Gary King has been a presenter/instructor for many years, in corporate as well as martial arts environments. He is a qualified Mixed Martial Arts judge and referee, and has worked as a commentator for a Mixed Martial Arts event. His career as a martial arts & self defense instructor began in the 1990’s when he first started teaching in the UK.
Recently Gary was awarded his black belt by Rio Grappling club head, Roberto Atalla. We sat down with Gary and chatted about his jiu jitsu story.
Hi Gary, thank you for taking some time off to talk to us.
For our readers who don’t know you, tell us about yourself and how you got involved in BJJ.
I guess I’d always been into one sport or another. There was judo when I was a youngster, then in my teens it was weight training, roller-hockey and slalom canoeing (which is why my front tooth is mostly false). I was rubbish at football, but enjoyed a bit of rugby.
I had been training Japanese Ju Jutsu with James and his wife Karen for a few years in the 90’s when we entered a local tournament. It was with utter dismay that I realised that this skinny guy with a white belt and four stripes took me to pieces. So I asked him what martial art he does, and it was BJJ. From that point I was hooked.
We did our research into the Gracie family and first went out to LA in 2000 to train at the Gracie Academy. It was back in the days when Rorion and even Helio would be in and out. We asked Rorion if we could come into the academy before class and drill – one day we were working a guard reposition drill and didn’t see Helio quietly come in and stand in the corner watching us drill. I still wonder what was going through his mind at that point. I know what was going through mine… ‘Holy crap, where should I put my left foot again?’.
Before coming to Cape Town, you had the opportunity to train with various BJJ teams (Gracie Academy, Gracie Barra etc). What was your favourite and why?
They all have their merits. The Gracie Academy has great structure, and attention to detail. I lived in Barra, Rio for 6 months and there they had a more sportive mindset. The competition standard of the guys was amazing – you could sometimes count 3 or 4 world champs on the mat. But their ‘pyramid’ of belts is upside down, so there’d be 2 whites, 3 blues, 6 purples, 8 browns and 12 black belts. The black belts would line up at point at you to roll. It was a different type of learning – less technical, more about trial & error, and more rolling to win.
Roylers was somewhere between the two. He’s a nice guy, but was keen to demonstrate the standard of his black belts. I was asked to roll with one guy before the class and was put to sleep a couple of times. Point made, he was as nice as pie!
I did a couple of sessions at Ralph Gracies place in San Fransisco and, as you’d expect, his guys were just plain tough. Flat noses, big cauliflowers. Tough guys. With my UK instructor, Carlos Lemos I was lucky enough to go to Italy and help him with some seminars. There was one place in Rome – Tribe Jiu Jitsu that had this sweatbox of a gym rammed full with guys. The blackbelt who ran it (Federico Tisi) had a shaven head and tattoos on his neck, but then took me on a very cultural tour of Rome and eloquently explained its history. Never judge a book etc…
I guess the bottom line is they’re all different but it’s all good in their own way. The best gym is one that’s open minded to all of the influences in the art and that nurtures talent.
You and James Smart opened the first Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school directly affiliated to the Gracie Academy in Torrance, California. What was it like moving to a new country and opening the school.
It was really exciting – we’d prepared ourselves extensively for it and it was a huge life changing event. Unfortunately I had been having back pain on & off for a few years since I was slammed on my back and during building the academy it became permanent. It turned out to be spinal micro fractures and osteoarthritis. The doctor told me to give up BJJ. There was no way I was going to do that, but I had to stop rolling competitively from that point on. It wasn’t a good time. But that first academy was a special place, it had an intimate, friendly vibe and introduced a lot of guys to the art. I still live in the same house now and do privates on the mat.
For the past few years you have been focused on coaching MMA fighters. How does BJJ in MMA compare/differ to BJJ for self defense?
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to teach at Panther for the last 6 years or so –Anthony and the crew are a great bunch. It’s a bit of a mindset change, especially coming from the Helio Gracie ‘relax/let him gas/wait for a mistake’ side of the family. In grappling for MMA you have to force your will, otherwise the decision will go against you. I’ve always broken BJJ into 3 categories:
- BJJ for self defense – assumes an unskilled opponent, considers striking
- BJJ for competition jiu jitsu – no striking, start rolling earlier, more open guard & gi
- BJJ for MMA – considers striking, but with a skilled opponent.
Obviously grappling for MMA makes you painfully aware of the striking distance, but it also changes the significance of the guard position. Don’t pull guard in MMA unless you have to, or you have a world class guard, as the strikes can wear you down, but the judges will often deem you to be losing simply because you’re on your back.
You are currently affiliated to Roberto Atalla and Rio Grappling Club. As one of the few people I know to have trained with the main Gracie family teams (Gracie Academy and Gracie Barra), what is the difference in the training/teaching at a Rio Grappling Club affiliate.
It’s an openness to different ideas. Roberto Atalla has been world champ and has trained with many legends, like Rickson, Renzo, JJ Machado etc. That brings a mixture of influences and recognition that there are things to be learnt from other arts such as judo and wrestling as well as the different styles of BJJ.
You received your black belt recently from Roberto Atalla. Do you feel any different?
I’m proud. It’s been a 15 year journey so far, but I think practitioners actually get less worried about the belts as they get more experienced as the art makes you more humble and gives you a more holistic viewpoint. I don’t feel any different though.
What is the most important lesson you have learned throughout your BJJ journey?
A perspective on what constitutes success. It’s not about what car you drive, or what grade you are at work, but jiu jitsu has helped me to understand people and gauge my personal success on the legacy I pass on to students. Of course I’m proud of the guys who have given everything to fight on mat or in cage, but there’s a letter from a 9 year old student on my kitchen wall that’s worth more to me than any trophy. That is my definition of success and it was jiu jitsu that gave me that opportunity.
During a televised interview (the last time Rener was in SA) you were quoted as saying that SA is still catching up to the rest of the world in terms of MMA. With guys like Garreth McLellan now fighting in the UFC, do you think the level of MMA in SA has reached the point where it is comparable in international levels?
Not yet, but the gap’s closing. I don’t know whether we’ll ever get to quite the same level though, as the US has many more guys to choose from, they do wrestling at school, they have a business-like mindset to the sport, and invest a heap of cash into it. Just look at some of the gyms in the US – they’re massive! We simply haven’t got the critical mass of students, or the financial backing to compete on that level. But there’s always going to be the odd guy who has a natural talent, and is with a strong team that may be able to compete at a UFC level.
You competed quite a bit while you were still in the UK, which tournament do you remember with the fondest memories and why?
It was the Europeans one year. It was held in Birmingham – both James & I competed, and we both won our first two fights in under 2 minutes. I carried that confidence into the following year but ended meeting Roger Gracie’s cousin in the first round and… Well… that was that!
What is your opinion on the possible inclusion of BJJ into the Olympic Games?
Please no! When Judo became an Olympic sport the rules changed extensively to try and make it exciting for the spectator who doesn’t understand the ground work. The nett result was that Judo became very focused on throws and the history of great ground fighters coming out of Judo almost dried up. The IBJJF ruleset is already becoming more complicated every year without having oversight that’s only interested in stuff that ‘looks good’. I know Olympic recognition would bring more funds to the sport, but it could be at the cost of the sport itself.
What do you like the most about BJJ?
It’s fun, and there’s always something more to learn. It breaks down barriers and a rolling partner is an instant friend (apart from the smelly ones).
If you had to convince someone as to why they should train BJJ, what argument would you use?
It’s practical – what you learn really works.
You won’t get bored – there’s always something more to learn.
You don’t get your face broken.
What is your favourite BJJ technique?
I love the rotational stuff (particularly to setup kneebars etc), but there’s a turtle attack that I really like, it’s a combination of armtraps, one-handed chokes and a crucifix. Loads of fun. Thanks to the Mendes brothers, the Berimbolo has gained a lot of popularity – that’s an area I’m keen to explore more.
Finally, do you have any last words for our readers?
Keep rolling, and enjoy the journey – it’ll change your life!
Gary will be holding a seminar at Infinitus Jiu Jitsu on Saturday 6 February at 11am. Don’t miss out.