If you pay attention to competitive jiu-jitsu (or, frankly, even if you don’t), you’ve heard of the infamous “Danaher Death Squad”. The elite group of athletes who train under John Danaher at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan, NY has made a name for themselves by dominating the sub-only scene with their savage leg lock system. But even though their rise to fame and success might seem sudden to those who only started paying attention when competitors like Garry Tonon, Gordon Ryan, and Eddie Cummings started breaking their opponents’ feet at events like EBI and Polaris, the DDS — like many great things — came from humble beginnings.
It all started in September of 2011 when a blue belt named Eddie Cummings showed up at Renzo Gracie Academy. Taught originally by Krishna Mirjah, he’d developed a strong bottom game foundation that consisted of a deep half guard variation called “reverse guard”, z-guard, and single-leg x-guard thanks to both his professor’s guidance and his intense study of Robson Moura’s and Ryan Hall’s DVDs.
From the get-go, Cummings started training in John Danaher’s morning classes, which afforded him the opportunity to train with black belts like Doug Pelinkovic and Mike Jaramillo, who influenced Cummings’ game with their effective Achilles locks from outside ashi garami. Another one of Danaher’s black belts named Aaron Milam was a massive influence on Cummings (and, ultimately, many of today’s top leglockers). Described as “the most diverse and creative black belt under Danaher at the time”, he was able to both pass and play guard effectively in addition to expertly controlling and submitting his opponents. But it was his leg locks that not only defined his game, but also became a base for many of today’s top leg lock experts (even if they don’t know it). Milam worked a lot of reaping positions that didn’t even have names at the time and put a lot of focus into mastering inside positioning with the lower body — a strategy that is now taught like leglocking 101 in many leglock-heavy academies.
Before athletes like Cummings, Tonon, and Ryan made jiu-jitsu headlines for their heel hooks, Shohin Gafarri was doing them to every black belt who stepped into RGA (even though he himself was only a brown belt). He was an expert at baiting his opponents into “dominant” positions like mount or knee-on-belly and then using kipping escape variations to submit them with outside or inside heel hooks. Although we’ve seen other top RGA athletes employ this same technique, his greatest impact on Cummings was found in his unique guard game, which involved moving from butterfly into half-butterfly and finally into ashi-garami. Named the “professional guard”, it was soon found to be perfect for Cummings, who continues to make it a staple in his own game today.
Cummings found his first mentor in Brandon Bennet, who created the “Bermuda triangle” (a.k.a. the log splitter or ham sandwich sweep) and gave himself a reputation after building a game from it. It was Bennet who drove Cummings out to compete and cornered him at events like Grapplers Quest, Pro Grappling League, and IBJJF tournaments.
Around 2013, Cummings — now a new purple belt — met up-and-coming brown belt star Garry Tonon in Gianni Grippo’s competition class. At the time, Tonon, who was training under Tom DeBlass, was known mainly for his IBJJF accomplishments, having won No-Gi Worlds and Pans multiple times. He and Cummings ended up in the same division at the 2013 ADCC qualifiers. Vagner Rocha was also in their bracket and defeated Cummings in the first round via points. But in the finals, he was forced to face Tonon, who won after taking Rocha’s back.
Although Tonon and Cummings had only trained together a few times before the ADCC Trials, they began to train together more when Tonon began coming to RGA more often as part of his preparation for ADCC 2013. Ever the scholar, Cummings would “obsessively” study DVDs by Ryan Hall, Reilly Bodycomb, and Scott Sonnon to learn and refine leg lock techniques. The “saddle” — which Danaher re-named “inside sankaku” — was something that Cummings had seen originally from Dean Lister, but was able to study more from Sonnon’s tape. After class, he, Tonon, and Gafarri would drill, drill drill to figure out how to control the saddle, experiment with lower body submissions, break grips, and yes, finish heel hooks.
After Tonon was promoted to black belt by DeBlass in September and competed in ADCC in October of 2013, he became a regular attendee at RGA’s classes with the full support of DeBlass himself, who currently trains with Danaher about once a week. And it paid off — in his first Metamoros appearance a little under a year later, he guillotined Kit Dale. Meanwhile, Cummings was preparing for the 2014 ADCC trials with the help of Rob Constance, who had started a competition class that became “a laboratory for new techniques.” Also in the class were then-blue belts Jon Calestine and Ottavia Bourdain and then-purple belt Matt Kaplan, who quickly became some of Cummings’ most consistent training partners.
Although Cummings (with Bennet and Tonon in his corner) lost to the previous year’s winner Enrico Cocco in the finals of the 2014 ADCC Trials, the loss did anything but slow him down; when 2015 started, he decided to quit pursuing his master’s degree in physics to grapple full-time instead. He was assisted in his goal by Jeff Chu, who had also been managing Tonon and helped promote the athletes and set up seminars for them.
He wasn’t the only one making a beeline for success — Tonon was well into the process of becoming a sub-only phenom. With Cummings in his corner, he defeated top MMA leg-locker Marcin Held with an inverted heel hook at his first ever Polaris match. Then, in early February of that year, a great opportunity came up for both grapplers: Tonon was already set to go up against Javier Vasquez at the Gracie Nationals, but he was alerted to a sudden drop-out that left room for someone to have a superfight against Eddie Bravo’s first black belt, Danny Prokopos. Tonon encouraged Cummings (now a black belt himself) to take the spot, and after training under Danaher to prepare for their matches, both RGA members ended up winning their respective bouts. Tonon found another opportunity for Cummings when EBI 3 was announced, and although Cummings ended up avenging his loss to Cocco in the second round, he was defeated by Tonon himself in the third.
Cornered and assisted by Tonon, Bourdain, and Chu, Cummings finally got his ADCC Trials victory in May 2015, then won EBI 4 three months later. That summer, Tonon and Eddie worked heavily with Neiman Gracie and Jason Lees, who was a 2015 ADCC Trials champ and one of Danaher’s earliest success stories. Although Bourdain had convinced Cummings to start taking private lessons under Danaher with her before this, it was around this time that a true team started to form under Danaher.
Although Tonon won his first ADCC match against Dillon Danis and Cummings earned the fastest submission of the event with a heel hook, both athletes ended up losing their second matches (Tonon to Lucas Lepri and Cummings to Augusto Mendes). But at Polaris, they went up against famous leg-lockers Masakazu Imanari and Reilly Bodycomb, respectively, and defeated them with heel hooks.
By this point, Tonon had started showing up to RGA with one of his students named Gordon Ryan, who began training with the team and cleaning up at local tournaments. After Polaris, Tonon, Ryan, and eventually Nicky Ryan started joining the daily private classes with Danaher, who was recovering from hip surgery. In 2016, teammate Ryan Quinn coined the term “Danaher Death Squad” on Reddit to describe the group that consistently trained and competed under Danaher. Bourdain found it amusing and started using it on Instagram, and then it stuck when Gordon Ryan started to use it on a regular basis. Once Ryan found success at EBI in 2016, the Danaher Death Squad went from being a quirky term for a few seriously impressive athletes to a name that immediately conjured up images of an elite group of competitive grapplers who could leg lock just about anyone with the courage to stand in their way.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Ottavia Bourdain, Eddie Cummings, and Jeff Chu for contributing information found in this article. Some of the other individuals who provided accounts in this post wished to remain anonymous for personal reasons. However, they have been personally verified as reputable sources of information for the content presented here