How I Became the BJJ Ronin

Early in my youth I used to watch my father teach Martial Arts out of our home. My father, Blaine, had transformed our 2 car garage into his own personal Dojo. While my father taught Martial Arts a bit at a local Martial Arts School, he also began teaching from our home. Eventually, he taught only out of our home and I couldn't wait to jump in. My father says I used to bug him to train but he made me wait until I was 5 years old. So I grew up training in Martial Arts and at the time it was Tang Soo Do. My father was a 2nd degree Black Belt in Tang Soo Do. Chuck Norris was a popular Martial Artist and action movie hero who also trained in Tang Soo Do so if Chuck Norris was doing it, we had to be on the right track. There was a small emphasis of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu taught in the school where my father trained so he taught us this art as well. When I was about 7 years old, my father was working in the Secret Service. During his time in the Secret Service he felt that the Martial Arts he had learned was not as effective as he thought during non-cooperative subject training scenarios. He began exploring into other arts that could complement and enhance his Tang Soo Do.

 After his first year in the Service, my father was in a terrible auto-mobile accident. His late night shifts in the service got the best of him one morning when he was driving home and he fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed into a parked tracker trailer at over 60 miles per hour. My Father was smashed and spent about 3 months in the hospital. During his time in the hospital he flat-lined 3 times. We were told to say goodbye to him but thankfully my father is a fighter and he battled through it. Every boy who looks up to their father truly believes that their dad is superman. When my father first came home from the hospital he went from Superman to some skinny dude with a beard.  He literally has his face wired back together and still wears the scars from that accident. Eventually, he was able to get himself back to good health and regain his Superman status. 

Martial Arts played a big role in my fathers recovery. When he recovered he still had the goal in mind of exploring other Martial Arts. Through his research he found that Kenpo claimed to be a very street practical Martial Art. While Tang Soo Do was a very hard style that focused on power, Kenpo was a very soft style that focused on speed and explosiveness. It was a good compliment to his art. In time he received his Black Belt in Kenpo and began using Tang Soo Do, Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and Kenpo to form his own style. He liked to cross train and would also spar a lot with other Martial Artist like Kickboxer's and learn more from them as well.

During all this time I received my first Black Belt in Tang Soo Do when I was 11 years old. Even though we were doing a lot of cross training we still called our art Tang Soo Do and I continued on to receive my 2nd Black Belt at the age of 14. It was right around this time in early in 1993 my father came across Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. This was before the first UFC! We had the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Volume 1 video training series. My father had a passion for real self-defense and he was a quick believer in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. We began training in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu from this volume one training series and it felt like just a few months of training in Jiu-Jitsu from video tapes, we were able to cancel out many years of our past training. My father felt that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was the real deal.

Later on that year, the first ever UFC aired and Royce Gracie (the little skinny man in the video series getting choked and arm bared) was about to show the world what Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was all about. After we saw Royce Gracie whip up on all these bigger guys and barely even get a scratch on him, we knew we had continue learning and training in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Of course at the time, there was no where to train in Jiu-Jitsu so we just kept on learning from the videos. Jiu-Jitsu became a huge part of my father’s Martial Arts system. Eventually, he named our system Self Defense Tactics and began Self Defense Tactics, Inc.. This system was a blend of all that my father had learned and proved to be most effective. Of course after the first UFC, we also began to train bare knuckle and with limited rules. Self-Defense Tactics was truly a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) self-defense system before the term MMA was even born! We didn't practice, Tang Soo Do, Kenpo, Kickboxing or Jiu-Jitsu any more. What we did was self-defense. How to defend yourself effectively in every situation. 

As No Holds Barred fighting became more popular we began hitting up Royce and Rickson Gracie seminars, Joe Moreira and even a Marco Ruas seminar. We had a very well rounded practical self-defense system. Eventually I received my Black Belt as an adult in Self-Defense Tactics.  In 1997 I competed in my first BJJ Tournament which was the Ralph Gracie Open in Richmond, Virginia. I won my first 2 matches and ended up placing 3rd after I lost to Ex -Navy Seal and Linxx Academy Owner, Frank Cucci. Frank went on to lose to Fernando Margarida. It was a great experience. I had never competed like this and had no idea what the rules were or how to get point. I just knew that Iwanted the submission.  Eventually I began to compete some more as the tournament scene began to grow. In 1999 I was awarded my Chief Instructors certificate in Self-Defense Tactics and Freestyle Jiu-Jitsu through my father. By the year 2000 I was beginning to take over the teaching and business known as Self-Defense Tactics Inc.. Due to the intense type of training we practiced it was always a fairly small group of people because not everyone wanted to fight and train like we did. 

In the year 2003 I changed the business name to The Clinch, Inc. You can read all about why I changed the name and what it means to me in this blog here.  In short, the Clinch began to add more of a sportive approach rather than just having a practical self-defense system. Eventually, I began offering classes that separated the striking from the grappling for the sake of competition. In 2003 and 2004 I won the N.A.G.A Battle at the Beach grappling Pro Division. It was a total of six matches and I submitted everyone but one of them. In one of those same competitions, I brought a team of 10 students and we left with 13 Golds, 3 silver and 1 bronze medal. Also in 2004 one of my female students (Erin Comstock) was the #1 Ranked female grappler in the Black Belt and Advanced divisions. The President of N.A.G.A was so impressed with my victories at Battle at the Beach that he invited me to fight in a Super fight against Pablo Popavich in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Pablo Popavich is the # 1 Ranked grappler in the USA a World Jiu-Jitsu Champion and also World Abu Dhabi Champion! Although, I lost by decision, I went the full 10 minutes with Pablo and even felt that I pushed the pace for the most part. This was my 1st Super fight and only my 21st competitive match while Pablo had all ready had 200 victories under his belt. Pablo has beaten competitors such as Renzo Gracie, Gregor Gracie, Saulo Ribeiro, Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez, Andre Galvao and Marcelo Garcia! Having trained with the Gracie's since he was five among many others Pablo had much more experience and many more titles than me. Keep in mind, my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training started out with my father and some video tapes. Although I have worked out with many different people, I have predominantly trained by myself (with my students) since the year 2000.

Some of my students have also had some pretty impressive victories. One of my students, Jacob Kirwan was submitting BJJ Black Belts in no-gi tournaments and MMA fights as a blue belt. He went on to eventually get his Black Belt and has fought in Bellator Fighting Championships 3 times! In one of those matches he beat 4 X Black Belt World Cup Jiu-jitsu Champion Rene Nazare. Another student of mine, Joey Hughes entered his first grappling tournament ever and as a blue belt won the Grappler's Quest No-Gi Super Heavy Advanced National Championship Belt in 2010.

One of my students lived in Woodbridge, Virginia where he discovered Master Leo Dalla and began to train with him. He introduced me to him and I was able to roll at his Academy a few times before competing against Pablo. I have kept a good relationship with Master Leo Dalla, who is also Llyod Irvin's BJJ instructor. On occasion I am able to get to Master Dalla's Academy and train with his team. In 2011 I approached Master Leo Dalla about getting an official Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt. I never claimed to teach Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because I didn't have a belt rank of any kind in it. My father and I always taught what we called Freestyle Jiu-Jitsu. Master Dalla helped me come up with a plan to get certified as a BJJ Black Belt. He said he didn't want to certify me personally because it would be a misrepresentation. He said that I have learned on my own and that I should get credit for it. He told me that he would validate me as a Black Belt through the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) for as long as has known me which was 6 years at the time. So I approached the IBJJF about how to become a certified Black Belt through them and I fulfilled all their requirements and had to have Master Dalla sign to validate that my skill level was worthy. So in October of 2011 I became a certified 2nd Degree Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I had taken a break from competing in 2005 when I started my family but I did recently compete for the first time in 6 years at the NY BJJ Open in 2011. I earned 2nd place losing to Paul Schriener in the finals, who is another avid BJJ competitor that teaches under Marcelo Garcia.

How was I able to compete at such a high level without having black belt training partners? How was I able to earn a 2nd Degree Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu without a teacher? The answer is simple. In the end, Martial Arts is simply Art. I have been an artist all my life but it took me many years to truly understand martial arts as a true art. Art is simply expression. Just like a painter beautifies a canvas or a musician creates a beautiful melody we too should be expressing something beautiful. Martial arts is meant to be pure but can easily be perverted into something violent. I believe that each artist should eventually create his own interpretation while striving to keep it pure. This is exactly what I have done with my martial arts training. I have created my own interpretation of the arts and now I am sharing it with others and guiding them to do the same. Just like all the true masters I am still exploring the different possibilities in my technique. Look at Bruce Lee who made a huge impact on the martial arts world or the Gracie family who did the same. They expressed themselves as artist. You would never take an art class were your teacher told you to paint like them and only like them. Your teacher would teach you to paint properly but eventually encouraged to personalize it and express your own master piece. This is what I encourage at the Clinch Academy. Yes we do have a curriculum and yes I do teach techniques and strategies but I also allow for modification and personal exploration. There is an old quote from the book of the Samurai that goes

"It is spiritless to think that you cannot attain to that which you have seen and heard the masters attain. The masters are men. You are also a man. If you think that you will be inferior in doing something, you will be on that road very soon.” 
§  Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. Hagakure.

Expression is what martial arts are really about. Whether it is for self-defense, competition or for recreation, martial arts is always art. If you learn to view yourself as an artist then the possibilities are endless. My job is to help you learn Jiu-Jitsu or any martial art eventually, independent of me. I will always be my students Instructor but a big part of my instruction is getting my students to the point where they can excel quickly on their own without being held back. I want them to learn to personalize their game and techniques and express them to others. With all my experience in doing this I have developed some great methods of training that have helped me excel in martial arts. These are methods that I want of share with you so that you too can learn to excel quickly in your Martial Arts training by taking on the mind set of an artist. One thing that is important to understand immediately is that you are not JUST your instructors student, you are a student of Martial Arts.