Friday, 7 June 2019

A Kiwi among Jiu Jitsu Royalty


During a work trip to the US, I worked into my busy schedule a little free time to visit a couple of the most legendary jiu jitsu clubs on the east coast. Maybe even the world.

I was in Atlantic City where a work conference was being held for work, but a quick google and I discovered I wasn’t too far away from New Jersey's famous Ocean County Jiu Jitsu, home to Professor Tom De Blass. So I figured this was as close as I will likely ever be to the club and planned to attend the evening class from 6pm.

It was about 55 mins from where I was staying but I arrived a little early and watched the kids class finish up. I had messaged ahead to Tom De Blass on instagram and to my surprise he replied and said I was welcome to join. Although when I arrived there was no sign of him. So I sat there for a bit, not sure what to do, until finally about 5 mins before class, he emerged and motioned me over to his office.


The first thing you notice is that he is a big guy. He shook my hand softly and said “hey man, get changed in here and come out as quick as you can.” So I did so. I threw my gi on and came out with a couple bags of NZ classic lollies (L&P Whitakers and some Pineapple Lumps) I said to Tom as I caught him in the hallway, to pass those on to his kids class, or just stash them for himself later. He was stoked. I filled out a bit of paperwork real quick, and raced out to the mats where they had already started warming up. He waived the mat fees. A great start!

It was a normal kind of warm up with the usual shrimping and star jumping etc to get the heart going, and before too long. Tom had a training partner and was showing the first technique to drill. I found a partner about my size and we got to it.

It was a reasonable size class with about 20 members attending that day, all who were very welcoming and eager to hear about what I was doing so far from home. Everyone was super motivated and there was a good buzz about the place.

This is definitely driven from Toms end as he would take a few seconds between teaching the techniques to provide us with some valuable competition advice and motivation towards becoming the best athletes we could be. I appreciated this as it got me more fired up to work harder during practice.

Finally at the end of a few rounds of technical training, we had about 3 rounds of live training followed by a 5 min round of serious cardio conditioning led by Professor Tom. Jumping with knees to chest, burpees, sprawls and push ups were some of the movements yelled at us alongside accompanying reasoning of why we shouldn’t slow down or ever give up. It was intense to say the least but you couldn’t help but feel a sense of achievement and comradery at the end when everyone collapsed with exhaustion as we finished.

We lined up for a standing bow, everyone trying to catch their breath while Professor re enforced the good work we had put in today before shaking everyone's hand and reaching for their water bottles.

After the first class was an advanced class which I attended, however this class was considerably smaller where I was only 1 of 4 students learning from another teacher Kyle Krieger in this case. The class was super technical and I picked up about 4 new sweeps from DLR guard. Kyle was super knowledgeable and a lot of fun to learn from. Very little live training following this class, so I was keen to hang around for the no gi class that was directly after.

The no gi class was led by black belt Professor David Matias Gonzalez. We worked a lot from the truck position and had a number of great setups to get into slicers and back takes, as well as the first time I had seen the twister being taught. My training partner was 3x NCAA D1 champion, Hudson Taylor. A +99kg beast, who is also the take down coach at Marcelo Garcia’s club in New York. Fair to say, I got my ass handed to me for 30 mins but I picked up some great pointers super quick in that time.

After 3 sessions, I was done and thanked everyone and made my way back to Atlantic City.

Funny thing happened when my uber driver picked me up though…

The driver was a semi retired fella from New Jersey, originally from Brooklyn and was super friendly as I got into the car. He proceeded to tell me a story that was either a message from the Gods or at the very least, super ironic.

He started out..

“Hey I think I know this martial arts place! Yeah, the last time I picked someone up from here, I took him all the way to Manhattan Island!”

(that's about 2 hours from where we were…)

“Yeah, the guy I picked up was so nice, and kept apologising for the long fare and asking if it was ok that I took him all that way to NY. Oh he was super nice, the nicest guy I ever met! He was telling me about his girlfriend and how they had just bought new electric scooters and how he couldn’t wait to get home to go and try them out. He was such a nice man! He gave me a $100 tip after the trip”

Etc etc…

The driver talked for a good 15 mins about all the things he and his mystery passenger talked about in the cab before I got the impression that “the someone” he was referring to sounded familiar. So I pulled out my phone and showed him a picture of Gordon Ryan. He exclaimed “THATS THE GUY” and got excited that I had his picture. After I told him he was a world champion, he couldn’t stop saying how amazing it was to have a celebrity in his car! He told me that if I ever saw him, to say thank you for the tip and everything. I got out at the end of the journey and thanked my celebrity chauffeur cabbie for the yarn.

I thought to myself what a small world! If I was ever meant to go to NYC then perhaps now was the time.

The next week I did exactly that. I checked the details on the website of the world famous Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan, and booked the closest hotel I could find to it. All of 3 mins walk from door to door. Perfect.


I arrived there Monday morning, early. The first class was 7am with the one and only Professor John Danaher. Punctuality didn’t seem to be as important here as much as it did to be prepared to go when given the nod. Danaher emerged from his office about 7:25am and in a corner began a simple stretch to himself as the others around the class paid no real attention to him.



I continued to stretch on my own as I looked around the room at who was in attendance. Gordon Ryan, Gary Tonon, Nicky Ryan, Jake Shields just to name a few. About 50 in the class. All stretching, all rearing to go.

In a flash and with a very soft “ok guys”, Professor John, got straight into the first technique with very little warning or introduction at all. I quickly realised that you are expected to be ready to learn when he is ready to teach and this was perfect. The room which moments before had been filled with friendly chatter had come to quickly to a state of absolute silence. Danaher spoke very softly and taught his technique very clearly to what I can only say was directed to whomever was the smartest man in the room. If you were not advanced enough or didn’t get it, there were no second takes or chances, you were left to study the others around you and work it out with your training partner. The technique was shown through 2 times with the appropriate explanations and then it was 1, 2 “give it a go”.


I think this teaching method is super efficient and amazing when you have world class students around you. There seemed to be a ripple effect happening here where John was seated against the blue basement wall, with his world champion students, the closest to his proximity. They would communicate directly with him as they worked through the technique adjusting or adding to it, so we all watched what they were doing and therefore emulated the technique with them, and so did the people near us. It was a buzz.


It would be about 5-6 mins practice on each technique before Professor Danaher would bring the class back with a soft “ok guys” and again straight into the next technique. Over the next few days, I noticed he would always show a take down first and then into a theme of techniques all linked together.

30 mins later we would start situational rolling. This was the same every time. First from mount, then closed guard, then side control and finally your choice of either from standing or seated live sparing, which then continued until the end of class. One of John’s philosophies is that at the very least a world champion should be an expert at escaping pins, or never being pinned at all. I thought the daily training from the mounted position etc solidified the importance of this practice because most people training there were amazing at these escapes and were able to quickly turn the tables on the situation.

John often talked about the mechanics behind the techniques also which I thought was very helpful in understanding why a technique was so effective. The use of wedges and levers were two parts of the mechanics that stood out during my week of practice. The off balancing of opponents and other elements such as rotation were often also regularly spoken to. It seemed to be comprehensive by showing the technique, explaining the importance of it and how it worked from a mechanics point of view. I felt that I had completely understood it all before the end of class.


In saying that, there were also some very advanced techniques that I did struggle with at first. As I mentioned earlier, John would seem to speak to the smartest man in the room and there were techniques shown that I had little or no experience with. For example, I have not done many competitions where an inside ashi gurami was permitted and so it wasn’t something that I had spent much time learning before his class. But despite the lack of that prior knowledge I still found that Professor Danaher’s teaching method was short and sharp enough to the point that if I simply emulated what he said and looked around the room a bit at what others were doing, you could keep up with everyone pretty easily. A testament to his teaching way I thought.

The live training every day was intense. With about 50 guys around me, there was no problem finding someone who could beat me up. I had rolls with world champs, black belts, blue belts and everything in between that would push me to defend myself as well as challenge me to use the techniques I had learned in the class. Rolling with Jake Shields for example was an experience in itself as the UFC veteran made little work of a take down and heel hook finish with me, over and over. Super nice guy and said, “don’t worry about it, I do this full time” at the end with a big smile. I was fortunate to roll with Jake a few more times before the end of the week.


I made a likeness of jiu jitsu at Renzo’s to my first time practicing judo in Japan. The standard and level of judo in japan is arguably the best in the world and before I learned how to improve my offence, I had to learn how to ramp up my training to provide a better defence. Otherwise I was just going to get smashed every 5 mins and could never get ahead of my opponent. It seemed very similar here. Every training partner I had at Renzo’s had an inherent edge I thought, just because of the overall intensity and the environment, so I felt I was forced to ramp it up over all, just to keep the pace that seemed to be the norm there. Finally after acclimatizing to the more intense pace of sparing, I started to feel a rhythm and eventually was able to poke holes in my training partners defence and work on a “game” of attacks. I felt as though I had leveled up!


A few days deep and I started to feel at home in the blue basement. I would collect my name card from upstairs, fist bump the ever present gatekeeper Rob Constance at the bottom of the stairs and get onto the mats with a smile on my face. I'm not sure if it was the daily use of CBD (legal in the US) or the buzz and excitement of being there, but the body held up surprisingly well considering I crammed in about 8 sessions over 5 days. I did most morning classes with John Danaher, and also the midday sessions which were a mix of gi and no gi. John would actually teach the technique with the gi jacket on and then take it off to demonstrate the same method in a no gi situation. I was fortunate to attend one of Renzo’s classes and witnessed a promotion, and added in a few late night no gi sessions with other household name Gracie black belts.


I had a very cool unique encounter with Renzo Gracie that my brother Laurance Pene was able to witness as I was on the phone with him in the downstairs lobby. Basically I was standing in front of a group of offices on the phone with Laurance when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I spin around and theres a smiling Renzo Gracie, telling me “bro come with me, the reception is better over here!” I nearly dropped the phone as I was so starstruck. I quickly thanked him and blurted out how grateful I was to be training at his gym etc. Quickly I thumbed the video button on the phone and Laurance’s live video came up and we briefly video chatted all together with Renzo smiling and posing for it all. It was a great moment! He was super friendly and really engaging. Obviously the lifeblood behind that place, and I was so happy that he was a great guy in person as I had always thought he was the man.

By the end of the week, I had rolled with champions, learned from gurus and taken enough pictures to prove to the haters that I had walked among the giants of jiu jitsu. It was a truly humbling and valuable experience for me. I got to meet my heroes, train alongside them and in some cases I managed to fumble my way through a heel hook or two with em. I took a few notes at the end of each day, in an effort to retain the lessons so if you see me on the mat, feel free to ask me about something I had learned there.

Overall, if you ever are in NYC and have a few hours free, definitely drop into Renzo Gracie’s Academy and witness the uniqueness of the blue basement.


* James is a blue belt at Auckland BJJ Epsom. Follow his instagram @jamesmcboom

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