Meet the Pandas – The Panda Viking – Halldór Logi Valsson
In Meet the Pandas, we put the many faces of the Panda Nation in the spotlight. Last episode, we spoke with powerful blogger Valerie Worthington, PhD. Now, we focus on the first proper Panda Viking, Halldór Logi Valsson, hailing from the frostbitten north of Iceland: a heavyweight brown belt destroyer with a love for berimbolos.
Growing up in Akureyri in northern Iceland with just a handful of savages to train with, Halldór Logi Valsson (22) definitely learned jiu-jitsu in the school of hard knocks. Entering open belt divisions where, at 90 kilograms, he was often both the lightest and youngest athlete on the mat. Still he became one of the most accomplished and active competitors in Scandinavia, and the art helped him through dark times in his life. Halldór currently trains and teaches at the world’s largest MMA training facility under one roof: Mjölnir MMA, and he’s the president of the Icelandic BJJ Federation.
When I first met you in Denmark, you had just quit school to become a jiu-jitsu guy. Right?
Halldór Logi Valsson: Yeah, that was at the BJJ Globetrotters Camp, back in 2011. That’s when I took the big decision to become a pro athlete, or at least give it a try. So, at 16 years old, I quit my job and school and started training and travelling the world like a real BJJ bum. That was the big plan. Guess it worked out well. Currently, I’m a fulltime teacher here at Mjölnir MMA for the kids, the teenagers and some of the adults. And I train fulltime – trying to chase a dream (laughs).
What were you doing before?
HLV: Well, I started training in 2010, and prior to that I was just a normal school-going teenager. At the time, football (“soccer”, for the Yanks) was the only thing that kept my interest. But I didn’t really have a life plan until I got in touch with jiu-jitsu – then it became clear to me what I wanted to do. The shock on my parents’ faces when I told them… Well, at first, they weren’t all too happy about it. But after a while they saw that I really meant business, and I started doing okay for myself. They became really supportive.
How did you find jiu-jitsu?
HLV: At first, I had my sights set on becoming a professional soccer player. That wasn’t realistic but still a dream, so I spent a lot of time on the field. We trained at this big sports center and every day I saw tough guys walking around in their gis or fightshorts. They looked pretty hardcore. So, I watched a class, but I had no clue what was going on. Still, I knew it was cool. The coach, Ingthor Örn Valdimarsson, invited me to give it a shot. After that, there was no turning back.
Were you the type of kid that would wrestle around with friends?
HLV: There was a quite a bit of fighting in my school. Sad to say I was bit of a bully, and in turn I got bullied back as well. It was a very negative time in my life, and I wasn’t feeling that good about myself. For years, I had a pretty serious struggle with depression. Thankfully, the sport brought me a lot of confidence, and that translated to other aspects in life. The all bad stuff kind of stopped. When I found the sport it really cured me. It straightened me out in a mental way.
Your coach Ingthor might be the strangest guy in jiu-jitsu. Can you give us an insight?
HLV: He’s always been a character, man. A real-life superhero, both stunningly handsome and a rollercoaster of weirdness (laughs). It’s hard to put into words. Ingthor is definitely a one-of-a-kind kind of guy. Very funny and very strange. When I first met him, I got hooked immediately. I thought he was the coolest guy ever. Remember, I was a teenager. Now that I’ve matured I realize he’s just a weird old man (laughs). But seriously, Ingthor helped me a lot, and I still look up to him tremendously. He’s brought me up through the ranks. You’ve got to realize he pretty much taught himself jiu-jitsu, and he managed to create a bunch of killers in just a little gym in the north: Fenrir MMA.
Was it difficult to learn the art?
HLV: Yeah, it did take me a long time to sort of “get it.” I was also training football fulltime, and I was an athletic kid, so just based on strength and physical ability I got along okay. I could force my way through things. My technique was seriously lacking. For the first two months, I did nothing else but put people in my closed guard and try to squeeze them to death. Getting good took a long time.
When did it click for you?
HLV: Maybe around blue belt. I had already competed abroad two times, but I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just scrambling and brawling my way through matches. Right after my promotion to blue, I went back to Copenhagen, and I had just decided to pursue jiu-jitsu full time. Our mutual friend Oli Geddes was teaching a class, and he showed me a particular half guard technique I still use to this day. Then, everything fell into place. The randomness in my game disappeared.
How did you guys in Akureyri become so good on your own?
HLV: Actually, it’s not just us, the whole country has a pretty high level of jiu-jitsu. I guess we really have to thank the pioneers. Prior to 2003, there was no jiu-jitsu in Iceland. Then a few guys in the south started watching instructionals, trying to figure things out. One of them was Bjarni Baldursson, who later founded Mjölnir MMA. Ingthor went to America and trained a bit with Brandon Vera, and when he came back he moved up north to play around with what he’d learned.
And there’s Gunnar Nelson, who’s a pioneer in the sport and very influential figure in the scene… So, a handful of guys went abroad, gained experience, came back, and shared their new moves with the rest. Things just spread out from there. We also had some famous people come over for seminars, like Renzo Gracie, Matt Thornton, and John Kavanagh. But for the longest time there weren’t any black belts around. So yeah, we’re basically self-taught, which could have been a recipe for disaster. I think what saved us was the fact that most of those guys were also high-level judo athletes. They had a serious base and work-ethic for start with.
What is you most memorable competition?
HLV: Definitely the first time I won the Icelandic Nationals. That’s when I knew I actually had something going on. It’s a tough tournament because there are no belt categories. White though black belt compete together in the same division, divided only by weight. Like sambo. I’d been competing in that tournament since 2010, and I used to watch the top guys wrecking people. Like Thráinn Kolbeinsson, Sighvatur Magnús Helgason, and Arnar Freyr Vigfússon – they just were demolishing the opposition. I always thought: I want to be there one day. In 2015, I actually did that, and I won it again in 2016. That’s when I knew. I won medals at more prestigious tournaments abroad (like NAGA and several IBJJF comps), but this one is more special.
Tell us about your favorite match ever…
HLV: I’d say all of my matches with Thráinn, who’s an absolute beast and the head coach at Mjölnir MMA. I’ve been fighting that monster since 2010, and he always crushed me. The first time he demolished me in 15 seconds. But each time after that, I did a little bit better, until finally we went the distance after years of struggle. That was a major accomplishment. I could feel my progress. He’d been destroying me since day one, and I’d been looking up to him my entire career. That meant the world to me.
You look like the typical Icelandic strongman, but you have a surprisingly playful panda game. What’s up with that?
HLV: I’m literally as heavy as a panda, but I love the guard. It’s my favorite thing about jiu-jitsu. Like you said, there’s a lot of big fellas here in Iceland, and I’m a decent size myself. I decided quickly that I wanted to try a different game and not stick to brute force smashing. I got smashed myself for about four years trying to figure things out, until I developed my guard game and it became my main tool. Being a big guy. I wanted to become a super skilled guardeiro. The thing is, I used to fight at ultra-heavyweight here in Iceland, but I would only weigh around 100 kilos…
Wait, “only” 100 kilos (220 lbs.)?!
HLV: Yeah, and I was usually the lightest guy in the division (laughs). The average was 140/150 kilos (308/330 lbs.). Those matches usually played out like this: whoever got the first takedown, that guy won. Always. You’d see two godzillas trying to push each other over for a couple of minutes, followed by loud crash and a hold down. I wanted to change that. I started pulling guard on ultra-heavyweights. Thankfully, often they didn’t really know how to cope with that. The shock on their faces was amazing. I always tried to move like a lightweight.
How did you end up at Mjölnir MMA?
HLV: I got lucky. I’d made a name for myself in the Icelandic scene, and I had a lot of friends down here. When I decided that I wanted to make the move I basically just called them up (laughs). They were kind enough to give me a chance. What also helped is that I’d been working with kids for a while. Back home I taught the teen classes, and I worked in schools, especially with children with special needs (autism and disabilities). So that was also on my CV. They wanted me in, so here I am.
What’s the biggest insight you’ve gained from teaching?
HLV: There’s a lot of lessons I’ve learned. Like I said, I was lucky coming from a small gym in a small town. I had the opportunity to start teaching as a blue belt – which sounds dangerous but worked out well. Surely, I taught a lot of silly moves, but all those mistakes helped me to grow. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Globetrotters Camps helped me a lot as well, seeing the different ways in which all you guys approach the art really opened my mind. And through my travels I got to experience a lot of different gym environments and teaching methods. I gained something from every place I visited.
What’s your focus when teaching?
HLV: I want to be super clear in my instruction. But more importantly, I try to keep in mind that it’s never the student’s fault if they don’t understand the move. That’s all on me. It’s my job to simplify the moves, or to add more details when needed. You always have to fit your instruction to the student. If someone doesn’t “get” my moves at the end of class, I don’t go home happy. I always try to focus on the weakest link in the chain.
What was your biggest hurdle in learning the art?
HLV: Well, getting over that ego-thing is still a work in progress. As a football player I came in with a super competitive mindset of always trying to win. Then I got manhandled for years. Learning how to take losses and to make something good out of it, is a big thing. Still working on that (laughs). But nowadays, if I go to competition and lose despite giving it my all, I’m still happy.
Name one thing you could eliminate from jiu-jitsu forever.
HLV: Politics, definitely. And I’m saying this at the president of the Icelandic BJJ Federation. Our main goal is to completely eliminate the political nonsense and drama in the scene. So we’ve been running a bunch of training camps and seminars in an attempt to get all the teams together. Why can’t we all be friends and just train together? It’s such a niche sport, there’s no need for things to be difficult.
What’s your endgame?
HLV: Through this art I’ve made friends for life. At times I might get sick of training, but I never get sick of the people in the art. The community keeps me coming back. My endgame is to do this for as long as possible, and to make a living off it. And I’m still young so I want to use my time to become a world class athlete. After that, I want to develop more as an instructor and see my students go on to do greater things. Some of that has already happened. I’m a lucky guy.
Halldór Logi Valsson teaches at www.mjolnir.is. Follow him on Instagram: @halldorlogiv.
Daniël Bertina is a black belt and writer based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami.