Interview with Jay Valko (Valko BJJ)

June 23, 2022 0 Comments

Jay Valko is a gentleman and a scholar.

Jay Valko gives us some insights on the importance of injury prevention, starting a cover band, and his beard.

And I think he also talks a lot about Jiu-Jitsu.

Have you ever used jiu jitsu in a self defense situation?

More or less, both directly and indirectly. Straight up, I’ve used BJJ a couple of times to break up fights. I have never been attacked and had to defend myself, but twice I grabbed someone who was causing trouble in a bar.

The first time, a group of friends and I were watching fights in a bar and one guy started getting rowdy. He was coming out of the bathroom and I saw a guy push a friend of mine and start talking trash. I was right behind him so I grabbed a rear naked choke and waited for the bouncers to escort him out. He froze as soon as I grabbed him. The bouncers saw everything and thanked me after kicking him out.

Another time I had to grab a guy and carry him outside when he hit my friend. Once outside, the bouncers made sure that he was not allowed back in. Indirectly, having the confidence of knowing that I can handle myself has allowed me to defuse several potentially volatile situations. I would say that confidence is just as important, if not more so, than actual physical ability when it comes to self defense.

What role does the ego play in jiu-jitsu?

The ego is both your best friend and your worst enemy in jiu-jitsu. It’s about how you use it. For a lot of people I have to say, “leave your ego at the door,” but I also think it’s important to recognize that what brings us back day after day from getting our butts kicked is our ego. Ego simply means “I” and since BJJ is an individual sport, it’s important to always work on your ego.

There’s nothing wrong with getting beat up and being a little down with yourself, it’s natural. We are all competitive people or we probably wouldn’t be in this sport. However, if your ego or pride leads you to hurt yourself or others, then you have a problem. The fight should be against yourself, not your teammates or even the other guy you’re competing against.

What separates those who excel from those who don’t?

A variety of things. The most important thing is to remember to have fun. For some people, at some point BJJ goes from being a fun avenue for self-improvement to being a chore or a win-or-quit type of thing. Enjoy it. Enjoy the exercise, enjoy the friends you make, and enjoy the art. Beyond that, it also depends on how you define “stand out”. If you mean competition, it boils down to work ethic, patience, the ability to take a loss (or losses), how you manage your nerves, and natural physical ability.

However, you can excel at BJJ without competing. Above all, enjoyment, patience, perseverance and respect for art are needed. Many students get purple belts and think they no longer have to train or learn techniques. This is a big mistake. As you rise through the ranks, you should still treat the art like a beginner and be happy to render things. It’s also important to remember that BJJ is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to stand out, you have to decide to be in it for the long haul, through thick and thin. Sometimes it will be difficult, but as long as you remember to have fun, it will be worth it.

How did you first get exposed to jiu-jitsu?

Through Royce Gracie. When he was in high school, he was messing around with traditional martial arts (no offense to traditional martial artists). Then I started renting the fights on video. I decided to join my high school wrestling team (Clearwater High in Clearwater, Florida) my senior year. Fortunately for me, I was able to beat another kid for the vacant 171-pound varsity spot. I did pretty well for a walk-in senior year, qualified at districts but lost both of my games at regionals. Even though a high school wrestling season is only about 3 months long, I felt like I knew more about fighting after a wrestling season than after years of martial arts.

When I graduated from high school in 1999, there was no BJJ in the area. I did get to see a wrestling class taught by Matt Furey in Tampa, which actually would have interested me more at the time because I was more of a fan of Ken Shamrock than I was of Royce Gracie (BJJiC: Me too!!), but ultimately , the trip went too far. Fortunately, Eduardo DeLima opened a Gracie Barra school about 45 minutes from my house, so as soon as I could I started training there. I was very lucky to meet Eduardo and be one of his first students in the United States. He changed my life completely.

You get nervous?

I get a little nervous before a competition; I’m just trying to remember that anxiety and excitement are very similar emotions. So, I do my best to channel my anxiety into excitement, use adrenaline to my advantage, and just try to have a good time.

What do you tell potential students?

Honestly, not much. Jiu-jitsu more or less sells itself. I am friendly and easy going, I try to provide a non-intimidating atmosphere and when I sense a new student is nervous I make sure to talk to them and reassure them. I explain that no one is going to hurt them and that they just need to relax. A new student is more likely to injure himself than someone else.

If you could go back in time, what would you say to yourself as a white belt?

Be patient and compete as much as possible. Also, enjoy the time you are not training. I remember when I was a white/blue belt, I felt like I always needed to train or someone else would let me pass. If I could go back now, I’d tell myself that most people will quit smoking before they’re a purple belt and that not getting hurt is the most important thing for longevity.

Jay says slow down, man.

How do you know when to promote a student?

It’s a combination of knowing the moves and being able to use them. Competition certainly helps, but it’s not the deciding factor. I have a student who fought his whole life and he is just a beast on the mat. I gave him the blue belt after only a month or two of training, he entered the Chicago Open as his first tournament and took silver in his division and gold in all. He regularly beats good purple belts in the gym. That said, he has been training for such a short time that he doesn’t know some basic moves and doesn’t know many advanced moves. Although I think he could successfully compete for the purple belt, I can’t give him a purple belt until his BJJ vocabulary is greatly expanded. It has to be a mix of technique and practical application.

At the other extreme, there are some guys who are virtual encyclopedias of BJJ theory, but have a harder time performing the moves in a real situation. You have to find the right balance between the two. I also adjust for other factors, like age and athletic ability. I don’t expect the same from a person who is fifty years old and has never trained before and someone who is 25 and has been fighting his whole life.

Who is the best person you have shot with?

When I was a blue belt, I rode with an old school Carlson black belt named Cassio Cardoso. He made me feel completely helpless on the mat. He was almost a purple belt and had a pretty good guard that a lot of black belts had trouble getting past. I remember him going through my guard like butter. It’s hard to know how that match would go now that I’m a black belt, so I have to say since I’ve been a black belt, the best guy I’ve ever rolled with is probably Damien Maia. I felt pretty good around him, and it was just a friendly thing, but once he got the upper hand, he was in big trouble.

Who is the best person you have competed against?

When I was a purple belt I got a silver medal two years in a row at the Arnold Classic/Gracie Worlds. The first year I lost in the final to Chris Moriarty 2-0. It was a very competitive match but he was able to sweep me at the end. The following year Matt Jubera kicked my butt in the final, I don’t know the final score but it was something like 15-2. That was the worst thing they beat me in a competition. So those are probably the best two I’ve ever competed against. I’ve also beaten some pretty good guys, when I was a blue belt I beat Ralek Gracie in the 1st National Jiu-jitsu Tournament in 2002. I think he was only 17 or something at the time. I’ve also beaten pro wrestler Brock Larsen twice at NAGA and handed Eric “Red” Schafer his only grappling loss in 2010, but to be fair, it was in the gi, which isn’t his strong point.

When was Jay Valko last tapped and with what move?

In competition, the last time I was introduced was in May 2006 at the NAGA Advanced Division finals by a guy named Ariel Medina. He caught me by rear naked choke. I remember going into the game he was a little bit confident because he had beaten him at Arnold’s that year or the year before. He caught me pretty quick. I was upset, so when I saw him go into the senior division I also signed up (here’s that best friend/worst enemy ego thing again). Fortunately, I was able to beat him in the rematch. I’m not sure the last time I was touched in training, but it happens quite often. I think it was Allen Causevic who caught me last, with a triangle choke.

jay and allen

How many times a week should you train?

I train 5-7 days a week and I’m on the mat 7 days a week unless I’m on vacation, but it’s also my job. I say minimum for the average person should be twice a week, up to five days a week if your body can handle it. Consistency is the important thing. I think it’s better to be twice a week, every week, than to be 5 days a week for one week a month.

What kind of activities do you do outside of jiu-jitsu?

I lift pretty hard twice a week; He also trained judo, wrestling, boxing and mma. Besides training, I read a lot. I am an economics enthusiast and try to study it as much as possible. I would classify myself as a blue belt in economics, but improving. I like economics, politics, philosophy and discussing these things. I also trade futures on the Chicago Board of Trade. I have been collecting comics most of my life. I used to play drums, but haven’t since I moved to Chicago. From time to time I consider starting an 80’s and 90’s BJJ cover band. I love road trips, my girlfriend and I have driven cross country several times and so far that’s my favorite way to travel.

Why is your beard so impressive?

I would give my beard a 7 out of 10. Also, my girlfriend forbids me to shave. If you want to see a 10 out of 10, be sure to attend our Friday night no-gi class. Our no gi instructor is a brown belt named Mike Cornille and he has the most epic beard of all of us.

Many thanks to Jay for taking the time to do this interview!

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