I remember when I first heard about John Donehue well over 10 years ago now, BJJ was still in its infancy here in Australia and although I had started training and wrestling with some OK guys no-one really knew what they were doing compared to now. The Wing Chun crew I was cross training with at the time also knew Mick Nicholls, a Thai Trainer, in Thomastown who mentioned this guy was coming back from the States who was ‘the real deal’, one of only four Gene Lebell blackbelt’s as a well Machado BJJ black belt. Gene Lebell is a living legend in Martial Arts, and very senior and respected people all say he is the toughest man on the planet. Growing up reading Blitz magazines about his exploits and achievements made him a figure of mythic proportions in my mind. So stupidly, I chased down a phone number for John and made contact arranging to attend one his classes in East Bentleigh at the All Stars Gym. At the time I was still very much involved in teaching and training in traditional karate, acting as head instructor at a very large dojo with over 200 students in Croydon. But with the emergence of No-Holds Barred Fighting and the early UFC footage I wanted to learn BJJ, so I could fight on the ground.
Well that first class with John was a real eye opener, the warm up was a killer, thought I was dying in the first ten minutes like everyone else, trying to learn to sprawl, choke, arm bar was a whole new world. I remember shaking Johns hand at the end of the class, trying to make a positive impression with a firm grip and being met by the most gentle hand shake ever. A trait that continues to this day. The irony of this is never lost on me when he hands down an epic beating when wrestling, of complete control and mind numbing pain. But I knew then and there that this was a man about substance, what works, and not style, what looks good. I still regret not leaving karate sooner to start training with John more often but karate is what I knew and at the time, was my life. I was never under any illusions about the effectiveness of karate as a combat style but walking away totally from this type of training was very difficult for me at the time. So, as a result, my progress in BJJ was staggered and slow because I didn’t train in a regular fashion and this both frustrated my coach and I. John wanted nothing less than total commitment to the cause and now as a coach myself I can see the frustration myself in my athletes when they have potential but don’t commit to regualr training.
The other memory I have of those early days are the high calibre martial artists who trained with John like Cameron Quinn, a Kyokushin Karate master, and I never use the word master lightly, who I admired for the longest time as a tremendous example of a Martial Artist, or Larry Papadopolus a pioneer of Shooto and mixed style fights from Sydney, or Dave Berry an original Zen Do Kai legend and hard man. All these guys saw fit to train with and listen to John and if he was good enough for them then that was good enough for me. Larry commented some time ago that he never really understood the basics until he trained with John and now I can finally see what he means. When guys who are very good already and accomplished teachers in their own right, seek out your instruction and guidance that is a very high complement indeed.
Sometimes I look at those guys who are very new to this kind of training and who haven’t studied the history of this sport beyond the first series of The Ultimate Fighter, they can often forget or not appreciate the quality of teaching and coaching available to them. They have no perspective.
John was at the forefront of early MMA with the RAW team in the USA, names like Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Frank Trigg, Vladimir Matyushenko and Rico Chiapparelli as head coach have all benefitted from his Johns approach to training. At the time I had no idea about these guys and how the were shaping the future of a sport but I think in same way BJJ revolutionised how we looked at fighting, the RAW team shaped the way wrestling was to be used in MMA for years to come. John often says good grappling is good grappling and all those years ago I was too focused on BJJ to realise the benefits of wrestling and some potential weaknesses in BJJ. Again John was right and well ahead of his time. I have said this before, if you were to create a hybrid of catch wrestling, judo, freestyle wrestling and BJJ you would have a great grappling system. Well, John Donehue is that man and I defy any else to find me someone else who has such a broad and effective skill set in Australia or perhaps elsewhere. And for those lucky or smart enough to train at Extreme JJG that’s what you will receive the best of all grappling systems.
I remember training in the early days, with Cris Brown when he first put on a Gi as a white belt and wondering who this guy was? Cris was clearly frustrated in training with a jacket on, however not too long afterward I was sailing through the air on the receiving end of fireman’s throw, wondering how this white belt was so damn good. Cris Brown competed at the highest levels of wrestling for many years and is an amazing athlete who is another example of a very accomplished person who chose John as their coach in submission grappling and BJJ.
John has a strong eye and mind for detail. And grappling is a game of inches. And if the devil is in the detail as the saying goes then John is a very bad man indeed. Feeling is believing, and I have yet to see him get in trouble while training with anyone. Technical is best way to describe his approach, he is a largely impassive whilst training and never hurried. He controls the direction and timing of his opponent by limiting their options through pain mostly. Transitional control and positional dominance are the hallmarks or his game. And from these two things an endless procession of submissions ensues. His game is tight and heavy. The pressure he generates with his frame is immense.
Now, none of this comes easy to those who wish to train. John sets very high standards for promotion because to understand one aspect of grappling like Judo or BJJ is a lifetime’s work. To understand and apply aspects of other things like catch or wrestling to the equation is even harder. But what you get is the ability to prevail. To be able to adapt. To see angles and submissions and leverage where others don’t. To control position and transition in unique ways. That’s the pay off if your willing to commit and stay loyal to your coach and teacher. Now John is not a big self promotor but the product he delivers, the substance, is very unique and incredibly effective.