Inverted Gear Blog / Daniel Bertina
In this series, we shine light on the many members of the Panda Nation. Last episode we spoke to David Phimsipasom of Maximum Athletics. Now, we focus on black belt Matt ‘Aesopian’ Kirtley: computer wizard, walking BJJ encyclopedia, and unabashed Magic: The Gathering-aficionado.
Back when he was a blue belt, Matt Kirtley (32) almost broke the internet with one of the first great BJJ blogs: Aesopian BJJ, a groundbreaking resource of free online BJJ-tutorials. Ever since then, he’s been known as a highly technical and analytical instructor – who’s embraced his inner nerd.
Did you practice other martial arts before you found jiu-jitsu?
Matt Kitley: Nope. I roughhoused as a kid, but I never got any formal training. My only other contact with martial arts was when a Tae Kwon Do guy came to my school as a kid. He made us all do a horse stance, and that was it. I found jiu-jitsu years later when I started watching Pride on DVD. I got really into it and I wondered what those guys were doing (besides lots of ‘special sauce’). I loved Kazushi Sakuraba and of course the Gracies – who had that whole fighting family image going on. The old Sherdog forum also hosted a bunch of cool highlight videos of fighters set to hair metal, and I’d watch those fanatically. You’d have to download and watch them on RealPlayer. Those were the days.
Were you physically active?
MK: Not at all. I was a computer nerd, and my dad kept pushing me to get moving. Someone on the Sherdog forum recommended Eduardo de Lima’s school. It was Gracie Barra – I had no idea what that meant. But Eduardo happened to be located just 5 minutes from my house. I would drive by his place all the time, and I was oblivious. He had no signs up or anything.
From what I understand, Eduardo is one of those old-school grinders who sticks to a non-commercial approach.
MK: That’s very correct. The school I trained in for years – all the way to black belt – was just a sweaty room in the back of a warehouse complex. It had a rolling door, cement walls, no lobby, and no air conditioning—all in smothering 100 degree Florida weather. It took me a few tries to find the place because it was hidden in between a scrap metal shop and a storage place for air filters.
So you walked into a room with people simulating murder. Did you think: these people are insane?
MK: My first memory of the gym is seeing one of the purple belts catching his breath outside, right after training. It was huge guy with shoulders the size of my head, and there was steam rising off him. Class had just finished, and Eduardo appeared from behind some drywall to greet me. He was extremely welcoming. But I did think, is this place? For the first couple of months, I was always super nervous before training. Not because of any bad attitude, but just because I had never done anything like that: getting thrown around and squashed by strangers.
What do you remember about your first class?
MK: My sister, one of our friends, and I started on the same day. We all did the warm-up (which was intense, with a ton of calisthenics). And the intro class was getting pulled aside and being partnered up with a blue belt, in my case a skinny tall girl (who turned out to be in the sheriff’s department). She mounted me, and Eduardo asked us how I would get out without doing something nuts. Of course, I was flailing around like a fish out of water. And, of course, she would stay on top and eventually take my back. Eduardo would ask the rhetorical question: “Well, is that good or bad for you?” And then we reversed positions, and she escaped every single time. The whole point was to demonstrate how much you don’t know. Then, we learned the basic bridge escape. So, my first experience was getting beaten up by a skinny girl.
But did it appeal to your nerdiness?
MK: Eventually it did. As a beginner, you’re not able to appreciate the technical aspects. You barely know what’s going on, but I could tell there was a lot to figure out and that kept me coming back. The heat was killing me. I couldn’t finish a class for weeks. After rolling I would almost black-out, stumble back to the line, and walk right into the walls face-first.
Somewhere along the line, you started one of the first great BJJ blogs: Aesopian.com
MT: Well, I was online all the time. Like many people of my generation, I thought my opinion was worth sharing with the world, so I got active on all the jiu-jitsu message boards. Looking back, it was pretty weird to realize that some blue belt with no credentials or experience started posting so much about jiu-jitsu. But it seemed to have worked out okay. I just got a good start because there weren’t that many people training in BJJ that could also use the internet, make websites, and had a good camera.
Did you go to school for web design?
MK: I did a little bit of that in high-school, and straight after I got an apprenticeship under a web developer. I’ve been making websites and working on internet stuff for almost half of my life. I do a lot for Inverted Gear, and I help them with their marketing – along with Marshal Carper, he’s the adult in the room. I also run Artechoke Media with him
What was the most difficult thing to learn?
MK: I’ll flip your question. As a beginner, most people have a problem with remembering all the moves. But I lucked out in that department: I was always really good at retaining all sorts of insane details. I watched every DVD out there, and I read every instructional thread. I got caught by the Blue Belt Curse, as I was constantly collecting techniques. It was a total information overload. For me, the hardest thing was to get away from that hoarder mentality. At a certain point, I realized that you don’t need a million techniques in jiu-jitsu. The goal is to create a solid core game and not to show off how many cool techniques you know.
Can you describe the biggest evolution in your game?
MK: When I started to move away from just collecting techniques, I began to focus on the biomechanical concepts that underlie the moves. When you understand how to manipulate the opponent’s spine, shoulders, and neck – to make him unable to move in a certain way, you can predict the ways he can turn. Using that biomechanical framework allows you to control the opponent and guide him into traps, and it allows for faster improvisation. That’s way more efficient method than trying to remember a specific technique for each situation. This big change happened at brown belt. Weirdly enough, I feel I knew more at purple belt – in terms of volume. But I got better at brown belt by getting rid of a lot of that stuff. Now I do just enough to get one of about four of my best positions to work.
So all roads lead to the crucifix?
MK: Yeah, that’s always been a fun position to me. As a matter of fact, I put out a crucifix instructional a while back. The crucifix as a whole is considered an advanced move – because you need good leg control and sensitivity, something that a beginner might not have. But hooking your leg around someone’s arm isn’t that complicated. If you already like taking the back and clock-choking people you have most of what you need to develop that game. Once you recognize the trigger positions there are many opportunities. Then it just expands out.
Do you compete?
MK: I’m not a very competitive person, so that was never really my thing. I think I competed once in each belt up until purple, and then just I stopped caring. Every time I would train hard for a tournament I would also get sick or injured – which sucked. When I talk to fanatic competitors they all have broken bodies, and that wasn’t really the price I was willing to pay.
Who do you try to emulate in the art?
MK: I like instructors that have a deep understanding, but don’t over-explain things. There’s a guy named Jeff Rockwell who’s also been online forever. He has released a great instructional on the sit-up escape. Jeff always posts really smart things, and I’ve stolen a lot of his techniques over the years. When it comes to teaching methodology, I really like Bruce Hoyer. He’s got a cool teaching system called the ‘flipped classroom’. When you come to class, he doesn’t actually teach anything. He’s planned and filmed all his lessons, so before class you watch your lesson online, and then you step on the mat ready to practice. All the belts work together on their own moves. It’s the ultimate systemized, technology driven, and highly individual teaching method.
What’s your home base?
MK: A fear years ago my wife and I moved up to Pennsylvania. There wasn’t really any jiu-jitsu here, maybe just a couple of MMA gyms with purple belt instructors. I would either have to open up my own school – which I didn’t feel like doing – or train with other people and I would be the most experienced guy in the room – which is okay, but not ideal. By chance, Jeremy Henderson, a brown belt from Robson Moura’s RMNU, had just moved to the same area to open up a school: Zombie BJJ. I started training with him the week his school opened. He’s now a black belt under Robson. So, we’ve trained together for four years, and as the school grew I got involved with teaching classes. I also help out with the curriculum and a few things around the school.
How has teaching BJJ changed you view of the art?
MK: It makes you consider a lot more than just you own way of doing things. I won’t name names, but back in Florida I once met a black belt who was asked to show a basic side control escape. He went blank. The only thing he could show was his own, super-fancy-attribute-based version. It’s a cliché, but as a teacher you have to focus on fundamentals. Moves that work on most people most of the time, regardless of age and physical attributes. That helped me expand my understanding of the art. It’s ironic. Back in Florida I was the ‘new move guy,’ and Eduardo made sure we were doing our basics. Now at Zombie BJJ, I have the role of old-school instructor. I make them do the technical stand-ups, the punch block series, and all that. Showing the new-school competition game is Jeremy’s thing.
There’s a beauty to how cyclical it is.
MK: Definitely. It’s funny how things revolve. What people are doing nowadays to counter the De La Riva guard and the Berimbolo is to pass really low, or drop to both knees. So what’s the solution to passing on the knees? Butterfly guard, knee shield, all those moves that sort of fell out of favor. I find great satisfaction in sticking to pure 1996 jiu-jitsu.
How has jiu-jitsu influenced your life?
MK: I try not to get too stressed out over things, but I guess that’s my general personality. Jiu-jitsu has mostly taught me a mindset of persistence. There will be always be challenges. But if you stick with it, you either figure out a way to deal with it, or the problem will solve itself. You don’t have to be a super genius. The only thing that’s required is commitment and the willingness to ask questions.
What do you do off the mat, to stay sane?
MK: Back in Florida I did a bunch of paddle boarding, bike riding, and kayaking. The last few years I’ve gotten really into Functional Range Conditioning, a joint mobility system by Dr. Andreo Spina. My friend Josh Vogel of Balance Studios turned me on to Spina’s work, and I also learned a lot about FRC from Sam Faulhaber, another black belt from Philadelphia. FRC is aimed at healing and strengthening connective tissues, and to improve your ability to control your joints. And it’s great to both speed up and guide your recovery. It’s not based on astrology or mystical stuff, but it relies on state-of-the-art science. In the long run, jiu-jitsu is just really bad for your body – if that’s all you do. A lot of combat sport athletes have very bad posture, and we constantly put stress on our bodies in weird ways. It’s very unnatural. If you were a caveman getting in this many fights a week, your family line would probably not have evolved… So yeah, I got super deep into FRC, got certified, and now I’m looking to do the next level of certifications.
What has kept you fascinated with the art?
MK: Usually, I tend to get really deep into a topic of interest for about three months, and then I jump over to the next thing. But that didn’t happen with jiu-jitsu. The art allows me to follow that super-focused-and-then-distracted pattern over and over again, on any sub-topic in the art. With jiu-jitsu I can constantly feed my ADHD, so I guess I’ll never need another hobby.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist & writer based in The Netherlands. He is a 1st degree black belt under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram: @joyofirony
As we continue our series Meet the Pandas, we focus on the many awesome people that make up the Panda Nation. Last episode was devoted to Phil Mento of Paramount BJJ. Now we introduce David Phimsipasom: black belt instructor at Maximum Athletics (Dunellen, NJ), human energizer bunny, tennis pro, and Tour de France-enthusiast.
If it weren’t for David Phimsipasom (29), Inverted Gear wouldn’t exist. David got his childhood friend Nelson Puentes to join the wrestling team, and a few years later they started their BJJ journey together. The rest is history. Being a supercharged and hyperactive person, David used jiu-jitsu to calm himself down and develop a sense of patience in life.
Are you the world’s only instructor teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and tennis?
David Phimsipasom: Well, I guess (laughs). There probably aren’t that many of us around. My dad was really into tennis, and he got me involved with that sport at a young age. So, I kept it up. I teach tennis privates at the local country clubs and a kid’s team at a private school. Besides that, I teach about nine regular BJJ classes at Maximum Athletics, so I’m pretty busy. But I’ll tell you, teaching jiu-jitsu is definitely easier than teaching tennis at a country club – it’s much less formal. I guess I’m a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to sports. I started with tennis, then it was football, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu. Recently I’ve gotten really obsessed with cycling. I’m just a super high-energy guy.
Did you train in other martial arts before discovering jiu-jitsu?
DP: Nope, but I’ve always loved one-on-one competition, especially sports that have both an individual and a team-bonding aspect. That’s what appeals to me in wrestling and jiu-jitsu. You can’t do those arts by yourself. You need a team for sparring, drilling, and motivation. I find something similar in cycling. I love the soloist time-trial aspect – when you have to race against the clock alone, but I love training together with other riders.
With all due respect, isn’t cycling the most boring sport in the world?
DP: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess it is! But riding alone gives you a lot to think about. Because I spend a lot of time doing jiu-jitsu, I needed another hobby to keep myself levelled. I was looking for a different way to expend all my energy, to get that release, that natural high. Cycling is one of those ways. I love just levelling up in everything I do. The more I train, the more I can feel myself getting a little bit faster. It’s fun hitting those mini-achievements. Just like when you feel your armbars getting tighter in jiu-jitsu. So, I started off slow with 10 or 20 mile rides. But cycling is really addictive: before you know it you’re doing 100 mile rides, and everyone thinks you’re crazy.
I hear you’re the guy who got Nelson involved with both wrestling and BJJ?
DP: Yeah. We’ve been friends since we were about 13 years old. We played football together, and in middle school one of the coaches asked me to join the wrestling team. So of course, I tried to get my tight-knit group of friends to join the fun. Nelson was one of them. Wrestling season started right after football season, so the switch was easy for both of us.
One night, at around 3 in the morning, I had the feeling I wanted to try something else besides wrestling. I got behind the computer to watch a video of a wrestling tournament, but I stumbled onto that jiu-jitsu stuff – I think it was a Grapplers Quest highlight. It was so weird. I saw a guy butt-scooting around and choking everyone out with triangles (he turned out to be Ryan Hall). So I started watching all of his videos, and I was fascinated. It was so cool to watch him submit people from his back.
Had you heard of BJJ before?
DP: Yes, but I think it was hidden in the back of my mind. I used to go to club wrestling for extra training, and after class some of the guys would practice submissions. This was right when the UFC was getting big. But for some odd reason I never really paid attention to it. Anyway, as soon as I realized that there was a point system to that stuff, I figured: “Hey, I can do that!” So I called Nelson right after – this was in the dark of night, and he actually picked up his phone.
I told him: “Nelson, let’s compete in that Grapplers Quest thing!” He was right with me, but we had to get at bit of training in. Nelson knew a guy named Dave Ellis who was a high level judoka and BJJ brown belt (if I remember correctly). Dave taught both judo and jiu-jitsu at the Cranford Judo Club. We went down there, got some basic instruction, and that was that. After roughly two weeks of training we entered our first submission grappling tournament ever.
You competed after just two weeks of training? That’s crazy!
DP: Yeah, I was hoping my wrestling would be enough to pull through. We both did well. I did two matches, and in the finals I was stuck in a guillotine for five minutes. I had no idea how to get out, so after that I realized: “Man, I have to learn more of this stuff.” I have no idea how I actually won my matches, probably by takedown or crazy scrambles. In any case, we both got super into it. After a while we both went our separate ways because I moved away for college, but jiu-jitsu kept us connected.
Give us a rundown of your training history.
DP: I got my start with Dave Ellis. Then I went to college and trained at a Royler Gracie/David Adiv school for about eight months. I got my blue belt there. Then I transferred and went up north to another college. That’s where I met André ‘Gigueto’ Soares of Carlson Gracie/Brazilian Top Team lineage and I trained under him for about 3 years, off and on. When I finished my degree in Recreation Administration I moved back and hooked up with Nelson again, who introduced me to Kevin Sheridan – who’s under Alliance. I’ve been with them ever since. When I finally got promoted to black belt, it was Nelson who tied the belt around my waist, with the blessing of Kevin, who had to talk to Fabio Clemente in New York to make it all happen. So that’s my official lineage. But I like to tell people that Nelson the Big Panda gave me my belt. He’s like my big brother.
Was it easy to learn jiu-jitsu as a wrestler?
DP: I guess so. The attributes you develop through wrestling make it really easy to just start ‘playing the game’. Wrestlers are forced to become really good at sticking to a simple set of rules, in order to score points. They’re highly coachable. So, you can take any wrestler and tell them: “Okay, now get around that guy’s legs!” And that wrestler will find a way to pass the guard by any means necessary. He might use the worst technique in grappling history, but he’ll be super good at accomplishing those specific goals. That go-mentality is instilled on the first day and honed in every wrestling practice. Later on, it’s easy to fill the gaps of knowledge with specific techniques. That sort of refinement kicks in naturally. So yeah, I got the hang of it quickly. I think the best way to learn any skill is: dive in headfirst, ask questions later.
How did you deal with the gi?
DP: I’m always open to learning new stuff. After getting lapel-choked and yanked all over the place, I was quick to adopt the gripping game. I just thought it was a cool new challenge. Being a smaller guy, I also loved fighting off my back – which is a no-no in wrestling. A whole new world opened up. No, it wasn’t too hard to make the transition to the gi. Although my hands and fingers did burn for a while.
When did you start to take BJJ training seriously?
DP: That’s a tough one. I guess right before I got my purple belt, around 2011. Nelson, me and my buddy Andrew decided to enter the Worlds. We really wanted to do it the right way and train hard. I was never a full-time BJJ guy, but I did manage to train every day to prepare for that tournament. I also became an instructor at purple belt. Nelson used to teach at Maximum Athletics before he left on his Inverted Gear Panda Adventures. He asked me if I wanted to step in. My first thought was: “Hell no!” Becoming a teacher had never crossed my mind. But he saw something in me. I tried it out and loved it.
How has teaching influenced your jiu-jitsu?
DP: I had to slow everything down, and I realized I couldn’t teach all the super advanced stuff I wanted to. At first my students were getting smashed constantly, because they tried to copy my crazy moves. But that was the wrong approach, it was my fault they were suffering. I had to learn to rewind and crunch down on basics, and that also deepened my own understanding of the art.
What are your thoughts about competition?
DP: I haven’t competed since brown belt, and I’ve been a black belt for about 2 years now. Even though I took a step back from the scene and got obsessed with cycling, I kept training hard with my friends and students. It’s not like I walked away from the art completely. Now I’m slowly starting to get the itch again. See, my goal was never to win every competition out there. I always had small goals in jiu-jitsu, and I’m happy with the way things worked out.
Which tournament win are you most proud of?
DP: Definitely when I won the ADCC Nationals in New York as a brown belt. I was a bit unsure about my ability when I first got promoted from purple to brown. That year I entered a bunch of tournaments and I trained really hard. I won matches here and there, but I wasn’t consistent – it was a wild rollercoaster of wins and losses. So it took about five tournaments until I finally won one. My personal goal was to just win ONE tournament at brown belt. It was hard work, nothing happened overnight.
Can you describe the evolution of your game?
DP: I’ve always been an open guard player. From blue until brown belt I was obsessed with spider, lasso and X-guard. I was hitting the same sweep on everyone. When I got my black belt, it was time for me to re-learn jiu-jitsu. I started exploring positions I wasn’t comfortable with, like deep half guard. I started to ask upper belts what they liked to do in those spots. Just trying to incorporate new movements. I love to pick Nelson’s brain because he’s exposed to a lot of different styles, thanks to his travels. I think I just opened up my game because I wasn’t competing anymore, so I didn’t have to focus on a narrow competition gameplan. I became a lot more well-rounded.
What was your biggest hurdle between belts?
DP: Honestly, for me it was the jump from blue to purple. I had my blue belt for 4 years because I was moving around a lot, and I was both winning and losing often. I got really hung up on constantly measuring myself against others. But that’s a stupid way to gauge your progress. I had to get over my fear of not being good enough. Once I did that, my game clicked. It was a mental thing, it was all in my head.
What have you learned in jiu-jitsu and applied to your life?
DP: One word: patience. I always do several things at the same time, and I’m naturally on a high gear, rushing through everything as fast as I can. I’ve always had to deal with the fact that I was overlooking important details. Well, I learned to be patient on the mat, and I’ve taken that approach to my life. Jiu-jitsu taught me to take a step back and slow down, so I could make more clear-headed decisions.
What has made you to stick with jiu-jitsu after all these years?
DP: I think it changes over time. Before it was about me bettering myself – little by little. As the years went on, I got the opportunity to teach and I created a new goal: getting my students better. Now it’s not about ME anymore, it’s about THEM. I love giving back to the art, that’s my main drive right now.
David Phimsipasom teaches at Maximum Athletics in Dunellen, NJ. www.maximum-athletics.com. Follow him on Instagram @dave.phim
Daniël Bertina is a journalist & writer based in The Netherlands. He’s also a 1st degree black belt under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram: @joyofirony
In the previous edition of Meet the Pandas, we introduced Chris Ulbricht of Garden State Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, black belt in jedi mind tricks. In this chapter, we talk to purple belt Phil Mento: guardeiro, part-time longboarder, and King of Pull-Ups.
Purple belt Phil Mento (25) used jiu-jitsu to overcome his shyness and lack of confidence. After being bullied for years, he discovered the art on YouTube and found his way to the BJJ mat. Under the tutelage of his instructor Brad Court of Paramount BJJ, Phil became a fanatic medal chaser and dedicated instructor.
So Phil, you’re nursing a foot injury. You don’t like to tap?
Phil Mento: Well, kind of. I fought in the New York Open. I got footlocked. I was in a single leg X-Guard, and I made the mistake of insisting on the pass before clearing the foot. Long story short, I thought I had more time to defend, but my foot cracked right away. It happens. The other guy did what he had to do. I realized I’d made a technical error, and he was sharp and capitalized. But yeah, I hate losing. I don’t train for second place. Anyway, no excuses. I’m going to get right back to it and keep training for the next opportunity.
Can you take us back to your first competition?
PM: It was at a Grapplers Quest in New Jersey. I was extremely nervous because I’d never competed in any type of one-on-one sports before. So in my first No-Gi match ever, I got a double underhook clinch from the feet, and I managed to pull the guy on top of me. Right into the mount. Yeah, that was dumb. My instructor Brad Court still teases me about that, but it was great learning experience and a lot of fun.
How old where you when this happened?
PM: I think I was turning 19. Even though I pulled mount, I was hooked right away. I think it’s important to go out of your comfort zone. You learn so much from competition; it’s priceless. After that tournament I got really obsessed and started training four, five times a week, and I never stopped.
Why did you start training in the first place?
PM: Well, I was picked on a lot when I was younger. I was always a very shy, quiet person. So when I got older I wanted to learn how to defend myself. I’d been fascinated by jiu-jitsu for a long time. It’s a funny story. My younger brother used to watch techniques on YouTube before we got any formal instruction. We would just wrestle around like idiots and try to crush each other. I think he actually put me in a triangle choke one time, by accident. Finally, my high school gym teacher referred me to the academy where I train and teach at now: Paramount BJJ. I’ve been there ever since. My instructor Brad is a third degree black belt and an amazing, very technical teacher. I started my journey there, and I’ll be with him forever.
What do you remember about your first class?
PM: It was a no-gi advanced class. Being a total beginner, that sounds like a recipe for disaster. But I showed up and Brad encouraged me to just jump in, to experience the art full force. Somehow I thought that having wrestled with my brother would help me a bit – man, I got submitted over and over and over. It was amazing. I never looked back.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
PM: As a white belt, I won the Nationals, and that was a big confidence booster. So far I haven’t won Pan-Ams or Worlds yet. That’s something I’m working on, but at blue and purple I’ve won a lot of local stuff, like the Boston Open at blue belt, and Newbreed, Grapplers Quest and US Grappling. At purple belt, I also won the Boston Open and a bunch of advanced no-gi divisions. Just recently I won both gi and no-gi at Newbreed. I try to compete as much as I can. Win or lose, I always try to learn from the experience.
What were your biggest hurdles in learning jiu-jitsu?
PM: When I started, I would get super obsessed with a certain move, and I would force it in training, but that never worked. I had the realization that when the move’s not there, it’s not there. You have to learn to create opportunities and then capitalize. That was huge. Another difficult thing was finding techniques for my body type, and then combining those into systems. Lastly, I took me a long time to really believe in my jiu-jitsu. Sometimes I got so discouraged after a loss, that I would try to switch up my entire game. But that’s the wrong approach. Losing just means that certain details have to be fixed and modified.
Were you drawn to the sport or the self-defense aspect?
PM: Originally I wanted to learn the art for self-defense, but within a month I realized just how much people at my school were competing. And I jumped into that scene. Competition is what really motivated me to learn more. But I like to drill a few self-defense techniques at least once a week, like basic guard work against a striking opponent or standing clinches and takedowns. I have the opportunity to teach kids, and that’s the sort of stuff I show them. It keeps me sharp, and it keeps my techniques simple and effective. I think it’s good to have an understanding of different aspects of the art. Even if you’re just into the sport, I think you should know how to deal with an opponent trying to punch you in the face.
Do you balance out your training with other activities?
PM: I’m really big on calisthetics. Having the strength and coordination to move your own body is very important for jiu-jitsu. So I’m a big fan of push-ups, pull-ups, dips and bodyweight squats. They’re all very basic exercises. I rarely touch weights. If I do, it’s just lightweight deadlifts – that’s about it. Furthermore, I jump rope and run a few times a week. I like doing sprints and trail running. Those are all nice additions to the conditioning you do on the mat. And for relaxation? I do a bit of longboard skateboarding. I live in a part of Pennsylvania with a lot of Amish, cornfields and open roads. It’s easy for me to go out, find a hill, and skate down. And I love hiking and being outdoors. It’s a nice way to clear your head and to get away from the sweaty mats.
How do you get into teaching?
PM: My instructor was looking for some help with the kids classes, so he asked me. I think that I had the wrong approach at first. I would see it as a job, instead of a great opportunity to give something back. But I quickly fell in love with it. I really enjoy helping those kids, because the art works wonders for the mind and body. I’ve been teaching for four years, and I work at the academy full-time now. I’m very blessed that I can dedicate my life to something like this. I just enjoy each moment and realize my impact as an instructor. I feel I’m giving back way more than just knowledge on how to fight.
You got into the art because you were bullied. How did jiu-jitsu change your life for the better?
PM: Man, it’s changed my life. It’s given my way more confidence, but at the same time it has kept me humble. The knowledge that you’re able to defend yourself and to protect others, it shows in the way you talk to people and how you carry yourself. The art has helped me tremendously. Because I was so shy, the art also gave me something to get excited about. It was an outlet for my creativity, and it became a way to express myself. I learned to speak through my jiu-jitsu.
Did you ever confront the people that gave you such a hard time? Maybe wristlock them?
PM: Actually a couple of months ago I was out with some friends, and I bumped into a guy who was kind of a bully in high school. I try not to let things from my childhood carry over into my adult life, but it was neat to see him again after those bad experiences. I had the confidence to talk to him and to address the past. We straightened things out, and we’re okay now. It was pretty awesome. He was really cool about it. One thing’s for sure, I’ll never be bullied again.
When did you realize you’d be doing this professionally?
PM: It’s a strange story. Prior to me starting jiu-jitsu I graduated and I started going to a community college to study kinesiology. At the time, I had the idea of becoming a personal trainer – at least I thought I did. One day, while I was sitting in class, things just didn’t feel right. I realized: “This is not where my heart is. I have one life and I don’t want to settle.” I talked to my parents and explained that I really wanted to try out that jiu-jitsu stuff. I had only seen it on YouTube, and hadn’t even stepped on the mat yet. But I knew it would change my life, I kid you not. I started to train. Within six months I entered my first competition, and after about two years of training I won the Nationals at white belt. That’s when it all clicked. I was sure I wanted to pursue BJJ for life. My parents have always been supportive, but it was odd. I was the first in the family to choose martial arts as a career. Thankfully, they told me that if I’d work hard and stayed humble they would support me all the way. And they did.
What is it about the art that fascinates you?
PM: Man, where do I begin? First thing is the competition, getting better and pushing myself. It forces me to try to understand all the nuances of the game. I’m trying to be the best in the world at my belt level every year. Then there’s the mental benefit. You’re constantly learning in a positive environment with friends. At the same time, you also learn to deal with adversity. Jiu-jitsu gives you so much mental toughness, focus and discipline. It’s changed my life. It’s been the best things that’s ever happened to me. And I love teaching. It motivates me to want to train harder.
If you could change one thing about jiu-jitsu. What would it be?
PM: When it comes to the rules, I would like to see heel hooks allowed in IBJJF No-Gi competitions. Some of the best grapplers in the world don’t compete in those tournaments right now, because they’re not allowed to use their specialty. I’d like that to change. But more importantly, I wish different schools could somehow join forces, so we can teach the art to a much larger group of children. I think that would solve many, many bullying issues. Believe me, I’ve been there. And jiu-jitsu has helped me overcome a lot.
Phil Mento teaches at Paramount BJJ (www.paramountbjj.com). Follow him on Instagram @philmentojr
Daniël Bertina is a journalist, writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony
In our previous showcase of members of the Panda Nation, we spoke to videographer and purple belt assassin Kyvann ‘Guapinho’ Jimenez. In this episode, we introduce black belt Chris Ulbricht, owner and head coach at Garden State Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and occasional Tekken aficionado.
Chris Ulbricht (26) got into the art by accident. He wanted to learn Capoeira – the original Brazilian martial art, but he got confused and ended up on a BJJ mat somewhere, learning the upa-escape in his jeans and shirt. It was the best mistake ever. After earning his purple belt, he dropped out of college to train BJJ full-time, and has been on the path of improving himself through martial arts ever since.
You’ve just won your match at Fight To Win, a submission-only event. Do you like that ruleset?
Chris Ulbricht: Honestly, I like pretty much any kind of grappling or jiu-jitsu. I compete sometimes, but it’s not a huge thing for me. Competition is more about setting a goal that I can lock down on. I run a school full-time, so preparing for competition forces me to work on my own mental space. It helps me to control my thoughts and develop myself as a person and instructor. So whatever the rules are, I enjoy the challenge. When Nelson Puentes and Hillary Witt of Inverted Gear came to my school a while ago, I fought in the RDojo Sambo League, which is a small round-robin sambo tournament – also very cool. I try to compete under all sorts of rules: submission only, gi, no-gi. It’s just another day out there grappling. It’s truly a pleasure to have a life in which most of my challenges are self-created.
You do this for a living?
CU: Yeah. I wear a lot of hats. I’m the owner and head instructor at Garden State Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. So I run the business, teach classes, and I compete as well. It’s a lot of running around, but I love it. I’ve been in business for about four years now.
It must be hard to track your own development.
CU: Yeah, but I want to chase my goals while I’m still young and in my prime. Fortunately, I have a lot of great training partners at my gym, so just showing up for my classes I get good training in. If there’s a will, there’s a way. There are plenty of black belt instructors around that only have blue and white belts to roll with who still do really well at major tournaments. So in my opinion, owning a school is no excuse to get lazy (laughs).
I guess the big trick is to stay sharp mentally.
CU: Definitely. That’s something that I’ve realized in the past year or two – how much of the game is mental. At a certain point, we all know the same stuff, or at least enough to be aware of what’s happening in a match. It really comes down to that mental ability. I was reading a book yesterday called Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack, and it was a huge breakthrough for me. Mack says (I’m paraphrasing): if you tell someone to stand on a chair for a hundred bucks, everyone can do it. But if you put that chair on top of a skyscraper, most people won’t be able to handle that pressure. It’s the same with competition. When you know you’ve trained 2-3 times a day, and you know your techniques and conditioning are sharp, competition shouldn’t be a big deal. But people stress out and think it’s something different when you step on to the competition mat. It shouldn’t be. Standing on a chair, or standing on a chair on top of a building should feel like the same thing.
Take me back to the first time you encountered BJJ…
CU: I’ve always had an interest in martial arts. I’m embarrassed to say I wanted to be a cool pro-wrestler and do acrobatic martial artsy stuff, like cartwheels, flips, and crazy jumps. So I wanted to learn Capoeira and become Eddie Gordo from Tekken. Somehow, I think I got confused about the different Brazilian martial arts, and I ended up at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by accident. Bear in mind I was still a kid, like 16 or 17 years old. When I went to check this place out, the instructor was just about to start a class. I jumped right in, straight off the street, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. We did simple things like mount escapes and he let me go live for a bit. From that day on, I was hooked
You were training in street clothes? That’s crazy.
CU: Yeah, I guess. It was a Karate school that also offered some jiu-jitsu classes. Eventually there were some issues with that place, and the instructor wasn’t really into teaching anymore, so I only trained there for about six months. Then I met Jason Scully, and he’s been a part of my journey from that point on. I consider him as one of my big mentors.
How did you progress through the ranks?
CU: I got my blue belt from my first instructor Dave Lentz, then I got my purple belt from Jason Scully, and I got involved with Jared Weiner of BJJ United. After a while, I moved to Maryland for two years to be part of Team Lloyd Irvin – which was an intense experience. When I got back I started training at a few places, including going back to BJJ United to train with Jared. A few of months after I got back I got my brown belt from Jared. He’s also the one who eventually promoted me to black belt, but I’ve always stayed in contact with Jason who I consider my first instructor. My journey has been kind of circular.
Is you school affiliated with any of those people?
CU: Nope. We’re rogue. Actually, I’m a big proponent of that. I stick to the mentality of BJJ Globetrotters. Jiu-jitsu is great, but I think sometimes people add more on to it – business, politics, hierarchy, and strange affiliation scams. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t experienced any of that with any of my instructors personally, but I have seen a lot of friends and school owners deal with that nonsense. I think it’s important to remember that we’re just people who like to train. Sometimes those ‘other’ things ruin relationships. In my school, I let anyone train with everyone. I believe the more you run your school like a dictatorship and try to control people, the more they’ll want to go elsewhere. If you treat people well, they’ll want to stick around.
What was your biggest challenge in learning jiu-jitsu?
CU: Dealing with this fact: The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know. At blue and purple belt, I felt I had all the answers jiu-jitsu could pose. I thought: “Yeah, just do the kiss of the dragon, take their back, and choke ‘em out – duh.” But as you get deeper into the art you realize the subtleties like weight distribution, hip control, and how much the fancy stuff relies on deep basics. Through the course of my training, many times I felt I hit a plateau. The further you get along the more you have to learn. Sometimes that felt like moving backwards. I was just climbing higher up the hill, and then realizing the hill was infinitely higher than I thought. It’s a strange thing to deal with.
Can you describe your game?
CU: I play like a heavyweight, kind of. My big examples are Bernardo Faria and Lucas Leite. I like to use half guard to get on top, pressure pass, and then grind my way to mount and the submission. In the beginning, I was “that” flashy inverted guy. But then you go against people that are extremely good and tight, they can slice through any open space, so I shifted my focus on establishing a tighter, more controlled pressure game. One of my Brazilian coaches used to say: “Make ’em feel DEPRESSURE!!!” I love that expression. It’s its own thing. Depression brought on by jiu-jitsu pressure. That’s what it’s all about.
Take us back to your most memorable competition…
CU: About two years ago I did a Grapplers Quest All Star No-Gi Tournament. In this tournament I realized there’s always an escape, and there’s always a way to win. If you can conceive a way to win in your mind, then you only need a fraction of a second. So, in my first match I won with 10 seconds left on the clock. The second match I won with 15 seconds left. I lost the third match, but that was okay. The lesson was learned. It thought me a mindset that there’s always a way to win, on the mat and in life.
It sounds corny, but that’s something you have to experience to believe.
CU: Yeah, it’s a physical thing that you have to discover. Sure, there’s plenty of information out there that can help guide you to it, like sport psychology books and good coaches that have been there themselves. But I agree that “Just believe in yourself, there’s always a way to win” kind of sounds like a platitude. But you have to live through it.
Do you have a background in sports psychology, or something similar?
CU: Yeah! Actually, no! (laughs). I took a single high school class on that subject and spent one semester in college. While I was doing my first year of my associate’s degree I quit and moved to Maryland to train BJJ fulltime. Around that time, I was teaching jiu-jitsu and competing a lot. My dad had been a musician growing up, and I think he kind of regretted not giving it a full shot himself. He’s still a hippie – make sure you put that in the article. But he said: “Go, give this your all, and follow your dream. If you ever want to go back to school, you can always be the creepy old guy in the back of the classroom.” So I did. People told me back then: “If you leave school now, you’re never going back.” They were right (laughs).
Well, it worked out. You run your own business now.
CU: I think college is a great for some people, but I’m very glad that I decided to do something else before I committed to that path. After I came back from Maryland, I was sure that I wanted to pursue jiu-jitsu for life.
Can you explain why?
CU: Jiu-jitsu is an extremely fun way to develop yourself as a person – physically, mentally, and spiritually. You’re learning the value of hard work and comradery, while dealing with people from way different backgrounds. An 18-year old skateboarder can become best training partners with a 45-year old doctor. I think jiu-jitsu can help you see the world from a different perspective.
Then there’s the real self-defense aspect. Some people get into jiu-jitsu to help them defend against a psycho knife killer stalking them in the shower, which is the least possible thing that’ll kill you. What will get you is obesity. You’re actually defending yourself by working out, being healthy, improving your physique, and lowering your stress.
Furthermore, once you add some goal-setting to your jiu-jitsu – whether it’s competition, getting to your next belt, or losing weight – you’re on a path of subduing negative thoughts by positive affirmations. By believing in yourself. That’s a skill that will help you in all areas of life. And lastly, on the micro level, you can also just focus on working on making your De La Riva guard better. See, there’s a lot of levels to it. That’s what keeps me going.
Who inspires you?
CU: I admire Marcelo Garcia, not only for his competition prowess and his contributions to the technique, but also for the kind of school that he has. I try to visit his place every week, and the way he runs the room is what I want my own academy to be. They train super hard, but when you walk in you feel so welcome. Positive intensity, that’s what I want in jiu-jitsu. Gianni Grippo is also a good friend of mine and a positive influence. Then there’s Jason Scully, he’s helped me a lot. Whenever I feel myself getting pulled into the classic competitor, instructor, and school owner mistakes, he’s there to offer advice. And of course, my father has been a great motivator to chase my dreams – that’s a given. I also have to credit Nelson Puentes and Hillary Witt for encouraging me to build a community.
How did you get hooked up with Inverted Gear?
CU: I started training with them, when Nelson was running the school in North Plainfield. At the time, I was really into no-gi, so they called me no-gi Chris. I loved training there. Then they moved to another location, and I followed them, and we all ended up at BJJ United. It’s funny how our paths kept intersecting. At first, I was just wearing their gi’s because I liked them and I wanted to support their brand. The sponsorship kind of happened naturally. They came to my school for a couple of Reilly seminars, and we did the BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp last summer. Nelson has also helped me with different opportunities and he exposed me to different aspects of jiu-jitsu.
There’s something in improv-comedy called the “Yes! And…”-principle. People also use it in business for brainstorming purposes. Whenever someone says something, you’re supposed to say: “Yes! And…” - then you add something constructive. You never dismiss whatever the other actor throws at you. I think positive people in this world are “Yes! And…”-people. Inverted Gear is run by ‘em. It’s great to be a part of that tribe.”
Chris Ulbricht owns and runs Garden State Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (www.centraljerseybjj.com). He loves to have visitors at his academy, and is available for seminars and workshops. He can be reached on Facebook, or at Gardenstatebjj@gmail.com. You can also follow Garden State BJJ on Instagram at @gardenstatebjj
Daniël Bertina is a journalist, writer, and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony.
The Panda Nation has many awesome citizens, like black belt Frederico Silva, who we introduced in the previous installment of Meet the Pandas. Today, we like to show what drives Kyvann ‘Guapinho’ Jimenez: purple belt competition monster, former bone breaking skateboarder, and videographer extraordinary.
Purple belt Kyvann Jimenez (26) was dragged into jiu-jitsu kicking and screaming by his dad. After years of skateboarding and Muay Thai, that ground-fighting stuff just seemed silly. But once ‘Guapinho’ (a nickname for ‘little handsome guy’) finally got obsessed with the art after an unexpected tournament win, he went on a dominant winning spree, while at the same time working a fulltime job and graduating from college.
So, you didn’t think jiu-jitsu would work?
Kyvann Jimenez: I just thought it was silly and weird. My dad got into it way before me. He started training when I was around nineteen years old. And at that point I was really deep into Muay Thai. I trained in that art for about six years. My dad got hooked on jiu-jitsu and wanted me to try it out, and he kept nagging. I’d done three years of wrestling in high school but I was pretty mediocre, so I didn’t want to start in a new grappling art. I think my 19-year old ego just couldn’t handle it. I’d figure that I’d be able to punch anyone in the face who would try that stuff on me. Finally, my dad wore me down. It took him about three months to get me on the mat. On my first day, I rolled with Dave Phimsipasom, who’s an unassuming little guy, probably a blue belt at the time. Well, Dave beat the ever-living crap out of me. I fell in love right away. When you experience a small guy kicking your ass you REALLY realize that BJJ works.
Did you become a mat-rat right away?
KJ: Not really. I can’t say I was a dedicated student right off the bat, but the main thing that fascinated me, was that I realized I could train with 100% intensity without going home with a concussion. So that was great. For the first year and a half, I trained maybe once or twice a week because I was still doing Muay Thai, but one night I had a rude awakening. After an especially grueling session my dad picked me up, and I was so concussed that I didn’t remember anything about the 45-minute ride home. Pretty scary. That’s when I realized I was done with getting hit in the head.
Where did you start?
KJ: It was a just a small club in a small room here in New Jersey with a handful of guys. Me, my dad, my first instructor Kevin Sheridan, Dave Phimsipasom, and this dude Evan. They merged with North Plainfield Fight Club, and that’s where I first met Nelson Puentes. That place eventually became Maximum Athletics. It’s still my home base. I got all my belts from Kevin Sheridan, and now I do a lot of training at Marcelo Garcia’s in New York. It’s a room full of killers, man. Every roll is a dogfight. I crave that feeling of being totally drained, leaving everything on the mat.
When did you decide to dedicate yourself to jiu-jitsu?
KJ: I got serious after I won the Boston Open at blue belt. Before, I didn’t think I was good enough, and I’d lost tons of tournaments back-to-back. I competed every month, and I just kept losing. After finally winning that tournament, I went on a nine-competition winning streak. That was a great confidence boost. When you first start out, you just can’t see how you reach a black belt level. But by training at Marcelo’s I met a lot of people who actually live the BJJ lifestyle, and who can manage to keep up with a super intense training schedule, while still working a fulltime job. It showed me that it was possible with the right amount of sacrifice.
What are some of your other memorable wins?
KJ: It’s been a struggle, but I got second at the No-Gi Pan Ams. And that’s probably one of my best performances ever. I ran through four opponents and submitted three of them. I lost in the finals to an advantage to a really decent opponent. So I’d say that’s probably the second biggest one. And again at blue belt I did pretty well at the Worlds, although I didn’t win. I did the same thing last year at purple. I beat four opponents before I lost to Cobrinha’s son, Kennedy Maciel. I met him in the semis, and he just destroyed me. I think I let him in my head because Cobrinha was on the sidelines yelling at us. And he’s one of my all-time idols.
Can you describe your routine?
KJ: I wake up at around 6:00am every day. For the first hour, I’ll do hot yoga. After that I’ll do about an hour of drilling, wherever I can. I’m a jiu-jitsu gypsy, so I head out to any gym that has drilling practice at that time—Like my friends the Main Brothers, two black belts under Renzo Gracie. I’ve been visiting their school pretty often. Then I go to work at the Apple Store. After I get home, I train again, every night for sure. On Monday, Wednesday and Thursday I do morning classes too.
That’s insane. How are you not a broken man?
KJ: Actually, I’ve been lucky. I haven’t been seriously injured in jiu-jitsu. But in skateboarding I broke close to 23 bones. Just from the top of my head I tore my ACL, broke both ankles, all my fingers, I jacked up my elbow, my collar bone, my clavicle, and my shin. But I rehabbed everything. Thank God I’m doing pretty well now.
How did you get into filmmaking?
KJ: So, on top of everything I actually went to school and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and Media Arts (with a focus on film) from Montclair State University. In my skateboarding years, I was always making highlight reels. It was a cool way to make myself look a lot better than I was. Four years ago, I got this job at Apple, and I started to dive deep into Final Cut Pro. I spent hours on end working on that program to figure out all the little configurations that most people don’t know about. Now I can make anything I conceptualize. So far, I‘ve done a couple of really cool projects for Inverted Gear.
You did the cinematography for Reilly Bodycomb’s new instructional, right?
KJ: Yeah, that was a blast. His mindset of blending passes with leg attacks really sparked my fascination for leg attacks. It was a game changer. Everyone’s been talking about the Danaher guys with their heel hooks, but Reilly emphasized that you don’t just have to go for that submission in isolation. A lot of things, like guard passes, present themselves once you go for the legs – and vice versa. I’ve never been so inspired by a seminar.
Who are your idols in the art?
KJ: Marcelo Garcia is number one when it comes to mentality. When I started to refine my game, I fell in love with the berimbolo, and in that area Gianni Grippo became a big inspiration to me. And as far as the physical game goes, I study Guilherme Mendes closely because we have a similar body type. And finally when it comes to work ethics, drills, and execution, or my training regimen I look up to Cobrinha a lot. I really admire his no-excuses-just-drill-mentality. The man is relentless, and just won the adult division at the Pan-Ams. That’s crazy.
Somehow, you also found time to start a clothing company.
KJ: Yeah. Bolo Brand is my attempt at giving something back to the BJJ community. It was directly inspired by Nelson, who changed my whole perspective on jiu-jitsu as a vehicle to help others. When he started Inverted Gear he was working out of his mom’s basement, and I was there helping out. At first I assumed it was about making money, but his main idea was just to make something cool that people would enjoy. Something that wasn’t this big-boy-macho-skull-and-flame nonsense. After that he contributed to Tap Cancer Out and gave sponsorships to people that really deserved them. Eventually I’d like to do a similar fundraiser or project for a good cause with Bolo Brand. I’m less interested in selling a specific product, but I’d like Bolo Brand to be more of a media-hub. A cool brand for content production.
How have you applied jiu-jitsu to your life?
KJ: I’ve always loved problem solving. But in my day-to-day life, I was unable to do that. My first instructor Kevin Sheridan changed my outlook. As soon as I started training jiu-jitsu and understanding what it took to improve in the art, I found some direction. I went to school and got a better job, and it blossomed me into the person I wanted to be. The biggest thing he used to say was: “Don’t knock the door down. Pick the lock.” See, I never thought of sh#t like that before. It’s a simple little mantra that I repeat to myself daily, and it’s really helped me out in everything that comes my way. Before I used to say: “Oh well I didn’t get that job, so I won’t work for it. I’m just not qualified.” As opposed to saying: “There’s definitely a way for me to get in there, if they see what kind of person I am.” It’s a little shift in mindset that changed everything.
Also the destruction of my ego helped me a lot, because I used to be super arrogant in everything I did – and being totally unaware of it. I used to say: “Well, I already know that detail, so I don’t have to listen” in every part of my life. Jiu-jitsu makes you realize that you might already know a certain technique, but there might be one little thing that another person does differently, that might be extremely helpful. Jiu-jitsu just opens you up. It makes you like a sponge instead of a dried-out rock.
What did you struggle with the most?
KJ: Letting go of my ego. I would always roll super hard and use my A-game. But I would never adapt or explore other positions. I would only stick to the stuff I knew would beat the others in class. Developing the weak aspects of my game would mean that I’d ‘lose’ – and I couldn’t handle that mentally. It was Nelson who had to beat that out of me, by wrecking me every day he made sure that my ego was broken. But in a good way, in the best way.
You made a hilarious video of your mom making fun of your cauliflower ears. Does the whole family give you grief?
KJ: Yep. The entire family joins in. Whenever we eat empanadas, everyone likes to point out how much they look like my ears. My dad’s a purple belt too, but he’s barely got any cauliflower. I got mine mostly from Muay Thai. The inner ear blew up from me catching hits and clinching. Jiu-jitsu just exploded them. It’s all good though.
What are you focusing on now?
KJ: I’m training super hard for the Worlds. I even took some time off work. I’m debating whether or not I should cut weight so I can face Kennedy again, because I really want to fight him. Perhaps I’ll stay at my natural weight, which is Feather. It’s strange. I’ve never ever had the urge for a revenge match, but I’m itching for this one. The first time we fought I didn’t perform to my level. Just want to prove to myself that I can do better. At the very least I want to be there mentally and put on a good show.
Why do sacrifice so much for this art?
KJ: There’s nothing in my life that allows me to bond with other individuals as much as jiu-jitsu. On the mat you encounter people from all walks of life. Truthfully, what keeps me coming back is the people and the good vibes. I’ve yet to come across ‘that’ bulldog douchebag jiu-jitsu guy. We just beat each other up, and we learn and grow together. That’s priceless.
Follow Kyvann Jimenez on Instagram @kyvannjj and @bolobrand.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist, writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony.