My BJJ Black Belt Journey: 30 Plus Years and Still Learning
One of the cool things about life is that you are often on a journey before you are even aware of it. And at times, you do get second or even third chances. The main idea is to never give up, keep your eye on the prize and maintain an open mind. The last is often the hardest.
I enjoy sharing my stories of trials and tribulations with others showing my failures before my eventual triumphs. Many people have been inspired, just like I was (and still am) inspired by others that overcome adversity with perseverance. It’s all part of the human experience and what provides us with the fuel to forge onward.
Here are my current Ranks and important certifications. I achieved my Sho Dan (1st Degree Black Belt) in 1986. 30 years later, I was awarded my Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Here’s the breakdown:
8th Degree Black Belt Combative Arts, East-West Martial Alliance: Professor Jon Collins
3rd Degree Black Belt, Taekwondo: Dr. Michael Evangel
2nd Level Instructor, Shamrock Submission Fighting: Frank Shamrock
1st Degree Bando Black Belt: Dr. U Muang Gyi
1st Degree Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt: Professor Mitch Coats/Checkmat BJJ
In addition to the Martial Arts, I’m a Master Tactical Instructor in CDT (Compliance Direction Takedown) under Tom Patire, a Master RKC Kettlebell Instructor with Dragon Door as well as a PCC, Progressive Calisthenics Certified Instructor with the same organization.
Often times we travel a road and find ourselves on a journey that is not known to us for quite some time. I would have to say that my journey toward my attaining the level of Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu began when I was 12 years old, back in 1974. My cousin was a year older than me and lived a few towns away. When we got together, we would typically wrestle around. When I was 12 and he was 13, he really started to whoop me and I didn’t like it one bit! He then informed me that he had joined a junior wrestling program in his town. I wanted to learn how to wrestle and had to get this going, but our town didn’t have a program. However, the next year, the high school coach ran a 6 week clinic on Saturday mornings and this culminated with a dual meet against one of the towns with an established program. I wrestled a very tough kid and wound up winning by a score of 5-4. It was very cool, the struggle against another human being. Testing myself against another. I was bitten by the wrestling bug! It was what I wanted to be great at, I would not accept anything less!
Without spending too much time on my wrestling career, I wrestled through high school and 2 years at the Division 1 level in college. I trained and participated in as many Collegiate, Freestyle and Greco-Roman competitions that I could. I was known as a wrestler and still am to this day. I wear the label proudly.
When I was finished with my competitive wrestling career, I still wanted to do combat. So I started doing Martial Arts simultaneously with my wrestling and had a background in boxing as well. Back in 1981, my instructor in college was Pat Finley. He is very accomplished and open minded. He introduced me to Bando, Arnis, Jun Fan and Catch Wrestling. After I graduated college, he went on to train with Erik Paulson and would review flow drills and strategies with me when we got together. In the meantime I was back in New Jersey coaching wrestling and training. On June 6th,1986, I achieved my first Black Belt in the art of Taekwondo. That was 30 years ago this year. I’m proud to say that I’m still learning, growing and honing my skills. My goals now are different. Most of my combat sports career, I strove to be the best fighter and competitor that I could. I wanted to be a “World Beater”. At the time, I really believed that I could be. I did enjoy some very good success over my competitive career from 1976 through 2010, on a National level from 1979-2010.
In 1993 all of us watched the first ever UFC. IT WAS AWESOME!!! This is the type of fighting that we all wanted to do back in our heyday. At the time, due to my background in wrestling, boxing and being under the tutelage of Pat Finley and Jon Collins, I was already doing a “mixed martial art” ever since 1981. So, quite a few of us ramped up our training in this method. Prior to that, the so-called “Martial Arts Purists”, didn’t care much for our system including takedowns, ground and pound and submissions.
When we are young and aggressive, some of the decisions we make are not always the best. We feel like we can power through anything, beat anyone and impose our will. One day, I believe it was 1996 or 1997, this BJJ Instructor came to my gym. He asked to do a “roll” with me. Between my catch wrestling and Aiki Jujitsu training, I knew some top down submissions, but wasn’t skilled at the bottom-up game. I was a wrestler, I figured I’d just escape and get back to feet. Plus, during my training, my team and I had practiced techniques to combat being put into “The Guard”. The two of us took to the mat. I blasted him with a double leg takedown and he wrapped me up in his closed guard pretty quickly. He was vying to either armbar me or slap a Triangle choke on, so I did my defense. I grabbed him cross collar and picked him up, I then slammed him to the mat, hard. He let go of his submission attempt and explained that “slamming wasn’t permitted in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.” I replied, “I thought that we were fighting? It’s OK if you try to break my arm but I can’t slam you? I don’t need to learn this s**t.” And we left it at that. I don’t even remember his name or where he went. He probably has some huge BJJ school now and that could have been me. Hey, we live and we learn…
My students and training partners trained basic Catch Wrestling and Naban (Burmese Grappling) a few times a week as part of our curriculum. Fast forward to 2004 when I attended a Frank Shamrock seminar, it was an awesome 5 hours. Frank and I rolled afterwards and he liked what he saw and asked if I’d be interested in becoming an instructor in SSF (Shamrock Submission Fighting). I eagerly accepted. Afterall, he was a true legend in the sport of MMA and I had been a huge fan ever since I witnessed his 15 second dispatch on Olympic Wrestling Champion Kevin Jackson in a UFC Title Bout. I assisted Frank in a bunch of seminars and he introduced me to Brian Ebersole. Brian is a tough former D1 grinder with over 70 Professional MMA bouts under his belt. He has an incredible take on grappling, fantastic technique and superb coaching skills. My guys love when he comes to train and lead a seminar. These are two very talented guys that have influenced my fighting and teaching to a high degree.
In 2005, Jerry Jones had a very promising Professional MMA Fighter, Mike Massenzio. MIke had a great pedigree for MMA. Tough as nails, a 2-Time NJ State Champion, High National Champion and JUCO National Champion wrestler. He was also a Diamond Gloves Boxing Champion and was an Expert Level NAGA and Grapplers Quest Submission fighting champion as well. Jerry brought me in to improve Mike’s kicking game. We trained together a few times and I became one of Mike’s corners officially in 2008. I was a No-Gi guy 100%, but he did introduce me to BJJ Gi work and was also the way that I met Jay Hayes and Mitch Coats.
Jay Hayes, is one extremely talented individual. Unassuming and lethal. He has a great pressure Jiu Jitsu game, a great many grappling titles and a group of very talented students. I first met Jay in 2007, but started training with him in 2010 when he was working out of another gym. We had brought Jay in to train Mike in the finer points of BJJ. Mike went to a fight camp in and then I started doing privates with Jay. He gave me a great base. We trained on and off for few years and then I began training on a regular basis at his new school. Jay has been a great influence on my BJJ game.
Professor Mitch Coats, my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Instructor is known and highly respected not only as a Black Belt Champion competitor, but as an incredible coach. His students have won far too many championships to even begin to count and he was part of Alliance Jiu Jitsu when they were the #1 BJJ Team in the world. His insights, methods and temperament are all attributes to be revered. I was cornering Mike Massenzio in a UFC Event held in Brazil. The veteran Mike Pyle was on the card, he was cornered by Brazilian Black Belt Champion Mitch Coats. Being one of the few Americans on the card, we started hanging out that week and Mitch and I immediately bonded. He was with Alliance BJJ, which was the top team in the world at the time. I was looking to join a top flight BJJ Association, so we talked about getting things going. Mitch would come out to my school in New Jersey for a week at a time and I’d go to the Alliance US headquarters in Atlanta and train with the team there. Mitch’s style, methods and personality jived with mine and my students. His high pressure game combined with solid wrestling skills was the perfect fit for us. In 2013, I was awarded my Brown Belt in BJJ. We continued this routine, him coaching me remotely as I progressed, coached my students to many championships. Our school has produced champions in many organizations, Grappler’s Quest, NAGA, IBJJF, Good Fight, Ammo Fight League, Abu Dhabi Trials, to name a few. Not to mention several of my students that have successfully competed in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) as well. The most recent, Rob Cerabona, submitted a BJJ Brown Belt in the 3rd round of his Fight Club Champions bout. There were a few tournaments that I was able to schedule Professor Mitch to come to my school and work with my team prior to the events. This helped out the team a great deal.
On August 23rd, 2016 I conducted a class at The Base, Professor Coat’s Boise Idaho training center. He presented me with my Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that night. Now the journey really begins!