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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

04 May 2016

Book Review - Becoming the Black Belt (Roy Dean)

Short Review: A BJJ biography in a comparable vein to John Will's Rogue Black Belt series, Roy Dean's second autobiographical book takes the reader from Dean's beginnings in BJJ, right through to building a successful school with black belt graduates of his own. As you would expect from Dean, it is eloquent, with a 'traditional' martial arts feel. He's a skilled writer with an interesting story to share, so this is an engaging read, particularly if you're an aspiring school owner. It's possibly a little pricey at £7/$10 for 154 pages, but still affordable.

Full Review:When it comes to biographical books about Brazilian jiu jitsu, there isn't a huge amount of choice, at least in English. There's the Carlos Gracie book by his daughter Reila, John Will's recollections in his Rogue Black Belt trilogy, Marshal Carper's adventures in Hawaii, Christian Graugart's academy-hopping trip around the world and most recently, Val Worthington's Training Wheels. If you broaden it out to MMA, many more choices become available (with articulate voices like Sam Sheridan), but for pure BJJ, it remains limited.

Roy Dean has already had one entry into this market, although in his first book he spoke more about aikido and his time as an uchideshi. In Becoming the Black Belt, the focus is squarely on BJJ. I can't think of another book that manages to trace a complete journey, from BJJ beginner through to senior belt, the struggles and triumphs of building up a successful school, then finally discovering that your passion lies elsewhere. The tone of the book reflects Dean's well-regarded DVDs, presenting BJJ from what you might call a traditional martial arts mindset.

That starts with Nic Gregoriades' discussion of bushido in his foreword, continuing through to Dean peppering his first chapter with terms like 'warrior' and 'rite of passage'. It isn't a perspective I share on BJJ or martial arts in general - unsurprising, given I have never been interested in developing a spiritual side - but it also isn't required to enjoy this book. What most caught my interest was Dean's depiction of the US BJJ scene in the early 2000s.

Brazilian jiu jitsu is a young art outside of Brazil, its expansion catalysed by the first UFC in 1993. Roy Dean was present a few years later, just as BJJ was consolidating its foothold in the United States. He made his way to what remains the epicentre of BJJ in the States, and by extension the key site for the sport outside of Brazil in general: San Diego. Training in California at that time meant he dropped in to the legendary Lions Den headed up by Ken Shamrock, before deciding on Roy Harris, a man well worth an autobiography himself (though his reputation has recently taken a hit, due to the understandable uncertainty over his controversial online ranking system).

Aside from history, there is considerable material that relates to everyday training, which reminds me a little of Mark Johnson's two books discussing BJJ. For example, a salient point about the enormous boost a good training partner can bring to your progress, which for Dean was integral to his development. That man is Brad Hirakawa, who gets a number of name checks (as for an entirely different reason do I, due to meeting Dean at his UK seminar a few years ago).

As Dean's book moves into the fourth chapter, he explores the competition mindset and the importance of aggression. I dislike aggression both on and off the mats and therefore have my own strong views on the topic, but Dean makes some good points about his need to develop that killer instinct to turn around his tournament performance. He's very good on describing competition fights, including a match with a certain Nick Diaz. If all of those are from memory it's hugely impressive, but I assume there was some video footage too (as Dean frequently mentions a sponsor with a camera).

There is the odd minor error, such as describing the Dirty Dozen as the first twelve Americans (John Will is Australian and part of that select group too), or a very occasional typo, but they're rare. Also, they might well be corrected in the final version of the book, rather than the review copy I read. Dean's instructor Roy Harris was in that Dirty Dozen group as well: he is a running theme throughout the book. Many people will have read the engaging account by Harris regarding his own progression to black belt, but there are still a few tidbits in Dean's book that add to the story.

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Given it is an autobiography, there are non-BJJ elements (yes, there is life outside BJJ ;D). For example, Dean talks at length about his studies into music and digital media. His mastery of the DVD medium makes more sense after reading that: I was aware he had some academic training in audio visual, but this gives you specifics (e.g., ProTools and the like). There are also a few nods to his love life, but they fortunately (from my perspective, I guess others might want to read romance) take up very little space in the book.

I was much more interested in his thoughts on setting up an academy. Alongside the questions about business and self-employment, Dean also adroitly deals with the political issues that invariably crop up when any group of humans grow over a certain number. He has never been one for gossip, so those hoping for juicy discussion of internal school troubles won't find it here: he keeps it professional.

His financial perspective on assistant instructors is interesting, and an issue where I'd have to disagree with his stance. They're helping your business, so at the very least should not be charged anything (though in fairness, it is a model Dean tried first before changing his view). The situations he found himself in as a school owner - and then goes on to describe and analyse - are not scenarios I can remember reading in any other BJJ book. I might be forgetting one of course, but either way, these situations aren't commonly discussed outside of forum hearsay.

The narrative arc of the biography is intriguing, the kind of story I enjoy reading in interviews. To be specific, the good interviews, as opposed to a young competition-focused athletic type telling you how much they train every day. I want to hear from somebody with real life experience that has something to share, experiences I can relate to and possibly learn from. That's what you'll find in these 151 pages. It's an engaging read, which I would especially recommend if you're a current or aspiring instructor/school owner.

Dean's book is available in ths US for $10, or in the UK for £7. That is perhaps a smidgeon too pricey for 154 pages, given that Val Worthington's comparable BJJ non-fiction release is a hundred pages longer for the same cost, but it's not an outrageous charge. I'm also not sure of word count, as I read Becoming the Black Belt as a PDF rather than a kindle book.

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