By Mark Flynn
On Sunday, June 6th, at 1PM I received the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Black Belt from Demian Maia. It came at the conclusion of the 2016 Demian Maia Jiu-Jitsu affiliate camp, which featured 15 hours of intensive training. The honor is the result of a journey that began for me over 18 years ago. It’s been a long roller-coaster ride that I wouldn’t really recommend for others. But, ultimately, the ends justify the means...and I am very happy and honored to be recognized in this way by one of the greatest grapplers in history.
Back in 1997, my wife and training partner Connie and I began to explore grappling strategies as a compliment to our “Stand-up” experience. We had already achieved respectable levels in Uechi-Ryu Karate, and had cross-trained in other striking arts. But, after watching the emerging Mixed Martial Arts game for a while, we realized the importance of diversity in the combat arts. We, at least, wanted have the skills to defend common grappling attacks, so that we could stay on our feet and utilize our “striking” strategies if needed.
So, we started to dabble in Judo and Jiu-jitsu, and began to incorporate some of those strategies into our classes at our little Dojo west of Albany, New York. In October of 1998, we attended a seminar with Rorion and Royce Gracie in Atlantic City. It featured an impressive series of techniques lead by Rorion, who was intelligent, knowledgeable, professional and was comical at times. Of course, everyone was star-struck by the UFC star, Royce, who was quiet for the most part. Toward the end of the seminar a large participant challenged Rorion (then in his late forties) on some of the strategies he had showed. Suffice it to say that the BJJ pioneer proved that they worked, and we got to witness the “Gracie Challenge” first hand.
Shortly after, our school became an affiliate under the Gracie Academy in Torrance, California. We purchased their VHS video library and started to offer separate classes for Jiu-jitsu. Whenever possible, we would attend seminars and visit other affiliated schools to learn. We kept notes on everything, and would develop lesson plans based on the things we saw, and the reference materials that we had. We loved doing all of that, and saw it as an amazing compliment to our “stand-up” training.
In 2001, Royce left the Gracie Academy to start his own group. At that point, we had gotten to know Royce pretty well, so we decided to go with him and join his new network. We continued to train under the Royce flag for the next ten years. During that time, we hosted and attended trainings with Royce and other amazing instructors including: Rodrigo Gracie, Rolker Gracie, Rob Kahn, Evaldo Lima, Steve Kardian, and Royler Gracie. We also visited other network schools, and traveled to southern California several times to train with Rodrigo Gracie and Evaldo Lima. We made a bunch of new friends and learned a lot during this period. Much of that learning came simply from the weekly grind of teaching in our own school.
A lot happened during that time in the Royce Network. Most significantly, we moved to western Massachusetts in September of 2002 to take over the “Okinawan Karate School.” Once there, we expanded the curriculum of traditional Karate to include some Jiu-jitsu classes. We quickly had a small group of enthusiastic BJJ students, but many of the Karate students (especially the instructors) seemed to resent it. Many of those people saw BJJ as strange, and something that would corrupt their traditional training. At one point, I was told that "The katas from Jiu-jitsu were corrupting my Karate forms"...to which I responded that there are no forms in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. This all contributed to tension and unhealthy dynamics in the school, leading to some Karate students and instructors leaving. This was especially weird because participation in BJJ was, of course, optional. Ironically, some of the people in our Jiu-jitsu group saw Karate as inferior, and also treated Connie and I poorly because of it. We often heard disparaging things about Jiu-jitsu from Karate people, and vice versa. We also had to deal with a variety of people challenging, or trying to sabotage us in different ways as we made our way through the ranks. Over time, our relationship with Royce himself seemed to deteriorate, too. We’re still not sure why this happened, but suspect that it was mostly because we continued to cross train in other arts.
In November of 2010 we made a fresh start moving to a newer and bigger location which became ZenQuest Martial Arts. In 2011, after a long period of strained relations with Royce, we made the difficult decision to leave his group. Soon after, we began to search for a new teacher and affiliation. After looking at different options, we reached out to Demian Maia...who we were fans of and had great respect for. At that time, he had already amassed an impressive body of work with 5 Jiu-jitsu World titles, a prestigious ADCC Championship win, and a solid MMA career. Demian had also published an acclaimed instructional video set called “The Science of Jiu-Jitsu” which we liked a lot.
We were immediately welcomed by Demian and his staff...and taken under his wing. Anyone who knows him knows that his attitude and demeanor is as gentle and kind as his Jiu-jitsu is crushing and relentless. His style is very direct, efficient, and effective under the most extreme conditions. Under Demian my Jiu-jitsu and my ability to teach has risen to a whole new level. Every time I train with him I'm amazed at the strategies he gives, and the little adjustments to "old school" technique that are clearly improvements. I’ve met another incredible list of friends and instructors including Marcelo “Manga” Fraguas, Rodrigo “Comprido” Medeiros, Silvio Moraes, and the legendary Marcelo Garcia. The energy and level of play on the ZenQuest mats has also elevated to a new level. The collective vibe there is very positive, constructive and happy. Demian also appreciates cross training in Karate and other martial arts, and understands the importance of “Zen” principles. He’s currently on a roll in the UFC’s 170 pound division, using Jiu-jitsu to defeat a laundry list of high level fighters. He is now on a five fight win-streak and ranked #4 in the world.
Although my Jiu-jitsu experience could have been easier or progress faster, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to train with so many amazing instructors and friends. I am also forever grateful to have an incredible group of students to teach and train with each week at ZenQuest. I take a lot of comfort in the fact that I can make sure that they will have a quicker and easier path than I did. I am very thankful to the students and lasting friends who’ve remained with me and my school during some difficult times...and you know who you are. I could not be more happy to have Professor Demian and all of my other friends and instructors in the Demian Maia group to continue to make my Jiu-jitsu better. Lastly, I cannot say enough how thankful I am to my original training partner, "Genghis" Connie Flynn, for being there from the beginning and sticking with me through thick and thin.
A solid knowledge of Jiu-jitsu is the only reason I can do well on the mat against students that are half my age. I am now equally confident defending myself standing OR on the ground. I know that without solid grappling skills, the folks who were quick to criticize learning them are likely to be neutralized by them. Ultimately, being negative results in lost opportunity and growth. The kicker is that there is no doubt in my mind that I understand the strategies, dynamics, and technical aspects of my stand-up style better now because of Jiu-jitsu.
Being the second American Black Belt under Demian Maia is a huge honor and responsibility. But, with the help of Team ZenQuest and Team Demian, I will work hard and do my best to live up to this. Going forward...just gotta’ keep training. See you on the mats!