For the cover story of the October/November 2020 issue of Black Belt, Harinder Singh Sabharwal interviewed former Navy SEAL and current Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Jocko Willink. However, as is often the case in print publishing, we didn't have room to run the whole story. Presented here is the missing material.
What does a black belt mean to you? What should it represent?
To me, a black belt means that you just don't give up. It's not easy to get a black belt. If you have a black belt, it means you didn't give up. I didn't give up, but that doesn't mean I won't tap out. I'll keep training, I'll keep trying to learn.
In my mind, a black belt is not a powerful statement; it is a statement of humility. If you are wearing a black belt, you have been humbled more times than you can count. Because you have been humbled more times than you can count, you should have learned that the power of jiu-jitsu is not your power. It's a gift that you are given. Other people invested in you to give you this gift. And if you forget that for a moment and act with arrogance, you are not really doing justice to that belt you are wearing.
Would you say that sometimes we get attached to specific plans, specific techniques, specific tools, sometimes to even styles and systems, and this ultimately limits us?
Yes. When I started doing jiu-jitsu, there were certain moves that were not from jiu-jitsu, so we were told not to do them. Because these moves were not from jiu-jitsu, it was assumed that they probably would not work or we shouldn't do them because it's not jiu-jitsu and therefore not sportsmanlike to do those types of moves.
I had an open mind from the beginning. If you have a move and it is a wrestling move or a sambo move that is effective, I am going to try it. Also, if you come to me and say you have a variation of this technique [and ask what I] think — if it works, I like it. You have to keep an open mind.
To promote growth, what is the benefit of training with partners above your level and below your level?
First, you should train with people who are better than you, people who are equal to you and people who are worse than you. Because when you train with someone who is worse than you, you train on your offense. When you train with someone at the same level, you work on your transitions. When you train with someone better than you, you train on your defense.
Photos Courtesy of Jocko Willink
Second, in a martial arts academy, there is a pyramid. The person who is the best in the school is at the top of the pyramid, and they are at a certain height. The more people who are below in the bottom of the pyramid, the higher that person is. The better the people are in the pyramid, the taller the pyramid is. So every time one new person enters the academy, they are making the academy stronger. Every time that person gets a good roll with a senior person and they learn one new move, they make everyone in the academy better. It is a team thing. The more you train with lower belts, the better they get. The better they get, the taller the pyramid is and the better you get at the top of the pyramid.
When MMA started, we had martial artists who were masters of one range. Over the years, we have seen the need to be well-rounded in all ranges with a mix of boxing, muay Thai, wrestling and BJJ. Do you think the fighter of the future will need to be well-rounded in all ranges of combat while being a master of one range?
That is one of the many possibilities. Like I said, there will be some people who have an X-factor in that they are insanely good at a particular martial art, whether it be boxing, muay Thai, wrestling or BJJ. They are insanely good, and they have enough of everything else and can direct the fight into their insanely good arena of skills. But there are also going to be people who are just so well-rounded that they are never going to get put in someone else's good arena. They will be able to avoid it and then find the weakness of that person and capitalize. That's what makes fighting fun and the UFC so exciting — fighter A beats B, B beats C, but C doesn't necessarily beat A.
They say boxing is the sweet science, and it certainly is, but mixed martial arts is so nonlinear. There are so many aspects to it, and it is so multi-faceted that it seems a lot harder to pin down what the future holds as far as the type of fighter who becomes the top.
The masters, the Rickson Gracies of the world, seem to be in the future. Are they operating two to three moves ahead of everyone else?
It's more than that. I have explained to people that when you are good at jiu-jitsu, you can see the future because you know what that person is going to do. When you are rolling with somebody who's great, someone who is world class — this happens to me with Dean Lister — I'll make a move and he will be there waiting for me to make my move. I know what he is going to do, so I try to fake that move and do another move, and he is right there waiting for that, too.
I always have fun when I try to explain what it was like rolling with Rickson Gracie. I always tell people: "Let me get in your guard. Now don't do anything." When they don't do anything and I push their legs open and mount them, that is what it was like for me training with Rickson Gracie. It was almost as if I wasn't resisting. Whenever I put up resistance, he wasn't there, and when I wasn't resisting, he was there. A lot of times, that is what it feels like when you are training with someone who is at a super-high level. The Rickson Gracies, Marcelo Garcias and Dean Listers of the world can see the future. They know what you are going to do.
Is there another element of sensitivity involved, one that does not require thinking because the moment you start thinking, your opponent will know what you are about to do?
Against a good person, if you have to think about defending the arm lock, you are already tapping. If you have to think about defending the choke, it is already in and you will tap. It is the same if I to try to arm-lock Dean Lister. If I have to think about it, he is already out and escaped. So part of it is absolutely instinctive. It is muscle memory, and it is just ingrained in their system.
There are also a few human beings who have a natural propensity for certain things in life. There are people who have practiced as much basketball as Michael Jordan, have the same height, the same athletic capabilities — but he had another thing. His mind was built to play basketball. And there are certain people in jiu-jitsu whose minds were built to do jiu-jitsu. You see the same thing with muay Thai, wrestling and boxing. To me, this is the difference between champions and legends [and all] other practitioners.
Read more of this interview in "Modern Musashi: Jocko Willink's Commentaries on the Martial Way" in the October/November 2020 issue of Black Belt. Order your copy directly from the Black Belt Store.