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Interview With Jay Valko (Valko BJJ)

Jay Valko is a gentleman and a scholar.

Jay Valko gives us insight into the importance of injury prevention, building a cover band, and your beard.

And I think he also talks a bit about Jiu-Jitsu.

Have you ever used jiu jitsu in a self-defense situation?

In a way, both directly and indirectly. Directly, I used BJJ many times to break up fights. I’ve never been attacked and had to defend myself, but twice I caught someone causing trouble in a bar.

The first time a group of friends and I were out to watch a bar fight and one guy started getting rowdy. I was walking out of the bathroom and saw this guy pushing a friend of mine and starting to talk. I happened to be right behind him, so I just grabbed a rear naked choke and waited for the bouncers to escort him out. He froze as soon as I grabbed him. The bouncers saw it all and thanked me after throwing it out.

Another time I had to grab a guy and drag him outside when he lunged at my friend. Once outside, the bouncers made sure he wasn’t allowed back in. Indirectly, having the confidence to know I can handle myself has allowed me to defuse many potentially volatile situations. I would say that confidence is just as important, if not more so, than actual physical ability when it comes to self-defense.

What role does the ego play in jiu jitsu?

Ego is both your best friend and your worst enemy in jiu-jitsu. It all depends on how you use it. For a lot of people, I have to say “leave the ego at the door”, but I also think it’s important to recognize that what keeps us getting our asses kicked day after day is our ego. Ego simply means “self” and since BJJ is an individual sport it is important to always work on your ego.

It’s okay to get beat up and be a little depressed, it’s natural. We’re all competitive people, otherwise we probably wouldn’t be in this sport. However, if your ego or pride causes you to hurt yourself or others, then you have a problem. The fight should be against yourself, not your teammates or even the other guy you’re competing against.

What separates those who excel from those who don’t?

A variety of things. The most important thing is to remember to have fun. For some people, somewhere along the line, BJJ goes from a fun avenue for self-improvement to a chore or a win-or-quit type thing. Enjoy it. Enjoy the exercise, enjoy the friends you make, and enjoy the art. Beyond that, it also depends on how you define “excel”. If you mean competing, it comes down to work ethic, patience, the ability to take a loss (or more), how you manage your nerves, and your natural physical abilities.

However, you can excel in BJJ without competing. Above all, it takes pleasure, patience, constancy and respect for art. So many students get purple belts and think they don’t need to drill or learn the technique anymore. This is a big mistake. As you move up the ranks, you should always treat the art as if you were a beginner and be happy to portray things. It’s also important to remember that BJJ is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to excel, you have to decide to be in it for the long haul, come hell or high water. It will be difficult at times, but as long as you remember to have fun, it will be worth it.

How did you first discover jiu jitsu?

By Royce Gracie. When I was in high school, I was wasting my time with traditional martial arts (no offense to traditional martial artists). Then I started renting the fights on video. I decided to join my high school wrestling team (Clearwater High in Clearwater, Florida) my senior year. Luckily for me, I was able to beat another kid for the vacant 171-pound college spot. I did pretty well for a senior walk-in year, ranked in districts but lost both of my games in regionals. Even though a high school wrestling season only lasts about 3 months, I felt like I knew more about fighting after one wrestling season than after years of martial arts.

When I graduated from high school in 1999, there was no BJJ in the area. I was able to attend a wrestling class taught by Matt Furey in Tampa, which would have actually interested me more at the time because I was more of a Ken Shamrock fan than Royce Gracie (BJJiC: Me too! !), but ultimately the drive was just too far. Fortunately, Eduardo DeLima opened a Gracie Barra school about 45 minutes from my house, so as soon as I could, I started training there. I was very lucky to meet Eduardo and to be one of his first students in America. It completely changed my life.

Are you nervous?

I get a little nervous before a competition; I’m just trying to remember that anxiety and excitement are very similar emotions. So I do my best to turn my anxiety into excitement, use the adrenaline to my advantage, and try to have a good time.

What do you tell potential students?

Honestly, not much. Jiu-jitsu more or less sells itself. I’m just friendly and easy going, I try to create a non intimidating atmosphere and when I sense a new student is nervous I make sure to talk to them and put them at ease. I explain to them that no one is going to hurt them and that they just need to relax. A new student is more likely to get injured than to be injured by someone else.

If you could go back in time, what would you say to yourself as a white belt?

Be patient and compete as much as possible. Also, take advantage of the time when you are not working out. I remember when I was a white/blue belt, I felt like I always needed to practice or someone would let me through. If I could go back now, I would say to myself that most people will quit before they are purple belt and that not getting hurt is the most important thing for longevity.

Jay says slow down, my friend.

How do I know when to promote a student?

It’s a combination of knowing the moves and actually being able to use them. Competition certainly helps, but it’s not the deciding factor. I have a student who has struggled all his life and is just a beast on the mat. I gave him his blue belt after just a month or two of training, he went to the Chicago Open as his first tournament and won his division silver and absolute gold. He regularly beats good purple belts in the gym. That being said, he has been training for so little time that he doesn’t know some basic moves and doesn’t know a lot of advanced moves. While I think he could successfully compete for the purple belt, I can’t give him a purple belt until his BJJ vocabulary has expanded significantly. It must be a mixture of technique and practical application.

At the other extreme, there are guys who are virtual encyclopedias of BJJ theory, but have a harder time getting the moves right in a real situation. You have to find the right balance between the two. I also accommodate other factors, such as age and athletic ability. I don’t expect the same things from a fifty year old who has never trained before and someone who is 25 and has been wrestling all his life.

Who is the best person you have ridden with?

When I was a blue belt, I rode an old-school Carlson black belt named Cassio Cardoso. He made me feel completely helpless on the mat. I was almost a purple belt and had a pretty good guard that a lot of black belts struggled to get past. I remember he went through my guard like it was butter. It’s hard to know how this match would go now that I’m a black belt, so I have to say that since I’m a black belt, the best guy I’ve ridden with is probably Damien Maia. I felt pretty good with him, and it was just a friendly rollover, but once he got the dominance, I was in big trouble.

Who’s the best person you’ve ever faced?

When I was a purple belt, I got a silver medal two years in a row at the Arnold Classic/Gracie World Championships. The first year, I lost in the final to Chris Moriarty 2-0. It was a very competitive game but he managed to sweep me away in the end. The following year I got my ass kicked in the final by Matt Jubera, I don’t know the final score but it was something like 15-2. This is the worst I have ever been beaten in competition. So those are probably the two best guys I’ve competed against. I’ve also beaten some really good guys, when I was a blue belt I beat Ralek Gracie in the 1st US National Jiu-Jitsu tournament in 2002. I think he was only 17 or something at the time. I also beat pro-fighter Brock Larsen twice in NAGA and gave Eric “Red” Schafer his only grappling loss in 2010, but to be fair, that was in the gi, which isn’t not his forte.

When was Jay Valko last hit and with what blow?

In competition, the last time I was submitted was in May 2006 at the NAGA Advanced Division Finals by a guy named Ariel Medina. He got me by bare rear choke. I remember going into the game feeling a little overconfident because I beat him at Arnold’s that year or the year before. He got me pretty quick. I was bowled over so when I saw him enter the absolute division, I signed up as well (there’s that best friend/worst enemy ego thing still). Fortunately, I was able to beat him in the rematch. I don’t know the last time I was called upon in training, but it happens quite often. I think it was Allen Causevic who got me last, with a triangle choke.

Jay and Allen

How many times a week should you train?

I train 5-7 days a week and I’m on the mat 7 days a week unless I’m on vacation, but that’s also my job. I say the minimum for the average person should be twice a week, up to five days a week if your body can handle it. Consistency is what is important. I think it’s better to be twice a week, every week, than to be 5 days a week for one week a month.

What types of activities do you do outside of jiu-jitsu?

I lift pretty hard twice a week; I also train in judo, wrestling, boxing and mma. Outside of training, I read a lot. I’m a big fan of economics and I try to study it as much as possible. I would rank blue belt in econ, but I’m improving. I like economics, politics, philosophy and debating these things. I also trade futures contracts on the Chicago Board of Trade. I’ve collected comics most of my life. I used to play drums but haven’t since I moved to Chicago. Every once in a while I plan on starting an 80s and 90s BJJ cover band. I love road trips, my girlfriend and I have traveled the country many times and so far it’s my favorite form of travel.

Why is your beard so awesome?

I would give my beard a 7 out of 10. Plus my girlfriend forbids me to shave it. If you want to see a 10 out of 10, be sure to attend our Friday night no-gi class. Our no gi instructor is a brown belt named Mike Cornille and he has the most epic beard of all of us.

Many thanks to Jay for taking the time to do this interview!

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