Jiu-Jitsu Letter

The Way of the Fight: John Danaher

I’m still rereading books and recently got back to Georges St. Pierre’s book, The Way of the Fight. I first read it when it came out, and I was a blue belt at the time. Reading it again now, I appreciate it more. It’s divided into five sections, each co-written with his mother or one of his coaches. Section 3’s co-author is John Danaher.

I remember when Danaher was on Joe Rogan’s podcast earlier this year, he recounted the story of how he wanted to strategize for GSP’s first BJ Penn fight. The other coaches laughed when he suggested GSP win on the ground.

In the book, he wrote about it the first fight:

Now, everyone knew that B.J. Penn was extremely dangerous with his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu when he was on top of his opponent. But I believed that he was not a dangerous fighter from underneath, and my reasons were simple: Penn had never submitted anyone from underneath. His strength was the ability to control people on top, pass their legs (their guard) and get into mount-and-pound position. That’s where he’s most dangerous, and if he had gotten into that position against Georges, he probably would have won. I, however, did not see him distinguished at all from the bottom position. I was confident that if Georges was able to get a fix on Penn’s limitations, he could win decisively.

Against everyone’s advice, I advocated a strategy that Georges push Penn back to the fence, put him down on his back, and ultimately win by the accumulations of rounds through ground and pound. After all, one of Georges’s greatest strengths is his ability to put people down and control them on the ground, as well as to avoid submission holds and enact a ferocious ground-and-pound attack. I saw that as a happy marriage between Georges’s best skills and B.J.’s weaknesses.

Now, I was the new guy in his corner and he had an established crew from Montreal. They thought I was out of my fucking mind, and they told me so. I understand why they thought that way because, on the surface, why would you take a champion known for his ground game to the ground? I just saw things differently. The real question, to me, was “Where is he good on the ground?” Don’t give me generalities. Be specific! Specifically, Penn’s very good on top. Extremely dangerous if he gets on your back. But he’s not dangerous coming from underneath. Never was. Never has been.

“No, that’s crazy—we’re going to win on the feet,” the others said in response to my strategy. But Penn is an extraordinarily gifted boxer, and his style of counterpunching was very badly matched versus Georges who, at that stage of his career, had a rather naive, straight-punching left-right combo. I really wasn’t confident that Georges could win in a boxing exchange against Penn. Of course, I was the new guy and didn’t want to appear disrespectful, so I responded: “How about we use your strategy for the first round, and if it works, we’ll keep going with it? If it doesn’t work, we’ll switch to my strategy.” They agreed. Now, as history recalls, Georges took a terrible shellacking in that first round. He got poked very severely in the eye early in the fight, and his straight style of punching was easily countered with Penn’s jabs and counterpunching.

When Georges came back into the corner at the end of that first round, he looked like a completely beaten man. He sat down for a short time of rest. Somewhere in that minute he found his strength and I looked at him. I said, “Georges, you know what you have to do.” He turned his head up and looked straight at me. I remember he wiped the blood off his face and he nodded. He didn’t say a word. He rose, and he immediately drove B.J. Penn to the fence, right there in front of me. We called out the precise elements we had drilled in New York City—based on risk control and dropping to a leg—and famously Georges took B.J. down on several occasions. Of course, he easily survived on the ground and Penn never got close to a submission. Georges dominated the next two rounds and won a narrow decision.

If we had used my strategy from the start, it would have been an easy victory, 3–0. But I learned a lot about Georges in that fight, something that went far beyond the technical level and into his heart. Even with that terrible start, he still came through, two rounds to one. He showed impressive courage, and I got to see his shootbox skills firsthand against, at that time, one of the greatest martial artists in the world.

It was surprising to the naive, but to those who understand strategy and B.J. Penn, there was nothing surprising about it. It was simply the observation of what should have been obvious facts. But most people overlook obvious facts.

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