A Journal from my first visit to Renzo Gracie Academy New York – April 2016
Day 1 – Just Visiting 2016
On my first morning in NYC I decided to visit Renzo Gracie’s Academy to get an idea of what to expect and plan my training. As I approached 30th Street and recognized the familiar blue flag logo I have seen so many times in online videos I have to say I was more than a little nervous. The building looks kind of like an office from the outside, you go through an ornate gold door, nod at a doorman and then see a small laminate sign pointing to the academy and down an ominous looking set of stairs.
As I approached the stairs I could feel the extreme heat emanating from below, an apt feeling of walking into the fire. I’m not sure if it’s purposefully heated to such insane temperatures or it’s a by-product of a broken air conditioner – either way it makes the training incredibly intense and taxing – but more on that later.
I was greeted by a very friendly receptionist who explained I was free to attend all classes and spend as long as I wanted each day for the price of a day pass. She allowed me to explore the academy on my own so I took a stroll around the strangely familiar setting. The infamous huge blue mat area, a weights room, cage walls and a lot of dangerous looking guys some of which I recognized. I had that feeling of being sized up, eyes watching me – not in a bad way, just the way it works as a stranger at a new academy – fresh meat.
I thanked the receptionist and made plans to return for the 7.30am submission grappling class the day after
Session 1 – 7.30am
I woke at 6am ready to go, nervous but excited, I walked through the morning bustle of the waking city and steadied my breathing and nerves. As the blue sign became visible I felt the adrenaline bubbling up and had a quiet word with myself. Upon entering I was warmly greeted by the receptionist and a black belt instructor (who’s name escapes me) – they were both incredibly welcoming, friendly and asked me some questions about where I train and where I am from. When I said the UK they immediately said ‘oh do you train with Roger (Gracie)’ – I explained where and who I trained with and chatted briefly about training.
After signing the waiver I went to get changed – a combination of extreme heat and nerves meant I was already soaking wet with sweat and keen to get started. I changed and got on to the mat and sat quietly watching everything unfold. There were already classes running and people training and drilling. As more and more people arrived I realized just how busy an academy Renzo’s is, it was about 7.15am and there must be 50+ people here. As I was just getting to grips with the situation, Eddie Cummings steps on the mat and sits to my left, I try not to be a fan boy (whilst being a massive fan boy) and nod a greeting to him. Then arrives Professor Danaher – he carries a palpable aura with him – people seem to just automatically sit up straight and take notice, he kind of reminds me of a movie super villain – Darth Vader maybe…or Hannibal Lecter.
The class gets busier and busier – its no gi and there must be 30-40 people on the mats. Garry Tonon and Gordon Ryan join the class and it is starting to seem very surreal to be sharing the mat with some of my grappling heroes.
Professor Danaher starts the class quite informally and everyone crowds around to absorb the knowledge, we are learning a sweep directly into a submission. It seems like a big part of Danahers ideology is to look for the finish rather than just the points and that style sits incredibly well with me. Over the course of the class we add some other submissions including a heel hook – to learn heel hooks, from Danaher at Renzo Gracie NYC was a dream come to – amazing techniques, awesome detail and instruction.
We are then told to prepare for 4 x6 mins rounds of sparring – start standing, all subs allowed, my favourite format but intimidating to say the least in this room of killers. My first roll goes well, we exchange several subs and positions and despite my nerves I feel maybe I am doing ok, my second roll goes even better, I escape some leg locks and apply my own – we have an interesting and high paced roll. The heat is ridiculous, I am sweating buckets which is making escaping easier but finishing a lot harder. My third round I hear ‘lets roll’ from behind me – Eddie Cummings has just asked me to roll – damn.
I fight off some of my initial apprehension and bump fists – shortly after I am being heel hooked, Eddie is being nice and not breaking my leg outright – I try and escape, he tightens it a notch and I feel my knee ligaments groan under the pressure so I take the tap. The next 5.30 mins are humbling to say the least; he shuts down everything and taps me several times. If you think he’s all about leg locks, try out his armbar, triangle, kimura and RNC they are all powerful, fast and devastating. He’s a monster – incredibly strong for his size, explosive and dynamic. By the end he’s just playing and I am straight out of ideas. The round ends and I know I’ve just experienced something special.
I stagger to my feet, pretty exhausted and broken and on to my final roll – Garry Tonon. Wow – another of my heroes and I am allowed to roll against him, we bump fists and start to exchange takedown attempts. Garry has an effortless style, he has amazing flow and movement and attempts several takedowns. When we hit the floor we exchange several positions, he seems to use just enough skills and energy to beat me at every turn but no more than is necessary. I get RNC’d and Danaher congratulates Garry – I remember thinking that’s pretty cool that Danaher was watching my rolling (Garry’s really) even if I did just get choked. I get tapped another couple of times, but have an incredibly fun and energetic roll.
Class finishes and everyone queues to shake Professor Danahers hand and offer thanks, He reminds me of some type of king sat on his thrown (the mat) and his subjects are all coming to pay regards. I wait around and take in the whole experience, it was amazing – I can’t believe I had the chance to actually roll with Eddie and Garry. I meet Gordon Ryan at the water fountain and get a picture, I chat to him briefly about EBI and his victory. He is an incredibly nice guy and offers to do some rolling later in the week. I get pics with Eddie, who despite being a killer of the highest order on the mat is incredibly approachable and friendly off of the mat. I ask Garry for a pic and he thanks me for the roll – I can’t think of anything to say (I’m a little star struck) so I thank him for kicking my ass and head off.
As I am leaving the building Professor Danaher is outside, to be honest he’s really scary. Its just something about him, he doesn’t act tough or aggressive – he just seems like someone not to be fucked with. I thank him for an amazing class and we talk briefly – I nervously ask if he does photos – and he says ‘sure’. We grab a pic and I wander off – not quite able to process my morning.
Session 2 – 7.30am
Another 7.30am submission grappling class, I get there early and head to the mat. There’s a guy warming up, I recognize him as one of the guys training with Garry after class at my last session. He looks tough; muscular guy, shaved head, 1000 yard stare – I decide to say hello and shake hands. He immediately surprises me by being incredibly friendly and welcoming (don’t judge a book I guess) – his name is Kostia and he is over from France training – a brown belt in both Luta Livre and BJJ – he humbly states he’s not sure his brown belt measures up at Renzos – I think he’s probably too modest.
He suggests we drill so we worked some stuff from previous classes from butterfly guard – very cool of him to share the knowledge and we partner for the class. Professor Danaher is teaching a very cool guard pass and back take – its super slick – it looks awesome but is surprisingly doable. We spend the class repping it out in stages, Professor Danaher corrects a few issues I am having and the technique really starts flowing. We move on to sparring and I spar with Kostia, he’s a great grappler, very quick, fast takedowns and an interesting style. We exchange subs and both catch a couple, it’s a great roll and I can feel I am learning so much from everyone I have a chance to train with. My next roll is with the Lion Killer himself Garry Tonon.
I am slightly slightly less awe struck and decide with the upmost respect I am going to try harder this time (not that it would make an iota of difference) We wrestle, he’s incredibly agile and takes me down, we roll and then stand up, I get to his back (with his assistance I am sure) and take him down, he doesn’t really go down just bounces up and we go back to it – he takes me down and we carry on rolling. I get him into a nice leg lock position (again only because he’s playing I am sure) I am threatening a heel hook and he has his classic nonchalant look like he’s not remotely worried – he escapes of course and I am pretty sure he then tapped me but I cant remember what with…
I roll with Kostia again – and once again we have a great roll. His style is similar to Garry’s with dynamic takedowns, great agility and dangerous submissions.
The class finishes and I sit on the floor trying to bring my heart rate to normal – the sparring and heat are intense, I shakily make notes in my journal, scrawling on the page – whilst I drip sweat onto it but not wanting to miss any details of the class.
Session 3 – 12.00am
Between sessions I had to go out and buy some new kit, I make it back with time to spare. The 12.30 session is a Gi class but also you can attend nogi and Danaher will modify for the class. I thought this was an awesome idea, very progressive and allowed for the nogi athlete’s to get extra practice in. I train before class again with Kostia and he shows me some very cool techniques from tornado guard, as well as practicing my first berimbolo. He’s incredibly generous with his time and knowledge and its great to be learning these extra techniques in and around class.
Class starts with throwing and Professor Danaher teaches an Uchi Mata both with and without the Gi. Its great to practice takedowns, and I know Garry Tonon has been vocal in interviews about the importance of practicing them. Many schools start kneeling and don’t practice takedowns (or leg locks) Renzos seems to do things a little differently.
We move onto some very slick triangle set ups from closed guard and against a standing opponent – suffice to say the concepts and ideas are cutting edge, very interesting, well described and amazingly powerful when executed correctly.
Sparring comes around and I have several tough rounds against ever increasingly bigger and higher belted opponents. I manage to get a few taps until I hit a guy who is a bit of a legendary gym monster at Renzo’s ‘Shy Ace’ he’s a huge guy and he destroys me with figure fours (my shoulders still ache) and a few heel hooks for good measure. I attempted several guillotines and he casually stops them one handed, unwinds my arm and then kimura’s it – it’s a pretty humbling experience to put it mildly. Despite smashing me, he compliments my style and ability, which was nice and gives me a few pointers on escaping – which I clearly needed!
I have my final roll of the trip with Eddie Cummings, he welcomes me over and I thank him in advance for the schooling I am about to receive. I decide like with Garry to up my game, be respectful but try harder. I do, it doesn’t matter. Well maybe that’s a little unfair, I felt I did better – I escaped a few subs and tried really hard to get anywhere close to a sub. To summarise I had my ass kicked ever so slightly less badly. His guard is insane, he can move me around like I weigh nothing even though I must have 10kg on him. He attacks from all angles and his submissions are seriously hard and fast – controlled but scary. At one point I see an opening for a leg lock, I (too slowly) attack for it and Eddie counter leg locks me – probably for the sheer audacity to try and leg lock the leg lock master.
The session ends, I sit down again sweating into my notepad – trying to capture all of the details of the class. I feel broken, my whole body aches, my knees throb, my shoulder are screaming and my elbows don’t work – but I couldn’t be happier. Despite only attending a handful of sessions I feel I am already a better grappler, techniques and concepts aside just sharing the mat with these guys was awe inspiring – immediately little gaps in knowledge and techniques are bridged. I cannot recommend this gym enough, top quality instruction, amazingly welcoming and world class grapplers on the mats daily. A truly eye opening, humbling and inspirational experience.
Thoughts on rolling with Eddie
Eddie is a complete and utter monster. My training partner Kostia described him as a shark and that seems apt. He attacks submissions with lightening speed and a controlled savagery – you have no doubt he could easily destroy your limb and you don’t want to waste any time in tapping slowly. It seems whoever you are he treats you the same – with respect but also as someone in his way that he will go through – and he does. His guard is a puzzle to pass, seemingly impossible and his attacks are varied and destructive.
Thoughts on rolling with Garry
A gentleman grappler, he is the definition of ‘be like water’ – he flows and crashes. He really looks after you, pushes you hard and uses just enough force to win. Incredibly agile, explosive and impossible to hold down, pin or trap – an escapologist with a dynamite offence. His submissions attacks come from every where, where you block one thing you accept another, defend the submission give up the pass, stop the pass end up in a submission. Truly an incredible proponent of the art.