At 42, black belt Kevin Gallagher is hardly “old” by any stretch of the imagination. But that doesn’t stop him from embracing his master division status. The Florida-based athlete, Old Man Grappling Hour podcast co-host (along with Sonny Parlin), and, yes, Jiu-Jitsu Times writer is an active competitor, and tonight, he’ll be looking to add “Masters Light Heavyweight No-Gi Fight 2 Win Champion” to his many titles.
Gallagher’s been training for ten years, and while he’s seen more master division athletes competing in recent years, he believes that the desire to see older grapplers competing in BJJ has always been there. “I think there’s always been a lust in the jiu-jitsu audience to see older grapplers who are established grapplers (or even former champions) have a masters or throwback match,” he says. “At the end of the day, they still have amazing grappling.”
He says, however, that there are certain rulesets that are better and worse for master-age competitors who have to go up against younger athletes. “What I’ve noticed over the last couple years is the rise of submission-only grappling leveling the field a little bit. It’s more difficult for an older fighter to be able to compete with a younger grappler in a points-based match because their athleticism will be coming into play more,” he says. “It’s going to be more difficult to fight for takedowns, scramble for passing or sweeps, or to maintain your position, and it gets particularly difficult when you have advantages involved. I think that’s why in the IBJJF [master divisions], the rounds are shorter, but the quality of jiu-jitsu is still there.”
Gallagher’s point has been proven in what has now amounted to numerous master division matches on the Fight 2 Win stage. The promotion has introduced master superfights for grapplers 30 and above to give older competitors the ability to go up against someone who more closely matches their age and level of athleticism. Gallagher believes that not only is this format suited for athletes who are a few years past their prime — it may possibly even favor them.
“A lot of these older grapplers are a bit savvier. They have a better understanding of pure jiu-jitsu because they can’t have the same athleticism of the younger grapplers. A lot of these younger grapplers don’t understand the rules format that Fight 2 Win offers — you have to constantly go for subs and be looking for subs. A lot of younger grapplers don’t understand the strategy that older grapplers do, so they start to go back to their old ways of holding onto a submission a little too long. As older grapplers mature, they tend to pay attention to these things a little better. There’s always going to be interest in that: watching two old freakin’ savages go at it.”
As triple gold medalist as a brown belt at IBJJF Worlds and a 3-0 competitor at F2W, Gallagher has proven that abilities back up his philosophy, which is probably part of why so many people listen to the BJJ wisdom he shares through his writing and podcast. He says that writing, in particular, was one of his “first loves,” and when he became proficient in jiu-jitsu, he found that there was an opportunity to combine his passions in a way that connected with other people. As he’s put his writing and podcast work out into the world, though, he’s had to bring himself back down to earth and remember why he started it in the first place.
“We live in a world where you constantly have to catch people’s attention, be a star on social media, and do our own marketing because everyone else is out there doing the same. So when you first start out and it becomes this big chore that you have to do, you feel like you have to make yourself famous, and you have the anxiety that comes with it. But then you have to realize that you’re not doing this for attention. I’m focusing on something that I really love and enjoy and have fun doing it. At the end of the day, I enjoy writing, and I hope that the things that I write actually influence people and that people read them and that it’s helped them in their jiu-jitsu journey.”
Just because Gallagher doesn’t live for the spotlight, though, doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy being in it. In fact, he says that his “craving” for attention is a large part of what keeps him coming back to F2W again and again, even when the universe seems to be telling him to take it easy. “I had some problems with a concussion and had to drop out of an event earlier this month, so I’m really only three weeks into a proper training camp. I usually like to get six weeks in,” he says. “I like to talk myself out of things and say I’m not ready, then I go in and perform at the top of my ability. There’s something that clicks inside me. I love the spotlight. I crave the attention. Maybe I didn’t get enough attention growing up, maybe my parents didn’t love me enough and now I have a longing for more eyes on me. I could’ve not trained for months and months at a time, but you put me up on the stage at Fight 2 Win… there’s something about it that fires up my nervous energy. The not knowing, the anticipation is like a drug you can’t duplicate.”
Gallagher will need that fire when he faces Vitor Schlosser: a 30-year-old grappler who Gallagher calls a “stud.” Both competitors have a good amount of previous F2W experience and have competed against each other previously at a Grappling Pro tournament, so neither the stage nor their opponent will be foreign to them. As Gallagher eyes that title at tonight’s F2W 106, he also passes on some encouragement to other older grapplers who still want to have a thriving competitive career:
“Submission-only competitions level the playing field for older grapplers. Grappling in sub-only matches kind of makes my game on par with your game because you can be the younger, more athletic grappler, and I can be the smarter, older grappler and we’ll see who wins. Even in points matches, they have actual divisions for masters opponents. They will hand pick and handicap matches for you so you can fight against guys who are your age and weight and belt rank.
“I compete a lot at these black-belt-level masters world championship titles. There’s nothing easy about winning those matches. I watch those masters matches and adults — the only difference between the two is one is a five-minute match and one is a ten-minute match. The finals of my division are every bit as good as the ones in the adult championship.
“It’s a goal for you. It’s a push. It’s not like you’ll have to worry about going against some young kid. It’s a mindset you have to break out of. Go out there, young old man. Go get some. The joy of competing never leaves you.”
The Master Light Heavyweight No-Gi championship match (along with many other exciting sub-only matches) will happen TONIGHT in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and you can watch it live on FloGrappling.