A Friday night in Belfast city centre, Damien Mulgrave is teaching a no-gi class to a group of 20 students. The pace of the class is relaxed and as the students catch their breath they are focusing on the finer details of a guard technique Damien is demonstrating. Liam of Local Lapels took 20 minutes to sit with Damien after class to have a quick chat.
LL: Hi Damien, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me, I would like to ask a few questions about jiu-jitsu with the idea of exploring the different personalities attracted to it and hopefully gaining a grounded understanding of the local athletes behind the art.
You are the head coach in Straight Blast Gym (SBG) Belfast, but going back to the beginning, how did this passion for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu start for you?
DM: I initially started off in Muay Thai. I was doing that with Frankie McConville in ‘Frames Gym’ roughly 11 years ago, two years before I started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I had a couple of fights in Thailand and a few in Ireland, then eventually a friend of mine – Gary Mac of ‘Slims Kitchen’- said to me, ‘Do you fancy trying this ground fighting?’. It always was an accepted idea of mine that fighting was standing, kicking and punching, but I said, ‘Yea, I’ll give it a go’. I had one session and fell in love with it. I haven’t looked back!
LL: Interesting. I find it’s hard to get across to people what BJJ really is; everyone has the idea that fighting is fighting, but BJJ is so much more than that, would you agree?
DM: (Laughs), Yes definitely.
LL: What do you think attracts people to BJJ?
DM: I love Jiu-Jitsu, I love studying it, the intricacies of it, I love it when I gain an understanding of it and when something clicks with me. There’s a whole new understanding that comes along with that. I love watching that develop amongst other people independent of myself. I love it when people really figure things out. I think it’s the same for the majority of people who try Jiu-Jitsu; there’s always going to be something to explore and something new to learn.
A great thing happens when you’re watching a technique on YouTube and you fall down the rabbit hole, so to speak. You’ll come in and try it in the gym, then BOOM – It works! It’s your move, it’s in your arsenal, and you’ll show someone else it in the gym, and the knowledge base just grows from there.
LL: So you began in Muay Thai then found your ground game of BJJ, did you carry on training in both?
DM: I kept them both on for a short period of time, but then it became full time Jiu-Juitsu.
LL: What benefits do you get from training BJJ?
DM: For me, it’s about mental health and the physiological benefits. These benefits are more noticeable when you are not able to do BJJ. When you haven’t engaged in some form of BJJ in 4 or 5 days, you find yourself in a bad mood, then you can come in for a session on the mats and leave feeling completely different, you know? Your ego might not particularly like it because you maybe get your ass kicked, but deep down you know it’s good for you. Once you get home, have a shower and you’re finally sitting down thinking about it, you feel fantastic!
LL: Yes, you definitely get a buzz after a training session no matter what mood you were in before you started. You express yourself in certain ways on the mat, and it carries through to the rest of your day/week.
DM: It gets the endorphins going. It’s your body’s own reward system for pushing yourself through a tough training session. You leave a different person.
LL: People say there’s a primal aspect to BJJ – the movement of the body in a particular way using strategic thought. People who practice BJJ uncover certain aspects of themselves that they never would have realised had it not been for these particular movements and ways of thinking. Does that resonate with you?
DM: Yeah, they talk about having ‘monkey hormones’ in terms of the primal aspect. In a controlled context in BJJ you’re fighting for your life 4 or 5 times a week, and for 2 hours at a time. I think it elevates the hormones you need to adapt to that environment; your testosterone levels go up and your cognitive function improves, helping you to survive.
LL: How long were you training before you got your first belt?
DM: You start with a white belt, and I earned my blue belt within a year. That’s one of my goals here, to help people earn their blue belt as soon as they are ready.
LL: And was that full time?
DM: Yes, back then, I was working a day job and getting up at 6am and going up to a friend’s garage – Davy Stalford, who is one of the guys doing BJJ in the north of Ireland the longest – Davy Is our striking coach here at SBG and has been doing Jiu-Jitsu for about 15 years. He’s also a blue belt.
I would have went to Davy’s garage and we would have sparred for an hour, then went to work, then after work had dinner, then went back to training again. So pretty much twice a day. There was a time where I lost my job and began working the door and my training increased to maybe 3 times a day at that point.
LL: What would you be doing if you were not doing BJJ?
DM: That’s a hard question to answer. Jiu-Jitsu has been my one constant for the last 9 years. I went through a lot of different times in my life, different things, different jobs, but Jiu-Jitsu was always there. I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing; Jiu-Jitsu is the only way.
LL: What’s the best thing about teaching BJJ?
DM: Ah, Good question! For me it’s seeing when something clicks with someone. You’ve communicated a technique in such a way, and someone gets it. There’s a moment when it clicks with them, and they are able to apply it, and the smile on their face when they are successful with that during a sparing session is very rewarding
LL: What’s been your proudest moment in teaching, considering you’ve been at it a few years now?
DM: Bringing teams down to the Irish Open! You bring the team down and watch everyone compete. It’s rewarding watching them demonstrate great Jiu-Jitsu techniques and improving each time they compete.
LL: Do you feel the nerves too?
DM: (Laughs) Big time! Every time I’m coaching, I’ll be rolling my shoulders unconsciously, almost warming up as if it was me stepping on the mats with them! You feel the adrenalin, the up and downs as each match progresses, shouting from the side, giving advice – I love it!
LL: Do you prefer Gi or no-Gi?
DM: At the minute, no-Gi. Maybe as I get more tired I prefer Gi, just so I can slow things down. What I love most about Jiu-Jitsu is the flow, the flow state you enter when you get a good rally on, and I find you get more of that in no-Gi. There’s smoother movements in no-Gi whereas in the Gi there’s more resistance, more friction, it’s more mechanical at times. When you can control someone in no-Gi, it becomes easier to control them when you do roll in the Gi.
LL: What do you do for fun outside of BJJ?
DM: I love to go fishing and camping, and I’m into my gardening and growing vegetables. I love to go camping with my kids, mucking about in the outdoors – I’m an outdoors man.
LL: Who is your inspiration, helping you progress your craft, who do you look up to?
DM: John Kavanagh.
LL: Being Maeda previous, how did that your connection with John Kavanagh and SBG come to be?
DM: When I started this club, ‘Maeda BJJ Belfast’, we ran for a couple of months and became aware that I needed an affiliation with a gym so our guys could get promoted. The gym, suggested by a friend and the one that resonated best with me, was Straight Blast Gym (SBG). At the time, and even now, SBG was mainly focused on combat, it was a combat gym. That’s the reason we picked Maeda as well; Mitsuyo Maeda was a prize fighter, he used to travel county fairs and take on people to earn money using Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, so we named the club after him. Other gyms were more based on sport Jiu-Jitsu, but in my mind, I wanted to defend myself and SBG provided that for me. I remember watching Matt Thornton (SBG Founder) fighting with sticks and doing combat, and that’s what I wanted to do, so SBG was the gym I went for.
LL: What do you do to keep people coming back to the gym after starting out?
DM: There are some people that come into the gym and are put off by tough sparring, and there are others that thrive on that. Different personalities respond in totally different ways and here at SBG, we cater for all personalities. We have controlled sparring, positional sparring and even limited sparring so people are eased into BJJ. You won’t get that big shock from going from 0-100 in a short period of time. We’ve taken the time to build an environment that suits everybody. Everyone has the opportunity to grow regardless of their personality type in a controlled environment. Everyone is here to learn, and not here to inflate their own egos by beating novices up. The environment here at SBG is a place of learning and sharing; the aim is to help so if you know something, you generally share it with someone else. My good friend Ronnie Mallone always said, ‘the better you get, the better I get’.
LL: What do you think BJJ teaches the average Joe?
DM: On A pragmatic level, it teaches people one of the most efficient forms of combat there is for one on one confrontation, with the exception of MMA being categorised as a distinctive art. In a situation where two people are in combat and one person knows how to control the other by applying BJJ, they will win. It also builds a level of confidence; I find when people know how to defend themselves they tend not to get into unnecessary trouble. If people are insecure and unsure of themselves, add alcohol and insecurities are amplified – people react quickly, ambitions are lowered and fights happen. If people had BJJ in their life, they would be more sure of themselves, more confidence within, and there would be much less fighting in Shaftesbury Square on a Saturday night, you know what I mean? People will just want to get that post-night-out kebab and go home because they don’t need to prove anything to anyone at that stage.
LL: What’s your favourite position or submission?
DM: It changes all the time. My ethos for this club, being a striking club, a BJJ club and a Self Defence club is to get to mount. For me mount is king. I love the sneaky element of the ‘Guillotine’, I love the ‘North South Choke’, but I mean it changes all the time.
LL: Injury’s are a common thing in Jiu-Jitsu, do you have any advice to someone on minimizing them?
DM: There are a few things I’d say: firstly, always warm up before rolling. Go to a good gym where you get a good pre-habilitation, not just straight into heavy sparring. With a good warm up you get the heart rate up and get the muscles warmed, then you should get into some light sparring or rolling, if your coach allows it. Secondly, make sure it’s a good training environment that encourages you to tap out if you get caught. It is easier to tap than to sit out for 6 weeks resting a hyper-extended arm. Tap early and tap often, don’t be a hero. Never train too much at the start, ease the body into it and up the intensity at your pace, there’s no pressure to become a black belt in 3 years!
Lastly, complement your training with yoga and get a good stretch after a roll. Cats and dogs always stretch out their spine when they wake up whereas humans tend to wake up and go straight for the coffee. Magnesium is also a good supplement to take after training as you deplete a lot of magnesium and salt when you sweat.
LL: You complement your BJJ with yoga, how does it impact your game?
DM: We have a yoga class before open mat on a Sunday, what I’ve noticed about that is after the yoga, you have to psych yourself up for rolling, because you’ve brought your baseline down a lot, but when you roll, you feel more relaxed. It improves your flexibility and it improves your control over your own body which is really important, the same way gymnastics and calisthenics help to control and strengthen your body. With these all combined, it enhances your Jiu-Jitsu and also it helps you to control your partner’s body.
A good thing we do here (SBG) that helps to enhance your technique is rolling with your eyes closed. As there is no visual stimuli, it relaxes you, it improves your sensitivity to the movement of your partner’s body and allows you to explore the force exerted by the body and open up to using this as an advantage to you on the mat. Jiu-Jitsu is a sensitivity based art, feeling and pressure, deflecting your partner’s movements and getting a feeling of what they’re trying to do.
LL: You’ve been a blue belt now for a few years now, what would you say to someone starting out if they had no experience at all?
DM: If you feel the urge to give it a go, come down and try a session. Even if you sit and watch a class, you can get a feel for what’s going on and a sense of the atmosphere. If it looks like you something you’d like to get involved and it looks fun, go for it! You’ll be coming back before you know it!
SBG is located in Arthur Street in Belfast and runs a jam packed timetable. They are offering a free week for anyone who would like to try any of the classes out. The gym comes with great coaches across a range of disciplines. Be sure to call in and give it a go or check out their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Brazilian.Jiu.Jitsu.Belfast