Jeff Rockwell is a brown belt under Ricardo de la Riva and runs a DLR affiliate school, teaching BJJ and MMA at LionHeart Fitness and Mixed Martial Arts in State College, PA. You can find the address and schedule at myspace.com/rockjitsu.
Jeff Rockwell and Ricardo de la Riva.
How did you get into BJJ?
I got into the martial arts the same way a lot of people my age did: I saw Bruce Lee and I wanted to be just like him. My parents never really wanted me to get into martial arts as a kid, though, as they thought it would encourage me to fight. So I just watched movies, read books, and dreamed of defeating a room full of thugs with my nunchucku. Once I finally left home for college, I decided to find a place to start training. Luckily for me, there was a Jeet Kune Do club right on campus, so I jumped right in and joined up. Working with them led me to an actual school in Maryland, where I trained for several years. It was great, we trained a bit of everything – boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, Jun Fan, kali, silat, sambo, shootwrestling, and jiu-jitsu. So I got exposed to a lot of ideas and styles. There was very little sparring or live rolling, however, so while I learned a lot, the timing under pressure just wasn’t there.
I gravitated towards jiu-jitsu and thai-boxing, and I started training at another gym as well. This gym was a Rigan Machado affiliate, and it was there I really got baptized in the jiu-jitsu fires… I quickly learned that all the leglocks and neck cranks in the world don’t help you if you can’t escape the side control of a seasoned jiu-jitsu practitioner. It was really tough…I got pretty discouraged at one point and actually gave it up for a few months. But the love of jiu-jitsu I had developed was deeper than the frustration, and when I went back, I found some very encouraging training partners who helped me through that period. Since then I have moved around the country a good bit and been at many different gyms, and I’m happy to say that I’ve never had to take more than a week or two off from training.
How have the demands on you changed since you started teaching at your gym?
Teaching full time is very demanding! In the mornings, I usually teach a private BJJ session for our MMA fighters, then I teach a lunchtime public BJJ class, then I lead a two-hour MMA team practice for our fighters, then I teach another public BJJ class in the evenings. On some days I squeeze in a private lesson for one of my students in there as well. I take four or five showers a day sometimes! I don’t have much down time these days, but I can’t complain, I love what I do.
Do you have any trouble balancing your personal development with teaching and running classes?
It is definitely a challenge to balance my personal development and that of my fighters and students. With the schedule I currently have, it’s pretty hard to find extra time for extra cardio, weightlifting, technical drilling, and other things I need to do to stay in competition shape. Plus, it is hard to keep up this pace and stay injury free. I am not that old (about to turn 33), but I feel like I am jumping from one injury to another these days. Nothing that keeps me off the mat completely, thank goodness, but enough to keep me from feeling I can train as hard as I would like to consistently. So that is annoying, but I just keep doing as much as I can, trying to get enough rest, and trying to find the perfect formula. I have really only been doing this job at this pace for a few months, and I am still figuring things out. I am optimistic that I’ll be able to find a good balance so I can continue to personally grow and compete at a high level, as well as teach others at this pace.
What’s the current makeup of your gym experience-wise?
We are still a fairly young gym, and we are primarily made up of white and blue belts at this point. A few of our blues are getting very close to purple belt level. In addition, our gym is really fortunate to have some of the best wrestlers in the country! It is not uncommon for us to have 5 or 6 Div. I All-Americans or even National Champions in our room at any given time, training BJJ, MMA, Boxing, or Thai boxing right alongside everyone else. They are incredible athletes with incredible work ethics, and they are a pleasure to train with. I learn just as much from them as they do from me, and everyone helps one another improve and evolve.
With all those wrestlers, have you seen any interesting examples of wrestling and BJJ, MMA, etc. blending together?
Absolutely! Off the top of my head, I have seen variations of the “anaconda” or “gator roll” choke come VERY naturally to the wrestlers I’ve worked with, along with the “Peruvian Necktie”… basically, anything with a front headlock. The wrestlers all wanted to choke people with those grips for years, so now that they are allowed to…it only takes a few sessions for them to start having fun with them.
What’s cool is that they are at such a high level that they will start making stuff up on their own. They understand how the body works and how to manipulate it, so I show them one move, and they end up figuring out 2 or 3 more positions to use it from, and I end up learning from them. Sometimes they make moves work in places that “BJJ Law” says that it shouldn’t!
It’s very interesting, as they all have different styles… some have speed and movement, some have crushing upper body holds, some even have the rare “heavy hips”… I am trying to get them to blend all of these together, while keeping in their different body types and personalities in mind.
What are the traits you look for in a good training partner or a good student?
Someone who is hungry to learn; someone who is willing to work very hard in training, but still laugh and have a good time; someone who is willing to drill the basics, over and over; someone who can easily adjust the “volume dial” of their training intensity up or down depending on who they are working with; someone who wants to teach others because they love jiu-jitsu, not because they want to feel superior.
What role has competition had in your training? Do you encourage your students to compete?
Competition has, and continues to, provide focus for my training. It’s easy to get caught up in the endless fancy variations of BJJ against the guys in your gym, but competition forces you to strip your game down to the bare bones and look at what you can make work against almost everyone, almost every time. It forces you to address your weaknesses and build a game plan around your strengths. Competition is the test at the end of the training semester to let you know how much you know and if you can apply what you’ve learned. Some people can get learn a lot in school never taking tests, but they are rare and very self motivated. Most people can benefit from having the type of focus that a competition brings. I never force my students to compete, but I definitely encourage it.
Which of your fighters should we be keeping an eye on? Who has matches coming up?
In the long run, everybody! We have such tough guys. In the near future, Paul Bradley and Phil Davis. Paul has made fantastic strides in his striking game recently, and has become a nightmare: a fantastic wrestler who wants to stay on his feet and knock you out. And he can, with either hand! He is extremely hard to take down, and extremely hard to submit. His jiu-jitsu game has taken some great leaps recently as well. In some ways, Paul takes his fighting more seriously than anyone.
Phil Davis has endless potential, and is a strange combination of showmanship and humility. It’s hard to believe he’s really only been training for about 6 months. Many things come very naturally to him… others he has to really put a lot of reps in before he feels he’s got it. I have seen this very thing discourage a lot of people who are so called “natural athletes”; they can’t stand to not be a master of everything on the first try. But not Phil, he digs in and stays after practice to do 50 more reps of whatever is bugging him that day. He comes early and stays late. He doesn’t want it to be “good enough”, he wants it to be “right”. He doesn’t just want to win, he wants to win with technique that will make people take notice. He knows how good he is already, and he knows how good he can be… but he also knows that it will take him a lot of hard work to really get there, and he is willing to eagerly listen to anyone who can help him become a better fighter. He has torn through amateur competition so far, and is getting ready to make waves in the pros. I don’t see a limit to how far he can go.
EVERYBODY at Lionheart has matches coming up! Our fighters don’t stay inactive for too long. Paul Bradley is fighting this weekend in Cleveland, and all of our fighters have fights lined up in the next few months.
What kind of loyalty do you expect from your students and what should they expect from you?
I always encourage my students to go train with other people and other gyms; as long as they promise to come back and show me any new tricks or positions they learned there! I always want my students to be exposed to as many different styles, philosophies, and techniques as possible, so they can see what is best for them. I try to show them as much as I can, even things I don’t personally use very much or prefer, but you can never know everything or even show all that you know, really. So it is best for them to be exposed to as many different points of view as they can. I am never worried about them leaving me for another gym. If that ever happens, whether for logistical or philosophical reasons, there are never any hard feelings. I always want people to feel like they are at home and getting the best training they can, in the best environment possible.
Techniques by Jeff:
That is the sign of a good instructor, encouraging his students to go to other gyms to get a diverse range of ideas/philosophies and techniques. Not afraid that the students will leave, The students will always come back to good instruction.