Cover Photo from: IBJJF
Joel “Baby Silverback” Blanton is a grappler unlike any other. At 43 years old, he is still grinding away and working hard to defeat anyone who steps in front of him; a perfect example of what hard work can get you. He had an MMA career that was plagued with injuries before he made the transition over to BJJ full time. I had the opportunity to roll with Joel when I was about a year into my blue belt. At the time, he was in between Pan Am championships. Needless to say, he made quick work of me. Joel is a highly skilled grappler who does not receive anywhere near the attention he deserves.
JJT: Can you start by giving us a little background on yourself?
Joel: I live in Lafayette, Indiana. I’m 43 years old. My coach is James Clingerman who owns and operates the Indiana Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Greenwood, Indiana. Due to my location, I train primarily here in town at the Impact Zone, an Atos affiliate owned and operated by Carlos Soto.
JJT: What got you started in BJJ?
Joel: I started training in BJJ for MMA. I had no idea what a gi was at the time (laughs).
JJT: How long have you been training for?
Joel: I started training for MMA in November of 2001 and put on a gi for the first time about a year or a year and a half later. It was very humbling.
JJT: Have you ever considered quitting? Why or why not?
Joel: I went through the hardest time of my training when I was about mid-way through my purple belt. I was very down about my training and regularly argued with myself about even going to training at all. It was a regular thing for a while.
I found I was puting too much thought into my progression and if I was really getting better or not. What changed is that I just started to go in worrying about just that one class, one drill, and one roll at a time. It was a really big mental and physical change for me. I really started enjoying training again and have ever since.
JJT: You were the number one ranked purple belt in the world last year. What was it like getting to that point?
Joel: I never thought about it really. I had already won at the no gi Pans once before in 2011 and was excited at the chance to go back and try again. I got to go back in 2013 and it was a very good day for me. I won both my weight division and open weight as well. After we got back, I got a text from a teammate. It was a screen shot of the IBJJF rankings page. It showed that I was ranked 3rd.
It was a pretty big shock to me. It really got my head spinning. I then wanted to see if could get the top spot. I hustled and got everything lined up to be able to make the trip to the no gi Worlds. Again, it was a very good day. I repeated my performance from the pans and took gold in both my weight and the open weight divisions. The help I had was amazing. A good friend from Nashville, Tennessee was out helping his team and was able to coach me also. That was Ray Casias and company from the Tennessee Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy. It was a very surreal experience for me, one that I will never forget.
JJT: Was becoming #1 a specific goal you had in mind, or was it more of an unexpected result of what you were already doing?
Joel: I didn’t realize I was even remotely close to the top of the rankings and to tell you the truth, I had no idea that they broke it down by age group even. So you could say that it was an unexpected result.
JJT: What does a typical training camp look like for you before a competition?
Joel: A typical camp is five days a week of both Jiu-Jitsu along with strength and conditioning. I get in two a day if I can. I usually need a nap on those days though. As you get older, you have to be smart about the volume that you put into your training and make sure you get your rest.
JJT: With all of the training time you put in, how do you balance Jiu-Jitsu with your time off of the mats?
Joel: It’s a crazy balance! When I’m in camp and a tournament is coming, my family at home is very supportive. We all have very busy schedules, but we manage. The wife is a huge help, preparing food, the never ending laundry, tons and tons of tupperware containers. We juggle it and make it work. They are proud though, so the effort is overly rewarding.
JJT: You were awarded your brown belt not too long ago. How has competition changed now that you’ve moved into a new division?
Joel: I was pretty nervous about competing the first time at brown. After I got my purple I only won one match in my first 3 or 4 tournaments. The room for error closes significantly at each belt level. Part of it is physical, but a big part of it is a mental game.
JJT: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be world champ material?
Joel: I think everyone that ties his belt up for the first time has the potential. Whether the desire is there or not is another question. First, you will sacrifice. Time, money, wear and tear on your body, it all weighs into this. I’m sure there is more, but you get the idea.
As much as I hate to be cliche, you really can’t cheat the grind. Stay consistent, work hard, and ask questions. I learn from everybody, upper and lower belts alike. Take privates and ask more questions. Your coach is there for a reason. Use him or her. Cross train. Know when to take time off when you’re physically hurting, and remember it’s not always about training hard. Train smart too!
JJT: What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Joel: Well, right now I’m training for the no gi Pans & no gi Worlds again. This year will be a little tricky because they are on back to back weekends. Then a month after that I will be heading back out west for the Masters Worlds. The biggest goal is to stay healthy so I can go out and perform. I have no preconceived notions about winning, even though that is the goal. If I am healthy, then I can perform. I hope to have a good set of tournaments.
Beyond competing, I just want help out with the teams and try to be an example of leadership for the younger belts. Hopefully inspire and give back to Jiu-Jitsu as much as it has given to me. Maybe one of these days have my own academy too.
JJT: Anyone you want to give a shoutout to?
Joel: I want to thank my coach and everybody at IBJJA for everything on and off the mat. Everything that I’ve experienced with James shows that he is always going over and above for his students. I want to thank the gang at the Impact Zone. They are my daily grinders and are a huge part of my training regimen. I want to thank my wife and daughter for putting up with all the time that I spend away from home and for supporting me the way they do. Thanks to my sponsors as well for helping make my training possible; Revgear, Complete Nutrition, InshapeMD, Stand For Something, Black Flag Tactical Solutions.
A big thank you to Joel for agreeing to do an interview with us. We wish him the best of luck in all of his future endeavors. Keep an eye out for him, because he’s going places. Be sure to follow him on Instagram and Twitter.