Meet the Pandas – From YouTube to Paramount – Phil Mento

In the previous edition of Meet the Pandas, we introduced Chris Ulbricht of Garden State Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, black belt in jedi mind tricks. In this chapter, we talk to purple belt Phil Mento: guardeiro, part-time longboarder, and King of Pull-Ups.

Purple belt Phil Mento (25) used jiu-jitsu to overcome his shyness and lack of confidence. After being bullied for years, he discovered the art on YouTube and found his way to the BJJ mat. Under the tutelage of his instructor Brad Court of Paramount BJJ, Phil became a fanatic medal chaser and dedicated instructor.

So Phil, you’re nursing a foot injury. You don’t like to tap?

Phil Mento: Well, kind of. I fought in the New York Open. I got footlocked. I was in a single leg X-Guard, and I made the mistake of insisting on the pass before clearing the foot. Long story short, I thought I had more time to defend, but my foot cracked right away. It happens. The other guy did what he had to do. I realized I’d made a technical error, and he was sharp and capitalized. But yeah, I hate losing. I don’t train for second place. Anyway, no excuses. I’m going to get right back to it and keep training for the next opportunity.

Can you take us back to your first competition?

PM: It was at a Grapplers Quest in New Jersey. I was extremely nervous because I’d never competed in any type of one-on-one sports before. So in my first No-Gi match ever, I got a double underhook clinch from the feet, and I managed to pull the guy on top of me. Right into the mount. Yeah, that was dumb. My instructor Brad Court still teases me about that, but it was great learning experience and a lot of fun.

How old where you when this happened?

PM: I think I was turning 19. Even though I pulled mount, I was hooked right away. I think it’s important to go out of your comfort zone. You learn so much from competition; it’s priceless. After that tournament I got really obsessed and started training four, five times a week, and I never stopped. 

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Why did you start training in the first place?

PM: Well, I was picked on a lot when I was younger. I was always a very shy, quiet person. So when I got older I wanted to learn how to defend myself. I’d been fascinated by jiu-jitsu for a long time. It’s a funny story. My younger brother used to watch techniques on YouTube before we got any formal instruction. We would just wrestle around like idiots and try to crush each other. I think he actually put me in a triangle choke one time, by accident. Finally, my high school gym teacher referred me to the academy where I train and teach at now: Paramount BJJ. I’ve been there ever since. My instructor Brad is a third degree black belt and an amazing, very technical teacher. I started my journey there, and I’ll be with him forever.

What do you remember about your first class?

PM: It was a no-gi advanced class. Being a total beginner, that sounds like a recipe for disaster. But I showed up and Brad encouraged me to just jump in, to experience the art full force. Somehow I thought that having wrestled with my brother would help me a bit – man, I got submitted over and over and over. It was amazing. I never looked back.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

PM: As a white belt, I won the Nationals, and that was a big confidence booster. So far I haven’t won Pan-Ams or Worlds yet. That’s something I’m working on, but at blue and purple I’ve won a lot of local stuff, like the Boston Open at blue belt, and Newbreed, Grapplers Quest and US Grappling. At purple belt, I also won the Boston Open and a bunch of advanced no-gi divisions. Just recently I won both gi and no-gi at Newbreed. I try to compete as much as I can. Win or lose, I always try to learn from the experience.

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 What were your biggest hurdles in learning jiu-jitsu?

PM: When I started, I would get super obsessed with a certain move, and I would force it in training, but that never worked. I had the realization that when the move’s not there, it’s not there. You have to learn to create opportunities and then capitalize. That was huge. Another difficult thing was finding techniques for my body type, and then combining those into systems. Lastly, I took me a long time to really believe in my jiu-jitsu. Sometimes I got so discouraged after a loss, that I would try to switch up my entire game. But that’s the wrong approach. Losing just means that certain details have to be fixed and modified.

Were you drawn to the sport or the self-defense aspect?

PM: Originally I wanted to learn the art for self-defense, but within a month I realized just how much people at my school were competing. And I jumped into that scene. Competition is what really motivated me to learn more. But I like to drill a few self-defense techniques at least once a week, like basic guard work against a striking opponent or standing clinches and takedowns. I have the opportunity to teach kids, and that’s the sort of stuff I show them. It keeps me sharp, and it keeps my techniques simple and effective. I think it’s good to have an understanding of different aspects of the art. Even if you’re just into the sport, I think you should know how to deal with an opponent trying to punch you in the face.

Do you balance out your training with other activities?

PM: I’m really big on calisthetics. Having the strength and coordination to move your own body is very important for jiu-jitsu. So I’m a big fan of push-ups, pull-ups, dips and bodyweight squats. They’re all very basic exercises. I rarely touch weights. If I do, it’s just lightweight deadlifts – that’s about it. Furthermore, I jump rope and run a few times a week. I like doing sprints and trail running. Those are all nice additions to the conditioning you do on the mat. And for relaxation? I do a bit of longboard skateboarding. I live in a part of Pennsylvania with a lot of Amish, cornfields and open roads. It’s easy for me to go out, find a hill, and skate down. And I love hiking and being outdoors. It’s a nice way to clear your head and to get away from the sweaty mats. 

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 How do you get into teaching?

PM: My instructor was looking for some help with the kids classes, so he asked me. I think that I had the wrong approach at first. I would see it as a job, instead of a great opportunity to give something back. But I quickly fell in love with it. I really enjoy helping those kids, because the art works wonders for the mind and body. I’ve been teaching for four years, and I work at the academy full-time now. I’m very blessed that I can dedicate my life to something like this. I just enjoy each moment and realize my impact as an instructor. I feel I’m giving back way more than just knowledge on how to fight.

You got into the art because you were bullied. How did jiu-jitsu change your life for the better?

PM: Man, it’s changed my life. It’s given my way more confidence, but at the same time it has kept me humble. The knowledge that you’re able to defend yourself and to protect others, it shows in the way you talk to people and how you carry yourself. The art has helped me tremendously. Because I was so shy, the art also gave me something to get excited about. It was an outlet for my creativity, and it became a way to express myself. I learned to speak through my jiu-jitsu.

Did you ever confront the people that gave you such a hard time? Maybe wristlock them?

PM: Actually a couple of months ago I was out with some friends, and I bumped into a guy who was kind of a bully in high school. I try not to let things from my childhood carry over into my adult life, but it was neat to see him again after those bad experiences. I had the confidence to talk to him and to address the past. We straightened things out, and we’re okay now. It was pretty awesome. He was really cool about it. One thing’s for sure, I’ll never be bullied again.

When did you realize you’d be doing this professionally?

PM: It’s a strange story. Prior to me starting jiu-jitsu I graduated and I started going to a community college to study kinesiology. At the time, I had the idea of becoming a personal trainer – at least I thought I did. One day, while I was sitting in class, things just didn’t feel right. I realized: “This is not where my heart is. I have one life and I don’t want to settle.” I talked to my parents and explained that I really wanted to try out that jiu-jitsu stuff. I had only seen it on YouTube, and hadn’t even stepped on the mat yet. But I knew it would change my life, I kid you not. I started to train. Within six months I entered my first competition, and after about two years of training I won the Nationals at white belt. That’s when it all clicked. I was sure I wanted to pursue BJJ for life. My parents have always been supportive, but it was odd. I was the first in the family to choose martial arts as a career. Thankfully, they told me that if I’d work hard and stayed humble they would support me all the way. And they did. 

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 What is it about the art that fascinates you?

PM: Man, where do I begin? First thing is the competition, getting better and pushing myself. It forces me to try to understand all the nuances of the game. I’m trying to be the best in the world at my belt level every year. Then there’s the mental benefit. You’re constantly learning in a positive environment with friends. At the same time, you also learn to deal with adversity. Jiu-jitsu gives you so much mental toughness, focus and discipline. It’s changed my life. It’s been the best things that’s ever happened to me. And I love teaching. It motivates me to want to train harder.

If you could change one thing about jiu-jitsu. What would it be?

PM: When it comes to the rules, I would like to see heel hooks allowed in IBJJF No-Gi competitions. Some of the best grapplers in the world don’t compete in those tournaments right now, because they’re not allowed to use their specialty. I’d like that to change. But more importantly, I wish different schools could somehow join forces, so we can teach the art to a much larger group of children. I think that would solve many, many bullying issues. Believe me, I’ve been there. And jiu-jitsu has helped me overcome a lot.

Phil Mento teaches at Paramount BJJ ( Follow him on Instagram @philmentojr

Daniël Bertina is a journalist, writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony