Meet the Pandas – A Selfless Quest for Quality - Kevin Sheridan

In this series we shed light on the many members of the Panda Nation. Last episode starred brown belt Ro Malabanan of Overthrow Boxing. Now, we spend some time with Kevin Sheridan: former D1 wrestler, all-round BJJ entrepreneur, and black belt guru of many Inverted Gear Pandas.

As a lifelong wrestler, Kevin Sheridan (46) took to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu like an anaconda to the Amazon rainforest. The art helped him to open his mind, and navigate his way through business and life. After building up several accomplished black belts, he now has his sights set on providing disenfranchised inner city kids with free jiu-jitsu.

How did you get your first exposure to the art?

Kevin Sheridan: It was thanks to my sister. She was training Capoeira in Colorado, and at one point she wanted to deepen her practice and study with her 70-year old Capoeira mestre, who was based in New York. Once she started training there, she mentioned that there was another art being taught in the same building, just one floor down. Kind of like karate, but more like wrestling. That got me curious because I’d wrestled Division 1 at Rutgers University. I went down there, and I stuck my head in, and I met Fabio Clemente and Babs Olusanmokun – this was back in 2000. They invited me to come and train right away, but I had no gear on me. That didn’t matter to them. I took my first class wearing just jeans and a t-shirt.

Did you get your mind blown?

KS: You bet. I’d been captain of the wrestling team in 1993-‘94. I wasn’t an amazing championship wrestler or anything, but I had a pretty decent college career. So at first glance I dismissed that weird ‘karate’ they were doing. I figured I’d seen it all. How could there be a ground-fighting sport that I didn’t know about? The first couple of rolls were with a bunch of white belts, and I did pretty well against them – my wrestling carried me a long way. But then Fabio walked up to me asked me for a roll… Well, he beat the hell out of me. That man threw me around room like a child. It was amazing. I had such an immediate and incredible respect for the art, that I started training right away and never stopped. I was 31 years old, I’m 46 now. 

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How did you respond to getting strangled?

KS: Not well, I guess (laughs). I was pretty much helpless against the purples, browns, and black belts. That kind of messed with my confidence. For the longest time, I was a stubborn wrestler who would only play his A-game. I found it really hard to truly give myself to jiu-jitsu. As a white and blue belt, I was only concerned about winning, not about learning. Looking back, that mentality really stunted my jiu-jitsu learning curve.

Who were your main instructors?

KS: Fabio Clemente has been my head teacher from the very start, until this day. He’s my mentor. In that time I was also fortunate to learn from Marcelo Garcia, who was the head teacher at Fabio’s school for three years. After that, they had a disagreement and went their own ways. Then Lucas Lepri came over to teach at Fabio’s school, and I was under his guidance for a couple of years. Eventually, I got my black belt from Fabio in 2010.

What was the hardest thing for you to master?

KS: The guard. It think that goes for every wrestler. Obviously I always had the takedown and top game, but even when I got my black belt, I still didn’t have a developed bottom game. I was definitely lacking there. So, finally, I made the commitment to pull guard in every competition for the next two years. Truth be told, I lost often and miserably... I remember once finishing a tournament at brown belt, and Rafael Lovato Jr. came up to me. He tried to give me a compliment: “Hey man, great wrestling out there!” That was the LAST thing I wanted to hear at that point (laughs). I still had to learn how to embrace the sport fully. It was a tough road, but I eventually learned to play from there. It’s still not my best position, but I’m very comfortable from there.

As a coach, how do you teach stubborn wrestlers (like yourself)?

KS: I’m very, very strict with them. There’s one guy, Andrew – who’s a black belt now – and I had a stern talk with him at blue belt. I really tried to make him realize that the bottom game is essential. So I’d have him start off his back all the time and work from there. Now it’s his best position. He armbars everyone from guard. It’s a thing of beauty. Most opponents won’t be able to tell he’s a wrestler.

Are you full-time into jiu-jitsu?

KS: Not quite. I’ve always been busy with a couple of businesses. I own some real estate properties that I rent out, and I’ve run a painting company for over 25 years. My life is pretty varied. Right now is an exciting time, because I’m slowly moving into the full-time jiu-jitsu thing. I’ve been organizing the Rollin’ in Costa Rica Camp every year, and I’ve been also running a jiu-jitsu camp in the Adirondacks, the largest state park in the US. I own a property there. It’s a great place to get together, train, swim in the lake, enjoy nature, chop wood, and carry water – that sort of thing. My wife is a yoga teacher, and we’re in the middle of building a combined yoga and jiu-jitsu facility up there. My hope is that in a few years time I’ll be devoted to the art completely, by running those camps in Costa Rica and the Adirondacks, and of course my own school here in New Jersey.

What’s different about your school, Sheridan Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

KS: The way I’ve developed my school is that it’s not all about me, even though I’m the head instructor. I try to focus on empowering other talented people to teach and to develop their unique skills as an instructor. So at my school we have about twelve different teachers. Most of them only stick to one class a week, which enables them to really focus. That way our students are exposed to many different flavors of instruction.

That selfless approach sounds pretty unique…

KS: Well, my ultimate goal is to open up a not-for-profit jiu-jitsu club in the inner city. I want to create a mentoring programme between active adults in the jiu-jitsu scene and kids in the needy communities. Last year the most dangerous place in America (when it came to violent crime per capita) was a place called Irvington, which is just about 15 minutes from here. There’s a lot of gun violence and a lot of young, troubled kids running around. I feel I have to do something about that.

That not-for-profit model is rare in the US, right?

KS: I think so. I wanted to do something like that years ago, when I first opened up my school. The not-for-profit, donation-based system is quite common in the yoga world. It enables people to train who would greatly benefit from the art but just can’t afford it. When I brought up my not-for-profit plans at the time, Fabio Gurgel of Alliance called me up. He said: “Kevin, you just can’t do that. You’ll ruin jiu-jitsu because the top black belts need to be able to make a living. If they can’t make money off of jiu-jitsu, they can’t practice the art full-time and won’t be able to propel the sport forward. The same thing happened to judo.” I understood his point, and I agreed with him at the time…

Now I’m trying to find a middle way. If there’s profit to be made in a certain location, I will be charging there accordingly to make a living teaching jiu-jitsu. But in places with a lot of poverty, jiu-jitsu taught for free can be a healthy escape for a lot of troubled kids. I really believe that. So this project will be the first one of its kind in the US – as far as I’m aware. Ten years ago there weren’t any jiu-jitsu schools in New Jersey at all, but now the art has spread all over, and I think it’s time for us to give something back. The time is right.

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Let’s take it back. What was most memorable about your first competition?

KS: Well, I was mostly trying not get killed (laughs). I think I just went balls to the wall, and put full pressure. Somehow I managed to reach the semi-finals, and Fabio Clemente was on the sidelines screaming: “Kevin, now RELAX, CHILL-OUT and BREATHE!” That was so strange… In wrestling you always go full blast and never, ever take it easy. And now I was being told to actually RELAX during a match!? It was funny to experience the contrast between the Brazilian and the American philosophy in competitive sports.

One says: give it your all and push like crazy. The other says: relax, be patient, and conserve your energy. If a wrestler loses an important match he throws off his headgear, runs off the mat, and needs to be put on suicide watch. What struck me most about the many jiu-jitsu champions I met along the way is that they genuinely seemed to value the quality of their art over the win. It’s been a beautiful learning experience for me. I stopped worrying about the results and started to appreciate being in the moment.

Which competition are you most proud of?

KS: In 2007, the Worlds were being held in the US for the first time, and I made it to the finals of the adult brown belt division. I had just gotten promoted just two months before that, so when I signed up I thought: “Well, I’ll probably lose, so I’ll go there just to test the waters. Next year I’ll train properly and take it more seriously.” I had no expectations whatsoever. But when I got there, I figured: “What the hell, why not just go for it?” The Alliance coaches told me that I had to make way for two more established brown belts because they had more seniority and a good chance of winning. My normal weight was 185 lbs, but they asked me to compete in the 220 lbs division… 

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That’s crazy!

KS: Yeah, so there I was, a fresh brown belt fighting up two weight classes. Anyway, I went for it. I won seven matches and made it to the finals. Surely, in the finals I got armbarred by a monster – his name escapes me now. They gave him his black belt on the podium. Anyway, I really enjoyed being there and doing so well. It was one of the proudest moments in my journey. It also turned out to be my last time competing at the Worlds. Shortly after that I ended up having kids and life got in the way. I haven’t been back since.

You promoted Nelson Puentes to black belt. Do you have any embarrassing stories to tell?

KS: First off, the big panda was once little panda – a skinny 160 lbs cub. When he first showed up as a blue belt he didn’t know much, but his commitment to the art was remarkable. He really studied the game. At a certain point, I realized he actually knew a lot more than me, but he didn’t have the confidence to apply any of it. He would lose in the first round all the time. I remember telling him not to get discouraged: “This is actually a great thing!” To break that spiral, we set a specific goal of him having to LOSE eight matches the coming year. That way, he wouldn’t worry so much about going up against the toughest guys, and he would just go after them.

That sounds like a great jedi mind trick…

KS: Yeah, it definitely took the pressure off, and he started winning matches here and there. It freed him up and he finally found his rhythm. After he got more confident, we created a new goal: try to make your jiu-jitsu as beautiful as possible. And that became a new challenge. I would constantly set up these specific goals for him – as I do with all my students. Jiu-jitsu provides an ongoing challenge of being better. It’s a path you walk together with other people, and that translates to all aspects of life.

What is the main thing you’ve learned in all these years practicing the art?

KS: Being in the moment and truly enjoying it and letting go of your attachment to results. Tim Ferriss says that his current goals are to do things that are both beautiful and pointless. I fully agree.

Kevin Sheridan runs in Vauxhall (NJ). Follow him on Instagram @ksheridanbjj

Daniël Bertina is a writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram @ashiorigami