Meet the Pandas – The Mighty Mexican Combat Wrestler - Javier Palomo
In Meet the Pandas we explore what drives the many members of the Panda Nation. In the previous episode we talked to professional heelhooker from hell, Jon Calestine of Renzo Gracie lineage. Now we’d like to introduce his friend (and victim on the mat), Javier Palomo: human encyclopedia of the grappling arts, host of the Grapper Union Podcast, combat wrestling world champion, and owner of the most glorious beard in Chicago.
Javier Palomo (41) rediscovered grappling after an unsuccessful season of high school wrestling. He got neck deep into many exotic arts, from Filipino kali to Japanese jiu-jitsu, Russian sambo and American catch wrestling, while also getting bitten the BJJ bug. Javier maintains a truly insane training and nighttime working routine, which amazes friend and foe. All for the love of learning human chess.
How did you get your start in grappling?
Javier Palomo: If you exclude roughhousing with the neighborhood kids, I got my first real taste of wrestling in junior high during PE class. I had bit of natural talent because I was a scrappy Mexican kid. As a freshman I got pulled up to the junior varsity squad right away because they needed someone in my weight class. That didn’t go well for me. I got routinely smashed by the more experienced guys, so quickly I lost interest. As I finished the season I was very happy that I didn’t have to run stairs ever again (laughs).
Did you dabble in other arts?
JP: I did a bit of tang soo do because I wanted to be the Karate Kid. In my college years I took up aikido, while I was doing research for a high fantasy story I was writing. One of the characters in my story was a pacifist, so I didn’t picture him running around with swords and chopping heads off. I wanted him to be the embodiment of non-violence. My college had a Japanese jiu-jitsu and aikido programme. Aikido looked like the most flowy, gentle art you could think of. I took some classes to familiarize myself with that style, so I knew what I would be writing about. That started my whole martial arts renaissance.
You took up martial arts in order to write fantasy novels?
JP: Exactly. Hence my interest in those exotic styles. Because of my wrestling experience – however limited, I was still way better on the ground than anyone in those traditional martial arts. So for the longest time I had little respect and appreciation for ground fighting. I just thought it was easy (laughs). After that first encounter with aikido I quickly got involved with Filipino martial arts, Japanese jiu-jitsu and sambo, and I went further and further down the rabbit hole. I kind of went crazy from there…
JP: Obsessively crazy. Over the years I’ve trained Filipino martial arts, jeet kune do, Japanese jiu-jitsu, catch wrestling, shootfighting, sambo, judo, 10th Planet jiu-jitsu and finally BJJ with the gi. I earned a black belt in judo, a black belt in two different systems of Japanese jiu-jitsu (kakutou ryu and danzan ryu), a brown belt in BJJ with LCCT (a Rickson Gracie lineage), and a purple belt with 10th Planet Chicago. We don’t have rank in sambo and catch wrestling but I’ve trained and taught both arts extensively. Also I’ve competed under a ton of different grapping rule sets (from NAGA to several invitationals). Furthermore I’m technically a national champion in sambo, because the guy who won first place got himself disqualified (laughs). And I’ve legitimately won the veterans divisions of the 2017 Combat Wrestling world championships, held in Japan.
How did you find catch wrestling?
JP: When I got fascinated with shootfighting, I learned that the founder of that art (Satoru Sayama) had blended together a bunch of effective martial arts to make a hybrid system: kyokushin karate, muay thai, judo, sambo, jiu-jitsu and catch wrestling. All those arts I knew about, because I was a huge martial arts nerd. Except catch. One thing led to another, and an internet search for catch wrestling led to my encounter with Tony Cecchine, who taught classes at the back of a tool and die shop, here in Chicago. I learned a lot of cool stuff from him over the years. We’re still on good terms.
What was your first experience training catch?
JP: If memory serves I was a brown belt in Japanese jiu-jitsu at the time, and I’d also trained in sambo. In the e-mail exchange with Tony I’d mentioned my experience in shootfighting and sambo, and I emphasized that I really liked leglocks… Well, I guess Tony told his guys not to take it easy on me (laughs). I got utterly destroyed. One of his students introduced himself and asked for a roll. After we shook hands he promptly leglocked the sh#t out of me. Then he walked off the mat like he was bored (laughs). That blew my mind. I realized that THIS was the place to be.
Wasn’t there some controversy surrounding Cecchine’s catch lineage and credentials?
JP: Let’s put this out there. I still train with Tony until this day. I am ranked in BJJ in Rickson Gracie’s lineage and Eddie Bravo’s lineage. I have trained with some really legit BJJ practitioners, and I still regularly use Tony’s material in sparring. He’s a very valuable grappling resource to me. His details, insights and overall philosophy of grappling have been game changers. It’s unfortunate there’s no picture of him as a 13-year old kid standing beside his teacher Stanley Radwan in a wrestling pose, to prove they actually trained together... Actually, there aren’t many early pictures of Tony and me either, but I’ve definitely trained with the man (laughs). One thing’s for sure, Tony’s technique is absolutely devastating. ! still appreciate learning from him.
How did you find BJJ?
JP: That was a long meandering road, so bear with me (laughs). I have three boys, two from a previous marriage. One of the cited reasons why my previous marriage failed was that I spent way too much time doing martial arts (aside from just being a terrible human being – I guess). When my third son was born I had a huge panic attack because I didn’t want to mess everything up again. So I decided to drastically cut down my training to once a week, which devolved into once a month, until I quit completely… I went from training six days a week to being José Couch Potato. For a couple of years I was embarrassingly overweight, I looked just like the Inverted Gear panda. When my kids were big enough I wanted us to start training together, so we all joined a local judo dojo (which is also where I took up danzan ryu jiu-jitsu). The coaches Tim and Rob Boland ran a very active competition team, which regularly competed at NAGA and other grappling events. I felt right at home there.
So you got back on the horse…
JP: Exactly. I got back into shape, and for the longest time I was very happy with my blend of catch wrestling and judo solving all my problems in grappling. However, in 2012 I got an itch to learn more no-gi BJJ stuff. Despite the back and forth online smack talk between Eddie Bravo and Tony Cecchine I went to check out a 10th Planet school nearby. The coach was Josh Passini, who was a blue belt at the time but also a highly experienced wrestler and certified coach under USA Wrestling. I went in and loved it. I’ve been with that branch ever since. Simultaneously I found a local sambo school, which was overseen by Gregg Humphreys, a sambo and judo coach from Iowa. I ended up teaching there until we parted ways (amicably) and I furthered my study of sambo with Reilly Bodycomb of RDojo.
Where did you finally learn the BJJ pajama game?
JP: One of my friends from the sambo school told me about a Rickson Gracie affiliate in the Chicago area. Again, I was the last guy to know there was a great school essentially in my backyard. Tucked away in an alley, with no signs whatsoever. It was LCCT, the school of Luiz Claudio Augusto and Thiago Veiga, world champions under Rickson Gracie. I’d visited other BJJ schools before, but LCCT was the first BJJ school where I actually enrolled as a student. Luis and Thiago were amazing, and for the first time in my life I got to learn from people my size. Most of my grappling career I have faced giants – I was like the honey badger facing down the lion. When I started going there religiously my overall grappling game vastly improved. They had three black belts on the mat, one of which is Dennis Donbrow, an MMA fighter and EBI veteran. Dennis and I quickly bonded while trying to break each other’s legs.
So now you train all the time?
JP: Yep. Seven days a week, sometimes twice a day, and I work the night shift in airfreight logistics. Mind you, I alternate training and teaching so there’s time for me to recuperate. Also, I don’t fight to the death every class. I train and teach BJJ with the gi at two locations of LCCT, I do no-gi and mma wrestling at my friend Dennis’ place (3D Martial Arts), no-gi and leglocks at 10th Planet Chicago, and drills and no-gi sambo at my friend Barry Philips’ place (R Team Deerfield). Oh, lest I forget: on Saturday and Sundays nights we also record the Grappler Union Podcast (laughs). So even when I’m not training BJJ I’m still talking about it.
How are you not dead?!
JP: Praise my good genetics! I’m 41. A lot of people assume I’m on ALL the best steroids, which I assure you I’m not. Even though I have crazy training capacity, I drew the short end of the stick on all other fronts: I’m 5.3, I’m a very slow learner, and if I didn’t work out constantly I’d be completely round. Tony used to call me the Mighty Mexican Midget (laughs). I’ve just been doing it for so long I know how to pace myself.
What was the most difficult thing to learn?
JP: Recently the more intricate aspects of the open guard game have been tricky. It’s because of my habits from other arts. As soon as you stick a leg out there to do a lapel guard, lasso or another type of entanglement, my first instinct is to grab it and leglock you. So I have to overcome that. Several years ago I trained at Marcelo Gracia’s in NYC and rolled with a Brazilian blue belt who ran the most ridiculous spider guard game on me in the history of the grappling arts. I had nothing on him. That kid – I don’t even know his name – gave me a deep appreciation of a part of the game that I had previously just glossed over.
How did you get into competition?
JP: For the longest time competition didn’t really interest me. I competed poorly in both wrestling and judo and I was content with just rolling around in the gym. The reason I finally took the plunge is in part Reilly Bodycomb’s fault (laughs). He would always give me sh#t for not competing, because of my gym warrior prowess. His point was: how good are you REALLY if you don’t test yourself?
JP: Indeed. Then there was another thing, which might sound childish. To be on the RDojo fight team you had to compete and record enough “cool guy”-moments in competition, so that Reilly could assemble a highlight reel for his YouTube page (laughs). At a certain point my juvenile students wanted to enter a sambo competition. I had to drive them to Michigan and I figured: what the hell, let’s throw my name in the hat. I jumped in went up a weight division and down and age bracket, and I won gold. All wins by submission. For once it was a good experience and I kept going. Slowly but surely I accumulated enough footage for a cool highlight reel. That video eventually got me invited to a bunch of superfights and invitationals. Mind you, I lost a bunch. But it’s awesome to be able to do it.
Why have you stuck with the grappling for all these years?
JP: I’ve always appreciated a weird balance in the grappling arts: it’s so extremely difficult while at the same time so extremely enjoyable. I see all grappling as a mental game of chess. Like Joe Rogan says: it’s high level problem solving with dire physical consequences. Sure, grappling keeps my blood pressure down and my body lean. But most of all, I’m on this journey for the love of learning.
Javier Palomo teaches and trains everywhere in the Chicago area. Follow him on Instagram: @thejav13