On a Saturday afternoon in February, John Danaher stood in the middle of Columbia’s Andrew F. Barth Wrestling Room, teaching a seminar on his front-headlock system. Fifty members of the university’s Brazilian-jujitsu club watched as his disciples Garry Tonon and Nicky Ryan demonstrated the first step. The headlock is a position familiar from childhood roughhousing and Olympic-style wrestling, in which it is used for takedowns; in jujitsu, where the goal is not to pin the opponent but to force him to concede the match, the headlock is an opportunity for strangulation. With your opponent on hands and knees, snake your arm under his neck and across both carotid arteries, then connect your hands in a five-finger grip. Throwing one leg over his torso, fall to your hip and squeeze, cutting off the blood supply to his brain until he taps out in submission. Easy.
But what if he uses his hand to block your leg? Then include his arm in the guillotine and proceed much as before. Gordon Ryan, Nicky’s older brother, showed how. And what if, and what if, and what if? In ninety minutes, Danaher and his team ran through only half of the headlock’s contingencies. “The problem with most approaches to the sport is that they offer a simple solution to a simple problem,” he told the class. “If the solution doesn’t work because the opponent is resisting, there’s nothing else to offer.” Danaher’s approach is different. “If there’s a failure in one part of the system, other parts of the system can be brought in to overcome that failure,” he said. Indeed, his headlock system is just one among many, with decision trees of control and submission organized across the entire body—a comprehensive new paradigm for the ancient sport of grappling.
Brazilian jujitsu is a key element in mixed martial arts, and it was Danaher’s work with M.M.A. fighters that first brought him renown. Firas Zahabi, who coaches Georges St-Pierre, perhaps the greatest all-around fighter ever, compared Danaher to Hannibal Lecter, calling him “scary smart, superbly calculated and logical.” But in recent years Danaher has turned his attention from M.M.A. to the development of pure, submission-only jujitsu—no punches or kicks, no heavy gi or kimono, no baroque point scoring or judges. Just a quicksilver struggle for dominance.
Danaher instructed Gordon Ryan to play defense against the Columbia students. As Danaher looked on, silent except for pinpoint compliments, Ryan escaped strangles and arm locks in seconds. He was a week away from his third Eddie Bravo Invitational, a sixteen-man tournament that’s become a showcase for the Danaher Death Squad and its pioneering method. In Ryan’s first E.B.I., a year ago, he was twenty years old and had been a black belt for less than three months. He entered as a last-minute replacement for his injured teammate Eddie (Wolverine) Cummings. There was no weight limit, and Ryan, at a hundred and eighty-eight pounds, was one of the smallest men in the field. Nevertheless, he won the tournament, beating a former world champion who outweighed him by forty pounds and the imposing wrestler Rustam Chsiev, nicknamed the Russian Bear.
Danaher, who is fifty and looks like a bulky, bald Robin Williams, trains the Death Squad in the humid blue-and-gray basement of Renzo Gracie Academy, around the corner from Madison Square Garden. Some sixty grapplers show up on weekdays, at seven-thirty and noon, for the most innovative jujitsu class in the country. But the competitive core of the squad, its R. & D. department, is much smaller. This group is conducting a research program dedicated to systematizing “the art and science of control that leads to submission,” as Danaher likes to put it. Cummings, a former physicist, is a calculated leg locker; Tonon thrives in chaotic scrambles; and Nicky Ryan, just sixteen years old, already beats adult black belts with preternatural calm.
“The research has a similar feel to experimental physics,” Cummings told me. “You cheat, you look for ways to cut corners, make approximations here or there, ask yourself how you can play with the system, what if I lose this grip or that wedge, how does it change? Same sort of feel. But I feel like the field is ultimately rudimentary right now. I worry sometimes if John dies I’ll have no one to talk to. I’ll be in a room writing on a wall.”
“Classical jujitsu, it’s pretty simple, O.K.? It’s basically a four-step program,” Danaher told the Columbia students. “You put your opponent down on the ground, you get past his legs, you work your way through a hierarchy of pins, and you look for a submission. It’s a great system, and it works very, very well at beginner levels. At higher levels of the sport, you’ve got to go further than that. If you run into expert resistance, you’ve got to have ways of overcoming expert resistance. And the way to do that is to build subsystems within systems, so that there’s a knowledge asymmetry. You have so much more knowledge about a given position than your opponent does that, inevitably, over time, you’re going to break through.”
Danaher’s systems have a long lineage. Jujitsu was developed in Japan, in the fifteenth century, as a no-holds-barred samurai art. But in the late eighteen hundreds, it was superseded by Kanō Jigorō’s sport of judo, which eliminated the dirtier moves, like eye gouging and groin strikes. In the early twentieth century, the judoka Mitsuyo Maeda went on a world tour, picking up tricks from the Western boxers and wrestlers he fought. In Belém, Brazil, he taught the teen-ager Carlos Gracie what he had learned, and Carlos, in turn, taught his brother Hélio. After a few years, the Gracies began competing in no-rules challenge matches. Slight young men, they developed a system that relied on leverage rather than size or strength. Wrestling and judo prized pinning or throwing an opponent on his back. The Gracies realized that, in a real fight, the opposite is often more effective—control from behind, ideally with the opponent belly-down, so that he can be strangled into submission.
Unlike wrestling and judo, Brazilian jujitsu isn’t yet in the Olympics or American high schools, but it is growing rapidly. Schools have sprung up nationwide, attracting both civilian and celebrity practitioners, such as Keanu Reeves, who trained in the martial art for his role in “John Wick: Chapter 2.” On the Showtime series “Billions,” Paul Giamatti’s character studies under Danaher. The sport has evolved technically as well, spawning hundreds, even thousands, of potential moves and countermoves. (The human body in motion is a complicated thing, and two of them in antagonistic combination exponentially more so.) For a novice, or even for an expert, this can be overwhelming; it’s not necessarily clear what to learn, or why, nor is it always obvious that modern-day jujitsu is the qualitative advance over the Gracie style that the Gracie style was over judo. Danaher’s response is to clear away the complexity, by continually reorganizing and refining only the most efficient, consistently effective moves.
The Columbia club’s co-instructor, a one-handed new black belt named Andrius Schmid, thanked Danaher for coming. Then Schmid asked his team if they knew about Danaher’s history at the school. “I was kicked out in disgrace,” Danaher said. “I was voted, by the entire body of Columbia University, Columbia’s most stupid student.”
Danaher was born in Washington, D.C. His father was a pilot in the New Zealand air force and an attaché to the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. When Danaher was young, the family returned home to Whangaparaoa, near Auckland, where he learned to kickbox. He came back to the States in 1991, in his mid-twenties, to do a Ph.D. in epistemology at Columbia. He weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds, the result of weight lifting, and had long hair. While teaching and writing his dissertation, he moonlighted as a bouncer; his co-workers traded stories of a scrawny Brazilian guy who, in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments, had dominated much bigger men, trained in boxing, Tae Kwon Do, kung fu, and wrestling. Danaher got a V.H.S. tape of Royce Gracie, Hélio’s son, at U.F.C. 2, winning four fights in less than ten minutes. Soon after, a Columbia classmate little more than half Danaher’s size, who had been training in the Gracies’ “crazy Brazilian wrestling” for only two weeks, challenged Danaher to a bout in the philosophy department. Danaher locked the door, grabbed him in a headlock, and threw him to the ground, a tactic he’d had success with in bar fights. But the grad student wrapped his legs around Danaher and started rotating onto his back for a choke. Danaher’s arms got tired; he released the headlock and scrambled away. “I was absolutely stunned that, despite a considerable size difference, I could do nothing to him on the floor,” Danaher said.
He soon began studying under Renzo Gracie, Royce’s cousin. In these early days, tough guys from the street and martial-arts traditionalists alike would show up to Gracie’s academy spoiling for a fight, using tactics like biting and eye pokes and nerve touches, challenges that senior students would have to put down, controlling them with jujitsu before slapping them. But the academy was also a laboratory; jujitsu had been imported from Brazil to California in 1978, and was only now making its way to New York. Students were trying to map its possibilities. Danaher was never going to be a pro fighter—he’d started too late, at twenty-eight, and a rugby injury to his left knee had led to serious hip and back problems—but when, in the late nineties, the coaches at the school departed to pursue professional careers, Gracie asked him to step in. Danaher thought for a moment, then abandoned his dissertation.
“The people I was most interested in were philosophers of science,” Danaher told me, about his academic work. “You have great minds, like Popper, Feyerabend, Lakatos, Kuhn, and my own dissertation supervisor, Isaac Levi. These were people who were fascinated by the question of research programs. What makes some progressive, what makes some regressive? What makes them healthy, what makes them unhealthy? For me, all of my coaching is structured along those lines.”
What is the nature of progress in grappling? The activity goes back to antiquity, even to the great apes, and there aren’t many truly new techniques left to discover. “If you look at ancient depictions of grappling, wrestling, et cetera, et cetera,” Danaher said, “you will see many of the favored moves of today in cave drawings from Egypt of ancient grapplers: you will recognize the same front headlocks, for example. In depictions of pankration and wrestling from ancient Greece, you will see recognizable body locks and trips.” And yet, he said, “It’s my belief that the average blue belt of today would destroy the average blue belt of the time that I was a blue belt.”
Danaher was a blue belt for a long time; he was just one level higher, a purple belt, when he began coaching. But his first conceptual breakthrough didn’t come until around 2000, when he was a brown belt. Leg locks, properly applied, can be very dangerous: a twisting heel hook can break the ankle and damage ligaments in the knee. But classical jujitsu treated them as cheap shots or as Hail Marys, outside the standard upper-body repertoire. Encouraged by the grappler Dean Lister, who used basic Achilles locks effectively, Danaher decided that he could go further. He began to research hip and leg control, gradually interlocking attacks and positions into an overwhelming hierarchy of their own. “Opponents could know what was happening, know the standard counters, and still be crushed from any position,” he has written in one of the lengthy Facebook posts that he pecks out on his iPhone while on the subway.
Danaher’s first great student was Georges St-Pierre, a young francophone Canadian who, in the early aughts, would take the bus down from Montreal to train. By 2006, St-Pierre had become the hundred-and-seventy-pound champion of the U.F.C., now the world’s premier M.M.A. organization. Earlier that year, he fought against B. J. Penn, perhaps the sport’s best grappler. (Penn was the first American to win a Brazilian-jujitsu world title, after only three years of training.) The bout went to St-Pierre by a split decision. In 2009, they faced each other again. This time, St-Pierre wanted to destroy Penn’s heretofore impassable ground defense. He went to Danaher, who taught him how to shrug his way out of Penn’s prehensile legs, then control Penn’s knees and spine to prevent him from escaping. Penn smashed Penn’s guard, then hurt him so badly that he didn’t return for round five.
St-Pierre took a hiatus from the U.F.C. in 2013, around the time that Cummings, Tonon, and then Gordon Ryan began training twice a day, seven days a week. Finally, Danaher had vessels for his leg-attack system, and he sent them off to showcase it against the world’s best leg lockers. In 2015, Tonon rapidly heel-hooked Masakazu Imanari and Marcin Held, and Cummings did the same to Reilly Bodycomb—the three victories took less than eight minutes total. The biggest challenge was saved for last year: Rousimar (Little Tree Stump) Palhares, a terrifying veteran notorious for holding leg locks in place long after his opponents have tapped out. Tonon was far outweighed, but for fifteen minutes he held his own, rolling out of vicious slams, almost breaking Palhares’s ankle, and attacking non-stop. The match ended in a thrilling draw that felt like a victory.
After class one morning, the Danaher Death Squad lounged on the mat. Cummings was bemoaning his fate. His study of leg locks was becoming too obsessive, and his training partner Ottavia Bourdain was trying to save him from himself. “I haven’t slept in a few days, and it’s, like, two in the morning,” Cummings said. “She’s, like, ‘You know, it’s such a slippery slope. A couple times this week—you’re starting to go down that road.’ I’m sitting there, looking, watching more tape, I’ve got three computers going.” Cummings was getting worked up. “As I descend into insanity, I come up with game plans, like, I said, ‘I didn’t test against the knee slip,’ or something, something stupid. I see what’s happening. Did you ever go through that phase, John?”
“No,” Danaher said. “I managed to remain relatively sane by sleeping once a day, and eating regular meals, and conversing with people outside of jujitsu on a regular basis.”
Danaher lives alone and is famously private, if not eccentric. He wears skintight compression shirts, known as rash guards, on all occasions, even at weddings. He’s stoic, kneeling to demonstrate moves during class despite being in constant pain. (He now uses a cane and probably needs a knee replacement.) He rarely wears a coat in winter, which he explains by invoking the decimating French retreat of 1812: “If Napoleon’s troops could walk three and a half months through one of the worst Russian winters in history, in summer clothing, and a significant number of them returned, we shouldn’t have any problem.” Danaher has taken a lot from military history, in particular from the work of J. F. C. Fuller, a British major general and Fascist who was partially responsible for the German Blitzkrieg, in the Second World War. Fuller was “a strange, even irrational, and politically rather dangerous man,” Danaher said, but the officer’s notion of the indirect attack was profound. “If I want to attack something on an intelligent, knowledgeable opponent, direct paths rarely are successful; almost always, there has to be some kind of subterfuge.”