Jay Valko is a gentleman and a scholar.

Jay Valko gives us some insights on the importance of injury prevention, starting a cover band, and his beard.

And I think it also talks a lot about Jiu-Jitsu.

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

Something like that, both directly and indirectly. Directly, I have used BJJ a couple of times to break up fights. They never attacked me and I had to defend myself, but twice I grabbed someone who was causing trouble in a bar.

The first time a group of friends and I were watching a fight in a bar, a guy started to get loud. I was coming out of the bathroom and I saw this guy push a friend of mine and start talking bad. I was right behind him so I grabbed a bare butt choke and waited for the gorillas to escort him. It froze as soon as I grabbed it. The gorillas saw it all and thanked me after I kicked it out.

Another time I had to grab a boy and pull him out when he hit my friend. Once outside, the gorillas made sure he was not allowed to enter again. Indirectly, having the confidence of knowing that I can handle myself has only allowed me to defuse several possibly volatile situations. I would say that confidence is just as important, if not more, than actual physical ability when it comes to self defense.

What role does the ego play in jiu jitsu?

The ego is both your best friend and your worst enemy in jiu-jitsu. It’s about how you use it. For many people I have to say, “leave the ego at the door,” but I also think it’s important to recognize that what brings us back day after day from getting kicked in the butt is our ego. Ego simply means “me” and since BJJ is an individual sport, it is important to always work on your ego.

There is nothing wrong with taking a beating and being a little depressed about yourself, it is natural. We are all competitive people or we probably wouldn’t be in this sport. However, if your ego or pride leads you to hurt yourself or other people, then you have a problem. The fight should be against yourself, not against your teammates or even the other guy you are competing against.

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

Several things. The most important thing is to remember to have fun. For some people, somewhere along the line, BJJ goes from being a fun avenue for self-improvement to being a chore or something like “you must win or I’m going to quit.” Enjoy it. Enjoy exercise, enjoy the friends you make, and enjoy art. Beyond that, it also depends on how you define “excel”. If you mean competition, it comes down to work ethic, patience, the ability to take a loss (or several), the way you handle your nerves, and natural physical ability.

However, you can excel at BJJ without competing. Above all, you need enjoyment, patience, consistency and respect for art. Many students get purple belts and think they no longer have to drill or learn technique. This is a big mistake. As you rise through the ranks, you still have to treat art like a beginner and be happy to depict things. It is also important to remember that BJJ is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to stand out you have to decide to be in it for the long term, through thick and thin. Sometimes it will be difficult, but as long as you remember to have fun it will be worth it.

How were you first exposed to jiu jitsu?

Through 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. Fortunately for me, I was able to beat another kid for the vacant 171-pound varsity spot. I did quite well in the last year, I placed myself in districts but lost both of my games in regionals. Even though a high school fighting season lasts only about 3 months, I felt like I knew more about fighting after a fighting season than after years of martial arts.

When I graduated from high school in 1999, there was no BJJ in the area. I got to see a wrestling class taught by Matt Furey in Tampa, which actually would have interested me more at the time because he was more of a Ken Shamrock fan than Royce Gracie (BJJiC: Me too !!), but in the end the road went 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 be one of his first students in America. It changed my life completely.

You get nervous

I get a little nervous before a competition; I’m just trying to remember that anxiety and emotion 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 do you say to potential students?

Honestly, not much. Jiu-jitsu pretty much sells itself. I’m just friendly and easy going, I try to provide a non-intimidating environment and when I feel like a new student is nervous I just make sure to talk to him and reassure him. I explain that no one is going to hurt them and that they just need to relax. A new student is more likely to hurt himself than to be hurt 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, enjoy the time that you are not training. I remember when I was a white / blue belt, I felt like I always needed to train or else someone would let me pass. If I could go back now, I would tell myself that most people will quit smoking before they become a purple belt and that not getting hurt is the most important thing for longevity.

Jay says slow down, buddy.

How do you know when to promote a student?

It is a combination of knowing the movements and being able to use them. Competition certainly helps, but it is not the deciding factor. I have a student who fought his whole life and is just a beast on the mat. I gave him his blue belt after just a month or two of training, he entered the Chicago Open as his first tournament and took silver in his division and gold in seniors. He usually wins good purple belts in the gym. That being said, you’ve been training for such a short period of time that you don’t know a few basic moves and you don’t know a lot of advanced moves. Although I think he could successfully compete in the purple belt, I can’t give him a purple belt until his BJJ vocabulary is greatly expanded. It has to be a mixture of technique and practical application.

At the other extreme, there are some guys who are virtual encyclopedias of BJJ theory, but have a harder time making 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 expect the same things from a person who is fifty years old and has never trained before and someone who is 25 and has been fighting his whole life.

Who is the best person you have shot with?

When I was a blue belt I dated an old school Carlson black belt named Cassio Cardoso. It 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 had trouble getting through. I remember it passed my guard like it was butter. It’s hard to know how that match would go now that I’m a black belt, so I have to say that since I’ve been a black belt, the best guy I’ve shot with is probably Damien Maia. I felt pretty good about him, and it was just a friendly roll, but once he got the dominance position, I was in big trouble.

Who is the best person you have ever competed against?

When I was a purple belt, I got 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 match but he was able to sweep me away in the end. The following year Matt Jubera kicked my butt in the final, I don’t know the final score, but it was something like 15-2. That was the worst thing they ever beat me in a competition. So those are probably the two best guys I’ve ever raced against. I’ve beaten some pretty good guys too, when I was a blue belt I beat Ralek Gracie in the 1st American National Jiu-jitsu Tournament in 2002. I think I was only 17 or so at the time. I also defeated professional wrestler Brock Larsen twice at NAGA and gave Eric “Red” Schafer his only loss in 2010, but to be fair it was in the gi, which is not his strong suit.

When was the last time Jay Valko was tapped and with what movement?

In competition, the last time I was featured was in May 2006 in the NAGA Advanced Division Finals by a guy named Ariel Medina. Caught me by naked butt choke. I remember entering the game I was a bit confident because I had beaten him at Arnold that year or the year before. It got me pretty quick. I was upset, so when I saw him go into the absolute division, I also signed up (there is the best friend / worst enemy ego again). Fortunately, I was able to beat him in the rematch. I’m not sure the last time I was tapped on a workout, but it happens quite often. I think it was Allen Causevic who caught me last time, 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 it’s my job too. I say the minimum for an average person should be twice a week, up to five days a week if your body can handle it. Consistency is the important thing. I think it is better to be there twice a week, every week, than to be five days a week for one week a month.

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

I lift pretty hard twice a week; I also train judo, wrestling, boxing, and mma. Apart from training, I read a lot. I am a fan of economics and try to study it as much as possible. I would qualify as a blue belt in economics, but improving. I like economics, politics, philosophy, and debating these things. I also trade futures on the Chicago Board of Trade. I have been collecting comics most of my life. I used to play drums, but haven’t since I moved to Chicago. Every now and then I consider forming a band from 80s and 90s BJJ covers. I love road trips, my girlfriend and I have driven cross country a few times and so far that is my favorite way to travel.

Why is your beard so impressive?

I would give my beard a 7 out of 10. Also, my girlfriend forbids me to shave. If you want to see 10 out of 10, be sure to attend our no-gi class on Friday nights. 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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