First, people. They show respect, compassion and kindness to every individual, regardless of background or ability.
Second, craft. Their life is driven by a love of their craft—not a passion for. Passion is a different, dangerous animal. It is a hot, harsh ephemeral thing. Love is cooler, more gentle, more enduring. They’re fascinated by the origins of their craft, it’s future development, the contradictions and problems it presents, and most importantly, the impact it can make in other people’s lives.
Which of these is more connected to someone’s competence as a leader or teacher? Caring about people or caring about their craft? I don’t know. But Darren Yeoman, head instructor of the gym where I practice jiu-jitsu, has both of these things in abundance. That much is apparent to anyone who has been the recipient of his teaching, or listens to him talking about the craft he has dedicated his life to.
DARREN: A lot of the concepts remain the same throughout. The difference with modern jiu-jitsu is the styles that have blended into it. You’ve got guys like the Mendes brothers; they’ve developed a whole new system of jiu-jitsu which is incredibly effective. Americans have put a lot of wrestling-based stuff into their system. Sambo has been integrated into jiu-jitsu. There’s lots of different styles.
But I tend to find these things quite cyclical. You’ll get a year or two where someone’s doing something fancy in competition and everyone’s struggling with it. He’s nailing everybody. Then the next year it’s something else. There’s something different that’s nailing everybody. It goes full circle…
MATT: … and people forget about the old thing and focus on the new thing?
DARREN: Exactly. Closed guard becomes the next big thing. A couple of years ago it was all about Berimbolos. Things have evolved since then. You’ve got guys like Keenan Cornelius doing Worm Guard.
The problem with modern jiu-jitsu is everyone’s trying to invent something new. Everyone’s trying to be… To have fancy techniques that completely befuddle their opponent. But it’s not necessary. If you have good basics, good principles, and the ability to work out how to shut these things down, you don’t have to learn all the different tricks.
You need your basic principles and your foundation game, whatever that specific game is to each individual. By purple or brown belt, people tend to find what they’re good at. It’s not that they can’t develop in other areas. But I think one of the biggest problems for students is trying to learn everything.
They need to do Worm Guard, they need to do Berimbolos, they need to invert all the time, they need all these different styles. But it’s not necessary if you can understand what’s going, if you can break it down; work out the leverage, the pressure, the timing and things like that. You don’t have to step into all the fads. You can just work it out as you go. That’s my take on it because I can’t learn all that stuff, not in one go. It’s a lot.
MATT: I think that might come from seeing everyone else around you, and what level they’re at. It’s like, “I want to be this good,” “I want to be able to do that.” Or “he knows this” and “he knows that.” How do you get around that?
DARREN: One of the ways is to try and show people that it’s not about what the person is using.
If you have a guy in competition who’s doing particularly well—someone like Galvao or Rafa Mendes—and they’re using a particular guard or style of jiu-jitsu, people will spend too much time emulating what they see, instead of being original. Instead of using their own jiu-jitsu and being very good at what they do.
I try to say to people, “look, you’ve got a really good half guard,” or “you’ve got a really good spider guard. Why don’t you just focus on getting really good at that, rather than trying to emulate what you see on YouTube, or what the guy at the gym who kicks your ass does? Why try and be like that guy? That style works for him. Those mechanics work for him. They might not work for you. You have a lot of success with this.”
You can’t replace ability with tricks. You’ve got to train and be good at a specific area, rather than trying to take a shortcut and find some trick that’s going to give you a fast route to stardom and brilliance in jiu-jitsu. It’s not going to work.
Look at the Japanese. They tend to be really good at two or three throws. For years they dominated Judo. It wasn’t because of their vast variety. It was because they made themselves really good at two or three specific throws. They know everything about those throws; how to set them up, how to counter people. They just smashed everybody because of that.
It doesn’t have to be fancy. It’s just being good at what you do.
MATT: Do you think that’s the difference between beginners and more advanced people? People at a lower level think, “I’ve got to try and be good at that because so-and-so is good at that.” Whereas the more advanced, the ones that are more successful in competition, they know what they’re good at. And rather than trying to change that, they focus on manipulating the contest so they end up in situations where they know they’re strong.
DARREN: That’s actually a very successful strategy to use in competitions. A lot of guys do that.
MATT: Forcing them to play your game, rather than them imposing their game on you.
DARREN: That’s a very competition-based jiu-jitsu style. I like things to be a little more fluid, a little bit more open. I like to see what happens and be reactive, which maybe isn’t the best for jiu-jitsu.
Take Keenan as an example. He’s really good with his Worm Guard. When he ties people up, he’s got a grip on the lapel, it’s so hard to break down because he’s got so much control from there. He understands the position really well.
That’s a very good strategy for competitions which will make you better at winning and scoring points.
MATT: Do you think that approach can retard your development? Because then you’re just focused on that one thing.
DARREN: I’ve known that to happen. Some people get really good at a specific position, or a few specific techniques. They’ll smash everybody with them. But put them in an area outside their comfort zone and they really struggle. They spend ninety percent of their time studying the stuff they’re really good at, or what works for competition, and then massively neglect other areas.
If your main focus is competing, then take the stuff that works for you in competition and focus on that. But at the same time, you need to remember that there are other aspects to jiu-jitsu. It’s not just about winning competitions. For me, jiu-jitsu is the ability to adapt, to flow, to work things out organically, rather than having a pre-planned set of moves.
It’s great to have moves and a position you can get to and go, “I know this really well. I can force the guy here. I can stop him doing this.” That’s great. That’s a big part of jiu-jitsu. The other part is turning up with an empty mind and…
MATT: Feeling it out?
DARREN: Feeling it out. Flowing with whatever they give you. Yeah.
MATT: Do you know who Josh Waitzkin is?
DARREN: No, name doesn’t ring a bell.
MATT: He’s a black belt under Marcelo Garcia. He was a former chess champion, and a…
DARREN: Yes, I’ve heard about this guy.
MATT: … tai-chi push hands champion. He wrote a great book called The Art of Learning. I think he said that jiu-jitsu is like human chess.
MATT: Figuring out the structure of the board and finding a strategy to solve the problem. Is that how you see it?
DARREN: Jiu-jitsu is commonly known as human chess. Maybe that’s why I’m not very good at actual chess. I don’t have all these strategic sets.
MATT: Because there’s too many possible situations?
DARREN: Exactly. You need to recognise positions in jiu-jitsu. You need to be able to say, “I know what this position is. I know what this guy is looking for. I understand the pressure. I understand the timing here. I understand when I don’t feel safe. I understand how connected I am to the other person. I understand when I need to move, when I can rest, and put all these different things together.” Being able to understand and adapt is a really important aspect.
Yeah, it’s great to have a strategy. For example, Marcelo Garcia, he’s got a particular style of jiu-jitsu. He likes to use his butterfly guard a lot. He can get in underneath people and lift their weight. He can elevate them, and then he starts to manipulate their legs. He’ll put their weight over to one side, take the weight off their other leg and attack that leg and sweep people very easily.
He obviously has planned moves that link together; one, two, three, four. It doesn’t mean going into the competition he’s saying, “I’m going to go into that position and hit this sweep.” I imagine he doesn’t have that in his mind before he competes.
You’ve got to have some stuff ready so that you can react to what happens. But there’s a difference between saying, “I’m going to get to this particular guard. Then I’m going do this and this and this, and the other guy won’t be able to stop me doing it,” and having a bunch of linked techniques or sequences you can recognise and activate in a situation.
MATT: That’s high level stuff. Having that kind of perception. Or is it not?
DARREN: I suppose.
MATT: Is that something you can teach people when they’re relatively new to jiu-jitsu? Or does that come from time on the mat?
DARREN: There’s different styles. The Brazilians, they have a meat grinder approach to jiu-jitsu. Everybody just keeps fighting. I don’t know if they have such planned strategic techniques.
The Americans have applied a lot of science to their style of jiu-jitsu. It tends to be more scientific. More pre-planned.
I like both aspects. It’s not one over the other. I think they mix well. But it’s a really interesting problem. “What is best?” Do you plan everything so that whatever position you get to, you’re ten moves ahead of the other person? Or do you want to go there and have a completely open, relaxed mind and just let your body react to whatever happens on the mat?
MATT: I don’t know how familiar you are with things like the Bushido warrior code. Ideas like no-mind, stance-no-stance, the void…
DARREN: That free-flowing…
DARREN: Definitely. You don’t stress yourself out. You keep your mind clear. You just react to whatever happens. I guess you could say I’m an exponent of that because that’s what I really enjoy in jiu-jitsu. I don’t like to be stressed. I wouldn’t enjoy going out and getting out to the same position over and over again and beating a guy with the same thing.
MATT: It’s not fun.
DARREN: It’s no fun. Exactly.
MATT: Unless winning is your fun.
DARREN: That is what drives some people. It’s definitely not what drives me. Maybe if it did, I would have won a few more competitions.
I just love how you can let yourself go, just let your body move and switch off.
I say switch off, but at the same time, your brain’s always engaged in what’s going on. Telling your body where to put pressure, where to shut the other guy down, how to move, when to react, all these different things. For me, that’s the beauty of it.
The style where you force people to positions and impose your game on them, it’s not for me. But it’s definitely good for competitions.
MATT: Where does your jiu-jitsu philosophy come from?
DARREN: I think it’s just experience. I’ve had a lot of different instructors over the years. I’ve learnt lots from various people.
MATT: So where did you start off? How did you first get into this?
DARREN: I used to watch a lot of Bruce Lee films. I think that’s where it all started. I love Bruce Lee films. I loved his ethos on training a little bit of everything. One specific thing wasn’t better than another. Just try everything, put it all together and become the complete fighter.
Shortly after that, when I was in the Army, I caught hold of the first UFCs. I’m a classic case of watching Royce Gracie taking people apart and going, “wow, that’s so cool. That’s what I want to do!”
Before that came out, I was training judo as well. Judo is where I started. I loved the ground work. In fact, before that in primary school … I’m missing a stage here.
MATT: Fighting in the playground?
DARREN: Our fight was WWF wrestling. That was my thing. I loved the WWF. It was awesome. All through primary school, and the beginning part of secondary school. When I moved on to the Army I was like, “I love grappling.”
MATT: What about it did you love? The competition?
DARREN: It was real. I started to discover that being able to grapple, I could take another person and completely… That person could be bigger than me, they could be a karate guy. They could have all different kinds of skills. But because I was quite good at grappling, if I could put them on the floor, I could dominate that person. It was like, “Wow, this is so cool.” It was a real confidence booster.
I was quite an insecure child. I wasn’t very confident. When I found grappling, that was one thing I was really good at. That gave me a lot of confidence. Grappling with people in primary school, I used to love it. It was so much fun.
MATT: I don’t which primary school you went to. I went to a primary school where you definitely wouldn’t have been allowed to grapple anybody.
DARREN: I guess we’re different ages aren’t we. How old are you now?
MATT: Twenty five.
DARREN: I’m thirty six.
MATT: You definitely wouldn’t be able to grapple at primary school now.
DARREN: You don’t think so?
MATT: No. They would shut that down.
DARREN: No way.
MATT: For sure.
DARREN: We used to just get lost. We’d go down to the bottom field and that was it. We’d wait for lunchtime and we’d wrestle. One person would be the Legion of Doom and the other would be the Bush Whackers and we’d spend the whole of lunchtime just wrestling and fighting. There was always one guy that beat everyone. And there was always one guy you’d end up in a stalemate with. At the end of lunchtime, we’d go, “oh, we’ve run out of time. We’ve got to go back to class.” There was never a final champion. This happened on a daily basis.
I enjoyed it. It was great fitness. It was something I felt I was good at. It gave me confidence. Then I guess the next step after that was seeking out Judo in the Army
MATT: What age did you go into the Army?
MATT: As soon as you were out of school and college?
DARREN: That’s it. I had done my A-levels. I didn’t do half the work. I was off down the pub and stuff. All my friends were going to university and I was like, “wait a minute. I don’t really know what I want to do.”
MATT: I know what that feels like.
DARREN: I had a mid-life crisis at eighteen. “Shit, I don’t know what, but I want to do something. Join the Army. That sounds fun.”
MATT: The forces are pretty good at getting you to pursue your interests aren’t they?
DARREN: They are now I think.
MATT: Not so much back then?
DARREN: I had to seek it out myself. I was lucky. There was a warrant officer that was kicking around and he loved traditional jiu-jitsu. He really liked Judo as well.
I heard about it through a friend: this warrant officer was offering some training down at the gym. I popped my head, had a go, and yeah, just kept going. A lot of the other guys fell off, didn’t bother, weren’t really that interested in it. There was always me, Sam, John, and Craig. There was about four of us that regularly trained.
MATT: Do you still speak to these guys now?
DARREN: No, I haven’t spoken to those guys for a long time. I stayed in contact for a little while but…
MATT: … life happens.
DARREN: I stayed in the Army for a couple of years. We used to spend six hours in the gym training. One of the guys was in the Army Judo squad. He used to chuck me through the mats, from one end of the room to the other. He’d just bounce me off the mats, and I loved it. I don’t know why.
MATT: You’d get back up and have a grin on your face?
DARREN: That’s it. After watching the UFC, we started doing some MMA. One would be a boxer, the other would be a grappler. We’d just fight and scrap. The PTs, they’d look in on us and say, “get on lads. Well done.”
They actually gave us a room to ourselves when everybody else had to go off and do runs and things like that. They saw how hard we were working. How hard we were training. They were like, “crack on guys. Stick your mats down, go in there. Enjoy your training time. You probably work harder in there than everybody else out there running. So just enjoy it.”
They did encourage us, but it wasn’t like there was…
MATT: … anyone championing it? Taking up the cause?
DARREN: No. No one was recruiting or anything like that. I got the opportunity to compete for the Army a couple of times. Other than that, it was just, “do what you can.”
MATT: When you came out of the Army, where did you go? In terms of jiu-jitsu I suppose, but personally as well.
DARREN: I almost stayed in. I just loved training and fighting.
MATT: There was nowhere else that could give you that freedom?
DARREN: Exactly. I spent six hours a day training. Where else am I going to do that?
MATT: How long has Fightworx been open?
DARREN: About six years, and before that, in another gym, two years.
MATT: So there’s an eight year gap between leaving the Army and starting your own place?
DARREN: Yeah, it’s about eight. I was in engineering for about ten years. When I came out of the Army I was hunting around for things to do. I was like, “what is there around?” I ended up doing hapkido because it was the closest thing I could find to grappling at the time.
MATT: What’s hapkido?
DARREN: It’s like taekwondo, but they have some arm locks and some very rigid techniques. I liked it a lot. The holds, the jumps, the spinning kicks. That was fun. I knew back then I wanted to do Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but it just wasn’t around. It just didn’t exist.
MATT: You knew about it, but there just wasn’t anyone in the areas?
DARREN: After watching the UFC when I was eighteen, I was like, “oh my god, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I love this. This is amazing.” But there was no one around doing it.
MATT: The tools we have today, access to…
DARREN: Oh no, no gyms.
MATT: …all the resources.
DARREN: What I did find was the SFUK forum. Submission Fighting UK, which existed before the BJJ Underground. That’s the place where submission fighters in the UK went to organise events, seminars and things like that.
It was quite a small group of guys. I found out on the forum that there was someone in Paignton that was interested in grappling. I was like, “Okay, who’s this guy then? I need to find this guy.”
MATT: You were down in Torquay, in that area this whole time?
DARREN: Yeah. I’d just been searching for ages. Why had I not found this guy? It was Paul Carthy. He ran a club called the CEA. Combative Edge Academy. They did a mixture of kickboxing and Escrima, and they’d done some grappling as well.
It wasn’t Brazilian jiu-jitsu or anything like that.
MATT: It was an amalgamation of different stuff they’d picked up?
DARREN: I think it was based around the Bruce Lee concepts. Doing a little bit of everything.
I just loved grappling. I went down there and met him. It was really weird. The first time I met him was at a church hall in Brixham. I got there, all ready to go. He said, “you should meet these guys.” I was super nervous. “Let’s get in. Let’s do some grappling” he said. But all the mats were chained up. The person who had the key didn’t turn up and I had to go home again. I was gutted.
The next time I met him was at Paignton bus station. In a house with some mats on the floor. It was grotty. There was a sofa in there, and they let these dogs sleep on the sofa and stuff. Hairs everywhere. Dirty, grotty, old jigsaw mats.
I turned up and met Paul. We had a little chat. He had his SFUK hoody on. “Yeah, let’s do this!” he said. There were these bloody great monsters, these big bodybuilder types in the house. “Oh, my, god. Look at the size of these guys.” Then Paul sodded off. He left. He was like, “All right, bye then. I’m not training today.” He left me with these other guys.
I ended up having a bit of a tear up with these big bloody strongmen. They all liked doing MMA. It was fun.
I turned up to more sessions, and suddenly, Paul realised he loved grappling and that I loved grappling, so we ended up doing that together.
MATT: For most people, that would be an intimidating environment to be in. Were you intimidated? Or was that outweighed by your interest in grappling?
DARREN: I was always super intimidated. As a kid, I wanted to do Thai boxing. But I was too scared to go up the stairs to the Thai boxing gym. I asked Mum and Dad and they said, “No, you can’t do Thai boxing.” I was really annoyed that I couldn’t do it, but kind of relieved that I didn’t have to go in there.
There were a few little spit and sawdust, really intimidating combat gyms around.
MATT: Hard knock sort of places?
MATT: A while ago, Matt Male said about this classic catch wrestling gym up north that was renowned for being hard as. For brutalising the people that went there. Eventually, it closed down.
DARREN: There were lots of places like that. Where everyone glared at you when you walked in. Where only the tough guys would ever dare go.
I wasn’t a tough guy at all. I was proper nervous about this whole thing. But I knew I wanted to do it because I loved it. I loved grappling. I loved fighting. It was something I was good at. I had to do something. When I found Paul it was good because he loved it too.
MATT: He had a similar mindset, or was he more comfortable in that environment than you?
DARREN: Paul had been doing it longer than me. He’s always been a lot more confident than me. He was always teaching.
It wasn’t until later on that he started to encourage me to teach. I had a bit more experience than some of the other guys. He was like, “why don’t you teach some of your stuff? You love those things, why don’t you teach these guys, run this session?” I was super nervous. Years down the line, I’m teaching all the time and I’m not nervous about it anymore.
He is the reason that I’m here, doing this now, because if he hadn’t pushed me to teach then I never would have had the self-confidence, or the gumption to get on and do it.
MATT: Where did the idea for Fightworx come from? I assume you’d been teaching for a while.
DARREN: After training with Paul for a little while, the club changed. Paul put more of an emphasis on the grappling. The club changed from what was a kickboxing and Escrima and grappling gym, into more of a grappling gym. He phased out a lot of the kickboxing stuff.
The guy that he ran the gym with at the time gradually lost interest, doing family stuff and things like that. He wasn’t so into grappling. The Combative Edge Academy turned into Torbay Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
I’ve skipped a bit here. Paul basically… How did it work? We got involved with Roberto Atalla, who was a travelling black belt. He came into the country and Paul got him down for a seminar. Wait, I’m missing something. Before that, we didn’t have Roberto Atalla, we didn’t have anybody. We had to go away.
We went up to London to train with Roger Gracie and Carlson Gracie Junior. Then we went to Oldham to train with Rafael “Gordinho” Correa who came over a couple of times. We really had to travel some distances.
MATT: Were they really formative influences on you lot, those journeys, or have they just faded?
DARREN: The journeys reminded me of how committed I was to training. The seven, eight hour trip to go train with a BJJ black belt who had come over. You only had this one week opportunity. You could train with him for one or two days. I don’t even remember how much it cost now. It didn’t matter. It was just, “I need to go and train with these guys.” We went to a few seminars and then we’d come back and show the other guys what we learned.
Then it started. “We really need to do Brazilian jiu-jitsu. We need to do more of this. Let’s see if we can get someone down.”
Because there wasn’t many BJJ guys around until later on, we just took it where we could get it. If someone was in the country, we’d go and train with them. Or if we had enough people and we could afford to, we’d pay for a seminar and get someone over.
Going back to where Fightworx came from, our club turned into Torbay Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. For many years it was Torbay BJJ. We went away to competitions. We had various instructors, got graded by them, and the club grew. We were always training out of our little dance studio in the back of a gym.
MATT: Was it similar to how Somerset Jiu-Jitsu Alliance started? Just a few guys. They’ve got a common cause but don’t really have a place to do it.
DARREN: That’s exactly what it was.
MATT: Just do what you can.
DARREN: Get together. Advertise a little bit. People come and train. It wasn’t about making money or anything. It was just a bunch of guys with a common interest that wanted to grapple together. As long as we could pay the mat fees, we could pay the rent for the hall, then everyone was happy.
That’s how things were for a really long time until we got so popular, and there was so many people training, that we were renting more and more slots in this gym. I was like, “we’re paying this gym four, five hundred pounds a month for mat fees of twenty pound an hour. This is a lot of money. We’ve been doing this a long time. This is a mortgage. I could rent a place and we could have it ourselves. Full time. Train any time in the day we want to. It would be less money than what we’re actually paying now.”
I mentioned it to Paul and he goes, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” He didn’t think too much of it. But I was like, “I’m going to do it!”
It took a little while, but at that time, Paul had taken a bit of a step back from jiu-jitsu to spend time with his family.
I ended up teaching a lot more classes, all the time, and it was pretty busy. I was like, “you know what? Screw it. I’m going to take the plunge. I’m going to invest some money. I’m going to get this industrial unit. I’m going to buy a load of mats. I’m going to turn this into a full-time training group. It’s going to be awesome.”
That’s the way it was initially. It gradually grew into a business. It grew into something I had to turn into a business so that I could make sure the rent was paid. Make sure there was some structure with people and their membership fees.
MATT: Did that transition change the relationship you had with BJJ? Is it different now than it was before, with that overhead and the obligation to continue what you started?
DARREN: That didn’t change until I quit my job. When I quit my job in engineering to run the academy full time.
MATT: Was that long after it opened? A couple years?
DARREN: Maybe not a couple of years. Maybe just one year. I decided I could probably make a living out of it, but I needed to spend… I was at work on my phone fifty percent of the day. My boss was getting really pissed off at me. I was answering customer inquiries and things like that all the time.
I needed to decide what I wanted to do. I was unhappy in my job. Redundancies were looming anyway. “I’ll just do it. Stop complaining about your job. You want something? Go and get it. Give it a try, what the hell. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I can just get another job.” It was my dream.
MATT: It wasn’t risky for you to do that? You’d already established a local base. It wasn’t all-or-nothing?
DARREN: There was already something established. There wasn’t enough money for me to take a wage. It was at a point where it was paying for itself. I was earning a decent wage from engineering. But I was like, “if I work on this full time, I’m sure I can get more students, more sessions.”
I’ve missed a big step here. I got involved with Kris Barras, who was a local Thai boxer. He wanted to do MMA, so he came over to train jiu-jitsu. He trained with me for ages and he got good. He was a very good Thai boxer, so then he said, “you know, I’ll teach some Thai boxing classes for you if you like.” That’s how the boxing side of things started to grow.
After a while, it was evident that there were so many people interested people interested in MMA.
MATT: Was this at the point where MMA, and the interest in martial arts and jiu-jitsu, were just starting to creep up?
DARREN: That’s it. It was just taking off. Not jiu-jitsu so much. It was when MMA started to take off and everybody was…
MATT: I suppose jiu-jitsu has only rocketed in the last few years?
DARREN: Exactly. People didn’t really understand what jiu-jitsu was. But they understood MMA and they loved MMA because it looked like this brutal cage fighting sport. Everybody thought they were a tough guy. They wanted to come down, do that and be superstars. It was a masculine thing to do and it attracted a lot of people.
Then they started to understand. “Oh, actually I need to learn this grappling. This grappling is fun as well.” They’d come over for the MMA and they’d stay for the jiu-jitsu. That’s the same formula that I tend to use now. I get people asking about jiu-jitsu, but I get more people asking about MMA. I say, “okay, cool, you want to do MMA? Learn a bit of Thai boxing, learn a bit of jiu-jitsu.” They begin to come to some of the beginner sessions; Then they start to go, “oh man, there is so much learn here. I really enjoy this.”
MATT: Is that a common conversion? People start off wanting to do MMA and end up specialising in grappling or striking? One thing just draws them in more.
DARREN: Most people are pretty delusional when they come down to the gym. They want to be cage fighters, but they don’t quite realise how hard all the different aspects of training to get to that level are.
You get a few guys that want to train a bit and jump in a cage in three, six months time and have a bash. Some of them realise, “wow, this is really difficult. If I want to be good at this then I need to get good at jiu-jitsu. I need to get good at Thai boxing.” They stay longer, and then they start to listen.
It’s the ones that want everything right now. They never last. Typically, we say, “why don’t you spend six months concentrating on your Thai boxing. Get your fitness up. Learn how to punch and kick. Maybe do a couple inter-clubs or competitions. If you’re still interested in MMA then later, you’ll need to start working on your jiu-jitsu as well.
Eight years down the line, we’ve had some good MMA fighters come up that way. Guys that work their way up to purple belt, have pro Thai boxing fights and things like that. Those people have the two most important elements and they’ve stuck at it. But very few actually see the training through and become good.
What we found was that we’d have a massive drop-off rate for MMA. So instead of trying to push MMA… Those people only wanted to turn up once or twice a week, but they still wanted to fight. You knew they were never gonna get anywhere with it. I’d say to them, “why don’t you do jiu-jitsu? Why don’t you do Thai boxing?” I’d say, in the most polite way, “you’re never going to be able to fight MMA. If you want to fight in three months time and you’re only training once a week, what do you expect? That’s never going to happen.”
It’s about trying to manage people’s expectations. You lose a lot of people. A lot of people just want to fight.
MATT: Are there any common misconceptions that people have about jiu-jitsu? About grappling in general? About combat sports and martial arts?
DARREN: I don’t think anybody realises how technical it it. They think it’s just rolling round. “I’ve watched the UFC. Why the hell doesn’t he just push him off and stand up?” They massively underestimate the jiu-jitsu.
Trying to explain that to people when they start is difficult because they think they’re going to be brilliant. Especially if they’re strong and athletic.
Then suddenly, they realise they can’t move because a sixty kilo guy is pinning them down, and they’re like one hundred kilos. They’re like, “why can’t I get this guy off me? Why am I getting choked? What’s happening? I don’t understand this.”
They have to make a choice. They can dig in and learn what just happened to them. Learn to get good at this thing.
MATT: Or just keep denying it.
DARREN: Or the other thing is they go to a different gym. Where the level isn’t as good. They go where a Taekwondo guy is teaching “grappling.” They go in there and their athleticism allows them to chop people around and feel good about themselves. That wouldn’t happen in a proper jiu-jitsu club where people have been training for a long time.
Ego is a massive problem for most people coming through the door, especially the bigger lads. But if they stick it out for a few months they get bitten by the bug.
MATT: I played different sports growing up. Swimming, football, basketball. One of the biggest things I’ve found from jiu-jitsu is that it satisfies this really primitive drive. That drive to compete against other people. It satisfies…
DARREN: … the primal instinct to dominate the other person.
DARREN: It’s a genetic thing. Most men have it. Probably more men than women have this need to prove their dominance, to be effective survivalists.
MATT: I think that’s what it is. When you mentioned the sense of power that jiu-jitsu gave you, it’s not like you’re some evil genius. It’s the power to defend yourself, or be comfortable against opposition.
DARREN: It’s not so much power. It’s the empowerment it gives you to know that you’re safe. That if you were attacked and on the floor, you could get up safely. If someone got you in a headlock, you could get them off. Things like that.
MATT: Another thing I’ve found in jiu-jitsu is composure. If someone attacked you, of course it’s going to be a surprise, but if you have grappling experience, that surprise won’t affect you as much because you’re used to being in that situation.
DARREN: Physical contact.
MATT: Having someone invading your personal space.
DARREN: It’s not such a shock.
MATT: That’s the highest part of the game. Controlling yourself allows you to control someone else.
DARREN: Totally. That’s something I try to get across.
MATT: The personal space issue a very female thing. I keep trying to persuade Molly to do jiu-jitsu. Her first response is, “I don’t like it when people are that close to me.” I’m smacking my head. “That’s the reason you should do it. So if someone is attacking you’re not like, ‘ARGHHHHH!’”
DARREN: I get a lot of people who are police, military, NHS workers, and want to learn something so they can protect themselves.
MATT: That’s the original idea behind jiu-jitsu right? Self-defence.
DARREN: The self-defence style of jiu-jitsu is very different from sport jiu-jitsu. The problem I have with guys who come down and want to learn to look after themselves is that they just want to do a few sessions. And I say, “look, it’s kind of pointless me just showing you a few things. Or you doing some privates or half a dozen classes. Because if you want to be capable of defending yourself, there’s no shortcut.”
You have to train these things on a regular basis so that they become natural. Let’s say you get attacked and knocked to the floor. Your instincts will kick in, your training will kick in. But you only get that through regular training.
It really pisses me off when people offer self-defense courses that claim to be the only thing you’ll ever need. “Do this eight week course and be able to take on anybody.” It gives people a false sense of comfort. It probably causes more harm than good.
I used to get a lot of people who had been bullied. Women as well, they lack self-confidence and say, “I want to be able to defend myself.” I’m like, “look, it’s going to be a waste of time just doing a private here and there. It’s not going to help. You need to do regular jiu-jitsu sessions if you’re serious about this. If you want to be good at defending yourself, there’s no alternative.”
I know half of them will just go down the road to the karate guy. The karate guy will say, “yeah, no problem. I’ll give you some sessions. I’ll show you how to defend yourself against a hundred kilo attacker.”
They’ll believe it, but it’s a very dangerous thing. I don’t want to bullshit people. If they want to be good there is no compromise. For woman, jiu-jitsu is the most important combat sport.
MATT: If you’re a woman, it’s likely that you’re going to be attacked by a man. And he’s going to be bigger and stronger than you. That’s what jiu-jitsu is about isn’t it?
DARREN: It’s teaching you to use leverage and timing. To be a small person able to defend against a larger attacker.
If you’re a small person–a girl or a guy, it doesn’t make any difference–and you’ve got a hundred kilo meathead coming at you, trying to knock your block off, you’re not going to stand there and box with the guy. You won’t have the physical strength, be able to hit as hard or defend the blows. The only thing that makes sense in that circumstance is to use whatever leverage you can.
That’s not to say it’s always going to work. Sometimes, size and strength is so overwhelming that it doesn’t matter how much you know. You’re just going to get smashed. But if you have a girl who is sixty kilos and a black belt in jiu-jitsu, facing a guy who doesn’t know anything, I’d fancy the girl’s chances in that altercation.
But I do understand, that from a female’s perspective, it’s very intimidating. It’s a very close-up combat sport.
MATT: Especially when it’s not considered normal for women to even practice martial arts. Even here at Fightworx, I can count the woman who practice on one or two hands.
DARREN: Definitely. We’ve got maybe two or three woman, a few junior girls as well.
MATT: It’s a catch twenty-two. There’s not enough woman to run a woman-only class, but because there isn’t a woman-only class, not as many woman will do it.
DARREN: That’s exactly the problem. I’ve thought about doing it before.
Also, with women, there tend to be a lot of problems with things like child care. It’s obviously a problem with men too, but I don’t notice it as much because there so many more men.
It’s very difficult for them to maintain that consistency. Women get pregnant. They have families. A lot of women stay at home while their husbands are at work. They’re the ones looking after the kids so they don’t have as much freedom to do stuff like that.
I don’t know. That’s probably a very small part of why fewer women do jiu-jitsu than men. It’s much more to do with the intimidating environment.
MATT: It’s intimidating for a guy to come in to aswell. You arrive and there’s people that are just super comfortable with the conflict that’s happening all over the place.
DARREN: That’s one of the reasons why my approach with Fightworx is to make it more commercial. To have more families involved, kids training, things like that. “Well, there’s kids there. It can’t be that bad.”
I think about the spit and sawdust gyms I used to go into. I was terrified of them. How many people were missing out? How many people… The people that need the martial arts, that need to do the combat sports, that need jiu-jitsu the most are the ones that are going to be afraid to go in the first place. The people that really need it are ostracised.
So I thought, if I could make it more commercial, more clean, more friendly, more of a sport…
MATT: It might take the edge of.
DARREN: There’s a lot of imagery associated with MMA. Skulls and blood and chain fences. It gives a very negative view of the combat sports.
I’ve steered away from MMA partly because the MMA guys never last. They come down to train, realise it’s difficult, then disappear. It’s so much work trying to keep the MMA guys together because they come down for the wrong reasons.
But when you come in the door here, you see that everyone is super friendly. The place is clean. Everything is as it should be. There’s no blood spatters. There’s no guy with his top off screaming and beating the hell out of another guy. It’s not so intimidating.
Of course, you’ve got to have your fighting side. But when people come down to a beginner’s session, they need to see lots of other people, just like them, who they can train with. They don’t need to be worried about it because they’re not the only beginner in the class. They don’t need to be intimidated because they’re there to learn something.
I hate the image that a lot of fight gyms have because it ostracises the people that need combat sports the most. That’s why I try to make Fightworx is friendly and clean.
MATT: It’s a friendly environment and a nice atmosphere. A good place to train. But how do you reconcile that philosophy with the ruthlessness that’s required to compete at the highest level? With that hard edge? Is that difficult to balance out?
DARREN: The people who are good fighters, genuinely good fighters, who have put a lot of time and effort in, don’t have the ego or intimidation factor. Some of the best fighters I know are the nicest, humblest people you’ll ever meet.
MATT: So it’s a non-issue?
DARREN: It’s not a non-issue. We still have serious fighters who are training for competitions. They need to be shouted at and be smashing the pads. I just want to separate that from the beginners. Sometimes, it’s good because the beginners see them training for fights and are like, “I want to be like that.”
MATT: I think ruthless was the wrong word. More like intensity. How do you maintain the intensity in training while trying…
DARREN: …to be friendly and stop people getting their head kicked in? You’ve just got to separate the classes. Beginner’s sessions. Advanced sessions. Competition training. Technique drilling.
And you’ve got to have people that you trust. You’ve got to have experienced people who have control, who have that ability…
MATT: Who know when to turn it on and when to turn it off.
DARREN: Exactly. To change gears as they need to.
When you’re teaching, it’s about being able to keep yourself slightly ahead of the other guy. If I’m rolling with a student, I don’t want to just pin them and smash them. No one’s getting anything out of that. Let them come at you, let them practice their techniques, but not quite get it. Eventually, you’ll submit them, but they’re learning and building confidence at the same time.
MATT: They’re like, “ahhh! I didn’t quite get it. I almost got something. I’ll get it next time!”
DARREN: That’s it. They log it. “I had some success with that.”
They don’t go away feeling like they got their head kicked in. Feeling like they’re not learning or progressing. That happens at gyms where they aren’t any experienced coaches or fighters.
I’ve got a lot of guys I can trust. I can say, “This is so-and-so, he’s a new guy. Can you roll with him for a little bit and explain some of the things in jiu-jitsu? Some of the points about posture and guard and things like that?”
I won’t even have to think twice. I know that he will look after the new guy. I’ll see him in the corner teaching him, “you need to do this when this happens.” Or he’ll pin him down and let him escape.
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s the people who make the gym. If you’re in a relatively inexperienced gym, you’re going to have a bunch of people just fighting each other and not really learning. At Fightworx Taunton and Torquay, we’ve got a lot of experienced fighters. They’re very good at looking after the guys that come in.
The only problem I have to be careful about is making sure that things don’t get too clicky. You get people that gravitate towards each other.
MATT: That’s a problem in every organisation. Any time you have a collection of people.
DARREN: Inclusion, exclusion, just making sure that the new guys feel that they’re involved. Not that they’re standing on the outside being ignored.
MATT: That’s why you like to make people do drills with different partners and switch in with people of a different size?
DARREN: If I told them before they came down to the gym, “I’m going to make you train with ten different guys,” they’d be like, “no, I’m not going to do that, that sounds scary man.” When they come down, I go, “okay, I’ll put you with Isaac today,” or “I’ll put you with Mark. He’ll show you a few bits.” They look at me like, “I don’t know this guy.
But afterwards, they’ll be pumped and they’ll love it because they’ll have met a bunch of different people. They’ll have learnt a bunch of different things and come away with a real positive experience.
It’s just about getting them in, showing them it’s friendly, having experienced guys work with them, and making them included and important. Everybody wants to feel important.
MATT: It’s not so much important. Just noticed.
DARREN: Acceptance. They want to be accepted as part of the group. If you can make them feel that way then they’ll grow.
Honestly, some of the best guys that I’ve seen are the ones that have come in and been the most nervous. The most overweight. The most lacking in self confidence. Those guys have the biggest journeys.
They come in the door and say, “oh god.” They’ve taken a big step, coming down to a gym, to a fight gym, to learn a combat sport they’re probably scared stupid to try. They’ve battled through all the weight issues and confidence issues to become good fighters, good jiu-jitsu practitioners, good Thai boxers, good MMA guys.
I’m much more proud of them than I am of…
MATT: The guys it comes naturally to.
DARREN: Anybody can train an athletic guy. They come in, they’ve got confidence and strength and athleticism. It’s not that hard to train that guy to be good.
I’ve heard stories, guys that have turned to me a few years down the line and said, “thank you. Jiu-jitsu has changed my life.” I had no idea how big their struggles were. They’re like, “it saved me from this,” or “it has given me some focus,” or “it has given me some hope.” I had no idea jiu-jitsu had done so much for them.
That, for me, is much more gratifying than someone going out and winning a jiu-jitsu competition or an MMA fight.
I don’t know. I’m always a little biased towards those that come to the gym with those specific needs.
MATT: In what way? What do you mean?
DARREN: When somebody comes through the door and they’re super nervous, or they had a conversation on the phone with me and are like, “I’m a bit overweight, I want to get fit, but I’m really worried I’m going to get smashed.” That guy. I just want to make that guy feel comfortable. I want him to enjoy the experience. I want him to benefit, because some people, you can just tell, they really need it.
A lot of these guys go to the gym to build their self-confidence. They go and lift weights or run on the treadmill. For some, that works, but for a lot of people it doesn’t. They get bored. They find it a bit empty.
With jiu-jitsu, you get the social aspect. You meet new people, you get to be part of a social group. You get fitter.
I never go to the gym, because if you go to the gym you have to push yourself. In jiu-jitsu, you roll, you train, you enjoy. You get lots of different things from jiu-jitsu, above and beyond being able to fight like some kind of martial arts ninja.
At this point, we’ve been talking for almost an hour. Darren’s eyes flit to his watch and he tells me he needs to get another parking ticket. In his absence, I review the notes I’ve prepared, see what areas we have and haven’t covered, and try to choose a good question to ask when he gets back.
MATT: A little thought experiment. You’ve got to teach one last class.
DARREN: Oh wow.
MATT: What are you going to teach? I’ll make it easier for you. You get one technical idea and one conceptual idea. What would you go for?
DARREN: How long can I make this class?
MATT: Two hours.
DARREN: An average class. Okay.
I always like to mix principles and techniques because one’s no good without the other. What would I teach? Jesus. I guess I’d teach the way that I see and use jiu-jitsu. I think it’s pointless teaching things that I don’t use or understand fully. I’d probably go old school and teach a takedown, into a guard pass, into a submission.
MATT: You teach in sequences a lot.
DARREN: I tend to, yeah.
MATT: Or branches. “You have this starting position, and you can go to here, or you can go to there, or you can do this, and try that.”
DARREN: There’s two ways I like to do it. “Here’s a technique and here’s option one, option two, option three, option four.” I also like to contextualise. Like last week, teaching the gullotine. Where does it come from? You know. Sometimes, you’ve just got to focus on a gullotine. But if it was my last ever class, I’d want some context there.
I would do a takedown, into a guard pass, and from control into a submission. That’s what jiu-jitsu is to me. The ability to take someone down, control them and submit them.
Sometimes, teaching in sequences works really well. In fact, sometimes I’ll give the class a task. “What I want you to do is take this person down and do whatever you want. Go from wherever you want in that position, but finish with a kimura. Take him down and transition with three to four moves and finish with a kimura.” The student then has to figure out the transitions.
Obviously, there’s going to be gaps and they’re going to jump into positions without any thought. But that’s when I can go in and make some suggestions. “Maybe you can slide your knee here. Maybe you can roll this way.” Just take what they instinctively want to do and give it a little bit more control.
People have different games. I don’t like taking a particular type of jiu-jitsu…
MATT: You wouldn’t ever want to have a system that you teach that every student has to pick up?
DARREN: No. No. Principles, for sure. And some techniques I love to use. I don’t see why any student shouldn’t be able to use or do those techniques. But some techniques I do are completely unsuitable for different people. For different shapes, different sizes, different learning patterns.
It’s very important that each student finds what works for them and is encouraged and nurtured. I’ve got some guys who are super flexible and love all these rubber guards and stuff like that. I can’t do that. I literally can’t.
I understand the positions, what they are. I’ve had a lot of people do them on me. But I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time learning or teaching rubber guard because I physically can’t do it. Without being able to do it properly, I’m not going to understand it properly. Which means I’m not going to pass it on properly. If I find someone in the club who’s good at it, then I’ll get them to teach their bit.
As people start to hit purple belt, they start to understand their own techniques. There’s a lot of guys in Torquay and Taunton with their own styles and it’s very important that they don’t force their styles on others.
MATT: Are all the styles completely unique? Everyone obviously has their own mix of stuff, but is it really that distinct? Or do people fall into certain camps?
DARREN: A lot of the general principles are always the same.
MATT: Across different games you mean?
DARREN: Across different games, yeah. Absolutely.
Okay, underhooks. They’re a universal thing. You’re in half guard, you’re looking for a takedown, you’re looking for an underhook. Underhooks are good for everybody.
Things like putting shoulder pressure on, controlling the back, head position, grips. A lot of these things are the same. Posturing and guard. Principles carry throughout any game.
Most of the people I teach, I see bits of me in them, in their jiu-jitsu. Some of the things I’ve taught. But other times, I see them doing something and I’m like, “what the hell are you doing? Jesus Christ, I’ve never taught you that. Obviously, you’ve picked it up off YouTube. But roll with it. Just do it. Try it. If it works for you, if you’re having success with it, work on it. Find out when it doesn’t and work out what’s going on.”
I can sort of help. Coach and advise, you know. “Looks to me like your losing position because you’re not controlling the space. Use your knee, use your hands.” They’ll build off that technique. It’s not something I’ve taught them, but the principles of maintaining space, they still apply.
MATT: They just differ in the interpretation?
DARREN: No, not interpretation.
MATT: In the application. Sorry.
DARREN: Yes, in the application. It’s understanding those principles from the position you’re in. Being able to control your space when you’re inverted as well as when you’re playing open or closed guard.
Each person plays their own game, and the more they play the game, the more they understand how to apply those principles.
MATT: So what’s the difference between being at a lower level and being more advanced? Is it that ability to respond to feedback? I suppose a better question is, aside from technical ability, what’s the difference between someone at a lower level and someone at a higher level?
DARREN: The ability to take on constructive criticism is a massive, massive factor.
MATT: When you say, “take on,” it’s not just going, “uh huh.” It’s listening and seeing it reflected in their game.
DARREN: I’ve had lots of people over the years that, when I come over and say, “don’t do that. If you do that, this is going to happen,” react badly. Straight away, they’ll go, “I was doing that because of this” and duh duh duh.
But others just look at you and go, “what, do you mean like this?” You know they’re listening rather than trying to… There’s a difference between those who are trying to impress you and those that want to learn. It’s surprising how many people have egos that stop them from being able to open their mind and listen to what’s being said.
They’re thinking, “oh god, he thinks I’m doing something terrible. He thinks I’m shit.” You know? They have a problem taking that criticism on.
MATT: They take it personally.
MATT: It’s an affront to their ability.
DARREN: It’s like they’re really desperate to progress, but they want you to think that they’re doing better than they are
MATT: What do you mean?
DARREN: They’re saying, “yeah, yeah I know what I was doing wrong, but I was trying this other thing.” It’s like “right, okay, whatever. I was watching what you’re doing you know.”
It’s not like I’m sitting there going, “you’re shit. You’re shit. You’re shit. This is bollocks. Leave my mat space. Don’t ever come back.”
Sometimes I actually have to sit down and say to someone, “look, I’m not picking holes. What I’m trying to do is show you what I can see and say, look if you do this, you’ll be much better at this position. I’m trying to give you some feedback.” Some people take it on board. Some people get offended. It’s a big hindrance in people’s progression, ego.
MATT: How do you respond to that? Do you just keep on trying? Do you give them some grief? Or try a different style?
DARREN: One of the most difficult things I find with teaching is that people learn in different ways. Some people love repetition. They’ll only learn through repetition. Partly because their minds can’t concentrate like they need to, so they repeat it and their body gets it.
Other people, you need to only say one thing to. Like, “make sure you control the shoulder,” or “make sure you move the hips out a little bit more.” They go, “AHH” and it will click. They understand. I don’t need to show them. Just saying something will make all the difference.
Other people I have to show because they’re very visual learners. They’ll look at me and watch me move and they’ll go, “yes, right, I can see what that is.” They’ll be able to imitate the movement and learn that way.
For some people, I’ll need to write something down on a piece of paper. “Put your left foot to their hip. Escape your hips…”
MATT: Real structured. A to B. B to C.
DARREN: Yeah. Obviously, I can’t do that in every case. But sometimes, when I see people really struggling, I need to find a way to get the information across to them.
There’s lots of different ways of teaching people. I’ve seen some really, really good teachers. But also, people with ace jiu-jitsu who can’t get it across to other people. It’s frustrating for them. They’re like, “Jesus, this is the way I learnt it, why can’t you learn it like this?”
MATT: It’s very hard for them to communicate their thoughts.
DARREN: It is. But I think that’s an experience thing.
MATT: Is it the ability to empathise?
DARREN: Yeah I’d say so.
MATT: To figure out where the person is coming from? Or is that wrong?
DARREN: I guess empathy might not be quite right because I can empathise with certain people. Other people, I’m just like, “I don’t know why you’re not getting this.” I can’t empathise with their situation at all.
MATT: So is it the problem solving thing again? You take their learning style as a problem and figure out how to solve it?
DARREN: Yeah, maybe. I have to figure out how they learn. Some people need all the information. Every little detail you can possibly give them, otherwise it won’t make sense to them. Some people need to have the information restricted. They just need to start doing a basic movement which is close to what I want them to do.
We pause. A young girl has walked in the door. Darren greets her and asks how he can help. She tells him that she’s attending a local college and would like to train MMA. Darren asks if she has any experience. She replies by telling him she’s been doing Judo competitively for almost nine years.
The conversation that ensues is a live example of Darren’s response to people wanting to do MMA. He breaks down the discipline and explains how it’s usually best to start with a single aspect like jiu-jitsu or Thai boxing.
The young girl asks about classes, grabs a leaflet and as she leaves, says, “thanks! See you next week!”
MATT: Do you get that a lot? People just coming in and asking, “what’s the deal?”
MATT: Where’s the Torquay place based? Do you get a lot of foot traffic?
DARREN: Yeah, but it’s not like Taunton. It’s not in the town centre or anything. You’ve got to seek the Torquay place out. Whereas here, I think we get more people just wandering up and saying hi.
A good thing about the website though is that people contact me beforehand. So I can speak to them on the phone. Some people just turn up for a session and have no clue what’s going on.
MATT: You prefer them not to do that?
DARREN: I don’t mind. But you do get people who become a little disillusioned.
MATT: You want to make sure they come into the right class with the right expectations?
DARREN: For what they want, yeah. And also, some people think they’re super tough. They’ll see an advanced class on the timetable and want to do that. We’ll be like, “have you done anything before?” They’ll say, “no. I’ve had a couple street fights though.”
Dude, this is the wrong class for you. I wish you’d called. Then I have to send them away and get them into the right session. When you tell them they need to come to a beginner’s session, they look all butthurt.
MATT: The ego thing again.
DARREN: “I’m not a beginner, I’m not going to come to a beginner’s session.”
Yeah, sometimes, it’s easier if they call before. But then, I guess the nature of overzealous, ego-based people is that they will just come down. They just want to throw themselves in.
But we don’t get too much of that to be fair. For most people, the standard thing is to send an email or make a phone call before rocking up. They want to know what they’re stepping into.
MATT: It lessens the fear, takes the anxiety out of it.
DARREN: I’m always impressed by people that just suddenly turn up.
MATT: Like that girl?
DARREN: Yeah. That’s super impressive, to just turn up and say, “I want to do this, I want to do that. This is my background. Can I join?”
The other side is people that constantly call. Constantly email. They want that contact. They want you to baby them.
MATT: Do you find that those people, who are so hesitant, respond to being put in a class and meeting all these different people? Do they respond well? Or do a lot of them go, “thanks, see you next week!” and then two years go by and it’s like, “hey, do you remember that guy?”
DARREN: It’s proportional. The more people message and call beforehand, the less likely they are to turn up.
MATT: Oh really?
DARREN: That’s pretty much how it happens.
MATT: That’s very interesting.
DARREN: Or it will take them a few months to build up the gumption to come down. But it does get a little tiresome when you’ve had a dozen emails asking the same questions. I can understand their being nervous and wanting to plan it all out in their head beforehand, but sometimes…
MATT: You’ve just got to bite the bullet.
DARREN: You’ve just got to come down.
MATT: We touched on how you continue to develop your own game.
My first question is, how do you do that? How do you make sure that you are still evolving? More specifically, what have you changed your mind about in the last year or two?
DARREN: To stay on top of my own training, I need to find guys that can kick my ass. I need to go out there and train with different people or with the higher level guys in the club. I’ve got lots of friends in the jiu-jitsu community. I like to go around and train with as many people as I can.
But I don’t really study techniques. I prefer to train. I prefer to roll, to spar, to see.
MATT: Sort of like an observer? You watch…
DARREN: I watch and I feel.
MATT: You watch a competition or a match and instead of sitting there, breaking it down, you just give it a go?
DARREN: I’ll look at something and I’ll say, “that’s pretty cool, I like what you’ve done there.” It won’t be a specific technique that I’ll try to imitate, more like how he moved his body to get past the guard.
MATT: You like to teach in sequences and you like to study sequences? It’s not so much the specific thing, but the chain of things you pick up on?
DARREN: When I roll, there are so many things going on. I’ll try a particular type of guard pass and that won’t work. Maybe I didn’t control the legs well enough. I didn’t close the space down. Perhaps my footwork was slow. Whatever it was, there’s half a dozen things right there that I need to break down and work out.
I don’t need to go onto YouTube and see ten million techniques. I don’t need more techniques. I do need more techniques, I shouldn’t say that. But there is so much I have to work on.
MATT: Because you can break each movement or position down into so many tiny pieces.
MATT: It’s almost like an infinite list of things for you to work on.
DARREN: Yes. Which takes me back to the idea of being good at specific things. Rather than having twenty different things and being kinda-good at them, it’s better to be great at like ten different things.
So I’ll spar with someone like Sam Crook. Someone who’s been prominent at our club, a high level, competitive brown belt, who smashes loads of people. He’s been out at AOJ for months on end, been to Brazil. He’s always pushing his training. Very competitive, very dedicated. He’s developed this style of jiu-jitsu and he’s got this crazy guard which is so hard to pass.
So I love this. “Wow, I’m really having trouble passing Sam’s guard here.” He’s doing this crazy thing, then he’s doing the Worm guard, and then reverse de la Riva. Then he’s using the AOJ de la Riva recovery techniques and sweeps.
So I’ll spar with him and I’ll figure it out. He’s doing this and doing that and I’ll go away and think about it. The next time I come and spar with him, I try and shut this or that down. That’s all the training I need. That’s enough for me to work on right there.
Or there’s Paul for example. If I get inside Paul Carthy’s closed guard, it’s hell to get out of. He’s just really good at rotating his hips, isolating the shoulder.
Then I’ll go and roll with Tom Barlow in Plymouth. He’s so fast and so good at attacking from underneath. It’s like, “I’ve got to get lower. I’ve got to control his head. I’ve got to dominate the space.” Man I’ve got so much to work on.
So that’s kind of what I do.
Two young lads walk in. They look to be about 14 or 15. They’re interested in MMA. Darren, once again, breaks it’s down into it’s constituent parts. The lads ask if they’ll be allowed to spar. Darren responds by describing how the progression works: the more you train and the better you get, the freer rein you’ll have when it comes to sparring.
DARREN: Where were we?
MATT: We were just talking about how you develop your game, about who you roll with. Figuring out what you’ve got to work on and how there’s so many things.
DARREN: That’s right. That’s what I do. I enjoy rolling. Looking at what goes on, what went wrong for me during a roll and trying to build on that. Trying to improve my speed, my timing, my pressure, my grips or whatever. Having someone bring something really difficult to me.
Sam will go away and he’ll be doing this particular type of guard. Then he’ll come back and start nailing me with this guard. I’m like, “oh my god, this is driving me crazy.” I’ll have to work it out, break it down, try to find a way past it.
MATT: So it’s not so much a set goal. It’s not, “I’m going to learn X.” It’s more like, “I’ve got some ideas. I’m just going to roll and explore and experiment and see what happens.”
DARREN: Sometimes I think, “I really want to get better at single leg X, so I’ll get to that position and then work it out myself. Sometimes it’s good to take what other people do, that I’ve seen in competition, or on YouTube, but a lot of times I just…What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another, so I like to feel a position out.
That’s the problem with people learning off YouTube. You can watch a technique that works for someone else, but if something doesn’t go right, or it’s not working for you, you don’t know why. You haven’t got someone there advising you why it’s not going right, what you could do to improve it.
MATT: And it takes a very high level of ability to be able to do that for yourself. Even if you’re really good at something, it’s very hard to diagnose your own skillset.
DARREN: Actually, that’s one of the things I struggle with. I don’t really have much feedback. I’m teaching all the time. I don’t really have an instructor watching me, going, “right, you need to do this. You need to do that.”
So I guess that’s why I’ve had to take the approach of looking at what happens, thinking about the problems I had during a session, and going away and working on them. An introspective approach I guess.
MATT: Seminars are becoming more popular now. Are they something you’re gonna try and do more often?
DARREN: It’s very difficult. I try and think about what’s best for the students. I like seminars because of the atmosphere.
We had Terere down. He’s very charismatic and his jiu-jitsu is awesome. Watching him move is very inspirational. People pick up on that movement, that charisma, the whole thing, and they get propelled forward.
But sometimes seminars can be flat. Someone will teach a couple things that won’t really relate to anybody. Just a handful of techniques. Maybe there’s no context, maybe there’s no passion, maybe half the guys there are white belts and half the stuff they’re teaching is brown belt level techniques.
Seminars are tricky. When you’ve got twenty people on the mat…
MATT: All of different abilities, different styles, different mindsets…
DARREN: It’s bad enough with a class, when I get to work with people for weeks, for months. But when people come down for a seminar…
MATT: They’re expecting to get a magic bullet.
DARREN: Yeah, that’s it. It’s tough man. I’ve learned a lot from seminars. Sometimes I’ll remember it and I’ll use it and it’ll become part of my arsenal. It was worth it. And I’ve been to seminars where it’s none of that.
It’s hard to say how beneficial seminars are. I like how they bring people together and push them forward. I like bringing in different instructors.
It’s like you say. People think they’re going to pay thirty or forty quid and get some ninja technique that no one is going to be able to stop. Well, no. Learn some techniques, meet a legend in the sport, someone who is very high level, watch them move, talk to them about jiu-jitsu, learn that way. That’s a really beneficial aspect to a seminar.
MATT: That’s the bigger part of it?
DARREN: It is when you’re starting out. If you’re a little further down the line of progression…
MATT: …that’s already handled.
DARREN: It’s already handled and you seek it out yourself. You’ll go to competitions and pick up that vibe and enthusiasm. You’ll seek out seminars yourself. You’ll go and train at other gyms when you’re travelling. You’ll get inspired that way.
It’s nice for—even though sometimes it’s a little overwhelming—white belts. It’s a little like, “I didn’t get any of that. I don’t even know who this guy is!” But that experience stays in their minds for quite a while and it’s valuable.
I love it when we have a visiting instructor. We had a guy from Jordan come over. He taught a couple sessions, people got to talk to him, get beat up by him, they were loving it. I really felt like there was an increased energy in the room because there was another black belt. People get bored of my voice. That’s going to happen. So whenever I can, I inject a new instructor or something different for the session and it’s great for the guys. It sparks enthusiasm to have a different instructor.
I’m not one of these guys who says, “you must train only with these specific people.”
MATT: That’s a very old school mindset. Or is it not? I don’t really know.
DARREN: Some gyms are like that. But most gyms are pretty cool. Most of the people I know, regardless of affiliation, are all just friends, you know? You can go and train at their gym, they’ll come and train at yours. Students will go to their gym and you mix. You try and be friends.
It’s not Brazil. You don’t need to be so territorial about these things. There are some gyms that get funny. “You can’t train with this guy. You mustn’t go there. This guy’s not allowed to come here.”
MATT: That’s just posturing isn’t it?
DARREN: Yeah. I can understand it in Brazil, when you’ve got six different academies on the same street.
MATT: I watched this documentary once. It was about the competition between Gracie jiu-jitsu and this other thing. I can’t remember what it’s called.
DARREN: Luta livre?
MATT: Something like that. It just culminated in street fights. This big show down. It wasn’t just a game. People were getting shot.
DARREN: I think at one point, jiu-jitsu was for the rich people. For the Gracie family.
DARREN: Yeah. This is how the story goes. What I’ve been told. The Gracies had all the money. They were the rich family. They could afford these fancy gis and they trained jiu-jitsu. The people who couldn’t afford the gis, there was another line. Jesus, you’re really testing my jiu-jitsu history now.
MATT: Jigoro Kano came over from Japan right?
DARREN: Yeah, Soto Mayada as well.
There’s lots of different lines on the tree. Everyone knows the Gracie line.
MATT: That’s the most documented one.
DARREN: Basically, the guys that didn’t have much money, they trained in shorts and t-shirts. There used to be big rivalries between jiu-jitsu and Luta Livre fighters. They’d fight on the beaches. You hear all these legendary stories. People rolling for hours. Vale tudo fights.
But you also had battles within the jiu-jitsu community as well. This guy battling this guy. That guy offended that guy or stole this student from an academy. There’s a lot of ego and territory stuff.
MATT: Do you think these sorts of issues are stoked by competitions like Polaris? All the promo videos that play to it. Promoting rivalries.
DARREN: In Brazil, it’s like a throwback to the football rivalries. The big teams, like the Corinthians have this huge following. It’s a gang culture.
A lot of that translates into jiu-jitsu. When you go to the big tournaments, like when I went to the Worlds, there was Alliance on one side and Gracie Barra on the other, chanting at each other. You’ve got all these different schools. In Brazil, it’s a little more serious.
In this country, they try and keep the seriousness. “You mustn’t train with those guys. We don’t share. We are a team. We are a family and nobody can…” But a lot of the time, it’s bullshit because it’s not Brazil. There’s not six other academies down the road.
MATT: Especially in the South West.
DARREN: Yes, you should be loyal to your academy, and respectful. And they should be those things to you. But if there’s somebody down the road, or a friend in a neighbouring town, fuck it. Train with them. Train together. Why work against each other?