Leo Kirby Interview

For those of you that don’t know, Leo Kirby is a man on a mission, to spread the gospel according to Marcelo. He is setting up his own gym under the Marcelo Garcia BJJ Association as we speak and has already taken gold at the Pan Ams using the main man’s game plan. Competitor, coach, innovator and all round good guy, ladies and gentlemen, I give you…….Leo Kirby.Another MEGA interview from the Fighting Photographer!

For those of you that don’t know, Leo Kirby is a man on a mission, to spread the gospel according to Marcelo. He is setting up his own gym under the Marcelo Garcia BJJ Association as we speak and has already taken gold at the Pan Ams using the main man’s game plan. Competitor, coach, innovator and all round good guy, ladies and gentlemen, I give you…….Leo Kirby.

CF: Leo, good to finally meet you, I have heard much about you and have been reading your web page. . I heard you just got your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brown belt, congratulations. How did that come about?

LEO: Thanks Carl. Yes, Darren Currie and I have been exchanging information for a couple of years and he asked me if I would be interested in doing a page for his website (www.combatsport.co.uk) and I told him I would. I had a psychology professor in college that told us teachers teach because they like to show how much they know. He is probably right. I am one of the few people in the BJJ community who will fully admit to having an ego, so I guess that is part of the reason I was happy to do it. But I honestly believe that the free exchange of information is great for the sport.

Getting the brown belt was great for a couple of reasons. I received it after winning my division at the Pan Ams and I got it from Edson Diniz who had won the BJJ World Championship in 1999. It meant a lot to get it based, at least partially, on performance in competition. And it was great to get it from someone who still competes at top levels all over the world. In the same Pan Am tournament Edson lost to Marcelo Garcia in the finals.

CF: Lets take you right back to the beginning of your martial arts career, where and when did you start training?

LEO: I started training when I was 18, way back in 1979. My first instructor was a Viet Nam vet, Mike Hurst, and taught a pretty good style of Karate. When I say that I mean that he taught us to keep our hands up, use basic moves, not try to leap in the air, spin 3 times and kick someone in the head. And he really separated street self-defense from the dojo. Low kicks only, groin kicks were allowed, etc. Actually in almost 30 years in martial arts that was the only place I trained where we were allowed to kick in the groin when we sparred. Protection or no protection it still hurt. But we got really good at blocking with our knee.

I trained with him and his top student, Pat McWhorter, for about 15 years and received a 4th degree black belt in a system called Kempo Jui-jitsu. It was a combination of karate and classical Jui-jitsu. We did some crazy things. At first we were part of Rod Sacharnoski’s Juko-Kai International Association. These are the guys you still see on T.V. taking strikes in the throat, getting hit with boards, etc.

We left them a few years later and began training under Taiki Oyata. This is the guy that Dillman took all of his stuff from. Dillman was a much better sales man than Oyata though and now everyone thinks he invented it. Oyata taught everything from the touch strikes, to the Tuite system of joint locks to the idea of the hidden movements in Kata that Dillman talks about.

It was crazy but I have to say it was fun at the same time. It’s more fun now to look back and realize all of the things we used to believe.

CF: So you came from a traditional background, it’s hard to believe that we used to do that stuff prior to BJJ isn’t it. What are the main differences, for you?

LEO: The main difference is that this is real. In 1991 I was traveling and had not trained for a couple of months and stopped at a gym in Denver. I was lucky enough to walk into a gym owned by Clarence Thatch. Clarence’s father had been a professional boxer and Clarence taught JKD with a strong emphasis on boxing and kickboxing. He was one of Bang Ludwig’s early coaches.

So I asked him if I could train and he just said, “Sure.” He didn’t ask me about my rank, what I had done before, or anything about my background. Probably my first experience of a guy who really understood how to leave his ego at the door. Well, my ego was right there with me like always. And I will never forget that day. He had twelve students in that class. We put on 16 oz boxing gloves and sparred and every one of them beat me senseless. That is the day I learned the difference in training in a sport-based system against a resisting opponent and what I had been doing. My black belt ranks and certificates meant nothing.

I ended up staying in Denver for three months just to train with those guys.

CF: How did you get into BJJ?

LEO: Well that is sort of a continuation of the previous story I guess. That happened in 1991. My brother lived in California and I left Denver to visit him. But for a couple of years I had been seeing ads in black belt magazine about this Gracie family that had been undefeated for over 60 years. And a few months before I began traveling my friend and training partner, Tim Fickes, had sent me a copy of Gracies in Action. So when I was in California I called the Gracie Academy in Torrance and scheduled a private with Rorian. After the private I went to the group class that Royce was teaching. There were three guys in the group class and two would roll while the other guy would rest. We did that for probably two hours. Just like in Denver with the kick boxers, these guys destroyed me on the ground.

It was an eye opening experience. Rorian’s class was great and he taught me the UPA escape as I tried as hard as I could to hold him down. I thought it was magic.

The only downer was what happened when I was leaving and it actually chased me away from BJJ for the next 10 years. I asked Royce at the end of class what they did for standup and he said. . . And I quote: “What’s to punch? You make a fist and swing.”

Now, after my experience with Clarence Thatch in Denver this was the wrong thing to say. I wanted to do both grappling and standup.

I went back to my home in Illinois where I opened a gym in Charleston and we got rid of all of the things we used to do in traditional martial arts and started kick boxing and grappling. Me and the friend that I mentioned before, Tim Fickes, just figured out what we could on our own with no coach. Tim now owns an MMA gym in Carbondale, Illinois. The next year the UFC started and it was cool to watch Royce on T.V. after I had met him and taken his class the year before. Then in 1995 I moved to Miami and had the opportunity to find a real coach.

But I wasn’t interested in BJJ because they did not understand the value of the standing game, so I started training with Bart Vale in Shoofighting. You hear a lot of negative things about Bart but I trained with him for 5 years and loved the guy. Funny, personable, didn’t worry about what people said about him and had nothing bad to say about anyone. And I think he was an innovator. He was doing Shootfighting events in Miami before anyone was doing MMA down here.

And he always said that the NHB events were going to be outlawed and he felt that Shootfighting would be acceptable because of the rules. That was his goal. Turns out he was right with the sanctioning of MMA. Maybe he was a little ahead of his time.

But those were fun days. Bart and some of his instructors were trying to figure out what rules would work. I actually fought in a Shootfighting event where you could strike to the face but you would be disqualified if you drew blood. How crazy was that?

I trained with Bart for 5 years and then moved from Miami to Broward County a few miles north and thought I would see what else was out there. I found a BJJ gym close to me that was owned by a purple belt at the time, Luis Gutierrez. By then the BJJ gyms were teaching stand up and it seemed like a good fit. That is where I really began learning the technique of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and I fell in love with the sport.

CF: What areas of Jiu Jitsu interest you the most?

LEO: I think just getting better at my game, continuing to compete as long as I can, coaching my students and my son.

CF: I am told that you compete at most of the tournaments that your son competes at; do you think it is important, as a father and a coach, to lead by example?

LEO: I think it is important as a father but also as a coach to lead by example. I think a lot of coaches do not compete because they are afraid they might lose face in front of their students if they lose. This is the dark side of the ego in my opinion.

I don’t compete as often as my son but I try to compete 3 or 4 times a year. As far as my son, he competes in everything he can. He likes it and I think it is important. One of the things Marcelo Garcia told me is that you need to compete at every opportunity because that will make your performance in competition the same as in the gym. I think that is great advice and as long as my son is interested I will try to help him do that. He has had tons of competition experience in the last two years because of that advice.

CF: Tell us a little about your son Matt.

LEO: Well, Matt is doing really well. He is 15 and I think he started training when he was 10. He is 6’ tall now and 185 lbs. I started coaching him myself two years ago. I was really surprised in the first tournament how good he was because he never seemed to take it seriously. He won 2 divisions and I think had 5 triangle submissions. In a tournament he turns it up. I am not saying he gets serious, he has as much fun competing as he does in the gym, but he really goes hard. He was ranked #2 in Florida last year and I think ranked #9 in the country for kids in his division.

I didn’t know how he would do once he got into the teens division, but he won his first tournament and then won gold in the Pan Ams even though he was only 15 and the division was for 16 and 17 year olds.

I’m very proud of him but I don’t push him. He has interests outside of BJJ and that is good. I only push him to train harder prior to a tournament. The World Championships for teens is in California in August and I am planning to take him.

CF: Who do you look up to in terms of good role models for BJJ?

LEO: Marcelo Garcia is my role model. In the last couple of years I have gotten to know him and his wife and they are both great people.

Marcelo is a great teacher, a great competitor and a great guy. Isn’t that what you want in a Role Model?

But I am going to give you a scoop here. BJJ is not his first passion. He told me he is good at Jiu-jitsu but he is great at video games.

Darren Currie is also a role model for me. He is almost as old as I am, he still competes and does very well, and we are very much the same in the way we look at things.

Last year I was trying to decide if I was going to continue to compete and he said something that convinced me that I should. He said he didn’t mind losing to someone else, but he didn’t want to beat himself. I think of that every time I question whether or not I want to enter a tournament.

CF: What are your views on what makes a good instructor/coach?

LEO: First of all share everything. Another reason I admire Marcelo. He puts his entire game out there for people to study and then when they can defend it he just makes changes. I think you saw that in ADCC this year. Nothing will help you improve like teaching your students how to beat you.

I am part of an email group that includes Darren, Matt Kirtley, Jeff Rockwell and a couple of other guys. We exchange information constantly and I think that helps all of us.

Secondly, understand that everyone has an ego and don’t try to hide that or deny it. Try to bring out the positive side of that and keep the negative side from being dominant.

From a coach’s point of view what I mean is this: If we are doing our job we should strive to make our students better than we are. But often an instructor will stop rolling with his students when they begin to challenge him on the mat. This is the dark side of the ego. The instructor does not want to lose in front of his students. But I think it just makes him better to put himself on the line.

Third, understand that everyone learns differently. There is no magic answer. Some people need more repetition, some people need more drilling, don’t get caught up in all of the white noise about the best method of teaching.

But most importantly, have fun. This is not rocket science and we are not trying to change the world. We are rolling around on the ground. Some people take this way too seriously.

CF: Do you teach at all?

LEO: Yes. Me and my training partner, John Davis, have been training together, studying Marcelo’s game and teaching his things for almost three years now in a training group on Saturday mornings. We also teach the regular adult classes once or twice a week.

CF: How do you keep your students and yourself motivated?

LEO: Well as I said before, first and foremost have fun. As for me, I always like to work on new things after a while. For those people who have to have an issue about everything you can get caught up in all of the “fundamentals vs. latest technique from Brazil” argument.

I don’t listen to that. Sometimes I like to improve my arm bar from closed guard, but sometimes I want to learn how to finish a choke with a front roll. This keeps it fun for me and I think for my students also.

CF: How has BJJ evolved since you started? There seem to be big name grapplers being beaten by home grown talent so what do you think of the standard now as a whole?

LEO: Well, this is interesting and sort of the same point I made in the last question. I went to a Rigan Machado seminar recently and he said he tries to keep up on all of the latest techniques. He says the new guys have really improved the sport and that as a coach he needs to know their game.

Coming from Rigan that is a powerful statement.

I think the standard keeps getting higher because of the new talent, because of great wrestlers, because of innovators like Eddie Bravo and great coaches like Lloyd Irvin doing things their way regardless of what people say. I think it is all great for BJJ.

CF: Following on from that then, I have read several times about the word Brazilian being dropped and just calling it Jiu Jitsu, even to the point of calling it American Jiu Jitsu because the American style is different to that of the Brazilians. What is your opinion?

LEO: I think that is crazy. Maybe it is my traditional background but I am a firm believer in giving respect to those who have earned it and giving back to the sport.

Rorian Gracie changed the world of Martial Arts when he developed the UFC tournament and those of us who came from a traditional background watched his little brother destroy everything we believed in. Some of us couldn’t handle that and kept doing traditional martial arts, talking about the “street” and “realistic self defense” vs. sport.

But many of us moved on.

I respect what Rorian did and I train in Brazilian Jui-jitsu and I always will. If someone wants to call it something else that is up to him. But I won’t buy in.

CF: Have you ever trained outside of the USA? Any plans to?

LEO: No. I plan to visit Great Britain next year and train with Darren and the Combat Base guys, and want to train in Brazil sometime. But Marcelo is now in the U.S. so it isn’t as important as it once was. Also, in South Florida we have many great black belts here to train with.

CF: There are only the 5 belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu including the white, so you tend to spend a bit of time in that belt, how would you describe each belt?

LEO: White: You are obviously trying to understand position and trying to figure out why nothing seems to work against someone who is a blue belt or above.

Blue: You are beginning to understand the importance of position. Probably developing some things you are good at, discarding things you think will not work for you, things that you will often come back to later.

Purple: You have probably developed what you consider “your” game, but you are still looking at a lot of different things. Sometimes you think you know what you are doing, sometimes you don’t.

Brown: I think this is where you start refining your game and also go back to work on some of the things that you are not happy with. A basic sweep, for example, that you know you should be better at. Also, teaching the system to others should be important to you. Black: Well I am not a black belt yet, but I think it is a great responsibility if you respect the art. I would not want to be a black belt if I didn’t think I was ready for it.

CF: How do you find all the politics in BJJ, does it affect you at all?

LEO: Funny question. Someone once said that man is a political animal by nature. You cannot escape the politics. Either you will have it at the organizational level with the leaders, or in your gym…probably both. I think you learn to live with it and if you feel that things are not right for you, you move on. Pretty simple.

I think the only real danger is when we deny it. I have learned to stay away from an association or gym that says, ”Come train with us. We have no egos and no politics.” That’s just silly. Me thinks they protesteth too much.

CF: Name some of the better people you have trained with. What differentiates the better ones from the other ones?

LEO: Marcelo of course. I have attended 5 seminars and taken 5 private lessons with him. Me and my training partner, John Davis, have really studied his game for the last 2 years. Marcelo says we will be his first students through seminars only.

I attended a class and did a private lesson with Robson Moura. Fantastic technique. One of those mythical 140lb guys that you always hear about who can wrestle the entire class and tap everyone out without breaking a sweat. But he is not a myth.

Edson Diniz. Edson started teaching at our gym when we lost our instructor and really motivated me and my son. If it hadn’t been for him we would not have made the trip to California to compete in the Pan Ams. It was a great experience.

And what separated these people from other people that I have trained with? I think it is very simple: They have all competed at the top levels of the sport. It isn’t technique that I am talking about either, though that is great. It is the attitude that a world-class competitor, at least in my experience, brings.

They do not get caught up in all of the questions about why they do things a certain way and why other people do not. I have paid $200.00 for seminars where you spent at least part of the time listening to a speech on “We do things this way because…”

In all of the seminars and privates I did with Marcelo he never talked about other gyms, never discussed why his BJJ was better than someone else’s, never talked about basic moves vs. “new techniques.” He was there to train. Same with Edson and the same with Robson. I admire that. They just don’t seem to care about all of those things.

CF: So, after a decent amount of success in your chosen area, any ambitions left to fulfill?

LEO: Well, it would be great to compete in the World Championships in the Master’s division.

I also want to help my son go as far as he can in the sport.

But my focus right now is on building our gym in South Florida under Marcelo Garcia. Right now we are finishing discussions on becoming the first gym in Marcelo’s association. That would be a great honor and I think we have all of the details worked out.

Then I will put all of my efforts into supporting him and trying to help his association grow, building a competition team that will compete under Alliance, and continue to train under Marcelo.

CF: Leo, many thanks for the interview

LEO: My pleasure

Check out www.combatsport.co.uk and click on Leo’s Page for more info.

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About the author

Carl Fisher