Why John Danaher Refused to Shake Hands with Mike Davila at EBI

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“Team culture: At the last EBI event there was a small incident after Eddie Cummings match with Mike Davila. For the first and hopefully only time in my coaching career, I deliberately refused to shake hands with my student’s opponent and corner crew.
Normally I always go to shake hands after a bout as a basic sign of respect for a worthy opponent and his camp (except in cases where the opponent has been injured and it would simply be inappropriate to force a handshake under those circumstances). This was due to actions made by Mr Davila prior to the bout that few people are aware of. I have always been of the opinion that private disputes are best kept and resolved privately. Unfortunately in the age of social media this seems to work to ones disadvantage, as people immediately assume the worst possible motives for actions and events of which they know nothing, but are quite happy to publicly state theories that paint a grim picture.


“It has been alleged that I am a hypocrite, since I had spoken in an earlier facebook post about the value of chivalrous conduct in sports. Also that I am part of backwards thinking tradition in martial arts where anyone who joins another team is deemed a traitor and vilified. Most spectacularly, that I am some kind of controlling cult like figure who tolerates no deviation from party doctrine. 


“I hope that a few simple words can clear up the situation and bring it back to reality. At the same time I believe we can use an analysis of the incident in a positive way as a means of shedding light on team culture as it pertains to jiu jitsu schools and offer some words that may be instructive and helpful. Let us begin by looking at the background information. I have a very close and dear student, Doug Pelinkovic, who teaches out of a RGA affiliate school in the Bronx. About two years ago he was severely injured in a freak training accident in the gym, requiring multiple knee surgeries that would sideline him for over a year and would have ended most peoples career (it was not a leglock, but someone clumsily trying to jump guard – that is a subject for a future post in itself). Mr Pelinkovic has always been a true a friend to me. In every crises in my life, he was like an oak of support. He has been a dedicated stalwart in our school, a superb student and teacher and always tolerated my difficult personality with a smile. When I travel with my students to big shows, I usually choose Mr Pelinkovic to teach in my absence. Now in his time of crisis, I wanted to help him as he had so often helped me. I volunteered (no pay, this is not about money) to go and teach every Monday night after I had finished my days work at RGA at his school. I believed this would help to keep his school together and strong while he went through the operations and rehabilitation. His head student and assistant teacher was Mike Davila, who was my uke during teaching. Mr Davila struck me as being a very courteous, professional and talented teacher/competitor. I implemented the very same teaching program that I use in RGA and immediately started getting results. In six months the average number of submissions per class rose over 150% and many of the students, especially Mr Davila, showed genuine promise. At the invitation of Mr Pelinkovic, Mr Davila started coming to RGA sporadically to train and was allowed to participate in private classes with me at Mr Pelinkovics expense. This was a happy arrangement on all sides and he seemed like a valuable addition to the team. Of course, the level at RGA is considerably higher than any local school and while the senior students routinely crushed him in training (as they should be able to), he was learning well and was a very popular and energetic member of the squad – all he needed in our opinion, was more development time. 


“One morning I came in to RGA to teach and some of the senior members informed me that Mr Davila was competing in EBI7. This was a total shock to me as EBI is regarded by us a premier grappling event. We have a very simple team rule among the squad – the best people get the best shows. If you can beat everyone in the gym in your weight category and are performing better than the others in shows – you get the job. The athletes gigs are scaled according to their results on the mat and in competition. At that time we were only allowed two team members per EBI (that is apparently about to change – but that’s another story). I wanted Garry Tonon to compete with Eddie Cummings. This was a 145 pound show. Mr Tonon wants to fight MMA one day at 145 and this would give him a chance to practice the weight cut for the first time whilst competing at a high level. Also, there were other senior students who had trained much longer and operated at a higher level than Mr Davila who were upset that they were being overtaken by someone they know they are better than. My students then informed me that Mr Davila had used social media and name dropping to get into the show. Apparently saying that he trained with us raised his credibility in the eyes of the shows promoters and helped get him in, as his competition record up to that point was rather meager. This was unacceptable in my eyes. Champions fight their way in to the big shows. Eddie Cummings, Garry Tonon and Gordon Ryan fought in innumerable small local venues and gradually clawed their way up to bigger shows culminating in EBI, Metamoris and Polaris. They got there by out performing everyone in the room that wanted to compete (there are others in the room on their level that do not compete, but they are not relevant here) Our people fight their way into the big leagues – they don’t text their way in.


“When I went to teach in the Bronx I told Mr Davila exactly what I have told you to his face. I told him he was grown man and he can make his own decision as to what he wants to do, but if he elected to stay in EBI I would no longer come to his Bronx school to teach there (this was after a year and a half of teaching every Monday – Mr Pelinkovic was recovered and back in training) and he would not be allowed to come to RGA as he had broken the fundamental structure of our team selection process and because the harmony of the team was disturbed by his actions. I also told him I was rather disappointed in what I saw as a shameful means of getting into EBI – fighters should fight their way to the top, not text their way in.


“The decision he made was a strange one, as he knew very well that he had no chance of winning EBI before he even entered, as he was easily crushed by the top students in training and that he had virtually no chance in a clash with Mr Cummings. Among the top members of our squad, the result of any given sparring session can go either way – they can all submit each other and every match is fiercely competitive. It is a hard thing to tell students that their potential space in a high profile show with major prize money has been taken by someone they know they can easily defeat. Nonetheless, Mr Davila made the decision to stay in the event. 


“Now let us get something clear – I like ambition in my students. I like teaching people who want to be the best in the world – as I believe Mr Davila does – BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF TEAM MATES WHO HAVE WORKED MUCH LONGER, HARDER AND AT A MUCH HIGHER LEVEL AND WHO CLEARLY AND UNEQUIVOCALLY DESERVE IT MORE THAN YOU BASED ON A SIMPLE ANALYSIS OF GYM AND COMPETITION PERFORMANCE. I believe self interest is a very important quality, not just for athletes, but for all individuals in every aspect of life. Self interest propels us forward and motivates the majority of our actions. Self interest is the bed rock of most great human achievements – but it must be tempered by an ethos of cooperation and fairness if it is not to degenerate into a free for all where conflict, favoritism, cronyism and other destructive and unfair elements start to creep in. In a competitive world of self interested people, the fairest system that I know of is a meritocracy and that is what we use.


“If the story ended at this point, I STILL would have shaken Mr Davila’s hand after the bout, even though I strongly disapproved of his actions and the way he entered the tournament, however, more followed. Mr Pelinkovic was horrified at the decision. Unlike me, he comes from a traditional karate background where loyalty to a school and teacher is everything. He told Mr Davila that if he made such a decision he would be asked to leave his academy. Bear in mind that Mr Pelinkovic had been very generous indeed to Mr Davila. For example, his monthly pay as a purple and brown belt in his local academy was exceptionally high – higher than any I have ever heard of. All of his competition expenses, including airfare and accommodation, were paid by Mr Pelinkovic. Mr Pelinkovic had taken him from white belt to brown belt and introduced him to the best training partners and given him a very secure job in a field that he loved. Indeed, Mr Pelinkovic was in the process of scouting a new location for a second RGA affiliate with the intention of having Mr Davila not only run it, but be a partner as well. For all his social media posts on this subject, not one has alluded to any of these facts regarding Mr Pelinkovic’s generosity. He had invested a very considerable amount of knowledge, time, effort and money in Mr Davila.


“Mr Davila’s first action was to immediately join Marcelo Garcia’s school. Surely he could have waited the three weeks until after the show so that he could at least acknowledge at the event that Mr Pelinkovic was his real mentor and coach and where he came from and and the gym that forged his skill set. It would have been a great boost to the small local school in the Bronx that had given him so much. I understand that at some point he would need to join another gym to get his blackbelt and continue progress, but surely that could have waited a few weeks. Then he started teaching merely blocks away from Mr Pelinkovic’s school as a direct competitor to his former benefactor with friends and students he had pulled from there. 


“Now me personally – I don’t really give a damn where you decide to train – that’s your business – I believe we live in a free market where the buyer should make the choice. If I am doing my job properly, students should WANT to stay with me rather than be forced by peer pressure or tradition. I am not a fan of the traditional “one sensei for your whole life” idea. I have had students leave RGA and go to Marcelo’s and I have had Marcelo students who left there to come here. I am still friendly with all of them and laugh and joke when we run into each other – they can all testify to that. Whatever small rivalry we have with Marcelo’s team is all in good fun – I have met many of his top students and they were all great fellows like their teacher. I will not train someone who is currently directly competing against my students or teaching them to compete against my students as that would be a disservice to my own people who give me so much and to whom I am very loyal – other than that, I teach pretty much anyone I like, including people that fought in the past against my students. However, to a traditionalist like Mr Pelinkovic – this was horrifying and a real stab to the heart. Mr Davila knows Mr Pelinkovic’s mindset very well and knew that this would be the case and did it anyway – to a man and mentor who had been EXCEPTIONALLY generous to him. This was not the impulsive and ill considered action of a young man. Mr Davila is 34 years old. This was the considered and thought out decision of a mature man in his mid thirties. In the end, he valued his participation in a single tournament for which he was less qualified than his peers and whom he had unfairly pushed past and entered by doubtful means, than his relationship with Mr Pelinkovic, his very generous coach and benefactor. The creed which Mr Pelinkovic’s students recite every night says, “be faithful.” It is central to his view of the arts and to throw that is his face after he had done so much for him was in my mind, very poor behavior indeed. Adding insult to injury, in several social media posts both before and after the event, he thanked his new school and training partners – with whom he had trained only two weeks – for assistance in preparing for the event. Apparently the six plus years training with Mr Pelinkovic did not warrant any form of recognition – even though anyone with a set of eyes can see that the techniques used to gain victory in his matches in EBI are obviously those emphasized and taught by myself and which he learned from my student, Mr Pelinkovic. When the event started I made a personal decision not to shake his hand as a small sign that I disapproved of the way he handled the situation with his mentor. 


“To those who think I am some kind of cultist who tells everyone around him what to do – I did not tell Eddie Cummings do the same though I know he was upset about Mr Davila’s entry into the tournament – I don’t legislate morality to others – but I will not shake a man’s hand – a symbol of respect – if I do not respect what he has knowingly done to a dear friend. I have many faults of character, but I am not fake. If I shake your hand, it means we are friends, or being introduced as friends or we are resolving a problem between us – I won’t shake your hand if my heart is not in it – there is no politicians handshake with me. Just because a camera is pointed at me does not mean I will put put on a fake smile and handshake. The bout itself went exactly as anyone in our training room would have predicted – a one sided dismantling of a good grappler by an extremely good one. To those of us from the training room it seemed pointless and a waste of time – there were others in our training room who could have put on a much better show – hopefully they will get their chance in the future. 


“I like to take positive lessons from unhappy circumstances. In this case the good news is that Mr Cummings got a good opportunity to show some of the more basic elements of our back attack system and show he is much more than just a leg locker. He did a very fine job of this.


“The other positive is that a mid level student of early brown belt level versed in the systems we teach can enter a premier show and get all the way to the semi finals and defeat some elite competitors. Mr Davila showed a fine leg lock attack in regulation time in his first match and a very well applied arm lock in over time in his second match to defeat grappling stalwart Baret Yoshida – a tribute to the teaching skills of his mentor Mr Pelinkovic and his own hard work in learning and applying those lessons. This sends a positive message to our developing students that they are not far from the big leagues and that even our mid-tier athletes can do well at a major competition with the systems we teach.


“I am certain Mr Davila will continue to improve in the future – he is very talented and hard working and he is going from one great team to another, but in my opinion some of his actions leading up to the event were straightforwardly wrong and I expressed that in the way I did. I also believe that a discussion of them can have a positive effect by shedding some light upon what I believe is the healthiest type of team culture in a very competitive industry, rooted in self interest and the delicate balance between competition and cooperation in the gym. Whilst self interest and ambition are crucial for great and significant performances, they must be tempered by a sense of fairness based on merit and of giving back to those who have given to you. Without this, naked self interest and ambition will inevitably lead to conflict and a breakdown in team cohesion – resulting in deteriorating training conditions and lowering performance. At some point a line has to be drawn and behavior that can damage a team has to be criticized lest it become the norm and problems develop. If Mr Davila should make an effort to make up for what he did to his mentor, I will be the first to shake his hand, until then I stand by my actions and believe it was the appropriate thing to do.”

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