Meet the Pandas – A Dark Horse in the Arms Race – Jon Calestine

Meet the Pandas – A Dark Horse in the Arms Race – Jon Calestine

In Meet the Pandas we shed light on the many awesome people that make up the Panda Nation. Last episode was devoted to multiple time Pan-Ams and IBJJF Worlds champion Jonathan Thomas of Valhalla Jiu Jitsu. Now we dive into the wild & wooly world of ‘submission only’ grappling with Jon Calestine: Renzo Gracie soldier, professional heelhooker from hell, and champion with organizations like the Eddie Bravo Invitational, the Onnit Invitational, the Sapateiro Invitational and Finishers Sub-Only.

After dropping out of high school, Brooklyn’s Jon Calestine (23) didn’t know what to do with his life, and was planning to enlist into the military. It wasn’t until he won his first Grapplers Quest – to his own amazement, that he started to take his jiu-jitsu training seriously. Under the guidance of several Renzo Gracie standouts (Anthony Bergamo, Daisuke Yamaji, Matt Kaplan & Eddie Cummings), Jon became a fearsome competitor, winning the EBI 15 featherweight title as a dark horse. He immediately established his name as a heelhooking tazmanian devil.

First off, congrats on your recent win against Gianni Grippo at KASAI Pro 3. Are you happy with the result?

Jon Calestine: Yes, it was a very tough match. It was great to be able to test myself against someone of Gianni’s level, because I’ve never competed against someone with his IBJJF accomplishments. From day one I’ve only faced sub-only grapplers – those are completely different animals. In sub-only no one is really too concerned with trying to maintain positional dominance or giving up points. I was more used to people playing the counter-submission game, just trying to kill each other. So I enjoyed my match with Gianni because of the stylistic clash. I was a bit disappointed there was no submission finish, because the whole camp was devoted to figuring out how to set him up. My first entry into outside ashi garami was one of three different gameplans I’d prepared. I’m just now learning how to strategize against the higher level competitors. But he was really, really hard to deal with. Gianni is one of the most explosive people I’ve ever faced.

In EBI you ran through the division like a man possessed. You seemed more relaxed at KASAI.

JC: That was deliberate. I prefer a more aggressive approach, but at KASAI I had to be more conservative. It was a 15 minute match, and I knew that I probably couldn’t match Gianni’s insane pace all the way through. So I had to play a more strategic game. I knew that if I couldn’t submit him, at least I had to clearly establish the more dominant attacks, while at the same time keeping him from passing my guard. I didn’t want to leave it up to the judges – because maybe they’d consider one clean pass more valuable that six deep heelhook attempts. Thankfully they didn’t.

So did you win EBI on sheer adrenalin?

JC: Yeah. Because I came in as a late replacement for Eddie I didn’t have time to plan anything. So I just went all out, trying to submit everyone as fast as possible – Scramble! Hulk Smash! Also that was out of pure necessity because I didn’t have the cardio for long, drawn out overtime rounds. A lot of people in the division I’d competed against before, so I kind of knew how to handle them. Only Geo Martinez was new to me.

Let’s backtrack. How did you get your start in jiu-jitsu?

JC: As a teenager I dropped out of high school and I didn’t know what to do with myself. When I finally made up my mind to finish my degree, I needed to do something to clear my head. One of my uncle’s friends used to be a professional bodybuilder and he’d discovered jiu-jitsu. We were always talking about workout routines, because I was really into weight lifting at the time. Eventually jiu-jitsu came up and he invited me to try it out. I took my first class at Renzo’s in Manhattan and immediately fell in love with the art.

Did you get destroyed?

JC: I did okay. I had decent coordination and athleticism because I’d played sports all my life: baseball, soccer, basketball and football. Even a bit of tae kwon do. So I basically went into survival mode for the first class and started violently headlocking the other white belts. To my surprise I did a lot better than I expected. Obviously I had no idea what I was doing, and of course my ego was checked right away by a couple of more experienced people. But it was different, great fun. I really liked the fact that it was a team sport with an individual twist. You need the team to get better, but in the end, how you perform is all on you.

How did you progress through the ranks?

JC: I’ve always been a Renzo Gracie guy. I got my start doing the white belt classes in Manhattan. I was there for about 3 months and got my first taste of competition. By the way, that was the first and only time I’ve ever competed in the gi. I hated it. I shot in for a power double leg and got strangled unconscious by triangle (laughs). Later I heard about a Renzo gym opening up in Brooklyn, which is where I live. It was an easier option. The coaches there were Tony B. (Anthony Bergamo) – who gave me my blue belt, and Daisuke Yamaji, Renzo’s first Japanese black belt and the one who gave me all the other belts. I chose that gym because it was more MMA-based. I had no intentions of ever competing in professional jiu-jitsu matches. That wasn’t even a thing back then.

What was different about the Brooklyn gym?

JC: It had less rules and more of an open vibe. You could do no-gi, leglocks and MMA training from the very first day you walked in. Tony B. and Daisuke were very open minded coaches, and they gave me the freedom to pursue whatever I wanted. I have a short attention span, so it was always something different. It was a better fit for me. I did everything there: boxing, wrestling, MMA and no-gi jiu-jitsu. It just so happened that I enjoyed jiu-jitsu the most.

Everybody knows about John Danaher, but I’ve been told that Daisuke Yamaji was one of the first at Renzo’s to go down the leglock rabbit hole…

JC: That’s true. He’s kind of under the radar. When he was blue or purple he wanted to separate himself from the other killers in the room. So he got obsessed with old Pancrase and Shooto tapes, that’s where he got the idea to pursue the leglock game. He was one of the enforcers at the gym, so he got to test his stuff in real challenge matches. Daisuke is one of the O.G. leglockers at Renzo’s. But more importantly he’s an incredibly nice and caring human being. He’s always been very supportive of anything we wanted to pursue in jiu-jitsu. Also, he’s one of the best people I’ve ever rolled with. Seriously high level jiu-jitsu, and still one of the fastest people on the mat. He’s got a ridiculous amount of talent and knowledge. You can tell he’s been through the fire many times.

When did jiu jitsu ‘click’ for you?

JC: As I was finally finishing up my high school education, my plan was to join the military afterwards. But my friend and coach Matt Kaplan convinced me to enter the local edition of Grapplers Quest – even though I hadn’t competed since that first embarrassing white belt match. Well, to my surprise I won first place. I pretty much out-wrestled my opponents and barely knew any submissions, but I got the job done. That initial success was great. Finally I found something I was reasonably good at, so I decided to stick around.

How did you come to learn from Eddie Cummings?

JC: I actually beat one of Eddie’s students at that Grapplers Quest tournament, so I knew who he was. Later Matt Kaplan told me that Eddie was teaching a competition class in the city, together with another famous Renzo black belt: ‘Black’ Rob (Constance). So I went there to check him out. Well, that wasn’t fun (laughs). I got absolutely dismantled. Eddie took my back and strangled me over and over again. Getting choked out by that evil man was an important lesson.

I figured: all the top guys are training here, this is where I need to be to get better. So I started training with Eddie twice a week. Up until that point I didn’t really take jiu-jitsu seriously. He brought me up to a whole new level.

This was all without the pajamas?

JC: Yes. I would put the gi on from time to time, but with great resentment. Just because I wanted to take more classes. But I would get too annoyed, take it off and throw it in the corner. Since blue belt I think I’ve only worn the gi once. I just wasn’t interested.

What was your biggest hurdle in learning jiu-jitsu?

JC: For the longest time I didn’t have my ‘own’ game, I just knew a lot of separate movements. I had no understanding of the underlying principles – what made those movements work and how they were connected. The biggest hurdle was learning how to learn on my own. By watching tape, analyzing moves, coming up with ideas and testing those on the mat, I managed to put together my own style. I learned all of that from Eddie Cummings. He told me we don’t need a long list of moves, we just need to understand why certain things work with the highest success rate. Eddie taught me how to use that analytical process and to focus on mechanics first. Once I got over that hurdle, I really started to expand and deepen my jiu-jitsu. 

You’re had your share of injuries. How did that change your approach?

JC: Oddly, I feel I get better when I’m nursing an injury. When I don’t have the luxury of going to the gym to train multiple times a day, the training becomes mental. At first an injury messes with your head and you become frustrated. But when you focus that energy at studying new moves, you can come back stronger and smarter. Before EBI, I’d torn my labrum in my left shoulder. That took me out for about 8 months, and I slowly made my way back and helped Eddie with his preparations. When I finally got the call to replace him I was back at full health. Then in the finals, while escaping that last armbar by Geo, I tore my labrum in my right shoulder – yeah, the other one (laughs). That tear took another four months to heal. All that time off was a blessing in disguise, because I got to devote a lot of time to self-analysis and study. You don’t have to spar hard every day to get better at jiu-jitsu. There’s always a way around a problem, there’s always a way to improve. I’ve lived through that.

There’s a real arms race going on in professional grappling. Does that drive you nuts?

JC: It’s definitely stressful. As a competitor you don’t want to become predictable, so I make sure that every time I compete I’m using different movements and mechanics. Because I know that every A-game technique I’ve used in competition has been analyzed to death. It’s even worse for Eddie. That madman has a book full of secret cutting-edge techniques that he keeps hidden from the world, until the time is right. All eyes are on him. So the arms race is very real, but it comes with the territory. Everyone ‘poaches’ techniques, including me.

So what do you do to clear your mind?

JC: I’m definitely not as crazy as Eddie. I don’t have the patience to watch tape and take obsessive notes every day. Usually I just hang out and play video games. When I don’t have a match coming up, I like free experimentation at Bancho MMA (where I teach), playing around with new ideas. See where my interest takes me. I’m a simple guy, I don’t have many hobbies outside of jiu-jitsu.

Why have you stuck with jiu-jitsu all these years?

JC: Jiu-jitsu came out of nowhere. It gave me a purpose at a time when there were few things in my life that I cared for. Every day is exhausting, but I’m so happy that I’ve found something to devote myself to. No matter what, jiu-jitsu is always there for me. When I go to the gym my mind is focused on only the problem at hand. I have that constant hunger to get better, nothing else matters. That’s why I like competing. At KASAI there were 1500 people watching my match, but I couldn’t hear a single person. The only thing I saw was someone on front of me, intent to hurt me. And my job was to overcome that threat. Nothing has ever given me that feeling of clarity.

Jon Calestine teaches at Bancho MMA in Brooklyn, NY. Find him on Instagram: @Jon_Calestine

Daniël Bertina is a black belt and writer based in The Netherlands. He teaches at Carlson Gracie Amsterdam ( Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami

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