By Ed Solis from Takedowns for BJJ
It’s a hard thing.…Jiu-Jitsu is. For most, the journey begins in adulthood. It is said that learning anything as an adult is a bit more difficult as you already have certain characteristics, bad habits, biases, and shorter attention for new skills. Add to it the fact that most of you’re your tests/exams/practice usually include another student trying to choke, snap, tweak, or just smash your most vital extremities.
So as an old beat up wrestler I began BJJ with tons of great ideas of how I would kick the crap out of all these guys in pajamas. Needless to say I learned 2 really important things quickly. One is that BJJ is serious business and two, I really sucked at it. Still I began to see the similarities in BJJ and wrestling. I began to open my mind and understand the basic strategy behind this amazing art. As I began to compete in BJJ I noticed that there were positions and situations where wrestling was in fact helpful and also dangerous to apply at the same time. More on that later.
I had found one of the best examples of a guy who could mix up great takedowns and great ground work. I decided to sit down both over the phone and in person with Justin to get a glimpse of this passionate Jiu-Jitsu artists. I wanted to learn about his game especially takedowns, his love for BJJ, and his take on the game as it is played today and where he thinks it's heading. Hope you guys enjoy my exclusive Takedowns for BJJ interview with World Champion Justin Rader.
Takedowns for BJJ: Thanks for doing this interview with us Justin. Can you tell us a little about your philosophy around your standup game in BJJ?
Justin Rader: You’re welcome. My take-down game is something I have worked on my entire life. My father got me started in wrestling between the ages of 4-5 years old, and I wrestled all throughout high school. I finished as an Oklahoma High School Wrestling State Runner-Up my senior year, and I did not end up wrestling in college. At the time, I did not think I had what it took to become a D1 All-American (let alone a National Champion), and I felt I was better at jiu-jitsu anyway. So I decided to stop my wrestling career there and continue on training only in jiu-jitsu. I look back now, and I know that was definitely the wrong mindset. And whereas I do not look back and regret my decision, as I’ve been able to accomplish much in jiu-jitsu, I do look at it as something to learn from and make sure never happens again; that I would never doubt myself or count myself out.
I began training in jiu-jitsu at the age of 12 at Lovato’s School of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Professor Rafael Lovato Sr., Master Rafael Lovato Jr.’s father. It was at that point in time that I began to mesh my wrestling with jiu-jitsu. I came to them with about 7-8 years of wrestling experience already, and I would wrestle for my school team during the season and do jiu-jitsu the rest of the year. I continued to do that until I graduated high school, and then I began training jiu-jitsu full time under Master Rafael Lovato Jr. Throughout those years, I went through many growing-pains during my training. Not just being a young kid training in a room full of adults, but also making many mistakes that my wrestling background would cause. At that time, my wrestling experience was many times a double-edged sword. As many wins and good positions it would get me, I would get caught by either giving my back or being too explosive during positions I should be staying heavy and keeping constant pressure just as much. Through all those years, I continued to modify and tweak my wrestling technique and style to complement my jiu-jitsu to flow as one complete game. Now, it’s my X-factor, and I’m very confident in using it and keeping myself safe and in good position. It’s taken a lifetime to reach this point, but it was well worth it.
I also still believe that take-downs are one of the most neglected areas in the game, and I exploit it every chance I get.
TD4BJJ: You have competed against some of the biggest names in BJJ. Who was your most memorable match against and why?
JR: My most memorable match was against Samuel Braga earlier this year at the New York Ultimate Absolute Lightweight tournament. Samuel Braga is an elite jiu-jitsu competitor who has won many great titles, including a Black Belt World Title. He was definitely somebody I had watched many times in the past, and I have a huge amount of respect for him. It was one of those matches where both guys stood their ground and pushed forward non-stop with that never-say-die attitude. There were so many crazy scrambles and attacks from both competitors and a lot of close calls. We fought a complete 10 minute regulation round to a tie, and went into another 10 minute overtime period for a 20 minute total match. I ended up the victor on points, but I gained a huge amount of respect for Samuel Braga and his toughness and fierceness as a competitor.
The other match I hold just as memorable is my match with Carlos Vieira Holanda that earned me my first No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt World Title as a featherweight. I’d been a black belt for a whole 3 months, and it was another very close match that I ended up winning at the end. It was an experience that no words can describe. It was also a very special moment as my instructor, Master Rafael Lovato Jr., won his first No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu World Title at Black Belt on the same day in the heavyweight division. It was definitely one of the most memorable moments in my life.
TD4BJJ: Do you ever see a time in BJJ where having a wrestling base is a negative factor?
JR: This is a complicated question, as there is not one clear answer. I believe it really depends on how well both your wrestling and jiu-jitsu games flow together. If one causes you to compromise the other, then it is a negative factor. If one complements the other, then it exponentially increases your ability and gives you an X-factor over so many others you will face. And the only way to overcome and gain this X-factor is through years upon years of training both styles to work together.
This begs the question of how to more specifically accomplish this. Wrestling (especially take-downs) is very explosive with near-constant movement, whereas jiu-jitsu usually involves more tension, pressure and holding of position with a slower, more methodical progression of position to submission. And many times (from what I have seen), wrestlers trying to learn jiu-jitsu often feel they don’t need to train in the gi. Likewise, I’ve often seen many who train primarily jiu-jitsu with the gi who don’t think they need to train no-gi or take-downs. Both are wrong mind-sets in my opinion.
I truly believe it is important to be proficient in both the gi and no-gi, to provide the best overall instruction to your students and understand the game on an even deeper level then you would just training one over the other. Of course, you will always prefer one over the other, and that’s ok.
I was very lucky to have such a great instructor in Master Rafael to guide me, as I was coming from a wrestling background of about 8 years already and at times could be fairly reluctant to train in the gi and expand my game as well. He realized what skills I did and didn’t have, and guided my training as such. I believe it was a huge advantage that I got started at such a young age as well, willing to learn and do what I was told. So I got a very healthy dose of training both in the gi and no-gi at Lovato’s. I even went through periods of my career where I preferred the gi over no-gi, and then my no-gi game would improve and I would prefer that again. This is the best way to train in my opinion, and I truly believe that if a person, especially a wrestler, wants to learn and understand the jiu-jitsu game, it is essential to put on the gi and train.
Another area where I see wrestling could be a negative factor is if you rely on it too much and don’t develop other parts of your game. Once again, Master Rafael realized this, and shaped my training to make me as complete a fighter as possible. I often used my wrestling to always gain top control through my takedowns, but I neglected working on my guard game and defense from bottom. Once this started to affect my competition results, Master Rafael would have me start on my back during training on certain nights and I could only work off my back all night, even if I did get a sweep and gained top control, I would start back on my back. He knew that whereas my bottom game may not always be my primary competition game, it would improve my ability to understand it and defend against it. And you never know when you will need to use it either. As he did this for me, we saw my success in competition return.
TD4BJJ: What are some of your favorite takedowns for BJJ?
JR: Without giving too much away, some of my favorite take-downs for jiu-jitsu are the Hi-C shot, low-level single leg, inside trip, and power double-leg takedowns, with many different set-ups and variations and finishes of each.
TD4BJJ: The million dollar question: has anyone ever taken you down in a BJJ competition? If so tell us about it.
JR: Haha, well nobody’s perfect. Yes, I have been taken down in competition before. I believe the last time I was taken down in my weight class was against Wilson Reis at the Grapplers Quest All-Star Professional Lightweight Tournament in 2008. We had fought once prior to that also the previous October in the Lightweight Tournament from Hell in New Jersey. Wilson has an excellent arm-drag to single leg takedown, as well as good defense to the front headlock. He’s also lightning-quick. He took me down twice in that meeting, and I took him down once, and he ended up the victor. That experience helped me prepare for our next match. I made some modifications to my style of wrestling, and in our next match, I took him down twice and he took me down once (with the same arm-drag single leg), and I ended up the victor. Those were both great, exciting matches with non-stop action.
TD4BJJ: Can you share your insight/opinion on the state of competition BJJ today?
JR: I think the state of competition today is what the rules have made it to be. And now there are so many different tournament organizations out there, each with their own separate set of rules. I have my own view on what I believe the rules should be (as I’m sure everybody does) that coincide with my philosophy behind jiu-jitsu and what I believe is its purpose. I know it may appear biased to my style, again as I’m sure everybody’s is biased to their own style, but I have tried to remain as objective as possible in my opinion of things I would change.
First, I would do away with advantage points entirely. I believe they work in theory, but not in reality. I understand their intention to help reward athletes to be aggressive and promote action and submissions, but I do not believe from what I have seen that they accomplish this. My own opinion on advantages is this: “Advantage points reward shoddy, halfway offense and punish good defense or toughness.” I do not believe an athlete should be rewarded anything for “almost” or “close but not close enough”. I believe the expression “the greater the risk, the greater the reward,” is how the sport should be scored. Especially for submissions, which already has the greatest reward, which is end of match. I believe this would force athletes to open up much more and risk much more to win, and make the sport more exciting.
Now, because there would be no more advantage points, I also think there should be an overtime period that is half the time of the regulation match time if the score is tied (if 10 minutes then 5 minute overtime if necessary). And in the case of a tie at the end of an overtime period, there should be one more 5 minute overtime period in which first points scored win.
I also do agree with having to engage to pull guard, as I think this will help force a person to at the very least develop good takedown defense. I have also never made the argument that a person should be penalized anything for pulling guard, as this is not a real fight where punches are being thrown (which in my opinion makes being on top the more dominant positions) and is part of the art to develop a person’s skills to sweep or submit from their back. Athletes should not be allowed to just sit, as they wouldn’t necessarily do so in a real fight.
Another thing I would like to see being enforced more is stalling, and I’d like to see the addition of a stalemate call. I do believe this does have to be left to the ref’s discretion, but I would like to see more stalling calls made (if justified) especially if a minute has gone by with no movement from just one athlete. If one minute has gone by, but both athletes have made no movement, then a double stalling call could be made (if justified, like to athletes on their feet), but if they are in a position that locks each other down (one example could be the 50/50 position), then I think the call should be a stalemate call, and both athletes stood back to their feet. I've seen matches go 8 minutes of no real movement in the 50/50 position, and that needs to be fixed. I'm not saying at all that the 50/50 position shouldn't be used or allowed, I just want to see people use it to advance or finish, and limit the amount of non-movement and non-progression that seems to take place so often. Also, if an athlete repeatedly seeks and forces a position like this with no movement or progression, then he will be given a warning or penalized for stalling.
I’d also like to see is boundaries honored more and called consistently. I really do not have any idea anymore on where out of bounds exactly is with the calls I have seen made over the years. I have heard so many arguments one way or the other about calls made about out of bounds, I would just like to see consistent calls about it made.
The last thing I would like to see is a seeding meeting for tournaments, especially for the bigger tournaments, much like they do in wrestling. Two coaches from each team would represent their athletes in a meeting with a step-by-step process of where athletes should be seeded would help ensure fair and proper brackets. They should consider returning champions (from the previous year only), returning placers, last head-to-head win, indirect opponents etc.
TD4BJJ: When we speak, you always have great words about your coaches and teachers. Tell us about the lessons you took from your high school wrestling days and your early BJJ days.
JR: Well, it all began with my parents, who have instilled great values in me and have raised me to be the person I am today. I have learned so much from them, and they have supported me throughout all the decisions I have made throughout my life. I’m truly grateful to have such great people push me to be the best I can be at everything I do.
My father is the person who got me started in martial arts. Between the ages of 4-5 years old, my father got me involved in wrestling. My very first wrestling coach for my first year was Johny Hendricks’ father, Kevin Hendricks. It was my first taste of what it meant to be on a no-nonsense, no excuses team where you earned what you got. I believe it was helpful to be on such a team my first year, as the coaches demanded your best effort at all times, and I learned what work ethic meant, even though I hated wrestling at the time. I hated it because I was not very good, and those who know me best know I’m by nature not an aggressive person. So I suffered a very many great losses for about the first 8 years, but my parents made me stick with it, and I never knew why (I’ll get to this later). I wrestled for a few coaches throughout those first 8 years, and each said the same thing about me: I was just one step away from being something special, and that when I got over whatever that road-block was, the dam would break.
In middle school, I began wrestling for my school team, and it was my coach’s first year of coaching there. His name was Andy Howington, and he taught me to believe in myself and made me a winner. It wasn’t an easy process, and didn’t happen over-night. I’d been wrestling for him for 3 years, and there was one defining moment that helped me pull through that mental road block that I had put up my since my first year. I was a freshman, just beginning to wrestle for the high school team, and he had just become the new high school head wrestling coach. I was projected to be a solid force on that team, but I was still not performing in competition when it counted. I was wrestling at the second tournament of the season, and I had just lost to a person I was clearly better than, and I was really feeling down on myself. My coach was also a very hard person, and just did not understand or comprehend losses like that, and he was right to. I went back into the stands, and I was waiting for the inevitable criticism. He was sitting right in front of me, and he turned back to me, and instead of coming down on me, he held out his hand and I shook it, and he told me “We’re going to be ok. Ok?” I’m not sure he knows this, as we’ve never really discussed it, but that moment turned everything around for me. No matter how hard he ever came down on me from that moment on (and there were plenty of times to come and he was right to do so), I never ever again questioned whether he believed in me. And that took an enormous amount of pressure off of me. I finished the rest of that year undefeated in middle school, and learned everything I could about wrestling at the high school level, and I came out next year and really started winning and making a name for myself.
His belief in me taught me to believe in myself. Once I had that and combined it with my work ethic, the dam finally broke. I learned so much from him: to never give up, always give better than your best, always stay fundamentally sound, give nothing up, and take everything given, but nothing greater than to believe in myself and my ability. I finished as a Runner-Up my senior year, and though I never quite won that state title I had set as my goal, I did not quit learning from him. I still keep in contact with him, and he’s one of my very close friends.
I continued to build a stronger belief in myself, just in a new arena; that of jiu-jitsu and submission grappling. At the age of 12, my father enrolled me at Lovato’s School of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA. One of the fathers whose son wrestled on the same little league team I wrestled on knew I was really into martial arts, and he drove by a place that said jiu-jitsu and told my father. We decided to check it out, and I’ve been there ever since. At the age of 16, I earned my blue belt and began traveling to all the big tournaments I could, the first being the Pan-Ams in 2003. At this time, I started traveling with Rafael Lovato Jr. and competing alongside him. He also started to teach the advanced classes at the academy as well, and I really started learning all I could from him. He’s an incredible teacher, especially being only about 19-20 years old at this time, and he helped me mesh my wrestling skills to complement my jiu-jitsu. He didn’t try to re-train me or ever negatively criticize me when my wrestling would cost me matches. It was just one more thing we could improve on and make sure didn’t happen again. I’m sure at times it drove him crazy, and I wasn’t always the easiest student. He’s always believed in me, just like my wrestling coach did. Even after one of my worst performances ever (Grapplers Quest December 2006), and before the day ended I told him I wanted to compete again as soon as possible, he said ok, that he would get me into the Budweiser Cup Professional Lightweight Tournament in January of 2007, and helped me train for it. We both went into that tournament and won our professional divisions. And we kept that streak up all year, both of us winning the Pan-Ams and Worlds (he as a black belt and I as a purple belt).
Another lesson I have learned from Rafael Lovato Jr. is that he is one of the few that leads by example. As hard as he asks his students to work and train and study, he works even harder. He’d never ask any of us to do anything he wouldn’t be willing to do himself. He’s always out there pushing himself, testing his limits, and is one of the most hard-working individuals I’ve ever met. My question to myself (and one I often wonder if anybody asks themselves) was: “How could I not respect that and be inspired to work just as hard myself?” So I try to lead by the same example. Not only that, but Rafael Lovato Jr. cares and sacrifices so much for his students to make them the best they can be. I could not ask for a better individual to be learning from. And as much as I have learned from him about jiu-jitsu, meshing my wrestling, competition game and tactics etc., I’ve learned and become a better teacher to my students, a better training partner, and overall a better person for knowing him. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s always been a role model, mentor, and most importantly to me, a good friend and somebody I call my brother.
JR: One of the best things about jiu-jitsu is that it is always changing and evolving, and is ever unpredictable. So I have no idea what it will be like in 5 years. Only that those coming after us will very likely be much more knowledgeable at a younger age as we pass down what we have learned to those younger than us, and they take it one step further.
JR: Rafael Lovato Jr., Saulo and Xande Ribeiro, and Chris Savarese.
TD4BJJ: If you had 3 words to explain BJJ to someone who had concept of what the sport is which words would you use?
JR: Evolutionary, Peaceful, Disciplined
TD4BJJ: Plug your school and your sponsors bro.
JR: I’d like to thank my parents for their support and everything they have done for me. I’d also like to thank the owners at Lovato’s School of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA, Rafael and Tina Lovato, for everything they have done for me, and I’m truly honored to be a part of this academy and team. I’d also like to thank my sponsors OnTheMat, Lucky Gi, Tirey’s Training, Novatek Labs, and 1914 BJJ Kimonos for all their help as well.
You cam follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DarthRader86 and on Twitter @DarthRader86. I am always available for clinics and seminars. Cohttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzOyxAB01Kontact me for info.