Meet the Pandas – PMA through BJJ – George Law
Meet the Pandas sheds light on the faces of Panda Nation. In the previous episode we introduced Charles Brissette of Kris Kim BJJ, based in Korea. Now, we focus on fresh black belt George Law of Port City BJJ, New Hampshire. Host of both The Great North East BJJ Podcast and Stray The Course Podcast, mastermind of the Tortuga Soap Company, ex-judo fanatic and PMA aficionado.
With an extensive background in judo (and being more than a little stubborn), George Law (45) had little respect for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It took years for him to finally embrace the art. But once he did, the self-betterment that the art inspires gave him the courage to improve not only his physical, but also his mental health. All through the power of having a Positive Mental Attitude.
I’m glad to notice you’re a fellow home barista!
George Law: Yeah, I got the French press going and I’m drinking out of my Darth Vader mug for added effect. I also have a personal coffee roaster to prepare my own beans. Coffee is life.
How did you find jiu-jitsu?
GL: Once upon a time I was a little kid in karate. It was your traditional karate dojo in the 1980’s, when karate was huge. I love Bruce Lee and the Ninja Turtles - all that good stuff. I guess I wanted to be a rock star and a ninja (laughs). As a teenager I picked up judo at Portsmouth Judo Club and they had an excellent programme there. At the time, I think it was the oldest martial arts club in New England. I did that off and on for years. That club was very newaza oriented, and we did a lot of matwork. If I won in tournaments, it was because was able to pin the other guy…
That’s a great base to start from.
GL: Definitely. So when the UFC 2 came around I was rooting for Remco Pardoel, the judo guy, and I hated Royce Gracie with a passion. I thought Pardoel was going to smash everybody. I was both shocked and appalled when he didn’t (laughs). At that time, where was no BJJ in Dover, New Hampshire (where I lived). I’d heard about Roberto Maia in Boston and Julio Fernandez in Vermont – both somewhat in my neck of the woods, but I was super skeptical about the art. I still thought judo was THE thing. So the years went by, and I sort of lost interest.
You fell off the wagon?
GL: Yeah, I stopped training and I moved to Colorado. Did a lot of skiing and mountain biking there. But my friends kept chirping on about the awesomeness of jiu-jitsu. As I recall, I came back here once and trained for one class, and immediately I choked a bunch of people out. Because, well, I knew some stuff. So I caught a few sneaky baseball bat chokes here and there…
And you probably thought to yourself: “Man, jiu-jitsu ain’t sh#t!”
GL: I did! (laughs) It thought it was easy! When I got back to Colorado I joined Boulder Judo Training Center and put my gi back on. Thankfully, they both had super skilled judoka there – I’m talking Olympic level, AND a BJJ programme. I also took a class at Amal Easton’s and really liked it. When we moved back to New England I figured to give BJJ another shot, and I enrolled at a local MMA school. But once I got there, I ended up liking Muay Thai at lot more – somehow BJJ couldn’t keep me interested. Well, that gym folded and everyone went their separate ways. I chose to tag along with the jiu-jitsu people and finally committed to the art. The rest is history. I got obsessed.
What was your learning curve like?
GL: For a long time I had no guard whatsoever. I was the little guy that got on top and tried to crush people. Funny enough that’s still my game: smash, hold the position, cook you, make you suffer, submit you… From the very first day I always went balls to the wall, using 100% sheer animal power. Then at one point, someone mentioned that in order to get good at jiu-jitsu, I really needed to develop an understanding of guard. Now, bear in mind I’m not the greatest listener (laughs), but somehow I took that piece of advice to heart. I started to put myself in bottom positions and began to work from there. It took a long time to get the hang of it.
What was the moment that changed your perception of the art?
GL: It was thanks to Saulo Ribeiro. We went on a trip to San Diego to visit friends, after I’d read Saulo’s book Jiu Jitsu University. That book really impressed me, so made it my mission to train with the man. I tracked him down and walked over to his academy on flip flops for miles, just to take a private with him. That was the day everything changed. I met a pure master. We started out with some Ginastica Natural, and I was blown away by that. The whole experience opened my eyes.
What else was so special about that private?
GL: Well, I’d devoured his book. And I knew that the guy was one of the greatest competitors in the sport, ever. If you’re into soccer, what’s the chance you’re ever going to hang out with a player like Ronaldo? That’s never going to happen. But Saulo was a true gentleman. He taught me a lot of stuff I still use today. He was the also first guy that I encountered that actually lived and breathed jiu-jitsu. I felt he was the embodiment of the art in all aspects of his life. A real role model.
So who became your regular teacher?
GL: I own Port City BJJ together with Jay Mansfield. He is the person who gave me my black belt, and he got his from Roberto Maia of Boston BJJ. So I did most of my training under Jay and this guy Jim Deluca. I’m also fortunate that I’ve always done a lot of travelling to find places to train, and I’ve rolled with some amazing people from all sorts of lineages. I’ve been very lucky.
How did you end up making soap?
GL: I always liked to make weird stuff. For some reason I wanted to make candles – I don’t know why, and I did some of that. Then I discovered the first line of jiu-jitsu soap from another company, but it was pretty expensive. I figured I’d be able to make better soap than that. So I did. I don’t know why I followed through, because I had no idea what I was doing. But I did some experimenting and I made it with all natural, anti-microbial, anti-fungal ingredients. To my surprise the first batch of soap was actually pretty good, and I gave some to my buddies. Then people started asking me for it, and then they actually wanted to buy it! With money (laughs).
And now it’s blown up!
GL: Yeah, my wife Amanda is the current brains of that whole operation. She took it over because she had a job that she wasn’t into, and I didn’t have enough time anyway. She turned it into this huge thing, beyond just the jiu-jitsu market. I mean, my soap smelled good but all the pieces looked the same. She turned it into works of art. She’s selling tons of it now and the business has grown every year. People seem to love it.
So you live off soap and jiu-jitsu?
CL: Well, I do a whole bunch of things. I run the academy, we have the soap company, we have two podcasts, I have a regular job as an accountant and we have a rental property in Colorado. I was always worried about making jiu-jitsu my job. I didn’t want to ruin the experience and the fun. For instance, the reason we started the Great North East BJJ Podcast is that we wanted to document the history of jiu-jitsu in the North East. It’s just a labor of love. I enjoy training and coaching, almost everything about jiu-jitsu, but I don’t want it to add stress to my life. Quincy Jones once said: “Once money enters the conversation, God leaves the room”. It changes everything. My partner in the academy also has a regular job. We just love jiu-jitsu. It’s a small place, but people come from all over to train with us. I think it’s because money is not the main reason why we do what we do.
I think that makes for a better, healthier community.
GL: I think so too. I mean, to each his own. People have to make a living. But we choose to do it this way.
I notice your Positive Mental Attitude-shirt. Are you an old hardcore kid?
GL: Kinda. I was a skater, and really into old punk rock like The Ramones, The Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat and Fugazi. I just picked up The PMA Effect, a book by John Joseph, the singer of the Cro-Mags, and he really promotes that mindset. That book got recommended to me by our mutual friend Brad Wolfson of Soulcraft BJJ. He named his school after a song by Bad Brains, the first group to started promoting the PMA mindset. Brad is my spiritual leader (laughs). No joke, dude changed my life. He really opened up my eyes on having a positive outlook and getting after it. He inspired me to travel more and meet new people. That’s also how I got hooked with Inverted Gear.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the journey so far?
GL: When I started I just wanted to kick everybody’s ass. I wanted to be tough, and jiu-jitsu gave me that skill. It became an obsession. But then there was something more. After getting my black belt, I suddenly realized that jiu-jitsu also opened up my eyes to new ways to better myself. That has led me to things like meditation and methods of self-improvement. For years jiu-jitsu was the only thing on my mind. I think that for most of my life I wasn’t very teachable, period. Maybe I wasn’t fully developed as a human being... But jiu-jitsu has taught me that you can learn from everybody. Now I learn life lessons from fresh white belts that come through the door. They might not be good at jiu-jitsu (yet), but they all have other valuable knowledge to share. For instance, I’m taking guitar lessons from one of our white belts. So now I remember what’s it like, to suck at something (laughs). It’s humbling.
What was the biggest hurdle in your development?
CL: I was always an athlete growing up, and also academically things came naturally to me. But if there was any adversity at all, I would fold. I was not a hard worker. I even wanted to quit jiu-jitsu a lot of times (laughs). Until really recently, using PMA stuff and meditation, I’ve gained the insight that you learn most by failing. I also started seeing a councilor to help me, because I think we focus too much on physical health, but we neglect the mental side. What’s wrong with training your mind as well? Working out your mental health is just as important. Nowadays, I‘m trying to learn to be grateful for the adversity in my life. All that started through jiu-jitsu.
Who do you look up to most in jiu-jitsu?
CL: Jay Mansfield, Jim Deluca and my wife Amanda. Jay and Jim have been my coaches for years and we’ve been through a lot of crazy stuff together. My wife because she’s so tiny, so she has to use perfect technique every time. And of course, she calls me out on a lot my bullsh#t (laughs).
How do you want to improve?
CL: Jay asked me the other day: what are two things you want to work on next year? I said: gratitude and service. Two things I’m not very good at (laughs). I don’t think I would’ve come to that conclusion if there hadn’t been jiu-jitsu to introduce me to all those concepts. After being promoted to black belt, I realized we’re standing on the shoulders of all these great people. There’s an unwritten code that I have to live up to. That we have to leave the world (and jiu-jitsu) better than when we found it. We have to look out for each other, like Spartans covering each other with their shields. We’re all the caretakers of jiu-jitsu. I’m trying to do that in my own way.
What keeps you coming back to the mat?
CL: It’s my home. It’s my family. It’s the hub that everything in my life revolves around. I’m more comfortable on a jiu-jitsu mat than anywhere else.
Black belt George Law runs Port City BJJ and Tortuga Soap Company. Follow him on Instagram @jorge.law
Daniël Bertina is a black belt based in The Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram @ashiorigami