Full MA experience listed here
-1999-2002: Warwick Uni (ZSK)
-2002-2006: Broadening My Horizons (Various)
-2006-2009: Roger Gracie Academy (BJJ)
-2009-2011: Nomadic Training (BJJ)
-2011-Present: Learning How To Teach (BJJ)
Introduction: For anyone that wants to know my background in martial arts (as usual, this will be a little long-winded…), I started off with a year of fencing at Yarm School. Up to that point, I had never been especially interested in sports, mainly because I was crap at them all. Fencing appealed to me largely because I’m a geek: I saw it as a way of connecting with the fantasy books I read avidly (and still do) throughout my youth. The same impulse would lead me, somewhat bizarrely, to a brief stint at horse riding in another school. I think I started fencing lessons around 1993/1994, but not completely certain - I do remember it was just before I moved down South.
1999-2002: Martial Arts at Warwick Uni ^
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to keep up the fencing at my new school, so had to wait until 1999 to get back into martial arts. In September of that year, I began my English Lit BA at the University of Warwick, having spent the previous summer getting excited about what martial art I could try out (I got some kind of "intro pack" through the post, which listed the various sports on offer). At this point, I knew almost nothing about martial arts beyond what I'd seen in films, but decided that I wanted to try kung fu, due to my enjoyment of the related cinematic genre.
In my corridor in the first year, there was a guy by the name of John Booth who had some kickboxing experience (along with muay thai, I think: whatever it was, seemed to have kept him in good shape, so I assume it was probably one of the heavier contact martial arts). In the run-up to the Sports Fair (held near the start of the year annually, where all the sports clubs have a stall and try to recruit new members), I asked his advice on what martial art to take. John suggested kung fu - at that time, the only club advertising itself as 'kung fu' was a little known MA called Zhuan Shu Kuan. In short, it could be described as kickboxing with traditional trimmings (stances, forms etc).
I duly signed up with a friend from my halls. She eventually lost interest, but I kept up my training three times a week pretty much throughout the whole of first year. I was also keen to grade, an ambition delayed after Glen Cudjoe (the main instructor) quite reasonably thought I wasn't displaying sufficient effort when demonstrating the form. That would be a recurring problem (I'd eventually lose any interest in the traditional side), but I was suitably improved to go for my first grading at the next opportunity, receiving a a blue tag.
I continued grading steadily, though my enthusiasm waned in the second year to the point that I stopped making so many Tuesdays. The fact that Tuesday classes were held at the (now defunct) gym on Westwood campus was probably a factor too – Westwood is on the outskirts, so a reasonable walk away. In the final term of second year, my attendance dropped significantly: I’d failed to make a smooth transition from the leisurely first year (where nothing counted towards your final mark) to the more important second year (which did count). That meant I had to cram furiously before the exams to catch up on all the reading I’d missed, so ZSK slipped down in my priorities. So word of warning to anyone just starting uni: enjoy your first year, but start working harder in your second. ;)
In the university holidays between the end of second year and the start of the third, I had a look at what martial arts were on offer near my home. It turned out that the leisure centre next to my school in Chesham had a kickboxing class, which IIRC was called ‘Pegasus Kickboxing’, run by a trim, grey-haired instructor named Mike. I can’t quite remember how many sessions I attended, but I’d guess around four, each of which were two hours long. Mike was keen on fitness, so there was a long warm-up, followed by hitting pads and later some sparring (to my surprise I found myself paired up with a girl from school I hadn’t seen in years). Not a bad place to train, so if its still going I can recommend it to anyone in the Chesham area. I'm assuming Pegasus sends out competitors regularly, as there were a number of buff looking people in kickboxing trousers training away from the rest of class.
The start of the third year meant that I could have another wander round the Sports Fair, and perhaps try out some additional martial arts. Over the course of my BA, I had a go at capoeira, samurai jiu jitsu (currently operating under the name of Jitsu. See this thread for more on that organisation), aikido, wing tsun and escrima. I think all of those were in my third year, but some might have been in the second. Either way, I wasn’t too keen on any of them, so continued to just train in ZSK.
By 2002, I was into the last months of my BA degree. I’d learned the lessons from second year, so worked much harder this time round. However, my training still suffered in third year – I think that must have been due to the BUNAC working holiday to Banff, Canada during the Summer, where I followed my girlfriend (who I had first met in class at the end of 2000). The scheme started before the end of term, meaning my training was cut short.
2002-2006: Broadening my Horizons ^
My marks for the BA were good enough for me to apply for a Masters degree later the same year, again at Warwick. I had no wish to leave university just yet, as my gf was still there another year, and I also wanted to continue training in ZSK: I’d made a number of friendships through the club over the preceding three years, making ZSK a major part of my social life. So, I returned to Warwick after Canada, renewed enthusiasm meaning that once again I was attending every session of ZSK I could make (although in the third term, I injured my ankle, which again cut my training short that academic year). It was at this time (specifically the 26th October 2002, according to my Tung-Fu join date) that I got into the geeky world of internet forums, which in turn sparked an interest in MMA, and by extension, grappling.
I wasn’t ready for MMA yet, but on the advice of somebody from a forum, I decided to try and organise some groundwork sessions with a judo black belt friend of mine I knew from ZSK. We booked the activities room four or five times, where Mike ran me through some of the basic positions and a few submissions. Towards the end of my Masters degree I had another opportunity to try the ground. One of the forums I posted at had a meeting in nearby Warwick (the University of Warwick, rather strangely, is actually located in Coventry. As ‘Coventry University’ already existed, the founders decided that Warwick would work as a name – the fact it sounded a lot posher no doubt helped), where I arrived late for the self-defence session with Dave Turton. He was followed by Andy Davis, an MMA instructor, but when it came to rolling, I wimped out of a fellow forum goer’s request to spar (something I was able to rectify three years later, when I met him again at the Midlands Throwdown).
Having successfully completed my Masters, I moved down to Bristol to be near my gf, as well as save up some money for our round the world trip. This meant that it was difficult to train in ZSK anymore, so I hardly went to any ZSK classes at all between the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2005. Unless I'm remembering incorrectly, it was during my Masters that I attended my last grading in ZSK - I passed, and became a brown belt. However, although I initially had a vague idea that I'd try for the black tag and then black belt at some point in the future, I pretty much lost any motivation to progress further up the rankings over the course of that year. This was compounded by my inability to take more than one class of ZSK a week, as I worked in London half the week. If I ever find myself able to train more frequently in ZSK, then I might get back to grading, but I'm not really interested in learning the traditional forms and fixed spars, which means its unlikely.
In Bristol, I had the opportunity to again try out some other martial arts clubs. First of all my gf and I popped down to a taekwondo class - a martial art which had taken a serious bashing in all the forums I frequented - in Kingswood, and it proved to pretty much fit what I’d read on the net (though I found it fairly enjoyable up until the ‘street style’ section: nice people). Next up was the excellent wushu club run by Neil Genge, which I tried purely for acrobatics – attending about five classes, I was thrilled to finally manage a somersault and kip-up, although admittedly the sprung floor kinda helped.
The last club I tried before setting off for Hong Kong was Kevin O’Hagan’s MMA class, which also marks the first time I started logging my training. Hence why it’s the first training log entry in this blog.
Between 2004 and 2005, I popped along to a few more MMA classes, mainly in London, along with a few other MA, like hapkido and kickboxing. I also made it back to Warwick a few times to train at ZSK, but very intermittent. In February 2005, I took on some major writing commitments at Warwick Uni, so decided to not only make my ZSK training more regular, but also get into Judo and something going by the name of 'Kempo Ju Jitsu'. Annoyingly, I got injured early on, which put me out of full training for almost a year (although after a few months I was able to train around the injury at ZSK).
On the 18th March 2005 (judging by this thread), I started logging my training by the hour, which fit perfectly into my growing love of data (heightened by the job I was doing at KPMG back then, an analytical career path I stumbled into but have somehow continued, moving from corporate to educational, then the charity sector). That involved some guesswork and estimation for my martial arts experience pre-2005, but has proved a useful tool in the years since. I have an old Bullshido thread to thank for what has become a huge spreadsheet.
Also worth mentioning that I've made a number of throwdowns since 2005 (the first one being that Tung-Fu meet in 2003), mainly due to the Bullshido website. These events are a chance to train and spar with a whole bunch of people from different backgrounds, not to mention a great opportunity to put faces to names on internet forums!
2006-2009: Roger Gracie Academy ^
Once I recovered from the shoulder injury in 2006, I endeavoured to finally join up at a BJJ club - my first option was the Gracie Barra gym in Birmingham, but their beginner classes were at times I couldn't make. So, that left the Roger Gracie Academy in London, where I began in November 2006 (unless you count the intro in October, which coincidentally took place exactly four years after I first started posting in online martial arts forums), having watched a class the week before. Reading on the internet, especially at Bullshido, provided an excellent set of principles that would serve me well as I started BJJ. This thread in particular has become something of a touchstone, and I'd urge anyone interested in training martial arts to give it a read.
I trained as regularly as I could in those first few months, in order to get my third stripe and move on to the advanced class (due to the greater choice of classes that would entail, as third and fourth stripes can train in both the beginners and advanced). Normally I managed two or three classes a week, which was all my convoluted travel schedule would allow.
Eventually getting that third stripe in June 2007 was probably the impetus for concentrating fully on BJJ, as it considerably expanded the amount of classes I could attend. Before that, I had intermittently gone back to my old ZSK class, but since the promotion and an increase in workload outside of class, it's been all grappling. My last ZSK class was April 2007.
My first BJJ competition took place August 2007: first fight, first loss, though amusingly I still got a bronze, because the guy who beat me went on to win the division (there were only four of us competing at super featherweight). Shortly after that, I popped over to the Belfast Throwdown: video below is me rolling with Waqi, and is the most recent footage I've got of my sparring. At the time, he was a very experienced blue belt, who could easily have smashed me, but mercifully went light - I'm the white belt.
The 14th January 2008 kicked off what would become a major part of my blog, the reviews section. My first was simply a result of being frustrated and ill, so as I couldn't train, I decided to write-up my thoughts on what I'd been reading, Angry White Pyjamas.
A month later, on the 14th February 2008 (they accidentally put January on the certificate, but meh, close enough), I got my blue belt from Jude Samuel, then a black belt instructor at RGA. I was especially pleased to get the belt from Jude, as at that time he was the only black belt to have rolled with me, and also the person who had taught the majority of the classes I'd attended. So, out of the people capable of promoting me, he was definitely best placed to judge my current level.
That meant I had accomplished one of the goals of this blog, which is to track somebody's progress from white to blue. I've noted each grading along the way, and this spreadsheet goes into exact detail on how many classes, hours etc (if, like me, you're geeky enough to care about that sort of thing).
Of course, what qualifies a person for a blue belt is a subjective decision by a particular instructor, and therefore varies from academy to academy. A good measure is competition, and by that score, I felt I certainly had a long way to go, as the Bristol Open back in August 2007 marked my sole fight so far. I thought it wasn't likely I would compete as a blue for a while, as I wanted to feel a whole lot more comfortable with the weight of that rank first.
While wandering around the web during mid-2008, I came across somebody called Roy Dean. He proved to have a very interesting site, especially his eBook, An Uchideshi Experience. I wrote how much I'd enjoyed his articles and YouTube videos in a few posts over April and May. To my surprise, that resulted in an email from Roy himself, which in turn led to my numerous reviews of his DVDs. I'd later get a chance to meet and train with the man himself, after being invited to his first UK seminar in Poole, which was an amazing experience.
2009-2011: Nomadic Training ^
At the end of 2008, I had a lovely christmas present in the form of a redundancy from KPMG. In other words, I got bitten by the credit crunch. Still, it meant I could try out new things on the blog. I wrote lots more reviews (in particular, my immense Gracie Combatives review would have been difficult to write if I'd been working), and also started doing articles. A lot of new blogs began appearing, and I found that soon a vibrant community of bloggers had grown up around BJJ. It has been cool to 'meet' some awesome people through the internet, like Georgette, Leslie, Francisco, Julia, Megan and Seymour, among many others (eventually I made a long list of blogs). It also made me keener than ever to make a training trip to the US, though I didn't yet have the time and money.
Another advantage of unemployment was that I had a chance to bounce around various clubs in the UK, due to job seeking: after no longer being able to afford the fees at RGA, I moved to the affiliate in Kilburn, where I could continue to train with Jude Samuel. It also meant that I could continue rolling with my favourite training partner from RGA HQ, Christina. At the time, I was also looking after my niece, in order to help my sister return to work. She lived near Clapham Junction, which was perfect for getting to Kilburn.
However, a few months down the line she moved to Cobham in Surrey. The trains from there make getting to training awkward, so I had to look for a new option, eventually finding it at Nova Força in Epsom. I could cycle over there in about forty minutes, which wasn't too bad (and good fitness!) The only downside was that because I was bouncing up and down the country to see my girlfriend, who was then studying a Masters degree at Warwick Uni, I could only train once a week.
Nova Força was also my first experience training BJJ outside of the RGA family. The black belt who runs it, Ricardo Da Silva, was one of the first instructors to teach BJJ in the UK, starting off at Sleeping Storm before it closed. Ricardo's classes fit my image of what a Carlson Gracie class might be like (I don't know much about the Nova Força team history, so perhaps there is a Carlson connection somewhere), with tough training and intense sparring, plus lots of belt whipping.
After that, I headed back to Warwick Uni for the end of my gf's MA, when I trained at Combat Athletics in Canley. The area is decidedly unpleasant, but the training was pretty good, taught by a John Will affiliate, who was a blue belt when I was there. Classes were all nogi, mainly because most of the people training there had yet to buy a gi.
From September 2009 to April 2010, I was back with RGA, at the affiliate in High Wycombe under brown belt Kev Capel. This proved to be the friendliest place I'd ever trained, because Kev is undoubtedly the most approachable instructor I've yet encountered. He's also around my size, which is always a help. I met a lot of great training partners too, especially Howard and Callum.
In April, I finally got a new job, necessitating a move to Leamington Spa. That meant training at Gracie Barra Birmingham, the place I'd originally meant to join way back in 2006. So, in a sense I'd come full circle. Like Kev's club, GB Brum was also really friendly, and like RGA HQ, there was a broad range of size, age, skill and a few women on the mat. I was particularly impressed by Norbi, who was not only a top notch instructor, but incredibly generous and welcoming. Definitely somewhere I would recommend.
I left that job a few months later, just as GB Brum moved to a new city centre location. Returning home, I was back training at Kev's club in High Wycombe, later moving to his Aylesbury location. My eventual goal was to move down to Bristol, so I could live with my girlfriend. Handily, Nicolai 'Geeza' Holt opened up Gracie Barra Bristol in late 2010, so I took the opportunity to occasionally drop in while visiting my gf. As I had moved to paying £50 for a block of seven lessons rather than a monthly fee at High Wycombe, that made sense (especially as Geeza didn't charge much for the initial months after GB Bristol's opening).
On 6th March 2011, Roger came up to do a seminar at RGA Bucks. I was one of seven people to get promoted to purple belt. It is a heavy belt, but while Roger is the one who tied it around my waist, he was of course acting on Kev's judgement. That meant I felt less nervous about it than I would have done if anybody else had given me the belt. I have a lot of respect for Kev, and he has also observed my game for a long time now, including numerous rolls with me. I knew I would not be completely comfortable with it for a long while, but then I felt the same way when I got my blue.
2011-Present: Learning How To Teach ^
In May 2011, we finally found a house, so I moved down to live with my girlfriend permanently. After a decade of having to bounce up and down the country to see each other, it was a huge relief to at last live in the same place. Even better, the house was right around the corner from Gracie Barra Bristol, which by this point had moved into the huge converted warehouse next to the temporary building I'd been to previously. While I was in the Peak District on my way to Factory BJJ, Geeza rang to see if I wanted to become an instructor at GB Bristol. I've always wanted to teach, so I jumped at the chance: I now had a reason to be happy about getting that purple belt, as otherwise I don't think I would have been asked.
Beginning on 12th May 2011, I was in charge of the Thursday classes. Originally Miles, a fellow purple belt, was holding the fort on Tuesdays. However, due to his many responsibilities, most obviously a new baby, that responsibility was passed to a high level blue belt called Dónal, who I had first met up at Gracie Barra Birmingham.
In July, my workload outside of class increased again, taking up a lot of my evenings. I was also spending a lot of time doing DIY on the house, which only started to calm down around October. BJJ was therefore not the priority, although as ever I still made sure to attend at least one class a week. My time was cut back even further once I started a full time job in January 2012. As a result, my schedule became training under Dónal (who got his long overdue purple belt in December 2011) on Tuesdays (due to the length: 1 hour is too short and 2 hours is too long, so 1.5 hours suits me perfectly) and teaching my class on Thursdays.
By September 2012, Miles was ready to return to teaching, taking charge of Thursday nogi classes. That meant that my Thursday gi session moved over to Mat 2, where Gracie Barra Bristol had trained while we waited for the main building to be repurposed for jiu jitsu. It's a much smaller space, but then my classes aren't normally all that large anyway. Also in September, I organised a charity GrappleThon for Meningitis UK, which ended up raising over £3,000. Less good that month was a groin injury I somehow picked up, which severely hindered my ability to play guard or hold back mount.
The community aspect of BJJ is something that has increasingly grown in importance for me. In November 2012, that culminated in a brilliant training trip to Texas. That gave me the chance to finally meet a number of my favourite BJJ people in person, having previously only known them online (e.g., Georgette, Jodi, John from Bullshido, Triin from Fenom and numerous others).
The schedule at GB Bristol continued to change as 2013 rolled along, again due to children. Dónal became a father that year, resulting in his teaching load dropping to just Wednesday. I therefore took over Tuesday and returned to Mat 1, leaving Thursday dedicated to nogi. However, I still got in plenty of training with Dónal, as I began taking semi-regular private lessons with him in 2013.
This has fed directly into my lesson plans, which as I hoped in 2011 have enabled me to gradually refine a small set of techniques, with the eventual goal of not only being able to use them effectively in sparring, but also to teach them well. Another boost on that front arrived a few months later, when the 'study hall' class was added on Sundays (basically, an open mat with a focus on drilling, which is what I tend to do at open mats anyway).
In May, I organised my second GrappleThon, which went even better than the first: we managed to raise over $13,000 this time, which is a brilliant amount. There was a lot of support from around the country, along with some big donations from outside the UK as well. To try and expand the concept, I set up GrappleThon.org. I'm hoping that will also help other people run their own GrappleThon events (to which end I wrote a guide, here).
California. Along with more cool online people (particularly Caleb, Dagney, Ben and Dave), I also got to meet some BJJ celebrities, including Fabio Santos and Relson Gracie, plus a very brief encounter with Rorion Gracie. Most exciting was chatting to Saulo for an hour, as I've been a big fan of his instructional material for many years now. Experiencing the Rener Gracie marketing machine face-to-face was quite an experience too, as well as training at the legendary Gracie Academy in Torrance. I'm looking forward to my third USA training trip in 2014. :)
[If anyone reached this page by Googling "warwick uni bjj", "warwick university bjj", "warwick brazilian jiu jitsu", "warwick bjj" or something like that, then you may be in luck. I started a BJJ training group at Warwick Uni, which is now mostly run by members of the judo club: see Facebook for more details.
It looks as though things have progressed since I helped get it going, as there is now an official BJJ class, with Braulio Estima's first black belt, Chiu Kwong Man: again, see Facebook. I can recommend Chiu, having trained with him a number of times myself.]
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