Meet the Pandas – Weaponized Nerdjitsu – Jonathan Thomas
In Meet the Pandas we show the many faces of the Panda Nation. Last time we spoke to Martijn ‘Grandão’ Gademan, the Dutch giant with the closed guard from hell. In this new episode we like to present multiple time Pan-Ams and IBJJF Worlds champion Jonathan Thomas: Alliance black belt, madman strategist, devoted meditator and head instructor at Valhalla Jiu Jitsu in Göteborg, Sweden.
Educated as a mathematical engineer, Jonathan Thomas (31) walked away from a prestigious engineering job to devote his life to jiu-jitsu. As colleagues and family members shook their heads at his plan to teach "karate" for a living, Jonathan stuck his guns and became one of the most technical competitors and instructors in the scene, all thanks to weaponizing his over-analytical, nerdy brain.
Jon, you’re an American teaching in Sweden. How did that happen?
Jonathan Thomas: When I was training full-time at Alliance in Atlanta, and I often travelled to Europe for seminars. Somehow I ended up in Götenborg (Sweden) a couple of times. On my last visit there I got offered a teaching position at Valhalla Jiu Jitsu. I figured you only live once, and I moved to the land of the Vikings. That was back in 2016. It’s been an awesome ride.
Did you get your start at Alliance HQ in Atlanta?
JT: No, I took my first proper class in my hometown of St. Louis (Missouri) at Rodrigo Vaghi’s school. Rodrigo is under Rickson Gracie. He runs a very traditional gym with a large emphasis on sound fundamentals and self-defense. I spent a few years there. At one point I got a job offer in Washington DC, but I decided to wait a year and moved to Atlanta to train with my idol Rubens ‘Cobrinha’ Charles at Alliance HQ, from 2008 to 2009. During that time I won the Pan-Ams and Worlds at purple belt (I closed out with Michel Langhi). Eventually I started my job in DC and I worked there for a while, but my heart just wasn’t in it. So I quit and returned to Atlanta. There I got the tail-end of Cobrinha’s instruction – before he moved to California, then I studied under Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Cavalcanti and Lucas Lepri for a few years. They promoted me to black belt. When I left for Sweden I was the main instructor at Alliance HQ.
I’m curious. What was the job you walked out on?
JT: I worked on satellites...
Wow. That’s not quite a ‘McJob’…
JT: For sure, my bosses were very confused when they found out I was quitting that job to train ‘karate’ (laughs). It was a really awkward conversation. My parents didn’t freak out, but they also thought it was a terrible idea. But by that time I’d won a few major tournaments, so I knew I had something going for me. It seemed completely feasible to make a living doing jiu-jitsu. I figured I’d give it two years. If things didn’t work out by then, I’d still have my college degree in mathematics to fall back on. So I decided to chase a dream. No human being has ever complained on their deathbed: gee, I wish I joined the work force two years earlier… You have to take a chance in life.
Let’s backtrack. How did you get your first taste of BJJ?
JT: I started with a traditional martial art called Goshin Jitsu. It was one of those self-defense styles with a lot of wristlocks. Remember that movie Napoleon Dynamite? “Break the wrist, walk away” – that sort of thing. Thankfully they also taught judo classes. I started to devote myself to that art and entered a few competitions. I got totally wrecked my first match ever. I remember getting ipponed so hard, the other guy won a Best Throw of the Day Award. So I had a long road ahead of me. As I was trying to figure out that judo stuff, I somehow stumbled across one of the first UFC’s on VHS, and I saw Royce Gracie do his thing. A tall, skinny guy beating up a bunch of strong dudes. That was it. I wanted to learn whatever he was doing.
Did you run to the nearest BJJ school?
JT: No, that actually took a while. I first found some instructional books and started practicing on my own, and trying out new tricks on my training partners in judo class. They weren’t very happy with my experiments. The only way I was allowed to train groundwork was to start in pins and escape from there. Actually that was a blessing in disguise. Because I spent the majority of my training learning to survive in strong pinning positions, I developed a decent ability to recompose guard. In retrospect, it’s one of the most profound things that ever happened in my jiu-jitsu.
A lucky accident…
JT: Exactly. Even though I was largely self-taught, I suddenly started winning judo matches with armbars and triangles. My game plan would be to attempt some sort of sacrifice throw to get to my guard, and finish my opponents with basic BJJ.
Jiu-jitsu, it works!
JT: It really does. After spending some time home-brewing my jiu-jitsu, I finally ended up at Rodrigo Vaghi’s place. My first rolls there were funny. I almost got killed by a 250 pound purple belt goliath for attempting a heelhook (because another white belt told me those were legal), while my mom was watching from the sidelines. Thankfully he realized I was just a clueless kid, so I didn’t get broken in half. But I really liked the place. I trained there for a long time and racked up a lot of accomplishments, like winning the Pan-Ams at blue belt. It was a great start of my journey. Rodrigo brought me up all the way to brown belt. I owe a lot to that gym.
What do you remember about your first BJJ competition?
JT: It was strange. After a bit of training at Rodrigo’s I entered my first actual BJJ comp. I was extremely nervous and expected to get annihilated, but somehow I subbed everyone and won the whole thing. That pattern repeated itself. I never lost a match at white belt. I guess I was considered somewhat of a phenom – to my own surprise. It wasn’t until blue belt that I lost my first match: the finals in the open division against a big fat wrestler who looked like Santa Claus. Evil Santa powered out of all my triangles and I lost. But I took to competition very well.
Can you explain why?
JT: For whatever reason, jiu-jitsu just clicked for me. Growing up I was never a natural at anything, I was just a scrappy ginger (laughs). I’m a mathematical engineer by trade and I always liked strategy, systems and tactics. When I was younger I played chess and got into videogames like Tekken and Age of Empires. But when I found jiu-jitsu it became my favorite strategy game. Thank god. Otherwise I’d probably be a fat nerd with no life, spending all his waking hours online.
So jiu-jitsu allowed you to weaponize your nerdiness?
JT: Pretty much. I think it’s important to put intellectual thought into your training. What got us into BJJ was the technique, right? I wasn’t that Royce Gracie was tougher than Dan Severn – it was his knowledge that prevailed. I like the idea of being able to outwit your opponent: beating a stronger, larger and more artificially ‘enhanced’ opponent by finesse. My hobby in college was to watch BJJ competition footage over and over – like a madman. I would pick specific techniques and rewind the tape until I got the details right. Then I would take notes and try out new things in class, afterwards adjusting my ideas. I didn’t realize how unique (or crazy) that is. But it’s common practice in all competitive sports, even chess. If you want to be good at anything you need to watch footage, study, test, gather and process data, and strategize. There’s just no way around it.
How do you improve nowadays, and what are your hurdles?
JT: Honestly, I don’t think I need to be around other high level black belts in order to improve my game. I do a lot of isolated training, specific sparring, film study and analysis of moves. I’m always looking to find new ways to maximize my technique gains, while simultaneously minimizing my physical work load. And I also take my strength training really serious. You need strength, period. So I know how to develop my technique and I know how to get strong, but my biggest hurdle is constantly having to manage injuries. In 2012 I had a major disc herniation in my lower back, which took me out for a year and a half. When I got back, my shoulder started to trouble me. But being out for so long made me take technique training even more seriously. It became my mission to finding smart ways to develop my skill set, by training around the injury and isolating positions. Ingraining pattern recognition without further damaging my body.
You seem to analyze everything to death. How do you not lose your mind?
JT: By being even more organized (laughs). I make detailed plans and schedule in my day. I reserve time slots for specific things, like film study and note taking. So later on when something pops up in my head, I can let it go more easily. Also, I practice mindfulness meditation. That’s really helpful for people with an over-analytical brain. Sitting still and upright for twenty minutes while following the breath helps to calm the mind. You become more aware and present to the moment, and you get more comfortable at letting go of thoughts. That’s been a life saver.
What’s the biggest evolution in your game?
JT: When I started out, the triangle choke from guard was my main weapon. At white belt I won 90% of my matches by triangle. So I was a committed guard player for many years, until after I won the worlds at brown belt. Then I really started to dissect the top game and fell in love with passing. Now I feel like my top game is superior to my guard.
Once guard players flip the coin and discover the top game, they become real ninjas.
JT: Yeah, because they know everything that the bottom guy can do. If you take a guy off the street with zero training and you put him on the mat, he can make a reasonable attempt at passing guard if you tell him: just get around the legs. That would make sense. But understanding guard is very complicated. It takes a lot of work. You can’t grab someone of the street and tell him to play guard. Developing that skill and sensitivity takes time. But once you ‘master’ the guard, you have all the tools to deconstruct that position as well.
What’s your most memorable match?
JT: In 2012 I lost to Andris Brunovskis in the brown belt quarter finals of the Worlds. I had won the worlds the year before, and I played guard in every match and submitted everyone. In 2012 double guard pulling had become a thing. No one would want to go on top. So I had made up my mind that – whatever happened – I would play my top game and work to pass. I didn’t want to sit on my ass the whole match and stall out. My family and girlfriend were watching, and I felt all this pressure to just play safe and pull guard. But I didn’t. I went on top and ended up losing by an advantage. But I was more proud of that moment than when I won the world the previous year. I finally understood the difference between doing what you feel is right, and doing what is easy. I think that was the most important decision in my development. I found out I always face the music.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give yourself as a white belt?
JT: Believe in yourself. When I was younger I dealt with bouts of anxiety and I doubted myself way too much. But I grew more confident by gaining knowledge. I took responsibility for my own development early on in my career, and that led to a real sense of self-reliance and accomplishment.
Why do you keep coming back to jiu-jitsu?
JT: To me, meaningful things in my life are always achieved by a positive feedback loop. With every win in jiu-jitsu, my confidence grew. But more importantly, I discovered that I really love the art in all its countless expressions. I found something to devote my life to. That’s an endless journey.
Jonathan Thomas teaches at Valhalla Jiu Jitsu (www.valhallajj.se). Find him on Instagram and YouTube: @JonThomasBJJ