Interview with Scott Burr

After I published my thoughts on the book Worth Defending I got a lovely email from its co-author, Scott Burr! He was nice enough to respond to a few questions for this blog.

Could you introduce yourself in your own words?

My name is Scott Burr. I'm a writer and a martial artist. I'm also a visual artist and a graphic designer and sometimes I pretend to be a musician. I'm the co-author of Richard Bresler's memoir Worth Defending: How Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Saved My Life.

I was a martial arts instructor for a long time. I ran a BJJ/MMA gym outside Cleveland for about twelve years, from 2007 to 2019. I have black belts in BJJ, Judo, and a Korean art called Kuk Sul Do. I also did a lot of Muay Thai, Boxing, submission grappling, etc. I fought amateur MMA for a couple of years. I'm a certified pro trainer under Steve Maxwell. I hold level one and level two certifications from Steve in bodyweight and kettlebell training. I was also Steve's first black belt in BJJ.

I graduated from the Colorado College with a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing. I've written two novels, Bummed Out City and We Will Rid the World of You, and a couple of books on training and martial arts: Get a Grip, Suspend Your Disbelief, and Superhero Simplified. You can find them all on Amazon. I've got a short story collection that'll be out in the spring that I'm really excited about called We Drove Out to the Desert.

I've got a handful of private students that I train with now, since I closed my academy. At least a couple of us will get together and train most days. I'll also teach classes and seminars when I'm on the road. This fall I was down in South Carolina assisting Steve with a black belt test he was administering down there, and then I taught at a few schools in and around Durham and Raleigh on the way back. If you want to keep up with what I'm doing you can check out www.EnclaveJiuJitsu.com or find and follow @enclavejiujitsu on social media. Anyone who's interested in having me in for a class or a seminar can find contact information on the website. Once covid gets under control I'll be happy to get back out on the road again. People can keep up with news and announcements about my writing at www.Facebook.com/ScottBurrAuthor.

What do you think Jiu Jitsu instructors that focus on self-defense such as Rickson Gracie have to offer to people doing Jiu Jitsu in 2020 (if anything)?

We talk a fair bit about this in Richard's book, actually. Do I think that pretty much anyone doing Jiu-Jitsu today could benefit from learning the self-defense techniques and—more importantly—the mentality and strategy that they contain and develop and require? Absolutely. Do I think that this means that if a practitioner doesn't know the self-defense they're somehow "less than"? No. Do I think the average blue belt competitor could win in a street fight? Yes. Do I think they may get punched more than they have to? Sure. If you don't train to deal with punches and kicks and knees then that's not what you're going to be really good at. It's not a knock to say that people aren't as good as they could be at things they don't train. But none of this is the point, really. And I think the question as posed kind of misses the point, too. The question isn't, "What does self-defense have to offer Jiu-Jitsu practitioners?" The question really is, "What does Jiu-Jitsu have to offer society in general?" This was the bigger question and idea that Kano had when he codified Judo (which, as you know, was the technical and philosophical forerunner of BJJ). The idea was for the art to have a widespread positive societal impact—to help people develop the kind of character that martial arts training requires—and that mission absolutely depends on accessibility. When you have Jiu-Jitsu schools teaching hyper-specific moves for hyper-specific situations - a counter of a berimbolo, etc. - you're already talking to a tiny, tiny percentage of the overall population. And then when you conduct the training and focus the classes in such a way that they serve the needs and wants of the competitors—the tough guys who like to train hard and push themselves and get beat up and come back for more—you're again talking about a tiny percentage of the overall population. So this hypothetical school may serve its students very well, but those students represent only a fraction of the overall community. When you have training that focuses on self-defense, which starts with broad and familiar attacks (everyone recognizes a two-handed choke, a sucker punch, etc.), you're speaking to a broader swath of the population in terms that seem pertinent to them. Then, when you compose the training in such a way that these new students feel encouraged and successful, they feel comfortable. And now they'll stay at the school and actually develop.

The biggest problem in Jiu-Jitsu today is the 8 or 9 out of 10 people who try a class and never come back. And that's not to say that Jiu-Jitsu should be watered down and weakened. It's to say that there should be a shallow end to the pool. What we have now is a situation where, in a lot of schools, there's only the deep end. There's a steep learning curve for people, and so most people don't try Jiu-Jitsu, or they try it and they don't come back. There's nothing wrong with a pool having a shallow and a deep end so that people can start with a comfortable, manageable challenge and then progress as they desire. That's the idea. Accessible, self-defense-oriented training makes it so Jiu-Jitsu can do the most good for the most people. Which, at the end of the day, is really what Jiu-Jitsu is about. It's supposed to be a tool for individual development and, through that, a tool for the development of society in general.

Which parts of Jiu Jitsu do you wish would change and which parts do you hope stay the same?

Maybe it's my age showing, but the flashiness and the trash talk are starting to make me crazy. And it's not just a BJJ problem. Nowadays we as a society seem to consistently reward and give attention to loud, self-aggrandizing, ostentatious, self-promoters. I worked with Robert Drysdale on his book Opening Closed Guard, and he says something similar. He talks about how back when he was coming up you didn't talk up your own accomplishments. You didn't walk around showing off about the thing you'd done, the tournament you'd just medaled in. I think one of the biggest things martial arts has to teach us—especially those of us who tend toward self-importance in any form—is humility, and a sense of responsibility for the effects of our behavior. I think a lot of the people who are engaged in this sort of behavior, they only see what it does for them. They don't see how they're contributing to an overall degradation of the culture. I don't want to get too political here, but I am of the opinion that America at its very core and in its very construction is supposed to be a conversation among the people about what we think is best for ourselves. When that conversation breaks down—when a true discourse is no longer possible and any exchange stagnates into two immovable positions repeating themselves louder and loud and more and more indignantly—then America itself breaks down. I would like to see humility and thoughtfulness and quiet become virtues that we celebrate again. I would like to see a society in which an exchange can evolve from two points to one shared point that contains, as much as possibile, the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither. And I guess the thing that makes me crazy is that martial arts can be a powerful tool for helping us develop and appreciate these attributes I mentioned—but only if it's used that way. If it just becomes another venue for showering attention and rewards on the biggest and the loudest and the most ostentatious… I worry about the kind of toxicity that breeds, and the kind of culture it encourages.

I wrote a piece for the JJGF blog back in the spring where I said something like, "Jiu-Jitsu should be a positive thing in people's lives or it shouldn't exist," and that kind of sums it up. I'm just done with toxicity and negativity and mean-spiritedness and shitiness. There is only one boat, and we're all on it. If we can't realize that then I don't see how we're going to keep from going down.

Could you name some people in Jiu Jitsu whose contributions / skills should be known by more people?

Richard Bresler, certainly. People really have no idea how integral he is to the story of Jiu-Jitsu in America. That was a big reason I was so excited to work with him on the book. To me it's like those of us doing Jiu-Jitsu today are living in this beautiful house, and we're running around from room to room and we're having a great time, and most of us never think about the fact that people built that house. People just like us put it together, brick by brick by brick. And we just get to enjoy it. In the book Richard talks about how everyone doing Jiu-Jitsu today owes a big "thank you" to Rorion, but we all definitely owe a big "thank you" to Richard right along with him.

Steve Maxwell, too. I think Steve is fairly well known, but it's nothing like it should be. I had a guy ask me once who I got my black belt from, and when I told him he shrugged and said, "There's so many guys these days." I've never been happier to tap somebody in my life. That not only did he not know who Steve was, but he had the arrogance to dismiss him without even bothering to learn anything. He was happy enough to just stay ignorant. But I think that guy's maybe more the norm than I want to believe. People are into their own thing and they don't care. But they should care, because—like I said—we're playing in the house that those guys built. We're eating the meal that those guys prepared.

I feel like there's another aspect to this question that's worth addressing. I'm seeing this trend in Jiu-Jitsu where everyone wants to tear down the heroes and the icons. I saw Keenan post something a while back about how he thinks Hélio and Rickson weren't really that good, probably only what would be tough purple belt level now. I supposed this is a symptom of a culture that seems more and more to only value success and winning. I think about how happy people were when Ronda Rousey or Anderson Silva finally lost their respective belts. I think about that great quote from Isaac Newton about seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants. Truly great men and women appreciate how much they owe to those who came before them. No matter who you are or where you are in life, you have someone to thank for helping you in ways that you couldn't help yourself. The situation they created, the resources that were made available, the trajectory they put you on by their positive or negative influence. You didn't come out of a vacuum and you don't live in a vacuum. Jiu-Jitsu didn't start with you and your little journey and it doesn't end there, either. If not for Hélio and Carlos and Rickson and Royce and all the others, where would you be? How much would your life be lessened if Jiu-Jitsu disappeared from it, if it had never existed in the first place? Your first teacher, whether they were a black belt world champion of a blue belt nobody, where would you be without them? They may not need widespread fame, but it's important that you know and recognize and appreciate their contribution to you and your life. I think just generally people need to start from a place of appreciation for those who came before. Not out of duty or obligation, but out of a genuine consideration and cognizance of all that their efforts have given you.

Is there a (non Jiu Jitsu related) person that inspires you?

So many people. I get inspired by people all the time. Friends of mine who are starting businesses, following their passions, doing their own thing, trying to build a life that looks the way they want it to look. People who are setting off into the unknown in that way. We're not all going to go into space or explore the arctic, but there are unknown frontiers in everyone's life. The people who go off into those frontiers inspire me.

Could you give an example of a piece of art (music, painting, film, etc...) that has made you cry?

There are a number of songs by Frank Turner that I cannot listen to if someone else is in the room. In particular the album Tape Deck Heart just about does me in every time I listen to it.

There have been other things, for sure. Stuff by Hemingway, stuff by Kundera, Vonnegut's Timequake, Alan Watts' The Book, Coppola's Youth Without Youth. Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys. The ending of Raimi's Spider-Man 2 gets me every time and always has.

Honestly, it seems to take less and less these days. There were passages in Richard's book that were very emotional for me to write and equally emotional for me when I read back through them. I don't know what that sounds like, saying that something I wrote made me cry, but it's true.

It's interesting that you ask. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about stress and trauma and sadness and these emotions that sort of "live" in your body until you find a way to let them out. We were talking about this interview that Captain Phillips gave about his experience having his ship taken over by Somali pirates. He said that after the rescue one of the Navy SEALs took him into a room and told him that he, Captain Phillips, needed to cry, shout, etc. That no matter what he thought or felt about it, stress builds up in your body and you literally have to process it out by doing those things. The hormones that accumulate when you're stressed or afraid or hurt get processed through your system when you do these things. It makes me think about the things I have bottled up over the years in the name of being "tough" or "stoic" or whatever else I thought I was being. It makes me think about what I bottle up now. Because I still do it, 9 times out of 10. It's notable to me when I don't do it. It makes me think that, because this stuff isn't getting processed out as it's happening, it all gets concentrated into these moments when a movie or a book or a lyric in a song triggers this outsized release. Which I guess isn't necessarily a bad thing. I suppose you could make the argument that that's what art is for, in part. That it's there to help us contextualize and process the things we can't contextualize or process when we're in the midst of them. When we're just in our lives. But I wonder what my experience of these films and books and songs would be if I could recognize and allow these feelings their expression in time with the circumstances and events that inspire them.

And I wonder about all of this in the context of some of the other things from earlier: about the kind of toxic masculinity that's endemic in the sort of winner-take-all, losers-are-worthless culture creeping into Jiu-Jitsu. I wonder about the fundamental soundness of any culture where men aren't allowed to cry. If crying is biologically necessary and we don't allow men to do it, what happens to them? And is it any surprise when society gets sick?

Thank you to Scott Burr for giving such great answers to my sometimes out of left field questions!

This is my day 54 post for #100daystooffload


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