Australian Craig Jones is the hottest name in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling right now, and he’s made it by ignoring the conventional wisdom on how to train.
Is Craig Jones the Rocky of grappling? Right now he is one of the most feared competitors on the Brazilian jiu-jitsu circuit, using an unorthodox, leg-lock based attacking style to upset the sport’s elite. But just last year, not even hardcore grappling fans would have known his name. Until recently, he was only a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. After his coach told him he wasn’t allowed to roll with anyone not affiliated with his gym, he left and started training in a garage; in Australia, with a group of near-beginners, thousands of miles from the world’s top academies.
In the 2017 ADCC – one of the sport’s premier events – he caught legendary fighters Leandro Lo and Murilo Santana in submissions before being knocked out of the tournament, and was halfway through a celebratory post-match beer before accepting, and winning, a no weight limit match against former UFC fighter Chael Sonnen.
Then, in the prestigious Eddie Bravo Invitational – a format that ditches point-based scrapping entirely in favour of submissions – he breezed through to the finals with less than 90 seconds of mat time, catching everyone in his knee-shredding heel-hook en route to a showdown with nemesis Gordon Ryan. A narrow escape from an extra-time armbar secured Ryan the win – but hey, even Rocky lost in the first one.
Maybe as importantly, Jones has done all of this by flipping conventional training theory on its head: training less, but harder, than fellow competitors and even using inexperienced drilling partners as technique-fodder. He’s also made a science out of finding new setups for the often underused heelhook submission. This is a move that involves torqueing an opponent’s heel to rip their ACL and knee joint. It’s illegal in more traditional tournaments but incredibly effective under modern rules. RISING talked to him about how improvement at anything is possible, in less time than you might expect…
RISING It seems like you’ve come out of nowhere in the past 12 months? CRAIG JONES, FIGHTER ‘I’ve been grinding away on the competition scene for maybe three or four years, but I got my five minutes of fame after ADCC. I got a little bit of attention for EBI 11, but the only result I had before this year was winning no-gi worlds at purple belt, which to be honest, nobody really cares about.’
RISING Did things suddenly ‘click’ this year, or have you just gradually improved? CJ ‘Well, I’ve travelled around a lot of the big camps and rolled with a lot of the elite-level guys, but I was never able to put it together. And then this year, it wasn’t necessarily the techniques that clicked, but the performance, the competition anxiety side of things all came together.’
Get your black belt fast so you can face these guys, so you know that they are human
RISING What’s it like facing the big names of the sport on the mat? CJ ‘I used to think: “Oh, you should probably spend as much time at purple belt and brown belt as possible to get the experience and confidence to face those famous guys.” But now I think: “You know what, man? Get your black belt as fast as possible so you can have the experience of getting in there and facing those guys… so that you know that they’re just human.” You’ve got to lose that hero-worship, and I don’t think that happens until you face one of them.’
RISING When did you originally start training? CJ ‘I’ve been training since I was about 16 years old, at a school where my coach was a blue belt, but I was only training twice a week until 2013, and then from 2013 onwards I started training pretty much whenever I could. People go “Oh, you trained for ten years,” but I wasn’t actually training that hard for most of that, you know?’
RISING And when was the first time you faced a name? CJ ‘At ADCC 2013 I had Romulo Barral in the first round. I was a purple belt, 83kg (183lb), and he was the defending champion, cutting down to 88kg (194lb), totally jacked. I went in there all afraid and he just kicked my arse. The first name I felt good against though, I fought a guy called Nathan Orchard and landed a flying triangle on him – I couldn’t finish it, I gassed out and he heel-hooked me. But that was kind of when I realised: these guys are beatable, and they’re beatable even if you don’t train at one of these big American or Brazilian teams.’
RISING How have you done that training in Australia, where you can’t train with the top guys? CJ ‘There are just three of us who compete professionally, all the time – me, Lachlan Giles and Kit Dale. But we’ve got guys – they’re not elite-level guys but they’re good and they’re tough and they’re giving the correct responses to the stuff you do. Even if I trained at John Danaher’s place or Marcelo’s, there are people like Keenan Cornelius who, whoever you train with they’re going to be tough to replicate. It’s putting in the hours with low-level guys and using that time to practice technique.’
‘The real difference is that some guys don’t go after you; you want low-level guys who want to kill you, who don’t have too much respect for you. Some blue belts have black-belt level techniques but they’ve got so many holes elsewhere that you can get around them – you want to face those guys head-on in their best areas for the hardest training you can get.’
RISING What are you doing that other people aren’t? CJ ‘I really took the time to train and perfect my heelhook. A lot of guys hate the heelhook and neglect it, but it’s a fantastic submission – and the beauty is that once guys start to fear your heelhooks, they’re giving you spaces elsewhere.’
‘When I fought Leandro Lo I knew there was a good chance that he wouldn’t tap to the heelhook, but I know his leg’s going to break like anyone else’s, and I believed that nobody else at his gym was practising heelhooks at an elite level. So I saw it as a way to exploit the game, and then after I managed to use it against him my second opponent, Murilo Santana, came out maybe almost respecting the leglock too much. I shot a leglock on him and he almost swept himself, so I managed to come up on the triangle choke and get him that way. I’m not going face these guys head-on at moves they’ve trained thousands and thousands of times – I’m going to approach it a smarter way.’
RISING Is there anything most fighters do most that you think is a waste of time? CJ ‘Warm-ups. Okay, sure, if you’re totally new to the gym and you don’t know how to use your body they’re fine, but when I see elite-level guys doing really traditional, really simplistic warmups… I’m all for wrestling-style warm-ups that build technique and coordination and stuff, but if you’re doing a 10-15 minute warm-up before you do any technique, and some guy at another gym’s just doing 20 minutes of technique then a bunch of sparring, who’s going to get better after a few years? It all adds up.’
Some guys spend six or seven hours on the mat – I’ll usually only train one hard hour
RISING How do you cope with injury? CJ ‘To be honest there’s nothing where I’ve been forced to sit off the mat for more than a week or so, but I think that’s the way I play. I don’t think I’ve spent as many hours on the mat as a lot of the other top guys. There are other gyms that do really Brazilian-style training, they’re spending six or seven hours on the mat every day training to kill each other, and that’s got to take a toll on your body. I’m just doing short bursts – I’ll usually only train one hard hour a day, sometimes two.’
RISING That’s sort of incredible – how is it structured? CJ ‘Well, when I was training at one of the big US gyms they’d do two hours of ten-minute rounds, and it totally changed the way I fought. I’m a guy who likes to get in there and finish the fight as quickly as possible. Say I’ve got two hours of training ahead of me: I just want to get to a good position and hold on until the end of the round, score my points and survive. The first time I went there I started jumping on positions and I was exhausted after 15 minutes. You compete how you train and doing more hours a day, I think, would actually make my game worse.’
RISING: Do you ever struggle with motivation? CJ ‘Not really, only for lifting weights, not for jiu-jitsu. Because I’m doing one hard hour a day I’m excited to get in the gym every day. I’m never that tired or beaten up.’
Guys tell me they watch tape but it’s highlight reels – you have to watch the boring stuff too
RISING We’ve also heard you watch a lot of fights on YouTube? CJ ‘Yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking over heelhook entries. I’m generally watching tape and breaking it down, then trying to use those ideas when I’m rolling against lower-level guys. I’ve spent a lot of time studying a guy called Eddie Cummings. He’s got the most effective heelhook. A lot of guys tell me they watch tape and then it turns out they’ve been watching highlight reels – you’re not getting a lot from that, you have to watch the boring stuff as well. Some of the matches where Eddie doesn’t get the quick finish are the most interesting ones – that’s where you see how he’s getting the positions and how he’s working for that finish, or what his opponents do to survive.’
‘I don’t really take notes, because then my focus becomes too broad. I’ll go to a class with one idea about what I’m going to do on the bottom, and one about what I’m going to do on top. Maybe I’m working a particular entry move, and I’ll hammer the same move against the same guy until he works out a way to block it. You see guys come in with a big book of stuff to work on and I’m like, you’re going to get in one of those positions maybe once.’
RISING You’ve also studied behavioural psychology. Does that help you out at all? CJ ‘Yeah, I got a bachelor’s. I always think it helped because it made me realise how many guys in jiu-jitsu probably need to see a psychologist…’
RISING What does the next step look like for you? CJ ‘I’ve been broke essentially my whole jiu-jitsu career, so I’ve spent the last part of this year trying to save up enough cash that I can fully dedicate myself to full-time training. Even before the last ADCC I’d be teaching a couple of hours a day and teaching private lessons on top of that, which is part of the reason I’d only be teaching an hour or two a day. What I’m really looking forward to is taking a proper training camp like an MMA fighter: I think that’s a luxury a lot of the elite-level guys have, and where the sport’s going. I’m looking forward to that.’
WHAT NEXT? If you’re in the mood for some high-intensity prep for your own (potential) jiu-jitsu career, beast through this ultra-short, full-body workout from renowned black belt Nic Gregoriades. All it takes is a kettlebell...
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