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Interview With Jay Valko (Valko BJJ)
Jay Valko is a gentleman and an expert.
Jay Valko gives some advice on the importance of injury prevention, starting a hip belt, and his beard.
And I think he also has a fair share of Jiu-Jitsu.
Have you ever used jiu jitsu in a self-defense setting?
Kind of, direct and indirect. Honestly, I’ve used BJJ a couple of times to break up fights. I’ve never been attacked in self-defense, but a couple of times I caught someone in trouble in a bar.
The first time some friends and I were out watching the fights at a bar a guy started making noise. I went out of the bathroom and saw this guy pushing my friend and started mouthing. I happened to be right behind him, so I took the bare rear throttle and waited for the speakers to block him. He froze when I grabbed him. The constables saw everything and thanked me after kicking him out.
Another time I caught a guy and took him outside while he was swinging at my friend. Outside the stands were sure he wouldn’t come back in. Indirectly, the confidence of knowing that I could control myself allowed me to prevent some unexpected situations. I would say that confidence is equal to, if not more than, physical strength when it comes to self-defense.
What role does ego play in jiu jitsu?
Ego is your best friend and worst enemy in jiu-jitsu. Everything is for your use. For most people I would say, “Leave the money at the door”, but I think it’s also important to know that what we get back every day kicking our butt is our money. Ego means “self” because BJJ is an individual sport and it’s important to always work within your ego.
There’s nothing wrong with beating yourself up and putting yourself down, it’s natural. We are all competitive and we may not be in this sport. However, if you direct your ego or pride to harm yourself or other people, you will be in trouble. You have to fight against yourself, not your friends or anyone else you’re competing with.
What separates those who don’t?
It’s a variety of things. The most important thing is to remember to have fun. For some people, BJJ is somewhere along the line from a fun way of self-improvement to a chore, a must-win-or-I-get-out type of activity. Be good. Enjoy the exercise, enjoy the friends you make and enjoy the art. Beyond that, it also depends on how you define “important”. If it means competition, it comes down to work ethic, endurance, ability to die (or many), how you handle your muscles, and physical strength.
However, you can excel in BJJ without competition. Above all, fun, patience, consistency and respect for art. So many students get a purple belt and think they’ve stopped digging and learning techniques. This is a big mistake. As you move up the ranks you should always think of art as if you were a novice and be happy to give things back. It’s also important to remember that BJJ is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to be successful you have to commit to it for the long haul, through thick and thin. It takes some effort, but if you remember to have fun it will be worth it.
How did you first get into jiu jitsu?
By Royce Gracie. When I was in high school I was wasting my time on ancient martial arts (no offense to ancient martial artists). So I started to rent 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 171lbs spot available. I was a really good walk-on, I placed at regionals but I missed both of my matches at regionals. Even though the high school wrestling season is only 3 months long, I feel like I know more about wrestling than I do after years of wrestling.
When I graduated high school in 1999, there was no BJJ in the area. I was able to check out a catch wrestling class taught by Matt Furey in Tampa, which I was very interested in at the time because I was a big fan of Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie (BJJiC: Me too!!) , but in the end the drive was too far. Fortunately, Eduardo DeLima opened a Gracie Barra school about 45 minutes from my house, so I was able to start training there. I was very lucky to meet Eduardo and one of his first students in America. It changed my life forever.
Are you scared?
I was a little nervous before the race; I just try to remember that anxiety and excitement are very similar emotions. So, I do my best to channel my anxiety into excitement, use the adrenaline to my advantage, and just try to have a good time.
What would you say to potential students?
Honestly, not much. Jiu-jitsu more or less sells itself. I’m friendly and easy going, I try to provide a non-intimidating atmosphere, and if I know a new student is nervous I know how to talk to them and stay calm. I explain that no one is going to hurt them, they just need to relax. The new model is more likely to hurt himself than to be hurt by someone else.
If you could go back, why talk to yourself as a white belt?
Be patient and compete as much as possible. Also, enjoy the time you’re not training. I remember when I got my white/blue belt, I was ready to train all the time, unless someone asked me to. If I could go back now I would say that most people quit before their purple belt, and being injury free is the key to longevity.
Jay says slow down, buddy.
How do you know when to promote a student?
It’s a combination of knowing the moves and being able to use them. Competition certainly helps, but it is not the deciding factor. I have a student who has wrestled his whole life and is just an animal on the mat. I gave him his blue belt after a month or two of training, he entered the Chicago Open as his first tournament and took silver in his division and gold in in fact. He regularly beats the best purple belts in the gym. That being said, he’s been training for a while and he doesn’t know some basic moves and doesn’t know advanced moves. Although I think he will be successful as a purple belt competitor, I can’t give him a purple belt until he says BJJ enough. Methodology and practical application must be combined.
Some people are virtual encyclopedias of BJJ theory, but it’s harder to pick up the moves in a live situation. You have to find the right balance between the two. I also adjust for other factors, such as age and athletic ability. I don’t think it’s the same for a fifty year old who has never trained before, or a 25 year old who has wrestled all his life.
Who is the best person you’ve ever changed with?
When I was a blue belt I switched with an old school Carlson black belt named Cassio Cardoso. He made me feel bad on the mat. My belt is almost purple and I take very good care of it so many black belts have trouble passing. I remember he went through my guard like butter. It’s hard to know how that match is going to go as I’m a black belt, so I’d say as a black belt the best guy I’ve ever faced is probably Damien Maia. I liked him a lot and it was just a group of friends, but when he took over it made me nervous.
Who is the best person you have ever competed against?
As a purple belt I won a silver medal two years in a row at the Arnold Classic/Gracie Worlds. The first year I lost in the final to Chris Moriarty 2-0. It was a very competitive race but he was able to beat me in the end. The next year I got my butt kicked in the final by Matt Jubera, I don’t know the final score but it was something like 15-2. That was the worst I’ve ever been hit in a match. So, those are probably the two best guys I’ve ever raced with. I’ve beaten some really good guys, when I was belting Ralek Gracie I beat Ralek Gracie in the first American Jiu-jitsu tournament in 2002. I think he was only 17 years old that time. I beat two-time champion Brock Larsen in NAGA, and I gave Eric “Red” Schafer his death in 2010 alone, but to be fair in the gi, not it’s his strong suit.
When was Jay Valko last rejected and why?
In competition the last time I was submitted was in May 2006 in the finals of the NAGA advanced division by a man named Ariel Medina. He grabbed me by the bare throat from behind. I remember going into the match I was very confident because I beat him in the Arnold tournament the year before or so. He was very quick with me. I was disappointed so when I saw he was going through a permanent split I signed up again (there’s the worst best/worst friend ever). Luckily, I was able to beat him in the second match. I’m not sure the last time I was rejected in training, but it happens many times. I think Allen Causevic picked me up last time, 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 what I do. I would say a minimum for the average person should be twice a week, up to five days a week if your body can handle it. Consistency is key. I think it’s better to do it twice a week, every week, than 5 days a week for one week a month.
What kinds of activities do you do outside of jiu-jitsu?
Twice a week I get up; I also train in judo, wrestling, boxing and mma. Besides training, I read a lot. I am interested in economics and try to learn as much as possible. I rank myself as a blue belt in economics, but it gets better. I like economics, politics, philosophy, and debate about these things. I also trade occasionally outside of the Chicago Board of Trade. I have collected comic books most of my life. I used to play drums but I never moved to Chicago. I’ve always thought of starting a BJJ cover group 80’s and 90’s. I love road trips, my girlfriend and I have driven the country many times, and until now it’s my favorite destination.
Why is your beard so awesome?
I would give my beard a 7 out of 10. Also, my girlfriend forbade me to shave. If you want to see 10 out of 10 be sure to come to 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 us all.
Big thanks to Jay for taking the time to do this interview!
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