After teaching one of his classes at the De La Riva club, Queens University Belfast, Waqar Ahmed (Wacki), sat down with us for a chat. A doctor, comedian, and high level brown belt, Wacki is certainly a jack-of-all-trades but has always found Jiu Jitsu to be a necessity rather than just an interest throughout his life.
LL: Wacki thanks for sitting with me, could you tell me a bit about how you first got into Martial Arts and Jiu Jitsu?
W: Well, I’ve been doing Karate since I was 10, Japanese Jiu Jitsu since I was 16 and the BJJ since 19. When I was a 19-year-old medical student I suppose I was trying to not get beat up and I reckon everyone has that same idea in their head about starting martial arts. So I got into ground fighting through the Gracie VHS, then I went to Rickson Gracies gym in LA and was completely a fish out of water thinking I was a purple belt, and I head locked everybody and everybody head locked me because no one knew what they were doing. I then trained in Renzo’s when I was still studying and tried to do BJJ or any martial arts where ever I went, then I came home and trained with Gracie Barra for some time before starting my own club. Now I’m training with De La Riva, and in terms of a mentoring, he’s like Dungeon Master crossed with Yoda. De La Riva is an amazing Jiu Jitsu player, he even has a guard named after him! If you’re ever lucky enough to go to his gym, I’d strongly recommend it. I always called into his gym when I was in Rio, it always has such a great vibe and any time he’s given me advice it’s been really spot on.
LL: What I’ve gathered from my own training is that most people you meet on the mats have good advice and are willing to help you learn from your mistakes. Would you agree?
W: Yes, I would agree with that. I think Jiu Jitsu kind of turns you into an artist and in that sense it grounds you. When you first step onto the mat and get your arse kicked, you have to learn to tap, and you have to reflect and improve yourself, and that keeps you grounded. No matter how good you are, you’ll always find a mat where people will challenge you.
When people get into BJJ they tend to think they are going into MMA, which is completely different. When I first started Jiu Jitsu, MMA hadn’t even started in Ireland but when it did, I was the doctor for quite a lot of the local MMA shows. Nowadays I’m not too keen on it. I did a lot of MMA, kickboxing, Mau Thai, and I believe I was the only Mau Thai and MMA doctor for at least 5 or 10 years in Ireland, then one day the doctor in me decided that I can’t endorse head injuries.
I do a lot of stand up comedy and improv and I see a lot of similarities between what I’ve learned from improv comedy and what I’ve learned from Jiu Jitsu in the sense that it all boils down to problem solving. If you’ve just got your guard passed you go, ‘right, so the guy had an underhook, how can I get the underhook back?’ You ask your coach for advice, you watch YouTube which is essentially the B&Q of Jiu Jitsu where you look for an underhook stripper and a cross face thinner. It’s the same as a comedian going on stage with a new joke that you think is great and the audience just stares back at you because, as you find out, it isn’t so great. You go back to the drawing board and figure out what didn’t work and you do that with Jiu Jitsu to improve and build on your foundations.
I think the best Jiu Jitsu you learn is the Jiu Jitsu you figured out by yourself, like when you’ve been cut passed 100 times and you just figure out frames, different body positions and angles and you figure out how to reduce it and stop it from happening all the time, and eventually no one can pass your guard because you’ve figured it out yourself.
LL: For a long while I was getting my guard passed with ease and I dealt with it by putting more effort into recovering rather than stopping it happening in the first place, then someone in the gym pointed out one small thing I wasn’t conscious of and it made a huge difference. I feel having things pointed out to you during your roll can open up new pathways to explore and help strengthen your game, would you agree?
W: Yes, I think that if one of your training partners points it out, that definitely helps. It’s like in my line of work, we could go to plenty of courses on diabetes but then if I go see a patient with some type of asthma condition that I don’t really understand and I probably should understand then we have this mechanism of ‘patient’s unmet needs’. So we would write that down and then we think, ‘okay, so I don’t know anything this asthma condition so I better go and read about asthma and then I can deal with this problem in the future’. In the same way if you’ve got a terrible guard then you go and get some instructional material or physical help, solve the problem and not make that mistake again in the future.
LL: That’s what I like about rolling – you can get caught in something that you didn’t even see or understand, and when you ask your opponent how they did it, they’ll usually have no issues in telling you how they did it or where you went wrong to fall intoit.Jiu Jitsu for me is having a good roll, getting caught and learning from that.
W: Yes, I would agree with that. I’m sure if you hung around with a bunch monsters and trained with them and you all kicked the shit out of each other, you would probably get good in a way. That being said, and I’ve been in those sort of groups, those people who tend to do well have physical attributes or have a special mind for that type of learning. It’s the same when you’re the new guy in a group, your opponents will test you and make things tough so that you can get better and increase your level of skill and understanding.
I used to worry about my students going to other clubs, but the funny thing is the sort of people that come to my club are the sort of people I like to be around and I think what I take from that is that Jiu Jitsu is about friendship. I remember all the guys who I went off to Birmingham with, I remember training with these guys and going off to San Diego, and there’s a school there that I always go to. I go to Chicago a lot doing comedy stuff and I always call in to see Carlson when I’m there, and when I’m in New York, I’d always make sure to call in and see Renzo.
LL: It’s great how you’ve gained so many friends through your Jiu Jitsu career and I find training with friends very enjoyable, but what would you say is your main reason for doing Jiu Jitsu?
W: For me and why I do Jiu Jitsu, I realised one day that I have to do Jiu Jitsu everyday. It is a necessity for me. When I was a junior doctor, I went through periods of quitting Jiu Jitsu for a few months before an exam or something like that then eventually going back, and when I got my first job as a doctor I quit for a while because I wanted to get good at being a doctor. One day, I accidentally left my front door unlocked and two strangers came into the house and one of them punched me in the face. I was in my bed with my stethoscope still around my neck, over-tired and over-worked. A while later, I went to a course with Jeff Thompson and I asked him, “What do you do when two fellas punch you when you’re just in your bed?” to which he replied, “Why are people attacking you in your bed?” I said, “I’m a doctor and I kind of left the door open and I got punched.” He said, “Do other doctors get punched in the face while in bed?” From then on, it was clear I needed to sort out my work-life balance and for me the key was Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu is physical exercise, which is just healthy but it also engages your imagination and your limbic system; it helps you use your brain.
LL: Jiu Jitsu definitely exercises your mind in a way that a typical 9-5 job can’t do. For me, the work-BJJ balance is hard but when I do roll, I release a lot of tension and the endorphins sort of reset my mind and body from sitting at a computer all day.
W: I feel the same way, and everyone enjoys that reward of endorphins. I teach Jiu Jitsu in Queen’s University and since we don’t charge people, it’s essentially free Jiu Jitsu. Sometimes we’ll have up to 100 people on the mat, and that’s a fun class to teach but then the numbers get lower each time and you realise that it’s not for everybody. Maybe it’s the claustrophobia of being pinned in side control or the mount, some people just can’t handle that, but some people have the right kind of stubbornness to keep at it. I have met some lovely people turn up to a few classes and then you don’t see them again, I don’t think any less of them, maybe it’s just not for them, but then there’s guys who come to class, get smashed, come back again, get smashed, come back again and they do better and better the more they come back.
LL: Jiu Jitsu does a lot for people in terms of confidence. You’ll see a new guy come onto the mats, tense, nervous that he’ll get hurt, but over time they begin to understand Jiu Jitsu, learn to control their breathing better and relax more in general. You see their confidence growing over time; the shyness that maybe once was lingering, evaporates as they get more comfortable in these uncomfortable situations.
W: I think for a lot of people it’s kind of like Fight Club. You’re ‘Tim from Accounts’ when you come in as a three stripe blue belt, then you’re sitting on top of someone way bigger than you in an armbar and there’s this weird alternative alter ego that’s come out to play. In my work as a doctor I can’t use my imagination too much. If someone has been hit by a bus, I have to hustle and do the right thing, there’s right and wrong things to do there but in Jiu Jitsu, yes, there are sometimes set types of thinking you need to do, but in most of your training you’ll be on the mat in the gym and that’s when you can use your imagination. You also have to develop social skills because if you’re being the inconsiderate arsehole in the gym grinding your elbows into my thigh every time you open the guard, or you always do neck cranks, I’m not going to want to show you how to escape my deep half guard, or show you how to escape a move I’ve been practicing and so you won’t really progress with your training.
LL: Do you do anything outside of Jiu Jitsu that helps you to control your training better – Yoga? Breathing techniques?
W: I tend to agree with Marcelo Garcia who doesn’t believe any of that stuff makes your Jiu Jitsu better and I think because I’m a slightly overweight Asian, I’m trying not to get diabetes, so I’m doing this Wim Hoff stuff, I’m running on the treadmill every day to lose some weight. I think having a good diet, being physically and mentally fit, and not having too many crazy people in your life is probably enough. There are some guys that exploit yoga and stuff like that, like Sabastian from yoga for BJJ, he’s an outlier example and he’s very good. I think you can just get on and do Jiu Jitsu without these enhancers.
I went to a workshop with Steve Maxell on mobility and breathing and I incorporate a lot of breathing into my class now. I do a lot of Alexander technique which is for posture and breathing and I think it is very applicable to Jiu Jitsu. There’s a lot to be gained from breathing and posture exercises, instead of just drilling out 50 press ups or 50 pull ups.
LL: What advice would you give to someone who has never done Jiu Jitsu but is interested in starting?
W: If you want to try Jiu Jitsu, go down to class, and check it out. Check out the atmosphere, and have a roll. What I don’t encourage is people pushing people who really hate it – it’s not for everyone, and that’s ok. I think you have to go through that process, of getting your ass kicked, and asking yourself ‘How can I make that happen slightly less next time?’ and I think if you like that sort of thing you will come in and enjoy the sport for what it is. There are a lot of different things in the world that you can spend your time on and ultimately it’s about what makes you truly happy, and just remember it will not make you a bad person because you never got your purple belt in BJJ before you were 30.
You can check out Wacki’s club De La Riva BJJ at the PEC, Belfast, where you can train for free!