this or that?’ “No.” “Okay, then we’ll do Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu.” In an hour, we might be drilling in the sense of reps of the technique for maybe 20 minutes. There might be about 10 minutes of instruction at the most. Then the rest of it will be situational sparring, gamification, Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu, that kind of stuff.
Sonny: Okay, now the biggest thing I noticed there was maybe the absence of just full free live rolls? Is that–?
Rob: Yes, in a class, we don’t roll. We have a class called a rollathon which is just an hour of rolling. A BJJ 101 class would be focused entirely on skill development. Then if you want to roll, you roll for an hour after that. I want the culture at our club of developing skills and focusing on your own development. Taking responsibility for your own learning. Aside from the curriculum classes where we’ll have a 201 class or a 101 class. We have a class called the skills development class where there is no formal instruction involved. I show up, class starts, and people just start working on their own shit. They come to class with something to work on and then I’m just walking around and answering questions. I’m a very general guide. There is no sparring allowed of any kind in that class. Although you can do Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu.
Rob: You can’t do sparring. You have to work on a skill, you have to do some game, you can drill, you can do whatever. Then after that, again, there is an hour of rolling. We get a ton of rolling in, but I try to have it almost be like where there is a separate mentality to what I’m [inaudible 00:37:54] to develop my skills versus what is the purpose of rolling. The purpose of rolling, it can be to develop skills. You can definitely roll with an eye towards developing a particular skill, but if you just come to class and drill a little bit then want to roll right away, I just think the skill development suffers.
Sonny: Yes, 100% that’s somewhere that like I’ve been there myself. I can think back to times where I’m just like, I just want to roll and I know that that’s not the best thing, but whatever. That’s just the day I was having that I just– yes, come on. I need to choke someone. [laughs]
Rob: Yes, for sure.
Sonny: What I like with what you are doing and the idea of gamification really is making that skill development fun. You can get that kind of sense of playfulness and experience through the skill development. It’s like a bit of spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down approach. Is that what you found? Have you found that working with your students and instilling that within them?
Rob: Yes. We’ve been talking obviously a lot about how do we get the best results out of training? The reality of it is I am not a coach to an ADCC team. I’m a nerd on an island who is only ever going to coach hobbyists in his life. The geographic isolation creates another situation where it’s like, because of where I’m at, there is not a single high-level athlete that is ever going to come to me for training. If you are a really good athlete where I’m at, you’re going to go play hockey. You are not going to come to me for Jiu-Jitsu. There is no funnel of athletes to the– It’s just not going to happen. I had to let go of those sorts of coaching aspirations. I get to coach really elite guys every once in a while when I travel. I coach Yuri Simoes, I’ve coached Bill Cooper. That happens in very small doses. My day job is I teach 100% hobbyists. Even the guys I teach who compete are just guys who do this for fun. I can’t approach what I do with the mentality of “I don’t give a shit about fun. I’m just trying to make champions.” That is not what I do. If I did that, I would be a much less successful business owner. My school would make a lot less money. I’ve very much over the last- let’s say over the first few years I was very much that guy. It was just, what is the best way to teach, let’s not worry as much about fun. Over the last few years, it’s, “What is the best way to teach, but how can we have as much fun doing it as possible?” Oddly enough, the gamification stuff, the Fuck Your Jiu-Jitsu, all that stuff we do, it does make it way more fun. We used to drill for longer because I was modeling the Actos kind of approach. The drill to win where you just come in and you just drill for 45 minutes straight. That’s what I used to make my students do because I’m always trying to find newer, better ways of doing things. I wasn’t satisfied with “Well, that’s how Actos does it, so who am I to modify it?” I just did more research on one of the guy I mentioned earlier, Cal, my black belt, he was like, “Hey man, I was reading some research that shows that people actually learn better when they have a choice in the material.” We incorporated what we call split module, where at the beginning of the month, everybody that’s in class votes on the material that we’re going to present. You have two modules instead of one, and you can learn the material from either module in any class you show up to. Because people it’s not like, “Okay guys, we’re doing De La Riva guard for the month.” Well, what if you’re not really a fan of Del La Riva guard, then you’re forced to drill De la Riva guard stuff. This way, we vote on it and you can work on the other. If we go back to De la Riva guard and Kimora control. If you show up that month, you don’t like Del La Riva guard. Well, then you do Kimora control. We’ve added elements like that. Then we got rid of the 45 minutes of drilling stuff and reduced the amount of time we’re drilling and increase the amount of time we’re doing situational sparring or game playing or anything like that, and within a week or two of changing the format, students started coming up to like, “Man, I’m really digging this new class format, this is just way more fun, da da da da.” I very much want that to be the student experience. Like how can I design a class so that you’re getting the best results possible for your progress, but it doesn’t feel like it’s an onerous task to get there. You feel like you’re just having fun doing it.
Sonny: Exactly. Because for me personally, now I’m trying to do Jiu-Jitsu for as long as I possibly can, into my hopefully 60s, 70s, let’s keep pushing it as far as we can. I know that the best way to do that is to make myself still want to go by making it as fun as possible and that’s what I want to impart onto everyone else who’s just– If people are going to stick around, it’s got to be something that they enjoy doing and look forward to coming to. That gamification seems like such a strong, important element they can play in that aside from just, hey, full rolling, just go for each other’s necks. What are some other ways that you would think would be important to incorporate in just keeping people coming back and doing Jiu-Jitsu for a long time?
Rob: This is something that I’ve spent a lot of time working on. This is again the advantage of not being– I guess I’m a decently highly regarded coach, like people in the online Jiu-Jitsu community know who I am and people like what I do, but I’m not a trainer of champions. In other words, I’m not like let’s pick an example, like Romulo Barralis a multiple-time champion in his own right and then he trains world champions, and so because I’m not that guy, if I was that guy, I wouldn’t have to worry about the business side. I would have some affluent business partner who would provide me with a school, do all the marketing, da da da, I would just show up and teach classes. Because I’m not that guy and because I’m geographically isolated, I’ve had to learn on the fly how to be a businessman and how to make Jiu-Jitsu appealing to people where there isn’t a Jiu-Jitsu culture. I don’t have access to a community of people who love Jiu-Jitsu because we’re building the Jiu-Jitsu community where I’m at. There isn’t this massive, in other words, even if I was in Vancouver, there are probably 50 schools in Vancouver. If I opened up shop in Vancouver as an instructor of some renown, there would be people who’d already been training that might just come to me, whereas what I’ve got to do for the most part here is build people from the ground up with no exposure to Jiu-Jitsu prior to training with me, that is like a huge majority of my students. I’ve tried to learn more and more about the process of being a beginner, and how do you make something enjoyable and how do you get people to develop training habits that sustain enthusiasm and encourage longevity in the sense of like healthy training habits. The things that I’ve tried to incorporate over the last few years have been related to– We do an intro for every student, that’s not uncommon. I think most decently well run Jiu-Jitsu academies don’t just have someone show up and join a class. You sit them down, you explain etiquette. We always explain the concepts, the base posture, structure frames, and levers. We teach them how to do a technical standup and a bridge and a hip escape and like fundamental stuff like that, then they join the class. Then before they actually join the class though, we will, after having gone through this onboarding process of like, here’s some ideas about concepts, here’s some movements. I’ll go through a training mentality speech or like an explanation, and that explanation is basically if you come to Jiu-Jitsu and your goal is to be submitting people within a week or two, you’re going to have an awful time. If your goal is to armbar folks, you’re going to hate Jiu-Jitsu because unless you’re some like crazy good athlete, some 200-pound former rugby player or whatever, you’re not arm barring anybody in your first week, month, whatever of Jiu-Jitsu, you’re just getting your ass kicked. It’s really hard for somebody who’s trying to learn a new skill to come in and just get shit kicked and not feel really discouraged. We give them this– I don’t know if it’s a trick or whatever, but we basically teach them the notion of incremental goals and how that corresponds to enjoyment. If you come to class and your goal is to armbar, someone, every single class you leave for the first few months is a failure, and you walk out of that class having failed and only failed. If you come to class with the mentality that if somebody pulled my head down and I recognize that that was broken posture, and I pulled their hand off of my head, I just won. Even if you do nothing else through the rest of the roll, that is successful. You did one thing where you recognize that your alignment was broken. You accessed the lever and you fixed your posture. You will do multiple things like that like you recognized that your guard was being passed and you put up some frames. There you go, that’s a win. Then you leave class having won, having succeeded 5 times, 10 times, 20 times, even though you got your guard passed and you got your back taken and you got choked, that’s not what determined your levels of success in class. We promote the hell out of that for beginners, just like you will leave every class having succeeded, and that will get you coming back. Then the other thing that I really emphasize, and this is not just related to student retention, but it’s like you’re talking about, I want to do Jiu-Jitsu in my 60s, in my 70s, in my 80s. We encourage rolling to explore and develop and we discourage rolling super hard all the time. There’s a time to roll hard. If you train five days a week and you want to come in and roll hard one or two days a week, that’s cool. If you’re getting ready for a competition, and you want to come in and roll hard four days a week, that’s cool, but outside of those contexts, it is not smart. It’s not safe, it’s not wise to roll hard all the time. What we do as far as the atmosphere of our club is guys who come in and try to roll that way, they get discouraged, because either we’ll make fun of them in a gentle way, we’re not trying to necessarily pick on anyone, but if somebody rolls in a way that isn’t conducive to a lot of movement happening, we have phrases like, “Oh, that guy took his ball and went home.” Or “That guy’s- he’s trying to win the drill.” Or all that kind of stuff. We encourage having an attitude of helping your training partners, being a good student, being helpful. Our number one rule is keep yourself and your training partners safe. The number two rule is try to have fun and explore and all that kind of stuff. We create this mentality where we’re all just having fun and playing games, and when we roll, we’re trying to get better by exploring as much as possible. The whole atmosphere is have fun and we all get better together. There are ways of doing that, that involve very little potential for injury, very little potential for wearing your body down and just maximizing your potential for learning and development. It comes down to training mentality. It comes down to emphasizing safety and having all these methods, because I would always emphasize rolling safely in the past, but if you don’t give people the tools to do so, they might not even be intentionally trying to roll too hard. It’s just that how, like if you just go from zero to rolling, all the rolling’s going to be super hard. By having all those games and those incremental steps to full rolling, when you start rolling, you can start the process all over again. You start with I’m going to take it real easy and I’m going to ramp-up certain aspects of the roll. I’m going to pick the partners that I do it with. I like to roll hard. When I roll with my black belts, man, we do a lot of hard rolls because we can do it safely. A hard roll with a black belt can be very safe and can be had at 60%, 70% intensity, whereas if two white belts roll at 60%, 70% intensity, they’re going to hurt each other. I can apply a heel hook on one of my black belts with a great deal of– I can do it pretty hard and never worry about hurting them. I can be in a submission with one of my higher belts and know that I’m not going to get hurt if I ride the edge, if I go right to the edge of where I got a tap, but I don’t ever want my white belts doing that. We go through a very definitive process of building people up to the point where they recognize how to roll safely by increasing the intensity very gradually. Did that all make sense?
Sonny: Yes, definitely did. There was a lot in there that was really good. I especially liked the idea of making beginners appreciate the value of incremental progressions and those little wins that they can get because especially, I remember once someone was asking me, when do you think I’ll get my first tap? I thought I was giving them, this was a hopeful answer like, “Oh, sometimes you got to wait until someone new comes in and then you’ll be able to get them.” I thought that was like, “Yes, it’s on the horizon.” The look of disappointment on their face when I said that, I was like, “Oh, okay. That was not what they wanted to hear.” Making them value that incremental progression makes a lot of sense and being able to do that. A lot of that is having control over the culture that you’ve got there to be able to set everyone’s goals as soon as they walk through the door. It’s surprising that a lot of the people are doing something different or unique are actually geographically isolated it seems because there is the big mainstream Jiu-Jitsu culture that is going to be all encompassing if you’re right next to somewhere that’s got a lot of that going on. That’s what people will expect and if you try and do something new out of the mold, a bit different, you’re going to cop a lot of questions and a lot of flack. The only person who is probably able to do that successfully, but obviously Eddie Bravo comes to mind as someone who went out of that mode and did his own thing. I’m wondering, just in terms of, on a broader cultural thing with Jiu-Jitsu, what would be one of the things that you might say would need or that if you could change as a whole, would you? Or maybe you wouldn’t because it gives you a good little advantage of doing your own thing there.
Rob: It’s interesting. I was on a podcast a couple of years ago and somebody asked me if I saw that this conceptual approach and this emphasis on well-thought out pedagogy methods, because those are two separate things. I would say that quite a few more instructors are jumping on board with the idea of teaching concepts. When I started teaching, literally the only guy that was speaking in these terms was Ryan Hall, because at the time nobody had really heard John Danaher talk about like, obviously John Danaher teaches very conceptually, but he was such an enigma back then. People didn’t know. To a certain degree, Demian Maia was, but if you hadn’t gone out and got his Science of Jiu-Jitsu instructionals or whatever, it’s not like that was part of the mainstream. Really the only guy that had a fair bit of exposure was Ryan Hall. Now it’s getting out there more, but I still think we are very much in the infancy of pedagogy approaches. Five years ago, I would have said more guys need to teach conceptually. I think that’s happening. I think that the industry is changing in that regard. Now I would say more guys need to really invest in developing a pedagogy method or sign up to bjjconcepts.net, get the pedagogy, we’ve got one. I do hope that we can part of spreading this notion that the way that we teach needs to improve dramatically. The state of Jiu-Jitsu in let’s say North America, but in the world in general has been, I would argue compromised by the– I don’t want to get too far down a rabbit hole here, but for myself, I opened my school in 2012. Almost everyone I know that opened a school did so in and around that area. Over the last 10 years, if you opened a Jiu-Jitsu school, basically since the 2008 financial crisis, you have opened a school in the most unprecedented economic growth period in human history on top of a explosion in popularity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which means that tons of people had money for it and the demand far outpaced the supply, which conspired to create a market for– You could have garbage skills at teaching and still run a successful school. There was zero market pressure up until like we’ll see what happens now. I think one of the aftermath of COVID is going to be you’re no longer just going to be able to open up a school if you’re a black belt and just make money. I’m not saying people were making money hand over fist because there’s also this myth I think in Jiu-Jitsu that it’s hard to make money running a school up until three months ago. It was absolutely not hard to make a living. If you were failing, it meant that you were either catastrophically competent as a businessman or you were just in a saturated market. I don’t doubt that it’s hard to open a school in Los Angeles and make money but if you went to a new market and just opened a school, literally every single person I know that opened a school in my relative geographic area, in British Columbia, Canada, every single person I know that opened a school succeeded. Even the guys who absolutely fucking suck at Jiu-Jitsu, are not good at teaching, they all succeeded. They all have successful schools in the sense that they are making a living. They’re not making a killing, but to me, if you’re making a living doing something you love, that’s success. I think that we went through this period of time where you literally didn’t have to be any good. How many stories have you heard of like I emailed the Jiu-Jitsu club about classes and they never got back to me? That would not exist in a truly competitive market where there was more supply than demand. I think we’re about to see the importance of real teaching skill could become more valuable where because the demand is going to drop for a little while and I couldn’t be wrong. We could go through a huge recovery. I don’t know what the recovery is going to be. If the recovery is enormous and we go through this filtering process where a bunch of schools go out of business, then honestly, it’s going to get even worse because there’ll be fewer schools and a whole bunch of people are going to go back to wanting to do Jiu-Jitsu and so it’s going to matter even less if somebody’s good at teaching. I might be way off on this, but one of the things I think will happen as we reach a saturation point of Jiu-Jitsu schools, the market pressure is going to change where you won’t be able to get away with being a half-assed teacher. Because people have seen what good instruction looks like more and more. They will have seen what fun classes look, it’s not as good instruction in terms of quality. You go to a class and it’s like, “I’m doing Jumping Jacks. I’m learning random moves. Then, I roll and I get my ass kicked.” The people at the club across town or across the street, the classes are more diverse and there’s this and there’s that. I think as whatever it takes to reach that point in Jiu-Jitsu where you can’t just open a school, and use car salesman marketing to drive in people where it has to be quality. Pre COVID, the biggest contributing factor to the success of a school was just how good was your marketing. You could be a dog sh*t at teaching, but if you’ve got decent marketing and you have a relatively affluent area that you open up. If you make good choices with locating your business, and you have decent marketing, you could be a terrible teacher and you’ll succeed. As we get a point of saturation, that should change. If I could snap my fingers, it wouldn’t be a finger snap, but literally would be– the market forces will demand better pedagogy methodology within Jiu-Jitsu. People will be forced to learn how to be better teachers.
Sonny: Yes. Really great point that I hadn’t thought of before, but as you’re discussing it, it does seem like that. Instruction quality isn’t really taken into account at the different schools because it’s assumed that it’s all the same. It’s just, “Oh, it’s going to be the same anyway.” There’s no point of differentiation between anyone so, is not a concern.
Rob: That is just down to the- if I want to be combative, I think that there are affiliations out there that are honestly trying to, subvert the notion that there are degrees of skill at Black Belt. I’ve been very outspoken, especially in my area, about the idea that I think a lot of guys who were wearing Black Belts, shouldn’t be wearing black belts. I think that Black Belts should be indicative of- it’s almost like a Ph.D. in Jiu-Jitsu. If you’re not extremely knowledgeable, I don’t think there should be such a thing as a time served Black Belt. I use the phrase merit-based promotion and time-based promotion, and so there are a lot of affiliations that you get your time card, you get attending a certain number of classes, and you get promoted. There are guys who just, they show up enough and they eventually get a black belt. I think are affiliations that want to blur the lines between a Black Belt who just showed up for 10 years, and a Black Belt who’s legitimately skilled and knowledgeable in a diverse amount of Jiu-Jitsu, because it’s in their interest as a business entity to not have someone be able to differentiate, “Well, that guy’s a Black Belt, and that guy’s a Black Belt.” The differentiating factor right now is competition. “How do you say that I’m a really good Black Belt?” “Well, I won this tournament.” Anything other than that, they just want to try to say, “Yes, well that guy’s a Black Belt and that guy’s a Black Belt.” I’ve heard uninformed consumers say, “Well, this particular guy is a fifth-degree Black Belt. He must be really good”. I remember being at a school once training, two guys walked in the door, and they’re like, “Hey, did you see that guy? He’s a fifth or sixth degree Black Belt”, Damien Maia is only a second-degree Black Belt. Can you imagine how good that guy? I laugh. That’s the level of knowledge that people have, and so they see this fat old guy who let’s be honest, it’s probably not that good at Jiu-Jitsu. Because he hasn’t learned a new move since the ’90s, but he’s got all these stripes because we’re giving out stripes now for time served. I’m very vocal about that. If we’re not going to have clearer rank standards, which, I think, is impossible, by the way. I don’t want a governing body to say anything. What I do want is there to be a relatively open and honest conversation within the community about the distinction between merit-based rank and time-based rank. We all know that once you’ve been in Jiu-Jitsu for a little while, you do know that there are Black Belt- it’s like Joe Rogan says, “There are Black Belts, and then there are Black Belts.” There are Black Belts who strangle other Black Belts. Then, there are Black Belts who strangled those Black Belts. Then, there are Black Belts who are world champion Black Belts. Then, there are Black Belts who win the five-World Championships who strangled those Black- there’s so many levels to this, right?
Sonny: Yes. World champion purple belts who could probably-
Rob: Who could strangle mixed Black Belts. That’s the thing. Personally, I don’t think there should be a World Championship for Colored Belt. I think that’s laughable. Can you imagine somebody just says, “I’m an Olympic Champion in Judo at Yellow Belt”? It’s absurd.
Sonny: We have that situation.
Rob: Right. I think, honestly, it’s good for the sport to have an extensive competition scene, but I think it’s bad for the sport that the way we categorize, it makes it so that we’re selling fake glory to narcissists because the IBJJF basically exists on the business model of having someone be able to say, “I’m a world champion.” Meanwhile, there were three asterisks after that. It’s like, “I’m in masters for Blue Belt World Champion”, like, “Dude, you are not a world champion. I’m not trying to shit on the accomplishment”.
Sonny: “This poor bastard is full of Blue Belt.” out there… [laughs]
Rob: That doesn’t exist in any other sport. In other sports, there’s a junior league, and then you work your way up. I get it, we need to have this for Jiu-Jitsu, but don’t call it the World Championship. If you’re not a Black Belt world champion, you’re not a world champion. I think it makes our sports seem clown shoes to an outside observer because they’re, “Well, how many world champions are there? It can’t be that hard to be a world champion because I know a world champion.” There are guys on my island that are like, “I’m a world champion”. There’s a guy who went to the– it’s not even Jiu-Jitsu, it’s Combat Submission Wrestling World Championships in fucking Bulgaria. It’s like, that dude lost at the provincials at Purple Belt in BC. What the fuck are we even talking about? There’s this bizarre rank inflation and title inflation that happens. I’m not down with any of it. I wish we were more on the up and up with these kinds of things.
Sonny: Although I will say, I do personally want to go to some Combat Wrestling one day, just because I like the rural set [laughs] .
Rob: The rule set it’s great. I’m sure the longer it exists, it will become a pretty legit thing.
Sonny: I get you.
Rob: Every MMA promotion is the podunk cage fighting world champion. It’s like, “No dude, you’re not”.
Sonny: Yes. Especially, I could definitely get behind the idea of at a bare minimum of if you win the world champion, so you podium, that should just be an instant promotion. If you can’t, especially then have multiple-year Blue Belts world champion, it’s like, “Come on. That’s gone too far.”.
Rob: On the flip side, I don’t think that somebody who wins- because you’ll hear this said of, any Blue Belt world champion at this point will beat most hobbyist Black Belts. I don’t think that’s even a controversial statement to make.
Sonny: Probably not.
Rob: I’m not of the position where like, “Oh, just because that guy could be those Black Belts, means that he should be a Black Belt.” For one, I think probably a lot of those Black Belts shouldn’t be Black Belts, but there’s something to be said for somebody having a narrow skill-set, and being able to win would because they’re exceptional at that skill-set. I do think there’s a process that we need for getting people up to speed, but I just think we need to be a lot clearer about it. Again, the IBJJF has benefits from there being a no distinction between hobbyists and full-time professional athletes. You got guys who are flying in to the Houston IBJJF open and are competing against guys who train three times a week, and are going to try and see how they do. Then, you get these guys who get to have these crazy highlight reels because they’re styling on hobbyists. I don’t think that that is good for the sport, because we need to have a real-hard distinction between those pros and the hobbyists. I don’t think that they should compete with each other. I don’t think that’s beneficial.
Sonny: No, that makes a lot of sense. I just want to run then, by you a hypothetical scenario because I’m just focusing on that take of the merit-based Black Belt versus the time-based Black Belt. Let’s say knowing the situation myself, but if you’ve got a Brown Belt who’s been working with you. Little Jimmy’s been with your 10 years, maybe it’s going into 11, 12, 13, 14, he’s on his Brown. He’s a good guy, but maybe some things just aren’t clicking with him and he’s asking you, “Hey, Rob, maybe is it going to be this year or-?” Do you see where I’m going?
Rob: I absolutely see where you’re going. I actually do believe that there are people who will never get a Black Belt from me. Actually, there are people who will never get a Brown Belt from me. Let’s say you started Jiu-Jitsu at 35 and you train twice a week. You get diminishing returns at a certain point. If you are not able to put the time in to garner the skills, then at a point where your body starts declining, I can’t give somebody a belt on theoretical knowledge alone. That might change. I’m not trying to say that this is the be-all-end-all position, but with where I’m at now, to me, Purple Belt is- the belts in Jiu-Jitsu mean different things than they do in other martial arts. In other martial arts, Black Belt is like, “Hey, you understand-“, a Judo Black Belt. A Judo Black Belt is usually about three years, maybe five. It’s considered the belt at which you understand the art. It’s not considered this crazy expert Belt, but what we’ve said about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is if you’re a Black Belt, it’s 10 years, and you’re a doctor, you’re this and you’re that. If we’re going to say that, to me, you don’t become a medical doctor by showing up to university a couple of times a week, and then eventually like, “Okay, Man, you can do surgery”. You don’t do it that way. If we’re going to say that Black Belt is this level of standard in Jiu-Jitsu, then to me, you got to say that there are people who are just not going to get there. For me, Purple Belt is the new Black Belt in that sense. If you’re the guy who shows up a couple of times a week and you’re just going to train really casually, I think you’re going to top out at Purple Belt. I think that is a level of skill that just about anybody, of just about any level of athleticism, maybe a little overweight, not great diet, not great athlete, but just comes to class consistently. Honestly, I’ve got some people that I train where I’m like, “Let’s see what happens. Let’s see how it goes.” Because when I say, “I think they’re going to top out at Purple Belt”, I’m literally just basing that on-
Sonny: A hunch.
Rob: Yes, it’s a hunch. I think that what I consider Black Belt level is pretty damn high, but maybe they get to Brown. I’m prepared to have my mind changed on it, but my hunch is that Purple Belt is where somebody tops out. If they’re that guy who, like I said, they train a couple of times a week. They don’t take it that seriously.
Sonny: Sure. Let’s say then, in that hypothetical, you’ve got someone maybe topping out Purple or Brown, and they come to you, “What do I need to do to get to the-? I want to get to the next level of belt.” Are you going to give him a criteria or-?
Rob: Yes. One of the other things that we try to provide our students is a very clear rank structure and requirement. It would never- I shouldn’t say it would never, but it would be unlikely for it to happen that somebody would come to me at Purple Belt or at Brown Belt and be like, “What do I got to do to get my Black Belt?” Because every step of the way- I actually just had this conversation today with one of my students. He’s like, “Hey, I was about to talk to you about this before COVID and now we’re going to be getting back to training. What do I need to do?” He just got his Purple Belt before we shut the doors. Now he’s like, “What do I got to focus on going towards Brown Belt?” I’m like, “Well, you got to focus on this, this, and this.” Our rank requirements are very clear and they’re very modular. Like I said, I’m not a fan of, “You got to show me these moves”, because the moves might change where it’s like, “Oh, show me an armbar from the guard.” That’s fucking useless. “What am I going to do to? Test you? You can do an armbar from the guard on a dummy”, that’s worthless. A rank requirements are the same way that we do our classes, which is I need you to demonstrate certain skills. To get a Blue Belt, you got to play a couple of different kinds of guards. You got to show me that you can do A, B passing options. You got to show me that you can do an A, B submission sequence from some dominant positions. I don’t care what it is. You could be a guy who hits a hip bump triangle from the guard, and then turns that into an armbar. Great, there’s your A, B submission sequence. It doesn’t have to be anything else. You can get a Blue Belt from me and not know- I shouldn’t say not know, but not be super good at the armbar from the mount, because that’s just not your sequence. If your A, B sequence from the mount is that you go for a guillotine, and then turn that into a darce. Cool. You might be a guy who just goes, mounted triangle, and then could only do the armbar from there and you never do the classic armbar from the mount where you push on the guy’s chest. That’s fine. You’ll get there eventually. I don’t those kinds of requirements, but you need to know one leg attack and that’s usually the straight ankle lock. Then, to get a Purple Belt, you got to show me that you can do pressure passing and movement-based passing, that you can play three guards, and that you understand the leg lock system, but you don’t have to heel hook anybody and you’ll still get a Purple Belt for me. It’s more about, do you have a certain set of skills? Then, by the time you get to Black Belt, man, you got to play five or six different guards. You got to have pressure passing and movement-based passing, and submission-based passing. You got to have a bunch of different submission systems that you’re good at. Your leg locks need to be good. You got to have take downs and you’ve got to be able to explain Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in a conceptual fashion to people, you need to be able to teach. I got a very high standards. If somebody is a mostly GI guy, and they’re a pretty damn good Purple Belt, but they’re not good at leg locks. They’re not getting the Brown Belt from me. If I ask them a question and they can’t explain- or a student asked them. If you want to be a teacher, at our club, the minimum is Brown Belt for teaching adult classes, although Purple Belts will fill in, but I basically want only Brown or Black Belts teaching classes. If you’re going to aspire to that rank and somebody asks you a question and you can’t explain lever-based rotational control, “Sorry, dude, just stay in a Purple Belt.” The requirements are really clear and the standards are really clear. No one’s going to complain because they all see what a Brown Belt looks at our club, what a Black Belt looks at our club. They know if they don’t live up to that, they’re not going to be asking me, “What do I got to do to get a Black Belt?”
Sonny: I think if it was just, you had high standards and the criteria wasn’t clear, then it sounds it’s cruel.
Rob: Yes, for sure.
Sonny: If you’ve got the criteria we’ll set-out and it’s just high standards, but if people know it and they want to work towards it, then I think that makes a lot of sense. That’s reasonable for a sport that values on overcoming obstacles and adversity that such a bit of adversity be put in place to achieve one of the pinnacles of the sport.
Rob: I think so. I think that we do– our students a disservice when we blur the lines. At a lot of gyms, there are two different tracks. There’s the hobbyist track and there’s the competitor track, you get guys who are showing up and they’re getting Purple Belts put on them, and then this dude who’s just murdering everybody. He’s still a Blue Belt because they want him to win Blue Belt Worlds. Obviously, people figure it out. People aren’t stupid. They’re like, “I know why he’s not being promoted.” But the fact that it’s not talked about, the fact that it isn’t laid out in front of everybody- in my academy there aren’t two tracks, there isn’t the hobbyist track and the competitor track. It’s just you get promoted when you’re good. You don’t have to be a killer competitor, but you got to be good. The guys at our school who compete, when they roll with guys at our school who don’t compete. There are particular rank, the roles are competitive. The guy who competes might win a little bit more because he’s in better shape because he competes and all that stuff. In terms of pure skill, there they’re relatively equivalent. I don’t like having those kinds of separate rank pathways for people. I think it’s disingenuous. Again, I think it allows for this blurring the lines bullshit where, “Oh, I’m going to open a school because I got my Black Belt.” To be fair, I wouldn’t have this opinion be as vocal if I didn’t see this done where a guy who showed up once in a while, doesn’t roll that much, doesn’t ever compete, but he wants to run a school and he gets a Black Belt put on him despite being demonstrably shitty at Jiu-Jitsu, but he pays his affiliate fees and brings a dude out for a seminar. That guy slaps a Black Belt on him. I fucking hate that because that guy pretends that he’s the equivalent of me or the equivalent of one of my Black Belts, or the equivalent of somebody who’s putting real work in to be a good Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, a good coach, etcetera, etcetera. That guy gets to skate by and pretend that he’s on the same playing field. I don’t like that. And if I call that guy out, I’m the asshole somehow. I don’t like that.
Sonny: I hear you on that. No, that’s a very reasonable way to put it in. Maybe just on that thing of calling someone out, it’s been a good conversation. I just want to shift gears for one last question, which is I wanted to just put this one to you and it didn’t come up naturally, so chuck it in here at the end. Just the idea of conspiracy theories and their proliferation within, it seems like a proliferation within Jiu-Jitsu. You can skip this one if you-
Rob: No, I will answer it, absolutely.
Sonny: Maybe to link it all back in, we’ve been talking about how we construct our knowledge of Jiu-Jitsu and teaching practices. That’s being the same of this conversation, is the methods we go about constructing that knowledge and basing it on research and feedback, and what we observe and what we’ve learned from other places. There’s always been an emphasis in Jiu-Jitsu on weeding out things that don’t work and only using the observable reality of techniques that are based in competition. Yet, one thing that does seem to be a bit of a common occurrence is this idea of– there’s a lot of conspiracy theories that this just seems to be a common thing in Jiu-Jitsu that goes around, and I can’t find [unintelligible 01:24:42] to square the two. I’m wondering what your opinion on it is.
Rob: What my opinion is on it? I’m going to bury myself with this answer, but whatever. First off, I think– when I say, “I think”, these are hypothesis on my part, I would love to be able to test them more extensively. I’d love to be able to grab a bunch of Black Belts and put them in a room and go through some really specific testing. These are hunches on my part. The first one is that because Jiu-Jitsu is so empirical and people value personal experience as much as they do, we have a bunch of guys who have reached a certain level of Jiu-Jitsu and they value their personal experience above almost any other thing. If I prove to you that the armbar works, and then you get good through personal experience and you’re good at armbars, and you have your method for doing the armbar, you believe that that works. That’s great. If you have no scientific background, and you don’t know anybody who got COVID and you think very highly of yourself, you may start seeking out confirmation bias type stuff. You will seek out information that supports, especially as a business owner. Let’s be honest, most people in Jiu-Jitsu are not highly educated. It’s not the wrestling where for the most part, if you wrestled at a high level, it means you went to university and you have some level of education. There are a lot of just dumb fucks who are really good at Jiu-Jitsu, but if you were to try to give them a quiz on any critical thinking science, any kind of that stuff, they would fail miserably. They universally are– let’s just be honest, cult attitudes are rampant in Jiu-Jitsu. There are a lot of guys running Jiu-Jitsu schools who are just worshiped by their students, and they never get any negative feedback or blowback for their opinions. They’re deified at their school. They can say some hellaciously stupid shit and people will just nod their head. I think it’s a confluence of those factors where a lot of guys in this business are not well-educated. They’re very well educated in Jiu-Jitsu and we definitely live in a world where you can insulate yourself and get your own set of facts if you’re within a certain political bubble. I think martial arts in general, Jiu-Jitsu in particular, are going to skew more to one aspect of the political spectrum. That aspect of the political spectrum happens to be more prone to conspiracy theories, period, and happens to be more anti-science in general. You just have a confluence of factors where it’s like this Confederacy of Dunces that are talking to each other and just lack of the self-awareness to know how what they believe about Jiu-Jitsu is completely the opposite of what they’re doing in their life. As a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, as a Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt, if a White Belt came to you and started spouting off about Jiu-Jitsu, you’d be like, “Shut the fuck up, why am I listening to your opinion?” Yet, you go out all these armchair epidemiologists, armchair statisticians, armchair politicians, armchair economists, etcetera, etcetera, very comfortable with these opinions. There’s also a factor that I think is significantly contributing to it, which is incredibly stressful times causes people to seek out anything that provides a feeling of certainty. Let’s be honest. The reason religion is as popular in society historically is because it sells certainty. It sells, “We’ve got the answers.” That’s all a conspiracy theory provides, it provides somebody who is going through a traumatic time in their life some semblance of control. The world is really fucking scary if you believe is that a random virus turned the world upside down and compromised your ability to make a living. That is fucking terrifying that that can just come out of the blue. If it’s all part of a plan, that’s actually very reassuring [chuckles] because it takes the randomness away. Have you’ve seen the movie, The Dark Knight? Where the joker talks about-?
Rob: He talk about that. Where if it’s a random event, it’s terrifying, but as long as there’s a plan, then it’s okay. That’s what we’re seeing here. It’s like, “Oh, there’s a plan. Oh, Bill Gates created this that he can inject you with a microchip. Oh, okay. We’re cool.” Then, “I can just take this one action of not getting the vaccine. I’ve got a simple answer that’s allowing me to take full control of my life and my response to this.” Whereas if you’re just going along with what’s going on and you got to have your school shut, and you don’t know when it’s going to be able to open and you don’t know what’s safe and what’s not, then that’s fucking terrifying. Most people would rather be comfortable and have that security and reduce that cognitive dissonance than be like, “Fuck.” Man, I’ll tell you, for me, personally, I have most days over the last three months woken up with a sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the world because I know I’m not in control. I don’t do well with lack of control. I live a life where I, as an adult, had more control over my day to day existence than the vast majority of adults. Literally, I almost don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. Luckily, I’m a relatively disciplined person or I’d be a total fucking disaster because I don’t have to wake up in the morning. I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t have any responsibilities outside of show up and teach Jiu-Jitsu. I could be a nightmare and I’ve lived a very fortunate life. Now, there’s a bunch of shit that’s totally out of my control. I try to educate myself about it and I try to do what’s best based on the best expert advice knowing also that expert advice is changing because it’s a new situation. This is where frankly, our education system in North America, and certainly a lot of other education systems, don’t do our society any favors because people don’t know what science is. They think, “Oh, science says this and now science says this other thing. Well, that means that science doesn’t know what it’s talking about.” Whereas people were educated to understand that science is a method, not a monolith, and that this is a new situation and the more we learn, we have to change our opinion and all that kind of stuff, then, it’d be less apt or less open to criticism. Because people don’t know that now it’s easy for them to like, “Well, they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about”. This guy who tells me that the lizard people are controlling etc etc and it’s all part of the plan and they just want to control us. It’s like, “Dude, really?” Again, if you had some critical thinking skills, you could maybe interrupt this process, but people don’t. There’s a severe lack of critical thinking, even in a community that likes to think of itself as like, “Look at us, we make fun of Karate. We make fun of Kung-Fu because those idiots don’t spar and t hen they’re posting about conspiracy theories and all this kind of stuff. I think it’s a confluence of undereducated people with a tremendous amount of unearned social capital. People look up to Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts way too fucking much. They shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be taken as seriously as we are. You mentioned before if I could snap my fingers? Man, if I could snap my fingers and change something about Jiu-Jitsu, I would have some sort of protocol for knocking all of us Black Belts down a peg, several pegs actually. It’s something I have in my school, I have got protocols in place to make sure that I don’t ever get to thinking that I’m that fucking great because I’m not above it, none of us are above it. If you get enough people telling you you’re so fucking great you’re going to believe it. There is just an epidemic of that Jiu-Jitsu, there are way too many cultic practices and way too many people think that they’re qualified to be talking about shit they’ve got no business talking about. There you go.
Sonny: I hear you. I’m glad I asked that question. I’m glad I asked that question now [chuckles] .
Rob: I’m not glad I answered it because I’m sure some people are going to– Whatever.
Sonny: You’ll be alright. No, I thought that was pretty diplomatic, actually, but who am I to judge? I just put on pajamas and roll around and teach people how to choke each other, I’m certainly no arbiter of good taste, [laughs] . You did bring up something which is very important, I think, which is that, from that personal experience, which is an interesting thing, I hadn’t thought about it the way you described it, but just that how people would never take what a White Belt said on face value as being an unquestionable truth just on their opinion, but yet it’s so common that they apply that thinking to other areas that they haven’t had experience with themselves. I had a sleep scientist Dr. Ian Dunican.Before he made a comment about fighters, he’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to overstep my mark because I’ve never fought.” I said,” Well, a lot of fighters are pretty quick to overstep their mark into science, so feel free.” [chuckles]
Rob: This is an interesting thing that you bring up because it’s funny how often you’ll hear a scientist or anyone who’s got either scientific training, or even just is scientifically inclined, they’re so quick to be like, “I don’t want to speak about this.” And if they do, I tend to speak about the topics outside of Jiu-Jitsu, but when I do, all I’m doing is speaking with reverence to the education that I’ve received or the information that I’ve received from experts. If I’m talking about cognitive learning strategies, I’m going to be like, “Hey man, I don’t know that much about this, here’s what I do know.” All I’m doing is repeating what I’ve learned from an expert in the field in a less cogent fashion. I can explain basic physics, but as soon as we start to go beyond that, I’m like, “Man, I don’t know”. I think anybody who has any kind of scientific training that brings with it a certain amount of humility about speaking, even on another scientific talk, like a guy who’s an expert in one part of physics will be like, “Well, if I’m going to talk about this side of physics I’m overstepping my bounds.” Whereas just general society and people who don’t have a scientific background, they’re very comfortable talking out of their ass because there has been, in my opinion, a concerted effort over the last, I would say 30 years to 40 years on the part of certain political actors in North America, but probably more around the world as well, to undercut the validity of expertise, to try to make it so that expertise matters less, scientific knowledge matters less. So that they can have a debate with a false equivalency where there’s a logical fallacy of equal argument. There are always two sides to a story, there are not always two equally valid arguments. Just because there are two arguments doesn’t make them equally valid. That’s a fallacy. I think there’s been a concerted effort and a very politically motivated one to make it so that people will view experts’ opinions and any other opinion on an equal basis. This has been done in a very calculated fashion to undermine the validity of scientific expertise. I think, A, it’s a tragedy. I think it’s going to contribute– and I think it already has. Anyone who’s viewing current world events, can see what happens, look at the countries that are run by intelligent individuals with scientific training, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea. Look at countries that are governed by, I use the word charismatic in quotations, by “Charismatic idiots.” I don’t mean just the one that most people are going to think of, there are many of them. There are many charismatic idiots, including the one running my country. I say this without political affiliation, I’m not trying to throw anyone political leader under the bus, I’m saying that electing people who are fucking morons to office, regardless of their political stripe, has bad consequences. I think that we as a society, and we as Jiu-Jitsu practitioners within a community, need to raise our standards of who we listen to and who we elevate in terms of opinion. If they’re not highly educated, if they don’t have some sort of expertise, then we shouldn’t listen to a goddamn thing they say. If we’re going to listen to Black Belts who have no expertise outside of Jiu-Jitsu, completely ignore them. They’ve got literally nothing to offer you in terms of a valid opinion.
Sonny: I agree with that. Maybe to wrap it all up and bring it back around to martial arts for tight in a nice little bow, as you were saying that I was thinking about when I corner fighters, and I’ll be cornering for kickboxing fighters, but the fighters will have a full-time kickboxing coach with them, Nick Pudney or Chad Lumley we work with. Sometimes they’ll be in the corner and I just want to yell something out because I’m there, I’m pumped up, but they’ve got the guys, they’ve had men who they’ve been working with and I’m here helping out, but I really want to yell something out. What I’ll do is I’ll listen to what those guys are saying and I’ll just yell that out.
Sonny: I think, I don’t know. I like that approach, it’s the one I’m doing myself and I think it can work.
Rob: Yes, I think if you have any voice, whether it’s in our Jiu-Jitsu community or in the wider community, and you want to speak with that voice outside of your area of expertise, speak with that voice to amplify the voices of experts and you can’t go wrong.
Sonny: I think that’s a good way to wrap this one up in a bar. Maybe we can come back in another time in the future and just delve deeper into those things as well because I think it’s been a great conversation, Rob, I really enjoyed it.
Rob: I would absolutely love to. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation as well. I had a blast talking to you, I’d be happy to do it again.
Sonny: Thank you so much. If people want to get in touch with you. I know you’ve got BJJconcepts.net. I know you’ve even got a live-in residency program or something.
Rob: Yes, I’ll try to touch on it as briefly as possible. Obviously, it’s not happening right now. We have a visiting student. It’s been brutal. I’m looking at my calendar now, I had all these visitors scheduled and it’s like, “Well, that guy’s not coming. That guy’s not going. That’s not happening.” We have a visiting student program. We host Jiu-Jitsu practitioners from all around the world. All you have to do is get here. The idea is it’s free. I have a three-bedroom home, two of those bedrooms are dedicated to visitors and we’ve had as many as five people staying at my house at any given time. They stay with me. They train for free at my academy for a week. There’s no catch. We’ve done it for years. Over the last probably three or four years we’ve probably averaged between 50 and 80 people every year. Again, from all around the world. We actually had quite a number of visitors from Australia. A lot of visitors from the US around Canada, Europe, South America, Asia, really just about everywhere. It’s a great program that has allowed me to undercut my social tendencies because, if I didn’t have this program, I would literally never speak to another human being outside of Jiu-Jitsu class. It’s been really beneficial that way. If somebody wants to get in touch with me, I’m on Instagram although I hate social media. I am on Instagram at Island Top Team. We also have an Instagram account for BJJ concepts, @BJJConcepts. You can get in touch with me through BGGConcepts.net through the email there. When things get back to normal eventually, the visiting student program will resume. I now have a backlog of people that I will have to get out here who were supposed to visit over the last few months, but I will find room for anybody who wants to visit. Hopefully if you’re ever inclined to travel, come out here and visit us.
Sonny: I’d love to, whenever the borders are back on. After we get the microchip, we’ll be ready to go. Alright, Rob, it’s been beautiful, mate. I’d love to do it again in the future. Have a great day.