Monday, 1 February 2010
Internet forums, Guy Ritchie, Street fights, Carlson Gracie: Simon Hayes, BJJ Black Belt
The sound of a raw powerful car engine shakes the frail plaster walls of the Carlson Gracie Boiler Room gym in West London. Someone changing into a crisp white gi casually says "Oh that'll be Simon". When you first meet Simon Hayes you cannot help but see the corresponding metaphor to his personality. His presence in a room is instantly felt, either by a friendly “OOOOSSS!” or a barked command from the dressing room at some fighter who is not giving a hundred percent out on the mats. Simply put, Simon is a man’s man. Physically he is of average height with a strong compact frame and a face that tells a hundred stories. Friendly but fierce, poetic but pugnacious, once you peer beneath his rough exterior you find he is a man littered with paradoxes. As you speak to him you realise why he is so highly regarded by his contemporaries. He bursts with energy and enthusiasm and it’s contagious. He had me wanting to turn off the tape, get changed and head for the mats as soon as we began talking. What is obvious from the outset, however, is that Simon is a man on a journey, a journey of self-improvement and discovery. This is characterised by a deep desire to grab hold of all life has to offer him, complimented by the ability to respond to failure and success with equal measure. I wanted to find out how his journey into martial arts began. What had driven a young boy from South West London to become a black belt in two martial arts, a brown belt in another, win the European BJJ Championships, compete in amateur MMA and pioneer one of the most successful Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teams in the U.K?
Intrigued by the Japanese and Chinese cultures Simon like many children, was captivated by the martial arts. TV programmes like ‘The Water Margin’ and ‘Monkey’ initially sparked his interest and exemplified the warrior spirit which still resonates deeply with him today. Scared that the desire to learn how to kick and punch people would turn their 7 year old son into a delinquent, they met him halfway and sent him to the seemingly more ‘self-defence’ orientated Judo. It was here in a small church hall in south west London under the tutelage of the legendary Judoka Syd Hoare (8th Dan Judo Black belt), who Simon describes as “The most aggressive Judo teacher this country has ever known” and a “Monster on the mat” that he had his first introduction to the martial arts. He jokingly reflects that “Little did my parents know that when they thought I was going to learn a beautiful ‘self-defence’ martial art I was actually being taken into the lion’s den and being shown hardcore judo”. This was the type of atmosphere that a young Simon Hayes thrived on. Ever the competitor, be it in his career, martial arts or BMX biking (which he used to compete in and still enjoys) Simon has always been marked by a desire to succeed. “Anything I take part in, I want to win”. This is a trait etched deeply into his mentality. He also found that growing up in west London in tough schools where arguments were sorted out with fists, learning aggressive judo was going to have its merits.
As we continue to talk Simon identifies a common thread running throughout his martial arts career. “I was lucky I ended up at Syd Hoare’s Judo club. You will find the common thread throughout my journey into martial arts, even though I didn’t know it at the time, is that I have been lucky to have fantastic instructors in every martial art I have studied. I thought you could be taught judo by one guy and it would be the same as the next guy. It just so happened that I ended up being in the right place at the right time.” After a number of years out from martial arts, Simon decided to re-visit them at around twenty years old. This was due in part to a street fight he got caught up in where he was trying to defend some friends who were being harassed outside a pub. He found himself getting into a one-on-one fight that resulted in him sustaining a broken nose and ankle. “I actually broke my ankle kicking him. I had no formal training in kickboxing and he was a big guy and my judo wasn’t working. I woke up the next morning with my foot in plaster and a broken nose and I decided if I was going to fight people I might as well learn how to do it properly”. I am deeply impressed by Simon’s openness and realness. It is in such moments as this that we realise the uncomfortable reality of our own fallibility. It is through these experiences and particularly in how we respond to them that truly define a fighter and a man.
“So I searched the papers and all I could find was a martial art called taekwondo. People rubbish taekwondo now, but I was very lucky in that the club I went to was run by a guy called Kwok Wan who was the British Olympic team coach at the Seoul Olympics. He became a real mentor to me and what I learned from him was respect, honour and how to be a true martial artist and the basics of discipline, competing and making weight”. It was in this phase of Simon’s journey that he began to see martial arts as more than just a hobby, but as a way of life. Having previously focused his energies on the temporal pleasures of late eighties hedonism and with the injuries sustained in the street fight, Simon decided it was time for a change. The sense of etiquette, discipline and honour within the martial arts were not only very attractive to him at this point in his journey but a way in which he could envisage living the rest of his life.
BMX biking, Judo, Taekwondo and a successful career as a movie sound recordist are not disciplines that are instantly synonymous with Simon Hayes, but they are part of his journey towards his defining martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It is a colourful path that intertwines, career, friendship and destiny that led him to find BJJ and fall in love with this particular martial art. “I met Guy Ritchie when I was 21 years old, he was an aspiring director and I had chosen my career as a sound recordist. We recognised each other from growing up in the same area of London. Many years later when I was 27, Guy approached me and asked me to come and work on his first feature length film ‘Lock, Stock and two smoking barrels’. That was in 1997 and the UFC had been on the screens for about two or three years and there was a lot of testosterone on the set with me, Guy Ritchie, Jason Statham, Jason Fleming and Vinnie Jones. We talked a lot about UFC. Guy was a third Dan in Shotokan Karate and Jason Statham was a kick boxer. Guy was really keen to find somewhere to train BJJ in London, which never materialised. Later we met again on the set of ‘Snatch’ and decided to train Judo at the Budokwai, which had sessions that focussed on ground grappling.” However, it was not until 2001 when Simon was invited out to Malta to work on another film with Guy Ritchie that he had his first real introduction to BJJ.
If you are an avid follower of BJJ forums you may well have come across Simon’s notorious forum thread “Stories from abroad”. It is as gripping as a 24 box set. From the threads over 14,000 views it is obvious that to some it has become some kind of literary crack. I think what has made it so popular is that Simon is not only a very gifted storyteller, but that the stories he tells are of a man describing a life well lived. They are a colourful and engaging set of tales that chronicle Simon’s martial art exploits while he travels the world with his career in the film industry. Many people have suggested they should be collated and organised into a book, which upon reading them does not sound like a bad idea. Simon again reflects upon this trip to Malta and his first introduction to an art form that would become his defining martial art. “When Guy met me the first thing he said to me was ‘I am doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and it is the absolute best martial art in the world, you have to start training with us now’ I wasn’t that up for it initially as I did not want to get injured while working and I was happy with how my Taekwondo was going. Guy responded by saying “Listen you soft f*cker, you need to start doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with us now”. Simon was not aware that Guy had packed with the films set a bunch of training mats and had brought with him ex-Us marine Todd Fox, a purple belt (now black) under Rodrigo Varge (a black belt under Rickson Gracie). He had also sent out for some Judo suits to start training immediately. Yet to be convinced, Guy Ritchie pitted Simons Taekwondo against Todd Foxes BJJ in some light sparring. “Todd was a missile, a nasty Jiu-Jitsu killing machine”. After five single leg takedowns, followed by mounted position, Simon was ready to start training BJJ for ten weeks twice a day every day.
Simon came back to London a different person and found himself once again at the Budokwai, one of the very few places in the U.K where you could train BJJ. He began training under Chen Moraes, a mysterious and controversial figure within the history of British BJJ, in an atmosphere he describes as “mad”. “If you walked into a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club in those days you were either going to come across a hardcore martial artist who had multiple black belts in other martial arts, or a boxer who had seen the UFC or a crazy eastern European doorman who had fled his country and was hungry for a fight. There were very few sane people in there”. Again it was an atmosphere Simon thrived on, not unlike the one he had experienced in Malta. The variety of opponents and the sense of competition was exactly what he was looking for and only served to deepen his love for BJJ. It was also the place where he began a key relationship with Wilson Junior, a purple belt at the time. “I can remember facing him in a fight. I literally ran across the room at him, with my head down going for some rubbish double leg takedown. I remember my head hitting him in the stomach and compressing the vertebrate in my neck and me thinking, that was like running into a brick wall”. Wilson mercifully spared Simon and gently took him to the floor and submitted a “Simon Hayes filled with bad intentions”. There was an instant connection and respect between the two and five months later, after Chen Moraes left for Spain, a group of committed fighters started a club in a disused nightclub in Earls Court, training under Wilson Junior.
This was the birth of Carlson Gracie Team London. Later the team moved to Royal Oak and cleared out a space below a youth hostel, which many students who were present at the time describe as a health and safety nightmare. Someone commented on the internet that the Carlson Gracie team were training in a boiler room. Simon reflects “You are right it’s a boiler room. It’s hot, it’s sweaty and that’s where we fight. From that moment on it was known as the boiler room”. Wilson Junior, Simon Hayes and Dickie Martin eventually became the bedrock of the Carlson Gracie London Team and oversaw its eventual move to its present location in Hammersmith, West London. When the team first moved onto the new premises it poetically had a huge boiler in the middle of it which had to be removed. It seemed only right to keep the boiler room name, and the present dojo now goes under the name ‘The New boiler Room’. “Anyone that’s come to the new boiler room that saw the old boiler room knows that it is exactly the same, just bigger. It’s got the same spirit. One thing the Carlson Gracie team has always had in abundance is that when you walk in our dojo, you know it’s a dojo. It’s a place where men fight each other.”
A strong emphasis in Carlson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is that it is not focussed solely on sports Jiu-Jitsu, but also on Vale Tudo. This is reflected in the various different classes available at the New Boiler Room. As well as BJJ they offer classes in no-gi grappling, Muay Thai, Judo and various one off seminars in different fight systems. I asked Simon his feelings on MMA and the role that traditional martial arts play within its evolution. “MMA is taking the best of various martial arts, for your body type, your mentality and your fighting spirit and putting them together into a mix that suits you, to enable you to become the best fighter possible. MMA is not being a jack of all trades and a master of none. A good MMA fighter is at an elite level in each martial art he chooses to train in and to be an elite MMA fighter you need three martial arts, ideally but not exclusively: BJJ, Muay Thai and Wrestling.” As someone who has trained in various martial arts his entire life Simon considers it vital that an upcoming MMA fighter has a strong base in a particular martial art and then surrounds themselves with excellent instructors in their other disciplines. “Carlson Gracie London has always had its doors open to MMA fighters. With Carlson Gracie it was always about the MMA, he had a deep love affair with Vale Tudo and we intend to carry that on.”
As the interview draws to a close we discuss the mentality required to be a successful fighter. The conversation turns to the idea of ‘gameness’, which translates as having the spirit and the will to fight to the end and overcome adversity. The Carlson Gracie emblem is of two bulldogs facing off against each other and it finds its history and context in Brazilian dog fighting. In dog fighting, the most prized asset of a dog is not its strength or guile but its ‘gameness’. It’s ability to keep fighting and never quit, no matter what. “You need to be able to stand your ground, to know that when the going gets tough you are not going to give up. It’s not something you can train for, it’s either in you or it’s not. I can tell very quickly when someone walks into a jiu-jitsu club whether they have got it or not. It’s not essential to learn jiu-jitsu, anyone can and it will be very helpful to them. However, in those last moments, when they are getting choked and they are scared, are they going to fight their way out or are they going tap - that determines gameness.”
From my time spent with Simon Hayes and when I have had the opportunity to observe him sparring you can tell he has gameness in abundance. You get the sense that he expects nothing short of the best from himself and refuses to slip into complacency or mediocrity. He is the type of man that would bring the same focus and determination to completing a hundred sprawls as he would to putting the food on his kid’s table. I ask him what the future holds for himself and Carlson Gracie Team London “I just want to support Wilson Junior in running as authentic a BJJ club as possible and to continue to grow as a fighter and teacher. In terms of the Carlson Gracie Team as a force, man, we want to go to competitions and smash people. We want to smash every single person who gets in our way. When you get on a matt and see someone from Carlson Gracie opposite you, you need to understand one thing: That person wants to smash you.” That seems like the most fitting note upon which to finish our interview. Unfortunately there is no time to throw on our gi’s and have a roll, as the Boiler room is closing up. I am not sure whether I am sad or relieved. One thing I definitely am is motivated and inspired.
Carlson Gracie Team London
56 Glentham Road, London, SW13 9JJ
By K.G Mc Glade