Man on a mission: A Matt Thornton profile

Matt Thornton has spent the last decade bringing the message of Alive training to the martial arts world. Recently, his travels took him to Reykjavik, Iceland.

MMA.IS caught up with him, attended his seminar, and (barely) lived to tell the tale. Riding the bus on my way to the seminar, it started to hit home. This was it.

My first class under a legitimate Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. Wow. I was about to meet a guy that had actually rolled with the legendary Rickson Gracie! Then, I started to get a little nervous. Due to my chronic inability to remember that the bus schedule is different on the weekends, I was an hour late. Visions of push-ups and squats as punishment for my tardiness flashed through my head. Surely someone that had boxed since childhood, served in an elite U.S military unit, trained with UFC champion Randy Couture, and routinely taught police officers how to defend themselves must be the ultimate disciplinarian badass?

Well, no to the first one, and a yes to the second.

Upon entering the Aikido dojo where the seminar took place, the smell of sweat hit me. I´ve been in there dozens of time and the only thing you usually smell are crisply washed uniforms. It was obvious that a different class was in session today.

Twenty odd people were paired up, rolling around on the ground. Sitting by the window surveying the scene was Matt, looking at this latest batch of students, roughly half of whom were wearing the uniforms of the World Jiu-Jitsu Federation; a “traditional” organization that belongs to a section of the martial arts world that he has been quite critical of. After quickly securing an interview, after the seminar, I rushed to the locker room to change into my Gi.

The first thing that hit me after I joined the class was how soft-spoken Matt Thornton is. His voice has an extremely relaxed quality that, although distinctly American, lacks the annoying accent that sometimes makes Yanks hard to listen to for long periods of time.

Whether explaining the finer points of ground fighting, his views on realism in martial arts or telling stories from his own gym in Oregon he grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. You quickly realize that he is that most precious commodity: a natural teacher. It probably wouldn’t matter whether he had gotten into astrology, woodworking or 12th century history, he´d be able to explain his craft to newcomers effortlessly.

The second thing you notice is how freaking tall he is. Standing 6 feet 9 inches, he towers over most everybody, and he moves in the slowly graceful, deliberate way common to those people forced to spend their youth bumping into things in a world that just isn’t designed with them in mind.

Matt Thornton´s martial arts base is boxing, which he has trained pretty much from childhood. After he left the U.S Army he became interested in martial arts, and began his teaching career within the Jeet Kune Do Concepts organization, who claims to follow the legacy of innovator and martial arts legend, Bruce Lee. The mission statement of JKD Concepts was (and still is) to incorporate techniques from all martial arts into a cohesive whole, and although the system is rooted in the tradition of Chinese Kung-Fu, it has grown to include a multitude of different methodologies and approaches. Matt became a certified instructor and taught at a JKD school for several years. Then he met Rickson Gracie.

“At the time, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was virtually unknown in the US, and only a few people were talking about this new brand of ground fighting” Matt explains. Keep in mind that this was before Rickson´s brother Royce cleaned house in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, winning eleven no-rules fights against much bigger opponents and grabbing three championship titles, a feat only recently surpassed by Matt´s old training partner and Oregon native, Greco-Roman wrestler Randy Couture.

“I went to a seminar held by Rickson and watched him line up a roomful of black belts in various styles and submit them on the ground using only his legs”. That experience caused Matt to look at JKD in a different light. What made Rickson so dominant, so fluid and able to apply his techniques without hesitation on a resisting opponent while they struggled ineffectually, unable to pull of any of their moves? After attending some BJJ classes the question was easily answered.

“Sparring is the key to success. If you don’t spar you will never be able to apply your techniques against a resisting opponent”.

Seems self-evident? Not to most traditional-minded martial arts schools. Most operate on the theory that the best way to be able to apply a self-defense technique against an attacker is to drill the sequence of event either alone or with a training partner that may resist a little, but not much for fear of injury. This is known as Kata or Forms. If done over and over and over again this is supposed to make the response automatic when faced with a life-threatening situation. In Matt’s opinion, this is the core fallacy of most martial arts.

“Human beings don’t learn that way; it runs contrary to how our minds and bodies operate. If we play tennis for example, and we want to improve our backhand we don´t go into our garage and do 500 backhands, just swinging the racket at thin air. If we did, our backhand would suck just as much and would probably be worse than before because the body cannot stand repetitive motions. If we go out and put in the hours on the court, or at least use a machine to fire balls at us we improve, and improve quickly”.

In Matt’s book, hands-on experience counts for anything. “If we tried to learn everything in our life the way most martial arts schools teach, we wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone drive. But believe it or not this is the rule rather than the exception in martial arts. It’s ridiculous.”

A bold statement indeed, and looking around at my fellow students I could see that some of them were not pleased. But no-one said anything. I don’t know whether it was the ingrained respect for the instructor, or the permanent “no-bullshit zone” that seems to follow Matt around wherever he goes, but not one of the people who had spent their entire life as martial artists doing pretty much nothing but kata voiced one objection.Matt´s training is based on what he calls the I-method. Every move, whether it´s a sweep, a guard pass, a submission, or something else is taught using three stages; Introduction, Isolation and Integration. During the introduction stage, Matt shows the class the move step by step, and has them pair up and do the move on their partner without any resistance. Once everyone has it nailed down, he moves to the isolation stage where the opponent resists the move, lightly, at first, but gradually piling on the pressure. Then comes the integration stage where, although starting from a position that makes the move possible, the opponent may resist fully and launch his own sweeps and submission attacks. Much emphasis is on using your partner as a training tool. The partners need to gauge their resistance to a level where they are neither too compliant nor too tough to crack. I found my game improving almost by the hour on the first day of the seminar. There is no doubt that this method works.

All the while Matt walks around the room, observing, and when he sees someone make a mistake and end up submitted or in a precarious position, he doesn’t rush over and correct the mistakes but asks the unfortunate one “Why did this happen? Why was he able to do that?” This forces the student to think for himself, a concept that seems to be dear to Matt Thornton.

Matt began training with Rickson and earned his blue belt in BJJ under his tutelage. But when he wanted to incorporate it into the curriculum at the JKD academy he ran into a brick wall of resistance.”Everyone told me that it didn’t work in real life, just on the mat, that nobody wanted to train that way, that nobody wanted to sweat, that it was just a sport and not a real martial art”. Not satisfied, and becoming more and more disillusioned with the JKD curriculum Matt decided to open his own place, despite the naysayers.”Everyone thought it wouldn’t work, that I’d never get enough students that wanted to train this way to make a living. But I couldn’t teach something that I knew didn´t work”.

Fully expecting to have to work a full-time job for the rest of his life to make ends meet, Matt took the plunge. Ten years later his Straight Blast Gym has expanded from its headquarters in Oregon to include branches in all areas of the United States, England, Ireland, Denmark and South Africa, along with a multitude of affiliated training groups in four different continents. Matt´s training methods have found fertile ground in the modern era of mixed martial arts, but he is quick to stress that Straight Blast isn’t just a breeding ground for cage fighters.”We were doing mixed martial arts before mixed martial arts existed, so that it was a natural evolution for the guys that wanted to compete to go and do that, but the Alive concept of training which is universally adopted by all sports, by all athletic disciplines I emphasize because that’s the only thing that works and the only way to train that’s healthy. Once somebody is exposed to training this way they can´t go back provided their intent is performance. They may not necessarily stay with Straight Blast but they will always train in an Alive fashion”.But what is Aliveness? For sure sparring is a key element, but there is more to it than that. Several golden rules govern the actions of all SBG locations, including an “open mat” policy that forces all coaches to spar with whoever walks through the door in front of their students, and a “freedom of learning” that encourages students to go to other schools, train different disciplines and figure out their own techniques. Another aspect of Aliveness is that no one is more critical of the curriculum than the instructors themselves, and techniques that are superseded by other more effective ones are ruthlessly weeded out. In ten years the SBG curriculum has undergone several transformations, ensuring maximum effectiveness. SBG is also a very democratic organization, and every student from the most experienced instructor to the humble beginner is encouraged to add their own opinions, techniques and experience to the organization. “No hierarchy” is one maxim that is enforced to ensure this. There are no bowing rituals, no uniforms, and no titles at Straight Blast.

If you want to wear a different-color Gi no one has a problem with it. Students address their instructors by their first name or nickname. In short, respect is not given to an authority figure, but earned on the mat, the hard way. “I think it´s a very elitist attitude that unless you are 22 and competing that you shouldn’t be doing this, that you shouldn’t be training this way. At our gym everyone is welcome. Why shouldn´t a 53 year old woman that wants to do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu do it, if she enjoys it as much, if not more as the young guys that are out there competing”.”What we do at SBG is in my opinion is fairly unique. Most MMA gyms are for young jocks that are looking to compete. I don’t know of any organization where this type of training is available for everyone. People may claim that but then when you walk into their gyms it´s all 20-something athletes. Add to that that many BJJ instructors teach in a very traditional manner. You learn a few techniques and then you roll, there’s really no athletic drilling in-between.”

“Also, there’s an underlying theme that all the coaches have that I have not seen anywhere else.”What is that theme? One thing all the SBG senior instructors have in common is an exploring mind, always seeking to improve and add new material to their arsenal, and a dedication to giving the best possible curriculum to their students. Most of them have background in other combat sports, such as boxing, Muay Thai and wrestling, in addition to a strong base in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Talk to Matt for a while and his love for BJJ shines through. He definitely knows his boxing, but there´s just this different kind of look in his eyes when he talks grappling, a slightly fan-boy like enthusiasm that speaks the unspoken message “isn’t this the coolest thing ever!?” At the seminar he related a story from his days as a bouncer, where he was forced to defend himself against a crazed drug abuser in a nightclub parking lot. “I was doing a lot of Muay Thai at the time and I hit him hard several times with knees and punches right in the face, but he just wouldn’t go down. In the end, he ran away and, when I opened my fist, I realized that I had ripped his ear off. He hadn’t even noticed it. I found out later that he had been on heavy drugs non-stop for days at that point,” “If I had been training Jiu-Jitsu and at any point in the fight I could have taken his back I would have been able to end it with a chokehold. Because when you block the arteries that provide the brain with blood I don’t care what your bench press is, how crazy you are or how much crack you smoked that day you will be unconscious in a matter of seconds. It’s the quickest, cleanest way to end a confrontation there is.”

Although, or perhaps because of, Matt Thornton has been in “violent” professions all his life he is an amazingly gentle person, so laid-back that he´s practically horizontal. When I caught up with him Monday night after the seminar to record this interview, he was dog-tired from a combination of jet-lag, teaching and the obligatory tour of Iceland’s finest tourist attractions and bars courtesy of seminar holder, Bjadni. Most everyone would have blown off the interview in favour of sleep, but not Matt. When the tape recorder clicks off we keep chatting about a multitude of things. I’m more than a little surprised when he claims not to be all that crazy about MMA.

“It’s the 21st century now and still we find enjoyment in watching two men hit each other in the head. Of course it’s barbaric in a sense. Boxing DOES cause brain damage, and so does MMA, if not as much. That we still live in a world where grown men beating each other up is considered entertainment is something that we should really think about.” Of course, I like watching it too, – which makes me a total hypocrite.” A wry little smile follows that last comment.

Somewhat rattled I ask him if he thinks that this will ever change? After a long pause he replies:“Yes. I think that in the next hundred years human society will undergo a transformation to the point that it will no longer be socially acceptable to strike another human being. It´s a world I’d like to live in but wont. Hopefully my children will live to see it”.

“In the end, competition doesn´t matter to anyone but the competitors. Who was wrestling champion in the fourth Greek Olympics? Who was middleweight boxing champion in 1934? It all fades from the public memory in the end. It only matters to the two guys in the ring. They are the ones that feel the urge to get in there. When an ex-champion comes out of retirement to fight one more time and loses badly everyone gives him grief and tells him

he shouldn’t have done it, but he did exactly what he needed to do. For himself.

And that’s really the core of the SBG philosophy. You are not training for your teacher, for the gym, the audience or the honor of your “style”. You do what you do for yourself, to know yourself better.

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