An interview with John Will: Part 1

This is a first for me. I haven’t thought of presenting a transcript of my radio show on this blog before, and for obvious reasons; it is just too darned labour intensive. Try typing out an hour long interview! But in the case of this interview with John Will, Australian BJJ instructor and pioneer, I simply had to make an exception. And I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s been worth it.

John provides one of the most entertaining, informative and, ultimately, profound interviews I’ve ever had the honour of recording/conducting. We touch on his background and martial training, the many characters he has met, trained with and taught, and much of his inimitable, accessible wisdom. I think this is a must-read. So sit back and enjoy Part 1 of my interview with John, which aired on 91.3 SportFM on 4 April 2010.


DD: Good evening everyone, you’re listening to the Combat Sports Show on 91.3 SportFM. I’m Dan Djurdjevic and I’m here with Paul Marston. Tonight we’re speaking with one of Australia’s leading martial arts teachers, BJJ expert and 3 time winner of the Blitz Martial Arts Hall of Fame, John Will — welcome John.

JW: Thanks very much Dan.

DD: Well, I know you’re in town for a series of BJJ seminars John. Briefly, can you tell us your programme while you’re here.

JW: I’ve just come from Adelaide and Hobart. I come over about 3 times a year and – I think I do about 100 seminars a year – I try to get to Perth 3 times and when I’m here I teach for Steve Stevenson in Victoria Park, Lance Johnston in Midland, Paul Marston here at Maddington, Adam Metcalfe in Mirrabooka and Troy Flugge at Wangara, so I usually try to squeeze in 5 seminars while I’m here.

DD: Wow – sounds like a packed programme. I understand you’re still based in Melbourne and Geelong where you have a number of centres but you also travel widely holding seminars like the one you’re holding here in Perth. Can you tell the listeners: What’s a typical year in the life of John Will?

JW: My goodness! I guess my years have kind of settled into a bit of a routine of late. My typical year – as I’ve said I do about 100 seminars – I’ve got an Australian/New Zealand circuit where, they’re not my schools, they’re people I’m teaching, they’re part of our association. I’ve only got one school in Geelong: one school is enough for me! But I do this circuit around Australia and New Zealand covering most of the Australian States and New Zealand. I do that 3 times a year. And in between doing that I teach over in America: I teach for Chuck Norris every July. I go over and he gets all of his black belts together in Las Vegas for me and I teach them for a couple of days. And I teach a few other schools around America – pretty well-known martial arts guys. I teach over in England once a year. I go to England, I teach 8 or 9 schools, Geoff Thompson, a lot of well-known martial artists through the UK. And on the way I do a few things in Singapore for some schools there and some military stuff and then some stuff in Norway. I try to do all that in a 2 week period. Usually, it’s fairly – it’s not what people think, it’s not me cruising, feet up, having a great time. When I’m away from my family – because I’m married and have children – when I’m away I want to maximise the time working and get back home as fast as I can. I don’t holiday much. My wife came with me to Las Vegas to help me out a couple of months ago, so that was good, which was 4 or 5 days off and had a bit of a vacation. But mostly when I’m away I’m on a mission. So I’ll go from here to Singapore, do 3 seminars in Singapore and then on to the UK, do 8 or 9 there, over to Norway – I’ll do all that in 10 days. To Bangkok, so it’s kind of hectic – but hey, someone’s got to do it!

PM: Why do you think it is that she only goes to Las Vegas to help you and not to Perth?

JW: Oh well! You know the travelling… it’s… I love being there, at the location. And I love being on the mat with people who want to be on the mat, which is mostly my work. Every now and again I do some small amount of work with people who don’t want to be there. But that’s very rare, because mostly I train trainers. But sometimes I’ve had the odd job with, you know, police force or something, and you’re teach a bunch of defensive tactics instructors and they’re just told to be there by their bosses.

DD: They’re probably fulfilling some sort of mandatory requirement.

JW: Yes. That’s very rare. So mostly I’m teaching people like you who are enthusiastic. So I’m enthusiastic and I’m into it. The downside is that waiting at the airport for 4 hours, you know, and then getting on the plane, and then other travelling. It’s all that. I make use of that time. That’s where I wrote quite a few books. I wrote my first book solely at airports.

DD: I was going to ask… I was wondering where you fit all that in?

JW: At airports and on planes!

DD: I’ve had the opportunity to read a chapter from your latest book in the “Rogue Black Belt” series and in it you dispense some gems of wisdom that I found quite compelling and inspirational. You’re note one to tread the beaten path are you?

JW: No. I was convinced to write that series. And I don’t consider myself a writer, I consider myself a passionate martial artist. But I was over with Geoff Thompson who is a very well-known author. He wrote “Watch my back” in England, an amazing individual, self-made, reinvented himself from working at the roughest pub (“Busters”) in the roughest, most violent – voted the most violent town in England, Coventry – and he was head bouncer there for 10 or 12 years, and he wrote “Watch my back” which is just a fantastic read. I mean, it should be compulsory for all martial artists to read that. It’s real, I mean it’s real and kind of scary, in a way.

PM: And of course they made the movie “Clubs” based around the life of Thompson. That was quite popular. Even here in Perth they picked up on that one.

JW: Yes. So we’ve become very good friends and a few years ago when I was over there, we get together, Geoff and I, and kick the pads and do a few things and also we go for a walk through the woods and talk about life, the universe and everything, Buddhism and this and that. We don’t talk martial arts a lot; we talk about everything else but marital arts. We’ve become quite close. And he convinced me. After spending a few days with me he said: “Are you going to write some of this stuff down?” I said to him: “No one’s going to be interested in that.” He goes: “Don’t be silly – you’ve got to tell some of these stories!” So I started putting it together, I wrote the first book. I did my first print run of 1000. I reckon I sold out of them within 2 weeks. People were really interested in that, one because I’m not a polished writer so I just write it like I talk.

DD: That’s the best way.

JW: And that wasn’t edited, by the way. It comes with spelling mistakes and everything, that first book.

PM: I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.

JW: Please. Someone help me! But part of that comes straight from the heart. Warts and all. You know, when I’m scared, how I pissed my pants, how I did this… You know, I tell it like it is. Geoff said: “If you’re going to write, don’t hold back. Like, tell them everything and people will respond to that.” Because everything’s so polished, so… what’s the word… over-refined. Food and everything.

DD: Over-produced.

JW: Over-produced! So I just did that. Which I find was quite… it was easy for me to do that – with no editing.

DD: You can be your passionate self and then it’s true – it’s real.

PM: Was it a growth experience for you in any way John, looking back on the stories and the anecdotes, in how it shaped you? Because you’ve changed a lot in the years even since I’ve known you.

JW: Yes it was cathartic in a way. I mean, there was a lot of stuff back there way back, especially my first book “Fear in the Engine” when getting into street fights in Asia, working under cover for the cops over there, getting friends killed, getting their heads chopped off, it was kind of like cathartic. I got a little bit emotional reliving it. You don’t think about those things, you know, something that happened 25 years ago. You’re focussing on what you’re doing today. But to go back and get into your memory and do all that – it’s interesting. I enjoyed the experience because it crystallises your thoughts. When you put it out on paper you’ve got to crystallise it in a different way than it lives in your head. So it was good.

DD: Speaking about your career and your memories, I thought we might, for the benefit of the listeners, cover a bit of that. You started studying back in ’72 I believe. What were you doing back then?

JW: In ’72 I was in high school or college and I started with amateur wrestling. I did it for about a year and a half or something and I broke my leg – outside of wrestling (that was just an accident) – so that stopped that for a bit. And while I had a broken leg and the leg in plaster I thought: “Well what about martial arts?” That was about the time just prior to Bruce Lee coming out and everyone wanted to jump in on it, so I thought: “That’d be good.” So I started doing some goju karate under a black belt who’s under Tino Ceberano and I did that for a bit. Then I changed to taekwondo and by the time I… I kept on doing that until the end of high school. The through a few experiences that I had as a martial artist I decided, the second I finished high school, to go over to Asia and follow in the footsteps of Donn Draeger.

DD: ’75 I believe you went to Southeast Asia.

JW: Remember back then there weren’t many books. Donn Draeger, he wrote a lot of them.

PM: For the benefit of the listeners, Donn Draeger was a pioneer, what you’d probably call a martial historian now. He was an American who got out into Asia and wrote about all the arts which back in those days were quite mysterious and largely unknown in the West. He was a bit of trailblazer. He probably inspired a lot of others.

JW: There was [his book about the] fighting arts of Indonesia and the Southeast Asian Archipelago and [about other] Asian fighting arts – he travelled everywhere. So I figured, I’ll follow in his footsteps. I’ll go to Bali. I trained through Bali, I trained through Java, Sumatra, up Malaysia, hit Thailand, then I’ll go through Burma, then I’ll just train my way through India, go to China and then go to Japan, you know, and do it all. I got stuck in Indonesia for 8 years!

DD: Talking about your time in Indonesia, I remember reading a Blitz article years ago where you mentioned that on one island you could hear the sound of shins smacking against either palm trees or other shins; you could hear the sound echoing through the island. Some serious conditioning going on there! I though you might elaborate a bit on that.

JW: Well the interesting thing about Indonesia, looking back on it now I wouldn’t say it’s... in the light of what we all understand today, I wouldn’t say it’s that practical. Boxing, kickboxing, BJJ, mixed martial arts, wrestling, you know, these are the “hands-on” real-deal. So, what it lacked in practical application I think it more than made up for in “mysterious cultural experience”, especially back then - my goodness!

And in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, I think back then at that time there were about 400 officially recognised (by the Indonesian government) different styles of Indonesian pencak silat. And not just... they were different. Like, some were just hand styles - like wing chun, that kind of looking thing - you know, just 32 hand trapping exercises. And the next village would be just kicking styles. The next thing would be just about grappling and takedowns. The next one would be they had a weapon specialised in. So each - they all had their own... each village almost had their own specialised little...

DD: I was unaware of that.

JW: It was extraordinarily diverse, which is, I mean, fascinating. So, you know, it’s easy to get stuck there because you only had to travel 20 km down the road and there was...

DD: Completely new set of skills.

JW: ...someone who taught different types of elbows, that was it. So yeah, I jumped all over the place and did a lot of stuff over 1975 through to 1982 when I was hanging out there.

DD: Then in 1982 you entered the first world silat competition in Jakarata.

JW: Yeah, I did (laughs). There was about 14 countries entered the first one. I was the only person [from Australia]. Feeling pretty lonely, but they had a little girl holding a sign up the front with “Australia” on it. And there was Germany and Holland and all these other countries and I was the only guy standing behind my sign! Kinda weird! But yeah, I entered that. That was good.

DD: And you won a gold medal did you?

JW: Yeah well... Bit of luck, I guess, on the day. I was training pretty hard and all that kind of stuff and I only had 4 fights because I think there were only 16 competitors and single eliminations so I had 4 fights. It was similar to Kyokushinkai rules. You couldn’t punch to the head...

DD: But you could kick to the head...

JW: You could knee, take them down. If you took them down or knocked them down that counted as a knockdown. Three of those and you win. So it was those kinds of rules. So I had 4 fights in one day and became famous for a day! (Laughs.)

DD: Excellent! The events from the mid to late ’80s onwards were quite pivotal for you weren’t they? For one thing, your friendship with Richard Norton introduced you to many martial arts legends in the US.

JW: Richard and I were great friends. And still are - I had lunch with him last Friday. He’s an amazing martial artist and, you know, extraordinarily good at many different things. And he doesn’t tell people. So when he’s doing his BJJ people think he does BJJ. They don’t know he does kickboxing. When he’s doing his kickboxing they don’t know he’s doing the BJJ. He doesn’t... he just does what he’s doing. He’s very diverse. So we became good friends in the... must have been late ’70s, 1980, around there. I was never into Zen Do Kai but he was their “top dog” in the Zen Do Kai organisation and I remember seeing him in the Melbourne town hall doing a kata - a sai demonstration. And I went in there I and went “Oh my goodness, he’s really good! I want to go and check this guy out.” So I rock in to the Zen Do Kai Honbu dojo in Melbourne city the next day and at that time they were all just punching the shit out of each other. (Laughs.)

DD: Yes, I’ve seen early footage!

JW: And I rocked in there, no traditional martial arts background (except when I was a kid). I’d been over in Asia - I was wild! And I rocked in there and I saw Richard in a class and I walked straight across the mat. I said “Hey mate,” (laughs) - this is how I introduced myself. He was using some sai at the time, I said: “you’re pretty good at them.” I held out my hand and said: “Gimme a look.” (Laughs.) Just terrible! No manners, nothing. I think he was so astounded he handed it to me. And it was one of the weapons I did a bit in Asia, so I flipped it around for a second and gave it back. I said: “That’s pretty cool.” He said: “Do that again!” I did it again and the next day he was down my place for lunch and we have been friends ever since.

DD: That’s a hell of a story.

JW: I never did Zen Do Kai but I always was a friend of his and I guess a lot of those guys knew I was his friend and gave me a lot of leeway. So it was great. And he introduced... opened a lot of doors in America for me. He introduced me to Benny Urquidez (Benny the Jet), Peter Cunningham and a lot of people. I got sick of Asia so I started going to America and got more into that training.

DD: In your latest book, which I’ve read the first chapter of, you mention 2 things I find quite apposite to this discussion. One is what you call “emergent events” and the other is “immersive experience”. Both apply to what happened in the US and subsequently through your introduction to the Machado family. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

JW: I was interested in BJJ and I’ve always been one to immerse myself into something. I mean that’s a nice way of saying I’m a little bit fanatical and a little bit single-minded...

DD: Obsessive?

JW: Obsessive! (Laughs.) So I’m putting a positive spin on something that other people might consider to be a bit crazy. But I mean, I think we’re like that. When we undergo learning I don’t think it’s gradual - I don’t think it’s on a graph as a nice even curve. It’s something like, nothing happens, not much happens - [then] you live it, breathe it, and just immerse yourself in it. You go along and have some kind of event and you just jump up. I think most of our learning is “jump”. Look at a child: they go along, they stumble, learn a few words, do this. Next thing they’re having a conversation. It’s not a gradual thing and I think most of our learning is like that. And I think that what needs to happen for that to happen is for you to be right in there, up to your eyeballs in it.

DD: And the other thing is, you mentioned the “emergent event”. You have something - and you mentioned it in your seminar earlier on - something that seems to happen at the right time. It usually because you’re suddenly aware of the need for that thing.

JW: That interesting. I think there’s a few reasons... When we talk about “emergent events” I’m talking about, like, an awakening or some “Oh my goodness!” epiphany if you like. Because enough connections happen in your brain. Nothing mystical. Like, large numbers, when you do big math and large numbers, weird things happen. Small numbers, 2 + 2 = 4, these are all predictable but if you talk to a mathematician, when you get to astronomically large numbers they say the rules don’t apply any more.

[I can relate to what John is saying here. When I tackled Fermat’s Last Theorem I found that some of the “safe assumptions” I thought I could make in relation to certain equations (eg. that the equations would generate ever increasing results the higher the variables), turned out not be so “safe” once the numbers got truly huge.]

And I think it’s the same thing: when we start to get enough experience at something and make enough connections in our brain at something, something magical happens. Evolutionary biologists say that something happens, something amazing happens, when you get enough connections in the brain, and that’s called consciousness! So in other words, 2 neuron cells, 2 neurons in the brain are not much more complicated than 2 walkie-talkies from Dick Smith. But if you get trillions upon trillions upon trillions of them to get connected together you’ll get artificial intelligence or people who are self-aware.

DD: A critical mass happens.

JW: A critical mass - a tipping point. So it’s that kind of stuff. We need to make enough connections in our lives and I think that’s what happens when people make enough connections - suddenly serendipitous things happen. Doors start to open. It’s nothing “mystical”, it’s just that enough connections are made...

DD: You start to see the opportunities and you start to see the information you need as well. You’re able to sift through the information and see immediately what’s useful.

JW: There’s a part of our brain called the "RAS" - the reticular activating system. This is why people should have some basic goal setting: It doesn’t have to be pen and paper it can just be daydreaming, but they need to know what they want. Because basically, your RAS acts as a filter. There’s so much information in the world, more so now than ever, that we can’t process it. We can’t take on how many pores are on your skin, how many beads of sweat, all the stuff in this room... There’s so much information, that basically this filter in our brain says: “I don’t want to know about it. I’m going to keep it all out unless it’s relevant.” So by bringing what I want - what's relevant - into the consciousness of my brain - “I want to build a new barbecue” - my brain says: “Okay, now that you’ve told me that you want that, I’ll let anything that pertains to that, any relevant information, I’ll let that through.” So now I’m driving along, I see the bricks on the side of the road. And there it is. Of course, the bricks weren’t manifested by the universe! They were always there. But my brain... the information just wasn’t pertinent until I said: “I need to build that barbecue.” And that’s why it’s important for people to get clarity on what they want. Because by doing that, the simple way to put it is you’re giving your brain permission to let the relevant information in. The information’s all there; we’re surrounded by it. But we need to say: “I give you permission to let it in.”

To be continued in Part 2...

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic