In the 1935 Japanese classic Musashi a Buddhist Monk named Takuan laments "People talk about combining the Way of Learning with The Way of the Samurai, but when properly combined, they aren't two- they're one. Only one Way." While many fighters and philosophers over the years agreed openly, outwardly it has been difficult to see with clarity. Flashes of it could be seen through interviews with some of the giants within "the gentle art". Men like Helio and Rickson Gracie, Saulo and Xande Ribero and Minotauro have all shared flashes of this eternal truth. Still, there was never a consistent place online where a serious student of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu could gain access to both the fighting art and the philosophies that give a martial artist a clear road map to victory.
Enter Jiu Jitsu legend Marcelo Garcia and chess icon Josh Waitzkin. Garcia is arguably the Michael Jordan of Jiu Jitsu of this era. Anything Marcelo does or says is repeatedly analyzed and debated by BJJ competitors around the world. Josh Waitzkin destroyed minds and hearts of grown men on chessboards since he was a boy. So much so that the cult classic film Searching for Bobby Fischer is about his life. Shortly after leaving the world of chess, he became a world champion of Tai Chi and then chose the path of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Since becoming friends, the two have launched a new website meant to give BJJ practitioners immediate access to the training techniques and philosophical approaches that make you a champion, MGinaction. Here we will talk about how these two met, the goals with their new venture and the fusing of the body and mind for BJJ.
OTM: You’re known around the world as a young chess phenom. You then became a world champion in Tai Chi and wrote about that journey in your best selling book, The Art of Learning. For those that have not yet read the book, how did you end up coming to Jiu Jitsu?
JW: Well I guess like most people it all came from the UFC—but in an unusual way. I was living in NY, training standup with William CC Chen, and competing in Push Hands tournaments all over the place—for those who don’t know this game, in International competition you’re in an 18 foot diameter ring and points are scored for throwing a guy out of the ring or on the floor. It’s like Greco Roman but you have to stay in the ring and the rules are more restrictive because you can’t grab the head or lock your hands behind his back. I had won a bunch of National titles and just took third at the 2002 Worlds, so I had the hilarious misimpression that I could fight. Then William Chen’s son Max, a dear friend of mine, suggested we do some groundwork. Max is a great athlete, he’s been San Shou (Chinese Kickboxing) National Champ 5 or 6 times and he actually just got back from fighting in the Olympics a few months ago—but at the time Max’s only ground experience was watching Ken Shamrock heel hook people. So we started rolling and Max threw in a flying heel hook. Then another. Then a double heel hook. It’s a miracle my knees didn’t explode because Max must have heel hooked me a hundred times before I realized I had to take this on. My girlfriend at the time lived in LA, so I started training with John Machado when I was out there starting in early 2003. John is an amazing man, a deep martial artist, and he quickly transformed my desire to avoid the flying heel hook into a passion for BJJ. I was doing 95% standup until after winning the 2004 Push Hands worlds in Taiwan—since then it’s been all groundwork.
OTM: How did you meet Marcelo Garcia and how did that lead to MGInAction?
JW: I met Marcelo a few years ago when I heard he was in NY. I tracked him down, began taking private lessons with him, and was obviously deeply impressed. I was a purple belt at the time—and was training at Marcos Santos’s Machado school. I’d studied all Marcelo’s DVD’s, watched his fights, had huge admiration for the courage and flow of his game, but what really moved me as we got to know each other was his openness of spirit. I’m sure I drove him crazy with questions—I still do. Since I was a 6 year old chess player, I’ve always had to understand why—never could take something on faith. So I asked and asked and Marcelo was a good sport. The deeper I dug into the principles of Marcelo’s game and process, the more powerful they became to me. He’s the real deal.
So many guys get self-protective when they become successful or famous. They start hiding their best techniques, avoid challenges, start posturing, and get calcified in the learning process. I’d seen enough of that in chess, in the Chinese martial arts, and in plenty of grapplers who get all wrapped up in ego. Marcelo is different. He is a learning machine. He never stops evolving and is driven by a deep love for his art. This is not a guy who is concerned with holding on to old glories and protecting the secrets that made him successful—he lives and practices with a relentless curiosity that I respect so much.
At the time, Marcelo was traveling all over the world giving seminars at top BJJ, submission grappling, and MMA schools. He’d teach his A-game for a few hours (unusual enough) and then ask if anybody wanted to roll. Of course the biggest, baddest dudes were licking their chops for a shot at this 170 pound champ, and they would come at him hard. I’ve watched again and again—a 235 pound ripped up wrestler would attack him in a 6 minute sprint, get tapped 8 or 10 times, leave the mat panting and confused, as if he had collided with a force of nature, and then the next one would jump on Marcelo until he was drained and beaten down. Then the next. Black belts, brown belts, all the top dogs in their schools--they would all walk off the mats with a bewildered smile, saying they felt like white belts for the first time in years. These guys would be resting, waiting for their chance, and Marcelo would wash over them for half an hour straight, his expression always serene, focused, no nonsense. I’d ask Marcelo how he felt about this, whether he had anxiety about exposing himself to this ferocity from random dudes outside of his own school all the time and his answer was so pure—“I know I can go harder. Whatever they bring, I can go harder.” Then he would smile and you knew he meant it. He is a gentle guy but there is steel inside.
Anyway, I’m a student of learning and Marcelo felt like a kindred spirit. He was also clearly the no-nonsense teacher I’d been looking for for a long time. When he went to train MMA at American Top Team in Florida, we kept in close contact and I’d go down and train with him whenever I could. We were eating Thai food in a little mall in Pembroke Pines, Florida a couple years ago when I first brought up what would become MGInAction. My idea was to bring some of the sophistication of chess training tools to the martial arts. To be honest, I also felt that Marcelo was the purest martial artist I’ve ever known and it would be a fascinating partnership. I think my instincts were right on.
OTM: Marcelo, How hard is it for you to build up the content for this site, teach
your regular classes AND improve your own game?
MG: It is simple. I know a lot of people who love to compete and hate teaching, others love teaching and are not good at competing. I love teaching and competing. I really feel that teaching has improved my own technique a lot. So now that I have my own school in NYC, I can plan classes exactly how I want and that will build the content of the site quickly. I teach 3x a day so it won't be long till we have a lot of content!
OTM, Josh, there has been an explosion of BJJ instructional DVD's and online
vids. What’s the added value of MGInAction that sets it apart from
other BJJ online offerings?
JW: Well, first of all there is Marcelo. This is a guy who has won 3 BJJ World Championships and 3 ADCC Championships. He is widely considered the best pound for pound grappler in the game and he is just getting started in his growth and competitive career. So, the first unique thing we are offering is a wide open window into the everyday process of the Muhammad Ali or Garry Kasparov of grappling—in his prime. This is unprecedented. I have long observed that most instructionals out there involve fancy, dated techniques that are part of a competitor’s B or C game. This is understandable. No one wants to expose their current A-game because rivals can study it. Marcelo just has a different attitude. He embraces this new challenge and believes that he can play his game better than anyone can stop it. We will be showing every night’s lessons and sparring sessions, so users can be part of Marcelo’s school, think-tank, and testing grounds from anywhere in the world.
But that’s just the beginning. The core of my vision has been to allow grapplers to weave fluidly between theory and practice while studying and building their repertoires. Typically you watch a technique demonstrated on a DVD and then you keep an eye out for it or begin watching fights looking for it. This is good for the first layer of learning, but it doesn’t allow for deeper integration and more nuanced study—because it will take so long to be exposed to many real-life repetitions and variations of what you are learning. On MGInAction, you can watch Marcelo teach something in detail—for example his seatbelt control from the back leading to a crucifix and a rear naked choke—and then you can hit one button and watch every time Marcelo has done that while rolling in all the sparring sessions in our database. We launched the site including 65 complete 8-10 minute sparring sessions from Marcelo’s 2009 ADCC training camp--all available as both full sessions and broken down by submission, sweep, position, transition, escape—and we are uploading new footage after Marcelo’s teaching and training every night at our school in NYC.
This kind of research, by the way, is a big reason why chess has evolved so rapidly in the past 10 years. If I want to find out how the top Grandmasters in the world are handling a particular opening position, I can just put it into a search engine on my computer, sift through 2 million chess games in my database, and instantly access every time that position has been played around the world by the top guys. This allows for deep, focused study of whatever it is you are working on—and so growth curves go through the roof.
OTM: Marcelo, what is your ultimate objective with MGInAction? What’sthe thing you would like to see develop from what you share with the
world on this site?
MG: I have noticed for a while that a great number of people have been coming to me wanting to learn what I do, all over the world in my seminars. When I compete they say they are studying this, that, and I felt that with MGInAction it was the way to reach those people that will never be able to come and train with me in NY. The other aspect is that the more people studying my way of doing things, the better they will get because it's like a laboratory. People will find the good and bad things of the positions and that will make me better too.
OTM: So how exactly would a grappler use this program in their everyday life?
JW: I believe very powerfully in an individualized approach to education—so everyone will have their own path and I wanted to build in that flexible capability. Beginners can start off with our Fundamentals lessons, uploaded every night from Marcelo teaching beginner class in New York. Then they can start watching how what they just learned manifests in live action, and new questions will arise--this is where the plunge begins. More experienced grapplers can jump into the Advanced Instructionals that are most interesting to them or they can just sit back and watch Marcelo roll and take it from there. Whether you want to begin each study session with the day’s instructional, watching rolling footage, or researching a specific position, transition, body mechanic, or technique, you can then plunge as deeply as you want into the nuances that feel relevant to your game. I hope grapplers turn this program into a playground, and initial feedback has been so overwhelmingly positive that it seems this is already happening.
I’ve found that often an incredible athlete like Marcelo, Jacare or Cobrinha will do something and teach it to you, but there are some things they just do naturally that they don’t think to teach. This is unavoidable because their whole lives have been spent integrating technical complexity into the unconscious. Plus, we all have different body types, athletic backgrounds, and learning styles. Marcelo is an amazing teacher who is extremely technical. And now, by giving students the ability to study countless examples of him doing what he is teaching in sparring sessions, you can fill in any gap in your understanding. I did this with the program a couple days ago, for example. For the past month of my training, I’ve been focusing almost exclusively on Marcelo’s back attack system. There is a certain moment when he’ll be ready to finish and he pulls on your forehead to expose the neck. Well, I would pull back on the forehead but I wasn’t making enough space and the guy’s head didn’t seem to have anywhere to go. So I went and watched Marcelo do it while rolling 4 or 5 times online (more than once I was the victim), and I realized he wasn’t pulling with his arm, but with his lower back, which generated much more power and opened up space for my head to go because his chest moved away from the back of my head--a tiny little detail which would be obvious to some people but for some reason wasn’t to me. This kind of personalized research capability will be huge for serious grapplers. We’ll all have different sticking points, and among other things this is a tool for active problem solving. I actually find myself jumping online for a few minutes almost every night after training to watch sparring reps of a certain position to clarify some little detail that wasn’t working for me. I should also mention that with real conundrums, members can post questions on our forum that Marcelo will respond to in lessons.
This program is a constantly evolving, organic creature that will just keep growing in sophistication and depth. I think it may revolutionize the way grappling is studied.
OTM: As a chess person, do you see multiple connections between the game
of chess and the matches on the mat? What do you think are the most
JW: I get asked this question a lot and I’m still exploring how I feel about it. Yes, of course I see tons of connections. But to be honest, I hear people talk so much about how BJJ is like chess, and then when they explain why they don’t know anything about chess and are way off. For example they’ll say you have to think 10 moves ahead. Well, I don’t think that is true in high level chess or BJJ. Great players are brilliant at thinking 2 or 3 moves ahead—but they are the right moves. Sometimes a chess player will do a deep, accurate calculation, but it is rare and I don’t think those moments cross over much. In either one of these arts, usually if you look too far ahead, you’ll be looking at nonsense.
The parallels between BJJ and chess run deeper. They are energetic. How the minds of opponents connect and sometimes share the same insight or illusion. How tension mounts and can destroy someone psychologically before the battle is lost or even endangered technically. The principles of learning and performance psychology can be transferred between these arts directly, but I wrote a book about that subject so I’ll leave it alone for now.
Chess players and grapplers also have to navigate similar grey zones. How much should I study my opponent and how much should I just focus on my own game? Should I shut him down or let him over-express himself? How can I dictate the tone of battle and how much should I be willing to stray from the soundest move to make the style of the fight suit my strengths? Should I be a predictable classicist or a more off-beat specialist or some hybrid of the two? How can I nurture a playing style which is as unobstructed an expression of my personality as possible? There are countless themes like this which run very deep in both arts. Sam Sheridan actually has a brilliant book coming out soon that deals with some of these ideas profoundly. It’s called A Fighter’s Mind. I read an advanced copy and I couldn’t recommend it more highly to anyone who is interested in these questions.
OTM: What are you focused on right now as a fighter? What tournaments
have you the most excited right now?
MG: Of course I am always focused on the big important tournaments like the IBJJF Worlds and ADCC 2011, but I also want to compete here in NY sometime so my students have a chance to see me competing, I think is a good example that I can give them.
OTM: Any last words from the both of you?
MG: One more thing about MGInAction. Through all these years I have received many request of associations, and always had to turn them down because I never felt I could do much for them besides letting them use my name. So now, I feel that my associations will be able to actually really represent me, the way I teach, the technique I use. I also want to invite those in NYC to stop by my school to see how I teach, all we put into this new school. It is at 25 West 36th street on the 6th floor and everyone is welcome. I am teaching full time here in NYC, but my Florida school is in great hands with my instructor Henrique Rezende. I visit every once in a while and we are making a great strong team there too.
Adisa Banjoko is founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. They fuse music, chess and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and non-violence. For more info visit: www.hiphopchessfederation.org