Ryan’s note: Michael Jen is a 4th degree black belt who started training back in 1991. He is the Head Instructor at Smash Gyms in Sunnywale, California.
He recently taught at the BJJ Club of Michigan, and shared not only some amazing techniques, but he has a different perspective on Jiu-Jitsu. He has a wealth of experience in BJJ (and Judo), and he’ll share concepts with you that you won’t hear anywhere else. He is a teacher of teachers!
How did you get started in BJJ?
I started back in 1991 in a self-defense class in college. The BJJ was mixed in with other martial arts, but of all the arts, I was the most drawn to the BJJ.
When I began BJJ, it was for self-defense streetfighting. I had no idea that sport BJJ competitions existed and I thought BJJ was all about the old school challenge matches we saw in the Gracie Jiu-jitsu in Action videos where the Gracies fought practitioners of other styles.
I actually really disliked training in the gi and did very little of it in my early years of BJJ because I felt that sportive techniques didn’t relate to self-defense. What’s funny is that when no gi submission grappling started to grow in the US, I would hear people talk about how it was a new and different sport. I felt it was very odd to hear this since I was training no gi BJJ the first day I ever learned BJJ. Now I teach and train in the gi all the time and focus is more along the lines of the enjoyment of the art and science of BJJ rather than self defense.
How did you become such a technical practitioner and teacher?
When I first started training martial arts in my late teens, I was 5”11 and 135 lbs (now I’m 6”1 and 175 lbs). Being that I was as light as the average woman, I had to rely on technique as I sure didn’t have strength to rely on.
Plus, there was always a strong emphasis technique rather than strength with all the instructors I trained with back then. If you look at all the Brazilians who first came to the US back then, they were all pretty small guys. Any sort of supplemental training done by the Brazilian black belts at that time were all body weight exercises. None of them lifted weights or did any of the strength and conditioning that is so commonly seen nowadays. When we would see big huge Americans getting tapped out by these small Brazilians, we knew that the answer was in the technique.
As far as being technical as a teacher, I was heavily influenced by my first BJJ instructor, Roy Harris. He was an extremely technical instructor. In addition, there are two aspects of my personality that contribute to my teaching ability. The first is that if I decide to do something, I don’t like to take half measures. I want to be really good at it. So when I decided that I was going to teach BJJ for a living, I felt that I had to be the best instructor I could possibly be. I had many bad experiences where I paid instructors good money and did not not feel fully satisfied with what I got. I never wanted any student to feel like that with me.
The second aspect of my personality is the belief that anything I learned, I could teach it better than how it was taught to me. While some may think this sounds arrogant, I see it as nothing more than a desire to constantly improve. But this idea also applies to myself in that if I teach a certain topic one day and have to teach the same topic again the next day, the second time will never be the same as the first as I constantly try to improve what I am doing.
Can you tell us a little about your relationship with your teacher, Joe Moriera?
My relationship with Joe is different, especially from the generation of his students that came to train with him long after I did. I see many people refer to Joe as “Master Moreira”. While I respect Joe as my instructor, I never have and never will refer to him as “Master”. Such formalities never existed in BJJ back in the 90’s. That’s a recent thing. I’ve always referred to him simply as Joe and he doesn’t care that I don’t use any formalities with him.
Joe and I also play around in way that I don’t think many of his other students are comfortable with doing. When I would roll with Joe and he would tap me out, I would jokingly cry out, “You bastard!” When we have done seminars together and he is demonstrating a technique on me, he will mess with me and do a little “extra”. When he does it to me, I’ll softly curse, “Motherf*$&%ker!” and we both chuckle about it.
I recently did a private lesson with you, and I was blown away by some of the techniques, strategies, and principles that you taught. In fact there was a concept that I have never heard in my 20 years of BJJ – bilateral alignment. Can you explain briefly what MBF is and how it’s affected your Jiu-Jitsu and or students?
MBF stands for Muscle Balance and Function. It is a posture therapy exercise system. By the time I was in my early 30’s my body was wrecked. I had horrible chronic pains that I had lived with for well over a decade. I my search for a solution to my problems, I came across the MBF system and it not only fixed all my problems, but improved my body beyond what believed was possible. I was so impressed with the system, I decided to get training in it and become a practitioner. As a practitioner, I have helped many people with issues that, had I not seen it with my own eyes, most people would think were impossible to resolve.
My training in MBF allowed me to look at BJJ in a completely different perspective. It also allowed me to see greater commonalities not only between BJJ, judo, and wrestling, but also between all techniques in general. I began to understand it through physics, biomechanics, and postural alignment. I began to understand every technique on a much deeper level. It allowed me to understand how and why everything worked. It began to allow me to translate “feel” into concrete scientific terms.
What role do you feel diet and lifestyle plays in BJJ, if any?
When you are child or teenager, you can probably eat extremely unhealthy and have poor lifestyle habits and you may not feel noticeable negative consequences in your BJJ performance. I believe that when you get older, you start to suffer the consequences of the choices you made when younger. I feel many people wrongly blame the aging process instead.
So, in my opinion, if you want to have greater longevity in BJJ, especially when you are older, diet and lifestyle is extremely important. The consequences of poor diet and an unhealthy lifestyle is inescapable and inevitable. Unfortunately, most people won’t make dietary and lifestyle changes until they are in serious pain and their health is suffering a major problem.
What advice would you like to give the BJJ students reading this interview?
Don’t double guard pull. Every time you double guard pull, a kitten dies.
If you want to learn more about Michael Jen, visit www.SmashGyms.com.
If you’re ever in the San Jose (California) area, go train with him!