Courtesy of sherdog.com:
Not too many people entrenched deeply in the world of mixed martial arts are as interesting as John Danaher. He can squeeze into one sitting topics like Hobbesian political theory, division of labor in economics and paleontology.
The New Zealand émigré holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as well as a Masters degree in Philosophy from an Ivy League school. Not that the two are diametrically opposed, but Danaher seems convinced they are much more congruent than most would believe. One may wonder what philosophy and jiu-jitsu have in common. The Renzo Gracie protégé makes a compelling argument that has sold many a fighter and even more jiu-jitsu players.
“[Fighting] is a problem solving activity, and the people who do best at it tend to be people with rational, inquiring minds,” Danaher says. “And so, the relationship between philosophy and mathematics has to do more with human beings using their rational faculties to solve problems, rather than, in the case of jiu-jitsu, blind strength, anger and aggression.”
It seems simple enough. Therein lies Danaher’s brilliance. In talking to a number of fighters and other trainers who have crossed paths with the man, his ability to break down the grappling game to its sheer fundamentals and explain them in a way that “just makes sense” has become a recurring theme.
Danaher, a self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive, readily admits he gets obsessed by things that intrigue him. However, he does not concur with those that might believe his mission to master the unmasterable consumes his life.
“I still think that the greatest thing a man can study is philosophy and mathematics, greater even than jiu-jitsu,” says Danaher with a wry smile. “So it’s a big part of my life, but not all of it.”
Gracie begs to differ. Danaher remains his most prolific instructor and regularly spends upwards of 12 to 14 hours per day at his Manhattan academy teaching classes and private sessions. Gracie hinted at Danaher’s unquenchable thirst.
“When Johnny first came in here, he was like 250 [pounds]; he was a real monster. He was lifting weights every day, you know, like a bodybuilder,” Gracie says. “Now, he does jiu-jitsu every day; we can’t get him out of here. I think he would come in on Christmas if we would let him.”
Danaher has garnered a modest bit of attention since he began working with UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. Though he has been well known within the upper echelon of the jiu-jitsu world, he can thank St. Pierre, who never misses a chance to heap acclaim on his good friend, for the increased notoriety he has received.
“He’s one of my best friends in the world,” St. Pierre says, “and he is the smartest man I have ever met. John is the best. The way he trains me, for my body type and my abilities, his style, for me, is the best.”
Recognized as one of the more intelligent people working in the industry, Greg Jackson — Danaher’s partner in training St. Pierre — marvels at his colleague.
“He has, by far, the best analytical mind I have come across in the sport of mixed martial arts,” Jackson says.
That analytical mind had a lot to do with Danaher deciding to pick up jiu-jitsu at the late age of 28. While working his way through graduate school as a bouncer, a friend at Columbia University who was half his size nearly choked him out after taking a few classes with “these crazy Brazilians.” Danaher was immediately fascinated. While working in the bars, he also was surprised to see how many of the altercations ended up on the ground, and the bouncers who had trained in some sort of grappling art were much more adept at handling themselves in the close quarters of the pub.
“I’d seen wrestling in the Olympic Games, and I had a very low opinion of it,” says Danaher, a self-described social misfit. “It was kind of like a homoerotic sport where guys just grab each other, whereas in a real fight, a guy would just punch the other guy and knock him out and it would be over, right? Bruce Lee would just sock him in the head.”
His rational, inquiring mind was piqued, and he soon made his way to the Gracie academy to begin his journey. Danaher muddled through his lessons, mostly seeing it as the acquisition of another skill for his bouncing job but not something he truly enjoyed. The turning point came when UFC fighters Matt Serra and Ricardo Almeida left the academy to start their own schools, leaving Gracie in need of some new instructors. Danaher’s name surfaced, and, according to Gracie, he has been there almost every day since.
“I think it’s fair to say that, when you start teaching something, you’re expected to master it, and, like I said, I tend to be a rather obsessive personality type; and I became more and more engrossed in the study of it, and here I am today,” Danaher says. “I teach it every day.”
Like most successful teachers, Danaher continues to study his subject. He has become a proponent of making jiu-jitsu training more of a niche and draws a favorable comparison between economic theory and grappling instruction, all while understanding what just will not work for his MMA students.
“So much of this game comes down to small details, and the way to accrue expertise in anything is always to specialize,” Danaher says. “Look at economics, the theory of division of labor. If you want to have a skilled workforce, you divide the task of building a car up into an assembly line, and each of those guys along the line has an area of expertise. As a result, their expertise within that domain is substantially better than a guy who just works on cars in general. So it would make sense to specialize your training if you want to be really good at something. In mixed martial arts, you’re asked to be an expert in a substantial number of domains; that’s why it’s a difficult sport.”
A short anecdote about a recent trip Danaher spent with St. Pierre sums up his obsessive nature.
“I consider myself fairly well read on most subjects, and, to my absolute shock, Georges turned out to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of paleontology,” Danaher says. “Now paleontology is one of the great gaps in my knowledge. I really don’t know that much about it to be perfectly honest. And as we roomed together, he just impressed me more and more with his knowledge of paleontology. I was horrified that I knew so little about this, so, of course, I immediately started reading. I dove into a book — books, books, books — and now I’m obsessed by it, and now all we talk about is Allosaurus and Albertosaurus.”
It’s not difficult to understand why Danaher has become so proficient at his chosen art. There is nothing, it seems, he will not venture after full bore should it tickle his fancy. If you ask guys like St. Pierre, Gracie and Jackson, the MMA and jiu-jitsu worlds should be thankful for his compulsive nature.