Sunday, September 18, 2011

BJJ's Best Branding: John Danaher

Getting on with the Branding Series, here's a guy that defies everything you'd expect to see.

Branding isn't always intentional. Sometimes people just do their thing and *bam*...a personal brand is born.

This black belt under Renzo Gracie is something of the King Arthur of the jiu jitsu community. The base of the legend of Danaher is the fact that he doesn't compete. It comes complete with fuzzy anecdotes, rumors of genetically deformed joints (he actually does have a misshapen patella and ended up with arthrofibrosis after a surgery gone wrong) and a healthy presence of online debates.

The big deal isn't so much what he does (though I'm sure it's amazing), it's who comes to him for said amazingness. He's served as submission coach for GSP, teaches at Renzo's school and co-authored Mastering Jiu Jitsu, one of the cornerstones of a complete grappling library.

The REALLY big deal is his attitude toward, and thoughts around jiu jitsu (which honestly make perfect sense considering his graduate studies in philosophy at Columbia University.)


“I love to watch the progress that my students, both the famous ones and the ones you’ve never heard of…I love to see the way they progress and they way the sport makes them happy” 

That's his personal experience, and not something you'd receive directly as a student, but people who feel this way, bleed their pleasure into their work.

“The idea of asserting myself over someone else and beating someone is not strong with me”.

Competition is a big deal in the jiu jitsu world and the choice to compete or not is a very personal, and very loaded one. An instructor's competition record scores major points with students when they're choosing a school. It ranks right up there with lineage when you ask anyone for their jiu jitsu resume. Genetics and surgeries aside, at his core Danaher is not a competitor. However, what he has done in his career, is to analyze and impart at such a level that it trumps competition experience.

He does, though, understand a fight. Danaher worked as a bouncer in his home of New Zealand and the US, and got into grappling because, apparently, unruly US patrons grapple more than our Kiwi cousins.

“It’s very very rare that someone becomes more unhappy by the study of jiu jitsu." 

Even with his real world experience, I wouldn't put him into the category of self defense focused instructors. He has referred to jiu jitsu as an "infinite puzzle" and credits it with solving multiple levels of human purpose for him (the hedonistic pursuit of happiness, therapy for an obsessive compulsive personality and curiosity). By his admission, the level of grappling you need to handle a fight as a bouncer isn't very high, and if he were focused on training just to stop fights, I believe he would have maxed out his purpose long ago.

Danaher's nothing short of ground breaking. I think it's important not to label him as just a guy who doesn't compete. Non-competition seems to simply be an outgrowth of his approach to the sport. What he excels in is understanding, diagnosis and remedy. The ability to teach high level achievers to do something you haven't done yourself is amazing and a tribute to an individual's understanding of their art, and their students at a macro level. No, I don't think the "super-instructor-non-competitor" is going to be a trend in the future of jiu jitsu...there are just too many great competitors out there...and...well...teachers that function at his level are an exceedingly rare breed in any field. I do think though, that his existence and successes give credence to one of the many paths in the journey of jiu jitsu.


slideyfoot said...

One of my BJJ heroes, along with Saulo Ribeiro (qualified lawyer and judge) and Hillary Williams (medical school). Brain + BJJ = Awesome.

Megan said...

What. Ribeiro? Really? My crush just grew exponentially.

slideyfoot said...

Yep: he's a smart chap. It is mentioned in various places on the web, but a more reliable source is Saulo himself in one of his Fightworks interviews (although helpfully, I can't remember which one ;p).

Makes me wish I spoke Portuguese, so I could hear what he talks like in his native tongue (though his idiosyncratic English is wonderful too, just like Mario Sperry and various other Brazilians).

Megan said...

Yeah...I've put a cap on my language studies, but Portuguese is seeming REALLY tempting.

I feel like I could be missing subtleties lost in translation.

Zen Mojo said...

EXCELLENT post Megan. Makes me wonder what my "personal brand" is.

I also wanted to note that just because you are a great competitor it does not make you a great instructor (and just because you are a great jiu jitsu instructor does not necessarily mean you are a philosophic/moral giant akin to Yoda but we seem to expect that from our martial arts instructors).

Megan said... are SO right. There are so many different skill and ability sets around the world of jiujitsu (teaching, competing, coaching, materials development, motivation, etc.), I think we forget that they exist in different levels in all of us and none is directly related to another.

Juarez said...

Here in Brazil there is also a member of the Supreme Court that is a black belt in BJJ. :)

Megan said...

That's pretty stinkin' cool!