For starters here’s a few of Ryan Hall’s accomplishments:
2010 Chicago Open Absolute Champion (black)
2010 Chicago Open Champion (black medio)
2009 Abu Dhabi Bronze (<65.9 kg)
2009 Mundial Bronze (brown pena)
2009 ADCC Trials Champion (<65.9 kg)
2008 Mundial Champion (purple leve)
2008 European Champion (purple leve)
2008 Brasiliero Bronze (purple leve)
2007 No-Gi Mundial Champion (purple leve)
2007 ADCC Alternate Match Champion
13-time super fight champion (NAGA, US Grappling, Nevertap, Grapplers Quest, etc.)
Some notable victories over: Baret Yoshida, Jeff Glover, Wilson Reis, Rodrigo Ranieri, Rafael Correa, Jeff Curran, Renato Tavares, Joel Tudor, Jay Hayes, Frankie Edgar, Hermes Franca, Jim Miller.
Whether it’s from accomplishments like the ones mentioned above or criticism, the Jiu-Jitsu community would be hard pressed to deny that Ryan Hall is one of the most talked about grapplers today. In this interview Ryan discusses his early success, his involvement with the 50/50 guard, injuries sustained in training and competition, and a total change in his approach to being a better Jiu-Jitsu player.
BD: More and more of the jiu jitsu community is seeing and hearing about the 50/50 guard. Is this something you created or innovated and what or who inspired you to work on this position?
RH: I certainly didn’t invent the 50/50 position but I’m 99% certain that I coined the term. I started using it as a foot locking and heel hook position in no gi around late 2005, early 2006. To my knowledge, nobody started calling it "the 50/50" until I made it up and Lloyd Irvin started releasing emails referring to it by that name. I was first exposed to the position--which wasn’t exactly a guard but a footlock position he called the "Cacareco" after Dean Lister's victory using it at ADCC 2003--at a Brandon Vera seminar in 2004. Lloyd was always big on footlocks and as a result, we spent a lot of time drilling them. The 50/50 worked for me almost immediately because, even though I was lighter than most of the guys I trained with or competed against, it was a well tangled position that's tricky to navigate through even if you're a high-level leglocker. Because I spent a lot of time working on the position, I was able to use it effectively to find heel hooks and foot locks early on, even when I wasn’t so sharp with that stuff, and it just grew from there.
The people who I’ve drawn some inspiration from are guys like Cobrinha, Rafael Mendes, and Bruno Frazzato. Those guys are all so good that you can't help but learn from watching them. I feel like I have made and continue to make consistent progress on it and it’s definitely a feature part of my game. I certainly wouldn’t describe it like many people do as a stalling position. Frankly, anyone who calls it that doesn’t understand what’s going on.
BD: Many people have seen the videos of well known guys like Xande giving his opinion and criticism about this position. Another criticism is that it is a dangerous position and can cause injury. How do you train it properly and how careful are you with your own students in this position? Are you ok with the novice level guys working the 50/50?
RH: I’m very careful with the way my students make their introduction to footlocks. I feel pretty comfortable saying that it is not safe for 2 beginners to be tangling up their legs and that injury is a pretty likely outcome if they do. Most new guys come into a gym and kinda thrash around, not necessarily because they’re trying to hurt each other, they just don’t know how to move safely. Kinesthetic sense takes years and years to develop to a high level, and because they haven't put in the time yet, there is a very good chance that they don't really have a feel for how the body works and tangling up the feet and knees can be a recipe for disaster. Worst part about it is the knee is such a vulnerable and at the same time a valuable joint, you can’t really do a whole lot without it. Even though I enjoy attacking legs and feet I prefer that my students avoid those positions early on in their training. I really believe that for someone to start learning leg attacks in a way that is going yield positive results (including safety for themselves and their training partners), they need someone who is experienced to sit down and work with them personally over a period of time to really get the hang of things.
When it comes to the 50/50, it’s caused injuries solely because of ignorance. Ordinarily, I would tend to defer to guys like Xande or anyone else who has experienced and accomplished more than than me but in this particular position I have no problem stating unequivocally that they are wrong. The 50/50 is no more dangerous then any other leg lock position,or arm position for that matter. Imagine if you put me in a Kimura and I started thrashing around and doing backflips trying to make you let go. Odds of injury for me? Pretty freaking high. Why don't we see a worldwide outcry to ban armlocks due to their unavoidable dangerousness? Because there are enough people in existence who understand the way the arm/shoulder work and they let their students know what will happen if they don't respect the arm attack and just move as if there was no danger.
Unfortunately, there aren’t too many high-level foot lockers running around to teach people, and as a result, you will see injuries in training and competition. If you have my leg isolated and I start flipping around doing all kinds of crazy stuff trying to get out, I can hurt myself just as easily as you can hurt me. That's not the footlock's fault. It's mine for being a moron. In order for us to train safely you have to be able to trust me that I’m not going to hurt you and I have to trust you the same way. If you feel my leg twisting in an unnatural way, it is your responsibility to let me out to prevent injury. Naturally, I would return the favor. We all have times when we think we've escaped a position but our training partner knows that they still have things locked up dead to rights. It's our responsibility as good training parthers and friends to look out for the safety of the people we train with even when they don't realize they need looking out for. As far as training goes, I can say with 100% certainty that I have never hurt myself in this position and I’ve never accidentally hurt anyone else, either.
Competition is definitely different. People generally aren't trying to hurt one another, but your safety becomes your own responsibility, not your opponent's. At a high level, you go until the other guy taps, and hopefully that tap will come before any sort of injury. That said, I have been around for a while and dealt with a lot of guy who don't want to tap to a heel hook or don't realize the danger they're in. In the past, the M.O. was to finish things anyway because they should know better, but nowadays I don't really have any desire to take someone's leg off just because they don't know what they're getting themselves into. It actually cost me a match or two, but unless it's ADCC or a superfight against another high-level guy, I'd just let them out. I'm really looking forward to the day that leglocks are a more widely understood part of grappling. It will make things even more interesting than they already are and there will be fewer ignorance-related injuries, as well.
On a side note, when people sit there and call the 50/50 a bunch of bad names, the only thing they really accomplish is creating a mental block that prevents them from understanding the position because they refuse to look at it critically. It's been semi-fashionable these days for people, some of them very important in BJJ, to say that the 50/50 is a step backwards in Jiu-Jitsu and it’s a terrible position. The thing that confuses me a little is that we're talking about some guys who are so good and so experienced, I guarantee you that they could figure the whole position out. If someone like Xande Ribeiro or Cobrinha started messing around with it for a while they would figure it out entirely and probably better than I have. That’s what really surprises me. I feel like a lot of people just dismiss it outright rather than say, "let me figure this out." I think it's too bad, because those guys would figure the ins and outs of it in no time.
BD: Where do you see the 50/50 guard in MMA? Have you seen fighters use? How do you see it progressing?
RH: I think the 50/50 is a valuable position, it can be used like any other footlock but again it’s gotta be used carefully. In my mind, it is better than a standard heel hook or going for a kneebar because it can be used to off-balance an opponent safely without the use of your hands which means I can use my hands to protect my face, to hit you, to push off the ground or to attack the feet. Whereas in other positions such as the regular heel hook I have to have a full commitment to your leg--which usually means I’m either going to submit you or you're going to punch me in the head a whole bunch of times. Honestly, I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it progresses. I know I’m going to make use of it because I’ve spent so much time on it. Just like anything else, if you're not proficient with getting into and out of the 50/50 at will, sweeping with it, passing with it, defending with it, and how to affect the other person's balance, you're not gonna be reliably effective with it. In my limited experience in MMA, "not being reliably effective" with something usually means you get punched in the face really hard when it doesn't go according to plan.
A few guys who I’ve seen use it effectively are Masakazu Iminari, who is the DEEP champion at 145lbs, Rousimar Palhares has used it well. Again, it’s only going to be able to be used well by people who are truly high-level footlockers with good Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling. If you don’t have all your ducks in a row...you're probably going get the shit beaten out of you.
BD: Do you see yourself getting more serious into MMA? Do you coach MMA?
RH: I’m kind of in a rough spot to be honest. I feel like I have good grappling partners and instructors and same goes for wrestling but I don’t really have easy access at the moment to really good MMA training partners or really good striking partners. I feel like I’m within reach to win the Mundial in the next few years and I’ve got ADCC in 2011 and I really want to try to go back because I felt that I had a good showing last time and there’s a lot more to be accomplished. So I’m really focused on Jiu-Jitsu for the next year or 2 exclusively. I’m spending a lot of time on my wrestling and as a result I know that’s going to help when I do make the transition over.
One thing I have been thinking about a fair amount, though, is that if I'm running a gym, I know I can’t reasonably expect to train, teach, coach and also have an actual real MMA career. I may be able to beat up on some lower level guys but eventually I’ll run into higher level competition and I have to be ready for that. I’ve been to some MMA camps like AKA in San Jose, it’s really cool what they do there. They have some of the best fighters in the world over there coupled with some great coaches. When I do transition to MMA, I would hope to be able to try to go away to train there or another great MMA camp for a few months at a time. I really want to take MMA seriously and don't want to be another name on the list of high-level BJJ guys who didn't properly prepare and got in over their head very early on in their fighting career.
As far as coaching MMA, one of our guys (Kenny Savercool) has an amateur title. He’s won his last 4 fights and finished them all. I feel like I can help from the grappling perspective but again I prefer to defer to those with more and better MMA coaching experience than myself. We had Darren Uyenoyama (Ralph Gracie black belt, Dream/Strikeforce vet) helping Kenny before his last fight and it really made a big difference. On the other hand, though, there are guys out there like Marc Laimon who, although he’s never fought, he’s obviously a phenomenal MMA coach--the guys from Team Takedown and the others over there at CobraKai are evidence of that. Dave Camarillo is another great example (though he has fought before) of a guy who is a fantastic MMA coach because of his grappling experience coupled with being a huge fight nerd/student of the game. I hope to one day get better and gain more experience so that I can try to follow in the footsteps of guys like them.
BD: Speaking of other schools, if you had the greatest super fight of your life in jiu jitsu and you had to train at another school, not your own, where would you go and the same question for MMA?
RH: For Jiu-Jitsu Marcelo Garcia’s in NYC. One of my good friends Paul Schreiner is the assistant coach there. I’ve been up there and trained with Marcelo and, shockingly, he’s unbelievable (laughs). Speaking of super fights I have one coming up against Hermes Franca for the UFC fan expo in Boston for the Grapplers Quest.
Assuming the fight wasn’t vs. Cobrinha, it would be really cool to go to Alliance Atlanta. It would be an honor to get to train with him. Another great spot would be Paragon. They have produced some of the best Americans guys like Jeff Glover, Tyrone Glover and Bill Cooper. Also considering the match wasn’t vs. any of the Atos guys I’d love to be there to train with the likes of Frazzato, the Mendes brothers, even though I want to compete against those guys too it would be really unbelievably cool.
For MMA I don’t have a whole lot of experience but I mentioned how much I like AKA so that would be a great place to train. They have excellent coaching in every aspect of the game and everyone trains hard. It really is a team, not just a group of individuals. Another camp that seems to be really good is Greg Jackson’s. I’ve never been there but the results speak for themselves. Those are the 2 that stick out in my mind.
BD: How did you decide to go off and start your own gym and leave Lloyd Irvin’s team? Also you recently have named Felipe Costa as your coach. I know he has been considered an inspiration to many jiu jitsu players out there. What about Felipe made you want to be under his tutelage and banner?
RH: Well, in the beginning of my career I guess I had showed some promise and was picked up by Lloyd to go and train full-time and compete out of his main school. When Mike Fowler left and went to a few different places before eventually settling in Guam, I kinda slid into his spot in terms of flying around the world and competing for Lloyd’s team. I left for a variety of reasons but I definitely appreciated my time there. I learned a lot on a series of fronts and I have made friendships there that still last to this day. I prefer not to get into the details about why I left, but I will say that although I feel fortunate for my time there, I’m also very glad to be gone. It’s a good team it just wasn’t for me. When I felt like I was at a point in my life where I could move forward, I did.
As far a Felipe goes, I’ve been friends with him since 2007. I met him then at a seminar and when I went to Brazil and competed in the Brasilero in 2008 representing Brasa, he was in my corner coached me to a medal at the toughest tournament I had ever done to that point. He’s always been a big help, very supportive and a good friend. Aside from being a great Jiu-Jitsu guy with all his championships at the black belt level, he’s really done it all. Like you said he is an inspirational guy. He had never won any major competitions before he received his black belt, but since then he has won every important title that gi Jiu-Jitsu has to offer. He is proof positive that through consistent hard work and dedication and belief in yourself you really will be able to accomplish your goals. It is truly an honor to represent him and I feel very fortunate to have him as my coach and mentor at this point.
When I left Lloyd’s I didn’t want to jump into an affiliation with someone who I really didn’t know. I was mainly concerned with the team I decided to represent that I had a good relationship and friendship with them. Felipe definitely falls into that category.
BD: There’s some criticism today on the bigger jiu jitsu tournaments like the mundials and pan ams. Some say it’s not exciting as it used to be and guys are playing things too safe. How do you feel about that and is there anything that can help improve these comps?
RH: I generally try to reserve comment on issues like this one, but I’m inclined to call bullshit here. The fact of the matter is there are just way more good guys out there today then there were even a few years ago. Take a look at featherweight/lightweight/middleweight for example, it’s unbelievable how many really good guys there are. There’s like 5 guys who have a legitimate shot for the gold and then there’s a bunch more that have a good to outside chance to medal. Situations like that don't lend themselves to long-term dominance by anyone. Do people complain that there aren't enough pins in the finals of the NCAA D-1 wrestling championship and that it's boring as a result?
If anything, I would say that Jiu-Jitsu could take a page out of wrestling's book and develop a much more effective stalling call from every position. In wrestling, I can’t take a whole bunch of steps backwards without penalty. In jiu jitsu you see guys running from each other or using guard to stall. Obviously it's not an easy fix or someone would have done it already. For instance, if I’m holding the fight I should be forced to progress. But what if I'm winning? At what point is the onus to move on the losing or disadvantaged fighter? Also, do people realize that, by making rules that demand constant movement, we not only change the way that Jiu-Jitsu is going to be expressed, but we also increase the requisite level of athleticism of the competitors involved? In my mind, that is a good thing. However, at what point does heavy referee involvement start to take away from the purity of things? Not that I'm bringing up anything new, but overregulation has hurt many sports in the past and any attempt to modify the current ruleset would have to be monitored very carefully.
At a high level where the skill gaps between winners and losers are often not that great, intelligent competitors will utilize the rules to gain strategic advantage over their opponents. I see nothing wrong with this as it is a natural aspect of any compeition, sporting or otherwise. Obviously not everyone would agree with me, though. I guess the long and short of it is that I don't have an answer and "just changing the rules" is nowhere near as cut and dry as some would like to think it could be. All you can do is try to be the best Jiu-Jitsu fighter you are capable of being. If you're honestly out there fighting hard every time and looking for the finish, your Jiu-Jitsu will be fine. Just be introspective. Ask yourself,
"would this work if there were punches? why or why not?"
"would this work if there was no time limit and no referee? why or why not?"
" would this work if the other guy didn't have to engage me on the ground?"
Let other people worry about themselves.
As far as the matches being so close and not everyone winning by sub of course it’s going to be that way. You don’t usually see the FIFA World Cup final being won by a blowout--that’s just not how it usually works when two elite-level opponents face off. When you have 2 good guys at a high level the game is, generally speaking, won by inches instead of miles. Every now and then you get a blowout but that could be for any of a number of reasons: one guy was sick/injured, someone slipped, someone has a new angle their opponent doesn't know about, etc. Very rarely will someone not named Roger Gracie just pass and mount and cross choke every one of their opponents for years on end. That’s unrealistic to expect. Also, if people think that things are tough now, give it 30 years. Every black belt weight class will be filled top to bottom with killers. Then it will be a game of inches for sure.
BD: Which matches do you want see in jiu jitsu?
RH: There’s so many: Rafael Mendes vs. Cobrinha, Cobrinha vs. Jeff Glover, Dave Camarillo v. Rafael Mendes. Lightweight and middle just get ridiculous considering how many great guys there are out there: Bill Cooper vs. Marcelo Garcia. Marcelo would be the big favorite but Bill is so dangerous and on any given day he could beat just about anybody. Kron Gracie vs. Murillo Santana, Murillo is one of the best guys I’ve trained with, he beats the crap out of me. He might not be quite as well known but I think he just may be the second best middleweight in the world.
Bruno Frazatto vs. Glover, JT Torres vs. Cooper, Michael Langhi vs. any top guy his weight and same goes for Marcelo and Jacare. Roger is so dominant but I like to see him against anybody. Caio Terra vs. Bruno Malfacine, pretty much take any of those top 5 or so light featherweights and stick them in there vs. each other. The great matches go on and on…
BD: Who would you say are the top guard passers?
RH: Marcelo Garcia, Roger Gracie, Leo Viera, Cobrinha, Pablo Popovitch, Murillo Santana to name a few.
BD: Who has the best sweeps?
RH: Cobrinha, Rafael Mendes, Roberto "Cyborg" Abreu, Marcelo, Langhi. Roberto "Roletta" Magalhaes, if I can pull anybody from any time period, he was just unbelievably creative. It may be hard to find video on him but if you do he’s bound to show you something and if you can't learn from it, have your friend punch you repeatedly in the face and then try again. You'll come around.
BD: Best finishers?
RH: Marcelo, Roger, Cobrinha, Rafael Mendes, Braulio Estima. These guys are going out there tapping almost everybody. They don’t play games, so it’s really fun to watch.
BD: Do you have anything you're working on right now as far as DVD’s or other instructionals?
RH: I just shot 2 more DVD series with World Martial Arts, the same guys who produced my 50/50 and triangle DVD’s. These new ones are with the gi going over deep half and attacking the back. I hope they come out as well as I think they will. I really tried not to hold anything back and discussed theory and understanding and strategy in addition to the techniques and movements. I tried to put everything into perspective and I really hope that people enjoy them when they come out. If not...I apologize in advance. (laughs)
BD: You had mentioned to me that you believe guard passing is your best skill, if you were to go back a few years and look at the forums and see all the hits for Ryan Hall and your success with the triangle and inverted guard and what not, it’s completely different with your mentality now. You’ve gone through a transformation and have changed since then. Your whole jiu jitsu philosophy has changed. How did his all come about?
RH: I agree with you on your statement about my change in Jiu-Jitsu mentality. I feel like my game was developed improperly at the beginning. I’ve had to do a lot of fixing and tinkering with my game, but I’ve always looked at the best guys to see what they are doing and why, basically try to become more like them. What’s really allowed me to improve is developing a deeper understanding of all of the movements I know and how they fit together into a cohesive framework and strategy--this has been the key for me. I was forced into introspection when I had surgery on my wrist in the end of 2008, keeping me off the mat with no training for 8 months.
Though I've had 5 surgeries since I began training, it was the longest period of inactivity for me and I was left with a lot of time on my hands to consider how I could improve the things I was doing. I came to the conclusion that a solid 75% of the things I was doing with my Jiu-Jitsu were either fundamentally flawed or at the very least, could use some pretty serious overhaul. After months of depression from lack of training mixed with more hours of analysis than I had put into my game in the past few years combined, I was able to start to figure out what wasn't quite right and how I could fix things. With all these mental adjustments, when I was finally able to get back on the mat, I was so much better than before the injury in spite of all the time off. Two months after I came back from the injury I won the 2009 Abu Dhabi Trails submitting everyone, placed 3rd at the worlds and then 3rd again at ADCC. Just a lot of introspection. That’s what changed me and set me apart.
BD: Being away from the mats for so long did you watch a lot of videos to compensate for not training and if so what did you and what do you watch now to learn? What do you recommend us to watch to maybe better our own games?
RH: Youtube Cobrinha, Roger Gracie, Marcelo Garcia, Michael Langhi, Leo Viera, etc. footage on these guys are so readily available because they’ve been so successful and they’re careers are well documented. I have to say there is a lot of junk on the internet, too, but you can find great stuff if you look around a little bit. Watch Roger if you want to see incredible control. Anyone who tries to tell you he’s doing the same things as everyone else is either deluding themselves or out of their mind. Try to figure out what he’s doing and what makes him different. These guys that I mention over and over in this interview are the best. In my mind, there’s no reason to watch anyone else. Not that you can’t learn anything from other guys but, in my opinion, these here are the prototypes.
BD: When all is said and done and you look back on your jiu jitsu career what is it that’s going to make you say, “I was successful?”
RH: Abu Dhabi champion and black belt world champion. Honestly, this is my life now. I don’t want to be the guy who looks back and says I could’ve done this or that if only whatever. It’s part of the reason I’ve competed as often as I have (400+ matches). I’ll take a loss here and there to someone I might not otherwise lose to on a good day, but it’s all in the direction of my ultimate goals. I’ve dedicated my life to doing this and because I started at 19 years old, I feel that I'm already late and have to make up for lost time. In my mind I’m not going to accept anything less than being the best. Nothing else would justify the sacrifices I've made in education, family, etc. I know it’s not going to be easy but I will continue working hard.
BD: I appreciate your time especially with your busy schedule. I want to give you the opportunity to give any shout outs and thank you’s and anything else you want to add.
RH: Thank you very much Bobby for doing this interview. I hope it wasn’t too boring (laughs). Thank you to Felipe Costa for allowing me to represent his team. Thanks to Paul Schreiner for always being there to help me and coach me and for all his advice. Thank you to my friend, Seph Smith, and our students for believing in me and in our team and always working hard. We've got guys who are doing great. Blue belts beating black belts and guys winning advanced divisions at Grapplers Quest as blue belts and things like that. 2 Pan American champions, and 4 medals from the Mundial since we opened last year, and some of the best male and female BJJ players in the world stopping by to teach and train on a regular basis. Honestly, I couldn't have hoped for more in such a short time when I started out.
When you get a group of motivated people who all believe in the same goal and are willing to put in the work over a long period of time, you can accomplish so much. That’s what I’m trying to develop here at 50/50. I feel really fortunate to have a core group of guys, especially at the featherweight/lightweight blue-brown belt level, who are training hard every day to make a big impact on the World level in the years to come. Kenny Savercool, Quang Nguyen, and Rick Slomba: keep your eye out for them.
In closing, thanks to all the people who’ve supported me and thank you very much to all the people who continue to say that I’m not that good and I’ll never be anything because whenever I’m short on motivation I just need to look on the internet and it’s like lightning in a bottle.