Getting utterly destroyed the first time you step on the mat can be such a discouraging experience that many brand new white belts never show up to class again when it happens to them.
But for Kenny Kim, tapping over and over and over again only made him hungry for more.
An experienced and well-rounded martial artist, this Marietta, Georgia resident began his BJJ journey about seventeen years ago and earned his black belt five years ago under Eddie Camden. Still, he firmly insists that his jiu jitsu education is far from over.
It would be easy for a multiple-time IBJJF champion to regain a bit of the ego that we’re always told to leave at the door, but Kim knows better than that. His humility and quiet confidence has not only helped make him a formidable competitor, but also a very successful business owner and esteemed coach.
I was lucky enough to be able to chat with this unstoppable black belt about his jiu jitsu journey and learn exactly what it takes to get to where he is today.
Make sure you’re taking notes— this guy really knows what he’s doing.
Jiu Jitsu Times: How did your jiu jitsu journey start, and how did you end up where you are today?
Kenny Kim: I’ve been doing martial arts my whole life. I was three when I started Taekwondo, then later on, I started training in Muay Thai and boxing. I had a friend and roommate who was into jiu jitsu. I remember him always hanging up his stinky gi.
Eventually, I went with him to try it. But you know, I had a striker’s mindset. I watched Royce [Gracie] win in the UFC and thought it was luck; I questioned the effectiveness of jiu jitsu.
But I showed up, and everyone was friendly. There was a good vibe. And back then, everyone was so tough. They didn’t make you wait to do live rolling until you had your first stripe or whatever. They had me roll my first day, and I think I got tapped about twenty times in five minutes. I got dominated, and that made me want to keep doing it, so I kept it up while still training stand-up. I already had my own martial arts gym (now known as Kenny Kim Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), but when I became a blue belt, I put in a jiu jitsu program. When I became a purple belt, I took over the program. Then about seven years ago, I got rid of the stand-up program, and now all we do is jiu-jitsu.
JJT: How do you think all your experience in stand-up has contributed to your success in jiu-jitsu?
KK: The way I see it with jiu-jitsu, it can either break you or change you. It’s the same with all martial arts. Instead of breaking me, it changed me.
I think a lot of guys get this false sense of security when they train martial arts. They think they can defend themselves [with their stand-up], but the truth is that unless they have extensive training, years of training, they probably won’t be able to.
But with jiu-jitsu, even a blue belt might be able to defend himself in a street fight if it came down to it. When I started BJJ, I realized that what I knew in other martial arts didn’t really mean anything. I mean, my training in stand-up gave me great values, but jiu-jitsu was the missing piece.
JJT: You’ve been a black belt for five years. Do you feel that your jiu-jitsu has improved since you earned it?
KK: I’ve learned more than ever before during my time as a black belt, more than I learned at all the other belt levels combined.
Once you get to this point, you’re not chasing a belt or a technique, and that opens your mind. You realize that you can learn a lot from how people at all belt levels move and think.
The way I see it, jiu-jitsu is an art form, and when a student starts out as a white belt, I give them a brush. As they move up the ranks, they learn how to use it. They start creating basic shapes, like circles and squares and triangles.
Once you reach the black belt level, though, you’ve learned to think outside the box. You start using other tools like crayons or pencils, you start creating things that come from your own mind without being limited.
Jiu-jitsu is about improving yourself. Some black belts refuse to learn. They think they own the mat, that they know all there is to know. I still learn every day.
JJT: Your business has become extremely successful. What does your gym do that helps it stand out from the rest?
KK: We’re very customer-service-based. We value professionalism above everything else. Just like you’d go to college and spend all that money, time, and effort to get a degree, jiu-jitsu professors put in countless hours and spend countless amounts of money to get to where they are.
Being a black belt is like having your PhD, but in jiu-jitsu instead of medicine. So we take that role very seriously, and we act like professors. We also know the importance of having a clean gym. Sure, you might want to train somewhere cheaper, but is that going to be worth it if the mats are filthy and you’re getting ringworm and all sorts of other diseases?
Beyond that, we also offer a safe and encouraging environment. No one’s there to beat you up; everyone’s there for each other. It’s like a big family training together.
JJT: You’ve accomplished a lot in competitions around the world. Are there any victories you’re particularly proud of?
KK: For me, being able to see my students succeed, watching them overcome their fear of competing, and knowing they can successfully defend themselves is more important than any of my own personal gains. Encouraging my students means more to me than any tournament.
JJT: Have you ever been tempted to quit jiu-jitsu? How did you convince yourself to continue?
KK: For me, it was when business mixed with pleasure. When the focus is to get the bills paid and the business is struggling financially, but you have to show up to coach with a smile on your face, that can be tough. I had to find a balance between loving what I do and running a successful business, and eventually, I managed to do it. You just have to enjoy what you do, and it’ll all be worth it.
JJT: You’re hardly old at 39, but there are lots of people who would be nervous to train in such a physically demanding sport at your age. What would you tell people who are hesitant to train BJJ in their late twenties and beyond?
KK: Choosing the right training environment is a huge investment for yourself and your family. It’s a great outlet: you get to enjoy doing some physical activity, you start eating healthier, you meet people who have the same interests as you. While everyone else is out drinking and partying on a Friday night, you’re training. Even for people who are older and out of shape, it teaches them perseverance and discipline.
A lot of guys my age and older are overweight and already dealing with health problems because they made the wrong choices. Once you get out of high school or college, nobody’s telling you what to do anymore, and you have to ask yourself what your personal goals are.
For a lot of people, especially in the United States, those goals revolve around earning money. We work ourselves to death instead of making time for the things we enjoy. And the things that all that money buys are usually so materialistic: we want a bigger house, a fancier car. We’re never satisfied.
We should be investing in our health. People complain that jiu-jitsu is expensive, but they don’t realize that if they don’t get active and healthy, they’re going to be spending all that money on medication and hospital visits anyway. Even if you think you’re poor, find a way to do it. It’s worth the money in the long run.
JJT: What do you think is the most important barrier for lower belts to get over if they want to improve?
KK: Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. We all have an ego; no one wants to lose. But everyone will get better with time if they’re consistent, even if they don’t train every day.
The thing is, if you get hurt because you didn’t want to tap, you’re going to be out for a while, and then it’s that much harder to get back into it.
Safety is number one, and tapping is part of the journey. Enjoy your classes the same way you’d enjoy a road trip. Sure, you’re looking forward to reaching your destination, but it’s the process of getting there that’s really memorable. Chasing techniques and medals is like only riding one roller coaster at an amusement park. Yeah, it might be fun, but you’re missing out if you don’t try all the other rides, and in jiu-jitsu, you won’t get as much out of the experience if you’re not focusing on all the other stuff, too.
It’s a lifestyle. It’s an investment.
JJT: Are there any attractions nearby for people who might want to come down and train with you?
KK: Yeah. We actually have the World of Coca Cola just outside Atlanta. Coca Cola’s headquarters are in Atlanta, so you can visit their museum and try all different kinds of Coke. It’s really cool.
There’s also the 1996 Olympic Park, and the Georgia Aquarium is the largest one in the western hemisphere. There’s also so much diversity around there, so you can eat foods from all over the world and also get some real “southern comfort” country food. You can also visit Stone Mountain and check out some cool Civil War stuff there. Plus, Atlanta is home to all the sports teams like the Braves and the Falcons. We have a really good nightlife, too.
If you’re ever in Atlanta, be sure to make the thirty-minute drive to Kenny Kim Brazilian Jiu Jitsu if you want to train with a world-class professor in a world-class gym!