#198 Henry Akins, Luis Pantoja

henry akins rickson gracie
Rickson Gracie, Henry Akins, & Kron Gracie on the day Akins received his black belt. Image courtesy Akins.

Have you ever felt like you were not progressing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu? How often do you get the sensation that all the other jiu-jitsu students are getting better and you’re the same BJJ student you were a month ago? We recently received an email from Gary, one of the Mighty 600,000 along these lines, saying:

My question is about training frustration. I haven’t heard anyone address this topic on the show and was wondering if you or any one of your guests had any comments on training plateaus and the frustrations of training hard and sometimes feeling so good and accomplished and sometimes feeling as if I know nothing at all.

Today we start our weekly BJJ internet radio show with a conversation with Luis Pantoja on this very topic. Pantoja is a skilled jiu-jitsu black belt and a product of Yamasaki Jiu-Jitsu in Maryland, and gives us several valuable tips on how to get out of training slumps, and how to avoid getting in them in the first place.

Our feature interview is brought to us by FightWorks Podcast correspondent Christian Simamora, who speaks with Los Angeles-based Henry Akins. Akins is one of the few to receive a black belt from Rickson Gracie. Such a fortunate proximity to one of jiu-jitsu’s biggest names has given Akins a unique perspective on Brazilian jiu-jitsu today and how it has changed in the short time it has been in the United States. Akins reminds us that we can never forget the original reason for jiu-jitsu: self-defense. Of course, there are some very interesting Rickson anecdotes as well.

Luis Pantoja
Luis Pantoja. Image courtesy Pantoja.

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FightWorks Podcast: Alright, hello Mighty 600,000. Today we are joined by someone who many consider to be the best kept secret in jiu jitsu on the West Coast, Rickson Gracie black belt Henry Akins. Henry, thank you so much for joining us today, and welcome to the show.

Henry Akins: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Christian.

FightWorks Podcast: Absolutely. So listen Henry, we’re going to dive right in, there is a ton of stuff I want to go over, and I want to make sure I’m respectful of your time. Being such a well kept secret, why don’t you take a few moments and tell the audience a little bit about your background in jiu jitsu.

Henry Akins: I started training in Brazilian jiu jitsu in 1995, with Rickson Gracie, so I’ve been training jiu jitsu for fifteen years now with Rickson. Yeah, I basically started off at the academy – our academy at that time was in West L.A. – and when I first started training, I was the secretary there, so I was spending about seventy hours a week in the academy. It was from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and from seven to nine on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I got to spend a lot of time watching jiu jitsu, and watching people teach jiu jitsu, and watching of course Rickson train with all the guys, all the black belts from Brazil that were coming in. It was a really nice couple of years of my life, a blessing to be able to absorb all that information.

FightWorks Podcast: Absolutely. So what actually drew you to Rickson’s academy? How did you find out about jiu jitsu and what led you to his place, specifically?

Henry Akins: Well, you know what? I had always heard that Rickson was the best of all the Gracies, and of course I saw that fight of his – I think it was on one of the Gracies in Action. It was this old, grainy copy of a copy of a copy, a VHS tape, where you have Rickson fighting Zulu. I was like, “God, that’s the guy I’ve got to train with!” It was incredible.

So I knew I had always wanted to train with Rickson, and finding him was a little bit difficult, but I knew if I was going to go and train and do jiu jitsu that I was going to do it with the best.

FightWorks Podcast: Did you have any prior training, or was jiu jitsu your first foray into the martial arts?

Henry Akins: I had done martial arts before, I had grown up doing martial arts my whole life. I had always been interested in martial arts, like watching Kung Fu Theatre when I was younger. My step-dad is Thai, so he introduced me to thai boxing and watching thai boxing fights, so I did a little bit of that with him. I started doing taekwondo a lot too.

But I always had the idea in my head that I wanted to study a martial art that was on the ground, that was more focused on the ground. The reason is, I went to high school in Oklahoma, so I grew up around a lot of wrestlers. All my good, good friends were wrestlers in high school, and I just saw how effective wrestling was as a technique, for fighting.

They would always get in fights, and they were always small guys, and they would always get in fights with big football players or whatever, then take guys down, and just dominate them on the ground. So that was always really interesting to me, because I always wanted to combine something on the ground with a martial art, so when I saw jiu jitsu, I was like, “this is it!”

FightWorks Podcast: Definitely. What were your initial months training with Rickson like? What was the atmosphere in the school, what was the training methodology like back then?

Henry Akins: Gosh, the training was awesome. We were training on these green fold-out mats that were literally like less than an inch thin. In the mornings, we would wake up, fold out all the mats, put them out – at the time we were operating out of a karate studio, in West L.A., that was behind a carpet store and right next to an auto body shop.

You basically couldn’t see – there was a small wooden sign, which I think they show in Choke, where Rickson is riding his bike into the academy. It was way in the back, you wouldn’t even know it was there unless you were really looking for it. But training was awesome. Rickson would come to the academy every day and train, we would have this big afternoon class every day, and it was like two hours long. It would start around noon or one, whenever people would start showing up and getting there, and it would go for an hour and half, two hours. We’d usually have thirty or forty guys show up for the class.

During that time, we would train gi, all during the year, then during the summer months, we would train no-gi, just because during the summer everyone was wearing t-shirts and shorts, the gi was really hot, but also it didn’t make sense to wear the gi, because we wanted to train basically how we were going to fight.

FightWorks Podcast: That’s an interesting point: I think sometimes, people who may not be as familiar with Rickson associate his name or his school with a more traditional approach to jiu jitsu, but what you’re saying is that no gi was actually an integral part of the training from the very beginning?

Henry Akins: Yeah. No gi was very integral, and I think Rickson was really big on it because he’s also one of the jiu jitsu guys that was actually fighting a lot, you know? He competed in MMA for quite a few years – pretty much his last fight was in 2000 – but up until then he was fighting almost every year. I think he fought, what, ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98, and then I think 2000? Or maybe ’97 and then 2000. So he was competing almost every year in Japan, and also during the time he was getting ready to fight we did a lot of no gi training.

FightWorks Podcast: Was his school focused mainly on jiu jitsu or was there a MMA component at that time?

Henry Akins: That’s the thing. It is all jiu jitsu. Jiu jitsu is the foundation of MMA, it’s what started MMA. The reason that people separated it is because now you have all these guys competing in mixed martial arts and they’re combining a bunch of different styles, but at that time the jiu jitsu was for MMA. It was for fighting, it was practical.

That’s the thing, when Royce first showed the world in the UFC how effective it was, everyone started, everyone from all these other martial arts, started to incorporate jiu jitsu into their game, because they saw how effective it was. They were like “we’re not going to be able to compete with these guys unless we start training jiu jitsu.”

So then it became, the UFC, instead of style versus style it became mixed martial arts. But jiu jitsu has always been for fighting. It was always a practical form of street self defence, a practical form of fighting.

FightWorks Podcast: I know you have some pretty formed opinions on this, so I want to get your thoughts on this particular point. A lot of the schools focus on sport jiu jitsu and competition, so what are your thoughts on the current state of BJJ, how it’s trained and how it’s taught?

Henry Akins: The cool thing is that jiu jitsu has been exposed to such a wide audience now. It has really evolved in the environment that it’s trained, in the environment that it’s practiced. Right now, most of the time with jiu jitsu, when people train it, they train it with the gi, and when they go compete they compete in competitions.
So for me, what I see in a lot of schools is that it’s lost the idea and the concept of being effective for a real life situation. Our style is very simple, really basic, but it is also like Rickson always kept in mind the idea that you have to be able to use this and it has to be effective when you’re in a fight.

FightWorks Podcast: I’m curious to hear more about that, so do you feel like there is space for some of the more sportive techniques that are out there right now – you know, I don’t know, half guard, quarter guard, things of that nature – or do you keep it really focused on things that you feel would translate very well into an actual situation?

Henry Akins: Well, for me the idea is that it has got to translate. Most people, when they start up doing jiu jitsu, they sign up for jiu jitsu because they saw it was an effective form, the most effective single martial art for being able to fight, for street fighting. There is a reason behind that, and we can talk about that later, but basically, they start out thinking “ok, I’m going to learn a practical form of self defence, something that’s really effective, something that can overcome a much larger, stronger opponent.”

But as you start training, what happens is you get really good at it, and you say “oh I want to go compete and test myself against other people.” That’s kind of the realm that is has evolved in, because when you’re training, you never have to think about getting hit or getting punched, and there are all these situations that you’re in where basically, and even training with the gi, the grips with the gi, which are very practical and they’re great for tournament style jiu jitsu or sport jiu jitsu, but which are very detrimental or ineffective in a real life situation, where there might be strikes involved.

For example, all the grips on the sleeves. A lot those grips on the sleeves that people rely on – say like the spider guard, where you’re grabbing the sleeves and putting the feet on the biceps – that doesn’t exist so much in MMA, but that is a very big component of sport jiu jitsu. The reason it is such a big component in sport jiu jitsu, what happens is, in competitions and tournaments, you’re competing against the time. It’s either six minutes, seven minutes, eight minutes or ten minutes, but at the end of the time, by the time the clock stops, it is whoever is up on points wins. So maybe you’re winning at five minutes, but at six minutes, you’re losing.

So basically what guys do, a lot of guys like to play open guard, and by using that style of controlling the sleeves and putting your feet on it, you make it very difficult for the person to pass your guard, and also, you have a lot of opportunities to take the person off-balance if he makes a mistake, and sweep, score points.

So it’s a point game, you know? It’s not so effective for fighting, but it’s great if you want to score points and if you’re basically competing in a tournament. But that’s the thing: most people aren’t conscious that’s the reason that they use it. Most guys will teach it in a school and say “ok, this is our jiu jitsu and this is what we do,” but they don’t explain like, “listen, in a fight, you wouldn’t want to do this, because of this.”

FightWorks Podcast: Please definitely correct me if I’m misstating, but it sounds like what you’re saying is that there is probably room for both, as long as the instructor can make the student aware of the context a particular technique is best suited for.

Henry Akins: Oh definitely. The things is, all the guys competing in jiu jitsu right now, it is really brilliant how they’ve evolved in the context that jiu jitsu is used. They’re so good at using different grips to create leverage, and that is what jiu jitsu is based upon, leverage. You know, like holding the sleeves and putting your feet in the biceps to control his base on this side and being able to move him in different directions.

So it’s great in that context, and it’s really brilliant what they’ve done, but at the end of the day, jiu jitsu also has to be effective for a real life situation. What’s sad to see is guys that have been training jiu jitsu for five, six, seven or eight years and thinking that they’re going to be effective when they maybe get into a situation in the street, and they have to protect themselves or someone that they care about, and they jump guard and then they end up getting punched in the face, or beat up, or something like that happens.

Those situations are very common in tournament style jiu jitsu, where guys are jumping guard or doing flying triangles, doing other situations where they become very reliant on grips, and then all of a sudden when they lose their grips, then they’re kind of lost.

FightWorks Podcast: Right, and I know for a fact that you’re definitely speaking not just from theory, but you have some real world, practical experience behind yourself. Tell us a little bit about some of the work that you’ve been doing in terms of applying Brazilian jiu jitsu towards security jobs and things of that nature?

Henry Akins: Yeah, I’ve always done security work as a pastime, as a side job, while I was teaching jiu jitsu and training jiu jitsu. In the evenings, it would just make sense, because I was training all day, and then at night I would go and work security at different bars and clubs in L.A. So I’ve had the opportunity to use it in certain situations where I actually needed to defend myself or protect myself, if I had to subdue someone, you know?

One of the great things about jiu jitsu is that it’s really effective in security work because you can subdue someone without hurting them, so it doesn’t become a liability for the club or the bar or whoever you’re working for.

FightWorks Podcast: What does the encounter – I’m really curious about this, actually – how does the encounter evolve? Can you take us through a specific instance where you’ve used Brazilian jiu jitsu in that real life context to defend yourself?

Henry Akins: Well, working at bars and clubs, you’re always coming across people that are intoxicated. For the most part, for me, almost everything, most situations can be handled just by talking to people. But there are rare occasions where the person obviously wants to get physical and wants to get violent, and it always starts from the stand-up, it always starts in a stand-up situation.

Either the guy will push me, or put his hands on me, or I’ll ask him, “hey, you can’t do this, and will you step outside,” and then he’ll turn on me. Usually, in those situations, I’m already close to the person, and close enough that I can clinch with them, take them outside, or clinch and stand up, maybe sometimes get my arms inside and slip to the back.

Sometimes the fight goes to the ground. A lot of times I can handle it from the stand up, like slipping to the back and getting them in a situation, or taking them off balance and being able to take the outside.

FightWorks Podcast: Yeah, I think that particular is so fascinating because so many of us do train, on some level, with the intention of being able to preserve ourselves in a real life situation, but so few of us actually ever get there. So I think there is always that question of how will Brazilian jiu jitsu actually operate, will it work, will I be able to defend myself, if I’m on the street or in a situation like the one you’ve described.

Henry Akins: There’s a huge repertoire of self defence that is in jiu jitsu that most people never get a chance to see or practice. The thing is, every situation on the street starts out from the stand up, you know, from some guy walking up to you and putting his hand on your chest, or grabbing your neck, or grabbing your shoulder.

So, that’s a big part of the jiu jitsu. That is something like, for example, Rickson requires all of his black belts to know all of the jiu jitsu self defence, because every situation you get into on the street always starts from there. Someone coming up to you, “hey, what are you looking at, what’s your problem?”

FightWorks Podcast: Tell the audience, when did you receive your black belt from Rickson?

Henry Akins: I got my black belt in 2004.

FightWorks Podcast: Now I can only imagine, that must have been a tremendous honour, to have received a black belt directly from Rickson himself. So tell us a little bit about what that was like for you, personally, and also, how did it take place: was there some sort of formal examination, did you have to spar a hundred guys? How did that go down?

Henry Akins: [laughs] No, you know what, it was kind of out of the blue. Rickson called me up to his house and I just went up there to train with him a little bit, and we were going over actually some self defence, we were reviewing a bunch of self defence – at that time, I was one of the main instructors at the academy.

After training with him for about an hour and a half, he just kind of popped it on me. He just went, grabbed the belt and gave it to me. I mean really, it was one of the happiest days of my life, because it was something I had always dreamed about. It was never like a huge priority for me, because for me, it was always just good enough if I was growing in jiu jitsu and learning.

But to feel that I had finally reached that point where Rickson was giving me a black belt, it was like, this is incredible. I’m getting a black belt from my idol, so yeah, it was very emotionally overwhelming.

FightWorks Podcast: I can only imagine, that’s a pretty amazing story, to be called up by him, “hey, come over for a second,” and then to leave with a black belt in hand.

Henry Akins: Yeah.

FightWorks Podcast: And you went on to become, if I’m not mistaken, the head instructor at the Rickson Gracie academy for a while. How did that come about, and tell us a little bit about what that leadership role is like.

Henry Akins: You know, I had always been teaching at the academy, even from the time I was a blue belt, I was helping. At the time, we had Luis Heredia and Mauricio Costa as two of the main instructors. Rickson would teach, usually during the afternoons, there would be a class in the afternoons, and then Luis and Mauricio would teach at night.

So I was always helping run the warm ups and just always around to help or assist in any way, be like an assistant instructor. Like, they would show a position, then I would help go round and help fix guys with positions. But when I finally became the main instructor at the academy, it was definitely a big responsibility, you know? Getting there, teaching all the classes, and just felt like carrying the flag for the academy.

One of the main things I always wanted to do was make sure that I was teaching things and always doing things the way that Rickson had showed me, keeping with his style and just keeping the integrity of our style, or his style.

FightWorks Podcast: How would you describe that? When you say “maintain the integrity,” what would you say? Maybe this would be a better way to put it: if you had to boil it down to three things, what are the three things that you try to convey from what you learned from Rickson on to your students?

Henry Akins: The main things I try to convey…I guess the biggest thing is how subtle the art is, how you don’t want to use strength, you never want to use strength or power to get out of things or do things. Also, the idea of how to use your weight properly, how to use your weight distribution and body weight, which is very important. It is something that Rickson does really well: he’ll lay cross side on you and feel like there’s a truck parked on you.

So, just learning how to use body weight, and keeping everything very basic. I think Rickson’s style is so basic. A lot of this fancy stuff that I see in tournaments nowadays, he was able to dominate everyone, I mean everyone in jiu jitsu, without having to use any of that stuff. The thing with Rickson is that he would always say that “what we do is just the basics, but refined.”

There are so many little details in everything that he does, that makes it really effective, to where you don’t need to use strength or power, and it’s just pure leverage and technique. It’s lost a lot of times, you know? I’ll see other people teaching a technique, and they’re missing a little detail here, a little detail there, that can make things way more effective or make it work if someone’s resisting, and make it so someone can’t get out of a situation. Little variations.

FightWorks Podcast: That’s really interesting. A friend of mine, who trains at Renzo’s, tells me that John Danaher often calls Brazilian jiu jitsu “an art of inches,” where really just an inch over here, and inch over there, can make all the difference between something working and something not working.

Henry Akins: Oh yeah, totally, and whether you use strength or power or whether you don’t. The thing with Rickson is he also developed so much of it himself. He improved the jiu jitsu that his father taught him. Even in Choke, you’ll see there is a section where he is teaching his father how to do the upa properly.

He still teaches that, and I think a couple of black belts have mentioned that now when Rickson is doing seminars, it is one of the things he shows, because most people don’t even know how to do the upa properly. Well, not properly, but the most effective or most efficient way. He was teaching Helio how to do that, and that is something everyone learns when they are a white belt, it is like the first move you learn, how to get out of the mount.

FightWorks Podcast: Yeah, that blows my mind, that story. In addition to that, we often hear stories, either on forums or we hear it through word of mouth, of how Rickson rolls with a high level practitioner and makes them feel like white belts. I think there was recently an article or a quick interview in Gracie Mag, Andre Galvao was discussing how he was doing some mount drills with Rickson, and how difficult it was to do that with him.

Can you share, because you’ve been with him so long, can you share some stories or an anecdote that would illustrate that point for us, because sometimes it seems so lofty that, like, there is no way that can be true.

Henry Akins: You mean, like what he does with high level guys?

FightWorks Podcast: Yeah.

Henry Akins: Oh gosh, I don’t want to call anyone out or make anyone look bad.

FightWorks Podcast: Oh, definitely without naming names, but I guess just some sort of context.

Henry Akins: I’ll give you a story, and this is one of the stories that I really like. I had always seen it and always been around it, and you always see all these guys come to the academy and Rickson train with them, and at the time the world champion in jiu jitsu and all of a sudden he’s tapping out, but there was one year that a guy came to the academy and he had just got done winning the Pan Ams in Hawaii. He was already multiple time world jiu jitsu champion. Rickson hadn’t actually trained for a few months because he had a pretty nagging groin injury.

So, we had this guy coming through, and of course Rickson showed up at the academy that night because he knew he was coming through, and he taught the class. After teaching the class, the competitor asked Rickson if he wanted to train. Of course, Rickson was like, “sure.” Rickson told all of us to start training already, but as soon as they started training, the mat clears off, right? Everybody is sitting around the corner – we’re supposed to be training, but we’re just like, “oh my god, Rickson is training with this guy!”

So they started training, and probably after five or six minutes – and it was a really good pace, back and forth, back and forth – Rickson makes this guy tap, from his closed guard. Then they go again, and after like another three minutes, Rickson makes him tap from cross side, from just laying on him cross side. It wasn’t even an armlock or a choke, it was just the pressure from cross side.

That’s what blows me away, because at that time Rickson was around fifteen years older – I think Rickson was around forty – he hadn’t trained in a while, and was still able to do that, just from knowing how to use pressure and pace and breathing. At the time, this was one of the best guys in the world, had just got back from winning the Pan Ams in Hawaii, and you have Rickson tapping him out in a couple of minutes, and then tapping him again in even less time, from just cross side.

FightWorks Podcast: Wow. That is an incredible story, and it blows my mind that you can make a high level black belt from just sitting cross side on him. I’m curious, because we hear these stories about Rickson, and they seem so grandiose, and we believe them, but at the same time it seems so unreachable.

So how would that translate for, say I’m just a regular blue belt who trains two to three times a week? I’m sure there are a ton of people in our audience who want to get better, who want to aspire to that standard. What are some piece of advice you would give our audience in terms of how we should be training and how we should be approaching the art?

Henry Akins: Yeah, those things are all attainable and reachable, as long as you have the right concepts in mind when you’re training jiu jitsu. Like one of the things you always want to be conscious of when training is “look, will this work, does this technique work on everyone? Will this work on a guy if he’s way bigger than me?”

A lot of techniques guys use, they use a lot of power and a lot of strength, so it will work if a guy is smaller than them, if they’re trying to get out and a guy is smaller, but it won’t against a guy that is as big or as strong. That’s one of the main things that Rickson always puts into all of his techniques, will this work for everyone and does it require any strength or power.

A lot of that is just learning to get rid of your ego. A lot of guys, what happens is that they get put in a tough situation, a bad situation, and they can’t really escape using technique, but if they put a little bit of power in it, if they use a little bit of their strength, they’ll be able to get out. So what they do is they end up sacrificing perfecting the details of the technique because they want to incorporate strength into it.

FightWorks Podcast: I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on this, because I know right now you’re currently training for some MMA fighters, and we’re going to go into that for sure, in just a little bit, but MMA seems to me such an attribute based athletic endeavour, especially modern MMA, three, five minute rounds. Some of these athletes are very well trained and world class.

So how do you approach and adjust – if you do, maybe you don’t – Brazilian jiu jitsu for the MMA context?

Henry Akins: Gosh, how do you adjust jiu jitsu for the MMA context? You know, the thing that is amazing about jiu jitsu is that basically, and especially learning it from Rickson, you really understand fighting and what fighting is all about. For example, how important distance is when you’re fighting, and what for example a striker needs to be effective with strikes. It’s distance: one step away and you’re going to miss, one step too close and you’re going to jam the attack. That is one of the reasons jiu jitsu is so effective, because once you get into a clinch, it neutralises a lot of striking. You have maybe knees, but in a clinch, there is not much you can do as far as striking.

Then there’s positioning on the ground: what happens in jiu jitsu, and why jiu jitsu is so powerful, is because when you’re standing up, you have two guys that are throwing strikes back and forth at each other. Both guys are dangerous.

Just like, for example, the Melvin Manhoef versus Robbie Lawler fight, right? Manhoef is destroying Robbie Lawler, and Robbie Lawler throws one punch – he’s getting torn up – he throws one punch, and knocks Manhoef out. So in striking, both guys can be dangerous, and you can always get hit, get damaged and get knocked out. Or even hit, your nose gets broken, you’re dizzy, it can change the fight.

When the fight hits the ground, what happens is the person that dominates the position is the person that dominates the fight. So for example, if I’m mounted on someone, I’m the one that can do all the damage, they’re the ones that basically have to play defence. See what I’m saying? Now, it’s become an uneven fight, it’s not even fair anymore, because I can hit and you can’t hit me back.

That’s one of the reasons why jiu jitsu is such an effective art for fighting, because once you know how to dominate positions on the ground, once you can get the fight to the ground, you can basically always keep yourself safe, and you can do damage to your opponent.

For example, cross side: if I’m cross side on someone, one, I have a lot of knees, I can knee to the body, knee to the head, elbow to the face, punch and hit to the stomach, and the person on the bottom is pretty ineffective with strikes. They don’t have any bodyweight coming behind any of their attacks, and they don’t really have the angle to be effective with strikes, while the guy on top can.

So, just by understanding how to dominate positions, you can be very effective in MMA. Of course, nowadays, you have to be very good at takedowns, you have to know how to take your opponent down to the ground to implement your jiu jitsu, and that’s why a lot of fighters do really well.

For example, Chuck Liddell, who was dominating in the UFC for a while, he is not even that great of a striker, but he has an amazing takedown defence. He was knocking out all these guys that were groundfighters: Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, Jeremy Horn, Babalu. So, he was amazing at takedown defence and basically knocking everyone out.

FightWorks Podcast: So do you think, positional dominance, the importance of distance, do you feel in today’s game, the mixed martial arts game – and maybe competitive jiu jitsu, where guys are world class athletes, all they do is train, they’re sponsored so they can afford to do that – do you still see there being a place where there is a very efficient jiu jitsu where attributes don’t come into play?

Or do you think that the old school mentality or vale tudo BJJ is becoming obsolete, because nowadays, the way things have evolved, it is more about the athlete, the individual athlete.

Henry Akins: When everything is equal, technique is equal, of course strength will always come into play. But with fighters, it’s a combination of technique, strength, endurance. There are a lot of guys who are very strong but don’t have endurance, so as soon as they tire, it’s over. A lot of guys are very technical, but they’re not that strong and they don’t have gas.

Also, your mental, how mentally strong you are. A lot of guys, they get into a tough situation: where they can be the bully, they’re dominating, but as soon as things don’t go their way, they give up. So, to be a good fighter, it’s a good combination. You have to have a good combination of all those things, it’s basically a balance.

FightWorks Podcast: Given your unique perspective – you’re a high level Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, now you’re working with MMA fighters – I’m curious to know, who do you see on a), the jiu jitsu competition scene, or sub grappling scene, like ADCC, and then b), in the MMA scene, who do you see displaying what you would consider high level jiu jitsu?

Henry Akins: The stuff that I like the best in jiu jitsu is guys that are very effective with the basics. There are so many techniques that are really effective in grappling but are not effective in fighting, because what happens is people lose the consciousness of distance, of “ok, I can get hit from here,” you know?

There’s no names really off the top of my head. The thing is, all these guys that are competing are amazing athletes, and they can learn very quick and very fast, and change their game very fast, once they start to learn little things. Roger is of amazing, and he’s one of the best in the world. I love his style, because it’s so basic and so simple. You know what he’s going to do, you just can’t stop him from doing it. Everybody knows what the guy is going to do, but he makes it look so easy. Takedown, cross side, mount, finish.

FightWorks Podcast: I know that you’re working with a ton of guys right now, so why don’t you tell our audience some of the MMA guys you’re working with. Also, I know you’re opening up a new gym in a couple of months, so definitely tell us about endeavour and your goals for your new gym.

Henry Akins: Gosh, the new gym. Basically, I’m opening up a new gym with my friend Antoni Hardonk, who is a Dutch kickboxer, he comes from a very strong lineage of kickboxing. He trained at the Vos Gym for fifteen years, he actually lived with Johann Vos – who is one of the founders of Dutch kickboxing – for three years. The Vos Gym is legendary in Holland, they produced a lot of champions, like Ivan Hippolyte. Ernesto Hoost is from the Vos Gym. Antoni trained with Ernesto for fifteen years, and actually for the last K-1 that Ernesto did in Japan, Antoni was his main coach.

The concept that I always had in mind was opening a gym where people can learn everything, can learn stand up, they can learn the ground, they can learn wrestling, and basically, put it all together but have very high level instruction. Right now we’re partnering up with Antoni, and we’re hoping to have the gym open by March, and it’s going to be in Santa Monica.

FightWorks Podcast: Your curriculum sounds like it is going to include, obviously BJJ, kickboxing. Will it include wrestling and other arts as well?

Henry Akins: Yeah. I’m very good friends with Vladimir Matyushenko, who has outstanding wrestling and he also competes in MMA: we might have him in to teach a couple of classes. In the beginning it is probably just going to be jiu jitsu and kickboxing, but a lot of the jiu jitsu that I’m focusing on – I might have two or three gi classes a week in there – but a lot of it is going to be nogi, with a lot of focus towards MMA.

FightWorks Podcast: Is this solely a coaching venture for you, or do you foresee at some point stepping into the ring or Octagon yourself?

Henry Akins: No, for me it is mostly just a coaching and a teaching venture. As in being able to do it myself, I’ve always considered it, in the past, but of course now, I just had surgery a couple of months ago for a detached retina. It’s now impossible, even if I wanted to do it, but also with contacts and stuff like that.

There was always things that I considered, like “oh, maybe I want to get in there and start fighting,” but then I always had these small things, like “man, I would love to do it, but is it worth my health?”

FightWorks Podcast: In tune with that, in your new gym, what does that mean in terms of the Rickson Gracie Academy? Will you have an association there, or is this solely your new venture and something that you’re really going to take on yourself? Tell us a little bit about that.

Henry Akins: It’s not going to be any type of association. The gym is basically free for anyone who wants to come train. The idea of having an association is more like to have a club or a group where “we’re over here and everyone else is over there, you have to join our club or join our group.”

I don’t believe in that, I believe that everyone can come and train and learn. So, there is no association that is going to be involved. As for leaving Rickson’s academy, I think Rickson’s academy now, they’re going to be shutting down pretty soon. Rickson’s been in Brazil the past couple of years and he’s living there permanently now, and Kron has kinda taken over the school.

So, I think that they’re changing the name to the Kron Gracie Academy.

FightWorks Podcast: Ah, ok, I didn’t realise that. Alright.

Henry Akins: Yeah.

FightWorks Podcast: Well, that’s very cool. So, that basically is just going to become rebranded for Kron and he’s going to be the head instructor from there on out?

Henry Akins: Exactly, yeah. He’s kinda been the main instructor now for the past year, so I think it just makes sense for them to change the name over to him, because Rickson is never there anymore. Rickson, if he comes into town, he might pop in there to teach a class, but like I always tell everyone, it is kinda hard to have a Rickson Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy is Rickson is never there.

FightWorks Podcast: [laughs] Right. So, I’m sure our audience is curious to know: he’s living in Brazil, many of us – not all of us – but many of us are in the US, we’re spread across the globe in terms of our audience. What opportunities may exist in the future for us to get direct instruction from Rickson via a seminar, or something like that?

Henry Akins: Yeah, I think he has been a little bit more active in teaching now. I know he did a couple of seminars in the United States last year, couple of big seminars, and I know he was doing seminars in Japan. So, that’s the thing, there is always going to be an opportunity to train with him, but I know his seminars fill up fast, so you have to be on the ball with that.

I know he is teaching a lot more now, and I know that’s now his focus. For many years, he was always contemplating whether he was going to fight again, and there was always that chance, and they were always negotiating with people in Japan, about him fighting again, but deals would always fall through or something wouldn’t work out.

I think finally now he’s decided that he’s just going to focus on teaching, and I think in the next year, he is going to be doing some seminars and stuff.

FightWorks Podcast: And I know that you are on the seminar circuit, or at least you were for a bit. As we wind down, why don’t you tell our audience how they can get in touch with you if they’re interested in a seminar and also, if you have any closing thoughts for our listeners.

Henry Akins: Ok. If anyone wants to get hold of me, what I’ve mostly been using is my Facebook page, for people to get a hold of me, and I have been teaching a couple of seminars. For a long time, I wasn’t teaching outside of our association or outside of our school, but just recently I decided that I was going to start teaching more. I’ve had a couple of seminars here in the United States, so if anyone is interested, they can get a hold of me on my Facebook page and…I’m sorry, what was the other question you had?

FightWorks Podcast: If you had any closing thoughts you wanted to leave us with. You’ve given us so many things to think about, and so many cool stories, so, any closing thoughts you may have for our audience.

Henry Akins: What I really want people to focus on when they’re training jiu jitsu is always have in mind that you’re training a martial art and after years and years of practicing, you always want what you’re training to be able to help you in a real life situation. At the end of the day, it’s got to be effective for real life.

So, when you’re training, always be conscious of – even though you’re not training with strikes, or not training with hitting – you always want to be conscious of if this were a real situation, what is the possibility of me being in danger here, because that makes, when you do have to use it in a situation where you want to protect yourself, or you have to protect someone that you care about, it actually works.

FightWorks Podcast: Those are some very wise words to leave our audience with, and Henry, I know you’re really busy, with a bunch of things including working on your new academy, so thank you so much for taking the time, and we hope to have you on very soon again.

Henry Akins: Thank you Christian, I appreciate it.

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