I Flew Over 4000 Miles For A Private Lesson With John Danaher: Hywel Teague

I Flew Over 4000 Miles For A Private Lesson With John Danaher: Hywel Teague

John Danaher is widely regarded as one of the best jiu-jitsu instructors in the world. Georges St-Pierre, Garry Tonon, Travis Stevens and Eddie Cummings are

Mar 15, 2016 by Hywel Teague

John Danaher is widely regarded as one of the best jiu-jitsu instructors in the world. Georges St-Pierre, Garry Tonon, Travis Stevens and Eddie Cummings are just a handful of the athletes who dutifully learn from this enigmatic teacher. Danaher can be found teaching seven days a week at the Renzo Gracie academy in Manhattan, but his attention isn't solely reserved for world class athletes. 

He's one of the principal teachers at the RGA, where his daily classes attract the likes of elite grapplers and UFC champions through to part-time hobbyists and weekend warriors. It's not unusual to see professional athletes training a few feet away from doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers.

In addition to his open classes, John Danaher also teaches private lessons. I'd heard tales that he had a months-long waiting list of students vying for an hour of his time, and that people would fly in from the other side of the country for the opportunity to learn directly from him. 

From Rio to NYC 

I live in the jiu-jitsu hub of Rio de Janeiro, some 4800 miles away from New York. As a last-minute work trip to the 'capital of the world' came about, I resolved to try and get an audience with the revered sensei during the short time I would be town. 

I fired off a salvo of emails and messages to people I knew were close to Danaher. Favors were called in and strings were pulled. Find out if he has any availability, I asked. We'll do our best, they replied. 

Within less than a week, I -- a very mediocre, 36-year-old recreational practitioner (albeit a black belt) -- had managed to confirm a one-to-one lesson with one of the top teachers in the business. 

The Legend of John Danaher

You may have read or heard many things about John Danaher; that he always wears a rashguard, even in social settings (true), that he doesn't own a cellphone or computer (untrue, he usually emails me from an iPhone), or that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of jiu-jitsu (most certainly true). 

Danaher has described himself as being far from the best of teachers. He talks to, in his own words, "the smartest person in the room," which is why his classes are only for students with a solid grasp of fundamental jiu-jitsu principles. His piercing gaze can be unsettling, and many are unnerved by his intense presence. But these are not insurmountable obstacles, and those who can navigate these have access to some of the finest jiu-jitsu instruction on the planet. 

I'd met Danaher a couple of times before our lesson. Once, almost exactly a year prior, during one of the most fascinating, challenging, and stimulating interviews of my career, and again some six months later at ADCC 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I had been there while he taught a room full of mixed-ability students, and I had sat next to him as he coached his athletes through grueling matches. 


Photo by @jeffreyschu / FighterPlus

John Danaher, The Teacher 

One thing that struck me during these experiences was his ability to communicate clearly and concisely at all times. The calculated brevity of his speech reflects his profound knowledge of the art and sport, and as our private lesson got underway his ability to issue clear instructions immediately validated my desire to learn from him in a direct setting.

Should you be presented the opportunity to learn from a great mind in any field of study, what would you focus on? Would you choose to examine great ideas and concepts in order to break new ground and open the door to unknown territory? Or focus on make-or-break details that only years of mastery could unlock? 

I gave Danaher no indication of what I wanted to study prior to our appointment. As the time came for our lesson to begin, I crossed the mat to where he sat with his very capable student Matthew (who would be my training partner for the session) and after some introductions he asked me what I would like to work on. 

A Glimpse of Danaher's Leg Lock System 

Some may find my choice to be boring or pedestrian, but I knew from the moment I tried to get this lesson that I would focus on a commonly-known and taught technique: The IBJJF-legal straight ankle lock. 

Crucially, I wanted to look at two specific areas of the technique; the mechanism required to actually break the foot (as opposed to try and force a pain-compliant tap) and the control points required to properly secure my opponent's leg using my own lower limbs. 

I had barely finished my request before Danaher dived into a thorough lesson on the subtle intricacies of the grips and positioning around my opponent's ankle. Much has been said about Danaher's system of leg locks, considered to be among the most highly developed and systematic approaches in modern jiu-jitsu. I had personally seen the likes of Eddie Cummings, Garry Tonon, and Gordon Ryan using intricate set-ups to catch leglock attacks, yet these relied on reaping the knee and attacking for heel hooks, practices banned under IBJJF rules and frowned upon in most gyms. 

If you thought that my lesson would somehow be less interesting or technical than had I asked to learn the system Cummings et al. have been using to such great effect, you would be wrong -- very wrong. 

A Painful (But Valuable) Lesson 

What followed a simple request -- to look at the control points and finishing details of one submission, without set-ups or counters to my opponent's escapes -- became one of the most enlightening and fascinating experiences in the decade-plus period I have been practicing jiu-jitsu. Subtle details were revealed and points of key importance reinforced. 

In addition to being one of the most interesting experiences, it was also one of the most painful. Danaher would demonstrate the technique on me before I drilled it with my partner, and I have rarely been in such pain or tapped so quickly to a simple footlock. It wasn't simply painful: I tapped because my foot felt like it would implode and detach itself from my lower leg at the same time. He apologized at times for the suffering that was to follow, but I brushed it off. I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up. I was sure it would be worth it, and I was right. 

We moved swiftly yet steadily through a logical progression of subtle changes to the grips and positioning that continuously refined the overall technique. There was a clearly-planned methodology and systematic approach at work here.

nullAll of this with no forewarning, no preparation: Danaher's readiness to thoroughly teach the crucial details of a relatively simple technique is clear evidence of his deep understanding and knowledge of the mechanics of jiu-jitsu. 

What did I learn? Truthfully, nothing that I hadn't seen before. The devil is in the details of course. Changing which part of my forearm I use to slice the Achilles tendon by an inch. Not pinching my elbow back but taking it to my hip. Covering one foot with the other to prevent my opponent from moving around to my back. Simple stuff, but the kind of thing it's easy to overlook in this era of complicated inverted back-takes. It's the kind of thing people refer to as 'invisible' jiu-jitsu -- it's right there in front of you, but you probably never even noticed.

I hastily scribbled notes in an effort to retain as much of the information as possible, fearful that I would lose any of the precious details that had been passed to me. Looking back over them, I can hear Danaher's soft Kiwi accent breaking the techniques down into their component steps. 

My Private Lesson with John Danaher 

When I told people I had managed to get a private lesson with John, they would look at me with wide eyes and ask about the experience. My answer was always the same: it was worth every mile travelled, every penny spent and every effort made. And should the opportunity come up I would do it all over again.