The Life and Influence of Real-Life Martial Arts Monk, Kiwi John Danaher

How a philosophy grad went from bouncing at New York's hip hop clubs to shaping UFC champions.

by Ben Stanley; illustrated by Kristopher McDuff
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22 October 2018, 6:25pm

This originally appeared on VICE New Zealand

Build a monastery under the streets of Manhattan, and disciples will always come. Athletes. Bankers. Nurses. Actors. Bouncers. Politicians. Strippers. The realists, and the dreamers.

Under the streets of Manhattan, you’ll find a true monk. A man with knowledge of the two great galaxies of mystery, the brain and the body. A man who knows you can only move yourself in the right direction when you move others there, too.

Listen to him speak a strange tongue. Learn from him the weak spots he has found after decades of study. Be patient. Prove yourself. Show your conviction.

Be a student. Trust your teacher.

On street-level, the Renzo Gracie Academy is a door and a window showing a long room of full crash padding, netting and a desk on West 30th Street, Midtown Manhattan.

I go up to the desk and say I’m there to speak to John Danaher. “And he knows you’re coming?”. I nod, and am pointed downstairs to the room they call the Blue Dungeon.

An enduring red-wine hangover follows me down the stairs, passing two smaller training rooms, filled with students, to a larger room ringed with thin blue crash pads that also cover the floor, separated by a handful of pillars. The ceiling is high. I take off my shoes.

Men and women wearing tight shorts and rash guards are stretching and talking seriously. The room smells of sweat. That, and all the fine-tuned bodies, make my head throb a bit more than it should’ve. These are way tougher people than I.

Against the far wall, three men lean against the padding. On one side, Danaher is flanked by Renzo Gracie. The Academy’s founder, owner and genuine sensei, Gracie is a living legend of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the crown prince of BJJ’s royal dynasty.

On the other is Georges St-Pierre. Outside Connor McGregor, St-Pierre is the sport’s ultimate wildcard, but far more likeable. A smiling, street-tough French Canadian, he has had his struggles recently, but has also achieved some of the UFC’s greatest all-time victories.

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Danaher spies me leaning against a pillar, and beckons me over with a nod of his bald head. He smiles and nods again when I arrive. “How about you watch the session, and we can speak afterwards?” he says. He drops his vowels in a calm, familiar way.s

“Sure,” I say, and take a seat on a low bench, by the stairs down into the Blue Dungeon. The three men finish up and Danaher stands.

“Alright, everyone.”

The disciples stop, listen and start moving towards him. Their lesson is about to begin. A monk is about to teach his wisdoms.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a discipline deeply steeped in the history of martial arts itself; a living story of what happens when the Old World meets the New.

Jiujitsu began in Japan around 500 years ago as a rougher off-shoot of the samurai arts. Eventually cleaned up with the rise, and influence, of judo in the late 1800s, some of its finest teachers left Japan to spread the gospel.

Legendary Japanese judoka Mitsuyo Maeda visited Brazil in 1914, staying for two years and teaching, among others, Carlos Gracie. Through Maeda’s teaching, Gracie, and his brother Helio, would develop the roots of what would eventually become Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), a hybrid martial art that primarily focused on the fighter’s ground game.

With BJJ, the Gracies showed an opponent’s height and weight advantage could be nullified. Judo techniques evolved and were adapted by the family, and a new discipline was born.

A grandson of Carlos, Renzo went from revered pro MMA fighter to one of the world’s greatest BJJ coaches, opening his first Renzo Gracie Academy in New York, in the early 1990s.

“I would 100 percent call John Danaher the Einstein of Brazilian jiu-jitsu."

Rodrigo Gracie, Matt Serra and Ricardo Almeida—Gracie would instruct some of the greatest MMA fighters of their generation, but a Kiwi who grew up in Whangaparaoa is perhaps now established as his finest student to turn instructor.

“I would 100 percent call John Danaher the Einstein of Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” Serra, a former UFC welterweight champ who was inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame earlier this year, tells me.

“He is that smart, he really is. He puts it together, nicely. The proof is in the pudding too—look at his students, look at what they are doing. He really knows that art of submission grappling like no other.”

“He’s left a deep and profound mark [on Brazilian jiu-jitsu],” Peter Maguire, an old friend and former training partner, says.

“John understood the other tools that the other grappling arts brought to the table. He took them very, very seriously. Not only did he get to learn really good, undiluted Gracie jiu-jitsu from Renzo, he was then able to tweak it and apply pieces from other martial arts.

“Only someone with an analytical brain like his could have done that. I think he very much changed the way people look at grappling.”

Perhaps the only thing that matches the sport-wide reverence for Danaher’s intellect is intrigue surrounding his character. He is rarely, if ever, seen without wearing a rash guard shirt, which he even wore to Serra’s wedding.

The Kiwi has been compared to both a ‘mad scientist’ and a ‘modern-day sage.’ In the New Yorker last year, he was described as mixed martial arts’ version of Hannibal Lecter: “scary smart, superbly calculated and logical.

In person the 51-year-old definitely has the vibe of a monk who studies his discipline with a serious, unending vigour. He has the look down; the shaved head, the keen, patient eyes, a lack of every-day frustration. A slight limp from a recent hip replacement is his necessary human flaw; now, he often works with a cane.

I watch, time and again, as he brings his two dozen odd students around him in the Blue Dungeon. Each time, with absolute verbal economy, he instructs them of a weakness to search for in their competitors, or a strength inside themselves, often playing that out on one of them, for the others to watch.

Then he’ll kneel on the mats in the middle of room, or sinks back to its side, watching, observing his students apply the unorthodox, game-changing approach he applies to foot locks and knee bars.

In the world of MMA, these disciples are called the Danaher Death Squad and count among it some of the sports’ biggest and fastest-rising stars.

In the world of MMA, these disciples are called the Danaher Death Squad and count among it some of the sports’ biggest and fastest-rising stars—St-Pierre, Gary Tonon, Gordon Ryan and his brother Nicky, a 16-year-old who Danaher himself has identified as a near-prodigy.

The combination of serious smarts and mysterious personality traits have made Danaher one of the most iconic underground figures in modern-day MMA, a giant the way giants used to be.

The mystique has been enhanced by his general lack of interviews, though the last year has seen Danaher open up to the New Yorker and podcast star Joe Rogan, a long-time UFC media personality. He even made a cameo on the HBO series Billions, teaching lead actor Paul Giamatti.

He has also taken to Instagram, and maintains a popular social media presence.

I first heard of Danaher when interviewing St-Pierre via phone, ahead of a fight, many years ago. When introducing myself at the start of the phone call, he laughed and said: ‘ah, New Zealand. My coach is from there.’

The journalist alarm bells rang and kept ringing for years. Several attempts to meet him in New York failed, until last August when he invited me to the Renzo Gracie Academy.

With St-Pierre sitting next to him when I arrived, the loop had been finally closed.

“I don’t view Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a job,” Danaher tells me, after class. He speaks precisely, deliberately and with absolute measure.

“Most people essentially have two lives. They have their work and their play. For me, the two are the same. For me, when I get home, I don’t think ‘oh, I can play now.’ Or when I get here, ‘oh, I have to work now.’

“I see myself as engaging in play, 24-7. I’m unusual in that regard.”

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John Danaher demonstrates a submission hold in a post on his Instagram.

Though his roots are Kiwi as, the Vietnam War meant that Danaher would be born in Washington DC in 1967. His father was a RNZAF fighter pilot who served as a Kiwi military attaché in DC.

Danaher was still very young when his family relocated to New Zealand, where they made their home in Whangaparaoa as his father continued to serve the Air Force at Whenuapai.

“I had the pleasure of growing up in this idyllic place—in those days it was virtually a rural kind of area,” he says, a lifetime away from the Renzo Gracie Academy.

“I spent my childhood in Parklands Bay, Big and Little Manly Beaches and Army Beach all the way out on the end. I’d go skin-diving, things like that. The only real sport I played back then was rugby, which most New Zealand kids played.”

The youngest of six children, Danaher remembers having a huge amount of freedom as a kid.

“I think by the time I came out, they were just tired of it all and I pretty much had a free reign,” he says.

“I remember there were times we would come home from the beach at 10PM, which, when you’re six or seven years old, is crazy when you think about it. Rather than being taught by discipline, we were taught by role models.

As a teenager, Danaher moved to Mairangi Bay before completing a Bachelors degree, and then his masters, in philosophy at the University of Auckland. University was the first time mixed martial arts came into his life, as the 1980s karate phase reached New Zealand.

Despite the K1 success of Ray Sefo and Mark Hunt, it would take the best part of 20 more years before the sport held a decent bridgehead in New Zealand. That long road hasn’t surprised Danaher.

“The culture which I grew up in saw fist fighting as a kind of noble endeavour,” he says. “Now, there wasn’t a particularly well-worked process on how to train for it—but it was just seen as something men did. Men fought.

"If you look at culture in New Zealand, there has always been an obsession with warfare."

“If they had a disagreement, they fought. Afterwards, they’d shake hands and it was over with. If you look at culture in New Zealand, there has always been an obsession with warfare.

“The whole idea around the cult of the Anzac, and New Zealanders as proving their worth in World War I and II. Obviously, I grew up within that, on a military base.

“So there’s this martial tradition. In everyday life, there was the idea that fist fighting had certain nobility to it. But, there wasn’t much in the way of formal training. It was something you just did. It was seen as a test of character rather than a test of ability. That was the ethos I grew up with.”

Danaher learnt some karate in Auckland, but the true embrace of Brazilian jiu-jitsu wasn’t far off. In 1991, Danaher, 24, moved to New York City to begin his studies as a doctorate student in philosophy at the prestigious Columbia University.

His doctorate work concentrated in the study of epistemology, which deals in questioning the extent of human knowledge. Zooming even closer in, Danaher concentrated on the history and evolution of Western science, and how the capacity for knowledge changed.

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A dedicated student during the day, he spent most of his nights as a bouncer in hip-hop bars on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was still largely using the old-school Kiwi approach to physical confrontation, but it was effective: he was a serious guy.

“Imagine a guy like John working in a hip-hop club,” St-Pierre tells me later, over the phone. “Hip hop culture is very gangster—everyone worships gangsters. They want to be a bad-ass. So you have this white guy with a New Zealand accent that says to you, ‘hey, sir, I have to escort you out of my club. Please follow me.’

St-Pierre, now a UFC icon, lets out a hearty laugh at the expense of his old teacher.

“The guy would be like ‘hey, who are you?’ Then, in the blink of an eye, they would end up getting slammed on their head, getting arm-barred and getting taken out of the club by this guy who looks like nothing.”

Danaher met Maguire at Columbia, who, after finding out he moonlighted as a bouncer, suggested he come along to a BJJ class he was doing with Gracie.

Maguire, now a lawyer and historian who focuses on war crimes abuses, challenged his friend to take him down, but despite having more than 30kg of weight on his opponent—a self-described “small, skinny Californian surfer that smelt like marijuana”—Danaher was quickly defeated.

“I think my jiu-jitsu was very opening to him, because I was so much smaller and weaker than him,” Maguire remembers.

Despite his PhD being virtually finished, Danaher knew he had to pull the pin. Academia no longer held the lustre it used to; he now had a new pursuit.

“I loved philosophy, but I despised academia,” he says. “I did philosophy because I loved it. Philosophy and academia are two different things, though.

“One is the love of wisdom, and the other is very much a political appointee sort of thing. There was no interest in that, so it was a relatively easy decision. I’d gained what I’d wanted from my studies and the one thing that was remaining, an academic lifestyle, was not particularly appealing to me. So I came here.”

Soon, Danaher was one of Gracie’s finest students, also learning under the tutelage of Serra and Almeida. From Gracie’s first gym, he moved to his master’s second, right next to a HIV needle exchange clinic near Times Square. New York City was a completely different city back then, a place hard on the slightest weakness.

Yet the lessons Danaher learnt during the day were tested at night. His laboratory was the Crane Club, a now-closed bar on Amsterdam and 80th, where he had become one of the regular bouncers.

“That’s that element of practicality that I think New Zealanders have,” he says. “When something works, it’s hard to argue against it.

“I was immediately attracted to jiu-jitsu, but I realised that there was more to it than just a way to beat people up in bars."

“I was immediately attracted to jiu-jitsu, but I realised that there was more to it than just a way to beat people up in bars. There’s artistry to it.

“With the whole mixed martial arts revolution going on, people were fighting professionally. There was this of ‘what is the best martial art? What is the optimal way for humans to engage in unarmed combat?’ The answers were starting to be furnished in these mixed martial arts experiments.”

Danaher's usual day begins at 6AM. From his apartment on the Upper West Side, he takes the No 1 subway train to the Academy in Midtown, teaching the day’s 8AM class.

He will teach private classes through to 6PM, often with established UFC fighters like St-Pierre, rising stars like the Ryan brothers or wealthy, dedicated sorts. Recently physical therapy, for his knee, follows his classes before he meets with mixed martial artists preparing for fights.

Most days finish at 11PM, with the whole process repeated almost exactly the same the following day. Frequent travel to BJJ comps around the world, or special classes internationally, is the only thing that breaks the routine. That routine is an easy example of Danaher’s iron dedication to learn.

“He’ll have a massive class of all these super-talented guys and he’ll be in his office, reading something intense on the internet,” Maguire says. “He won’t come out until he’s ready.”

When Serra and Almeida left the Renzo Gracie Academy in late 1990s, Danaher, in possession of his BJJ black belt, was elevated to a teaching position. To teach under Gracie was then, and remains, one of the highest honours in BJJ.

“He felt like he had big shoes to fill and just put all his brilliance into this one area of Brazilian jiu-jistu,” Serra says, of Danaher. “He put his full attention in it—he became a phenomenal instructor.”

Serra remembers a man so dedicated to his training back then, that the rest of his life faded into the distance. Friends remember only ever seeing Danaher wearing a ragged New York Giants jersey during those years, and very rarely outside the Academy, too.

As he developed his teaching style, the New Zealander applied to his new craft the same precise approach he took to philosophy, enabling radical new results.

“The very people I studied—[Thomas] Kuhn, [Paul] Feyerabend and [Karl] Popper—were all people who were interested in the question of what is a progressive scientific programme, and what is a degenerative programme,” he says.

“The wisdom they offered in those areas translates almost directly into coaching programme. So, strangely, and perhaps unexpectedly, my philosophy training was directly useful in ways that no one had expected.”

His long-time interest in military history further helped inform Danaher. “Much of my inspiration has come from reading about the ideas and concepts of military historians and theorists,” he says.

“Almost everything they have to say about massed, or even international, combat applies to one-on-one combat. I’ll say it again; it’s so important—the techniques of one form of combat to another change, but the principles don’t.

“So when you read a great military historian, even from generations ago, the basic principles they offer will always ring true. I’ve generally found more guidance in their words than I have from martial arts writers or teachers.”

Though Danaher is a purist in his study, he has welcomed the rise of the UFC. Virtually all of its fighters are steeped in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and the Kiwi has coached several, including St-Pierre, to titles. Often controversial for threading the fine line between sport and entertainment, its elevation of mixed martial arts is absolutely undeniable.

Danaher has compared the early UFC events as similar to the discovery of the New World, in terms of its impact on Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA at large.

“Whatever sins the UFC may have committed are inconsequential compared to the positive effects it has had on martial arts as a whole,” Danaher says.

“Yes, I’m aware there could be improvements in the UFC. But [in] a world without the UFC, we’d still be locked in the degenerative martial arts scene of the 1980s. There was no open competition, no place to test theories—it was just people’s opinions floating around.

“The UFC gave a rock solid mechanism to test the various theories of the martial arts. To test the metal of the various athletes, so we could form solid conclusions about what could work and what doesn’t work. For that alone, I will forever be thankful for the appearance of the UFC.”

Perhaps due to his later start in BJJ—he didn’t start serious grappling training until he was 28—a professional fight career never appealed to Danaher.

“John wasn’t overly competitive—he just wanted to learn the art,” Serra, an endearing, fast-talking New Yorker who is now one the UFC’s biggest media personalities, says.

Though he was once Danaher’s teacher, Serra would later bring in his friend to instruct him in camp during his pro fight career when Gracie was busy.

“It flipped around,” he says. “I was Johnny’s instructor, but for my last few fights, I bought John in to coach me to get ready for [Frank] Trigg and [Matt] Hughes in specific strategies and positions on the floor.”

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Image courtesy of Peter Maguire.

Serra, like St-Pierre, Maguire and Gracie, help form Danaher’s inner circle. Over the years, their friendship with him has helped reveal the man inside the monk. He is a warm, loyal mate, with his seriousness interrupted by a disarming sense of humour.

“When I am with John, I am 100 percent open,” St-Pierre says. “I’m like an open book with him—I hold nothing back. He is a true friend for me. I trust him with my life.”

Danaher laughs when I ask him about his life outside of BJJ. “There’s no much to say, buddy,” he says.

Still single, Danaher endures friendly ribbing from his married mates about his personal life—“nobody has ever seen the inside of his apartment,” Serra jokes—but enjoys an active dating life in New York.

His favourite food is sushi and is known to hunt out the best sushi joint in whatever city he is travelling to. Rare downtime sees Danaher spending a lot of time watching video of fights, or still reading about esoteric philosophy.

“Even though he left academia, academia never left him,” Maguire says, of the baroque existence.

“He believes in repetition until the point of boredom, and accepts that with the choices he has made, there are things he will probably never have in his life—like a family.”

Absolute dedication to mastering a martial art, of course, has its costs. Danaher’s hip replacement, and bad knee that, in the past, his seen him struggle to even kneel, have slowed his body down as he reaches his early fifties.

His connections back to New Zealand have diminished now, too with his family relocating to Australia when he left for New York in 1991. Danaher’s last trip to New Zealand was in 1999.

And yet, Danaher seems a truly happy man. Like his old heroes Kuhn, Feyerabend and Popper, he is a bloke dedicated to the expansion of knowledge, of finding the true potential of BJJ in himself, or, most importantly, others.

“When humans focus on something bigger than themselves, that gives a stronger sense of satisfaction and, perhaps most importantly of all, a sense of place in the world—a sense of purpose,” he says.

“So I push my life in that direction. The role, and mindset, of a coach and athlete are very different. The athlete, by definition, has to be self-interested because they are competing in a world where the number of prizes is limited—but the number of possible opponents is large.

“The mindset that does best for an athlete is always a selfish one. The coach, on the other hand, must have a very giving mindset."

“The mindset that does best for an athlete is always a selfish one. The coach, on the other hand, must have a very giving mindset because ultimately, everything they are doing is for somebody else.

“But I’ve always found the mindset that lives outside of itself gives the most profound sense of satisfaction in the long run. Yes, there’s a huge amount of joy in winning. As an individual, there’s joy in that triumph.

“But for me, the strongest sense of joy and satisfaction has always been in other people’s triumph and being apart of their team, or group, which takes that individual to the height they aspire to.”

Both Danaher and I see St-Pierre beckoning him over. That afternoon the French Canadian has a private training session and then dinner with Danaher in preparation for his upcoming fight, at UFC 217, with Michael Bisping.

Despite it being his first fight in four years, St-Pierre won easily at New York’s Madison Square Garden claiming the UFC middleweight championship title.

Danaher and I shake hands, two bald Kiwis under the streets of Manhattan, he heads back to work. I watch one of the most precisely understanding individuals I’ve ever met walk slowly back to GSP.

He settles back into his usual position against the wall. The room is mostly empty of students now, with a few of the better ones still locked together in study. There’s a bit of laughter around. Danaher is smiling as I head for the stairs.

We end up in funny places, don’t we? And so I give you, John Danaher, a fellow Kiwi here in New York City. I give you a man who found his place in this world.

A teacher under the streets of Manhattan, in a monastery they call the Blue Dungeon.

The monk is a happy warrior.

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