John Danaher or the Passion of Jiu Jitsu


Early days in jiu jitsu: Jiu jitsu is a lifelong journey, however, there is no doubt that every student’s first months and years of study are very often the most enjoyable. In many ways they replicate our experiences of childhood where innocence and naïveté made every day an adventure as we crawled, stumbled and then walked and ran for the first time. My own early experiences were particularly memorable as they involved many luminaries in our young sport.

I started at a very late age – twenty eight- with great enthusiasm but little sense of what I wanted to do with the art.

My teacher, Renzo Gracie, a man of great ability and charisma, gained international attention through his exploits in early MMA and much to our good fortune, moved to NYC in 1995 to open up his school. I have always believed NYC plays a special role in American society as a place where America’s and indeed the world’s best and most talented people come to make their fortune. In this great city Renzo quickly assembled a group of talented students.

Foremost among these was the young Matt Serra who was an outstanding blue belt at the time I first met him. Renzo is, as anyone who has ever met him will testify, one of the most charming, warm and charismatic fellows you could ever hope to meet. Within a short time frame he built a considerable following here in NYC. I believe that for any jiu jitsu student, the most exciting time of development is that between white and purple belt. In this period, all the information is new and exciting, the learning curve is steep and the lessons profoundly life altering.

I was blessed to be there at that time. This was during the early days of MMA, with the greatest revolution in the history of modern martial arts taking place all around us. We felt like witnesses to a new age, led by one of its leading forces. I cannot even reflect upon those memories without a broad smile coming to my face. The memories of school challenge matches (often involving young pre-UFC Matt Serra), brilliant visiting students and the sheer variety of people who were drawn to the school from all walks of life, cops, criminals, doctors, lawyers, international financiers, garbage men, drunks, geniuses, ninjas(yes- ninjas)strippers, athletes, slobs, priests, sinners – all united by only a single strand – their desire to learn the kingly art of jiu jitsu.

Renzo had an outstanding teaching staff. Himself, Matt Serra, Nick Serra, Ricardo Almeida and Rodrigo Gracie. It was my privilege to learn under such talented people. At the time I was so naive I did not even understand how lucky I was – I thought it was normal to be tutored by such people.

Only now do I appreciate my good fortune. In that crucible we worked with the passion and interest of scientists trying to unlock the secrets of nature and make some earth shattering discovery. When I look back now on those early years it fills me with joy and renews my passion for the sport.

As decades go by there will always be days where one’s enthusiasm dims a little – when I think back on our child like passion and sense of mission my old drive immediately returns and I move forward with renewed vigor. Just as our childhood furnishes many of our fondest life memories, so to our jiu jitsu childhood represents best the passions that first brought us to the sport and the dreams that will sustain a lifetime of study within it.

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