Meet The Pandas -- Olympic Judo’s ‘Jiu-Jitsu Kid’ -- Ryan Lakea Vargas
Meet the Pandas sheds light on the faces of the Panda Nation. This month, we’d like you to meet Ryan Lakea Vargas. At 22, Vargas is a jiu-jitsu brown belt and judo black belt. He’ll be heading to the Olympics in 2021, competing for the USA judo team. Born in Hawaii, Vargas lives in Florida where he trains both martial arts practically around the clock, bringing a hybrid approach of his own creation to the competitive world of judo.
Ryan, welcome to Meet the Pandas. It's awesome to be able to talk to you today.
Ryan Vargas: Thank you for having me.
Really looking forward to speaking to somebody with a foot in both worlds of judo and jiu-jitsu. Before I sat down to write questions for this interview, I asked people at my school what they wanted to know. Everybody seemed to gravitate around the intersection of judo and jiu-jitsu. In my conversations, people noted again and again that in jiu-jitsu, people tend to think that if you're going to do a supplementary martial art, it should be something like wrestling. But do you think that it should be judo instead of wrestling? Why or why not?
RV: For me, coming from a judoka, I'm going to say judo. First reason: I did karate before jiu-jitsu. And my karate sensei wouldn't let me spar or fight. He just let me do katas. Then I moved to jiu-jitsu because I thought karate was not for me. In the beginning, I would enter a lot of NAGA tournaments. And in NAGA tournaments, I was getting thrown left and right by these judo kids. And I would lose to judo players, not jiu-jitsu players. I would get a lot of points with the jiu-jitsu kids, but with the judo kids I would lose because they would throw me, run away, and then they would throw me again. I had to find a way to win.
I went back to Hawaii and I told my mom I wanted to do judo because I felt that judo was similar to jiu-jitsu. It had the gi and the belt. I did wrestling, but I didn't like it because of the shoes. It didn't feel as close to jiu-jitsu as judo. Judo and jiu-jitsu are like brother and sister martial arts.
One of the biggest hang ups among jiu-jitsu grapplers about judo is that they don’t like getting thrown. They say this makes you more susceptible to injury. What has your experience been with injuries in judo, and how would you compare it to jiu-jitsu?
RV: Like every single sport, there's an injury risk. And for me, training judo and jiu-jitsu, I find more injuries with jiu-jitsu. Even my teammates find a lot of injuries in jiu-jitsu. And my thinking behind that is, every day, we're walking or standing. We're on our feet. And that's judo as well -- we're standing, most of the time. But in jiu-jitsu, we're balled up. We’re in a guard, like De la Riva or inverted guard, and we're bending backward, twisted. And I also find that there's more injuries in jiu-jitsu because there are more submissions.
If someone from a jiu-jitsu background decides to cross train in judo, should they expect any sort of crossover of skills? What would a jiu-jitsu grappler be in for if they were stepping into judo for the first time?
RV: Of course, there are going to be throws. There's no pulling guard. In jiu-jitsu, some like to pull guard. Others like to do double-legs. But if you go to a judo dojo, they're not going to teach you, exactly, double-legs and single-legs because of the IJF rules. It's illegal. But I feel that the sports are very similar. Once you go into the ne waza (ground) part, there's arm bars. There's side control. There’s mount. It's just a different set of moves.
It seems like you really like to hunt for arm bars in ne waza. It also seems like you've combined judo and jiu-jitsu into something that's your own. How have you blended the two martial arts? And how do you take that blend into judo, specifically?
RV: I love training jiu-jitsu. That's my first love. Judo is my second love. I do judo because it's an Olympic sport. Jiu-jitsu isn't. I like to implement my jiu-jitsu in judo because it's the unknown. It's the dark horse. When I throw someone, or I get someone on the floor and I start tangling my legs, doing De la Rivas on a judoka, they don't know what's happening. I'd rather fight someone with something they’re not used to.
I'm not going to double-leg a wrestler. I'm going to start doing judo. In judo, when I fight these guys from Russia, China, Albania, I'm looking for things that they're not used to, because judokas outside of America have so many more training partners and opportunities than Americans. I'm using my jiu-jitsu because jiu-jitsu is so big in America. I'm using that side of the martial art and implementing that in judo to fill that gap.
Your approach to judo generates some interesting reactions from your opponents. Some have these expressions that say, "I can't believe this is happening," or "What is this guy doing?"
RV: In the judo world, I'm known as the jiu-jitsu kid. Everyone knows me as, “OK, this guy knows jiu-jitsu. Don't go on the ground with him.” And 2017 Junior Worlds in Budapest, Hungary, me and my sensei here in Orlando were trying to figure out a way to get around the rules because obviously we can't grab the legs. But in ne waza, on the ground, you can grab the legs. So I found a way. If I pull a yoko tomoe nage, a sacrifice throw, and make it look like I'm trying to throw but really I'm a little bit pulling guard, then I could get the legs. And that's how I could do it. I think people were like, what's going on?
My competitors didn't know what to do. The coaches didn't know what to say, because no rule was preventing it. It wasn't set in stone. They were very confused. But that very next year, it became very clear that you can't touch the legs. You have to wait three seconds, or one knee has to be on the floor in order for you to touch the legs. You can't just quickly drop to the floor and then just go for a two-ankle leg pin.
They actually had to change the rules because of things that you did?
RV: I believe so. Because every single year, the IJF would get together, and they'd try to make modifications of the rules. And that next year, 2018, they made it clear that you can't pull yoko tomoe nage or sacrifice throw and quickly touch the legs. And they made it clear that you have to have one knee on the floor or your competitor has to have one knee on the floor in order for you to do a ne waza technique.
With jiu-jitsu, you have so many different rule sets. It seems like judo is far more rigid than jiu-jitsu. How do you feel about that? You're somebody who is trying to innovate and trying to advance the game. And in some ways, you're running up against this force that's preventing you.
RV: It's difficult for me. It's difficult because I'm more of a competitor who likes to create things outside of the box. I don't want to be like that normal judoka who throws everybody. And it's beautiful to see the throws, but when IJF changes the rules every single year, it's difficult and you have to just keep on creating, keep on learning new techniques, keep on finding ways to win a match. When they took away the rules for the sacrifice throw, like going into a takedown or a sweep, that gave me a hard time. But that's how I still keep on learning, keep on growing as a martial artist. It is difficult.
What do you think jiu-jitsu could learn from judo?
RV: Jiu-jitsu could learn a lot from judo. I feel that for people who do jiu-jitsu, they could learn how to be comfortable just standing on their feet. My old coaches, the Nogueira brothers, they told me personally that back in the Brazil in the old days, if you wanted to learn jiu-jitsu, you had to be a blue belt in judo before you even did jiu-jitsu, because they wanted you to have a baseline understanding of how to static throw someone with them on their back.
It wasn't like you could just enter a jiu-jitsu gym and just put on a white belt. You had to learn how to do break falls, ukemis left and right, even backward or forward -- learn how to fall. And then you learned jiu-jitsu. After you get a blue belt, then you could start doing jiu-jitsu. For me, there's a lot of things that jiu-jitsu people could learn, and also vice versa. Judokas could learn a lot from jiu-jitsu.
And honestly, coming from a perspective of doing both martial arts, I feel that judokas, I don't want to say the word "downgrade,” but they look at jiu-jitsu like, “I don't want to do it, because it's just sitting on our butts, pulling guard, and looking for submissions.” And judokas, we need the throws, throws and the submissions. But honestly, I feel that it's vice versa where judo guys could learn a lot more in the jiu-jitsu world than they think.
Based on the other interviews you've done, it sounds like you're making this run to the Olympics in 2021 and in 2024, but you're still training jiu-jitsu while this is happening. What does your training schedule look like and how are you balancing judo and jiu-jitsu?
RV: It all depends on the competitions that I do. For example, Pans IBJJF is around the corner. I'm going to be doing more jiu-jitsu. If it's a judo competition, I'll be doing more judo. But other than that, I need to have balance. If I know a jiu-jitsu competition is coming up, I'm not going to do a lot of judo. I'm going to put myself more in jiu-jitsu, more doing yoga, a little bit of strength and conditioning, but more technical techniques, working with my teammates like that.
But even if it's the 2021 Olympics, you're still going to get some jiu-jitsu reps in at some point during your training?
RV: Yes, of course, because for me jiu-jitsu helps me a lot. Judo cardio is different from jiu-jitsu cardio. Judo cardio is fast paced, like a sprint, but jiu-jitsu is more of a chess game in a way that you kind of wait, sit there and things come slowly, but they could go fast. Judo, sometimes there's stops during the match. Jiu-jitsu is just full eight-minute or 10-minute matches.
You mentioned you do some strength and conditioning and some yoga. What does your supplemental training look like other than those two things? And how much are you doing? What frequency?
RV: I usually lift weights three times a week. One of my good friends, his father, he's a professor at UCF and he helps me with strength and conditioning. He writes down what workouts I need to do. Also, my strength coach works on me with what weightlifting things I need to do, what exercises, whether it be explosiveness or just maintaining my base. I do strength and conditioning three times a week. And I try to take yoga twice. And usually, the yoga is more for recovery.
I'll be honest with you. I don't like weightlifting. I don't like yoga, because I think they're just boring. Especially yoga, it's very difficult for me, and I see that it helps immensely. The stretching physically, mentally it helps me, because being in a stretch and holding it in a pose -- you have to have everything nice and tight. You can't be thinking about anything else but that pose.
When you're not training, you're not doing jiu-jitsu, you're not doing strength and conditioning, yoga: What sorts of activities do you enjoy? Your friends call and say, "Hey, do you want to do something this weekend?" What are you going to say?
RV: I like to surf, catch waves. And then I also like to shoot guns. I'm a videographer for a couple of gun companies. So I go out with my friends and shoot some guns, just chill, something that would bring me away from the jiu-jitsu and judo world. And I feel that's healthy, because if I keep thinking about judo, jiu-jitsu and everything, I get burnt out.
What specifically about surfing and shooting do you enjoy? Is there any connection to your sports beyond needing to clear your head?
RV: When I went to Hawaii to train with all of my good friends there, I found that my friends there are really strong. They look very muscular. And I was wondering, “What training program are you on for strength and conditioning?” And they said, "No, we don't do any weightlifting." And I was like, "What do you do?" And they said they just surf all day. It works the back muscles a lot. It works the legs, balance, the core. And that's their secret of being strong. Hella strong, if you will.
So I told myself, I’ve got to surf more. I’ve got to do less like strength and conditioning and surf. But obviously, in Florida, we don't really have many waves compared to the West Coast.
With shooting, I found that it was like an art, where you couldn't just pick up a gun and shoot it. You had to pick up the gun, make sure your breathing is good, your grip is good, make sure your sights are aligned -- everything had to be just right.
And I found that it was the same thing in jiu-jitsu and judo, where you had to focus your breathing and everything. And if it was out of control, your shots wouldn't be grouped together.
The pandemic created major disappointment for Olympic athletes the world over. Take me back to the moment you found out that the Olympics were being postponed. How did that make you feel? And in general, how does that change your plans?
RV: When I heard that the 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021, I saw that as an opportunity for me to train a little bit more and get a little bit more experience. I felt that I needed that. While everyone else was like, oh man, that sucks, I was kind of quiet, because in my head I was like, all right, well think positive. Don't think negative about it. All right, I can work on this. I can work on my balance, my strength, my nutrition. I felt that I wasn't completely formed for the 2020 Olympics. I was competing a lot, but I felt like I had a lot to work on.
And I know a lot of my teammates on the USA judo team were bummed about it because I know we're all training hard. And for a lot of us, this is like our job. And honestly, USA judo or in the judo world itself doesn't pay much. And I'm constantly trying to find sponsors, trying to find help financially, just to get on the plane and to compete, because it's a lot. I already know I believe in my training. Knowing that 2021 was already set, and 2020 was canceled, I was like, all right, this is going to give me new hopes.
I heard you say in another interview that the 2024 games are really the primary goal. Why is that?
RV: For 2020, I felt I was a little bit young and a little bit new to the judo world scene. And I felt that in 2024, I will be properly developed, experienced, and a little bit more confident in myself. 2020 or 2021, I felt was pushing it. But since my goal was so high, I could always land a little bit low, and then shoot for 2024. I know if I shoot a little bit high for 2020, I'll be more than ready for 2024.
And what do you think are the things you need to work on for 2021 and beyond into 2024?
RV: I don't like lifting weights so much, but I know that I need to work on my strength base. Just going against these Europeans, they're strong, very strong. They're tall. They're unorthodox. I was relying a lot on my technique and my jiu-jitsu. And I felt that if I increased my strength, then I could hang with these guys, both technically and physically. And that's one big thing I needed to work on.
Another thing is my nutrition. I love to eat Hawaiian style -- Spam, eggs, rice, Portuguese sausage. I really need to eat a little bit more clean.
How do we grow judo in the U.S.?
RV: I feel that we need to put it in schools. If we put it in middle schools, elementary, or high school, learning about the culture of judo, coming from Japan, and the mindset of judo, it would help bring it up.
Kind of like American wrestling. Wrestling is huge here in America. You have it in high schools. Middle schools have it, but mostly high schools. In Hawaii, there's judo in high schools, and judo in Hawaii is really big. I already know that because of that, because judo is really big in Hawaii, just because of the high schools, it could be big here in the mainland. We just got to get it together.
So more of an organized approach?
RV: Yes. And also, jiu-jitsu is really big on social media. You have different brands. Different gear. People posting on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. And I feel like it's a little bit more fun because it's not strict. You could wear a camo gi if you wanted to at your gym. You could wear a red gi at your gym, if your coach allows it. You don't have to just wear blue and white. It's a little bit more loose.
Would you like to see jiu-jitsu become an Olympic sport? And why or why not? And does it ever concern you that if it does, it might become more rigid like judo?
RV: I would love to see jiu-jitsu as an Olympic sport. However, there's so many organizations and so many rule sets. I think watching a 10-minute match is boring, and from a spectator's perspective, it could be boring as well. They don't know what's happening. In judo, there's a clear winner. You can see someone getting thrown on their back or tapping out from a submission. Jiu-jitsu, sometimes they win by an advantage, and someone outside from jiu-jitsu is going to be like, "What happened?"
I think that if they get a good organization running it and they have a rule set that would be popular and easy to understand from a spectator's point of view, it could work. That's why judo has changed so much, because the IJF has tried to change it where a random person, if they watch judo, they could be interested in it. And it's fast paced, it's not long, and you see who the winner is. I would love to see jiu-jitsu in the Olympics. I would try to compete in the Olympics in jiu-jitsu.
Maybe you could do both.
RV: And that's in my head right now.
You mentioned in several interviews that faith is very important to you. How does it support you as a competitor?
RV: I feel like it is my purpose to share my faith. I'm a Christian. And I travel around the world. I see different people. I see different religions. I talk to different people. And everywhere I go, I feel that I'm just called to share my faith, to share my belief. And it's not like I'm forcing it. I'm just sharing it on the mats. I'm being the person who God wants me to be. I'm not going to be rude. I'm not going to be stuck up. And I'm just sharing it through my judo and through my jiu-jitsu on the mats and off of the mats.
And that's why really, I'm pursuing the judo, because everyone likes a winner. No one likes a loser. I've been in both dens. When I lose, nobody talks to me. No one even mentions me, but when I win, everyone is like, oh, let's talk to him. In going to the Olympics, people might ask, what's so different about this dude? And that's how I can share my faith.
How has COVID-19 affected your training?
RV: It's been very difficult, honestly. I'm kind of still living in March and April, because Florida went into lockdown during that time. And that's when I was doing a lot of construction. And my gyms were all closed. The government shut it all down, and it was very difficult. I'm still careful. Training with my close friends that I trust and that they're responsible. Without risk there's no reward. I have to keep on training now.
What does a typical day look like for you?
RV: For example, tomorrow, Friday, my typical day is waking up at 6:30 a.m. I eat a little bit of breakfast, not so much. Honestly, I don't eat breakfast. I kind of starve myself. And then I train at 7:30 to 8:30, judo. It's a judo private with me, my coach, and a teammate. After that, me and my teammate, we go down the street to his grandma's house and his grandma cooks a really good breakfast, healthy breakfast. And after that, me and my friend, we head to jiu-jitsu, and I teach a freestyle judo class from 11 to 12. And then 12 to 2, I do competition class. That's two training sessions already.
After that training, I go home. I eat lunch. I rest a little bit. Maybe I do videography work around Central Florida for real estate or my gun companies. And then I take a little nap and then I go back out to jiu-jitsu. I teach my kids judo class from 5:30 to 6:30 PM. And then after that, I go ahead and I do my jiu-jitsu again, just technical, techniques all the way until 9 PM.
How often are you doing that entire cycle?
RV: I do that five to six days a week. Sunday is my rest day.
Is there anything you do for recovery?
RV: Sometimes I do cryotherapy. But I found that you never want to do cryotherapy the day that you train. Because I did cryotherapy once and did judo the same night. I just got cramps all over. My body was tight and I had to rest for three days. Never do cryotherapy on a workout day.
Noted. And your training space is not air conditioned, right?
RV: It's a warehouse full of fans, and it's hot. One guy wanted to do a podcast interview with me, and I was like, yeah, come in. In Florida, it's humid. You can't even breathe. And he put on his gi, and he just couldn't breathe. He was already dying before our 30-second match. And that's a big thing as well. When you don't have air conditioning, your mind starts going to weird places. You’ve got to focus. It prepares for the worst of the worst.
Do you find that that gives you some resilience, though?
RV: It does. Whenever there's a visitor coming out from maybe New Jersey, I know that when it's summer, they're going to start feeling the heat as soon as we start rolling. Sometimes I use it for my advantage.
You mentioned mindset and how training in this harsh environment helps you. Is there anything else that you do specifically to train your mindset?
RV: I do a lot of things. I like to read a lot of motivational books, listen to a lot of podcasts. I like to put myself in uncomfortable positions. For example, when I'm training jiu-jitsu, before I compete, this is what I do: I tell my teammate to choke me out. And he chokes me up until the point right before I fall asleep. It warms me up and mentally too, because sometimes in a match and competition when you get arm barred or choked, sometimes you start freaking out. I found that when I get choked or arm barred by my teammate, just near where I feel a lot of pain, it helps mentally, so I could feel relaxed where I already know my pain level, if that makes sense.
Even with cryotherapy. I tell them to put it at a negative 180 degrees. And they put me in there for three minutes. And this is not just the cryotherapy where your head is out of the tank. It's the one where you're put in a huge refrigerator. And I'm in there for three minutes and I'm timing myself like it’s a match. It’s a judo match, three minutes long, right? I’m telling myself, you got this. In there, I'm moving around. I'm visualizing. I'm thinking about my techniques, my competitors, and I'm feeling my whole body and mind recover.