Matt Thornton article from FIGHTMAG magazine.

The first thing I noticed when I met Matt Thornton was his height – all 6′ 9″. He strides from one end of the gym to the other in only a few steps. Coming into the room, the slightest reflex-like dip allows him to pass through the

doorway with the ease and comfort of a man half his size. Matt’s fighting skills are second to none and looking at the well worn callouses on his massive hands, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that he has spent a very long time building his body into a well-honed fighting machine. Matt Thornton looks like the kind of guy you would NOT want to mess with. And so, perhaps the most surprising thing about him is how soft spoken he is. When it comes to speaking about himself and the Straight Blast Gym he is highly articulate.

But fighting is just part of Matt and he does not define himself by fighting alone. He has strong philosophies about fighting and training and is a highly principled person both in and out of the gym.

I recently caught up with Matt and Chris Haueter when they gave a tough and very useful seminar at John Kavanagh’s gym in Dublin. The seminar was attended by over 60 people from across the UK and Ireland and gave an in-depth insight to the Straight Blast training style.

Matt tell me about the SBG Organization, how did it all begin?

I was teaching concepts and kickboxing with an Inosanto instructor. We had a school together in Portland. I started going in a different direction, philosophically. Plus, I was interested in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so I opened my own place about 30 miles away. It was a small, tiny little gym that I shared with a Judo guy. Soon, all kinds of people started to travel and train there. Everybody said there was no way I could survive, financially, as most people want to train the way most schools were teaching at the time. I thought I would do it anyway and more people kept showing up so I ended up opening a bigger location and I was able to quit my job. So that is, basically, how the Straight Blast Gym started.

So what was it that interested you about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

One of my friends in Oregon, this was a few years before the first UFC, brought Rickson Gracie over for a seminar but hardly anyone showed up; maybe 11 or 12 guys. They were all big Judo guys and I did not have a ground game at all. I knew a little as I tried rolling but, to be honest, we didn’t know what we were doing. At the end of the seminar I watched Rickson tap out the entire room of guys one right after the other without using his hands! Each guy tapped within a few seconds. So I was very impressed and, I guess, you could say I was hooked after that.

How does your JKD training fit into the ground game?

JKD to me is not a style and it’s not a system. When I say “JKD” what I mean and what I teach is stand-up, clinch, ground, and weapons. What I emphasize is learning the fundamentals of each delivery system: boxing and Muay Thai for the stand-up delivery system, and Greco and freestyle for the clinch and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the ground. Style now comes into it when the person starts to develop their own game from sparring and live training. Everybody learns the same BJJ. The art is the same but each person’s style is individual! That’s the JKD aspect of it. So, to me, that is what JKD is and that is what we do.

What elements do you think a person needs to be a champion in MMA today?

Right now you have to be so well-rounded. I mean, it’s going to be hard to be just a pure BJJ guy or a pure wrestler. There’s no way you could do it with just stand-up, so you have to have all three. You have to be a good all-around-er and you must have good athletic ability. Conditioning, anaerobic conditioning, and it’s more of a professional sport now so you have to take it seriously. You can’t be missing anything! If you don’t have a sprawl or you don’t have hands you’re going to have a hard time. If you don’t have a ground game you are going to have a hard time. You gotta have the whole package.

When you talk about having the whole package in your seminar you seem to emphasize “Aliveness”. Can you tell me what you mean by this?

What “Aliveness” means, essentially, is timing, motion, and resistance; which is energy. So let’s say we are working the stand-up with boxing. I want to be moving around, I don’t want to be flat on my feet, so that is motion. Timing. I don’t want to just have a person throw punches like a robot so I can know what they are doing, so that is the timing. Resistance means to throw the jab or cross like you would in a fight. You never just lock your arm out and pose. When you are moving around, not in a pattern alternating the rhythm throwing a punch like somebody in the street or ring would throw it then that’s Aliveness. It can be aggressive, although, it doesn’t mean he has to knock my head off, but it has to be real. On the ground we learn technique, introduce the technique, and then we isolate the technique against resistance. When we teach someone a sweep we practice it 10 or 12 times and make sure they know how to do it correctly and make sure they understand how it is supposed to work. Then one guy tries to resist and the other guy tries to sweep that’s the drilling of it, the isolation. The third stage is integration we put it all together and that is “Aliveness”.

Is this something you have developed yourself? How did you come to this way of thinking?

No I didn’t develop it myself, that way of training has been around since men started fighting. The Romans and Greeks, you name it, anybody that actually fought has used “Aliveness” because that is what makes training work. Boxing has always had “Aliveness”. I’m sure the Greek Pankration fighters trained using it, there is no secret to it and the people that use live arts, real arts, the ones that are not fantasy BJJ, Judo, Boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, those arts have always had “Aliveness”. It’s almost redundant to explain it to them but that is not who I am speaking to. I am often speaking to “martial artists”. I didn’t invent it nor have I claimed to have done so. If I did anything, I gave it a term of reference and I did that as a means to explain to somebody who doesn’t come from an Alive art, who comes from a dead pattern art, that they don’t understand why Judo does work and traditional Japanese Ju-Jistu doesn’t when it comes to throws. Well because of the training in” Aliveness”, it’s not the techniques! It’s not that one is street technique and one is sport; that’s just nonsense. It’s the way they train. Give that a word and they understand the concept.

Did this style of training cause you any problems with other, more traditional, arts and their instructors?

No, not at all. I’ve never met a critic face-to-face; only on the internet.

So why do you think many of the traditional arts fear change so much?

Because they are stuck in an image of whatever they think they are and they know, inside themselves, that it doesn’t work so if they actually train with “Aliveness” they would lose that image. They can’t do that; it’s just too much for them.

I noticed you have a very cool motif! You use the image of the Gorilla. Why did you start using that?

You know why that happened, was when I first opened the gym I wanted to make a t-shirt and I saw a wrestling magazine in the states and there was a picture; an advertisement for wrestling headgear. It had headgear on a gorilla, on a real gorilla. So, I used that for my t-shirt and then everybody, for about the next twelve years, gave me gorillas for gifts. So that’s how it came about. Really, there’s nothing behind it other then that.

For today’s seminar you have brought Chris Haueter with you and on your website you speak highly of him. How did you meet Chris?

I met Chris in LA. He was introduced to me by a very good friend of mine, Burt Richardson, when I was a blue belt. Burt said to me, “You gotta train with this guy, he’s showing a lot of detail on armlocks and stuff that I have not seen before.” So I came down for my first competition as a blue belt. It was a Rickson Gracie tournament. I met him and I brought him up to Oregon and, basically, we trained from there we became great friends and also he has been my main BJJ coach so we have been training together for a long time now.

At this point the interviewer begins to talk with Chris Haueter.

For those in the UK and Europe who don’t know you, who is Chris Haueter?

I am a cop in LA and I am a black belt in BJJ under the Machado school. I got my black belt in 1996. Before that I had been in the army where I had been boxing and, of course, in college, I wrestled at a national level. I had my first black belt in Martial Arts when I was 16.

What is your role at SBG?

I am just a BJJ coach and I help out wherever I can.

You have also studied JKD. Do you think this helped you in learning other arts?

I think it exposed me to what I was really after; arts that are, as Matt would say, “Alive”.

You said you had a black belt at 16 what art was it in?

It was in traditional Karate and I can say that I have never used any of it in a fight.

So why did you go with Karate?

Because I was young and the guy was just across from school and it’s where my mom put me.

So why did you chose BJJ?

I like to think that it chose me! Once I experienced it I was instantly hooked. I had been wrestling but there was always something missing out of wrestling so for me BJJ filled that missing part. It answered the questions for me.

Would you still use freestyle in your ground game?

Yes, I think so. It adds to my arsenal and I think that, in MMA today, it would be a great addition and, most certainly, enhance performance. This is something I would advise all newcomers to try.

What other forms do you train?

I used to train a lot of Muay Thai but not much anymore. I basically just love the grappling arts.

What do you think of mixed martial arts today?

I think it’s awesome and it had to happen. It’s about time it was given the same respect as other combat sports.

Is MMA something you would compete in?

At this point in my life I don’t think I ever will. I am 38 years old and I don’t think I have the kind of drive you need to be successful in the sport today.

If you had to coach a fighter in the run-up to his fight what would you think is the most important thing to work on?

I would do a lot of cardio training, wind sprints, stairs but mostly it would be training in the ring with sparring; sometimes heavy, but good quality, injury-free training. I would quit sparring heavily about a week out and just keep rolling and doing gentle training in the run-up to the fight and, about 48 hours out, quit so as to have lots of energy for that day. Just before fighting, I would build up a good sweat so I was well warmed-up and getting sweat going helps quell the adrenaline rush. That is very important.

What about weight training yes, no?

In a nutshell: light weights, lots of reps.

So, who is Matt Thornton to you?

He is a big huge guy. (laughs) No, he is a guy who has greatly influenced me in my training and he is a big, huge guy!

If you could pick one piece of advice for a new fighter, what would it be?

I would say it’s not who’s best, it’s who’s left!

Here is a tricky one for you, who is better you or Matt?

Who’s bigger? (laughs) Well, technically, I would say that we are pretty close but physical attributes play such a huge part and, well, Matt’s huge and a great athlete!

Interviewer speaks with Matt Thornton again:

Matt, Chris has talked about preparing a fighter for a show but I have heard you talk about training healthy and what do you mean by this?

Well…first, training healthy is training smart so you don’t get hurt. Nobody gets hurt and you are not over-training, hurting your body, so that’s physically healthy. Then the mental part of it is not identifying yourself through your role of training so you get caught up in the image of being a “fighter” or BJJ guy or this or that. It’s not healthy because that is not who you are. Right now, that just happens to be something you do. In our world, if you and I were to have a conversation and I was to say, “this guy is mature,” we would both know what that means. When I would say that word, we would nod and say, “Ya, he’s a mature guy.”

We don’t define it. The definition of maturity really is how that person we are speaking off chooses to measure, or define, himself. Someone who is mature defines himself or herself by a deeper level of measurement like being a good father or their relationships with other people; how loving and sincere those are. Someone who is mature doesn’t define himself or herself by the fact that they have a cool car, or tattoo, or a hot-looking girlfriend, or as a fighter or BJJ guy. To me, to be mentally healthy, we have to place martial arts training into it’s proper perspective in life and understand that it is not really that important in the great scheme of things and, as such, we don’t identify ourselves as being that, the people who do are always headed for a fall.

So, what do you look for in a student?

I don’t pick and choose. I learned that a long time ago. I have class in my gym that I hold once a year that is really intense and everyone pays in advance and it’s a lot of sparring. I take twelve students a year into that class and…I try…I have done it for eight years now…I try and pick out who will last and I would say, “There is no way that guy’s going to last. He’s going to quit his first day.” Then, there would be this kid who was really strong…”Yeah, he will make it,” and I was wrong every time. I was always surprised by the people who would come in and train and be the ones who would quit. I don’t even attempt to guess anymore. I just create the environment and advertise it.

I leave it open and who ever comes and stays and whoever doesn’t, that’s entirely up to them. I noticed Randy Couture the UFC Champion has trained with you. What did he bring to the SBG?

Randy brought the clinch! When I left the JKD school, I had boxed before I had done JKD so I never really bought into the JKD stand up stuff because I always did boxing. So, when I left that school, it was mostly basic boxing and some Muay Thai and trying to do BJJ. So, other than the neck-tie we had no clinch game. Randy completely gave us that missing link. Nobody else was really doing Greco at that time and, now, most of the fighters know you have to have the Greco and it’s becoming commonplace, but it was a big deal, then. That was the third element, the missing element which was that of the clinch; pummeling.

Going back to JKD again, and it may be an odd question, but what do you think Bruce Lee would have made of MMA today?

I don’t know but I would like to think he would have loved it and that he would have been into it, but it could be just the opposite. He could have got trapped in the image and gone traditional; having his people call him Sifu and not allowing his students to compete because he was afraid they would lose. Which path he would have taken? I have no idea.

What have you got planned for the SBG? What’s next?

Right now, pretty much continuing to spread the organization’s name and spread the message of “Aliveness”. Travel around to build up our Jiu-Jitsu Association around the world. We are getting some pretty strong groups of people training; big strong groups here in the UK and Ireland. Also, in South Africa and, of course, in the states. So, it’s growing and growing and I’d like to see that continue.

And, finally, to both of you, if you could get anyone on the mat for a match, who would it be and why?

Matt: Ricco Rodriguez and Drew Barrymore. Ricco because he’s my only loss. Drew Barrymore, well, that’s between me and Drew, but I am pretty sure she would win (laughs).

Chris: I would have loved to have competed against Royler Gracie. I admire his style and I think he’s awesome and it would be an honor to compete against him.

Thanks much gentleman, end of interview.