How did you start training and what was your journey to Team Lloyd Irvin?
I started training in California when I was 14 and a half. I had some friends who were really into the jiu jitsu and MMA scene and it just so happened that my dad was a blue belt at the time. I was never really into it and I was never interested in what he was doing. I’d see him training jiu jitsu but I didn’t really know what it was. I didn’t really want to do it and one day he invited me to go out and train with him and he just neck cranked me a bunch of times and it was kind of painful and I didn’t like it much but I wanted to fit in with the cool crowd at my school so I started training. We invited some of the kids from the wrestling team to come train with us and we started learning off of youtube and just messing around. I started to get more serious with my training by finding schools in the area and so I trained at Cassio Werneck’s for awhile and then from there I moved to BJ Penn’s gym because he was an idol of mine at the time. I trained there for 3 years and then I wanted a more competition-focused environment and I had a friend named Andris Brunovskis who had gone to train with Team Lloyd Irvin. He was always telling me how awesome it was so I contacted Master Lloyd and went out there. I’ve been on the team for about a year and a half now.
How often did you train with BJ Penn when you were training at his gym?
I only trained with him about three times in the whole three years I was there and that’s part of the reason I left. I went over there expecting to train with BJ Penn more regularly but he’s so focused on MMA and I was more into the gi jiu jitsu so we never really got to train together. Plus, he doesn’t really teach any of the classes. A guy named “Charuto” Vermissio taught most of the classes. I got to roll with Reagan Penn quite a bit though, about ten times. He’s arguably the better brother at jiu jitsu. He actually won a world championship at blue belt in Brazil before BJ Penn ever won a world championship. So he may have been the first American to actually ever win a world championship just not at black belt. So he’s pretty good.
What about when you went to Team Lloyd Irvin? How different is the atmosphere compared to BJ Penn’s academy?
It was hugely different. The training is so much more intense and it’s focused around the team mentality which I never had before. At BJ’s there were sort of rivalries in the gym and everyone was trying to be better than those around them and so it was like a competition mindset against your teammates. I don’t like that because people are afraid to share techniques or moves with each other since you always want to have the upper hand over someone whereas at Team Lloyd Irvin the team mindset and mentality means we’re all working together towards a common goal. Master Lloyd has an acronym for T.E.A.M. that stands for Together Everyone Achieves More. I really like that the most. But the biggest change I’d say is the intensity in training. I’ve never trained this hard ever. Since I’ve been here I’ve been training about four to six hours a day. So that has really helped my game by leaps and bounds just by the intense amount of training in such a short amount of time. And focusing my entire life around jiu jitsu is really helping the most.
Did you compete often before you went to Team Lloyd Irvin?
Yeah I did and I always lost! I competed at a lot of NAGA competitions in Hawaii. I was really big in the Hawaii tournament scene and I always saved up money to go to the big tournaments like Pan Ams and Worlds. I competed at the Pan Ams at blue belt as a juvenile and I lost the second round mostly because I was out of shape and I didn’t have a concept of how hard it was going to be. I competed at Worlds twice and Pan Ams twice before I moved to Team Lloyd Irvin and I always lost.
What was the turning point when you first started winning?
After about a year of being at Team Lloyd Irvin I finally started to understand the mindset that is required to be champion. To have confidence in yourself and really believe in yourself is the biggest thing. Not over analyzing and over thinking things. The first year I was there I was losing the first or second round and I didn’t understand why because I was training so hard and I thought that was enough but you really need to focus on the mental aspect as well– believing in yourself and just having confidence in your jiu jitsu. So it was kind of depressing but I just kept beating my head against a wall until I broke thorough it and now I had a really great year this year.
When did your winning streak begin? What was the first tournament where you started winning?
It was kind of gradual so during my first year at Team Lloyd Irvin I competed in Pan Ams and lost the second round and then I lost the second round of Worlds. Right after that during nogi season I won my division at nogi worlds at purple belt then I entered the absolute and got choked out in the first round. I think it was because I was so happy that I had finally won something that I felt like my day was over. I was like, “Okay I’m done.” Then I had to do the absolute and I wasn’t really focused on it so that really taught me that the day is not over until you’re done competing. I have to stay in the mindset and in the zone and stay focused to win. But Europeans would be the time that I really started winning. That was the first double gold I got. Then I had more focus on the point game so at Europeans I didn’t submit a whole lot of people but I really just focused on making sure I stayed in dominant positions and did moves that I really drilled. I never really ventured out of my comfort zone and so I only submitted about 2 or 3 people there but I had ten fights and I even won a referee decision in the absolute to get to the finals. After that I started opening up my game a little bit and every tournament progressively throughout 2012 I submitted more and more people. Europeans was only 2 or 3, Pan Ams I submitted 7 guys, Abu Dhabi I didn’t really submit anyone either only about 2 or 3, Brasileiros was 7 guys as well and then Worlds I submitted 8 out of 10 people so that was really cool.
Was it a shock that you finally started winning at Europeans?
It was weird. I don’t really know how to describe it; it just felt really good to finally be winning. It was kind of a shock. After I was like, “whoa, that was really awesome.” I guess at that point I still didn’t really believe in myself completely. I felt like something could still go wrong or something was going to happen and then when it didn’t and I had that first great competition day it was kind of surprising. But I just took that wave and rode on it. I just tried to stay confident in my abilities and confident in the hard training we do at Team Lloyd Irvin.
What advice could you give to an average competitor?
For an average competitor it really depends if they want to become an above average competitor. If you’re an average competitor, you’re average for a reason and it’s probably because jiu jitsu isn’t a main focus in your life. A lot of people think that jiu jitsu is a main focus in their life but they do other things and they skip training sometimes just cause they’re tired or whatever. I know most people have jobs, though. I have a fortunate circumstance where I don’t have to work a real job to train jiu jitsu. I work at the gym and it never gets in the way of my jiu jitsu. The biggest thing you need to do to go from average competitor to above average competitor is eliminate the things in your life that get in the way of jiu jitsu whatever that may be. If it’s a girlfriend that doesn’t like you to train all the time and wants you to hang out with her, if it’s a job that gets in the way. If that’s your only option then it’s your only option but find a way to get around that so you can make jiu jitsu a complete priority and as the main focus in your life. But that can be hard too because you can get burnt out on it and that’s the worst feeling in the world. Jiu jitsu is something you love so much and have dedicated so much time to make it a priority and you get burnt out on it. So it’s a delicate balance you need to find. But definitely the biggest change for me was committing myself 100%, fully, completely and just training.
I would say most of it because the will to win isn’t decided on the mat in competition; the will to win is decided in the training room because if you’re really really wanting to win you’re going to put in the hard work beforehand. That’s going to decide whether or not you’re the victor on the mat. Just knowing that you’re training harder than all your competitors is the biggest psychological advantage you have over anyone. I know this because I train with guys like DJ Jackson. I’m sure everyone knows who he is because he’s the most aggressive jiu jitsu competitor brown belt and below that there is. He pushes so hard every day in practice. When I have to train with guys like that, there’s no one out there that can match this hellish quality that DJ has. And so that’s a huge confidence booster just training super hard and knowing that your conditioning is on par and knowing that you’ve been drilling more than anyone and your sweeps, submissions, and back takes are all smooth. Just because you’ve put so much time and hard work into it off the competition mats.
For someone who wants to do really well at the top levels do you think they have to move to a large team or be part of a huge gym with lots of competitors who are in the same boat?
I definitely think so. First and foremost you need people to be pushing you. If you’re the best guy in your gym and no one’s tapping you out and you’re the hammer, you’re never going to be exposed as to what your weaknesses are. You’ll continue to plateau and do the same things and over and over again because it’s working for you in the gym. And then competing every once in awhile is not enough to train you to try new things. So having a team, people behind you that are always pushing you and always making you evolve and adapt your game is a huge thing. Where they’re learning your game and you’re learning their game and then you’re canceling out each other’s moves and then having to learn new stuff and progress and progress. But more importantly than that is surrounding yourself with people who have the mindset that you want. The champion mindset. That’s a huge thing. Just to be around that, it rubs off on you. I live in a house with a lot of World Champions at different belt levels and I live with JT Torres who actually has never been a World Champion at any belt level just because he’s been ranked up so fast but he’s one of the hardest working athletes, with the best champion mindset that I’ve ever met. Just being around the that and seeing how he thinks and trains is incredibly beneficial. It rubs off on me a lot. I definitely think it’s important. if you’re not getting your ass kicked in the gym you’re doing something wrong you should probably be somewhere else. That’s why I don’t understand why there’s so much hate for people who switch teams when jiu jitsu is a sport. If you’re at a point where you want to win and you want to compete at a high level and you’re not getting beat up, you have to do it for yourself to seek out better training. Seek out a place where you can become successful and achieve your own goals.
What about a back-up plan like college? Do you think it’s important to study other areas for when you’re no longer competing in jiu jitsu?
Yeah. I was actually into that for awhile where I was learning the marketing and doing some internet stuff but for me personally (this may not be for everyone) I felt that to be successful I had to have 100% focus on jiu jitsu. Nothing else. Zero external stimulus. I had to do just jiu jitsu. So I feel like it is important but I’ve never been one to plan ahead and I’m impulsive in that sense so right now I just want to concentrate my time completely on jiu jitsu and get as good as I can in the shortest amount of time possible. People say I’m young to be starting jiu jitsu but I’m a purple belt and Buchecha is only 22 and Rodolfo is only 22. They’re not much older than me and they’ve been training for twice as long. So I need to catch up with those high level guys and to finally get to that high level I have to put the work in now and not be distracted by anything. That’s my ultimate goal: to become a Black Belt World and Absolute Champion so I try to stay away from anything outside of pure jiu jitsu.
What are you planning for the future and what are you working on now?
Now I just want to have a repeat performance at brown belt level and win everything again. That’s a short term goal and after that my goal is to become a Black Belt World Champion and I feel like I just have to stick to what I’m doing now. One thing I’m going to change is adding more strength and conditioning as far as strength building. We did a lot of plyometric exercises this year, which are really good, but I’d like to have a little more explosive power because at the higher skill levels I believe it’s super important to have takedowns and play a top game. Right now my game is predominantly guard playing and I feel like I need to get a little stronger and bigger to win the higher level absolutes. But that’s really my only plan and I don’t really think any farther than that. I’m just going to try and go to win it all again.