A Conversation with Serra BJJ’s Dan Astarita

A few weeks ago, I came into the gym and saw an unfamiliar face.  After asking around I found out that the unfamiliar fellow who had been brought in to work with Stipe Miocic leading up to his successful title fight against Fabricio Werdum was none other than one of Matt Serra’s top black belts, Dan Astarita.  Astarita spent the next couple of days teaching our jiu jitsu classes, and I was really impressed not only with how he taught and talked to us but with his mentality when rolling and his absolutely open and friendly demeanor.  I asked him to share some of his experiences and thoughts with me so that I could pass them along to the rest of the jiu jitsu community.

You may not know who Dan Astarita is, but he is quite noteworthy in the jiu jitsu community.  You see, he runs two of Matt Serra’s gyms in Long Island, and has been instrumental in the growth and success of Serra’s Brazilian jiu jitsu programs…

“I am the manager of two locations: the Huntington Academy and Levittown.  I have been an instructor for six years and have been a black belt for two years.  I not only teach classes but sweep and wipe down the mats, schedule all introductory classes, sell memberships, marketing, purchasing merchandise and scheduling special events (seminars, workshops, sales promotions,) and basically handle all the students’ daily needs and problems.  I started off just as an instructor when Matt opened this newer Academy and added multiple beginner classes to the schedule.  I then started working behind the desk during my off-season from my swimming pool installer job.  After that I continued to climb the ranks not only in jiu jitsu but also with helping to run the Academy.”

I noticed two important details about Astarita that I thought were noteworthy: the fact that he is amazingly friendly and humble, and the fact that he is able to explain concepts in a very clear and concise manner.  I was interested to see how his experiences working with high level MMA fighters have shaped his perspective.

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“Working with the higher level guys that fight for a living and train all day every day has added a new aspect to my jiu jitsu.  Being able to explain and teach techniques and see these guys pull them off immediately has been very gratifying as an instructor but also being able to feel their athleticism and training while training with them is a special experience.  Very humbling!  When it comes to working with guys that fight at the highest levels, I have found that belt levels, to some extent, really don’t exist.  I know it’s been said 1 million times before but a belt really only covers an inch and a half to 2 inches of your ***, you have to cover the rest.”

I have had the opportunity to train in many different environments, and I’ve found that training at an MMA gym where someone who is technically a BJJ white belt can be a UFC champ goes a long way to make the environment humbling in a great way…  On the other hand, ones technique has to be a lot sharper when rolling with high level MMA fighters, regardless of their rank in BJJ.  I was curious to see what Astarita thought about this.

“Oh it’s definitely reinforced my belief in pure technique.  I’m a bigger guy but definitely not the most athletic guy in the room.  I’ve always had to rely on and trust technique and sometimes really trust it! Without believing in technique it will never work but relying and knowing that you can do something sometimes is half the battle!   The first few times I trained with some high-level wrestlers what surprised me is not only their strength but their grappling ability and ability to stay on top which is most important in that fight.”

Given Astarita’s unique experience I was interested to see what his biggest challenges have been as an instructor.

“I’ve encountered several challenges over the course of the years, from people just starting out and not believing in the techniques you are showing them, to people that are stronger and more athletic and not believing in your ability to teach them something.  But probably the biggest challenge has been believing in myself enough that I am able to relay the information and techniques that have been handed down to me to everyone in the class. Not just the bigger stronger guys but also the smaller weaker teenagers/girls and everyone in between.  Doing what you love to do for a living can sometimes also be very frustrating.  I have also experienced what they call burnout syndrome from teaching all day every day.  Just like in a jiu jitsu match you, have to believe in yourself and push through it all.”

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Given that Astarita teaches jiu jitsu in what is one of the top MMA gyms in his region, I was curious to see what he thought about gi training and people who shun gi training because they feel it’s unrealistic or useless.

“First off I think everyone should train in the gi whether they’re serious about competition/self-defense or even fighting in a cage.  It teaches you so much from how to posture in the guard and also the correct defenses on how not to rely on slipping out of stuff.  That being said there are 1 percenters who can get to that black belt level of training but realistically they do need to put on the gi to show what their jiu jitsu is like while being restrained and very restrictive.  Also the gi adds a self-defense aspect that most people don’t recognize the gi is a jacket everyone in the northeast of the United States wears a jacket at least six months out of the year. If you end up in any type of altercation during those six months you’re more likely to be able to use the jacket against your opponent than if you didn’t train in the gi.  And just to let you know all of our beginner jiu jitsu classes are in the gi.  Matt wants to make sure everyone knows the proper escapes and also if needed, they should be able to choke someone wearing a North Face jacket out.  Once they get the fourth stripe on their white belt they can join in on the no gi classes.  #TheGiDoesn’tLie”

He also had some thoughts in regards to position and submission.

“I do want to say that I am a firm believer are in position over submission. If you can attain the best positions in jiu jitsu the submissions will come much easier by being able to wear down your opponent both physically and mentally. I’ve found that submissions come much easier and your opponents are bound to make more mistakes that you can capitalize on.”

In closing Dan had some thank yous and shout outs:

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“I would definitely like to thank Matt Serra for not only give me the opportunity to teach at his academies and be able to make this my living but also for all the time spent actually hands-on training with me.  When I first started working here for several years he would come in during the afternoon before the evening classes and it would be me, him & another higher belt.  That training shot my jiu jitsu level through the roof, as well as the training with lower belts and guys that were at the same level as me.  But really being stuck in the cage with Matt and another black belt for an hour or two showed me what good Jiu Jitsu is.  I’d like to thank my dad & stepmother for instilling a strong work ethic in me from a very early age which has translated to my Jiu Jitsu.  And I’d also like to thank my wife Veronica for being so supportive over the course of the past 11 years of me pursuing my passion for jiu jitsu. There have even been times when she was financially supportive which has really helped me.”

Jiu Jitsu Times thanks Dan Astarita for taking time to share his thoughts and experiences with us!

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Emil Fischer is an active brown belt competitor under Pablo Angel Castro III training at Strong Style Mixed Martial Arts and Training Center near Cleveland Ohio (www.strongstyle.com) and teaching at Ground Up BJJ (http://mpcle.com/class/ground-up-bjj/.) For more information, other articles, and competition videos check out his athlete pages at www.facebook.com/emilfischerbjj www.twitter.com/Emil_Fischer and https://instagram.com/emilfischerbjj/. Emil is sponsored by Meerkatsu (www.Meerkatsu.com, discount code EmilKatsu), Eddy's On Coventry, Cleveland Cryo (www.clevelandcryo.net discount code EmilCryo,) NottaRookie, The Terphouse (www.TheTerphouse.com, used discount code COOKIES), Trap And Roll Soap Company (www.trapandrollsoap.com discount code COOKIES) Impact Mouthguards (www.impactmouthguards.com discount code EMILIMPACT), North South Jiu Jitsu Underwear, as well as a brand ambassador for Ludwig Van (www.ludwigvantheman.com discount code FAMILY) and Vanguard Kimono.
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