Australia · International

When It’s Time to Travel

I’ve spent a relaxing day at home, enjoying the Sydney sun as it shines through the windows. The howling wind outside is nothing to me but a soundtrack–and a no-frills way to speed up the laundry drying process.

I’ve got the rest of the clothes that need to go in my bag out on the drying rack and by the end of today everything but the last-minute items will be packed and ready to go. That gives me one more day to enjoy a chilly Sydney because by the time I return summer will be well on its way.

It’s been almost three full months of winter in Sydney now and my first season of its kind. In truth, I have been actively avoiding winters and hadn’t experienced one in nearly a decade. Really, it hasn’t been so bad–this is Australia after all.

I’ve had plenty to keep me busy, from boxing at the gym and hanging out with Couchsurfers to practicing my Mandarin with language exchange buddies and of course keeping up with my online teaching and writing work.

That being said, Sydney Spring is being quite a tease and I’m so eager to have warm weather again that I’ll be flying off to find it.

The first stop will be Manila, where I know that burst of hot air awaits as soon as I step out of the airport. Then immediately on to Malta, with a connecting flight in Dubai. That will be nearly two days of travel, followed by four days on a beautiful Mediterranean island in Autumn.

After that, back to the Philippines for a long weekend at the beach and a few weeks in the city. Fingers crossed the monsoon will have bid the islands farewell by then so we can be soaking in the pool and not on the streets.

To everyone who has made these arctic months an enjoyable and challenging learning experience, especially the coaches and training partners at Darkside, my very patient mentors in Mandarin, the lovely folks from Couchsurfing, and our friendly new housemates, thank you! I’ll be back and eager for beach volleyball and surfing when your city gets a little warmer.

Australia · My MMA Journey

My Amateur MMA Journey, Part 18: Why I Box

Recently, in my journey of exploring mixed-martial arts, I’ve switched from doing a bit of everything to going back to where I started and focusing on boxing.

I’ve done so for a few reasons. For one, because I’m still jet-setting and haven’t yet put down roots anywhere, I don’t want to buy gear that won’t fit in my travel bag–like shin pads or a gi. Of course, I could rent or borrow these training necessities, but I have got another reason to stick with boxing for now.

When I was doing a combination of boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA at Darkside Gym, I had to learn a lot of techniques from scratch and most importantly find my footing in order to hold my own when sparring.

When it comes to footwork, though, trying to learn the boxing, Muay Thai, and various MMA stances all at once was pretty confusing. Back to the basics, then: I’ve been keeping my focus on boxing and there’s still quite a bit of work to be done.

Last week, I met a traveler who turned out to be a veritable martial arts encyclopedia. I brought him along to the gym, where he observed that my stance was “a bit stiff”.

He noted that the weakness of a boxer is the legs and even recommended dancing as a way to loosen up the feet, improve balance, and get into the punching rhythm. Who knows, I might take that advice seriously.

For now, though, I’ve taken the time to list up seven solid reasons to box.

Taking up boxing can mean all sorts of things. It may be as simple as finding a gym where a trainer or partner holds up focus pads and you learn how to hit them in a number of different ways while toning up your arms and abs.

It could represent a fun new way for you to stay fit or it might lead you to challenge yourself by putting in that mouth guard, donning the headgear, and braving the ring. However far you go–from boxercise to amateur competitions–there are plenty of possible motivators.

1. Getting Out

As soon as I started working entirely from home back in the Philippines, I knew I needed to take exercise out of the house. At the time, all I had to do was walk around the block to get to an Elorde Gym. Now it’s a ten-minute jog to Darkside, which takes me away from my computer, gets me some fresh air, and puts me in a social environment where I’m learning from the trainers, practicing with partners, and getting a solid workout.

2. Burning Calories

I dislike calorie talk, honestly. When I think of health and fitness, I think of quality food and active living. Both eating and exercising should be enjoyable experiences so turning either into calorie calculations tends to spoil the fun a bit.

That being said, restricting and burning calories is a self-evident way to lose weight and it has its time and place. In fact, I did a little bit of it last year when I was casually cutting weight for a jiu-jitsu competition.

If you care for the numbers, the average person burns over 300 calories per hour on the punching bag and 600 to 800 in the ring while sparring, which brings it right up to the top of the sports-that-burn-the-most-calories list.

3. Releasing Stress

While any form of exercise will release endorphins, there’s a special kind of pleasure that comes from punching things really hard. So often in life, it’s hard to find a truly good reason to hit anything or anyone. On the contrary, it’s typically quite ill-advised–and rightly so.

But in a boxing class, when you’re told to go all out, you do. And you have a reason now: you’re burning those calories and honing a new skill. Whether or not you’re mentally taking out that pent-up frustration on your boss as a bonus feature is totally up to you. When you’re sparring and you punch someone else, it’s because they want you to. You’re helping them and they’re helping you: that’s how you learn.

4. Gaining Confidence

While boxing doesn’t really apply as self-defense training, it certainly does the job of giving you the confidence you need to handle yourself in a confrontation. Along with better body image and posture, boxing redefines what you are physically and mentally capable of and will help you carry yourself more confidently through every part of life.

5. Learning a New Skill

Learning is fun. Starting off with zero knowledge of something–be it a language, a sport, or any other skill–and getting the hang of it through practice and training is one of the most satisfying feats of life. It’s an excellent social experience as well: you connect to the people around you because everyone has something to share or learn.

6. Pushing Your Resilience

Boxing is tough on quite a few levels. For one, it’s a very complex sport and when you start out you’ll find the number of things you have to pay attention to a bit flooring. There’s footwork, body positioning, rotation, and of course proper punch throwing, and training your body to bring each of these elements together naturally takes time.

Once you move on to sparring, you’ll have to add in reading your partner so you can block, slip, or eat their punches while setting yourself up to break their defense–and do all of that under the tension of being in a fight.

Initially, you’ll have to train yourself to simply keep your eyes open when a glove is coming at your face. From there, you’ll learn to watch, preempt, and counter a strike. Your body will toughen to the blows–as will your mind to the struggle–and you’ll walk away with more resilient and capable of handling what life throws your way.

7. Getting Competitive

Besides enjoying the challenge of learning a new skill, and whether or not you ever sign up to compete in an amateur boxing ring, your competitive side is likely what will push you through much of the training. At least that’s how it is for me.

I’m still not sure if or when I’ll compete. There are many things to factor in, one being that boxing–as much as I love it–is not my main priority. For all the physical and mental benefits that carry over into the rest of my life, boxing and martial arts have been more of a means to an end than the end itself.

That being said, I am curious to give it a try. Since I have, at the end of the day, been putting quite a lot of time and effort into boxing, it’s only natural to want to test what I’ve learned. For now, I have one more week at Darkside before a bit of globetrotting to Malta and Manila. We’ll see what comes next when I get back in October.

Australia · Day Trips

Kangaroo Picnic in Morisset

I want to say that there were kangaroos at Taronga but I don’t recall any memorable encounters with them.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago: when a friend I met through Couchsurfing invited me to join in on a day trip and see these quintessential Australian creatures, I knew the moment had come.

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G’day mate! (nobody actually says that but this guy surely would)

Let’s backtrack a little more. I wrote of things to know about Couchsurfing after I joined the website/app earlier this year and had my first experience being hosted in Manila. However, it wasn’t until recently here in Sydney that I first used the “Hangouts” feature.

It was a Thursday afternoon and my schedule was open until later in the evening. With quite a few hours to kill, I thought I’d seek out something interesting.

Since I work from home, I have to find ways to get out and interact with people in my downtime; for example, by going to the gym. Granted, most of my interactions there involve punching people, but it still counts.

With the Couchsurfing app, you can set yourself available to hang out and find people–travelers, locals, and everyone in between–near you who want to do the same. And they won’t even try to punch you.

Instead of spending that Thursday evening at the gym, I ended up getting together with a group of Couchsurfers in Darling Harbour. Where I normally feel the odd one out, what with my multiple nationalities and mixed cultural identity, quite literally everyone in this group had a similar story to tell. Some were living in Sydney; some had arrived that day and were only passing through, and others were here for a year on exchange.

One of them, a new arrival to Australia, was responsible for organizing this fantastic day trip and hats off to her because it was a clever feat and lots of good fun.

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A unique blend of tame day-trippers and friendly kangaroos set against the backdrop of a quaint psychiatric hospital

Everyone got together at Central Station just after 8 AM to catch the train at 16 minutes past and it wasn’t until all the clusters got off the train in Morisset that we realized how large the group of mostly Couchsurfers had grown: I’m pretty sure there were about twenty of us.

I was almost unsure I’d want to give up my Saturday morning sleep in but I’m certainly glad I did. The trip was loads of fun and it was great to meet new people, and kangaroos too.

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There is at least one picnic table by the lake and it’s a beautiful spot for a picnic at a safe distance from the marsupial hubs (but maybe don’t bring kangaroo jerky anyway)

Day Trip Timeline

Here’s a rough time frame of the trip. This is with a fairly large group so it’s counting on things moving a bit slowly. It’s still an adventurous way to spend the day, and with a little nap on the train heading back you’ll still have the entire evening to enjoy in Sydney CBD.

08:16 Catch the train from Central
10:10 Get off at Morisset
10:30 Hike to Morisset Hospital (not Morisset Park)
11:30 See kangaroos; have a picnic (not in the same place)
13:00 Start heading back to the station
14:32 Catch the train to Sydney
16:29 Arrive at Central

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Walk around and not through the hospital grounds when heading to the picnic area
Australia · Interviews · My MMA Journey

Things to Know About Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Sydney

An Interview with Mario Yokoyama of myBJJ

Last week I popped into the myBrazilian Jiu-Jitsu headquarters in Camperdown to have a chat with founder and head instructor Mario Sergio Yokoyama.

Having finished another month at Darkside, I opted for a short break from boxing so I could take some time not only to explore other martial arts but to get to know the city and some of the other travelers and locals in it.

One of the first things I was happy to have done with the extra time was returning to myBJJ for my second interview with a founder and head coach of a Sydney martial arts gym–another fun and insightful experience. (The first was with Uro Pavi of Darkside.)

When I got back to Sydney last month, I took a free Jiu-Jitsu Fundamentals trial class at myBJJ and wrote about it here. Since then, I have been wanting to come back and ask Mario–the man behind my–some questions.

I wanted to learn more about the various Brazilian jiu-jitsu styles and approaches to training, the Gracies, self-defense, competitive BJJ, grading systems, and how jiu-jitsu differs from country to country.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: An Art for All Ages

When I arrived at the gym just after 9 in the morning, Mario was in the middle of a kids class. It was the last day of the winter break and of the jiu-jitsu school holidays camp so these young rollers would be in the gym’s care until 3 in the afternoon.

In addition to the questions I had prepared, I wanted to ask Mario about their kid’s classes. When I took my first stab at jiu-jitsu last year, my own daughter was three and too young to join. In fact, I found that most any sports teams in Manila–including soccer–didn’t take kids until the age of five.

I assumed this was because children under five couldn’t be expected to follow instructions but Mario told me they start training kids at three and sometimes even younger.

In fact, he said he’d had two-and-a-half-year-olds follow instructions better than some ten-year-old students and can already go through the moves.

Overall, however, jiu-jitsu does appear to be a discipline suited to all ages–from the preschoolers rolling around on the mats to the white-haired masters gracing the walls.

Mario Yokoyama: Student and Teacher

“I have been a black belt for almost twelve years and I’m still learning here with my own students. That was my plan at the beginning, to build a school where I can train as well.”

Speaking of the Gracies, Mario himself received his black belt under Ryan Gracie. However, he first began his jiu-jitsu training in Sao Paolo under master Roberto Lage.

Mario was thirteen years of age and a judo purple belt when he first walked into Lage’s jiu-jitsu academy. Though he initially came in to complement his ground training in judo, he quickly fell in love with the training style and mechanics of jiu-jitsu and decided to take the path of jiu-jitsu.

By the time he had his purple belt in jiu-jitsu, still in his teens, Mario was helping teach classes in Brazil. After that, he spent time in Japan teaching jiu-jitsu to the police and eventually he moved to Australia where he got started teaching in his back garden with three students.

As the number of students grew, he moved to a new location and when this got too small they moved again. This happened three times, he tells me. The third location was in Marrickville in 2013, where myBJJ was officially founded and the school started getting personality. Three years ago that location also got too small and that is when they moved to the current headquarters in Camperdown.

“When you have a good product, it doesn’t matter where you are, people come to train with you. When I was in Japan we had these guys who would drive four hours to train with us and four hours to go back [home],” Mario recounts and tells me the same thing happened in Marrickville where they had guys catching the train from out of town in the evening, staying the night and training again in the morning before returning home. Currently, they have people coming all the way from the Blue Mountains.

Gracie Barra, Gracie Humaita, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Around the World

“They were very tough but very humble.”

When you look for places in Australia where you can train in jiu-jitsu, you’re guaranteed to see at least a few Gracies popping up. Often, it will be either Gracie Barra (“baha”) or Gracie Humaita (“umaita”)–schools that you can find all over the world.

Knowing that Mario got his black belt under Ryan (“Hyan”) Gracie, grandson of the acclaimed patriarch of Brazilian jiu-jitsu Carlos Gracie, I wanted to know where his gym fits in with these disciplines and I was also curious to hear some first-hand accounts of his interactions with members of the widely influential and almost notorious Gracie family.

For starters, I had to ask where myBJJ fits in the red-to-yellow or Barra-to-Humaita spectrum. Firstly,, Barra gyms–distinguishable by the red triangle–focus heavily on competitive jiu-jitsu and the training tends to revolve around points and rules.

Carlos Senior, the founder of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and influencer of the Barra approach, believed that the best way to spread his family’s martial art around the world was through sport and that is exactly what happened thanks to his many sons and nephews. Carlos Junior now owns IBJJF, which hosts some of the biggest jiu-jitsu competitions in the world and sports a 50-page rulebook.

Where the jiu-jitsu taught in Barra schools has evolved for competition, Humaita, or the yellow triangle, denotes a more traditional self-defense school. Carlos’ younger brother Elio, who helped build the jiu-jitsu empire, saw jiu-jitsu purely as a martial art and form a self-defense and not as a sport. Therefore, Humaita schools–though they may still compete–teach BJJ first and foremost as a way to defend yourself.

After his first instructor, Roberto Lage–who’s master trained under a Gracie, fell victim to a stroke, Mario started training at the Ryan Gracie academy and he recalls how much it impressed him. Mario tells me that most of what the myBJJ team teaches comes from the Gracies, from Barra to Humaita and all the variations of and between the two that exist today.

As I see it, the classes at myBJJ seem to begin with a practical self-defense approach in the fundamental classes, progress to competition-geared jiu-jitsu in advanced classes, and turn away from points and rulebooks at the master class stage where fighters train in a manner that bespeaks no-holds-barred fighting and points again to the traditional approach.

As far as the Gracie family, what he could say about the members he has met–including Carley, Clark, and others who have visited myBJJ–is that they were very tough but very humble. At his use of the word humble, my mind immediately shot to the large, bold text on the front of the building: “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: The Humble Sport”.

Currently, myBJJ has schools in Australia and New Zeeland, and besides training in Brazil and Japan, Mario has also been to Korea, the US, and Portugal. He believes it’s important to different places and to see how they train.

“Sometimes I like to go away and come back here. I like to be outside, to see how the instructors and students train because that way we can take that and implement a new strategy or way to train our students.” For the same reason, he likes to bring guys in from outside to do seminars and classes.

“I have been a black belt for almost twelve years and I’m still learning here with my own students. That was my plan at the beginning, to build a school where I can train as well.”

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Martial Arts: Combat Sports versus Self Defense

“Your greatest weapon is your mouth.”

Because there is quite a difference between training to fight a more-or-less equally matched opponent in a ring or a cage and learning how to defend yourself in a real-life violent confrontation, I was keen on diving deeper into the self-defense versus competitive-sport topic.

I asked Mario if, from his experience, someone who has taken BJJ classes in a safe and respectful environment could actually defend themselves in an encounter on the street–that is, without experiencing such confrontation in class.

With this question, I was thinking back to what I had discussed with Uro Pavi at Darkside and his insight on self-defense.

What Uro had to say was that–and I quote–a violent encounter is ultimately more emotionally scarring than physically. This, if you’re not getting that first emotional rush of being brutally hit and punched and kicked, you miss the point and you’re not really getting the full self-defense experience.

Walk into any jiu-jitsu gym in Sydney, and you can feel quite guaranteed that you won’t be punched or kicked at all–and certainly not brutally. Therefore, I had to wonder, how can it prepare you?

Any combat sport will teach you physical moves that can be useful in a fight and if you train hard enough your body can learn to react. However, whether or not you are emotionally ready to handle a confrontation is a different story.

Here was Mario’s insight, when it comes to confrontation: “Your greatest weapon is your mouth.” As I understood it, he was saying that beyond being physical trained and emotionally tested, there is also the need for mental preparedness.

Mario explained it like this: if I was walking down the street and a little kid started yelling insults at me, I would take one look at him and know that he was no threat to me. I have no need to prove myself in this situation so it would be absolutely ridiculous to yell back at him. Therefore, instead of taking his bait to engage, I can carry on my way.

Along those lines, Mario told a story of an encounter when he first arrived in Sydney. He was in a pub when a large and, in Mario’s word, scary looking guy tried to pick a fight with him.

This guy was talking a big game but Mario, already a black belt by then, knew he could beat him. Mario proposed going to the parking lot to fight, offering to pay the man $5,000 if he beat him. On the other hand, if Mario won, this man would have to pay him $500. For all the man’s talk, including claims that his sister could beat him, he didn’t show up to the fight.

If you’ve trained in jiu-jitsu and have learned how to handle someone bigger and stronger than you, you can look a challenger up and down and know that they are not a threat. Just as you would not engage an impudent child, so this contender is likely unworthy of a contest and, at the end of the day, that mental confidence and calm may be all you needed to win the fight.

I’ve found this lesson to be at the core of every serious martial arts school or MMA gym I’ve been to. You don’t learn martial arts so that you can go out and pick fights. You train and challenge yourself in the gym so that you don’t have to prove yourself by getting into fights out in the street.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Australia

“I have guys who make their best friends on the mat.”

Next, we talked about the people who come here to myBJJ in Sydney to learn a martial art. Compared to the streets of Brazil and the United States, where knowing how to handle yourself can be an essential skill, Australia is quite a safe place.

Regardless, the confidence that comes with knowing you can defend yourself if you need to is valuable to anyone, anywhere. In Australia, Maria says, life is relaxed. It is neither as dangerous as Brazil nor as stressful as Japan, where people work twelve to fourteen hour days.

Here, jiu-jitsu is a lifestyle. You can do it for fitness–and that brings confidence to other areas of life as well–but you don’t just come to train. You come to learn something new and you make new friends.

“I have guys who make their best friends on the mat,” Maria says. “There are guys I train with who I have a closer bond with then I have with my own brother. These guys, my best friends, are the ones who try to choke me out in every class as well. And it’s great. I trust them, my life in their hands. I know they’re not going to hurt me.”

On what you walk away with, he goes on: “Anytime you have a really tough session, you feel like you learned something You come home and you feel so tired but you feel like you’ve learned. It’s very addictive too.”

Mario calls it “a great addiction” because they have had people come in and replace their addictions to cigarettes and alcohol with jiu-jitsu. In fact, he thinks that jiu-jitsu could make a great therapy for daily life and I have to say from personal experience that I wholeheartedly agree.

“You know you’re going to have great instructors and classmates.” He carries on with pride and enthusiasm. “The class finishes, sometimes at 8:30; come here after 9 and we still have people on the mats, talking and reviewing techniques.”

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Belts and Grading Systems

“When a student is ready for the next belt, we order it and give it as a gift.”

At myBJJ, they follow the IBJJF belt system: white, blue, purple, brown, and black.

Some jiu-jitsu schools have added additional belts by combining colors and giving, for example, a white-and-blue belt, but they have not adopted this practice here.

For kids, the colors are white, yellow, orange, and gray, and they have adopted mixed colors such as a yellow-and-orange belt. However, for the stripe system, they only give four at myBJJ and not twelve as some schools do.

“I know it’s a good way to motivate the students–giving stripes–but we have other ways to do that,” Mario explains. When I asked long it typically takes an absolute beginner to earn a blue belt, he said the fastest is eight to ten months but that, for some, it can take up to three years.

Mario referenced back to being held as a white belt for four years by his mentor and instructor Roberto Lage. He recalls the first day he trained with him, coming as a purple belt in Judo at the time. Roberto told him, “It’s better to be a strong white belt than a regular blue belt” and Mario has carried that outlook with him ever since.

“I prefer the white. A belt is just [there] to tighten [your gi].” He says. Knowing what you can do is internal; the color of your belt has no effect on that.

As far as ceremonies for awarding belt promotions, they differ per school but Mario personally says, “I believe everybody progresses differently. When a student is ready for the next belt, we order it and give it as a gift.”

He tells me that some schools have one or two grading days or ceremonies in the year and that it’s a good way to bring in a lot of money. However, he likes to promote each student when they are ready. On a fixed grading day, two students may end up getting the same belt promotion though one has attended 200 classes and the other only 100.

Just as he came up to instructor Salvador at the end of my trial class last month and surprised him with his black belt, every student is presented with their new belt as a gift precisely when Mario believes they are ready–even if that moment happens to be in front of the entire gym and brings them to tears.

The Good and the Bad

What Mario likes about jiu-jitsu here in Sydney is the fire with which people come to train. “Some people train three times a day,” he says, “some people come every day.”

On the other hand, he doesn’t like it when people come in with that fire but eventually stop coming regularly. Often it’s because something comes up, either with work or family, which is very understandable and often how life can be.

That’s also why myBJJ has classes from 6 in the morning to 9 at night. Mario tells me he sees extremely fast results from his students, even faster now than five years ago when they were already learning at impressive speeds.

Chances are you’ll impress yourself too. Jiu-jitsu is a beautiful sport and one I encourage anyone to try, for many of the reasons Mario gave above and more. If you’re still looking for a reason or a place to give it a go, your first class here is free.

Australia · Day Trips · Travel Reviews

Hunter Valley Wine Tour

The first sighting of European settlers in the Hunter Valley was in 1798 when a lieutenant drifted into the Hunter River in search of escaped convicts.

While it is said that the region was named after Captain John Hunter, I’d say there’s a good chance the colonists chose the name for how well it reflected their motives in the valley.

Regardless, the region continues to attract hunters from around the world searching for some its finest fruity intoxicants.

Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours

Today’s tour took us to four cellar doors in the Hunter Valley and one chocolatier.

With pickup scheduled at 6:55 near Sydney Central Station and some road closures due to a gas leak in the city, we were on our way to Pokolbin around 7:30 and arrived at our first stop twenty minutes later than the planned 10 am arrival.

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I’ve seen the sunset over the Harbour Bridge numerous times but catching its rise this morning already made the day worth getting up for–that early, I mean.

The two-to-three-hour drive up to Hunter Valley was both scenic and informative, with our driver and tour guide occasionally popping up with interesting facts about the area.

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For example, as we crossed the Hawkesbury River on the Pacific Highway, he explained that the area was named Brooklyn because a New-York based company won the bid to build the bridge with their then-leading underwater welding technology.

More interesting still is how the bridge divides the fresh water of the river on one side from the salt water bay on the other–a perfect environment for bull shark, apparently.

Having arrived in Hunter Valley, we received more information about the winemaking region itself. For example, we were told that the area was home first to a penal colony and only to vineyards after the penitentiary was relocated to Port Macquarie.

Another change in the Hunter region with an equally monumental impact on its winemaking history was a Sydney hand surgeon’s decision to buy up over two dozen hectares of vine territory.

As winemaking in the valley had begun to whither, Dr. Max Lake’s brassy purchase brought new life to the region when the first boutique vineyard was planted in 1963.

Though the land changed hands at the turn of the century, this gutsy buy is reflected ironically on its wine label. Lake’s Folly is now one of 150 wineries peppering the Hunter hills.

On to our first tasting stop:

McGuigan Wines

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Although McGuigan only planted its first vineyards in 1992, it is now Australia’s largest wine producer and four-time international winemaker of the year.

If you are a lover of full-bodied white wines, a trip to Hunter Valley won’t disappoint. As the Bordeaux region is to its wine, so Hunter Valley is becoming to Semillon.

Though this French grape hails from Bordeaux, it is McGuigan Wines that has produced the best Semillon in the world for seven years straight. You’ll indubitably get a taste of their Semillon on your Hunter Valley wine tasting tour, along with sips of Portuguese Verdelho and German Gewürztraminer whites.

Tastings flow from whites–and sometimes roses–to reds and end with tawny-colored dessert wines.

Our wine of the day–since we’re both red drinkers–was McGuigan’s 2015 The Farms Shiraz, a limited new release provided for tasting at the cellar door.

Besides pouring the first glasses to quell the thirst of our drive from Sydney, the McGuigan tasting also provided some curious information on such things as Australian wine regions, the difference between American and French oak barrels, and the impact on local wines.

Hunter Valley Resort

At the Hunter Valley Resort, our wines were paired with cheese. At such occasions, one is reminded never to venture to the moon without crackers. Additionally, a Pinot Gris might not be a bad addition.

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At the cellar door, we tried a pleasant variety of wines, each paired with a different cheese–from labna to feta and cheddar to brie.

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These tasty bites of milk and yogurt curds certainly whet our appetites for lunch, which was also served at the Hunter Valley Resort.

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The meal was enjoyed by a blazing fireplace and the warmth was a more than welcome respite from chilling winds.

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Hunter’s Dream

After lunch and a cup of tea, we were ready to resume the sampling of inebriants.

Next on the tasting tour was Hunter’s Dream, a small vineyard now owned by Nature’s Care–a manufacturer of health food and skin care products.

This gorgeous, small-scale winery had a wonderful appeal to it but unfortunately its bottled goods were somewhat lacking compared to earlier tastings.

Mistletoe Wines

Our last wine stop on the tour was a true Aussie-family-owned vineyard with a defiant and somewhat loud overture into the winemaking world.

Mistletoe was certainly the most generous of the wineries, providing nearly a dozen wines for tasting. In addition to whites, reds, and tawnys, Mistletoe offered us our first and only rosé of the day.

As the third-generation daughter of this family-owned estate prepared tables for the tasting, her grandmother explained considered rosé to be old-fashioned. However, her husband–in his seemingly stubborn nature–chose to make it regardless.

I’m not sure where this idea comes from, by the way, but back in Europe, we love our rosés–especially on a picnic or a midday terrace stop.

My only complaint about the Mistletoe experience was that is was very text heavy, with signs, posters, and pamphlets filled corner-to-corner with black ink. It’s not that I don’t respect the choice to use refrain from the environmentally unsustainable use of cork or to give your Muscat the Aussie “Mozcato” twang, but why not let the wine speak for itself?

Hunter Valley Chocolate Company

After drinking our fill of Hunter Valley wines, a chocolate stop was well in order.

At the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company, Peter the chocolatier gave us a sampling of the fine Belgian chocolates used to make their tasty treats and we had a few bites of their fudge as well.

Remarkably, in the last moments of the day, as we stood near the van waiting for our return to Sydney, rain began to fall from a sky that had been otherwise perfectly blue since sunrise.

Just as all the members of our group were fastened in and the driver revved us on our way, the downpour began and we fell into a blissfully inebriated sleep.

Just after sunset, we found ourselves back in the center of Sydney.

In all honesty, after an entire day tasting wine, my man and I were ready for a beer. Having been dropped off on the outskirts of Chinatown just after 7 pm, we were minutes away from Chinese Noodle House–a favorite stop for dumplings.

The cold, crisp brew we picked up along the way paired fantastically with dumplings, braised eggplant, mapo tofu, and more.

So yet another beautiful day was concluded.

Signing off, with gratitude.

Cheers.

Australia · My MMA Journey

My Amateur MMA Journey, Part 17: A Trial Class at myBJJ

And we’re rolling! I’ve been back in Sydney for a few weeks now and earlier this month I took a trial class at myBJJ, an international Brazilian jiu-jitsu school founded by Mario Yokoyama and headquartered in Camperdown.
I had been referred here by Petros Menelaou, a fellow patron of Darkside Gym and an instructor in MMA and BJJ, after joining one of his myBJJ Sydenham classes on the Darkside mats.

(If you’re out of the BJJ loop, here’s a post that sorts out some jiu-jitsu jargon)
Darkside, where I go to punch people, is primarily a boxing gym with a number of Muay Thai and mixed-martial arts classes–all of which I tried and reviewed earlier in the year.
Recently, they brought in three instructors from myBJJ to teach jiu-jitsu, no-gi, and MMA all throughout the week.
Loving the session Petros invited me to join in Sydenham some time ago, I was eager to check out the myBJJ headquarters upon my return to Australia earlier this month.

myBrazilian Jiu-Jitsu Team

What strikes me time and again about martial arts schools is the overriding spirit of family and this self-defense school was no exception.

It can be challenging to walk through a new set of gym doors as a stranger–much less as a beginner–and get on the mats with unfamiliar faces.

However, from the warm welcome I received at the door of the myBJJ Camperdown Headquarters to the friendly salute at the start of the class, it didn’t take long at all for me to feel entirely at ease in this new environment.

My Trial Class Experience

I made an appointment to try Fundamental BJJ and was given a gi to use for the class. Before the lesson began, I was pointed to the code of conduct, which outlines the school’s etiquette and facilitates the respectful and harmonious environment I’ve come to love in martial arts schools.
The fundamentals session was geared toward beginners and took a very practical self-defense based approach to the art of jiu-jitsu. The instructor did explain that the focus shifts to the competitive side of the sport as students advance to higher levels.

Salvador, the instructor for this lesson, was wonderfully friendly and did an excellent job explaining each of the moves in an approachable and engaging way. Learning and practicing them was a lot of fun but arguably what made the strongest impression was witnessing head instructor Mario present Salvador with his black belt at the end of the lesson.

It would be futile to attempt describing the significance of an event such as this but suffice to say it was a beautiful and intimate moment to share with the class.

On another note, I was somewhat surprised that there was no whipping involved as my first experience watching a BJJ class at B.A.M.F. in Manila when I started this journey about a year ago ended with two students being whipped multiple times by everyone else’s before being awarded their newly earned blue belts. Needless to say, it made an impression–as did this distinctly different experience.

What You’ll Learn in a Fundamental BJJ Lesson

The fundamental jiu-jitsu classes at myBJJ begin by teaching you how to defend yourself in practical situations.
For example, you might begin standing across from an opponent who is swinging at you and learn how to get them on the ground and bring them to submission via an easily executed lapel choke.
The instructor will teach you how to handle this opponent, not by running away or swinging back but by covering your head, stepping in toward their chest, and neutralizing your attacker’s ability to swing at you. From there, you’ll go to takedowns and submissions.

Other moves will take you from lying on the ground to sweeping, gaining mount, and submitting an attacker.

In one such sequence, you’ll start with your back on the ground and an attacker standing over you. From there, you learn how to defend yourself and control the assailant with your legs and feet, grab hold of their sleeves, and sweep them so that you can gain a dominant position and once again submit them–possibly with a forearm choke or a kimura chicken wing. (I’m improvising a little with the names here.)

Anyone can try a free class with the myBJJ Team; book it on their website, get in touch, or check them out on Facebook.

Australia · Interviews · My MMA Journey

Things to Know About Boxing and Martial Arts in Sydney

An Interview with Uro Pavi of Darkside Gym

Back in Sydney after two months of travel, I’ve finally found time to sit down and write up an interview I held back in April with Darkside founder and head coach Uro Pavi.

“Maybe it’s inside human nature: no matter how civilized we get, there’s always that animalistic urge to at least explore our aggressive side.”

I’ve taken a lengthy intermission from my MMA journey to focus my attention elsewhere. Despite aspirations to try judo and kickboxing in the Netherlands and catch some jiu-jitsu classes at my gym in Manila, my time has been entirely occupied by travel, family, the enjoyment of good company, and keeping up with work. One must be realistic, after all, of how much they can expect of themselves.

That being said, I’m excited to be in Sydney again and eager to jump back into the fighting world. As a first step in that direction, I’m excited to share some of what I’ve learned from the man behind Darkside Gym.

As far as my own background is concerned, I’m still very new to the combat sports scene and there is a lot that I don’t know. Though I have developed a recent fascination with boxing and mixed martial arts, I’d never watched UFC and only caught a few boxing fights in my lifetime–mainly Pacquiao’s while in the Philippines because they were such national events.

I hadn’t heard of Muay Thai until I got into it from boxing (my arms were getting muscular and my legs felt left out) and although I went to high school in the Netherlands it wasn’t until recently that I learned how famous the Dutch are for their kickboxing style. I knew kids who did judo and Dutch athletes who won medals but can’t say I had more than a vague idea of what the sport was.

Since I first slipped into boxing gloves nearly two years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to practice Muay Thai, yaw-yan, grappling, jiu-jitsu, a bit of wushu, and MMA at an array of gyms. I’ve had the pleasure of talking with lots of different coaches and I’m starting to better understand how fighting styles differ and come together in various combat sports.

Certainly, the gym that has provided me with some of my most valuable learning experiences to date is Darkside. Therefore, with no further ado, may I present the passion, stories, and insights of the gym’s very own Uro Pavi:

How did you first get into combat sports?

I started when I was a kid in Yugoslavia and then we came to Australia and there was boxing at the local PCYC. I started boxing and progressed into MMA.

PCYC, is that like the YMCA?
Yeah, very similar. It’s the Police Citizens Youth Club. I went there to do some wrestling and the coach, he was praising me a lot, [saying] “Hey, good job, good job!” and I thought, this guy is really being nice to me! Because the coaches I had in Yugoslavia used to beat us. So I found it really strange that he was really nice. So I went into the boxing gym [here] and it was a brutal first session but I fell in love.

“We’re one of those gyms that does a lot of physical application of the theory.”

That was in Yugoslavia or here?
Here. The boxers were very, very rough and I thought, wow, this is normal.

So you did wrestling in Yugoslavia?
Yeah, wrestling, as a kid.

Boxing and wrestling were popular sports here in Australia?
It was just more what was available at the time. Australian boxing, we’ve had Lionel Rose; we’ve had the homegrown guys–Jeff Fenech. At the time, Jeff Fenech was boxing and he was winning so it was exciting to watch. We had Kotsya Tszyu. [He] was Russian and he came to Australia to pursue his professional career so he wasn’t really a native Australian but there was a lot of buzz around boxing at the time.

Around what time?
Ah, 20, 25 years ago. Wow.

Can you tell me a bit about how the fight scene has developed in Australia?

This is a sporting nation so we’ve had boxing for a long time. I think Lionel Rose won the [1968 world cup] and sort of put Australian boxing on the map. (Lionel Rose was the first indigenous Australian world champion boxer.)

“I think everyone in Australia went, ‘Wow, what the hell just happened?’ and that spurred on the next generation of fighters.”

We also had one of the biggest fights in the world here at the turn of the century in 1908. Look it up; it’s a fascinating fact. We had a young champion as well around 1920 or 1930 so boxing has always been a part of the sporting culture in Australia; it really has.

As far as wrestling or martial arts, I think the biggest influence Australia had was through kickboxing and then Muay Thai–us being so close to Thailand.

So that came from South-East Asia?
Yeah, from Thailand! I remember watching, what’s his name, “the hurricane”, Paul Briggs. I remember he was a kickboxing champion and they brought in two Thai fighters to fight our best guys in kickboxing. Briggs was saying, “As soon as he comes, in I’ll work my hands because I know his kicks are great.”

I would have been 15 or 16 at the time; I was watching and thinking, yeah, we’ll win by knockout, we’re better boxers; we should win, right. And then this Thai guy came in and chopped his leg down; in less than one round the fight was over and I thought, wow. I think everyone in Australia kind of went, wow, what the hell just happened?

That spurred on the next generation of fighters. In Australia, especially in Queensland, the Muay Thai community is quite big; I don’t know about New South Wales so much. I know in the 90s there weren’t any Muay Thai gyms.

My coach back in the Philippines was telling me that Queensland is known for Muay Thai.
Yeah, they’re very, very good. [In the] Gold Coast you have one of the best Muay Thai practitioners in the world, John Wayne Parr; he trains out of Boonchu in Queensland and he’s still fighting. He’s got his own promotions there but he was in the Muay Thai Contender series. He lost to [Yodsaenklai Fairtex in the finale]. I watched the whole Contender series; I think that community grew from there.

As far as MMA’s concerned, I think Larry Papadopoulos [of] Boxing Works was a pioneer. He used to do the Shooto contest in Japan; when I was younger, I used to go and watch.

Judo?
Not judo, Shooto: no-holds-barred fighting. And [there is] also Pancrase. He was the king of Pancrase, which [comes from Pankration] a Greek MMA fighting style I suppose you could say, from the ancient Greeks.

I’ve noticed that there are a couple of Greek gyms and trainers here in Sydney.
There are; there’s one just down the road [with] a bit of a legend. He’ll tell you how much of a legend he is; he’s very good at saying that. But he’s very good; he’s a good coach at what he does, and that is Pancrase, so they win a lot of tournaments. I think he’s one of the most decorated masters in the world I think; I’m pretty sure, and he’s 55.

So Pancrase is like MMA?
There are no strikes to the head you but it’s very close to MMA.

Sambo is probably more aggressive–the Russian style–but my experience with Pancrase has been [that] there are trainers who really teach brutality in terms of what you would expect, and there are others that stick to the traditional Greek warrior sort of mentality.

Is it in any way related to, for example, Krav Maga, where it’s about doing serious damage and not fighting for sport?
You know, it’s funny. I met Itay Gil, the Krav Maga guy–he came upstairs. I was actually hiring space off a guy who ran Krav Maga upstairs at the time. Itay, he’s a legend; I remember watching him on Fight Quest. He’s like the grandfather of Krav Maga.

“Ultimately, a violent encounter is more emotionally scarring than physically. So, I feel, if you’re not getting that first emotional rush of being brutally hit and punched and kicked, you kind of miss the point.”

He comes up to me on the bag and he goes, “I see you; I watched you sparring: very good! Very good kicks, very good punches, very good elbows and knees. Very, very good, but I specialize in knife and [live breech?]. If you come down to Israel, I’ll run you through a two-week…” He was a scary man. I’m like, “Listen, this is what I do, I do a sport.”

Was that when you started Darkside?
That was when I started hiring space, which would have been 8 years ago now. Upstairs, yeah. I met Itay and he ran it differently from a lot of Krav Maga schools. It was very brutal; it really was.

What’s the difference between self-defense and fighting for sport?

You know how I feel about self-defense? I feel about self-defense in two ways:
It’s good to get self-defense; it is very good to go and do it with anybody because that introduces you to a flow of what might happen. But ultimately, a violent encounter is more emotionally scarring than physically. So, I feel, if you’re not getting that first emotional rush of being brutally hit and punched and kicked, you kind of miss the point, you know? You’re not really getting the full self-defense [experience].

You mean, for example, what you’ll get with sparring?
Yeah, exactly. Sometimes you go to a Krav Maga school and they’ll go, “Alright, now eyes.” or “Hit to the throat.” but you’re not really getting hit; nothing’s really happening.

And Itay had the guys get dressed in full gear, [from] one side of the cage to the other. They had a nice fake knife each; he’d say, “Alright, go!” and they’d run at each other, literally, and start stabbing each other.

Like a battlefield?
Literally. It was amazing.

And he’s training them for what?
Self-defense. What they were doing was Krav Maga in terms of how he would teach it in Israel to the special forces.

It certainly doesn’t sound like a casual class.
No, it was pretty full on. I was like, “Wow, this is what Krav Maga is.”

What I was experiencing at the time was that Krav Maga was a little bit of “Well, I grab the throat here and do this.” Then I saw Itay run [a class] and I thought, “Wow, this is what I saw on Fight Quest. This guy is crazy.”

And you know he had these small women that I’ve seen do the Krav Maga. He’d get them in there and get a big guy and go, “You’d better attack them.” He’d say, “See, it’s not what you think! It’s not what you think. Get up!”

But you’re paying for something: you’re paying to at least be woken up. After that class I remember a few girls were sitting there–a few guys too–[with] tears in their eyes [from] that confrontation.

It can be quite shocking.
I was really impressed with that Krav Maga.

Let’s go back to Pancrase and MMA. The trainers have different approaches?
[In] Pancrase, some trainers. But again, it’s the same thing with MMA. I’ve been to some MMA gyms where it’s a lot of theory, a lot of technical stuff. A lot of technical stuff. And they’ll teach you a particular move or a way of doing things. Then you’ll go to other gyms where they’re just like, you know, bash each other, and you figure out that most of the stuff you learned is rubbish. Just to perfect the spinning back heel kick takes years and years. You’re not going to [use] it.

At some gyms, I’ve noticed they do a lot of theory and at other gyms, I’ve noticed they do a lot of physical application of the theory. I think we’re one of those gyms that does a lot of physical application of the theory.

I think you have a pretty good balance here. You’ll learn a new move and start using it right away.
You have to. Obviously, there are tiers. With the guys here, especially. They’ve been with me for two or three years; they understand [the] sequencing they have to do and it takes a long time; it’s not quick. It takes a couple of years to develop that sense of when to throw a round-house kick; when to counter with a certain something.

It takes getting it wrong in a fight–in an actual fight. You get it wrong and then you walk out saying, “Yeah, I saw it! I know what you were saying!” And I know, going into the fight, their weakness–especially for my fighters. I’ve had fighters go into a fight and I’ve seen their weaknesses and I go, “Hopefully, this guy isn’t going to exploit that.” And they go to exploit that and I’m sitting there and I’ll laugh in the corner; there’s nothing else I can do: it has to click.

I remembered Andy saying you don’t really have roots in MMA here so whatever comes is from different cultures.
A hundred percent. And with MMA, if you take Brazil out of it, there are not a whole lot of grassroots. It’s just a new thing; it’s just been happening over the course of the last fifteen years with the UFC. Then gyms started to teach MMA specifically and that started to flourish. For young fighters, they could become good at something. But in reality, there’s not a lot of background in it. You’ll do one sport and then you’ll do a bit of another sport and before you know it you’ve combined them.

I suppose any MMA gym would use different influences. It’s not just the standard boxing, Muay Thai, MMA, but it might be judo or jiu-jitsu?
A hundred percent! You know, to date I’ve had probably about a hundred black belts come to the gym and train with us. Whenever I ask them, “Have you done any martial arts?” they’ll say “I did Kyokushin (Karate).” and I’ll say: “You must be a black belt?” “Ah, yeah, but it’s not fighting.” Yeah, it is! Not all that they do is going to be effective but there’s going to be stuff that they do that is amazing.

Or with Taekwondo?
A hundred percent! With Taekwondo, even with Kung Fu. I’ve noticed that Kung Fu guys punch really hard when you teach them how to throw a right cross; their hands are like rocks. Just a slight modification and you get an amazing result. So, yes, there are a lot of backgrounds that come into martial arts.

Do you have wushu here?
Yeah, we do. If you can think of a sport, we’ve got it. In Sydney, the martial arts community that’s not MMA is huge: Karate, Kung Fu, it’s huge. Almost every kid has done some sort of martial arts. I think parents recognize–in Australia in particular–the need for their child to do martial arts, to build their self-esteem and to build confidence. They just shy away from the combat side of it [and stick to] the more traditional stuff.

For example, a mother would come in–this isn’t a mother’s type of gym–[and say] “I’ve got a son who wants to do boxing; I don’t want him to get beat up.” It’s like taking your son rock climbing and then saying to the instructor, “I don’t want him climbing Everest.” There are a lot of steps to get to that point.

The idea then, for a lot of mothers, is to put their children in a traditional martial arts [school] where they’re very uniform, rather than a gym like this which is obviously very confronting for a lot of people.

Not that it isn’t a respectful environment.
No, not at all. But it’s a perception. Anybody that watches boxing [has it]–I don’t single out mothers; it’s just that I’ve found it with mothers predominantly, but there are fathers out there who don’t like it at all.

What compelled you to open this gym?
(Laughs) I ask myself every day. You know what, when I was younger I was OK at boxing and there was an opportunity for me but I realized how little I knew in terms of martial arts. We didn’t have YouTube; the internet was just a fledgling thing so for a young [person] who wanted to be a boxer, you had to find the right coach and that was, in itself, an absolutely painful experience.

And then on top of that, I think WBA or WBC or PBA, any organization would issue you a book that you had to actually pay for; I don’t know what it was, 1500 per year. Promoters would have these books and match up certain fighters. [They] would be printed once a year. It was just such a long, drawn-out process.

I remember when I was 19 I thought, “You know what, I can’t ask my coaches anything.” Either they don’t know or they don’t want to talk about it or they don’t want to tell you. My thought process was, perhaps maybe they don’t know enough so they don’t want to discuss it. [They had] limited access too. But I figured what I see and what they tell me are two different things.

[I thought] I would like to have a gym one day where the actual students can ask anything and if they want to achieve the highest level of the sport. I want, at least, to be able to facilitate the ability for them to be able to go to that level. I didn’t have the skill, but if a kid comes along [that’s what I want to be able to do].

“I do not foster an environment where the ego takes over. A fighter had to walk through the gym doors at some stage as a fresh-faced beginner. Somebody took the time and the care to show him things–spent time with him even though they didn’t think they were going be anything special. I think that’s something they’ve got to pay forward.”

And I love doing this; I love martial arts; I just love it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

When you set up fights, who is your main competition?

If you ask any promoter, you will get the same thing: 99 percent of the time, I do not pick and choose our opponents. Honestly, I’ll put my guys in the ring with anyone; sometimes we lose, sometimes we win. That’s just normal; it doesn’t bother me when we lose just like I’m not overly celebrating when we win.

It’s nice to get a victory, but in reality, at the end of the day, it’s not my win or my loss; it’s the fighter’s. So I can’t claim their victories and then blame them when they lose. And it happens a lot; you’d be surprised how often that happens.

But at the end of the day, that part of it is pretty much for fun?
Well, it depends. People take it very seriously. Like there’s an ego element to it.

But not too many careers being made or broken?
Not for the fighters but for the coaches.

I don’t know what it is. I mean you think about it, right, we’re in a sporting country that does have a huge boxing background in terms of [our] history. If you look it up, Australia and boxing, you’ll see it. We have never won a gold, silver, or bronze in the world games. Which tells you that there’s something wrong with our boxing program at an amateur level.

We’re world champs in rugby union, cricket. There are nations that are much bigger than we are, yet we’re one of the superpowers. At some point, a kid will come through and should be good enough to be a world champ but they seem to rob the kids.

I’ve met a lot of the people that are responsible for boxing and there’s a huge war going on right now between the official ones and the new system that’s sort of set up and I’ve found that the ego that’s involved is just, it’s breathtaking.

And that’s on the coaches’ part?
The coaches; not the fighters.

Are there a couple of major gyms here that train most of the fighters or lots of little gyms?
Lots of little gyms. There are a few main gyms–Bondi Boxing is one of them. I’d say they would have to be one of the most successful ones. There’s Bodypunch at Lakemba, as a boxing gym they’re also very good. Muay Thai gyms: you’ve got Luis Regis, he’s not far from here and there are a plethora of other gyms.

For MMA, there’s really only Australian Top Team, Perosh, and a few others that are quite good–as far as training competitive fighters. For every amateur fighter that you coach, you’re looking at ten, fifteen, before you get one professional. So a lot of it is just people having a go, doing a sport that they love or trying to test themselves and compete.

“The most damage you can achieve in  a grappling sense is picking somebody up and slamming them. That’s more than a kick, more than a knee, more than a punch: more than anything else.”

Over the years, what sort of people have been coming here to train and what tends to be the greatest motivation to learn a fight sport?

I ask myself [that] a lot. Sometimes they come just to get fit or because they watch boxing or they don’t like going to a [regular] gym, or they just want to try something different. The ones who do want to compete–and I have a lot–I don’t know what it is. Why do you do it?

(Now I’m nervous because I’ve been put on the spot) Haha. Uh, lots of reasons?
You know what I mean? I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s just inside human nature: no matter how civilized we get, there’s always that animalistic urge to at least explore our aggressive side.

It’s a curiosity: what would it be like to actually do it.
Yeah, to go in there and fight and get punched in the face for real. You know what I mean? It’s a real feeling when you’re fighting. People are watching; you see different faces in the crowd and there is a–I don’t know how to explain it–there’s a very primitive feel to it when you’re in there and you’re fighting and I can see how a lot of fighters fall in love with that concept. Even when they lose, they don’t mind.

I think MMA, unlike boxing–well Muay Thai was actually the original one–there’s no disrespect if you lose. Your career is not ruined; if anything, it means that you fought someone. Now you’ve got a loss on your record: that means you fought somebody good; that’s taught you a lesson. Boxing is a bit different: as soon as you lose all of a sudden you’re no good; it’s absurd. Boxing has never been like that. Maybe it’s a Mayweather era; I don’t know.

Even Mayweather: there’s been one particular fight where he definitely lost; there’s no doubt about it. I mean, he came back and he beat the guy pretty badly. But Castillo, in that first match, he definitely beat him. You could see it in Mayweather’s face: he was running; he barely landed any punches; he got beaten up pretty bad. Bob Arum was the promoter and they gave it to [Mayweather]. I remember thinking, “My god, that’s pretty bad.” but then he rematched Castillo and he beat him real good.

I guess it’s also that boxing is a money game?
A hundred percent: the oldest combat one. There’s money in so it matters.

Most gyms I’ve been to have separate classes for advanced fighters and casual practitioners. This is the only place I’ve been where you can walk in as a beginner and train and spar regularly with serious fighters. Why is that?

Because I do not foster an environment where the ego takes over. I know people say “no egos” but it’s bullshit most of the time: “I’m a fighter; why do I have to put up with beginners? Why do I have to teach a beginner something?” That is an ego already. The thought process: “I am a fighter thus I can’t be bothered” is an absolute ego trip, automatically.

The idea is, a fighter had to walk through the gym doors at some stage as a fresh-faced beginner. Somebody took the time and the care to show him things–spent time with him even though they didn’t think they were going be anything special. I think that’s something they’ve got to pay forward. I think that’s the most important thing, that a fighter should pay that forward. And if they have an issue with it, they can go somewhere else. I don’t need that.

It’s one of the things I like about training here.
And another thing: you get a beginner and they start a class and they’re moving around with a fighter; “Oh my god, you’re really good!” and the fighter goes “Yeah, you better keep your hands up!” and this and that and you go “Yeah, I’d better listen!” and before you know it, six months down the track, nobody can tell it’s only been months.

It’s interesting when you’re sparring: you’ll go with someone new and you’ll think yeah, I’m pretty good and then you’ll go with someone who makes you feel like an absolute beginner.
I’ve also found when people rehash what they’ve learned by teaching somebody new it reinforces in their own head. If they say, “You’ve got to keep your hand up when you jab!” they’re thinking “Why am I not doing that?”

“It starts standing up; it starts at striking range. Striking has to occur; you cannot be afraid of the striking.”

And you have to remember what you’ve learned in case you need to explain it to somebody else.
Exactly.

It’s going to sound funny but I find that for coaches who have a very high ego, the fountain of knowledge for their sport resides in them: all the answers come from them.

Everybody coaches a little bit differently here and I’m fine with that because sometimes they might be wrong in what they say, but that’s their interpretation; I’m alright with it. As long as it’s effective for them, it might be effective for the next person. I can’t have that mindset where everything that I do is right and everything that everybody else does is wrong.

It does get confusing if you go to different gyms that have different trainers and one person will say “Absolutely, this is the way to do it” while another says “Absolutely, that is the way to do it.”
I know, it’s so confusing!

You know, Andy would come here and teach a Muay Thai kick after he came back from Thailand. It was very rigid and upright. And doing the practice with some people, [say you’re] coming back with a left hook, [and a student says], “Yeah but Andy showed me how to do a kick like this or do a switch kick like that.” Yeah, OK, that’s not wrong, but I don’t want you to do a kick like that for this class.

The way the Thais throw a kick is not wrong but there are different kicks; there are different ways of kicking. I’m not flexible at all; I can kick you in the head, no problem, but if I try to do it Thai style, I can barely get passed your hip.

So it’s about finding what works for you?
Exactly right; that’s the most important point. I would prefer that people …my philosophy is defense first. And then offensively, Jesus Christ. Basically, I’m a teacher here teaching people how to be artists. So I show them the canvas, I explain the colors and I say these are the sort of rules how you mix the colors and then there you go, do your thing. Once they’ve reached that next level, you see it in them; the things they do are just magic.

Watching Ty (“the Trigger” Telford), he’s one of the only guys I’ve ever turned pro, watching Ty do what he does in the ring, it’s like watching… And everyone says “Good job, Uro!” I can tell him anything, I can say whatever I want to, “you should’ve done this.” It’s not me that’s doing it, it’s him. He’s absorbed his lessons well and now, just, boom! It’s amazing. Watching him, [he’s] flawlessly defensive and offensive; it’s just amazing.

Even Eden, who is now fighting again: hopefully, it all clicks in but if it doesn’t that’s fine. We’ll go again and again. (Eden Fordham is fighting on July 8 in Hurstville; check it out!)

But if it clicks in, I know I’ll just love watching it. She’ll come to the corner and I’ll [say] “Hey, that was great! Just throw the jab, alright! Anyway, see ya!” That’s what I’d love to do. Not “Oh, you’ve gotta do it this way; she’s coming at you, sprawl here, do that.”

A lot of the coaches that do that. It’s fine, I don’t criticize them–that’s their mentality–but I prefer to be calm in the corner. I prefer to talk to my fighter; to be a skill set and not an emotional thing.

I’ve had to get worked up over certain fighters. I’ve had to yell at them and get angry but it’s usually when I haven’t worked with them closely enough. So [with fighters like Ty and Eden] I’m not worried.

I have sent a few guys to other gyms. I’ve said, “I don’t want to coach you anymore. Good luck to you.” They’ve won titles, they’ve done things as professionals–one guy signed up with the UFC but he didn’t want to go do it. It’s just not on me to coach them anymore; I realize we didn’t have that bond.

“Have we really won? Sure, we won because you managed to pull it off but it was her aggression that caused you to win, not your skill set.”

I’ve heard you say that you’d rather someone lose a fight than win by submission. When you train a fighter, why do you so strongly emphasize winning by knockout?

When I do grappling here, we do a lot of standing stuff because it starts standing up.

There’s no analogy you can use. Some people go, “What if it was a fight and I could kill you.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but if I pick you up and I suplex you on the head, on cement, you’re dead.” That’s the end of it. The reason you can suplex somebody on the mat and they survive is because it’s soft.

In a grappling sense, if you know your submissions, you win, but you’ve got to get to that point. You have to get on the ground; you have to get in that situation; you have to work for that. The mats are designed to be soft so you don’t break your spine but the hardest thing you can do in a grappling sense is picking somebody up and slamming them. That’s literally the most damage you can achieve. That’s more than a kick, more than a knee, more than a punch, more than anything else.

If you look at it from that point of view, what’s the most important thing in grappling? It is the standup phase. The standup phase of grappling is making sure you can work pummeling; sprawl; get a single leg, look for a takedown; control the top position. Not scramble on your back, hoping [for the best]. I’m just talking strategy: if you take me down and you’re on top of me, I have to start working for an armbar. You have to make a mistake for me to catch you in that armbar.

Now there are systems being used that force you to make that mistake. So I can learn how to do mission control with Kempo and Jiu-Jitsu; then I start to work that arm and trap that shoulder. There are systems out there that work like that; but why be in that positions in the first place?

There’s no better explanation than this: You get a freestyle wrestler walking in here. A world champion freestyle wrestler goes to a no-gi grappling tournament, picks a dude up, slams him on his head, walks away. He’s won. So your grappling doesn’t work if that’s the issue.

So you emphasize being in the dominant position where you’re getting the takedown and you’re on top?
Always. Now [let’s say] you get into a situation where you’re doing an MMA bout and I’m like, “Oh, you’re great at submissions, Flo. You’re amazing at submissions, right. So when you get in there, work, and then go for a takedown.” So you’re like, “OK, I’ll go in there.”

She’s really good at striking. You go in there and she starts jabbing you; you try and grab her. She hits you with the right hand; you go “Oh, Jesus, I’ve got to get ahold of her.” You start to get more and more desperate; she’s beating the shit out of you, she drops you. You hit on your back; she’s on top, hitting you. You’re working, working. She’s over-committed to an elbow; you manage to get that elbow; you get the arms, legs over, all of a sudden you’ve got an armbar: “Oh my god, I’ve won!”

Have we really won? Sure, we won because you managed to pull it off but it was her aggression that caused you to win, not your skill set.

“With boxing, after six months of training steadily, I let my guys go into a fight. Even if they’re not ready,”

Yeah, I get it. You’re just surviving.
Surviving and hoping that at some point she’s going to make a mistake.

Now there are guys that are taking it to the highest level in the UFC and they’re amazing. But then they go up against an average or a good wrestler and if they can’t take him down, all their Jiu Jitsu, all their game, everything they’ve spent ten, fifteen years developing, is gone. And it comes back to the striking; it always comes back to the striking.

So I want a mentality in this gym that is striking based. I’m gonna stand there; I’m gonna trade. That doesn’t mean that we can’t go for the takedown–we drill takedowns, we drill groundwork; we’ve got BJJ here. This is all important; I’m not saying that it’s not but when you are talking strategy and the anatomy of a fight, it starts standing up; it starts at striking range.

Striking has to occur; you cannot be afraid of the striking. So if I drill it into people’s heads over here that they have to be excellent strikers then that’s step one to our advantage, automatically. It’s the same thing on the ground: first, we get up, we try and sweep; then the submission.

How long would you say it takes, on average, to get a beginner ready for their first bout and how does it differ from boxing to Muay Thai and MMA?

It’s hard. I had one guy: he went with us for nine months before he got his first fight. He got his first two wins by knockout against guys from great gyms–guys who were more experienced than him and very good. He got two knockouts very quickly.

Other people have been doing it for five years and they’re still not ready. On average, I’d say about two years: consistently training for two years, at least three times a week. But you know we’ve got back-to-back classes here so it’s not like you do one and piss off; you can do all of them. So you can do three, three times a week, a couple of sessions each time and you should be alright.

It depends on what [you’re doing]. Boxing fights: very easy. I’m not taking anything away from boxing. Actually, boxing is the hardest sport to coach but very easy on your body; very easy physically. Then it goes kickboxing, very tough on your body; Muay Thai is very tough and then MMA is the most brutal of all. But I do notice that Muay Thai fighters or kickboxers tend to get more brutalized than any other ones so, with kickboxing, it takes a bit longer than it does with boxing.

“We’ve got a rivalry but one thing I love is that all the coaching staff and all the gyms are one big family. “

With boxing, after six months of training steadily, I let my guys go into a fight. Even if they’re not ready, it doesn’t matter. If they know their defense I know I can put them in and not worry.

Because you can’t do that much damage? And the amateur fights they’ll use the headgear as well?
Yeah, all amateur fights–unless they’re MMA. But boxing, kickboxing, and Muay Thai, are all with headgear. In wrestling, obviously, there’s no headgear.

So I’d say about two years, on average. And then there’s the rest of your life.

Out of all the pros that have come through here, most of them quit. They stayed with me for two or three weeks and then they quit altogether. There is a high demand [as far as] what I expect. I figure, if a person is ready to turn professional, they should be ready to mix in with the best in the world. [That’s why] I turned Ty pro.

And if they’re falling short, we’re just kidding ourselves. People go, “They’ll develop in time.” Of course, they will; I’m not saying that they [have to be] mentally ready to fight the best in the world; I’m saying that they should be, physically and skill-wise at least, ready to take on the best in the world. Mentality can be built over time, that’s fine. That’s how I feel; I turn somebody pro, that’s how I would do it.

You have a pretty high standard, then?
Yeah, it’s funny that you should say that but I never thought of it that way until I spoke to Ty about it. And I was thinking, of all the [fighters] I’ve coached, how many have actually turned pro? Only one. I’ve only ended up turning one person pro and that’s Ty.

Eden is going for pro?
Amateur. She’s going to have to get a license. This is one fight that has to go well for us in terms of, I’ve got to see where she’s at. She’s such a lightweight fighter; there aren’t many girls (in that weight class) in the world so we might have to turn her pro for her next one.

I want her physically ready and mentally ready, which she is. But whether she switches on or not, that’s up to her. Skill-wise, I love watching her sparring here with James and the other fighters; I mean it looks amazing. I’m ecstatic just watching.

What’s one thing you love and one thing you hate about competitive fighting in Sydney?

One thing I love is that in most cases–take boxing out of it but for the rest–we’re one big family. All the coaching staff and all the gyms, we’ve got a rivalry but we’re all [in it together].

There are not enough students to go around [because] we’ve got so many different sports. And I think anybody who’s coaching in Sydney–whether that’s martial arts, fighting, or any sport–is doing it for the love of it. We’re doing it for the passion; I think I like that part of it.

There are very few people like myself who can actually make a fulltime living out of it.

The part that I don’t like–same issue: there are not enough people. That’s the positive and negative. If there were more people, there would be more fights; there would be more interest in professional fights.

In Ty’s weight division, there are only 39 registered boxers in New South Wales. That’s not many. To get somebody to fight Ty is almost impossible. These guys keep pulling out; they don’t want to touch him.

With MMA it’s a bit different; MMA fighters will fight anybody but even then I’ve had an issue matching up James with some of the best fighters from other gyms [because they] would say no. Even though he lost one fight, it’s the way he lost. He didn’t lose getting by getting knocked out or anything; he got stopped but it was four rounds of [pure] brutality and he was fine at the end of it.

“We’re doing it for the passion; I think I like that part of it.”