I headed five hours south to southern Pennsylvania last weekend for some seminars and private classes with Henry Akins. Henry is a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt under the legendary Rickson Gracie, who is widely regarded the best practitioner the art has produced. This was Henry's first seminar appearance on the east coast.
My first session with Henry was a private at Jay Goldberg's Delaware Jiu-Jitsu in Chadd's Ford, PA. We worked on guard passing details first - Henry's passing is unique and is based on pressure, space, and feel rather than individual techniques. Simply put, his passing is like an avalanche. You can try to hold it back with your puny human arms and legs, but good luck... it's not stopping. Then we hit some of the finer details of finishing armbars from closed guard, and finished with how to maintain side control.
I've been telling my students lately that your position should account for half of your submission. In other words, your opponent should hate your mount or side control so much - be so uncomfortable - that he's willing to do something risky or nonsensical just to escape it. All of Henry's positions are like this. They're either so crushing or frustrating that you'll do almost anything to get out. It's easy to make mistakes under this type of pressure.
Later on, it was time for the group seminar. With an audience consisting of all belt levels and members of many academies, the room was packed. Henry's seminars are truly appropriate for everyone. He presents techniques typically learned at white belt, but with a black belt level of detail. No one is in over their head. In other words, no inverted De La Riva torreandoplata electric chairs.
The first hour was dedicated to the upa. Yes, the mount escape you learned in your first class. Henry prefaced the technique by stating, if done correctly, it's the only mount escape you need. He proceeded to convince us, with five or six adjustments depending on the situation: hand in the collar, posture up, punching, posture down. As long as you engage your hip the right way, it's very hard for your opponent to defend. We moved on to the americana from mount, pressure from side control, and finished with a Q&A that touched on Henry's history, views on modern MMA, time as a bouncer, his vegan diet, and more.
Question: "When did you discover the secrets behind some of these techniques?"
Henry: "They were never secrets. This is how I was taught from the beginning."
Henry's approach to teaching is very straight forward. He speaks quietly, without jargon, complicated physics, or longwinded explanation. His instruction is kind of like his jiu-jitsu: less is more. He describes only enough to get you going, then walks around to make adjustments. He often lets participants perform the move on him to feel if you're getting it right.
He apologized for being so philosophical and finished by showing me a nasty triangle finish that I've caught four times since coming home.
There were a lot of black belts at the seminars, relearning moves they've done for years. Henry's ability to make fifteen-year veterans excited about "white belt level" techniques is impressive. If the attendance and buzz surrounding his seminars is any indication, Henry won't be the west coast's "Best Kept Secret" for long.
I came away with a new way of thinking about jiu-jitsu. Not just some cool new tricks to stay ahead of the other guys in class, but a way to approach training, drilling, and rolling. Jiu-Jitsu is an art, a deep one, and you can dig into "the basics" for years and never hit bottom. Sometimes, it just takes teachers like Henry Akins to remind you what to focus on.
PS: Henry is not blind to the latest trends in sport BJJ. He talked about teaching a way to - get this - berimbolo from someone's back, off their back, and back to their back. I hope he posts a video.