20 Aug 2010

Three British BJJ Black Belts

I'm very proud to witness the BJJ scene here in good ole Blighty maturing very nicely thank you. As a blogger I find it really cool to document all the changes and happenings that go on especially when it concerns instructors that I know very well personally or admire greatly from a distance.

First up, I wrote a little interview for the very excellent Kombat Clinic website with the UK's youngest BJJ black belt Michael Russell. Michael is only 26 years old and earned his promotion whizzing through the ranks in less than six years. He's often cited as one of the most talented and innovative young grapplers in the country. You can read his thoughts about his short but stelllar career here.

Next, the multi-talented David Onuma, who is a black belt in a million different martial arts, was interviewed by my good blogger and writer pal Carl Fisher, aka The Fighting Photographer. David teaches a lot of classes at our Mill Hill BJJ Academy and is a very charismatic and interesting guy. Read his interview, again on Kombat Clinic, here.

Finally, the very superb print magazine Martial Arts Illustrated published an interview, written by my pal Martin Lopez, on my instructor Nick Brooks couple months ago and Martin has kindly given me permission to reproduce the interview right here, so just read on...

Nick Brooks – the unflinching voice of BJJ

(First published in Martial Arts Illustrated 2010)

Remember this day, November 12th 1993.  This was the day that Royce Gracie donned his gi and entered into the Octagon for the first time to run rampant past all opposition from various other martial arts in the very first UFC.  It was the day that the world started paying attention to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  Since then, much has changed while other things remain the same, with the BJJ world picking up some bad habits that seem to affect martial arts as a whole.

Today we speak to Nick Brooks, a BJJ black belt under Roger Gracie, who recently opened up the Mill Hill Combat and Conditioning Academy.  Nick has been in the martial arts for many years, and is a well known face of the competition circuit.

Martin Lopez: Nick thanks for taking the time to talk to us.  Can you give our readers a background of your martial arts experience?
Nick Brooks: My pleasure Martin.

ML: Can you tell us a little bit about your martial arts background?
NB:  I started at 15 with Karate, but only did six lessons.  It just wasn’t for me.  I then got into amateur boxing and boxed with the Hendon ABC and the All-Stars ABC for around seven years.  I then watched the UFC back in 1994, and started asking around all the little martial arts stores around the West End like ‘Shaolin Way’ but no-one had ever heard of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  I knew there was a Japanese Jiu-Jitsu class near me so I went to ask the guys there and they said “Yeah, that’s what we do”.  After a couple of years of training there I realised it was nothing like what I’d seen in the UFC!  However, at the time it was the best I could find so I carried on with it even though it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.  I then came across a guy called Dean James who was over in Cambridge teaching submission wrestling.  He had a Sombo background and I started training with him, mainly no-gi submission, for around six months.  Then in 2003 I bumped into Joao Santos, then a blue belt under Royler Grace.  He tied me up in knots, and tapped me again and again and I thought “I have to learn this!”.  Before he went back to Portugal he told me that Roger Gracie was opening up an academy in London.  I went to his academy on the very first day it opened, and did the very first lesson at the academy.  I remember walking in and seeing a very tall guy with a paint roller in his hand and asking him ‘Jiu-jitsu here?’ and he said ‘Yes. Go and get changed and the instructor will be with you in a moment’.  As we all waited for the instructor to turn up, he put the paint roller down, got changed and introduced himself as Roger Gracie!  I had the most fantastic day ever.  He had an amazing instructor with him called Felipe Souza and they blew my mind.  The next day I threw a sickie so I could go and train there again.  From then on, I felt at home and the welcoming reception I got was something I cannot fully describe.  I knew I would never train anywhere else.

So many good instructors have come out of that academy across all the belt levels.  I’ve trained in many academies around the world, but nothing comes close, in my opinion, to the Roger Gracie Academy.

ML: What do you think of how BJJ competitions are run at the moment?
NB: The CBJJ are offering big competitions, which at the beginning were not well run.  They tended to go on up to 11pm at night and past midnight in some instances.  In addition to this, they charge $140 to enter.  For the average person, they have to pay that amount, fly to the country, pay for accommodation, expenses, travel etc, and to fight a basic competition you are looking at £600!  And that’s just to go to Portugal!  If you want to go to the bigger competitions other than the European ones, you have to go to L.A.

The ACC Pro is now running a big competition which is only 35 Euros to enter, but they have regional qualifiers held all over the world.  The winners of the elite get their expenses paid to go to the finals in Abu Dhabi.  And there’s no entry fee as you’ve already done that once to do the qualifier.  On top of that there are cash prizes for all the winners.  In essence, you get a lot back from the organisers.

The CBJJ have now moved into Europe, but it’s also run in the usual way where you pay a lump sum to enter, get a t-shirt, and a medal if you’re lucky!  Not much is given back to the competitor.

We’re now seeing up to 1400 people turn up for an event to compete over four days, and it’s increasing every year.  SO what’s going to happen?  In five years time are you going to hold a 8 or 10-day tournament with 2500 plus competitors?  It’s not viably possible.  Regional qualifiers are the way forward in my opinion.  Things have to change, and in fact most of the leading Red Belts have already moved away from the CBJJ to the USA JJ confederation, as they are pushing hard to change the way things are presently done. Because at the moment the priority is to get Jiu Jitsu into the 2016 Olympics in Brazil,  I think that only good (for the athletes) will come out of this.

I still feel the CBJJ run the best and most prestigious competitions and everyone wants to win the Mundials, but you have to look at what the fighters get back.

ML: So why hasn’t BJJ learnt from the mistakes made over the years by arts like Wing Chun, Escrima, etc?
NB: BJJ is still a relatively small martial art.  A lot of martial artists from other arts have still never heard of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.  If you’re not into the UFC or the grappling arts there’s a good chance you will never have heard of it.  I’ve bumped into Brazilians who’ve never heard of BJJ!  Even in Brazil it’s still relatively small compared to Judo, Capoeira and the main sports like Football.  You go to a typical Karate class and you’ll find 40-50 people crammed into a hall, whereas in BJJ, 12-15 people is a big class.  I think it’s still trying to find its feet.

There are additional problems, in the fact that people are pushing to have BJJ be part of the Olympics.  The problem with the CBJJ being the main confederation is the fact that they are not a non-profit organisation, one of the key requirements for Olympic criteria.  Secondly, it can’t be called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu! It will have to be called Jiu-Jitsu in the same way Judo isn’t called Japanese Judo.  That itself will be a major point of contention.

ML: Do you think that with the increase in popularity of the sport, the Brazilians will still have the existing domination in the black belt division?
NB: No!  More and more, people from outside of Brazil are getting better and better and the gap is growing shorter by the year. Already in the UAE Jiu Jitsu is now part of the school cariculum every child will learn this incredible art alongside there general studies, There is also a jiu jitsu university in California, in the next 10 years the Americans will start to show a serious challenge in the next 15 – 20 the UAE will have a lot of champions too,

ML: As MMA organisations start paying their fighters more money, a lot of very talented BJJ guys will be lured in MMA and away from the BJJ competitions?
NB: Yes, for sure.  Right now there’s no money in Jiu-Jitsu.  Unless you run a school or are a world champion doing large seminar tours.  This is the reason that the majority of Brazil’s top black belts are in Los Angeles and in various other places around the world!  This is evident by the fact the Mundials were moved to California from Rio, when there was no need to do so, as they already have a huge event there in the form of the Pan-Ams. It’s the second largest competition behind the Mundials.  So now there are very talented Brazilians who can’t compete because they can’t get visas or sponsorship to go there!

ML: What about weapons?
NB:  There’s a lot of weaponry in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu - Kobudo, but it’s very static and stationary.  I still think for weapon threats, you cannot beat Japanese Jiu-jitsu.  However, when it comes to weapon against weapon and live fighting, you cannot beat Kali.  I see it as the BJJ of the weapons world because its live training and you just cannot beat live training.  The Kobudo training only took me so far, and I got to a 4th Degree in that, so I talk from experience.

If you put someone in a situation, one on one without weapons, it’s already been proven that you cannot beat BJJ.  As Renzo Gracie said, it’s the most efficient way of fighting.  You can shut down anything else the other person does.  There are weapons in BJJ, but based on the Japanese arts already mentioned.

ML: On your comment of BJJ being the most efficient way of fighting, do you think that the art has reached it’s full tactical potential, or can it develop and evolve further?
NB:  It’s evolving every day.  People are always developing new transitions and moves and positions.  When you consider we are only a body, two arms and two legs, there’s only so many ways we can do something.  It’s not the finish; it’s the journey to get there!

ML: To a novice, they may see Judo and BJJ as very similar arts.  What are your views on that?
NB:  No.  While they may share common things like chokes, arm-bars, etc, the journey to get to that position is completely different, and the emphasis is also completely different.  Judo and Jiu-Jitsu are very far apart, but also very close together as they both came from the Kodokan in Japan, just in different way.

I guess this is a case of politics producing something good, for once! *laughs to himself*

ML:  There is a sense of blind loyalty in BJJ and I have heard that it is frowned upon if a student from one system trains with a different school or system at the same time.  Why do you think this is?
NB:  Yes, while we have politics at the organisational level, there are also inter-academy politics, sadly!  Cross training amongst academies and teams is still frowned upon, whereas in Judo it is not.  One of the reasons for teams and rivalries goes all the way back to splits among the very early Gracie’s. Carlson had his way of doing things and Helio had his, which caused the initial split, Helio’s sons Royler & Rolker created a team called Humaita, Then came the teams Barra & Master / Alliance, then Alliance further split to become TT & Braza, TT is now 99 & Brasa even though still exists but on a much smaller scale, became Checkmat & ATOS, and it just goes on and on.  If you train with one team then go to another team, you can take their techniques back etc… so it’s frowned upon.

The sad thing is that most times when people change teams, it’s not because they are unhappy, but for more practical reasons like relocation.  The Brazilians call this ‘Creonte”.

There is a clan mentality, but I won’t have that at my academy.  I have guys from all over the place train here.  I believe cross-training is the way forward.  I myself train in Brazil with people from a different ‘branch’ but that’s down to geographical practicality.  Amongst the top people, like Mauricio Gomes this issue isn’t there, and he knows that I train with De la Riva when I go to Brazil, and they are all quite happy with that.  I feel its people at the lower levels that feed this to retain their students, and it’s a form of insecurity.  But this is evident throughout every martial art and not unique to BJJ.  I think it is more noticeable with BJJ because it’s a competition art.

ML:  You yourself were a heavy competitor, tell us about your exploits.
NB:   I love to compete, and competed a lot at every belt.  I won the masters at blue belt and brown belt.  I also won four European championships and a Pan-Am & competed in lots of other tournaments, some you win some you lose but its all experience. In my view it’s the best way to self evaluate your game, I have had to put my competing on the back-burner as I have now opened up my own academy and ironically now that I am teaching full time I am training a lot less for myself,

ML: What makes a good BJJ competitor?
NB:  You would be surprised how many computer geeks are doing BJJ, they are everywhere!  It’s a cerebral martial art.  Thugs will never win competitions as you can’t bust through people and you need to be smart.  You need to be physically fit and conditioned, but the smartest people win competitions.  We can go into a lot of depth with this but it’s basically physical chess.

ML: What prompted you to start your own Academy?
NB: Well, I actually write software for a living and have a degree in Computer Science, so opening up an academy shows what a passion Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is to me. It started to take over my life to the point I now write software as a hobby and teach Jiu-Jitsu full time.

Starting a BJJ Academy happened by chance, Back before I started at RGA a coupe of friends and I would get together and train techniques from magazines books videos etc, This carried on after i joined RGA and later that year was promoted to blue belt, We were renting the sports hall at Middlesex University, So we gathered some interest from students and the get together became a class by then i was a blue belt and even though we only trained twice a week the demand for more classes grew, I then decided to stop teaching Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and change the class to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I approached my Instructor Roger Gracie to ask if this was ok and was given support and encouragement to go ahead, So started to teach 3 nights per week on top of the 2 classes at Middlesex university by then i was a purple belt, Things were still growing and a few years later when the sports hall was closed moved all training to the other site but unfortunately this was just not suitable to run an academy that was growing from month to month, So i decided to find a full time premises and in September 2009 six years after the initial get together of just three people RGA Mill Hill came to fruition. The academy now boasts over 80 members with 56 classes per month for a 55 pound monthly membership which equates to less than 1 pound per lesson with Black and Brown belt senior instructors and world class Purple belts assisting this has to be one of the best deals in London for BJJ

The Academy officially opened in September 2009.

ML: Do you see this academy producing a stable of top competitors?
NB:  We already are!  There is a young man called Daniel Strauss who started training with me when he was 14.  He was given lessons and a gi as his birthday present back then.  After seven months training, a competition came up and I asked who wanted to enter.  All these burly guys put their hand up, and little Daniel did also.  I asked if there was a junior division for him and there was.  When we got there, we were told the junior division had been cancelled due to a lack of competitors.  Daniel was upset and said he would like to fight in the intermediate division, which was for 18-19 year old guys and also an open-weight division.  The heaviest guy there was 81kgs and Daniel was 5’5 and weighed about 55kg.  I was worried as in this competition there were leg locks, knee bars, etc… so I was very concerned, but put it to Daniel.  He jumped at the chance and I asked one of the judges to look after him and stop the fight if he saw he was in trouble.  Well, he won four of the five fights and took silver!  As we were getting changed to go home, he said “We can’t go, I have more fights”.  He had gone and signed himself onto the adults under 70kg! He won two and lost three, but beat the guy who won gold…. At fourteen!!!  This is when I realised that there was something special about this kid.

He then went onto win Gold at the world no-gi in Los Angeles and became Britain’s first no-gi World Champion!

At 16 he went to the ADCC in England and won the Novice division.

I then took him at 17 with me to do the World Masters in Brazil in 2008 where Mauricio Gomes first saw him fight and commented on how good he was.  Daniel kept submitting everyone in a matter of minutes.  He got to the final and tapped the guy in minutes.  I then turned around to Mauricio and said “You do realise that Daniel s a juvenile and not an adult?”  Mauricio was stunned that he had won the adult division at that young age!

Asides from Daniel we also have numerous up and coming competitors such as Oliver Geddes, Chris Hearn, Hana Cooper. and a few others who are starting to dip their toes into MMA competition.

ML: What other services do you offer at the Mill Hill Combat and Conditioning Academy?
NB:  We have Andy Marshall, our strength and conditioning coach.  He’s the British Kettle bell lifting champion.  He knows how to tailor conditioning for fighting.  I have seen the benefit in the guys who have been training with him since he started here.  It’s important for BJJ competitors to do training off the mat.

We also offer MMA classes and a tailored programme for each individual.  We also have a Thai Boxing curriculum.

We are open and welcoming to people from all schools, backgrounds and experience, and will not let politics in past the front door!

ML:  Thanks Nick, it has been refreshing to listen to you and your honest and candid views.
NB:  My pleasure Martin, I’d just like to pay special homage to Mauricio Gomes, Roger Gracie, Braulio Estima and De la Riva for being my biggest influences in BJJ.  It’s important to recognise the people who were instrumental in getting you to where you are.

You can find out more about training at the Mill Hill Combat and Conditioning Academy by contacting Nick directly on nhbrooks@hotmail.com or visiting the website at http://www.millhillju-jitsuclub.com/

About the Author


Author & Artist

Meerkatsu is the artist name for BJJ black belt Seymour Yang.


André said...

Amen to him. I sees the problems clearly.

Congratulations to him and good for you, having such a great teacher.

Anonymous said...

Everyone should respect individuals who have earned black belts. They will round house kick you if you don'T!


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