Meet the Pandas – ‘Dive In Head First, Ask Questions Later’- David Phimsipasom

As we continue our series Meet the Pandas, we focus on the many awesome people that make up the Panda Nation. Last episode was devoted to Phil Mento of Paramount BJJ. Now we introduce David Phimsipasom: black belt instructor at Maximum Athletics (Dunellen, NJ), human energizer bunny, tennis pro, and Tour de France-enthusiast.

If it weren’t for David Phimsipasom (29), Inverted Gear wouldn’t exist. David got his childhood friend Nelson Puentes to join the wrestling team, and a few years later they started their BJJ journey together. The rest is history. Being a supercharged and hyperactive person, David used jiu-jitsu to calm himself down and develop a sense of patience in life.

Are you the world’s only instructor teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and tennis?

David Phimsipasom: Well, I guess (laughs). There probably aren’t that many of us around. My dad was really into tennis, and he got me involved with that sport at a young age. So, I kept it up. I teach tennis privates at the local country clubs and a kid’s team at a private school. Besides that, I teach about nine regular BJJ classes at Maximum Athletics, so I’m pretty busy. But I’ll tell you, teaching jiu-jitsu is definitely easier than teaching tennis at a country club – it’s much less formal. I guess I’m a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to sports. I started with tennis, then it was football, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu. Recently I’ve gotten really obsessed with cycling. I’m just a super high-energy guy.

Did you train in other martial arts before discovering jiu-jitsu?

DP: Nope, but I’ve always loved one-on-one competition, especially sports that have both an individual and a team-bonding aspect. That’s what appeals to me in wrestling and jiu-jitsu. You can’t do those arts by yourself. You need a team for sparring, drilling, and motivation. I find something similar in cycling. I love the soloist time-trial aspect – when you have to race against the clock alone, but I love training together with other riders.

With all due respect, isn’t cycling the most boring sport in the world?

DP: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess it is! But riding alone gives you a lot to think about. Because I spend a lot of time doing jiu-jitsu, I needed another hobby to keep myself levelled. I was looking for a different way to expend all my energy, to get that release, that natural high. Cycling is one of those ways. I love just levelling up in everything I do. The more I train, the more I can feel myself getting a little bit faster. It’s fun hitting those mini-achievements. Just like when you feel your armbars getting tighter in jiu-jitsu. So, I started off slow with 10 or 20 mile rides. But cycling is really addictive: before you know it you’re doing 100 mile rides, and everyone thinks you’re crazy.

I hear you’re the guy who got Nelson involved with both wrestling and BJJ?

DP: Yeah. We’ve been friends since we were about 13 years old. We played football together, and in middle school one of the coaches asked me to join the wrestling team. So of course, I tried to get my tight-knit group of friends to join the fun. Nelson was one of them. Wrestling season started right after football season, so the switch was easy for both of us.

One night, at around 3 in the morning, I had the feeling I wanted to try something else besides wrestling. I got behind the computer to watch a video of a wrestling tournament, but I stumbled onto that jiu-jitsu stuff – I think it was a Grapplers Quest highlight. It was so weird. I saw a guy butt-scooting around and choking everyone out with triangles (he turned out to be Ryan Hall). So I started watching all of his videos, and I was fascinated. It was so cool to watch him submit people from his back.

Had you heard of BJJ before?

DP: Yes, but I think it was hidden in the back of my mind. I used to go to club wrestling for extra training, and after class some of the guys would practice submissions. This was right when the UFC was getting big. But for some odd reason I never really paid attention to it. Anyway, as soon as I realized that there was a point system to that stuff, I figured: “Hey, I can do that!” So I called Nelson right after – this was in the dark of night, and he actually picked up his phone.

I told him: “Nelson, let’s compete in that Grapplers Quest thing!” He was right with me, but we had to get at bit of training in. Nelson knew a guy named Dave Ellis who was a high level judoka and BJJ brown belt (if I remember correctly). Dave taught both judo and jiu-jitsu at the Cranford Judo Club. We went down there, got some basic instruction, and that was that. After roughly two weeks of training we entered our first submission grappling tournament ever.

You competed after just two weeks of training? That’s crazy!

DP: Yeah, I was hoping my wrestling would be enough to pull through. We both did well. I did two matches, and in the finals I was stuck in a guillotine for five minutes. I had no idea how to get out, so after that I realized: “Man, I have to learn more of this stuff.” I have no idea how I actually won my matches, probably by takedown or crazy scrambles. In any case, we both got super into it. After a while we both went our separate ways because I moved away for college, but jiu-jitsu kept us connected.

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Give us a rundown of your training history.

DP: I got my start with Dave Ellis. Then I went to college and trained at a Royler Gracie/David Adiv school for about eight months. I got my blue belt there. Then I transferred and went up north to another college. That’s where I met André ‘Gigueto’ Soares of Carlson Gracie/Brazilian Top Team lineage and I trained under him for about 3 years, off and on. When I finished my degree in Recreation Administration I moved back and hooked up with Nelson again, who introduced me to Kevin Sheridan – who’s under Alliance. I’ve been with them ever since. When I finally got promoted to black belt, it was Nelson who tied the belt around my waist, with the blessing of Kevin, who had to talk to Fabio Clemente in New York to make it all happen. So that’s my official lineage. But I like to tell people that Nelson the Big Panda gave me my belt. He’s like my big brother.

Was it easy to learn jiu-jitsu as a wrestler?

DP: I guess so. The attributes you develop through wrestling make it really easy to just start ‘playing the game’. Wrestlers are forced to become really good at sticking to a simple set of rules, in order to score points. They’re highly coachable. So, you can take any wrestler and tell them: “Okay, now get around that guy’s legs!” And that wrestler will find a way to pass the guard by any means necessary. He might use the worst technique in grappling history, but he’ll be super good at accomplishing those specific goals. That go-mentality is instilled on the first day and honed in every wrestling practice. Later on, it’s easy to fill the gaps of knowledge with specific techniques. That sort of refinement kicks in naturally. So yeah, I got the hang of it quickly. I think the best way to learn any skill is: dive in headfirst, ask questions later.

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How did you deal with the gi?

DP: I’m always open to learning new stuff. After getting lapel-choked and yanked all over the place, I was quick to adopt the gripping game. I just thought it was a cool new challenge. Being a smaller guy, I also loved fighting off my back – which is a no-no in wrestling. A whole new world opened up. No, it wasn’t too hard to make the transition to the gi. Although my hands and fingers did burn for a while.

When did you start to take BJJ training seriously?

DP: That’s a tough one. I guess right before I got my purple belt, around 2011. Nelson, me and my buddy Andrew decided to enter the Worlds. We really wanted to do it the right way and train hard. I was never a full-time BJJ guy, but I did manage to train every day to prepare for that tournament. I also became an instructor at purple belt. Nelson used to teach at Maximum Athletics before he left on his Inverted Gear Panda Adventures. He asked me if I wanted to step in. My first thought was: “Hell no!” Becoming a teacher had never crossed my mind. But he saw something in me. I tried it out and loved it.

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How has teaching influenced your jiu-jitsu?

DP: I had to slow everything down, and I realized I couldn’t teach all the super advanced stuff I wanted to. At first my students were getting smashed constantly, because they tried to copy my crazy moves. But that was the wrong approach, it was my fault they were suffering. I had to learn to rewind and crunch down on basics, and that also deepened my own understanding of the art.

What are your thoughts about competition?

DP: I haven’t competed since brown belt, and I’ve been a black belt for about 2 years now. Even though I took a step back from the scene and got obsessed with cycling, I kept training hard with my friends and students. It’s not like I walked away from the art completely. Now I’m slowly starting to get the itch again. See, my goal was never to win every competition out there. I always had small goals in jiu-jitsu, and I’m happy with the way things worked out.

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Which tournament win are you most proud of?

DP: Definitely when I won the ADCC Nationals in New York as a brown belt. I was a bit unsure about my ability when I first got promoted from purple to brown. That year I entered a bunch of tournaments and I trained really hard. I won matches here and there, but I wasn’t consistent – it was a wild rollercoaster of wins and losses. So it took about five tournaments until I finally won one. My personal goal was to just win ONE tournament at brown belt. It was hard work, nothing happened overnight.

Can you describe the evolution of your game?

DP: I’ve always been an open guard player. From blue until brown belt I was obsessed with spider, lasso and X-guard. I was hitting the same sweep on everyone. When I got my black belt, it was time for me to re-learn jiu-jitsu. I started exploring positions I wasn’t comfortable with, like deep half guard. I started to ask upper belts what they liked to do in those spots. Just trying to incorporate new movements. I love to pick Nelson’s brain because he’s exposed to a lot of different styles, thanks to his travels. I think I just opened up my game because I wasn’t competing anymore, so I didn’t have to focus on a narrow competition gameplan. I became a lot more well-rounded.

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What was your biggest hurdle between belts?

DP: Honestly, for me it was the jump from blue to purple. I had my blue belt for 4 years because I was moving around a lot, and I was both winning and losing often. I got really hung up on constantly measuring myself against others. But that’s a stupid way to gauge your progress. I had to get over my fear of not being good enough. Once I did that, my game clicked. It was a mental thing, it was all in my head.

What have you learned in jiu-jitsu and applied to your life?

DP: One word: patience. I always do several things at the same time, and I’m naturally on a high gear, rushing through everything as fast as I can. I’ve always had to deal with the fact that I was overlooking important details. Well, I learned to be patient on the mat, and I’ve taken that approach to my life. Jiu-jitsu taught me to take a step back and slow down, so I could make more clear-headed decisions.

What has made you to stick with jiu-jitsu after all these years?

DP: I think it changes over time. Before it was about me bettering myself – little by little. As the years went on, I got the opportunity to teach and I created a new goal: getting my students better. Now it’s not about ME anymore, it’s about THEM. I love giving back to the art, that’s my main drive right now.

David Phimsipasom teaches at Maximum Athletics in Dunellen, NJ. Follow him on Instagram @dave.phim

Daniël Bertina is a journalist & writer based in The Netherlands. He’s also a 1st degree black belt under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram: @joyofirony