Meet the Pandas – Steve Pachon – From Pole-Vaulter to Omoplata Guy

To be part of the Panda Nation you don’t have to be a medal chaser, like sambo wizard Reilly Bodycomb – whom we spoke to last time. Some of our sponsored athletes are regular folks with day jobs, who use jiu-jitsu to better themselves. Like Steve Pachon, creator of the iconic Inverted Gear panda.

A little over five years ago, purple belt Steve Pachon (31) barely made it through the warm-up of his first jiu-jitsu class, taught by his high school friend Nelson Puentes. But he stuck with it. Not only did he keep training, he was also a contributor to the rise of Inverted Gear – designing the awesome panda logo and the first batches of shirts and gis.

How did you find jiu-jitsu?

Steve Pachon: I remember being a little kid and watching the first couple of UFC’s with my family. I thought: what the hell is going on there? Years later I realized what that particular style was. The more I found out, the more I wanted to learn. But I was very concerned about finding a school that was right for me. I went to a few places and encountered a range of different attitudes. It was just hard to find a teacher I felt comfortable with, you know? Especially around these parts there are a lot of MMA schools with a roughneck attitude.

Where did you end up?

SP: It was a small school in a small town in central Jersey called North Plainfield Fight Club, under the Alliance flag. Nelson Puentes was teaching there; I think he was a purple belt. Funny thing is that I actually went to high-school with him. I was a senior, and he might have been a freshman or sophomore. As a matter of fact, we were on the pole-vaulting team together. I kid you not. He wasn’t always as big as he is now – Nelson was a once skinny guy. When we graduated we went our separate ways, and I had no idea he’d gotten sucked into the black hole of jiu-jitsu. So when I popped my head around the door and I saw Nelson teaching, we immediately picked it up. It was like we’d never lost touch. I signed up right away and never looked back.

What can you remember about your first class?

SP: One word: intensity. I was quite heavy at the time, around 230 pounds. So just the warm-up nearly ended me. It felt absolutely insane. There were so many people on the mat, I’d say about 95% of them were white belts, and nobody had any idea about what the hell was going on. Everyone was bright red, sweating, and dead tired. That was just the warm-up. It was extremely intense but I loved it. Of all the people in that first class only me and one other guy, Big Paul Mendes, kind of survived that initial first day and stuck around. We went up the ranks together as training buddies. But yeah, that first class was both terrifying and the best thing ever.

So you think you have to be crazy to stick with it?

SP: Definitely. You have to like a masochist that loves the pain, and then cries out for more. But it’s all worth it. I got about four stripes on my purple belt now. It’s a beautiful thing.

Tell us about the birth of the Inverted Gear Panda

SP: Well, I’d done a fair share of drawing growing up, and I went to school for graphic design. But I wasn’t really the school type. Don’t get me wrong - I always loved making art, but for me it was more of a hobby. The idea for the Inverted Gear panda originated because Nelson was completely obsessed with going inverted. He looked up to Roberto ‘Roleta’ Magalhaes, and all those guys developing the inversion game. The first ideas for a logo were actually Nelson himself going upside down. But it didn’t really translate so well. So instead we were throwing around the thought of using a funny animal, like a panda.

At first Nelson was kind of apprehensive but he warmed up to the idea. I remember we made up a few shirts for the students because we were going to a tournament. It was an inverted panda with Nelson Puentes Jiu Jitsu written above it. I think it was done in one night, messing around with a couple of ideas on my dad’s old computer. Well… Everybody wanted that shirt; it got a lot of response. I guess that’s when it clicked: ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got something here’. Then we designed a few t-shirts and the first batches of gis. It was never a super serious thing. After training on Thursday nights we would get together at his house with a few guys, have pizza, and talk about the designs. We were like a brain trust, kicking around ideas that people would be interested in. It all went naturally.

What was a role of the mysterious panda guard in all this?

SP: (Laughs) That’s one of Nelson’s special techniques. He would always talk it up like some sort of super-secret ninja move: ‘Dude, beware of the panda guard, you can’t get stuck in the panda guard’. It was basically a shin-in type of thing he was messing around with. The whole panda idea just stood for the type of jiu-jitsu that he promotes, and that has been passed on to all of us. A ‘just-have-fun-with-it’-type of jiu-jitsu.

Do you work as a graphic designer right now?

SP: Not at all. I’m a plumber and HVAC technician. I still draw occasionally, but I never went a hundred percent into it. For me, art was an outlet. I didn’t really want to deal with deadlines and serious stuff like that. It has to come naturally. For me, art and jiu-jitsu keep me sane. I work 60-70 hours a week, so I can only make it to class a few times a week, but I make those sessions count. Every roll and every minute in class is now that much more important to me, you know? If I didn’t have that release I would probably go crazy. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.

What was the hardest thing to learn about jiu-jitsu?

SP: Oh man. Everything. I’ve been training for five years, and I feel that just now I’m beginning to scratch the surface. I’m finally starting to build a diverse game. I guess right now the hardest thing for me is to not be so stuck in my A-game, which is the omoplata. I’ve been working on that game for so long that it’s kind of a trap. It’s ingrained in my system. I love and hate it at the same time. So the big challenge now is to move away from just being ‘That Omoplata Guy’. Sometimes you have to start all over again.

Do you enjoy competing?

SP: I’d like to compete more now that I’m comfortable in my game. But I often lose on points. I guess that has something to do with my instructor Andrew, who relentlessly beat me up for many years. Andrew doesn’t really believe in the points thing; he just hunts for submissions. So now, whenever I roll, it’s kamikaze style. I put myself in bad positions, I don’t get stressed out, and I look for ways to submit the guy later on. I guess that’s not the best competition strategy, but that’s okay. People have different goals in the art. I look at the overall picture: I train to better myself and to be happy.

What do you get out of all this?

SP: I’d say: mental stimulation. It’s fascinating what jiu-jitsu does to your mind. You feel invincible when confronting any obstacle that comes your way. It gives you fantastic problem-solving skills. Without even thinking about trying to solve the problem, it often just instantly happens. In life, I relate everything to jiu-jitsu. Something’s hard at work? I just think: ‘Well, yesterday I survived five minutes with Nelson, Greg or Dave. You know what, this isn’t that bad. I’ve had a monster trying to destroy me, and I’m still here today.’

It’s fascinating. I also love the physical aspect, even when I’m sore I feel great. And lastly, the comradery is something very special. The people I share the mat with, I love ‘em like brothers. Like my first instructor Nelson, and the guys I train with at Maximum Athletics: my instructors David Phimsipasom and Andrew Silber. And or course my first training buddy, Big Paul. Of all those people at the beginning we’re the only two left. Just me and him. Before, we were the nail, now we’re the hammer – sort of.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned on the mat?

SP: Never give up. Whenever my instructors showed me a new move I usually sucked at it. But I always told them: ‘I’m going to eat s**t until it works’. And I would just constantly attack, attack and attack. And then all of a sudden the move started working! So now I tell the new white belts: ‘Find a move you like and follow it all the way through. Just keep trying, and eat s**t until it works – because it will.

Steve Pachon trains at Maximum Athletics in Dunellen, New Jersey. Follow him on Instagram at @stevepachon.

Daniël Bertina is a journalist and writer based in the Netherlands. He holds a black belt in BJJ under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @joyofirony.