This is a great interview with 2013 Pan Am BJJ Champion Clark Gracie. He shares a ton of cool info. You can listen to, read, or download this interview in several different ways…
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Stephan: Hi everybody. It’s Stephan Kesting from Grapplearts.com and Grapplearts Radio. Today I’m talking to Clark Gracie, yes, the guy from the famous omoplata picture on Reddit. But there’s a lot more to him than that and I’m really looking forward to this interview. So thanks for meeting with us, Clark.
Clark: Thanks for having me.
Stephan: Well, let’s get right to that famous photo that got you onto Good Morning, America. And then, I promise, we’ll talk about things that aren’t related to hair and appearances. But first, what’s the backstory on that photo?
Clark: Well, that photo was actually taken during the 2012 New York Open in my first match against Ken Primola. I was able to spin into an Omoplata not too long into the match. And before I was able to really control the position, he picked me up off the ground, and luckily I had all the grips that I needed for him to be unable to shake me off, so I was able to hold on tight. And then I realized that he was actually picking me up in the air, so I was actually trying to get him back down but I was unable to for a little while and I was just hanging up there.
And I thought, ‘Okay, well I’m not in an uncomfortable position so I’m going to just hang out here and see if he gets tired.’ Eventually, I was able to bring him down and finish it, but while I was up in the someone just took a picture, which I was actually thinking about, ‘Man, I hope somebody gets a picture of this because it was actually a really crazy position I’m in right now, hanging on the guy.’
Stephan: Looking cool as a cucumber but just hanging out….
Clark: Yeah, and so I was able to finish it. But that photo really didn’t become popular until the Pan Am’s this year, 2013, when I won, and then…
Stephan: I always thought that photo was from the Pan Am’s.
Clark: No, actually, it was actually from the year before. So it was almost a year old. I don’t know how that photo came out right after the Pan Ams but I started seeing some memes on it and some of my students brought it to my attention and said that it’s on the top of the list or front page, something on Pinterest. You know, I didn’t know much about it at that time, but yeah, it was kind of interesting.
And then just a couple of days later, I got a phone call from Good Morning, America inviting me out to come talk about it. So I spent a couple of minutes, about 5 minutes, on Good Morning, America, and then Inside Edition a few days later. So I got a little attention. It’s kind of funny but to me, it’s just a move that I do regularly, you know?
And it happened to me before in the academy a lot but maybe it was the first time in a competition. I think a lot of people outside Jiu-Jitsu really didn’t understand what was going on there. Maybe they thought that I was in trouble. Maybe I was getting slammed, you know, or something like that, and I was looking really relaxed. But actually, I was in complete control. I was in a really good position. I had no worries right there…
Stephan: Because he’s getting tired in that position, not you….
Stephan: Well, I guess it’s a totally different way of bringing Jiu-Jitsu to the masses. The 21st Century way.
Clark: For sure.
Stephan: Okay. Well, you’re a Gracie, which means that you’re part of that giant family. Your dad is Carley Gracie. Can you talk a little bit about your background and about who’s related to whom? It’s really difficult for people to keep track of who’s related to whom, even if they’re interested in the history of the Gracie family….
Clark: Yeah, it’s funny. Like a lot of times I get asked the question, ‘How are you related to the Gracie family?’ And you know, sometimes I ask the people the same question to themselves, ‘How are you related to your family?’ It’s kind of a funny question
I understand what they’re saying but because it’s a big family people don’t understand where everyone fits in. But I am the 3rd generation of Jiu-Jitsu practitioners in the family.
First was Carlos and his brothers that started learning Jiu-Jitsu and modifying Jiu-Jitsu to become what is now known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. And then my Dad, his brothers, his cousins. And then all of us…
My grandfather had 21 children, and Helio also had a lot of kids, Jiu-Jitsu spread around the world. And then there are a lot of grandkids on top of that, so it became a really big family. There are cousins now that I don’t even know; I’m still working on getting to know everybody. But it’s interesting: I think that’s part of the cause of the big spread of Jiu-Jitsu all those people all over the place: in Europe, in Brazil and in the US.
My Dad was one of the first ones to come to the US.
Stephan: Carley Gracie. When did he come to the US?
Clark: He came in 1972. And I think about 10 years later he started inviting his cousins and his brothers to come, and from there they started the boom. And years later, the UFC started which is when it really became popular.
Stephan: Was your dad teaching Jiu-Jitsu in 1972?
Clark: Yeah. He actually came and he first went to New York. I’m not sure if he taught much in New York, but I do know that after that he went to Virginia and he was teaching the marines in Quantico in. And he would always tell stories about how he would look up Jiu-Jitsu schools in the Yellow Pages and visit them, or even Judo schools – any kind of martial arts – but especially Jiu-Jitsu schools. He noticed that the Jiu-Jitsu in North America was not the same Jiu-Jitsu that he had known in Brazil. So…
Stephan: It was more of the Japanese traditional Jiu-Jitsu here at that time….
Clark: Yeah. Exactly. It was the traditional style. Similar in a lot of ways but still a lot different because, you know, the family was able to modify it and it actually became a completely different martial art. So people would say, ‘You do Jiu-Jitsu?‘ But it wasn’t the same as what we do. Then thought, ‘Well I have to think of a different name for it because people don’t see it as a same thing.’
So he started calling it “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu”, and that was the beginning of that term “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” back in those days. He started to teach around that time. Eventually went to Florida, California. In California, he met my Mom and that’s where I was born and grew up most of the time.
Clark Gracie showing a Cool X Guard Drill
Stephan: Now calling it “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu”, that ended up leading to some problems within the family, did it not?
Clark: Well yeah. There were some people that came after to the US – his family and some of my Dad’s cousins – who tried to put a trademark on the name so no one else could use it, the term “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu”. And my Dad said ‘What’s going on – I was the first one who created this name. You can’t, you know, stop the family from using this name. This is a family name.‘
So there was a little bit of a dispute going on. I remember that throughout my youth, in my adolescence,my dad was constantly going to court regarding that issue. It was kind of stressful, I guess, but eventually, my Dad won that lawsuit and the name became free for the family to use again. But there was a time when a lot of the family members was not using the name “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” because of that trademark that was put on by my Dad’s cousin, Rorion.
Stephan: So your Dad wasn’t trying to just use the name for himself? Anybody in the family can now use it?
Clark: Yeah. He was trying to free it up for the rest of the people in the family, you know. He was really sad to see the patriarchs in the family, like Carlson, you know, and his nephews, like Rolles, Renzo and these guys coming to the US teaching Jiu-Jitsu unable to use the name “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu”. A lot of people were forced to use “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu”. That’s probably why the big boom and the name “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” became so popular instead of “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu”, because a lot of the students of the family were not allowed to use the name “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” and not even the family. So you know, there was a little bit of a separation. But really, it’s the same thing, and eventually, the name was freed up, was allowed to become used by the family again.
Stephan: Alright. Well, let’s change gears a little bit. When people think of the Gracie’s, they kind of assume that you popped out of the womb and straight into a gi instead of diapers. Is this actually true? What was your first Jiu-Jitsu memory as a little baby or as a little kid?
Clark: Well, you know it’s funny because now that I’m older, I see how a lot of my uncles, my family members, my Dad, you know, play with the kids in the family. They end up putting them in their guard, lifting them up and playing with them around, to get the kids used to tumbling and rolling around. Just having fun with the kids when they’re toddlers, just playing around with them with grappling.
My first memories was probably being 4 or 5 years old, and my Dad teaching me moves like the osoto gari throw, and the mata leon choke, just playing around. Kind of this horse-play in the living room with my Dad, but you know, also probably showing me these moves, I was thinking that he wants me to be able to defend myself if, you know, you’ve got some bullies in the playground messing around with us or something like that. Me, my brother and my sister.
And so you know, I guess we do learn from a very young age just being born into the family. But I’m sure that any black belt out there, when they have their kids, they’re probably trying to work with their kids as young as possible. And you’re starting to see a lot of really talented young kids these days, and usually these kids have parents that do Jiu-Jitsu and they’ve just been putting them into it since they could walk around.
Stephan: Like the next generation of Tiger Woods, swinging a golf club before they can stand. And because you can crawl before you can stand, you can start Jiu-Jitsu earlier than you can start golf…
Stephan: So, watch out Tiger Woods. We’re going to choke you out. So then, what’s your first formal jiu-jitsu memory? What was the first time you ever put on a gi and learned a technique in a class setting?
Clark: I remember training with my Dad’s students when I was a kid. I was probably 9 or 10 years old was when I really started going to the academy and being involved in that. At that time it was still very new, you know. There were no Jiu-Jitsu tournaments in the US. I was growing up in San Francisco and a lot of my cousins were starting to fight. I remember there were events even before the UFC – MMA and Vale Tudo events that were getting some attention.
Then the UFC came around and I saw a lot of my cousins, Renzo and Ralph and Ryan, and even guys like Vitor Belfort, who was students of my uncle Carlson, they would come around sometimes and visit the academy. Because I knew these guys I imagined myself in the ring one day competing for my family’s name and representing Jiu-Jitsu.
So when I was around 12, I guess, I started taking it a little bit more seriously, thinking, ‘Well, if I want to be good at this, I better start focusing on this and going more often.’ So I started going everyday, having fun with it. And really, there were no kids classes back then, so that really helped me because I was training with the adults and I couldn’t use my strength or bully anyone around, I had to really develop defensive strategies and become really good at my defense. It was a good developmental thing for me.
Stephan: It’s interesting to hear that your training was kind of informal and you didn’t really focus on it very much really for the first 10, 11, 12 years of your life. After that it’s something that you’ve been pretty hardcore about ever since, obviously…
Clark: Yeah, I guess because there wasn’t really a lot of kids doing it back then. Jiu-Jitsu was really like an adult thing to do, whereas now it’s becoming more of an all ages thing. But when you’re young you don’t really have that kind of focus, I guess, so it’s just something to do, just playing around. And then once I had the head to realize that it was something I had to focus on, then I started getting into it a little bit more seriously.
Stephan: Okay. So now, obviously, you’ve learned a lot from your Dad. Are there any other people that have been instrumental in your development and in acquiring your knowledge and skills?
Clark: Definitely, yeah. My Dad was especially responsible for my understanding of the fundamentals and my base; everything comes from what I originally learned from my Dad.
But there were a lot of people also who influenced my Jiu-Jitsu. One of them – probably the main one – being Rodrigo Medeiros, who was a student of Carlson. He had a really good team in San Diego. And once I was around 19, 20, I started training with his team a lot. And training there, a lot of guys from Brazil would come through before major tournaments, like Mario Reis, Paradeda, and Margarida.
And then I also trained a lot with other cousins and uncles of mine, like Renzo, Roger, and when I lived in Brazil for a while, I trained with Rillion. And everybody left a little bit, gave me some pieces of the puzzle that I’ve put together to make a style, which is now my own.
Clark Gracie showing some powerful tweaks for the Rear Naked Choke
Stephan: How long did it take you to come into your own style? The jump from learning the basics to knowing what you’re good at and having your own way of doing things?
Clark: I don’t know. I think it’s an interesting question because people’s styles change throughout their career, throughout their training. When I was a white belt, as a kid, people would say, ‘Oh Clark, you’re super flexible, your legs can go all the way over your head.‘ So that was initially my style, just being really flexible and be able to get into like positions from unexpected angles and stuff like that. But it’s kind of a hard question to answer, because your style is constantly changing. At one point in my life, I’m focusing on passing the guard or being on top, with the mount and cross choke, and at another point I’m focusing on like Kimuras and omoplatas…
Stephan: Always playing catch up in one area or another, and always being ahead in one area or the other.
Clark: Yeah. Always like, you know, thriving in one area and becoming interested and kind of finding your niche in a certain area. So you go through phases in your Jiu-Jitsu….
Stephan: So what’s the latest phase that you’ve been through?
Clark: Well, right now, lately, especially this year and in the past couple of years, I’ve been really doing well with the omoplata technique. I’ve been really successful with it: once I get it, I’m usually able to finish it.
Another area I’m really looking into a lot, especially after training a lot in no gi, is the Kimura lock. Going after the Kimura and being able to transition from it to other positions.
So these two moves have really helped me a lot.
Another one is I really used to like is being in mount and going for the cross choke – playing on top, moving around fast on top. I guess I go through stages. Blue belt was one thing. Brown belt, my game got a little tighter and I was a little bit more into smashing people. Black belt, I became a little bit more complete.
Stephan: Okay. Well, let’s talk about competition. It’s been a big part of your development and you’ve got some impressive competition credentials. I mean you’re a Pan American Black Belt Champ, you’re a national champ, as a brown belt you won the No Gi World’s, and you have a whole bunch of other medals too. How many competitions do you do a year? How many competitions did you do last year?
Clark: Last year I competed a lot. I did 11 tournaments and I believe I medaled in every one; got to the podium in every tournament. This year, I did about 7 or 8. Usually my average was around that, 6 or 7. It’s like every other month. Sometimes doing them a lot, but taking a couple of breaks throughout the year, trying to stay pretty active. Always exposing myself to having situations where you have to challenge yourself as an athlete, train hard and deal with those nerves and, you know, just put yourself out there on the battlefield.
Stephan: So here’s a stupid question: do you actually enjoy the process or is it something you should do to improve and to get the final result?
Clark: I guess initially, when I started competing, I didn’t really think about whether I enjoyed it or not. I just kind of did it, believing that it was something I needed to do, something that I should do, something that was expected of me. Kind of like when you’re going to college, or do an internship: you’re getting that experience. You’re getting some titles under your belt. It’s like getting a diploma; each title is like another degree, another master’s or something. So it’s something that I think I had to do.
Eventually I really started enjoying the training process, feeling in shape, feeling good, having great training partners and great training sessions. And now I’m really enjoying the competition side of it, just getting out there, not being as nervous and just getting a little more excited to get out there, step on the mat, step on the battlefield and make things happen. And when you realise that people are actually watching you, and what you’re doing actually has a little more effect now that you’re fighting against some of the top guys of the world in the black belt division and sometimes in the absolute division, it’s gets exciting.
Stephan: How have you dealt with nerves in the past and how do you deal with nerves now? I’m imagining that’s changed over time as you’ve become, as you’ve gotten more experience and had more successes.
Clark: Like anything, this can be hard to deal with when you’re not used to it. Some people deal with it easier than others. I think I had a little bit harder time at some stages because I had people telling me, ‘Oh you’re a Gracie, you can’t lose. You’ve got to win. You’re expected to be at the top of the podium every tournament.‘
Stephan: That’s a lot of pressure…
Clark: Because of that pressure, maybe it was a little bit tougher for me. In a way, it was good because it forced me to train harder and made me really take it seriously. But also, when you’re competing, if you have that pressure, maybe sometimes you fall behind by a couple of points and then you sort of get the anxiety, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose, what’s going to happen.‘
Just dealing with that over and over and then finally realizing that, especially at black belt, I’m fighting some of the top guys in the world. And everybody loses, including guys that train like crazy, just like me or more. So you know, anything can happen: just go out there and enjoy it.
Some people told me – and it has helped a lot – is to go out there and compete for you. Don’t compete for anybody else. Don’t compete for your family or for your team. You go out there and represent them, but think about it as a personal growth. Something that you’re investing in yourself. You’re putting yourself to the test. You’re doing it for you. So forget about the crowd, forget about everything around you and just focus on you and the guy in front of you. So it’s kind of more of a personal thing at that point. I think that helped me.
Stephan: So you’re basically always getting ready for competition, and your competition is never too far away, so how often are you training? How often are you doing conditioning? How many times did you teach? How many times do you do anything else?
Clark: My training pretty much stays pretty consistent throughout the year. At certain times I’ll lose the intensity a little bit just to relax a little bit, not be sore all the time and take a little break. But because Jiu-Jitsu is also a business for me and I have an academy, so I’m always really on the mat and I really don’t like feeling out of shape. So I try to keep myself always training hard and getting a good sweat, getting training sessions in. I like to keep that momentum throughout the year.
You don’t want to burn yourself so sometimes you let the intensity go a little bit. But when I’m really training, I’ll usually try to get a good training session in the morning. Maybe a conditioning session where I’m doing different kind of functional exercises, sometimes doing weight training, sometimes doing bodyweight training, sometimes more the cardio side, and really trying to get a good balanced workout.
And then I’ll do a training session with some tough guys in the academy. We’re all pushing ourselves really hard. And take a little break in the afternoon and then usually I go back to the academy to teach one or two classes in the evening. So I’m kind of in it throughout the day, even at the end part, by training a little bit with the students. But then I go to sleep and get ready for the next day.
Stephan: How is your conditioning organized?
Clark: I’ve been really blessed with having great trainers in San Diego. I’ve worked a lot with a guy named Chris Robinson, who’s a really well known, popular trainer in the US. He’s always traveling, doing seminars and workshops and stuff.
And also, now I have an Italian guy in San Diego named Maurizio Tangari. He’s really good; he introduced me to Bulgarian bag training, kettlebells, Tabata systems, and a lot of different stuff. He’s really pushed me a lot. The guy is in his 40’s and is in amazing shape. You know, he makes me feel embarrassed sometimes when I have to try to keep up with him. It’s been really great to have him push me and, it’s great just having those guys around.
Stephan: And how many days a week is that (conditioning)?
Clark: A couple of years ago I was doing it 3 days a week. And then in the past year, especially during training time – which has been almost all year this year – it’s been like pretty much everyday. I go and train with him at 8 in the morning or so. So it’s 5 days a week, and sometimes 6 days a week.
Stephan: With all that teaching, all the sparring, and all the conditioning that you’re doing, how do you avoid your entire body exploding and just ending up over-trained?
Clark: Well, your body gets used to it. Also we’re trying not to always use the same muscle groups. We might spend one day of the week with little bit more cardio and less strength training, so you have a little bit of a lighter training, a little bit more of a recovery day, and then take the weekends off and let the body rest a little bit.
But you know, your body adapts to it. It’s definitely tough and I’m constantly sore – some part of my body is always sore. But you know, you start to enjoy it. It feels good to be in shape.
Stephan: You’ve done well in both gi and no gi competition. So how do you change your game?
The one time, I trained with you we did a lot of spider guard stuff, which a lot of people have difficulty translating over to no gi. Clearly spider guard is something you’re really good at with the gi. But then how do you change your game when you’re going from gi to no gi, or from no gi to gi?
Clark: I remember this year – around the time when I was training for Pan Am’s – there were some guys that came in and they just went straight to no gi. You know, it is different. You have to get used to making different grips, going for different points of control, different ways to dominate your opponent and moving around.
So it is a transition, but it’s not too bad. Usually after about a couple of weeks – a month usually at the most – I’m ready to go. I’ve made that transition from gi to no gi or vice versa. It’s just looking for different ways to control your opponent. Talking about guard, I’ll use more of an X-guard, and also playing guard a little closer than I would with the gi when you can ride on the grips and play a little bit more with distance.
Stephan: So a tighter game…
Clark: Probably a little bit tighter. One thing that I’ve found which helps a lot with no gi is when you just grab somebody, you can’t really maintain that grip for very long. With the gi, you can make a strong grip and hold it usually for quite a while and give your partner a hard time.
But in no hi what I try to do is try to put my hands together, make that gable grip, and lock up around the opponent. That’s really what’s going to keep you tight and give you more control. Every other grip is very temporary. So I always try to get my hands together, palm to palm. That’s helped me a lot.
Stephan: Do you train in wrestling or judo separately, in addition to your Jiu-Jitsu? How do you handle the whole takedown component of the game?
Clark: We have a lot of wrestlers in San Diego. One of my best training partners, Brandon Magana is a black belt. He’s also a really good wrestler, and we always have some wrestlers around, so we get some good wrestling. We also have some good judo guys too. I enjoy the wrestling, although the majority of the time we’re training on the ground because that’s where more of the fight takes place. But I do enjoy the wrestling as well.
Stephan: Okay. Well, tell us a little bit about your school in San Diego. And you’ve also got affiliates elsewhere in the world, right?
Clark: That is correct. Yeah, I’ve had a school in La Jolla for about 4 years, for a little over 4 years now, which is in the north end of San Diego. And now, I just opened a new school in old town San Diego, which is just north of downtown across the airport. And so we’re really excited about having those 2 locations and be able to really provide really great training. Both really nice facilities.
There are a lot of really competitive guys down there who are trying to grow and get good. We also have people of every age and background. Some people do it for fitness, some people just to do it for fun. But then you’ve got your group that likes to train hard, too, and get out there and compete. So it’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy it.
Stephan: Are you traveling between the two schools or does somebody else runs the La Jolla school?
Clark: They’re not too far from each other; it’s only about probably 10 miles. I have 2 people that are helping me out with running the schools and I bounce back and forth between the two. My brother actually just moved to San Diego this year. His name is Ralston Gracie and he’s helping me a lot with the La Jolla school. He’s really tight, and so I’m really happy to have him down there. He’s a really great training partner as well.
And I also have Brandon Magana, who’s helping us on the old town location. And he’s one of my best training partners. He’s right about my weight and really tough guy to finish, and so it’s always good training with him.
Stephan: It’s amazing how much one or two training partners can make a difference to your game, isn’t it?
Clark: Yeah. Having those tough guys really helps when you’re going out there to compete. When you’re stepping out there to do battle, that’s really when it pays off. When you’re on the mat, and you really don’t want to keep going, you want to give up, but at that point you remember those tough days in the academy and it all pays off.
Stephan: What’s the toughest match you’ve ever had?
Clark: You know, I’m really not sure. People have asked me that before…
I remember I had one match in the Europeans against a guy from Checkmat who I actually fought before. I remember being so tired at the end of it. He was just attacking me the whole time. I was working to attack him as well, so it was nonstop.
Sometimes you go at that high intensity for 10 minutes, and then sometimes you’re traveling on top of that. I was in Portugal in the winter, dealing with jet lag and I had a really tough match… I think his name was Gabriel – a Checkmat guy – who I had already fought once in the worlds and beaten by submission. But that match stands out in my head; I fought him twice and the second time, he was much harder to fight. I still ended up winning on points
So I don’t know. I mean I’ve had a lot of good, tough matches. Some I’ve lost and one or two, but I’ve won a lot too.
I’ve fought some guys with really big names and it wasn’t really a very exhausting or a tough fight. And then some guys who don’t really have big names in Jiu-Jitsu gave me really tough matches…
So you know, I can’t really say who was the toughest match, but it’s definitely been an experience, just getting out there, putting myself to the test…
The training is really where it all pays off. In the end, the best thing you’re going to get out of Jiu-Jitsu – what I really get from Jiu-Jitsu – is not the end product. It’s not the title at the end of the day. It’s the journey that’s gets you there.
It’s the training you put yourself through, the great training partners that you develop, the friendships, getting into the best shape you can be in, pushing yourself as an athlete, feeling like a superman out there on the mat, and just living the lifestyle of the Jiu-Jitsu fighter. Eating well, feeling good, being completely connected to your mind, body and spirit. So for me, that’s the biggest reward.
Stephan: That’s fantastic. I don’t think we can end this interview on a better note. How do people find your school?
Clark: Really easy. It’s just ClarkGracie.com. We’re open to the public and anybody who wants to drop in is more than welcome to do so. We have visitors from all over the place. San Diego’s a really nice place to vacation. It’s kind of a tourist area, so we always have a lot of visitors in the academy.
Stephan: Awesome. Well, best of luck with your training and your competition and your teaching and with anything else, any other challenges that you decide to take on in your life, Clark. Thank you so much for today.
Clark: Thank you.
Go to ClarkGracie.com for more information about training with Clark or finding one of his affiliated schools.
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