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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Bristol, UK. Conversation with Can Sönmez.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Bristol, UK. Conversation with Can Sönmez. September 8, 2015
Let’s go back to the beginning. Where, when, and how did you start practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
I could go on about that at length (if you want the long version, head to slideyfoot.com), but in short, I got into martial arts seriously at the University of Warwick, where I did ZSK Chinese Kickboxing. While there, I started visited martial arts forums on the internet, particularly during my Masters degree in 2002. That’s where I first heard about the UFC and Royce Gracie, so I watched a few videos that perked my interest. It took me a long time, but I gradually dipped my toe in the grappling waters, dabbled in MMA, a bit of judo, then eventually got round to BJJ in 2006. I haven’t gone more than a week or two off the mats since.What first BJJ/Martial Arts school(s) did you attend?
My first martial art was fencing, way back in the mid ‘90s just before starting secondary school. After that, it was ZSK at uni (from 1999-2007), dabbling in lots of others over that time. I first went to a BJJ class at the Roger Gracie Academy in 2006, where I had an intro lesson from Oli Geddes, then a blue belt.Who were your first coaches? What are some aspects of their teaching approaches that stand out in your memory?
Oli was the first guy to teach me (he’s now a very good black belt and excellent teacher, who I regularly see at BJJ Globetrotter camps), but my first regular teachers were Felipe Souza and Jude Samuel, from 2006 to early 2009. They are both skilled instructors, but I think Jude is the one who stands out: he is such a cool guy, classes were always entertaining, if tough. He’s now teaching at his own place, Inglorious Grapplers in Kings Cross.There were loads of other great teachers (and still are) at the Roger Gracie Academy, including one of the highest level and most experienced teachers around, Mauricio Gomes. Naturally there was also Roger himself, but he was quite busy with MMA while I was at RGA HQ, so I only ended up training with him around 30 times. I was fortunate enough to get my purple belt directly from Roger and Kev Capel, back in 2011 in Aylebury.

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What’s your current Club?
My instructor is Kev Capel, at RGA Bucks in Aylesbury. I have been under Kev since 2009 (though I first met him in 2006, at RGA HQ). I also run my own club, Artemis BJJ in Bristol, which is where I do most of my training. However, I make sure to head up to Aylesbury to train with Kev regularly, as well as attend things like the excellent BJJ Globetrotter camps (I’ve been to three so far, in Belgium and the UK. I plan to make it an annual thing, two or three a year).What are some aspects of your current Professor’s teaching approach that stand out?
He’s methodical, clear and approachable. The thing that stands out most about Kev, however, is his character. I have met lots and lots of people in BJJ, but Kev is one of a handful I would trust to guide my progress. He has real integrity.List major accomplishments in BJJ or sports in general
The accomplishment I’m most proud of is organising annual GrappleThons for charity, where the idea is to get together and roll for a pre-determined period (I do 24 hours), in support of a good cause. We’ve raised well over £20,000 for charity since I started doing GrappleThons in 2012. Even better, the whole GrappleThon concept has exploded since I started doing them (I certainly wasn’t the first person to organise one, as it’s a straightforward idea, but I’m fairly confident I helped popularise them).I’ve also been really happy that the women’s class at Artemis BJJ has now introduced lots of women to the sport, who I don’t think would otherwise have trained in martial arts, let alone Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. A major goal of mine is to reach a 50/50 gender balance at my school: it’s happened a few times in classes, so that’s promising. I think it’s very important to have a good gender balance in everything (the office, government, schools, etc). All-male environments in particular aren’t healthy, in my opinion.

What are some things that have influenced your BJJ practice/training?
The online side of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has been a big influence. It was the Bullshido forum that really pushed me to first start in 2006, particularly a guy called Ben who was training at RGA HQ (he still trains, but elsewhere now: cool guy). That’s continued, especially as I live a long distance from my instructor. I will often get useful tweaks from online training sites like BJJLibrary and The Grappler’s Guide, along with Ryan Hall DVDs, Digitsu apps etc. Those BJJ Globetrotter Camps have been very important too, I’ve gotten a huge amount of useful technical knowledge from attending two of them this year.

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What brand(s) is your BJJ gear? Anything special about this gear?
I have done many reviews of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gear since people started sending me stuff around 2008, so I’ve owned 40+ gis in the last decade. Personally, I support companies that either genuinely innovate and/or give back to the community in a meaningful way, not just paying lip service.In the former group, that’s companies like The Green Gi, Flow Kimonos and Datsusara (who both make gis from 100% hemp, rather than a blend, like some others who have jumped on the bandwagon), Gimono (a NZL company who use an unusual polyester/merino wool mix) and Gorilla Fight Gear (who among their innovations have produced a very thin 100% ripstop and specially made gis for bigger grapplers).In the latter group, I’m fond of Fenom (who are constantly supporting and encouraging women in BJJ, through open mats, competitions and seminars. They also keep their prices very low, with gis available for between $70-$80) and Tatami (who have been a big supporter of my GrappleThons: every time I’ve asked for help, they’ve immediately agreed, asking for nothing in return. They are another company that offer a great quality gi for very little). Rainha Fightwear are a more recent company here in the UK, who have a similar mission statement to Fenom. I’m looking forward to what Rainha come up with once they start regularly producing gis, should be awesome.Your advice to the parents who is trying to get their kids stick with BJJ lessons?
Have fun. There is no point doing it if you’re not enjoying it. Most importantly, pick your school carefully: make sure the instructors have been fully DBS checked, for a start.

Your advice to the kid who is getting into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Listen to your instructor and remember to have fun.

If there would be once person (dead or alive, famous or not famous, anyone) you can have a training session with, who he/she would be?
Probably Ryan Hall. I got a lot out of his The Defensive Guard DVD, it changed my approach to open guard. So I’d enjoy picking his brain on that. It would also be cool to train with Michelle Nicolini, as I’ve been wanting to get better at shin-on-shin guard (Ana Yagües taught a great seminar at my school a couple of months ago). John Danaher would be another, Roy Harris (for his pressure passing), maybe Henry Akins too as I hear so many good things about him. I’m planning to do a celebratory private lesson tour whenever I get to black belt (distant future!), so hopefully I’ll get the chance to train with all of those people.

Can you give us a glimpse of your current training schedule? How often do you practice and how do you practice?
I teach five days a week, along with lots of open mat time. I also do strength and conditioning with David and Chris from Strength Lab, on Tuesdays and Fridays. If you want to know how I practice, then I could bore you at length, but I’d suggest heading to www.slideyfoot.com if you want to read more about that, I write up every class.

Who, in your opinion, are the masters of BJJ?
In terms of people who are super amazing? There are too many to mention. I’ve got some favourites though: Saulo and Xande Ribeiro are two I look up to and have learned a lot from, via BJJ Library. I also had the chance to interview Saulo Ribeiro for Jiu Jitsu Style Magazine a while back, that was cool (I’ve been a regular columnist for JJS since it started). Roger Gracie is of course a name that has to be mentioned, his jiu jitsu is amazing, particularly his famous cross choke from mount. I’m also a fan of Ryan Hall’s teaching, John Will, lots of others. Not to forget all the great female athletes out there, like Michelle Nicolini, Hannette Staack, Mackenzie Dern.

What inspires/motivates you?
People telling me they enjoyed my class. E.g., today on Facebook, a student of mine shared one of our videos, with the comment that “BJJ is pure fun!” That made me feel good.

What are some of your interests outside of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Many! The main ones are history, art (there are few places that make me happier than an art gallery, especially if it has a good collection of Flemish, Dutch or German art from the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries), sci fi (big Star Trek fan!), fantasy, feminism, comics, writing and music (especially disco, funk , old school hip hop – so, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, that kind of thing, not gangsta rap – and almost anything from the ‘80s. I LOVE the ‘80s, from cheesy fun like Madonna and Wham! through to The Smiths, New Order and Cocteau Twins).

Do you teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? What’s the best way for students to reach you?
Yep, I teach at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. You can reach me at info@artemisbjj.com, or head to the website.

What is one piece of advice that you would give to somebody who is aspiring to some of the same things that you’ve achieved on how they might be able to get an edge in that journey?
Ha – well, I’ve not really achieved anything much, but I’d say the biggest thing when starting out in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is learn how to relax and let go of your ego. That might sound trite and your hear it a lot, but it’s extremely important. If you worry too much about not getting tapped or how fast other people are progressing, you’re going to struggle to enjoy Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Once you stop having fun, it’s tough to make yourself go and train. You are also going to pick up a lot of injuries if you let your ego take charge. So, next time some huge white belt is trying to open your guard and you’re really straining to keep it locked, push your ego out of the driving seat and just go to open guard. It’s not worth getting injured: let the roll flow instead, see what happens. It’s only training, after all.

Thank you Can! We wish you well and continuing success!

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