Meet the Pandas – Biomechanical Jiu-Jitsu with Nerd Power – Matt ‘Aesopian’ Kirtley
In this series, we shine light on the many members of the Panda Nation. Last episode we spoke to David Phimsipasom of Maximum Athletics. Now, we focus on black belt Matt ‘Aesopian’ Kirtley: computer wizard, walking BJJ encyclopedia, and unabashed Magic: The Gathering-aficionado.
Back when he was a blue belt, Matt Kirtley (32) almost broke the internet with one of the first great BJJ blogs: Aesopian BJJ, a groundbreaking resource of free online BJJ-tutorials. Ever since then, he’s been known as a highly technical and analytical instructor – who’s embraced his inner nerd.
Did you practice other martial arts before you found jiu-jitsu?
Matt Kitley: Nope. I roughhoused as a kid, but I never got any formal training. My only other contact with martial arts was when a Tae Kwon Do guy came to my school as a kid. He made us all do a horse stance, and that was it. I found jiu-jitsu years later when I started watching Pride on DVD. I got really into it and I wondered what those guys were doing (besides lots of ‘special sauce’). I loved Kazushi Sakuraba and of course the Gracies – who had that whole fighting family image going on. The old Sherdog forum also hosted a bunch of cool highlight videos of fighters set to hair metal, and I’d watch those fanatically. You’d have to download and watch them on RealPlayer. Those were the days.
Were you physically active?
MK: Not at all. I was a computer nerd, and my dad kept pushing me to get moving. Someone on the Sherdog forum recommended Eduardo de Lima’s school. It was Gracie Barra – I had no idea what that meant. But Eduardo happened to be located just 5 minutes from my house. I would drive by his place all the time, and I was oblivious. He had no signs up or anything.
From what I understand, Eduardo is one of those old-school grinders who sticks to a non-commercial approach.
MK: That’s very correct. The school I trained in for years – all the way to black belt – was just a sweaty room in the back of a warehouse complex. It had a rolling door, cement walls, no lobby, and no air conditioning—all in smothering 100 degree Florida weather. It took me a few tries to find the place because it was hidden in between a scrap metal shop and a storage place for air filters.
So you walked into a room with people simulating murder. Did you think: these people are insane?
MK: My first memory of the gym is seeing one of the purple belts catching his breath outside, right after training. It was huge guy with shoulders the size of my head, and there was steam rising off him. Class had just finished, and Eduardo appeared from behind some drywall to greet me. He was extremely welcoming. But I did think, is this the right place? For the first couple of months, I was always super nervous before training. Not because of any bad attitude, but just because I had never done anything like that: getting thrown around and squashed by strangers.
What do you remember about your first class?
MK: My sister, one of our friends, and I started on the same day. We all did the warm-up (which was intense, with a ton of calisthenics). And the intro class was getting pulled aside and being partnered up with a blue belt, in my case a skinny tall girl (who turned out to be in the sheriff’s department). She mounted me, and Eduardo asked us how I would get out without doing something nuts. Of course, I was flailing around like a fish out of water. And, of course, she would stay on top and eventually take my back. Eduardo would ask the rhetorical question: “Well, is that good or bad for you?” And then we reversed positions, and she escaped every single time. The whole point was to demonstrate how much you don’t know. Then, we learned the basic bridge escape. So, my first experience was getting beaten up by a skinny girl.
But did it appeal to your nerdiness?
MK: Eventually it did. As a beginner, you’re not able to appreciate the technical aspects. You barely know what’s going on, but I could tell there was a lot to figure out and that kept me coming back. The heat was killing me. I couldn’t finish a class for weeks. After rolling I would almost black-out, stumble back to the line, and walk right into the walls face-first.
Somewhere along the line, you started one of the first great BJJ blogs: Aesopian.com
MT: Well, I was online all the time. Like many people of my generation, I thought my opinion was worth sharing with the world, so I got active on all the jiu-jitsu message boards. Looking back, it was pretty weird to realize that some blue belt with no credentials or experience started posting so much about jiu-jitsu. But it seemed to have worked out okay. I just got a good start because there weren’t that many people training in BJJ that could also use the internet, make websites, and had a good camera.
Did you go to school for web design?
MK: I did a little bit of that in high-school, and straight after I got an apprenticeship under a web developer. I’ve been making websites and working on internet stuff for almost half of my life. I do a lot for Inverted Gear, and I help them with their marketing – along with Marshal Carper, he’s the adult in the room. I also run Artechoke Media with him.
What was the most difficult thing to learn?
MK: I’ll flip your question. As a beginner, most people have a problem with remembering all the moves. But I lucked out in that department: I was always really good at retaining all sorts of insane details. I watched every DVD out there, and I read every instructional thread. I got caught by the Blue Belt Curse, as I was constantly collecting techniques. It was a total information overload. For me, the hardest thing was to get away from that hoarder mentality. At a certain point, I realized that you don’t need a million techniques in jiu-jitsu. The goal is to create a solid core game and not to show off how many cool techniques you know.
Can you describe the biggest evolution in your game?
MK: When I started to move away from just collecting techniques, I began to focus on the biomechanical concepts that underlie the moves. When you understand how to manipulate the opponent’s spine, shoulders, and neck – to make him unable to move in a certain way, you can predict the ways he can turn. Using that biomechanical framework allows you to control the opponent and guide him into traps, and it allows for faster improvisation. That’s way more efficient method than trying to remember a specific technique for each situation. This big change happened at brown belt. Weirdly enough, I feel I knew more at purple belt – in terms of volume. But I got better at brown belt by getting rid of a lot of that stuff. Now I do just enough to get one of about four of my best positions to work.
So all roads lead to the crucifix?
MK: Yeah, that’s always been a fun position to me. As a matter of fact, I put out a crucifix instructional a while back. The crucifix as a whole is considered an advanced move – because you need good leg control and sensitivity, something that a beginner might not have. But hooking your leg around someone’s arm isn’t that complicated. If you already like taking the back and clock-choking people you have most of what you need to develop that game. Once you recognize the trigger positions there are many opportunities. Then it just expands out.
Do you compete?
MK: I’m not a very competitive person, so that was never really my thing. I think I competed once in each belt up until purple, and then just I stopped caring. Every time I would train hard for a tournament I would also get sick or injured – which sucked. When I talk to fanatic competitors they all have broken bodies, and that wasn’t really the price I was willing to pay.
Who do you try to emulate in the art?
MK: I like instructors that have a deep understanding, but don’t over-explain things. There’s a guy named Jeff Rockwell who’s also been online forever. He has released a great instructional on the sit-up escape. Jeff always posts really smart things, and I’ve stolen a lot of his techniques over the years. When it comes to teaching methodology, I really like Bruce Hoyer. He’s got a cool teaching system called the ‘flipped classroom’. When you come to class, he doesn’t actually teach anything. He’s planned and filmed all his lessons, so before class you watch your lesson online, and then you step on the mat ready to practice. All the belts work together on their own moves. It’s the ultimate systemized, technology driven, and highly individual teaching method.
What’s your home base?
MK: A fear years ago my wife and I moved up to Pennsylvania. There wasn’t really any jiu-jitsu here, maybe just a couple of MMA gyms with purple belt instructors. I would either have to open up my own school – which I didn’t feel like doing – or train with other people and I would be the most experienced guy in the room – which is okay, but not ideal. By chance, Jeremy Henderson, a brown belt from Robson Moura’s RMNU, had just moved to the same area to open up a school: Zombie BJJ. I started training with him the week his school opened. He’s now a black belt under Robson. So, we’ve trained together for four years, and as the school grew I got involved with teaching classes. I also help out with the curriculum and a few things around the school.
How has teaching BJJ changed you view of the art?
MK: It makes you consider a lot more than just you own way of doing things. I won’t name names, but back in Florida I once met a black belt who was asked to show a basic side control escape. He went blank. The only thing he could show was his own, super-fancy-attribute-based version. It’s a cliché, but as a teacher you have to focus on fundamentals. Moves that work on most people most of the time, regardless of age and physical attributes. That helped me expand my understanding of the art. It’s ironic. Back in Florida I was the ‘new move guy,’ and Eduardo made sure we were doing our basics. Now at Zombie BJJ, I have the role of old-school instructor. I make them do the technical stand-ups, the punch block series, and all that. Showing the new-school competition game is Jeremy’s thing.
There’s a beauty to how cyclical it is.
MK: Definitely. It’s funny how things revolve. What people are doing nowadays to counter the De La Riva guard and the Berimbolo is to pass really low, or drop to both knees. So what’s the solution to passing on the knees? Butterfly guard, knee shield, all those moves that sort of fell out of favor. I find great satisfaction in sticking to pure 1996 jiu-jitsu.
How has jiu-jitsu influenced your life?
MK: I try not to get too stressed out over things, but I guess that’s my general personality. Jiu-jitsu has mostly taught me a mindset of persistence. There will be always be challenges. But if you stick with it, you either figure out a way to deal with it, or the problem will solve itself. You don’t have to be a super genius. The only thing that’s required is commitment and the willingness to ask questions.
What do you do off the mat, to stay sane?
MK: Back in Florida I did a bunch of paddle boarding, bike riding, and kayaking. The last few years I’ve gotten really into Functional Range Conditioning, a joint mobility system by Dr. Andreo Spina. My friend Josh Vogel of Balance Studios turned me on to Spina’s work, and I also learned a lot about FRC from Sam Faulhaber, another black belt from Philadelphia. FRC is aimed at healing and strengthening connective tissues, and to improve your ability to control your joints. And it’s great to both speed up and guide your recovery. It’s not based on astrology or mystical stuff, but it relies on state-of-the-art science. In the long run, jiu-jitsu is just really bad for your body – if that’s all you do. A lot of combat sport athletes have very bad posture, and we constantly put stress on our bodies in weird ways. It’s very unnatural. If you were a caveman getting in this many fights a week, your family line would probably not have evolved… So yeah, I got super deep into FRC, got certified, and now I’m looking to do the next level of certifications.
What has kept you fascinated with the art?
MK: Usually, I tend to get really deep into a topic of interest for about three months, and then I jump over to the next thing. But that didn’t happen with jiu-jitsu. The art allows me to follow that super-focused-and-then-distracted pattern over and over again, on any sub-topic in the art. With jiu-jitsu I can constantly feed my ADHD, so I guess I’ll never need another hobby.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist & writer based in The Netherlands. He is a 1st degree black belt under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram: @joyofirony