There’s more than a few famous black belts who attribute their effectiveness as practitioners–and champions–to the techniques of cerebral bouncer-turned-grappling guru John Danaher. But had it not been for a random encounter with a graduate philosophy student, chances are he never would have put on the rashguard and broken down the guillotine for anyone.
In an interview with BJJ Fanatics, Danaher detailed how he went from checking IDs at bar doors in New Zealand, to teaching at Columbia University, to becoming one of the most sought after teachers in an artform previously dominated by Brazilians:
“I was walking down Amsterdam Avenue [in New York City] one night when I saw an older gentleman being rather soundly beaten up by a much younger, more powerful looking man. I intervened on the older fellow’s account. He looked up at me and said, ‘Who are you?’ I said ‘I’m John, from New Zealand.’ It turned out he owned a nightclub on Amsterdam Avenue…so he said why don’t you take a job here, and I did. It was literally the exact opposite of my day job, which was teaching at Columbia University…and I quickly found that many of my preconceptions about martial arts were in need of severe modification.”
Danaher explains that he had come up believing that “real fighting” was punching and kicking, with then-dominantly Olympic grappling sports like wrestling and judo being a “waste of time.” It was through bouncing in the United States alongside talented wrestlers that he discovered grappling was “extremely useful, significantly more useful than my striking skills.”
“Around that time a graduate student of mine…said ‘I started doing this thing, it’s called Brazilian jiu-jitsu.’ And I was thinking to myself, ‘What does that even mean? What is that? Jiu-jitsu is Japanese!’ And he was telling me ‘We don’t pin people, we submit them. We strangle them.’ This sounded very interesting to me.”
The conversation morphed into the much smaller student asking the 230lb. Danaher to try and pin him. Cut to Professor Danaher with his student in a headlock on the Philosophy floor of Columbia.
“He had only been training two weeks, no more, and I was really having a hard time holding him down…I was squeezing with all my might…and then finally he slipped out. He got away. And I said ‘If that was the real fight, I couldn’t have held him down, he would have gotten away.’”
Which is how Danaher ended up on Renzo Gracie’s doorstep. To hear the rest of the BJJ demigod mythology, grab a slice of pie and watch the full interview here: