A lot of people say that “age ain’t nothing but a number.” But for jiu-jitsu brown belt and judo black belt Vernon Kirk, his age (41) represents an incredible story of personal triumph and change that has taken place over the past ten years.
Kirk started his martial arts journey in June of 2009, when he began training judo and started jiu-jitsu five months later. He didn’t undertake the journey alone, though — his son started with him after wanting to start karate. Kirk says that both father and son were “hooked,” and fives years later, Kirk earned his black belt in judo.
While Kirk’s passion for martial arts may have kept steady throughout the years, that doesn’t mean the journey has been easy. In 2016, an injury at a judo tournament led to him needing surgery. Four days later, he was informed that he’d need to move his academy elsewhere. It was a lot to cope with in a very short period of time, but if the universe’s “powers that be” were hoping to make Kirk give up on his dreams, they’d picked the wrong person.
“I have been through a lot within my journey: professionally, economic crashes, switching careers (not by choice), my mother being diagnosed with lung cancer and having a hip replaced, plus my instructor having a major stroke, but training and competing has always kept me focused and been something that helps me cope with everything life dishes out,” says Kirk. Sure enough, he persevered through both his injury and his academy’s location change. His gym succeeded despite being in a “worse” location, and he cemented his comeback by winning the IBJJF Charlotte Open exactly six months after the day he had his surgery.
Kirk earned his BJJ brown belt at the beginning of 2018, making him a serious force in both martial arts. So it’s fitting that, in just two days, he’ll be putting his skills to the test on the stage at Fight 2 Win 109 in Baltimore. Kirk will be competing in a 205 lb black belt judo match against Keith Barrett, sharing the stage with fellow judokas and jiujiteiros alike. The promotion added judo to their cards earlier this year with the intention of getting more people excited about the martial art, just as they’ve worked to achieve with jiu-jitsu over the years. For Kirk, it’s certainly working. “Judo the martial art is amazing; I do not like judo the sport. So I haven’t competed much in it lately,” he says. “Things like this make me want to do more and hopefully [Fight 2 Win] gives more of a platform to people who feel the same way I do.”
Just as F2W has combined both martial arts to create something amazing, so has Kirk. “To [combine] several styles into your own, you must have a real understanding of both,” he says. “I have takedowns I learn from BJJ guys that I use in judo, and I have ground technique from judo that I use in BJJ. It all flows together — after all, they are family. I don’t think I would have come as far as I have if I didn’t train both together.”
All that hard work has led to incredible internal changes for Kirk, but some of them can be seen with the naked eye as well: Since the time he started training, he’s lost 80 lbs. “The biggest key is consistency and passion,” he advises for others who want to experience a similar transformation. “I started still eating like hell, but [I was] training and dropped weight. After I started to compete more and do well, I wanted to do better, so I switched my diet. It’s going to take time and there will be a lot of trial and error, but if you stick with it you will succeed, just like jiu-jitsu.”
Kirk claims that F2W 109 will be his first “big” opportunity in BJJ or judo (although he’s won multiple gold medals at IBJJF Opens and a few superfights for other promotions). Given the rate at which he’s been competing, though, don’t expect this to be his last time putting it all on the line — since he’s started training, he’s had 223 matches at 76 events, and the year he 40, he competed seventeen times. And he’s very much looking forward to putting all that experience to work on the big stage. “I can’t wait for Saturday — the lights, stage, and a walkout down the road from my hometown! My only real plan is to put on a show!”
Watch Kirk vs. Barrett, plus many other exciting matches live on FloGrappling when F2W 109 comes to Baltimore this Saturday!