The Panda Nation is truly international. In the last episode of Meet the Pandas we spoke to Halldór Logi Valsson, hailing from the north of frostbitten Iceland. Now we’d like to introduce the first British Panda, David ‘Morcegão’ George: a first degree black belt under legendary master Ricardo De La Riva, Luta Livre brown belt under Milton Vieira, all-round grappling savant, and master of the uncanny selfie.
From a young age David George excelled at the most British of all sports: cricket and football. After getting attacked by a group of drunk idiots in his late teens, he discovered the grappling arts. Using his scientific background and training in education, David quickly became a prolific competitor and driven instructor, progressing from blue to black belt in just four years.
You’re a 6 foot 4 behemoth, and I’ve seen you jump guard. That’s scary.
David George: “Ah, I guess you’re referring to that NAGA match from last year that I just posted online? If you notice my foot is completely bandaged up. A Danish guy, Kasper Larsen, cracked my foot with a brutal heelhook in the no-gi match earlier that day. Because I could barely stand up, I just decided to throw myself at the other guys in the gi division (laughs). It was shameful, but I guess it worked out.
How did you start training?
DG: “When I was 18 years old I went out with some friends, and some imbecile started throwing potato chips at my head. That turned into a 1 on 5 brawl in the middle of traffic. I did okay and managed to get some shots in. But I had this nagging feeling that I could’ve done better. So I went online and got on Ask Jeeves (remember that site?), and I read about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the UFC and Royce Gracie. The more I read, the more it made sense. But unfortunately there was no BJJ in my area at the time. Finally, in 2004 I had my first couple of lessons with a blue belt under Braulio Estima, who ran a small MMA class at Nottingham University. My first proper instructor was Lee Livingstone, who teaches in Bangkok now. Lee was a karate guy who had watched the first UFC and decided to start cross-training. He was a very good blue belt under an American instructor called Michael Jen. During one of our sparring classes at university, MMA fighter Dan Hardy just happened to drop in one day. Dan invited me to join their gym, Rough House, which I did. So right from the beginning I went all out. I trained MMA, BJJ, submission grappling and a bit of Muay Thai.
Did that street fight mess with you mentally?
DG: “I was pretty young and stupid, so I don’t think I processed it in that way. At the time I had a really bad knee injury where the cartilage would get stuck in the joint and my knee would lock up. That happened in the middle of this brawl. I guess I could have gotten badly hurt. But thankfully a police car drove by. The cops broke it up and arrested my attackers. I was just happy I didn’t get too much of a beating.”
I guess the more you learn about fighting, the more you realize the possibilities for disaster.
DG: “Yep. Do you know how many real life street fights I’ve been involved in, since I started training? Zero... Very quickly I realized I didn’t really care for the self-defense stuff. I live in the middle of England, not war-torn Mogadishu or the West Bank. Having to disarm an assailant with an AK-47 is not a daily thing for me, and I don’t hang out in shady kebab shops at 04:00 am with drunk idiots. But the sport pulled me in right away and never let me go.”
Was it easy for you to learn BJJ?
DG: “I guess. I played football and cricket at a pretty high level, and I was always naturally good at athletics. So I had a head start, because I already knew how my body worked. Also, I have a degree in chemistry and a scientific mindset, processing new information was something that came easy. As soon as I got into contact with knowledgeable teachers I got quite good, quite quick. But more importantly, from the very beginning I was putting more hours into jiu-jitsu than most. Even at university I was training every day.”
You went from blue to black belt in just four years, right?
DG: “Yeah, but I was a white belt for five years, so I’d racked up a lot of experience. When I started there were no homegrown British black belts. Even getting a blue belt seemed impossible, so I just committed myself to training like a madman. I never gave a sh#t about tapping out – every tap was a valuable lesson. Furthermore, I always tried to apply new techniques in sparring against a resisting opponents, instead of just drilling them like a robot. Another helpful training trick was giving up bad positions and working on my escapes. I still try to learn something from every roll.”
Run us through your belts.
DG: “I went to Brazil in 2009 and I stayed there for the first half of the year. I trained at Brazilian Top Team, but they obviously wouldn’t promote me because I was just a visiting gringo. When I returned to the UK I did a bit of training with a purple belt under Lucio Rodrigues (a.k.a. ‘Lagarto’). But it all became a bit silly. When I fought at the Bristol Open I ran through everyone at white belt. I had twelve fights and submitted everyone. I only lost the finals of the absolute, when I was matched up with the wrestling coach of London Shootfighters, who beat me by advantage. So the purple belt I trained with had a word with Lagarto. He was supposed to promote me at a seminar, but I guess Lagarto was on Brazilian time and he missed his train. One of his students, Ben Poppleton, then gave me the blue belt on Lagarto’s behalf.”
How did you end up training under Ricardo de la Riva?
DG: “After getting my blue I trained at Gracie Barra Birmingham for about four months. One of the coaches was Victor Estima, and he was going to start a school in Mansfield – which was an easier commute for me. So I went along and became one of his main training partners. I also taught some kids classes and helped out with the gym. Victor promoted me to purple belt. I made a few trips to Brazil during that time, and through my friend Paul McVeigh I ended up at Ricardo De La Riva’s school. I immediately fell in love with that place. Whenever I told Victor that I was going to train at De La Riva’s in Brazil, he would say to me: “Don’t show them anything!!!” That’s pretty funny in retrospect. What on earth was I going to show a 6th degree black belt? Long story short, Victor and I had an ugly falling out. After the dust settled I asked De La Riva if I could represent him, and he agreed. He gave me my brown, black and first degree.”
De la Riva seems to be the only BJJ teacher without enemies.
DG: “Everyone loves De La Riva. He’s just an excellent human being. He would always help me out, because he saw how committed I was. And he never tried to push me to do private classes, or did shady upselling of any kind. He’s just a straight shooter, not a snake like other black belts we know (laughs).”
What was your most memorable thrashing in Brazil?
DG: “Two ass-kickings really stand out. The first one was when I rolled with Rousimar ‘Toquinho’ Palhares at BTT. I was still a white belt. Dude just teleported to my back and killed me effortlessly. For a big man he moved like a ghost. One time I had a lucky triangle halfway locked in, and he just picked me up OVER his head and held me there. I expected the Piledriver of Death, and I had visions of being sent back to the UK in a coffin. But he just laughed and shook me off gently, passed my guard and armbarred me in seconds. Toquinho has a scary reputation, but he’s super friendly. Just don’t get into a prizefight with him.”
And the other?
DG: “The other memorable beat-down was by a guy named Maurinho from De La Riva’s. He’s a fourth degree black belt, the same generation as the Nogueira brothers. A 100 kilogram beast. Let me tell you. I have trained with him many times over the last eight years, and I’ve never even been able to score a point on him. Whenever I start in his closed guard, I get swept and killed. If he starts in mine, he smashes my guard to bits and wrecks me just as easily. The man is pure evil. He plays with me like a child.”
You’re also a Luta Livre brown belt. How did that happen?
DG: “When I trained at BTT, they brought a few Luta Livre teachers over to help develop their no-gi game. It’s not very well known outside of Brazil, but in the nineties a lot of MMA teams hired LL black belts to come in and exchange ideas. There was a big crossover. One of the guys I developed a good friendship with was Milton Vieira. He came from the LL lineage of master Jefferson Oliveira Pereira, a.k.a. mestre JOP – his school was especially known for their sophisticated armbars and arm-triangles. When Milton opened up his own school, Rio Fighters, I joined him there. Last year I got my Luta Livre brown belt under him. Yeah, I got graded straight to brown, because I came in with a lot of grappling experience.”
Can you name some of the differences between BJJ and LL, aside from the fact that one uses the kimono?
DG: “That’s very hard to tell. I’ve been going to Brazil since 2009 and the crossover was already embedded when I got there. It’s all just grappling to me, with or without a kimono. When I trained with Luta Livre legend Eugenio Tadeu and his students, one thing I did notice was they don’t accept guard unless they absolutely had to. Whenever they end up on bottom, they reverse quickly and wrestle their way up to their feet to establish top control. I guess that’s unusual in a lot of BJJ schools.”
Your Brazilian nickname is Morcegão (bat). What’s up with that?
DG: “Milton started calling me Morcegão, because I stay up super late and I sleep during a large part of the day. It’s called delayed sleep phase disorder. I have a normal sleep cycle, but everything is shifted. So essentially I live like a bat. No, don’t have a Batman obsession.”
You’re one of the best instructors I’ve seen. How did you develop your teaching skills?
DG: “Thanks! I guess I’ve always put a lot of effort and preparation into my classes. I started teaching as a blue belt, watched tapes, took notes, and a wrote out a very structured and detailed lesson plan for each and every class. The Mario Sperry Vale Tudo tape set was my bible in all of this.”
Mario’s tapes are legendary!
DG: “Yes! The moves are still super legit and those tapes are hilarious. Furthermore, after my chemistry degree I was trained as a high school science teacher, and there I really learned how to communicate effectively. I also took a lot of teaching concepts from a UK accredited wrestling coach back at Victor’s. My style of teaching revolves around constant questioning to keep the students engaged and active, and I try to offer a conceptual overview as a sort of roadmap.”
Isn’t it weird that most traditional instructors don’t teach that way?
DG: “Yeah, I’ve met some terrible instructors who were really good at jiu-jitsu (laughs). Too many are afraid of saying: I don’t know, let’s figure it out … By asking questions you get better, together. One of my overarching goals as a teacher is to make myself redundant. I want to teach my students up to the point where they can learn for themselves. If you understand the underlying concepts, you can improvise moves on the spot.”
Why have you stuck with jiu-jitsu for all these years?
DG: “From the first time I ever did jiu-jitsu, I couldn’t see myself not doing it ever again. It’s such a cerebral sport, while engaging the physical side as well. Both worlds come together. For me, it’s ultimate test of a human being. How can I dominate and conquer another person, using only my body as a weapon? It’s endlessly fascinating. Now I’m finally at a point where I can make a living teaching this stuff. And that working out quite well. I’m happy.”
David ‘Morcegao’ George teaches in Burton on Trent, UK. Find him on www.invisiblejiujitsu.co.uk and follow him on Facebook: @invisiblejiujitsu
Daniël Bertina is a black belt and writer based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami