John Clarke and the Art of Violence

John Clarke is the head instructor of Brazilian jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts at Broadway Jiu Jitsu located in South Boston. He is a second degree Carlson Gracie Sr Black Belt under Fabio Araujo, with 17 years of Brazilian jiu jitsu training. The Gracie family is a Brazilian family who founded Brazilian jiu jitsu and have spread their knowledge of this unique form of martial arts throughout the world.

Training and being associated with them is as close to the source of the essence of the sport as one can get. Clarke also trained in boxing, Muaythai and Jeet Kune Do and has trained in Thailand, South America, Europe and throughout the United States. His professional mixed martial arts record is 10-2 and he appeared on the Ultimate Fighter, Season 7. He sat down to talk with us about his life, the benefits of Brazilian jiu jitsu and martial arts, and on dealing with the simple, yet complex nature of violence.

Photo by Carlos Arzaga

“I can remember going back to when I was in sixth grade and during P.E class, you got exposed to many different sports with the idea that you would pick one by high school to pursue. We did a block of wrestling for two weeks, which I found really cool. In seventh grade, I had an opportunity to do it again more seriously and it was easily the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. After two weeks I tried to quit and my dad said, ‘You know what? You don’t have to do it next year, but you have to finish this season’ and halfway through the season I fell in love with it.

Where it all started…

“I wrestled all through high school and briefly in college. For older wrestlers, there aren’t a lot of competitive outlets, so I moved onto Judo. Back in the late 90’s, that was the other big thing you could train in and a Jiu Jitsu gym opened near where I lived. Slowly I started to schedule my college classes around my Jiu Jitsu classes. I started competing in Jiu Jitsu tournaments and then I decided to take an MMA fight (mixed martial arts) just for fun and here I am.”

John came to Boston about 8 years ago for work from Connecticut. “I was training at another local gym. I was still competing fairly regularly. There was an opportunity for employment at another large MMA gym and I took that. The people who started that gym started it cash poor and I saw that it wasn’t going to work out. I wrote a business plan and suggested they move the location because the rent was too much. I said South Boston is going to be the spot that’s blowing up.

“They said no. They wanted to spend the money on marketing, so I saw this place. I already wrote the business plan. I might as well stop making money for someone else and start making money for myself. Next week is exactly five years since we’ve been here.”

“I can recall during my years training, that there was a decline in certain professional opportunities in my mid-20’s. I can recall getting up in the morning feeling like I knew nothing. I remember thinking, ‘Man, mornings are awful, I don’t think I really want to do this.’. I had a job in public relations when I came out of college for about six months, but it didn’t feel right.

“I went back to the food industry where I could spend more time training and learning. Back in the 90’s we had to drive an hour in any direction to get some decent training. Nowadays, because the sport has grown so much more people have opened gyms and are offering this type of training and there are gyms everywhere. There were a number of professional opportunities I let pass me by. As time goes on you start to think to yourself, ‘If I’m going to let professional opportunities pass me by, I need to find a way to make money at this (MMA).’”

We asked John about the biggest challenge he has faced on or off the mat so far. “My biggest hardship was a period of a couple of years when I was in my mid-20’s when I had transferred schools. I saw all my friends that I grew up with get these real jobs. It was a real difficult thing for me to come to terms with the fact that I was made a little bit differently. Maybe that path wasn’t for me. It took me a good couple of years to understand that. Just because other people do that doesn’t mean that its right for me and just because I’m doing this doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.”

There are many gyms in the Boston area. We asked what makes Broadway Jiu Jitsu so special. “I think our gym is a little bit different. Because there is a money making opportunity here, a lot of other gyms and instructors will alter what they are doing to make more money. We don’t do that here. We don’t water down our jiu jitsu. We don’t make it soft or palatable for everyone out there.

“If you’re coming in here and you’re going to be in here for a while, there is a certain personality that goes along with that. To teach jiu jitsu to everyone, you have to water it down a bit. We don’t do that here. Really brutal honesty and tough love is what happens here. We get guys all the time that come in here and say ‘I want to be a world champion’ or, ‘I want to be in the UFC’. I tell them to come in for a week and after that, I turn to them and say, ‘Listen, I want to play first base for the Mets, but that’s not going to happen for me.’ We temper expectations here, based on physical ability. I don’t have time to deal with anything else.”

Photo by Carlos Arzaga

Photo by Carlos Arzaga

“Jiu jitsu is great at problem solving and causing problems. Lots of times when you are in a certain position, you’ve got to solve a problem. This is not a stagnant problem. It’s a constantly evolving problem you have to solve in order to gain positional advantage on someone. Conversely, I’m constantly trying to cause my opponent a problem. I want to cause a situation for him where I already understand and know his only answers, so I can take advantage of the answers that he’ll give me.”

“Jiu Jitsu is a real confidence builder for some people. Confidence is a series of small victories. Over time, they snowball into a greater confidence. When you go to a gym every night, it’s impossible not to amass a certain number of these small victories and gain confidence, even with all of the small defeats that also come with that. I think jiu jitsu is a great way to build confidence, but also for people to learn about themselves.

“We have an expression in this gym, ‘The mat doesn’t lie’. When we get on the mat together, you’re going to find out a lot about yourself. You’re going to find out how tough you really are, how soft you actually are, and vastly increase self awareness.”

Why is self-awareness so important?

“Self awareness is something that’s seriously lacking in society. We try to take people out of their comfort zones physically and mentally, because that’s where a lot of development happens. Sometimes people come in and they’re not willing to do that, so we try to encourage them to do so. Sometimes it’s not comfortable and it has cost me some students, but the ones that persevere and drive on through that grow and are grateful for that.

“Jiu Jitsu gets you to that place of confidence quicker than most other forms of martial arts. You can’t train hard for boxing everyday, because then your brains will get turned to squash from getting punched in the face. We can do jiu jitsu every night though, because we can tap out and gain the advantage of a live sparring session while minimizing a lot of that physical damage from other forms of martial arts.”

“You learn the most about yourself in conflict. If you can step out of it and look at yourself and your own actions, what you did well and what you can work on… you will get better. Physically, that part of society is getting washed out, but people will learn a whole lot about themselves when they get punched in the face and I think that is a valuable experience.

“I’m not a proponent of excessive violence for no reason. I don’t believe in self defense, I believe in self awareness is trying to extract yourself from unnecessary violence. That’s something people need to learn and pay attention to. When violence can’t be avoided, it’s not about self defense, it’s about self offense.”

Photo by Carlos Arzaga

Photo by Carlos Arzaga

“I think violence gets a bad rep. I mean, we’re animals. We’re here to have sex and violence. The fact is that you should be able to have violence with someone that wants to have violence with you in the same way you should be able to have sex with someone who wants to have sex with you. You can’t have violence with someone who doesn’t want to have violence with you, but mutual violence is so frowned upon. It’s just an instinct that we have and as a society that tries to weed that out, what we have left are a bunch of delicate little flowers who are offended by words and pictures and all that crap.

“We are weeding these natural instincts out of human beings. When I started training, it was to have a place for us to grapple. It was a place for us to fight without getting arrested. Too many people get involved with this world to get a t-shirt and a medal and to put it on Facebook. That is a problem. That’s one of the reasons these sports are growing. People can create a false identity. When you’re here for real, the mat doesn’t tell any lies and this gym weeds those guys out.”

If you want to test your mettle on the mat, head to John’s Gym at 36 W Broadway in South Boston:

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