An interview with John Will: Part 2

[This is a continuation of an interview I conducted with John Will for SportFM in April 2010. In this Part, John talks about his introduction to, and early training in BJJ, his unique experiences in the Indian art of vajramushti and some of his personal philosophy on training and life in general. This is a very special interview - so enjoy!

See also Part 1.]

DD: You were just talking about the importance of immersing yourself in experience, learning, and you did all that - you gave yourself the opportunity to learn BJJ from the Machado family. I believe you were one of the original “dirty dozen” - the first twelve westerners, or non-Brazilians, to achieve black belt status in BJJ.

JW: I think I was number 8. Something... I think I was number 8. Yeah, I started back... it was ’87 I think when I first kicked off on it. And that was five years before the UFC or something like that. Going to Brazil, over in America and then going to Brazil. I befriended Rigan Machado, who was great. I went to Rorion Gracie’s over in Los Angeles for my first lesson. He was charging US$100 for half an hour - that was in 1987! I only had $500 to my name, so that’s 5 lessons and my life savings was gone. So I rocked up and had lessons one, two, three and four with him in his garage at that time. He was only teaching out of his garage. The fifth lesson, he couldn’t do it because he was going to take his kids to Disneyland. He said: “I’ve got my cousin here - he’ll do it.”

So Rigan Machado was there. Couldn’t speak a word of English. And I had the fifth lesson with Rigan who was paying $2 an hour. So Rigan was working for peanuts, just barely making enough to feed himself. And at the end of the lesson - which was by far the best lesson I’d had - because I’d run out of money I took of my jacket, took off my jumper, anything with Australia on it, you know a kangaroo and a couple of hats or something, and gave him some Australian paraphernalia - a bag with a kangaroo on it - and just gave it to him. Then I went back home.

I saved up for six months with the intention of not doing that again, but going there for one lesson which I could pay for, getting the information where I could train in Brazil. Because I figured “Brazil, it’s got to be free - it’s a third world country”. It’s not true, but that was my perception. So went back over there, rocked up and said: “Here’s my one lesson, and by the way, I want to go down to Brazil so maybe you could give me an address - an address down there to train.” Rorion said: “Come on out, no problem.” I come out there, he said to me: “Sorry I can’t train today, I got to take my kids to Disneyland again,” or whatever. “But my cousin’s still here and he took a few lessons last time - remember? You want to do it with him?” I go: “Sure.”

I come to Rigan. By this time he’s learned the rudiments of the English language. He says “My friend! From Australia!” I went: “Wow, he remembers me!” He’s still wearing the cap I gave him. [Laughs] So, you know, be kind to world Brazilian jujitsu champions. He took me in there, taught me a great lesson, and I said: “I want to go to Brazil.” He leaned across the mat, he said: “Listen, don’t stay here, these people know nothing. Get with me, go to Brazil, that’s the place to learn.” I said: “I want to go.” He says”: “I’m going tomorrow - come with me.” So we went together.

I didn’t know who he was. I just knew he was really good. We went to Brazil, started training down there, I walk into a place called “Barra Gracie”. At that time that was the capital of the Gracie thing. That was owned by three of the Machado brothers and Carlos Gracie junior - all partners. So I walk in there and I do a lesson. I did a week of training and Rigan was teaching classes and I thought “Geez, an academy whatever, he’s pretty good.

I’m sitting over the side one night and all these legends walk in - apparently they were Brazilian national champions. And Renzo Gracie was sitting next to me. And he could speak English - he was about the only guy who could. And he said: “Look at all these legends walking in; this guy’s this champion, he’s that champion.” And I go: “Why are they coming here - is there something special on?” And he goes: “They’ve come to train with him.” And Rigan’s sitting next to me. I looked past Rigan. “With who?” I’m looking down the hall. “With him - with Rigan!” says Renzo. I go: “With this goofy guy?” Rigan’s just my goofy mate. He says: “Don’t you know who he is?” And I go: “I dunno - his name’s Rigan.” He says: “John, he’s been undefeated in Brazil for twelve years, blah, blah, blah, he’s the best guy in the country.” I go: “This goofy guy?” [Laughs]

So I kind of fell into the right family and ended up training with all the top guys there and that was really, really good.

DD: Wow, that’s really an incredible story! So after that you obviously carried on training. Did you change your own school’s curriculum back in Australia to BJJ?

JW: I did, but I didn’t want to because I didn’t feel qualified. I dabbled, you know. I wove some of it in to the tapestry I was already involved with. So I wove some of it in, I kept doing that and involved more and more of it. It was only when I was a black belt that I finally felt...

DD: That was in ’98, I think you said.

JW: Yes, that’s when I really started to teach BJJ in its pure form - in and of its own right.

PM: Were the trips up into southeast Asia and India a bridge to you getting interested in BJJ? Because prior to that everything you were looking at was stand-up...

JW: I grappled in India...

PM: I think you did kalaripayat?

JW: Kalaripayat. I did some kalari down south. I did a lot of wrestling in the north. Not a lot, I did some. I did some vajramushti, which is pretty interesting.

PM: Was that, like, a bit of an eye-opener, a bit of a new direction for you to go because it was after that when I think you came back that you started...

JW: I became pretty fascinated with the vajramushti which was vale tudo - no rules martial arts - with a knuckle-duster strapped to your right hand. That’s interesting. They were doing stuff back then that people are doing now. They were doing omoplatas, all kinds of technical ground moves. They had guard. And I remember going to the State reference library in New Delhi and there were only 2 books on it. Now there’s only one! [Laughs] It’s a valuable book! They’re not reading it - Indians aren’t interested in this art that was pretty much dead. There was this family called Jesemala. And the Jesemala clan were the only ones allowed to do it - it was passed by law - only ones allowed to do it, no one else was allowed. So it was dangerous. It was no-rules fighting with a knuckle-duster tied to your right hand. Grappling and punching each other in the head.

And I found this book, did some research, went down to the State of Gujarat to the city of Baroda. The only hint I had was in the book; it was printed in Baroda in 1940. I went to Baroda, to the university, got a translator. I figured the guy’s a Vaishnava, which is like a person who worships Krishna (because they have their heads shaved and a little ponytail). So I thought to myself, I’ll just go to the nearest Viashnava temple, I’ll show them the photo in the book and I’ll say: “Do you know this family?”

So I walked up a dusty old street with this university student in tow as a translator. I went to the priest and said: “Hey, look at this guy in here. Jesemala.” [I] ask him: “Have you ever heard of this family?” I went to the oldest priest I could find. The guy pointed across the road, frowned at me and said: “Go over there and ask those guys across the road.”

I walked across the road and knocked on the door. You’re never going to believe who opened the door. The guy in the photo! Like, seriously weird. That’s the weirdest experience of my entire life. Two million people live in that city. I knock on the door, he opens it and I nearly fall over dead. I looked at the book - his eyes nearly jumped out because he hadn’t seen that book for 30 years. And he was extraordinary. Monster of a man: six foot one, scarred to hell and all that. That’s what they did. Boy, they were serious.

DD: As Paul was saying, did that give you an inkling of what you wanted to pursue, technically?

JW: I think so. I think the strangest... landing on that guy’s doorstep! The chances... I’ve since had Indians email me - dozens of them - trying to find out. They can’t find out! A white boy jumps over there, rocks up, spends half an hour, knocks on his front door. That’s cool! So the weirdness of it probably added a lot to that. And they took me around, showed me some stuff and I thought “I want that” but they couldn’t teach me much because it was pretty much a dead art at that point. And I’m sure it’s dead now. They wouldn’t be alive any more. He was 80 then.

DD: As you were saying in your seminar, people want to participate but they don’t want to take ownership of the material and sadly you get... you lose some of these top people, and if people under them haven’t taken ownership of the material, made it their own, then it tends to die out. That’s certainly been my experience chasing information.

JW: It’s the Y Generation. You and I, and our kids and their kids and their kids, we can all evolve, move on, add to it, pass it on, pass it on; one generation doesn’t want to do it - you have to start again. So who says that great arts weren’t already worked out a long time ago. It only takes one generation for it not to happen. Someone passes a law, some king says you can’t do that any more, and it’s all over. And then someone has to start afresh because there’s no video, there are no references, there are no photos.

DD: I want to go back to some of the things you’ve said in your book because again, I think they fit into the conversation we’re having quite well. One of things you mention is the need to “walk the tightrope” as you call it - not wait until you have the skill, but just go in there and “give it a go”. How has that philosophy affected your martial arts career.

JW: For me, it’s always been important. [There are] a lot of traditional learning models and teaching models that I very much disagree with, because they haven’t been thought out by professional educators. People have been handed the mantle of teaching with no teaching skills. They haven’t been taught to be teachers. They’ve been taught to be practitioners of certain things and suddenly one day they go: “You’re a teacher now.” Oh am I? Nowadays I study teaching ideas - I’m always updating myself on those kinds of things to teach the military and police and professional educators and I have to be very much at the forefront of how to educate people.

DD: And certainly my experience has been that, say, you want to learn grappling, you can’t just “think of it” or “try a bit” or look at theory. You have to actually get in there and start doing it. I suppose that’s the answer isn’t it?

JW: I say you don’t get tightrope balance and then walk the tightrope. You have to get on the tightrope and then your brain says: “Oh, you need that balance - here it is,” and starts giving it to you. So you’ve got to do the thing. Like surfing: you jump on a board, you fall off and your brain says: “Oh, you need to do that - okay.” And it starts giving you the skills that create the hardwiring for it. I can’t sit on the beach and wait till I get the skill, and then do it. I’ve got to do it and be involved. So with that comes [the fact that] you have to be able to embrace losing and embrace so-called “failure”. And you’ve got to be okay with that. And not everyone is. I mean, the easiest way to not fail as we all know is just not start. Not try.

DD: I’ve been involved in martial arts for 30 years myself and I’ve discovered that many of the things I thought were impossible weren’t impossible. I realised they were quite possible - all I needed to do was start it or try it. And I guess that’s the answer to all martial arts skills.

JW: Yeah, give it a shot. And not [just] martial arts. Buying houses and working out relationships [etc.]. You’ve got to get in there and you’ve got to do it.

DD: Now as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been in the martial arts for a while and I’ve heard many a “stand-up fighter” say on that note: “I’m too old or too far down the track of learning stand-up to learn grappling.” What’s your answer to that?

JW: Well, look at Helio Gracie. Okay, he started young, but he’s on the mat at nearly 90 years of age. I’ve got students, and I’ve seen people start in their 50s and 60s, and do very, very well. So sometimes there are benefits. [There are] positives and negatives to everything.

One of the positives of starting older is that you haven’t got all that angst and explosiveness and all that sort of stuff, so you actually settle right into the feeling, the kinaesthetic experience of the grapple and using your mind and superior leverage and superior understanding of biomechanics and all those things, which underpins the whole art of BJJ. So in some ways you have an advantage in starting older, when you’ve gotten rid of some of that “go juice”. A lot of the time these young guys, that’s the first thing: it takes you six months to get that out of them - to get them to relax into it.

DD: As you mentioned in your seminar, a lot of BJJ skill is knowing when it’s your turn and when to let the person do whatever they’re going to do in order to give you a chance at your turn. And I guess when you’re young you don’t want to pause...

JW: You want to hog the turns, that’s right. [Laughs]

DD: On a similar note, I went to a seminar with a controversial taiji teacher who shall go nameless - this was about ’89. This was shortly before I trained with you at one of your early BJJ seminars. And I remember him telling the class not to bother trying to beat a grappler at his own game and to concentrate on what you do best - which in his case was strikes, “dim mak” (death touches and this sort of thing). So what’s your answer to that? I mean, I know a lot of stand-up fighters will say: “If I spend my time learning this skill I’ll be taking time away, and I’ll never beat the grappler at his own game.”

JW: I think that, for a start, it’s not about “beating” who or whatever. First of all, martial arts, I love it all. We’re all in the martial arts and who’s to say that people don’t get as much out of doing taekwondo or wing chun than they do out of BJJ? What’s the outcome you want? Do you want to be able to fight? Really? Do you really need that? Or is it more important for you to get new friends and lose some weight... So it depends on what you want! That’s the first question I ask of the military guys or whatever: what outcome do you want? Okay, now we’ve got to plan for that.

DD: That’s a very valid point. The question that was posed - and I did so deliberately to give you a chance to respond - was misconceived because it assumes one goal for a start.

JW: That’s right. Exactly. So if you do want to “beat a grappler” for some strange reason - and that’s the thing that you’re out to do - and you’re a stand-up fighter, then I say keep with your stand-up, work with your strength, whatever it is, but you need to learn something about grappling because who’s most qualified to stay on their feet? A grappler. So learn some grappling. Even if you never want to go to the ground, you better learn grappling because then you’re qualified to stay on your feet and keep smacking him in the head with good kickboxing or boxing skills. But if you say: “He’ll never get me to the ground because I’m going to hit him with a jab and cross,” you’re deluded. He’ll shoot your legs and you’ll be on the ground in the blink of an eye and you’ll be going “Oh my goodness!” So I say to people, learn grappling. Embrace it. That’s how you learn to beat a grappler; you learn it so you don’t have to go there. You are more qualified now to stay on your feet.

DD: I think some of the best MMA fighters today who are stand-up fighters have shown just that. They have a solid background in grappling. But they choose to carry on with the stand-up.

PM: Well that’s a good point to highjack this direction a little because I know we’re running low on time. One of the biggest sporting events to hit Australia recently is about to take place of course is UFC Australia at Acer Arena. And everyone from the promoters back were shocked to find that it basically sold on presale. They sold out the entire event. Now of course when you’ve had connections to people in this event and of course a lot of the earlier and other major figures in the, if you like, the fledgling aspects of the Australian MMA scene and even the guys who’ve been Stateside and UK as well... [indistinct] a few minutes to talk about that. Maybe George would feature prominently in everybody’s interest at the moment - I know he’s got a lot of people following...

JW: George Sotiropoulos was a very passionate martial artist, trained with me for a long time. I got him to black belt in BJJ before we kind of sent him overseas. Because he wanted to make a career out of it. And back when he got his black belt with me he [indistinct] ... difficult to make a career here so he took that advice and went overseas to America and he’s done really well. He hasn’t lost yet and won that, what was it called? “Ultimate Fighter” - he won that. [Then he went into] UFC and and he won that and [indistinct]. The UFC is great, but it is one small aspect. It’s not everything. It’s not about multiple opponents, it’s not about street reality.

PM: But you have to agree that its profile draws a lot of people to BJJ.

JW: Oh, my goodness! I mean, it’s unprecedented. Not only that, the UFC and the whole idea of mixed martial arts is the first time ever that I’m aware of that the martial arts have transcended... it’s gone past the cultural barrier and gone into the fashion industry. I mean, Tap Out. People are wearing Tap Out gear who don’t know anything about martial arts. Well, when’s that happened before? So seriously, I’ve been saying this for 25 years but I guess people weren’t listening. [Laughs] But yes, it was great over there when it first came out, the UFC. I couldn’t believe it. I was a purple belt at the time and I remember being at Richard Norton’s apartment saying: “Hey you guys, I reckon the skinny guy’s going to win.” They go: “No way!” I said: “Put your money on the table.” I made a killing. “I’ll tell you how he’s going to win and I’ll tell you why. And he’s doing it.” They go: “What are you talking about?” They thought I was some kind of mystic. [Laughs]

DD: You talk a lot in your book about the most important investment being in yourself. What do you mean by that?

JW: I think... first of all time is valuable. And as you get older we all become more aware of that. I think it’s a natural thing. Most people become aware of it at some point, usually when their parents die. They say: “I’m next in line.” That’s something kids don’t generally think about. But as you get older and you have experience you think “Time’s short.” You start to work out the next logical step and that is “Time’s short, wow - that means what I have left is valuable. How am I going to spend that?”

And I think one of the best ways to spend it is on experience as opposed to on things. You know, cars and stuff. That’s all good to have, these things, but I think they lose meaning. You buy a brand new Mercedes convertible and two months later on you’re not getting the same joy out of it. You’re getting the same joy out of it that you got out of your old Holden Commodore. But experience - that’s changing you intrinsically. You’re upgrading yourself the whole time. So I’ve got no problem investing in my own experience. That’s how I invest my money - and my time. And I think that in doing that - in investing in yourself - there’s no return that’s better.

I mean, talking about finances, I invested one day in learning how to buy property. And in a further 2 hours I had one - apart from my own home. I’ve probably invested 12-13 hours total of my time to get 3 or 4 more properties which I nearly own now. That’s good investment: [good] return on investment of time put in, compared to me shovelling dirt. So all the great things that happen, I don’t think they happen from lots of little things. I think they happen from you doing some investment in yourself, learning something, and then trying to apply that knowledge in the real world.

DD: Most of us, including yours truly, have jobs that pay the bills but don’t exactly match what we’d like to be doing. Is there a part of your job that you don’t like?

JW: Not much. I love my job. I love pretty much everything about my job. And I’m okay now financially that I don’t have to anything I don’t want to do any more. So therefore, I’m choosy. If I don’t want to teach, I don’t have to. If I want to stop work tomorrow, I don’t have to work any more. But I love doing what I’m doing.

DD: I’m sure as teacher of the martial arts you enjoy the act of teaching but it does take you away from your family, doesn’t it? The travelling and so on.

JW: It does. Probably 20-25 weekends a year I’m away. That’s the sacrifice I make. I try to be home during the week. And I try to make sure it’s only on the weekends. But I enjoy being on the mat. Loved being here tonight. Love teaching the military. I love the diversity of my job. Australian Defence Force, sky marshals, Quantico in America, martial arts guys in serious schools. And there are schools that are not so serious. They’re all different and I have to approach it differently in “What do these people want?” And then try to deliver it, bring them on and give them something real and tangible. So I love that.

DD: How much time do you spend at your own training centres in Melbourne and Geelong?

JW: Most of the time I’m at my school 3 or 4 nights a week.

PM: Can we just wander back for one second, you were talking about investing in your own experience and probably a lot of people out there might just relate that back again to the martial arts, but you do a lot of... In the ’70s they would have given you your own TV show like the Leyland brothers. You do a lot of things that people probably don’t associate with the marital arts per se. It seems that those experiences act as the release valve for everything else you do. You want to share a couple of those with the listeners?

JW: You know, I love lots of things. I like getting out in the wilds and I like travelling to Mongolia, Siberia, jumping out of helicopters in the Kakadu, in the remote Kimberlys, jumping off boats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, swimming to uncharted islands and spending a week there. For 25 years I’ve been doing some radical adventure every year. Something really radical. I’ve got some really radical stuff in the pipelines. Something very much out of the ordinary, because I don’t think we live in the now very much.

Our brains have evolved over all this time to do something that’s good and bad. Our prefrontal lobes are an amazing evolutionary construct; what it allows us to do, it allows us to think about the future and dwell on the past. Animals can’t do that. They live in the present. Well, we can go: “I need to plan for next week because this is going to happen - remember that happened way back then. And that ability allows us to invent things and be humans. But it also comes with a price. It’s hard for us to live in the now.

Our brains keep taking us back to shit that happened 10 years ago and we’re still dwelling on it and worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future. So I think to get back to living in the very moment we’re in is something that more of us need to do more of. And I think that’s one aspect of getting out in the wilds and doing that kind of stuff that pulls me right into the now. And I enjoy that - being in the now and living like that. So I think that’s part of the appeal for me.

DD: Well one last question John. I know you don’t have a planned life, but what does the next year hold for John Will?

JW: Pretty much my same seminar circuit. I’ve written a book this month already - the third book in a row/series - and when I go to England I know Geoff Thompson is going to rock up to me straight away in Coventry at dawn before we go for our morning walk through the park and he’s going to say: “Where’s your next book?” So I’m thinking of writing it before I arrive, just so I can slap him in the head with it. [Laughs] But I’ll probably write another book.

One of the things I’m doing which hundreds and hundreds of people asked me for and I’ve resisted it for a while but I’m doing an online training subscription-based website which is going to be launched in about 6 weeks. So I’ll be doing a lot of work for that - it’s called “Fight Puzzle”. It’ll be really cheap, $19 or something a month, but they go on there and I’ll teach a class a couple of times per week. So I’m trying to do that and get it going. And there will also be a fair bit of work with special ops command and the Australian Defence Force in Canberra; there’s some other work I’ve got to do with them later year. Things like that.

DD: Well, thanks for speaking with us tonight John, and Paul for hosting the event in your centre here at the Sozokan, and John I look forward to catching up with you when you next come to Perth.

JW: Thanks very much Dan. Thanks Paul.

PM: Thank you.

[Thanks to John for allowing me to use his personal photographs for this article.]

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Fascinating account Dan. JW was a real pioneer! Glad you're back on the blog-wagon ; )


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