Henry Akins is the third American to be promoted to black belt under Rickson Gracie, and has actually served as the main instructor for Rickson’s headquarters in Los Angeles. It’s not likely that anyone save Rickson’s sons have had as much of a chance to work with the man over the last decade than Henry. As he’s not one to promote himself much, he’s remained very much a west coast secret, but those in the know will tell you how much influence and inspiration he’s provided behind the scenes and I can assure you he is among the very elite of instructors I have had the pleasure of working with. Among his friends and his peers, he has been labeled a “Jiu Jitsu Super Computer” for his knowledge and analysis of the art he can provide.
In addition to learning and teaching in the academy, Henry has had much practical experience with his Jiu Jitsu working some very high profile/level security gigs for top night clubs and entertainment acts that have taken him to the corners of the world, as well as being a regular participant in some of original OTM crews *ahem* mis-adventures. If not evident from reason alone, the man knows what he’s talking about through practical experience.
I’ve been good friends with Henry Akins for over a decade now, and I feel fortunate that his insights and generosity have helped me for a very long time. (Little nods to “Casa de Akins” and Henry and his brother Matt are noted among the very earliest works from OTM). So it’s with great pleasure that after all this time, I formally introduce you to the man himself and perhaps give you, dear friends, exactly what makes Henry Akins so special.
GUMBY: What got you involved in Martial Arts?
HENRY AKINS I was always involved in martial arts, but I guess it was Kung Fu Theater which got me interested at an Early Age.
GUMBY: Did you have the same Kung Fu Theater we had over here (SF Bay Area)?
HENRY AKINS: It was Bruce Li , Bruce Le and pretty much every Bruce that sounded like Bruce Lee except the man himself. Every Saturday man, my Mom would go out shopping and my brother and I would be watching Kung Fu Theater.
GUMBY: Did you actually do Kung Fu as a kid?
HENRY AKINS: No, I started off in Tae Kwon Do. What really got me in the direction of Jiu Jitsu was growing up in Oklahoma all of my friends were wrestlers and state champions. I saw how effective wrestling was when it came to street fights. Some how I got a copy of “Gracie in Action” and I always wanted to study a martial art that included grappling, so after I saw GIA I said this is it, I know what I got to do. So in my senior year of high school in 93 on Spring Break I went to LA and found Rickson’s academy.
GUMBY: Was Rickson’s Academy the first academy you visited?
HENRY AKINS: Actually I called the Gracie Torrance Academy first as it was the only one listed, but at the time there was big rivalry between Rickson and Rorion Gracie, they had a big falling out at the time and when I asked if Rickson trained there they said “Rickson, we don’t know anyone named Rickson,” and they wouldn’t give us any information. So what happened was that my aunt had a personal trainer that trained at Rickson’s so we were able to get the number. It was kind of hard to track down, but I knew I wanted to train with Rickson because I heard he was the best of all of the Gracies so I figured if you’re going to go train you might as well train with the best.
GUMBY: So what was it like finding Rickson at that point?
HENRY AKINS: I walked into the academy and Luis Heirdia and Mauricio were the main instructors at the time and the guys were just so cool and laid back. At that time Jiu Jitsu wasn’t that big yet because no one knew what it was. I don’t even think the first UFC happened yet [editors note, the first UFC happened November 12, 1993], it was to happen a few months later. Everyone was really cool. Rickson came in and I got to train with him, and at that time I knew who we was but you didn’t have an idea of how good he was until after you had been training with him for awhile and you could see everything that he could do. Even now days when I train with him it’s hard to understand how good he is, he treats everyone like a white belt.
GUMBY: What is it you think that makes Rickson so good?
HENRY AKINS: It’s his mind. Basically he’s just able to understand the techniques: leverage, positioning, body weight, all the principles of jiu jitsu he just understands so well and he can break them down. He can see techniques and positions he has never seen before and immediately break them down and know how to counter them. It’s all mental and he’s just a scientist when it comes to Jiu Jitsu.
GUMBY: Do you feel that difference rolling with him versus rolling with anyone else?
HENRY AKINS: Yeah. The thing is with Rickson is that I’ve seen him do it to everyone. Somedays I’ll do well against him and give him a hard time and somedays he’ll just play with you and make you feel like a white belt and catch you every five seconds. A funny thing that happened back when I was a purple belt and a bunch of guys from Royler’s academy came in to train for the worlds and he lined everyone up and announced that today he was only going to do the crucifix which is a pretty tough position to get into. Everyone knew it was coming and everyone knew it was coming and what to defend, but he literally went through five or seven of us and still caught us all multiple times. The thing was everyone knew it was coming, but he’s literally so sharp in his mind…that was pretty crazy.
GUMBY: So as a fresh faced kid out of Oklahoma, how did you get more involved in the academy and achieve the status in the academy that you did?
HENRY AKINS: When I first started training, I had moved to California by myself without knowing anyone for the express intention of learning Jiu Jitsu. When I first got there I asked them if they needed any help because I was basically there all the time anyway so they gave me a job as a secretary there. I was there about seventy hours a week, practically living at the academy. Just from being around there all the time, even when I was too tired to participate in classes I got to absorb all that knowledge.
GUMBY: How much did you get to interact with Rickson himself during those years?
HENRY AKINS: At that time Rickson was training a lot because he was fighting and competing. He used to teach a two hour class in the afternoon which would be packed with thirty or forty guys, with guys from all over the place would just show up for his class. I trained with him close to every day.
GUMBY: Did you ever train anyplace else or experience Jiu Jitsu from anyplace else?
HENRY AKINS: No, I never really trained at any other academy. We always had the belief, the knowledge that Rickson’s the best, and what was the point of going anyplace else when you were training with the best and there wasn’t really anything that he couldn’t show you.
GUMBY: Eventually you worked your way to becoming an instructor and a black belt under Rickson.
HENRY AKINS: I started helping out and doing things like the warm ups when I was a blue belt, and slowly working my way up as a purple and brown belt. I actually started teaching classes when we opened out academy on Wilshire and Barrington. I started teaching with another black belt there and eventually I took over the school becoming the main instructor with Rickson.
GUMBY: It was a big deal when you got your black belt, tell me about that day.
HENRY AKINS: Basically I was training with Rickson at his house and it just came as a surprise to me. We were working some self defense stuff and he just handed me the belt. It came as a shock for me because I never felt the belt was a big thing for me, I always felt as long as I was learning and improving I always felt that was good enough. But getting my black belt under Rickson was always my dream and my goal. To know I finally achieved my dream and my goal was kind of beyond belief. At the time there were only two other guys who had gotten a black belt from him, so I was only the third American to get a black belt under Rickson.
GUMBY: How does it feel to be a standard bearer for Rickson Gracie as his black belt?
HENRY AKINS: The thing is, for me, there are such different standards for black belts, and not to put anyone down, I think the level of knowledge is relative to your instructor. So a black belt to one instructor might be a blue belt to another instructor. To get my black belt from Rickson is like a degree from Harvard University, I went to the best school and I studied under the best person. Plus Rickson is known for being very tough about giving out belts, you really have to earn them, and it definitely meant a lot to me to receive my black belt from him.
GUMBY: Specifically, what do you think sets Rickson’s Jiu Jitsu apart?
HENRY AKINS: I think with Rickson he has always stuck to the philosophy which is really knowing how to use leverage and never use strength in his techniques. Always finding an easy way to do something. Making sure that a technique works with either gi or no gi and also making sure the technique is applicable in a fight. Also making sure that everyone can use the technique, not just a big strong guy or just a small skinny fast guy, but the technique has to work everyone. He’s always trying to find a pure answer for any type of situation.
GUMBY: That’s an answer I think most Jiu Jitsu instructors would give or use to describe the art, but somehow Rickson still manages to stand apart. Do you have any idea why that is?
HENRY AKINS: So many people try to emulate what he does and the things we do. I use this term, and Rickson uses this a lot when he describes “Invisible Jiu Jitsu”. So much of what he does is invisible and you can’t learn it from watching video tapes or tournaments, it’s almost a feeling type thing. You actually have to experience it yourself and feel it. That’s what it is. It’s the tiny little subtleties in all the things he does and all the basic movements that makes the Jiu Jitsu we do so effective. What I mean by “Invisible Jiu Jitsu” is not something you can see. For example take the cross side position. Sometimes you can be holding someone cross side and the guy on the bottom can be completely comfortable. Sometimes you can hold someone on cross side and the feeling for the person on the bottom is completely different, it feels like there is a truck parked on their chest. That’s what I mean by invisible Jiu Jitsu, it very subtle and you can’t see it, but it feels completely different.
GUMBY: One of the things I’ve noticed from working with you over the years and my interactions with Rickson is the explanations involve a lot of leverage but also a thorough understanding of body mechanics as well.
HENRY AKINS: That’s really, really important to understand because when you’re talking about submissions you have to understand how the body moves and bends and how it works so you can break things. So you can bend things the way they are not supposed to. Also you can understand how to create leverage, where the body is weak, and where the body is strong.
GUMBY: To develop that type of game and knowledge, what does someone have to do?
HENRY AKINS: You know what? I don’t know. I feel really blessed because a lot of Jiu Jitsu I learned for myself by Rickson giving me the tools in how to think in Jiu Jitsu. I went to school for genetic engineering so I have a science background and in science they teach you to find solutions to problems by asking a lot of questions: “Why something happens? How it happens? What causes it?” I applied that to Jiu Jitsu. Everytime I came across a problem in Jiu Jitsu I would always ask “Where’s his base? What is he using to base? How can I take away that base?” By thinking in the terms Rickson gave me, how to figure out solutions by using your weight, leverage and stuff like that I really started to really figure out Jiu Jitsu and start to get a good understanding of Jiu Jitsu and what it’s all about.
GUMBY: Okay then, define Jiu Jitsu and what it means to you.
HENRY AKINS: For me, Jiu Jitsu is a martial art and an understand of how to use your leverage in order to defend yourself and overcome a much larger, stronger opponent.
GUMBY: When Rickson grants interview he’s sometimes criticized for being critical on some of the developments of Jiu Jitsu. What’s your own take on the state of Jiu Jitsu right now?
HENRY AKINS: It’s really interesting, is that the tournament game has gotten so big in Brazil, you see guys who are sponsored and what not, but what you see is that Jiu Jitsu has been transformed from what used to be a practical form of street self defense to more of a tournament game, a little like what happened to Tae Kwon Do. Things like jumping armlocks and flying triangles, things that you would never ever want to do in the street, you see as common practice in Jiu Jitsu tournaments. So I think it’s gone really really far away from it’s roots and what it was meant for, a practical form of street self defense. There are so many things in Jiu Jitsu tournaments where guys are doing things like pulling the lapel down and wrapping it around the guys arm and tying the guys up with it. What that means to me is that guys who are spending all this time training these techniques are basically completely ineffective when it comes to a real self defense situation.
GUMBY: What about MMA and the role of Jiu Jitsu?
HENRY AKINS: I think Jiu Jitsu has a big part in MMA and everyone that does MMA trains some Jiu Jitsu, but what I think happens in MMA is that you have a lot of guys who came up in tournament style Jiu Jitsu now getting into MMA. You’re having them try to apply that tournament style that they learned into MMA. That why you see so many guys who trained in Jiu Jitsu having problems in MMA even when they hit the ground. The whole time they trained they were never aware of striking, they were never conscious of what positions they could be safe, where they could be hit. As an example take the half guard. There are a lot of sweeps in half guard and it’s a great position for Gi Jiu Jitsu or No Gi and you have the opportunity to score a lot of points, and there’s a lot of different angles and you have a lot of control over someone’s bodyweight. But on the other hand in MMA it’s a very bad position because the guy on top can do a lot of damage, you can get elbowed in the face or hit so it’s not a good position. People kind of lose that awareness of the practical use of Jiu Jitsu.
GUMBY: Where do you want to see Jiu Jitsu growing?
HENRY AKINS: It’s not so much how I want to see it growing because what’s happening is that it’s become more of a sport, kind of where Tae Kwon Do is now. Tae Kwon Do used to be a practical martial art and now when you go to most Tae Kwon Do schools because people are focused on tournaments all you see is people throwing angle kicks and jumping spinning kicks and things that are tournament effective but not practical for an actual fight. That’s what I think has kind of happened to Jiu Jitsu. I don’t think that most of the Jiu Jitsu that is trained in most schools, people don’t have the idea of an actual fight. But there’s no way to stop it because it’s so widespread now and that’s the information that being passed around now. What I would like to see is for people to understand the roots and be conscious of what Jiu Jitsu was intended for. When Helio Gracie developed this style and improved on the traditional Jiu Jitsu he would go and challenge all these other martial arts instructors, guys who were much bigger and stronger than he was. It was mixed martial arts fight and people were punching and hitting him and so he really had to evolve the style around that, around what would happen in a real street fight. Not if the guy is just going to lay on you and go for submissions. In Jiu Jitsu no one really has to worry about striking so they’ve become completely unconscious of it.
GUMBY: I know Rickson is still down in Brazil, are you in contact with him and what do you think his plans are?
HENRY AKINS: I’m not sure what his plans are. I know he was thinking about traveling around and doing seminars. I am in contact with him, I live with Kron Gracie, Rickson’s son, so I talk to him from time to time. When Kron’s on the phone with him we chat and he comes by the house when he’s in town but I’m not really sure of his plans. He was thinking of starting up an association and he has a tournament he throws in Japan every year. I know he’s looking to do some more international tournaments including a tournament in Europe and maybe a tournament in the United States eventually.
GUMBY: What are your plans now that you’re a black belt? What are you doing right now?
HENRY AKINS: I’ve been a black belt six years now. For the most part now I haven’t been teaching so much at the academy, I mostly teach private students in Los Angeles, and I’ve been working with a couple professional fighters. Recently I did my first seminar in the United States [at Gumby’s Academy Heroes Martial Arts in San Jose], I’ve done seminar in Europe before. I just want to start teaching and showing people things because for so long the idea at our academy was to keep the knowledge in house and just for us. All of the knowledge that Rickson passed on was just for people at the academy and our association and we weren’t really supposed to share it. The mentality was that in tournaments everything was a team type thing, and our academy versus their academy and there was a huge sense of loyalty to your academy and of course you don’t want other academies learning what you were doing. Now with Jiu Jitsu has gotten so far away from the base and the core of what it was intended for that I would just like to share that knowledge and have people understand what the true Jiu Jitsu is and it’s roots. What happened is, and I use this analogy to explain to everyone how watered down Jiu Jitsu has become –and not to say there aren’t tough guys are really good competitors out there, but what happened was Jiu Jitsu first started you had the Gracie family as the core of Jiu Jitsu and the highest level of knowledge. Let’s say Rickson has eight or ten black belts, and those guys know 80% of what he knows. They go out and open their schools and these guys have black belts and those guys know about 80% of what they know. Basically what happens is the further away from the source you go, the more watered down the techniques become. That’s kind of what happened to Jiu Jitsu. The more I go around and see other people’s schools and belts and their training I ask myself “gosh, how come these people don’t know this?” and most of the time it’s the basics I’m teaching all of our white belts. I think any black belt who has ever trained with Rickson or experienced him can say they were basically treated like a white belt, that he completely redefined my basics.
GUMBY: So do you think the difference of Rickson’s style of Jiu Jitsu is a matter of philosophy or technique?
HENRY AKINS: Both. I think a lot of people are missing a lot of the little subtleties in technique which is why they have to resort to strength or something else. People will say the basics don’t work or the collar choke from the gi doesn’t work, but you see Kron using that in tournaments, or Roger Gracie and Kron put everyone out with it in tournaments. The basics do work but it’s just the little subtleties that people are missing. Also, there is the philosophy of understanding how to deal with and understand the solutions to problems using leverage and technique and not using strength. What happens is that you have all these guys who are training Jiu Jitsu who are athletes. They are big strong guys who anytime they get into an uncomfortable situation they are going to use their physical attributes to help them. You have a guy on top of you and you can’t get out knowing what you know, if you use a bit of strength you can get out. So what happens the ego get in the way and people wind up using their physical abilities to get out and it slows down their level of learning and stops them for really refining their pure technique. That’s what has happened in Jiu Jitsu, there are lot of strong tough muscles guys training –that’s not to say there aren’t guys who are very technical or smooth too-but a lot of guys are muscling things through and not really understanding leverage and technique, weight distribution and connection and things like that.
GUMBY: At what point does physical attributes come in? Because I don’t think anyone would classify either Rickson or yourself as being weak individuals.
HENRY AKINS: No, not at all, but the thing is when I train I always try to train like I’m weak. I basically try to train like I’m a weakling. My own physical attributes I’m always going to have, no one can take away my strength or my speed, no one can take away my endurance except me, so I always try to train like a weak person. I say to myself when I do a technique would this work if he’s stronger than me or bigger than me or heavier than me. Would it work? Would what I am doing work? If it does, that’s the Jiu Jitsu I’m looking for, something that would work on everyone.
GUMBY: Would you classify your Jiu Jitsu as being aggressive or passive or something else?
HENRY AKINS: It’s not so much “aggressive” or “passive” as it is “sharp”. You’re waiting for the person to make mistakes, and mistakes will always happen and you’re capitalizing on mistakes. For example, Rickson’s Jiu Jitsu, he’s so sharp, mentally, that in Jiu Jitsu, for every movement there’s a counter, but he can hold you in a position, know what you need to do to get out of it and he’s already got the counter set up. So basically, everything you do becomes a mistake. Even if you’re doing the right thing, it becomes a mistake. He leads you down a path where it’s a bit like being in a spider web. The more you struggle, the deeper in trouble you get.
GUMBY: So is that actively or passive to lead some along a path?
HENRY AKINS: You have to be active, but it’s also working to have them help you. So it’s not so much about being aggressive but being sharp mentally to be ready to take advantage of everything they do.
GUMBY: So how would you handle an opponent who is much stronger and much more aggressive than yourself?
HENRY AKINS: That really depends on the situation and where we’re at and what’s going on. But my main priority is to stay safe if I’m in a fight. The main focus for me is not to get hurt. If a person is being way more aggressive and using a lot of strength, eventually they are going to tire out. As soon as they tire out they fight kind of turns into my favor. But the main focus is always not to get hurt. How to stay safe and use my understanding of distance depending on whether or not strikes are involved, basically you would either keep the person close or stay far away so that you don’t get hurt.
GUMBY: Do you have a particular strategy going into a fight?
HENRY AKINS: The strategy in a fight is first and foremost to keep yourself safe. The amazing thing about Jiu Jitsu is that when you are standing up both fighters can be offensive and defensive. Once the fight hits the ground, only one guy can do damage with strikes and it depends on what position you are in. For example in a mount they guy on the bottom is not going to be effective with strikes while the guy on top is going to be effective with strikes. So in a fight my job is to stay safe, but to also maintain the dominant position. Once I achieve that dominant position my job is to stay there, I want to stay in the dominant position because once I’m there I greatly reduce my chances of getting hurt. Once I’m in that dominant position I maintain that until I have the opportunity to finish the fight or advance my position, but none of those are a priority to me. Only if they are available I’ll take advantage of it but otherwise it’s not a big deal if my priority is to win the fight.
GUMBY: In addition to being an instructor, you’ve done a lot of security work over the years. How did you get involved with that?
HENRY AKINS: I’ve been doing security and running night clubs since I was 21. Basically I had a couple of friends who worked in bars that got me some jobs and it was an easy thing to because I could make money at night and I would get to train all day. I could make pretty money. I went on tour with a couple of bands and spent time on the road. It was something I just fell into, but it gave me an opportunity to practice because it put me in situations where I was actually able to use what I was training for all day.
GUMBY: Having been in those “situations” from a security standpoint, how has this affected your view of Jiu Jitsu (and vice versa)?
HENRY AKINS: You know, it’s really helped me to keep my focus on what Jiu Jitsu is for and that is to keep it practical for real life situations. So many people in Jiu Jitsu have no understanding of the stand up. When I see people doing the butt scoot in Jiu Jitsu tournaments. How is that going to work in a fight? Are you going to sit on your butt and move forward? I kind of laugh at that kind of stuff because those things don’t exist in a real fight. It’s helped me to keep my eye on would this stuff work in a fight?
GUMBY: Security is more than just fighting however…
HENRY AKINS: Yeah, security is a lot more than fighting. You have to have a lot of patience to do security work and you also have to have a good understanding of people and psychology. Doing security work in Los Angeles, especially since everyone is sue crazy, the first thing I want to do is deescalate the situation and not let it turn violent. You want to keep things from getting physical but sometime in bars and nightclubs when people have been drinking you can’t avoid that.
GUMBY: How does one learn “invisible Jiu Jitsu” and as an instructor what is the best way to teach someone it.
HENRY AKINS: You have to experience it. That’s the thing, Rickson, and me myself , we don’t believe in teaching through books or videotapes, because so much of Jiu Jitsu is based on feeling. People can see something, and try to emulate it, but it would feel completely different. So to learn invisible Jiu Jitsu I think you almost have to go to the source and learn it. There are so many subtleties that people lose by not experiencing or feeling it. For example you are training at the academy and the instructor shows a move and tells you to practice it. You might be training with a guy, let’s say you trying a specific choke. Maybe you don’t have the choke right, but the guy gets so uncomfortable when you put your arms around his neck that he taps. You think you’re doing the choke right, but it’s got a lot of holes and gaps because the guy is tapping because he is uncomfortable. Things like that always happen when you’re learning.
GUMBY: How do you be a better student then?
HENRY AKINS: I think what’s really important is do privates every now and then, because most of the time you are learning in group classes and working with a partner, and sometimes people are really bad partners. The instructor will show a technique and you are partnered up with a guy and everything you do, he resists so you never even get to practice the move. I know everyone has had that experience where you try to learn a technique and the guy is totally agro or totally stiff or will never give you the right energy to do the move you need to do. Are in the earlier example of the choke sometimes the guy will just tap because he is uncomfortable. Most people wouldn’t tap to it and you don’t have it right, but they tap because they feel uncomfortable. Privates are a really good way to feel your instructor do a move to you and put a move on your instructor so they can make sure it feels right. That’s one thing that Rickson would always do with me, he would say “come here and do this technique on me”, so that he could feel if I was doing it right or not.
GUMBY: How do you integrate the training and sparring to aid your knowledge.
HENRY AKINS: I’m a big fan of positional training. I think positional training should be a big part of training everyday. As opposed to free training where hundreds of mistakes are being made and you are rolling until someone taps what happens is you give someone a goal. Let’s start from the mount. The guy on the bottom is to try to escape of course. The guy on top’s job is to keep the mount or if he has a chance to go for a submission. That way you can start to see the mistakes you make and the actual problems. Sometimes you are training with a guy and you exchange fifty positions and in the end you tap the guy but you don’t really know what he did wrong and what you did wrong. You don’t see any of the mistakes you just see who tapped and who didn’t. You’re just really aware of the last ten seconds where you caught the guy doing this, or you got caught in this move but you don’t really see or you don’t get to focus in on all the other mistakes. I love positional training.
GUMBY: What are your future plans?
HENRY AKINS: For my future, I want to start teaching and start doing seminars. I’ve never really tried to promote myself or set something up for myself. For a long time I had such a strong sense of loyalty to our academy and always felt this information shouldn’t be shared with anyone else. What’s been happening lately at our academy is that everything is up in the air right now. Rickson is in Brazil and I think our association is kind of falling apart. At one point we had a really big, strong organization and we’ve lost almost all of our representatives and members and for me I would just like to start sharing this information.
GUMBY: Have you had a change of heart about the whole team concept of Jiu Jitsu?
HENRY AKINS: It hasn’t really changed. One of the things that has changed is that I’m not really competing any more. I haven’t competed in quite some time. But it really comes down to the fact that Rickson is teaching that much anymore. I’m not sure if he’s going to have any more black belts; he’s living in Brazil and just kind of doing his thing. I’m one of the last active black belts and I’ve spent more time training with him than any of the other black belts except his sons. So it’s kind of sad to see all of this information and knowledge not get passed on. I can honestly say that Henry’s take on Jiu Jitsu and his friendship over the years have been dramatically beneficial to my own understanding and journeys in Jiu Jitsu. He’s actually too modest in his obvious respect for Rickson and what has been passed along to him,
Henry is a fantastic instructor in his own right, in addition to being knowledgeable he is extremely patient, gracious and funny! Needless to say, if you have the chance to learn from him definitely take advantage of it, you will never look at Jiu Jitsu in the same way again, even if you have been around the art for a long time. A few of my students who attended Henry’s seminar kept remarking how each section he taught was worth the entire price of the seminar! Henry can be contacted through his facebook page her: