Interview With Jay Valko (Valko BJJ)

Jay Valko is a gentleman and a scholar.

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

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

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

Sort of, both directly and indirectly. Directly, I’ve used BJJ a couple times to break up fights. I’ve never been attacked and had to defend myself, but twice I’ve grabbed someone who was causing trouble in a bar.

The first time a bunch of friends and I were out watching a fights at a bar and some guy started getting rowdy. I was walking out of the bathroom and I saw this guy push a friend of mine and start mouthing off. 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 the whole thing and thanked me after tossing him out.

Another time I had to grab a guy and take him outside when he took a swing at my friend. Once outside the bouncers made sure he wasn’t allowed back in. Indirectly, having the confidence of knowing I can handle myself has allowed me to defuse several possibly volatile situations. I’d say the confidence is just as, if not more important than the actual physical ability when it comes to self-defense.

What role does ego play in jiu jitsu?

Ego is both your best friend and your worst enemy in jiu-jitsu. It’s all 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 acknowledge that what brings us back day after day of getting our butts kicked is our ego. Ego simply means, “self” and since BJJ is an individual sport, it’s important to always work on your ego.

There’s nothing wrong with getting beat and being a little down on yourself, it’s natural. We’re 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 your teammates or even the other guy you’re competing against.

What separates those who excel from those who do not?

A variety of 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 either a chore or a must-win-or-I’m-gonna-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 in competition, it boils down to work ethic, patience, ability to take a loss (or several), how you handle your nerves, and natural physical ability.

However, you can excel in BJJ without competing. Above all else it takes enjoyment, patience, consistency and respect for the art. So many students get purple belts and think they no longer have to drill or learn technique. This is a big mistake. As you move up the ranks you should still treat the art like you’re a beginner and be happy to rep things out. 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 run, through thick and thin. It will be trying at times, but as long as you remember to have fun it will be well worth it.

How did you first get 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. Luckily for me I was able to beat another kid for the vacant 171lbs varsity spot. I did pretty well for a senior year walk-on, I placed in districts but lost both my matches at regionals. Even though a high school wrestling season is only about 3 months long, I felt like I knew more about fighting after one season of wrestling than after years of martial arts.

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 would have actually been more interested in at the time because I was a 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 luck to meet Eduardo and be one of his first students in America. It completely changed my life.

Do you get nervous?

I do get a little nervous before a competition; 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 do you say to potential students?

Honestly, not much. Jiu-jitsu more or less sells itself. I’m just friendly and easy going, I try to provide a non-intimidating atmosphere and when I sense a new student is nervous I just make sure to talk to them and put them at ease. I explain that no one is going to hurt them and that they just need to relax. A newer student is more likely to hurt themselves 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 you’re not training. I remember when I was white/blue belt, I felt like I always needed to train or else someone would pass me up. If I could go back now I’d tell myself that most people will quit before they’re purple belt and that not getting hurt is the most important thing to longevity.

Jay says slow it down, friend.

How do you 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 wrestled his whole life and is just a beast on the mat. I gave him his blue belt after only a month or two of training, he entered the Chicago Open as his first tournament and took silver in his division and gold in the absolute. He regularly beats good purple belts at the gym. That being said, he’s been training such a short period of time that he doesn’t know some basic moves and doesn’t know many advanced moves. Even though I think he could successfully compete at purple belt, I can’t give him a purple belt until his BJJ vocabulary expands by a large degree. It has to be a mixture of the technique and the practical application.

On the other extreme there’s some guys who are virtual encyclopedias of BJJ theory, but have more difficulty pulling the moves off 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 out of a person who’s fifty years old and has never trained before and someone who’s 25 and has been wrestling their whole life.

Who is the best person you have ever rolled with?

When I was a blue belt I rolled with an old school Carlson black belt named Cassio Cardoso. He made me feel completely helpless on the mat. I was almost purple belt and I had a pretty good guard that many black belts had trouble passing. I remember he went through 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 rolled with is probably Damien Maia. I felt pretty good with him, and it was just a friendly roll, but once he got the dominate 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 finals to Chris Moriarty 2-0. It was a very competitive match but he was able to sweep me at the end. The next year I got my butt kicked in the finals by Matt Jubera, I don’t know the final score but it was something like 15-2. That was the worst I ever got beat in competition. So, those are probably the two best guys I’ve competed against. I’ve beat 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 he was only 17 or something at the time. I’ve also beaten pro-fighter Brock Larsen twice at NAGA and I gave Eric “Red” Schafer his only 2010 grappling loss, but to be fair it was in the gi, which is not his strong suit.

When was Jay Valko tapped last and with what move?

In competition the last time I was submitted was in May 2006 in the NAGA advanced division finals by a guy named Ariel Medina. He got me by rear naked choke. I remember going into the match I was a little over confident because I had beaten him at the Arnold’s either that year or the year before. He got me pretty quick. I was upset so when I saw him enter the absolute division I signed up as well (there’s that best friend/worst enemy ego thing again). Fortunately, I was able to beat him in the rematch. I’m not sure the last time I was tapped in training, but it happens fairly often. I think it was Allen Causevic who last got me, with a triangle choke.

Jay and Allen

How many times a week should you train?

I train 5-7 days a week and am on the mat 7 days a week unless I’m on vacation, but it’s also my job. I say 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’s 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 kinds 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. Aside from training, I read a lot. I’m an economics enthusiast and try to study it as much as possible. I’d rank myself at blue belt in econ, but getting better. I like econ, politics, philosophy, and debating these things. I also trade futures out of the Chicago Board of Trade. I’ve been collecting comic books most my life. I used to play drums but haven’t since moving to Chicago. Every so often I consider starting a BJJ 80’s and 90’s cover band. I love road trips, my girlfriend and I have driven cross country a few times and so far that’s my favorite form of travel.

Why is your beard so awesome?

I’d 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 us all.

Thanks so much to Jay for taking the time to do this interview!

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