Tag Archives: John Will

Interview: John Will on Teaching & Australian BJJ

Continuing our John Will interview series (which began here), we conclude with a discussion on the development of Australian BJJ, maintaining a global affiliate network and how to teach a great seminar. Sections of this interview appeared in Issue #010 of Jiu Jitsu Style and are reprinted with the kind permission of the editor.

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, shown with Jean Jacques Machado
John Will with Jean Jacques Machado

ARTEMIS BJJ:  You were the pioneer of BJJ in Australia, with perhaps the major starting point being the ten day seminar tour you arranged with Carlos Jr and Renzo. What year was that and how did it go?

JOHN WILL: I brought them over in 1990, they were on the cover of the magazine I had [Blitz]. Due to the magazine I had some minor influence, so I was able to set up some seminars for them. We did three or four and a lot of people came: I think it was about sixty. It was well attended, given that at the time, BJJ was unknown.

The only reason anybody in Australia knew anything about it was because I’d written two articles. The UFC hadn’t hit yet, it was just not on anyone’s radar. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, outside of Brazil there was hardly anything apart from Rorion’s school in the States.

So, people came along and it was great. They wrestled everybody and everyone went “Oh my goodness.” We just lined them all up and it was mayhem [laughs]. There was Carlos Gracie Jr and I was a ‘seasoned’ white belt, Renzo was a brown belt. That was the start of the groundswell I guess.

ARTEMIS BJJ: When I recently went to Scotland, both the instructors I interviewed cited a Royce seminar as their starting point, so it seems to have been a seminal moment there. Was the Carlos Jr and Renzo seminar tour around Australia at all similar?

JOHN WILL: No, I don’t think it started for anyone at that seminar. I started it. It was only a couple of years after that it got going. Everyone came and went, “Wow, that’s cool.”

So, I guess what it did was put me in touch with some people who said, “Do you mind coming to my school and giving me a lesson?” I then started to do…well, I wouldn’t call them seminars, but I visited people’s schools and ran a class for them.

It got that going, then people heard about it interstate and would ask, “Can you fly up and teach a seminar?” I’d think, “A seminar? I’m not worthy,” blah blah blah. It was only when I got a purple belt and came back that I started saying yes to things like that. I felt that I could offer something as a purple belt and started doing seminars. I’ve done them ever since.

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, teaching in Coventry

ARTEMIS BJJ:  What are the main changes you’ve seen in Australasian BJJ since then?

JOHN WILL: When it started out, all of us – myself included – were already invested in some other martial art, but were adding a little jiu jitsu to their classes. There is still quite a lot of that going on, but over the years a big thing has been bringing people up through the ranks.

I got a black belt, then I had to create people to brown belt, when I got my second degree I was able to grade people to black belt. Now there are plenty of schools that are purely BJJ schools. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen. Now there are BJJ schools with hundreds of students, who are standing on their own two feet without teaching anything else.

I had no idea that was going to happen. I didn’t particularly want that to happen. I just thought I would add some of this stuff to what I’m already doing. I didn’t know BJJ would take over my life.

ARTEMIS BJJ:  Do you think there is anything different about Australian BJJ compared to other national scenes?

JOHN WILL: In Australia, probably New Zealand too, there is probably – and certainly was in the early days – a bit of problem solving going on. When you’re isolated, you can’t just run over to your coach and ask for an answer, you’ve got to start thinking for yourself and analysing. I think there was a lot of that going on, whereas in America they got lucky.

I noticed that when I went to the US, the American students would come up to me and say, “Hey John, what were all those omoplatas and crucifix entries that Rigan taught last year?”

I’d respond, “You were there!”

They’d go, “Yeah, but you remember it!” The only reason that I remembered it is that it cost me a lot to get over there and meant a lot to me. So, I was taking a lot of notes: there’s no way I forgot anything anyone ever taught me. In the early days in America, I think the attitude was more, “I can ask tomorrow, I don’t really need to remember now.”

In Australia, we were behind the eight ball and isolated – like the UK was – it had value. We really valued any technique. Each technique, each strategy, each concept was like a gold ingot. In America, I think it was just a silver ingot, if you know what I mean. That underpinned the way we had to solve problems ourselves.

America is a large place, so there is a lot more crazy stuff going on, people doing 50/50 guard and all these weird things. Probably we’re a bit more fundamental than that. Good solid fundamentals, maybe because that’s all we had to work with at the beginning, we had that ethos. In America, they liked to create a lot of stuff. I’m not saying either is right or wrong, it is what it is.

Some people need to do that, but I think you can go down a weird and windy path. Go underneath there, get under deep half, wrap his belt three times around his leg, put his gi collar in your mouth. That’s all cool and fun, but it has no relationship with reality. We don’t do as much of that. “Oh x-guard, yeah, that’s cool.” I learned x-guard way before it was called x-guard, twenty years ago.

We’re a little bit more like the UK, in that I think we’re more pragmatic, not off in Disneyland like some people elsewhere.

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, Can at a John Will seminar in 2012
Can at a John Will seminar in 2012

ARTEMIS BJJ:  You are a very experienced seminar instructor, having taught all over the world for decades. What in your opinion are the keys to teaching a good seminar?

JOHN WILL: Firstly, you have to engage the class. The class must be fully engaged. It doesn’t matter how good your information is – and it certainly doesn’t matter how good you are – if they are not one hundred percent engaged with what you’re doing. So, the first thing is the science of engagement, it’s a big subject.

You also have to have a very profound understanding of the subject matter, irrespective of what you’re teaching. Not a cursory understanding, a deep understanding. That has to be delivered in a way that is idiot-proof. You might be teaching something that is seemingly quite complex, but if you break it down so that it is very process driven, A-B-C-D-E-F-G, then the worst person on the mat can do it and have a sense of achievement. I think that is a very important skill.

You’ve got to be a world class noticer. You have to be on that mat and you have to really notice what’s going on, that’s a key element as well. It also needs to be highly structured. You can’t have people just facing any direction, going any which way, letting them decide when they switch partners. No. You need to guide them through the process so there is very little room for misinterpretation.

ARTEMIS BJJ: I had another question on what challenges you face as an instructor with so many affiliates on different continents, which you’ve essentially answered already. I guess there is a similarity in what you were saying about having to take BJJ back home and develop it there, with lots of people asking you for seminars: it sounds as if your broader affiliate network is an extension of that?

JOHN WILL: Let me first say, it was accidental. I had no plans for that, people ask me to come over. I don’t like taking responsibility for grading people, especially if I can’t get to them very often. In Australia, it’s easier now because we have a lot of black belts. The class has already been taught by a black belt, then I turn up, though even there it is every three months. I’ve got a circuit that I do three times a year, so I get a lot of contact.

Over in the UK, I only come here once a year, so it is very difficult. I’ve just taught seminars on this trip to people connected with Royce, with Braulio or with whomever. They come to my seminars because they like my teaching style and all of that stuff. The last thing I would ever do is encourage them to come over to us. No, stay with your instructor and be one hundred percent loyal, I’m a big believer in that. I would discourage anyone from jumping ship.

I don’t want to take responsibility, because that is a big responsibility. To take someone from white belt to black belt, you’re talking about a ten to twelve year commitment of your life. From my point of view, that’s the last thing that I want. There are a couple of people in the UK who have said, “No, I want you to do it,” and I’ve reluctantly agreed, but I’m not saying that anymore. I can’t do my job, I can’t fulfil that obligation as well as I would like to be able to fulfil it.

It’s easy in Australia, in my school, but it gets harder as you move away from that school! [laughs]

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, on 'noticing'

ARTEMIS BJJ:  As you’ve said, you’re not trying to attract potential students from overseas, but what do you think you have to offer that perhaps a local black belt does not?

JOHN WILL: I teach very differently, that’s the feedback I get. People come because they’re only going to get that from me. Not only that, as I’m not only teaching jiu jitsu: it’s my vehicle for them learning how to apply principles from jiu jitsu in the wider aspects of their lives. I like doing that.

I think the jiu jitsu community is pretty interesting in that a lot of people are very willing – certainly all the student base are willing – to fraternise. That’s how life should be, right? Some of the instructors might not like that, but they’re losing sight of the fact like-minded people want to get together.

It doesn’t mean that they’re going to be disloyal: they’re going to come right back to you. By allowing people to get together…guys are doing it everywhere. They train at one school, then get together at weekends in their garage and they’re from five different places, because they want time to fraternise and compare notes. They’re not going to jump ship, they’re going to go right back to their instructor, but people want to share the experience. I think that’s a great thing.

ARTEMIS BJJ:  Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers of this interview?

JOHN WILL: I think that when we’re on the mat, the least return on investment is when you learn a technique that is a solution for a specific situation. If you can learn something off your instructor that you can see six or eight ways to apply throughout your game, then that is a way better return on your investment in time.

But the next level again is if you can figure out a way something you’ve learned on the mat can be used in the wider landscape of your life. Your marriage, your business, the way you live. That’s the biggest return you can ever get on your training.

Don’t just keep a narrow focus. Think about the wider use of what you’re learning, because there are some deep and meaningful concepts in BJJ that we can apply to all aspects of our lives. To not recognise that is really missing the point. I use jiu jitsu as a way of living my life.

Photos courtesy of John Will and Esther Smith. ‘Like’ the Artemis BJJ Facebook group to be notified about future interviews: Carlos Machado, Ricardo de la Riva and Carlson Jr are all in the pipeline. To see all the Artemis BJJ interviews so far, go here

Interview: John Will on Chuck Norris & Belt Promotions

Following on from last week, the John Will interview series continues with his memories of introducing Chuck Norris to the sport. He also talks about going straight from white to purple belt, leading into his thoughts on promotion. Sections of this interview appeared in Issue #010 of Jiu Jitsu Style and are reprinted with the kind permission of the editor.

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, shown with Chuck Norris, 1990s
John Will with Chuck Norris, early 1990s

ARTEMIS BJJ: Moving on slightly, I have read several different versions of how Chuck Norris became involved with BJJ and more specifically the Machados. Black Belt Magazine states Carlos Machado met Chuck Norris while on vacation in Las Vegas during 1988, during his UFAF convention.

The Los Angeles Times claims Rigan met Norris in 1989, while scuba diving. In yet another magazine, it instead points to your old friend Richard Norton. So, what’s you recollection of what actually happened?

JOHN WILL: My goodness, I’d hate to give you a fourth version! [laughs] Also, please understand, this is going back a while, so it is all a bit blurry. Ok, I don’t know if this is politically correct to say, but I’ll tell you what happened and you can decide whether to use it or not, because it may ruffle some feathers.

I’m not certain how he first saw jiu jitsu, but recalling what Chuck said to me, I think he was in Brazil for some reason, with Bob Wall. I think they were down there, perhaps scuba diving, or something like that. They heard about this family and they went along to one of the academies. Bob Wall being Bob Wall said “I’d side kick you,” or something ridiculous, he’s always been like that.

Either way, Chuck was impressed. If I’m not mistaken, it might have been Rickson who was out there. I’m sure they were treated very well, as it was Chuck (Bob is a bit combative whereas Chuck is super-nice), so I think that was Chuck’s first impression, how he connected with it. I’m pretty certain that’s right.

Then what happened is he went back home and he wanted to do more, follow up. I think he knew about Rorion being in Torrance, I think through the Jet Centre, because I believe they knew because Gene LeBell knew, and he’s a friend of Chuck’s. Then, Chuck had his annual UFAF convention in Las Vegas, where he invited Rorion along, as a guest. When you’re invited there, it’s always as a guest, nobody is getting paid fees or anything.

Rorion came along to teach, but then gave Chuck a bill at the end of it. Now, I’ve heard, though I certainly don’t know if it’s true, that this bill was $15,000. That made Chuck go, “Oh my god. That’s not what we’re doing here.” Now, even if it’s true, I’m not saying Rorion is wrong, because he is certainly entitled to get paid for what he does, but I don’t think that’s what Chuck thought, so there was obviously some miscommunication.

The end result of it was Chuck saying, “Well, here’s your money,” but he decided he wouldn’t have anything more to do with those guys.

ARTEMIS BJJ: So it wasn’t that he couldn’t afford it, but that he didn’t want to have that kind of arrangement?

JOHN WILL: I think it just started out wrong. You know how these things go, it could just as easily have started out right. A lot of things, I’m now old enough to know, it’s just miscommunication. People come in not understanding clearly what was going on, because that’s what happens in life.

So, that’s probably unfortunate, that’s what happened. Chuck kind of went cold on the whole idea. Then I came along, so I think it might have been me that met him, and I said to him, “Hey Chuck, look, one of the Machados is right here in town. They’re really good people, they’re not…I’m not saying Rorion is all about the money, but they’re not all about the money. They’re about jiu jitsu and promoting it, you’re going to love it.”

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will at Chuck Norris' house, 1990s

Richard Norton’s account of how Chuck came to connect up with the Machados would without doubt be more accurate and complete than mine: it should be noted that I only have a vague recollection. All I remember is pretty much one conversation I had with Chuck at the Jet Centre, where I espoused on how great the Machado brothers were and that he should train with them. Richard, no doubt, had pre-empted me on this. He played the pivotal role in introducing Chuck to the Machados and should be recognised for such.

So, Chuck came along and he met the Machados, Rigan, if I’m not mistaken. Then Chuck said “Oh wow, this is different,” because their response was, “We don’t want your money: you’re Chuck Norris! Could you give us an autograph? We’ll teach you for free!” [laughs]

That’s when he got into it, and then he became so into it that he was instrumental in bringing all of them up, getting their green cards and getting Carlos Machado established in Texas, where he lived. I think that’s fairly accurate.

ARTEMIS BJJ: Yeah, that seems to mesh with the various stories I’ve read. So, that would have been about 1990?

JOHN WILL: It was before the UFC, so I reckon you’re about right. It was probably around 1990, pre-UFC. Yeah.

ARTEMIS BJJ: You mention in your book that you went straight from white belt to purple. I assume that was as unusual then as it is now: if so, did you realise your comparatively unique status at the time?

JOHN WILL: The first thing I’d like to say is that I have no natural talent. I think that situation was a function of me living in Australia and travelling over for training, spending time there then coming back, that kind of stuff. So, it was me going away, and I probably passed blue belt level, meaning I should have been graded to blue but I just wasn’t there.

So, at some point when I was training down in Redondo Beach, my first grading was purple. How are you getting this information? Not many people know that. [laughs]

ARTEMIS BJJ: It’s all in your books. [laughs]

JOHN WILL: So, I went straight to purple. I didn’t like that. I’ve fought tooth and nail against every grading I’ve ever had, said “Please, don’t do that, please just let me be a blue belt.”

They said, “No, you’re a purple belt.” I remember the day it happened. I had to wrestle a Brazilian purple belt: they said if I beat him, I get a purple. I made a big mistake, beat him, which was not a good idea. But it wasn’t anything to do with me being special, absolutely not, it was the time I was away. I was not there for my blue belt grading, put it that way. That’s all it was.

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, shown with JJ Machado
John Will with Jean Jacques Machado

ARTEMIS BJJ: You mention that you didn’t want the belt. There seems to be this split when people get promoted, into two groups. The first is very humble, saying they don’t want it, they’re not ready, they’d rather stay a white belt their entire time in jiu jitsu. The second, which I see on the internet all the time, are excited about their achievement and will shout it to everyone, “Hooray, I got my blue belt!”

What’s your perspective on that? 

JOHN WILL: Who am I to say anything? People can think what they like, but all I can say is what I felt, and I never felt adequate. There was always more, I always felt I just needed a bit more training, to be a bit fitter, a bit better. I need to be a bit better husband, I need to be a better whatever. I think anybody striving towards excellence in anything is like that. They’re a little bit dissatisfied with the level that they’ve reached, so they’re always trying to raise the bar, whereas other people are happy to be right where they are, and I also think there is a large part of the martial arts community trying to lower the bar.

So, I think it’s like a bell curve. Some people at one extreme are trying to raise the bar, they’re really working at that, and other people are very much the other way, giving out black belts, not even BJJ but other schools. Everyone else falls somewhere in the middle. Certainly when I was starting out, I never felt that I was good enough.

Also, I was hanging out with an unusual crowd. My BJJ friends were Renzo, Rilion, Ralph: they were all in my class. My classmate Cesar Gracie and I came up together through the ranks. I was not with a bunch of people who just walked off the street. I thought all brown belts were like Renzo, all purple belts are like Cesar, all black belts are like Jean Jacques and Rigan. Of course, that’s not the case, but straight away, I was calibrated to that. Naturally I therefore thought, “Jeez, I’m a crappy purple belt.” [laughs]

ARTEMIS BJJ: Has that impacted on your own standards of promotion?

JOHN WILL: It probably has, I would say so. A little bit. But I’m ok with that and I’m certainly not in judgement of anyone else. There’s something to be said for it being easier than it was back then. I think it is way better that we keep people, because they feel they’re making progress, as they can see their new belts. It is way better that you keep then, rather than it is so hard that you lose them and now they’re not training.

It’s a balance. At the end of the day, we want certain outcomes, we want people to keep training. If that means it is a little bit easier to get a blue belt nowadays, then I’m totally fine with that.

ARTEMIS BJJ: That kind of ties into the next question. Perhaps the most striking story I read in Passion & Purpose was the anecdote about David Meyer.

He was a Danzan Ryu Jiu Jitsu third degree black belt, but shortly after starting BJJ and getting dominated by your purple belt self, he announced to his class that he could no longer in good conscience wear his black belt and teach them. Instead, he was going to shut down the school and strap on a white belt.

That kind of humility is very rare, due to the prestige of a black belt. With the increasingly widespread growth of BJJ, are people like Meyer becoming more or less common?

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, shown with Rilion in 1987
John Will with Rilion Gracie in 1987

JOHN WILL: It’s a good question, an interesting question. Certainly at the time, it was startling to me that he did that. It showed me the heart of the guy, right away, in an instant. He is one of the most moral, ethical people that I’ve ever met: he’s had a profound influence on me. I’m a much better person for having known David Meyer. I think that’s a great way to choose your friends. If you’re better off having known them, they’re good people. So, we became fast friends because of that.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is easier nowadays. Maybe today, people are a little bit less wedded to the rank and therefore it might be easier for them to do what Meyer did back then. But when he did it, it was climbing Mount Everest for the first time. Nowadays, lots of people do it, and they aren’t even mountain climbers. Probably nowadays it is a little easier, because there’s so much literal proof all around us that a BJJ black belt is a very worthy goal, it is easier for people to start. I’m sure of it, actually, as thousands of martial artists have done exactly that.

Now, maybe they haven’t closed their schools down, but in fairness David only had twenty or thirty students. It wasn’t like he was closing his business down, that would have been pretty incredible. He was closing his hobby down. I don’t want to take away from him, because it was still a wonderful thing. He was trying to encourage them, though interestingly enough, only one or two of them came over, but after six months none of them were there. Except for Dick Treanor, he came over and he’s still pottering around.

Photos courtesy of John Will. ‘Like’ the Artemis BJJ Facebook group to be notified about part three. For more interviews, go here

Update October 2014: Richard Norton contacted the site to add his recollections of how Chuck Norris first encountered BJJ. He also pointed to a recent interview with Norris himself, which can be read in the first issue of The Complete Martial Artist. Norris discusses first meeting the Gracies in 1986, along with how Norton introduced him to the Machado brothers. Here are Norton’s thoughts:

RICHARD NORTON: My own introduction to the Machado brothers and BJJ was when Chuck came back from Brazil and brought with him a video of an early Vale Tudo match that Rickson Gracie had with this other fighter, Zulu.

I remember Chuck showing me the tape and both of us thinking how interesting this grappling and striking no rules submission fighting was. Remember, this was years before the UFC ever came into being.  John Will and I were sitting in my lounge after a workout and watching this tape with Rickson that I had brought back to Australia. We were fascinated by this (at least for us) new form of submission fighting.

Soon after, I travelled back to California and managed to locate Rorion Gracie, Helio’s son and the original UFC founder, who as it turned out was living in a house not far from where I lived in the US. I immediately started doing private lessons with the legendary Rickson Gracie and Royce Gracie in a garage at Rorion’s house in Redondo Beach.

I trained doing privates with Rickson for at least eight months before meeting Renzo Gracie. He then introduced me to the Machado brothers, who had also recently moved to California to set up shop. I remember after I started training with the Machados that I said to Chuck, “You have got to meet these guys, they are unbelievable”.

So of course Chuck said, “Let’s bring them to the house and do a couple of hours of private lessons with them.”

I remember laughing and saying, “I think half an hour will be plenty!” As it turned out, it was absolutely plenty, because wrestling with these guys for half an hour was like doing a four-hour work out with anybody else. They were that good.

Anyway, Chuck and I eventually helped set up the five Machado brothers at their very first school in Los Angeles. One more thing that I feel I must add. which to me again illustrated the type of attitude that helped make Chuck the champion he was, is that when we first started BJJ classes with the Machados in their new academy, the very first person on the mat, with a white belt on, was Chuck Norris.

How much better an example is there than to see a world karate champion and a black belt in judo on the mat as a white belt, with no ego and just simply being content with being a student? He was more than willing to do whatever it took to learn and add to his knowledge base. The rest is history: Chuck and I are still devout students and dear friends of the Machados to this day.

Presently I am honoured to hold a 4th degree black belt under Jean Jacques Machado and to have the privilege of being the first ever 4th degree black belt in BJJ in Australia.

Interview: John Will on BJJ in the ’80s

John Will is a true pioneer in BJJ, one of the rare people outside of Brazil to have trained in BJJ almost a decade before the UFC. On top of that, he has membership in an even rarer group, the ‘Dirty Dozen’: they are the first twelve non-Brazilian black belts. Can was lucky enough to meet John Will back in 2012, before a seminar in the UK, where they talked at length about BJJ history.

Sections of this interview appeared in Issue #010 of Jiu Jitsu Style and are reprinted with the kind permission of the editor. In the first of several parts, John Will talks about what it was like to train BJJ back when it was still barely known outside of its native Brazil.

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, shown with Renzo in the mid 80s
John Will training with Renzo Gracie in the mid ’80s

ARTEMIS BJJYou’re a member of a very special group, the Dirty Dozen. Therefore I’d like to start with a number of questions about your memories of the early years of BJJ’s international expansion. To begin, I’d like to ask when you first met Rorion, and secondly what it was like being on the receiving end of his classic “try and escape my mount” introductory lesson?

JOHN WILL: I was owner and editor of the Australian martial arts magazine, Blitz. I started that magazine. It was probably only two issues in, around the mid 1980s. A guy came to Australia called Marcelo Behring, and he came offering the challenge that was going around back then: $50,000 for anyone who could beat him. That was at a time when nobody was doing that, so it was quite a radical departure from the way people were behaving in the martial arts.

Naturally even though it was a very small article, it was a $50,000 challenge, I was intrigued by that. I put it right at the front of the magazine, but no-one responded. You know, no-one had $50,000, but then it went $20,000, $10,000, $5000 and still no-one responded. I think the guy was out there surfing, so he just thought he’d give it a crack.

So, nothing happened, but it certainly got me curious. I made a few phone calls to some friends in Los Angeles, and I said “Have you heard of these Brazilian guys, who are apparently fighting no rules for money. It can’t be capoeira: have you heard of that?”

Then one of them went away for a week and sniffed around a bit, and he came back to me and said “Yeah, I think there is a guy out in Torrance, teaching out of his garage.” Of course it turned out this was Rorion Gracie. Rickson was there also and Royce was quite young, still a kid. My friend continued, “By the way, we did a lesson. John, you’ve got to come out here, these guys are really good.”

I got on a plane, which was difficult for me as I didn’t have any money. I was just a dojo rat: my magazine was barely eking me a living, but that’s why I had the magazine, it was an excuse to travel. I came to America, because at least it was all tax deductible. I thought what I’m really going to do is spend my time training at the Jet Centre with Benny the Jet and different things like that. I did that, then I went out to Torrance.

I rang up and Rorion answered, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. Then I asked “Can I come out?” and he said sure. I asked, “Shall I bring anything?”

He said, “Bring a kimono.”

I thought he meant one of those Japanese kimonos, like a pink one [laughs]. What a weird request! But of course, I’ll go and I bought him a Japanese kimono! [laughs] I rocked up and that was my present for him. When he got that kimono he probably thought I was insane, but we’d never used that word, ‘kimono’. That was not a word associated with martial arts.

So anyway, I rocked up out there and asked if I could do some lessons, I’ll do an interview. I put him on the front of the magazine and did all that, but it didn’t buy me any brownie points with him. In any other martial art, I would have been training for free. Not in this case: it was expensive, nearly $100 a private lesson, which was more money than I had at that time.

ARTEMIS BJJ: So, that would have been late 1980s?

JOHN WILL: That was either ’85 or ’86. I think it was 1986. I only had $400 and it was going to cost $500, so I had to borrow $100: I was destitute. However, I was so impressed when I went out there. I did the first few lessons with him, then on the last day, he said he couldn’t take the lesson, he was going to Disneyland with his kids, but his cousin was coming up from Brazil, Rigan Machado. Rorion had him there working for $5 a class or something. Rigan was teaching fifteen classes a day for a milkshake and a hamburger. [laughs]

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, pictured with Helio and Rigan

So, I lucked out and I met Rigan. He taught me my last class, which I really loved. He was really passionate about it, a national champion at the time, obviously excited to be in America. Long story short, I basically went home, with what you can imagine you would learn in five lessons: basic sweep, upa, armbar, guard pass, side control, Americana, kimura. A few other little things, headlock escapes.

With that handful of techniques, I just jumped all over every judo black belt and Japanese Jujitsu black belt I could find. I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’m tying these guys in knots with five lessons. Maybe I should take ten lessons!” [laughs]

I saved up my money hard, became enthusiastic and made my way back there with the intention of getting an address off Rorion for Brazil. I figured that would be cheaper, so I could afford it. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to train with him, I just seriously couldn’t afford it.

When I went back, the same thing happened. He said he couldn’t teach me today, but his cousin was still here. I head up and hear “My Australian friend!” Then Rigan said, “Don’t train here, come to Brazil! We’re going to train every morning and every night.”

I said, “Yeah, that’s what I want, an address in Brazil.”

He replied, “You don’t need an address in Brazil”, because by this time he had learned more English, “I’m going down in two days, come with me.” I’ve been with all of those guys ever since.

ARTEMIS BJJ: That leads into the next question, as in your books, you talk a lot about Rigan. I was therefore wondering if you could talk a bit about him?

JOHN WILL: I thought, this is a person I want to spend time around. I didn’t know how good he was at jiu jitsu. I mean, any blue belt would have been quite enough of a coach at that point for me, right?

I only realised when I was in Rio, sitting in Barra Gracie. Back then, it was owned by several of the Machados, Carlos Gracie Jr and a woman called Danielle Dutra. So, I was sitting there and Renzo was sitting next to me. He was one of the few people who could speak fluent English. All these really great guys were coming in: Rilion Gracie, top guys who were top competitors at the time, everyone was going “ooo” and “aah” as these guys were coming through the door.

I said to Renzo, “What’s going on, is it some special occasion tonight?”

“Oh yeah, yeah. They’ve come to train with him.”

Rigan was sitting next to me. I looked past Rigan, saying “Who? Who?”

“With him!”

I said, “What, with this goofball?” To me, Rigan was just my goofy friend. “Really, with him?”

Renzo then asked, “Don’t you know who that is?”

“Yeah, that’s my friend Rigan.”

“John, he’s absolutely awesome.”

So, it was purely luck as to how it went, in terms of choosing a coach. I think it is great to choose people based on “Hey, I like spending time in their company.” I did, because he was so nice and generous, all that stuff.

Artemis BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Bristol interview with John Will, training at Gracie Barra in 1987
John Will training at the original Gracie Barra school in 1987

ARTEMIS BJJ: Do you remember what year it would have been when you were at Barra?

JOHN WILL: 1987.

ARTEMIS BJJ: So, shortly after you trained with Rorion?

JOHN WILL: Correct. Within a year. I must say, Rorion and Royce and those guys, Rickson, that was my first experience. A wonderful experience, because that’s why I was inspired. It was like an injection of spirit. I really thought, “this is absolutely awesome.” It all kicked off from there.

Photos courtesy of John Will. ‘Like’ the Artemis BJJ Facebook group to be notified about part two: for more interviews, go here