David Onuma interview
17 August 2010 4 Comments
David Onuma talks to The Fighting Photographer
David Onuma is a complete martial artist, who combines Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with the Filipino Martial Arts and runs the Combined Fighting Systems Academy in London. David has trained with the best in the world in martial arts and is constantly striving to improve both himself and his students and has took some time out of his very busy schedule to answer questions about his life as a martial artist.
Carl Fisher: David, huge congrats on receiving your Black Belt earlier this year; how did it feel to receive the belt and where did you get the promotion?
DO: Thanks a lot Carl; it was a great honour to receive it. I had attended the European Championships 2010 to fight at middleweight Brown Belt in my division. I had originally planned to fight in my division as well as the absolute but decided against fighting in the absolute in the end. I was on the podium receiving my medal when Thiago “Monstro” Borges tied the Black Belt around me on behalf of Ricardo Vieira and Rodrigo Cabral. Simply receiving a BJJ Black Belt is a fantastic achievement but getting it on the podium in that way in front of my peers at the European Championship is something that I never would have imagined.
CF: How did you view Jiu Jitsu and your understanding of it as you moved through each of the belt colours?
DO: Well my BJJ journey to Black Belt has been a long one compared to others. I received my Blue Belt from John Machado in 1999, my Purple Belt from Roger Brooking in September 2005, my Brown Belt from Ricardo Vieira in March 2008 and finally my Black Belt on the 31st January 2010. I was never really a White Belt for long because I obtained my Blue Belt after training extensively with John Machado on a tour he did of the UK back then as well as a tour of Italy. Whilst we did complete his basic programme covering all of the Blue Belt material, I think he felt a bit sorry for me at the end of training and decided to give it to me before he returned to the USA. The problem was when I returned to the UK as you will know, there were no BJJ schools around at that time and at that stage I would say that I was one of a handful of people ranked as Blue Belt in the country. Because of this and my other interests, I effectively gave up training with the Gi even though I did do submission grappling and I only started training again with the Gi when I joined Roger Brooking’s Academy some time at the end of 2002. It was in fact like starting as a White Belt again, because I was caned by all the Blue Belts and even the White Belts gave me problems. The most significant period of development I would say was in-between Blue Belt and Purple Belt and that was when I really began to understand what Jiu Jitsu was all about. Whilst I have obviously learnt new techniques between the various belts, it has been more a case of refinement and deeper understanding as time has gone on.
David & Jean Jacques Macahado in Los Angles in 2000
CF: Were there any epiphanies through these belts; when the clouds parted and all of the secrets of Jiu Jitsu came down from the skies? Or was the secret merely, train, “train, train, train”?
DO: It’s funny that you should ask that question. If I was to get a pound for every time that people have said that I was a “natural athlete” I would be very rich. I have always believed in “intelligent combat”. The majority of people in life always tend to think that hard work automatically equals results, and I am afraid that that is simply not true. In business terms if you have to work very hard to earn your money then actually you are probably doing something wrong. The point I am making is that there is nothing wrong with hard work but whatever work you do you must do intelligently in order to maximise the results of that time that you have invested. There have been times when I have been taught a particular technique which has really helped me or changed my game, but the things that helped me the most have been the principles that I have been taught in any particular situation. As a result of this I am able to recall all the different principles taught to me by various teachers I have had over time because of the effects that they had on my game. Fortunately that is still an ongoing process.
CF: What team do you train with now and who is your chief instructor?
DO: Politics is something that I am usually very keen to avoid because as you know it creates so many problems but I am a member of the Checkmat team and the chief instructors are Ricardo and Leo Vieira. The team has been through a series of name changes over the past few years and certainly since I have been training with them, but effectively I have always recognised them as the team heads. The Checkmat team is very well established in the world and the UK now has something like 10 UK based Black Belts with the majority being in London.
CF: Where do you teach now David?
DO: The majority of my training is done with close friends and other practitioners and the majority of my time is taken up with my full-time job as a lawyer and my other personal commitments. However I do find time to share my knowledge with various groups either in classes or at seminars. Details of whatever I am doing can always be found on my blog.
CF: Combined Fighting Systems; when did this come into being?
DO: I would like to begin by actually explaining what CFS is. CFS is just a name that I chose to host the arts that I teach and the people that are associated with. The very first school I ever had in a church hall back in 1986 was the Women’s School of Martial Arts and Self Defence. I later coined the phrase “The Garage” as that is where I was training and finally settled on the term CFS maybe 10 years ago. I do not train or teach ‘my style’. What I do is pass on the knowledge that I have in relation to each of the arts that I am qualified to teach. I teach each art in its pure form therefore enabling individuals to gain certification or qualification in those arts. However in keeping with the principles of Sigung Bruce Lee and Master Teacher Guro Dan Inosanto I have my own personal expression as to how I use these arts in combination and I try to help people develop their own personal expressions. It becomes dangerous in my view when teachers put together a series of techniques or training matters from different styles, create a syllabus and then teach it to a student telling them that that is what they need to do. All that happens in those circumstances is they teach students to be clones of the teacher and it may not even be the right thing. It would be impossible for any of my students to be a clone of me quite simply because they are not me and they have not had my direct training influences but of course they will pick up things which other people will be able to identify as coming from me.
CF: Do you have any people at CFS who have been instrumental in shaping CFS as it stands today?
DO: CFS has particular training methods, which make it in my view unique. I do not say that we are the best Martial Artists out there even though we clearly hold our own, but I think what sets us apart is our ability to structure and organise the training and learning which puts students in the best possible environment to succeed. CFS has become more recognised by the fantastic job that the authorised instructors have done personally and with their students. Within the Filipino Martial Arts we have many high ranked instructors who are skilled in competing and teaching. The best stick fighter that we have ever produced was Guro Roger Barnes. Unfortunately he passed away in March 2008 completely unexpectedly leaving a big hole in all of our lives. He was the World, European and many times British Stick Fighting Champion and his personal students have also gone on to replicate those same titles. More recently we have Carl Jackson who was recently promoted to associate level and just came back from the World Championships in Mexico with a silver medal in the single stick division. As far as BJJ/grappling is concerned we have Blue Belt and current British Open Champion Corey Donoghue who is going from strength to strength. He has taken Gold in SENI, fought at the Europeans, won at Grapplers Showdown and so on and so forth. Steve Payne has only been involved in BJJ for about 19 months and has already won the European Championship two times, one at White Belt and one at Blue Belt (2009 and 2010). I thank all of these guys for putting their trust and faith in me and helping others to learn of our existence.
CF: You have an eye-watering amount of Martial Arts teaching credentials; can you tell the readers when you started your path on the Martial Arts?
DO: This September I am going to be 43 and I started training with my older brother who had a background in Taekwondo and Hapkido when I was 12. I then started training in Kickboxing with Master Kingsley Morgan and at the age of 16 I started Wing Chun. Along my journey I have studied the Filipino Martial Arts, Silat, the Jun Fan Arts and of course boxing and Thai boxing. The teaching credentials that I have obtained simply flowed from remaining consistent in my training of each of these arts.
CF: Who are your influences within the Filipino Arts that you practise?
DO: My four biggest influences in the Filipino Martial Arts have been Guro Bob Breen, Guro Terry Barnett, Guro Dan Inosanto and Guro Desmond Watson. Whilst I have trained with other Filipino Martial Arts teachers, these four are the ones that have really helped me to understand different aspects of those arts both historically and combatitively.
David & Guro Dan Inosanto in 2008
CF: Bob Breen and Dan Inosanto are two of the most well respected teachers in JKD/Filipino circles; do you keep in touch with these guys and others in their field?
DO: Master Bob Breen I would describe as my Martial Arts mentor and father. He was the one that literally opened all the doors for me in terms of Martial Arts training and also knowledge wise. In fact I actually got into grappling because of him and my introduction to Guro Dan Inosanto came as a result of him. He was ever so kind as to share a lot of his time with me over the years on a private level and that really helped to accelerate my understanding of Martial Arts. Not only did he train me privately, he took me with him to a number of seminars all around the world which enabled me to see him in action, learn some more things and also to meet a whole new group of different people.
As much as he is well known and respected throughout the world, I can still honestly say that the majority of people really don’t know how good he is. It has been a privilege for me to teach at his academy and to be a student of his and I first started teaching at his academy in 1998 continuing to this present day. In March 2008 he honoured me by promoting me to a level of Full Instructor, which is the highest rank that he has ever given to any of his students. I think I ought to make it clear at this stage that Guro Bob has produced so many world class students and almost anybody that you can think of in the UK who has become recognised in the Filipino Martial Arts and JKD has had the tutelage of Bob Breen at some point or another. I am fortunate to be one of that very elite group of his top students and I certainly do not claim to be the best. When Guro promoted me to the level of full instructor, he made the point of stating that he felt that of all of his students, I was the one who most closely knows and understands his personal style and approach. So far as Guro Inosanto is concerned I have been on his instructor programme since 1999. He remains as an inspiration to me and to countless of many others just because he is who he is. Even at the age of 74 (July 2010) his work ethic would embarrass students even a quarter of his age. Again a lot of people don’t realise really how skilled and knowledgeable he is. Even within the BJJ world, whilst his is not the first name that would come to your lips for obvious reasons, but I can tell you that he was promoted to Black Belt in I believe November of 1999 and is still training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu three to five times a week even now. Even though he has trained with all of the Machado brothers extensively he has extended his knowledge to train with many, many Black Belts (many of who are his junior) but continues to train in order to improve his knowledge. When you have somebody like that around who still continues to learn and is of that age and experience, it becomes very difficult to start thinking that you know it all because plainly you don’t.
CF: Which art is your number one favourite?
DO: [Laughs] “Now you are just trying to get me in trouble!” I honestly cannot answer that question because they all give me different things. The Filipino Martial Arts, particularly the weapons’ training really helps to develop the eye and brain speed. This is because you are dealing with weapons that travel upwards of up to 80 mph and you can’t afford to let your attention wander or you could be seriously hurt. There is obviously also a very functional aspect to the weapons training given that most confrontations in the street now involve the use of a weapon and more than one person. I obviously love the striking arts because they are essential and necessary in any form of combat and it is necessary to keep those basic skills sharp. As far as BJJ is concerned, it is great because it is an art that helps to keep me in shape and most of the time you can test the skill in sparring in all competition without the risk of any serious injury. BJJ in my opinion is far from a complete martial art on its own, but because of the other martial arts that I study, I have never bothered to concentrate on the “self-defence” aspects of BJJ because on the whole those are not the methods I would use to defend myself. As you can see Carl I used the politician’s tactic and didn’t really answer the question!
CF: How do you keep on top of all your training in the various arts? Do you have any free time?
DO: Do I have any free time: No, that’s the simplest question you’ve asked me so far! Keeping on top of the various arts has been difficult but again in a sense not so difficult. They say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget and therefore I would say the secret is to learn how to ride the bike properly first. This is what I have done in relation to all the martial arts that I have studied.
I have spent time with them more particularly when I was younger, studying in-depth and prepared to spend as much time as possible with each art to become proficient. It was never really my intention in any art particularly to get the Black Belt, “as the goal”. I am not saying that I never wanted to obtain a Black Belt or instructor level status but more important to me was to be good enough to achieve that level. This is why for example with BJJ it took me 12 years to get my Black Belt because I was not training in it full-time five times a week as my only art even though I have placed a heavy percentage of my time on it over the past few years. I have also tried to see the common links between all of the arts so that when I practise striking, I do so having regard to how I might use it in boxing, kick/Thai boxing, MMA or even on the street.
CF: You have an outstanding BJJ competition career; what have been your most memorable moments on the path to Black Belt?
DO: Thanks Carl but I think you are being a little bit kind with reference to my competition career. If the truth be told I have not really done lots of competitions over the years particularly due to time constraints, living my life generally and having regards to my priorities, but one thing I always wanted to do in relation to BJJ was to improve myself in any way possible and that also included testing myself in competition. There are many, many, many practitioners in this country who certainly compete more than I do and in fact are probably better competitors but then again that’s their journey and this is mine. Having said that there are many BJJ practitioners in this country who hold ranks of Purple Belt and above who have never competed and that is something that they have to deal with themselves. In my view, subject to any physical ailment, every BJJ practitioner should compete at least once or twice at each belt regardless of the outcome because it is a necessary part of the BJJ journey. I also feel it’s a bit difficult to try to explain to a student how she or he should react under the pressure of a competition and what kind of problems they might encounter if that instructor has never had those pressures themselves. I would guess that my most memorable moment on the path to the Black Belt was winning my first European championship when I attended in 2008 and fought as a Purple Belt. I was encouraged to go and fight by my good friend and Roger Gracie Black Belt Nick Brooks who gave me the courage to go out there and put myself on the line and so I did. I am ever so grateful to him for that because I am not sure that I would have actually gone to fight without him pushing me. I was then fortunate enough to win the following year as a Brown Belt and then also in 2010 to take the Brown Belt title for the second time. I have fought and won at every belt prior to achieving my Black Belt save for white belt, as I wasn’t really one for long.
David receiving his black belt on the poduim of the 2010 European Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championships
CF: Do you change any part of your training when heading for a competition?
DO: Yes I obviously increase my cardio training and centre my game around the principle things that I plan to do in competition. Obviously I make sure that my diet is what it should be and basically I try to keep myself in prime shape for the competition.
CF: Are you going to compete as a Black Belt this year?
DO: I will of course compete as a Black Belt but at this moment in time I am not sure when that is going to be.
CF: Have you competed in other Martial Arts formats?
DO: I competed in the British Kung Fu Association competitions when I was younger and I have done some amateur inter-club MMA competitions whilst in the States.
CF: BJJ training and competing can take you round the globe; where have you trained and competed abroad and where is your favourite destination?
DO: I have trained in many places around the world. I have been fortunate to travel to most of Europe including Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal and Germany and I have also trained in Canada, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I really enjoy going to Canada because that is where one of my best friends and Filipino Martial Arts teacher Guro Desmond Watson lives.
CF: You have recently trained with Leo Vieira in June this year; what was this like and who else was there?
DO: Yes Leo was recently over in the UK. He took a couple of seminars for the Checkmat team. One was at their London HQ at Diesel Gym and the other one was at a Checkmat gym in Rochester. There were several Black Belts there including Monstro, Eduardo Azevedo, Claudio and others. He taught Gi and No-Gi. It was a fantastic seminar and then I also managed to train with him in a private lesson the following day. Funnily enough even though he taught me some really useful stuff for my game, it was what he told me more than what he showed me, which stuck. He said that every year he works on a new position and its variable for a period of one year, and then after he has perfected it, he teaches it to all his students. It really made so much sense and I have already started to incorporate his approach into my training already.
CF: What’s your connection with Mill Hill David?
DO: Mill Hill Jiu Jitsu is the academy of my good friend Nick Brooks. We have been friends for a long time and have been training together as friends since we were both Blue Belts even though at different schools. Neither of us can stand politics. Through our friendship, I have taught many times at his academy because it is close to me and very often he shared techniques with my group of guys. I am currently the Head MMA coach at their academy and helping to develop that side of things.
CF: You have a conditioning coach, Andrew Marshall; how long have you been training with him? What benefits have you gained from your time with him? Has the training helped improve your BJJ and other arts?
DO: Strength and conditioning training is very much an under-rated part of Martial Arts. It obviously has become more and more important because competing has become more and more important and more professional and therefore people have had to adapt their training to that kind of level, however it is still far from something everybody does. The first person who really got me into conditioning and training is my very close friend and student Corey Donoghue (Doninho). He is an ex-professional football player and also a football coach. His never give up attitude has really influenced me and even though I was his Martial Arts coach he became my conditioning mentor. That then led me to train with Leon Baillie of Highgate Fitness Studios. I started to train with him on a one-to-one basis and he took my fitness to another level pushing me harder and harder, but I was unable to do as much as I would like to do with him because of the pressure of timetables. For the past six months or so I have been training with “Android” Andrew Marshall. I am not one to sing praises easily but this guy is absolutely fantastic. His knowledge and understanding of fitness, strength and conditioning is far beyond my comprehension. No two sessions are ever the same and being a Kettlebell Champion and Martial Artists himself, he is able to appreciate the sort of things that I need.Training with him has increased my strength, stamina and explosiveness. This has definitely crossed over to all of my Martial Arts training. He is the head S & C coach and joint owner of the Mill Hill Combat and Conditioning Centre and anybody looking to improve their fitness and get a better understanding of their body would do well to contact him.
CF: You have embraced the Internet and have a well-followed blog. How do you find the blog as a way of communicating with the outside world?
Very simply it’s a great way to communicate and keep in touch with people that you obviously wouldn’t see on a daily basis. It’s also great for sharing information with people who have an interest in what you do. Generally any video material I have is posted on my blog because that way if people are interested in me or in what I do they can go there and look for it rather than posting it myself on a YouTube account (not that there is anything wrong with YouTube).
CF: You post on the EFN Forum as ‘Malandro’; any meaning behind the name?
DO: It is the BJJ nickname given to me by 9 times World Champion Ricardo Vieira in 2004. Unfortunately Malandro, which is Portuguese, can have a negative as well as a positive meaning. He told me that he was giving me that name because he felt that my game was well rounded and that I was adaptable to all situations and therefore I took him at face value, unless of course secretly he was trying to tell me that I was dishonest and a scoundrel.
CF: You’ve had some guest instructors on your blog in the Technique of the Month section, can you name a few of your learned colleagues?
DO: For those that have appeared on the blog so far in relation to BJJ as guest instructors include Nick Brooks, Alan “Finfou” Do Nascimentl and Eduardo Azevedo. There will be many, many more as time goes on and I have footage of Leo Vieira to upload.
CF: Are you active on the seminar circuit?
DO: I do as much as I can time willing and also subject to demand. If anybody is interested they are more than free to contact me and will find my details at the foot of this interview.
CF: Moving to BJJ again David; do you feel that the art has a high dropout rate, especially at the White Belt/Blue Belt stage?
DO: Many people get to Blue Belt and then give up, after years of training and dedication, spending a lot of time and money on their training. I know this from my own experience as a coach and from talking to other coaches unseen, which I think is unfortunate to see all that hard work going to waste. What is your opinion on this? Have you had similar experiences yourself?
I am not necessarily sure that there is a higher dropout rate in BJJ then there is to other arts but I suppose it might seem like it mainly because it takes longer in BJJ to progress to the next skill or belt level and therefore if somebody leaves it is usually more noticeable. In other arts where it can be easier to obtain a Black Belt people still drop out but then they tend to stay towards gaining their Black Belt, as they know that there is probably a realistic opportunity for them to get it in the not too distant future whereas this is obviously not the case with BJJ. It is always a waste when anybody invests time and effort into something and then drops out but then if it isn’t for them then so be it.
I would hope that nobody drops out of BJJ simply because they didn’t like it or because they didn’t get on well with their teacher but as I say, it does happen. I tend not to worry too much about those who drop out but rather those that remain.
CF: Have you ever hit a plateau in your training, and, or teaching, and if so, what have you done to overcome them?
DO: Oh yes, in both. It has happened to me many times and sometimes it can seem extremely difficult to overcome them particularly when you yourself don’t know the answer. The secret really is to find the answer and that answer may come from a friend, a training partner or even your teacher. There is always an answer to everything. It is easier to find an answer to a problem when you know that there is an answer as opposed to when you have a problem and you think there is no answer because therefore it will never materialise. In short I have always sought the answer and it has always come.
CF: What advice would you give to other BJJers that hit a plateau or maybe feel like they are losing motivation to keep training?
DO: I would always say don’t give up. Talk to someone as I have suggested above and maybe all that is needed is a change in the way that you train. It is easy to hit a plateau or to lose motivation if you never had a goal or a game plan in the first place. Goals and game plans help you to structure yourself in order to move your journey forward. If you don’t have one it’s easy to feel that you are floundering in the dark and in reality that’s probably what you are doing.
Thanks for taking an interest in what I do and me and I wish all the readers every success in all they do - “Intelligent Combat”.
Contact details for David Onuma
Carl Fisher (AKA The Fighting Photographer) is a BJJ/MMA journalist, photographer and referee; a purple belt with the Combat Base UK network, Carl’s work can be found on the internet and on his Blog: http://thefightingphotographer.blogspot.com