Jiu Jitsu Times is pleased to introduce a new feature called “On the Road” where our correspondents will be visiting academies, schools, and garages to showcase all of the great jiu jitsu happening throughout the world. Our first installment is from Todd Shaffer and his recent visit and interview with Professor Stephen Hall, Alliance black belt and musician. Make sure you also check out our “On the Road” technique videos.
I love my “real” job selling educational technology to government agencies because it allows me to travel throughout the country and gives me opportunities to train BJJ in most places I end up. My typical modus operandi is to make a Facebook post announcing where I’m going and let all of my BJJ friends point me in the right direction.
This last trip to Dallas was different. I received a reply to my post from Steve Austin, otherwise known as Stephen Hall of Pesadelo BJJ. This was the first time I had actually had a school owner and black belt competitor reach out to me. Professor Hall even went as far as to message me and ask me if there was something specific I’d like him to teach. I was humbled and ready to get my triangle chokes on.
I arrived early to the academy and had the pleasure of watching senior student and brown belt Michael Foster teaching the kids class. The students were reviewing the names of the positions and having a blast while they did it. The class was filled with laughter and learning, with the high point being the closing game of tag with Michael playing “It” to the screaming kids.
Professor Hall started his class with an extensive warm up and then paired us up for some 50% sparring to further prepare us for the techniques that followed. He addressed a few questions from students about trouble spots in their games.
The theme of the evening was attacking from the guard. It was my first time seeing and experiencing what he called “Wrecking Ball Control”, a named coined by his close friend and mentor, Marcus “Wrecking Ball” Hicks, another Alliance black belt and MMA fighter. Professor Hall went on to teach a very slick triangle choke from this position that Jiu Jitsu Times featured last week.
The key takeaways for me were: 1. Being heavy with my closed guard, 2. Having active hips, 3. Truly being on my side when I’m on my side, and finally 4. Engaging the toes to finish the choke. After drilling this technique for a while, Professor Hall moved to his next technique which was another submission we featured last week which was an arm bar from the same “Wrecking Ball Control.”
After some time drilling this second technique, we went right into sparring rounds. During my third round, I developed one of those extra special calf cramps that only 103 degree Dallas dehydration can produce. Professor Hall came over, grabbed my leg and told me to relax as he stretched my leg across his thigh.
After sparring was completed, there was a quick period of ‘take down king of the hill’ where everyone in the class tried to take down the king of the moment. Professor Hall then lined us up by rank and began to speak from the heart. That day his younger cousin had lost his life tragically. He spoke to us about letting go of the inconsequential and ultimately small ills that we hold on to in our relationships. That afternoon, Professor Hall had posted this on his personal Facebook account:
Tell your people you love em. Now! Stay in contact.Those who you are good with, make sure they know, and know what is happening with them. Those who you fell out with, Forgive them. If whatever they did to you does not endanger your life or your family’s life and health, it isn’t worth it to be mad. Take it serious and help those who have signs they need help. Don’t just let it pass. If you care, go beyond and make sure everything is ok with them. Get healthy…Get others healthy… Stay out of petty bs. and make sure your folks are removed from insignificant issues. But most of all cherish and keep close your people. We know not the day or the hour and we are losing way too many, way too young.
I had read it before class, but it was even more special to hear the man speak from the heart after class.
Each of the students thanked me for coming to visit and I thanked them for having me. After they left, Professor Hall and I sat down to talk a little more.
He started BJJ after being diagnosed with cancer at age 32 in 2003. While undergoing his first stint of chemotherapy, he would meet a woman named Gladys Johnson who told him that he needed to find “something to stand up for, otherwise, he would lay down.” At the time, being a musician, his band was filming a music video and through that process he met UFC veteran Pete Spratt.
From there, Stephen literally walked around the corner and found a jiu jitsu gym two blocks from his home. Unlike most people, who want to try a class out, or even longer to see if they maybe, might want to stick with it, Stephen signed himself and his daughter up and bought each of them gis to the instructor’s dismay.
After training Tae Kwon Do for over 20 years, he was ready for his first class and like many of us found himself on the bottom underneath a larger opponent. So he did what any first timer should do. “I bit him,” he laughed. “I paid for it for the next few months and luckily I did have a mouth guard in.”
Stephen worked hard from the very outset. He credits his instructors and people around him with instilling a strong BJJ work ethic in him. He trained 7 days a week, sometimes 2 and 3 times a day. He was also told that competitions were the equivalent of several months of classes, so that drove him to compete most months at least twice and sometimes four times a month.
“I learned very quickly that if it’s not going right, it’s you. You are doing something wrong. The only short cut to getting better is being on the mat more during the time you have,” Professor Hall recalls of those early days. Life quickly changed from going out at night and socializing to spending his time studying jiu jitsu and going to bed early. Otherwise, “I would get choked out the next day,” he laughed.
Early on Stephen built a relationship that would help guide him through the early belts and help him overcome that feeling of being a punching bag. Ironically, that was Marcus “Wrecking Ball” Hicks the MMA fighter. Hall describes taking a private from Marcus and then Marcus “would harp on that private for the next two years.” It was important for Marcus to give you material that would grow with you and help you progress beyond that particular class. “Every tournament win and everything I was able to accomplish was because of Marcus,” Hall said. That influence coupled with the familial nature of the Alliance team afforded Stephen opportunities to visit and train in Europe and Brazil. “I am not a rich man and I was not a rich man. The money I once spent on nonsense, I spent on jiu jitsu,” said Hall.
Prior to covering the technique portion of the class, one of Professor Hall’s students had asked a question about how he survives in half guard. His response was that he hated half guard because “you had to embrace pain and suffering.” I asked him to expand on this and talk about his approach or game during our post-class discussion.
“I want to make everything as easy for me and as simple as possible. I want to do it as efficiently as possible, with the least amount of movement. From the top, I don’t want you to breathe. I want you to be extremely uncomfortable. Your opponent should be uncomfortable immediately after the fist bump. I want to give you at least two bad choices. A lot of people attack one thing and the problem with attacking one thing is that a good jiu jitsu player, he can defend that,” said Hall, “But if I give you a choice between this choke and this armbar, which one are you going to choose? My goal is to give you the simplest route to the worst possible choices.”
Professor Hall is quick to name the luminaries who helped shape his game. People like Romero “Jacare” Cavalcanti, Fabio Gurgel, Octavio Couto, Marcus Hicks, Alan Mohler, and Alan Shebaro amongst others. In his description, each of them plays a very simple game and in making it simple, they make it very punishing which is what jiu jitsu is about. “Your opponent should be uncomfortable from the very moment you slap hands until they are so uncomfortable that they give you a place to move. You should have the muscle memory, so that the movies you need come to you without thought,” explains Hall, “This allows you to think about choices to give THEM, instead of where YOU should go. The people who have impacted Professor Halls approach want to win now. They see their job as getting the person off the mat as quickly and efficiently as possible. “You’re not supposed to play around and figure out how to play a marathon,” says Hall, “No I don’t want to do that. I want to go home (laughs).”
I asked Professor Hall what advice he might give to himself as a white belt if he could.
“I wish I had started earlier,” he shares “Honestly, I can’t change a thing. People would tell me that you’re going to burn yourself out.” Hall pauses, then continues. “You burn yourself out when it’s something you don’t want to do. People use that as an excuse. You burnt yourself out and you have to take two months off. Everytime I got to a plateau, I was lucky to have people to say to me ‘now what are you going to work on?”
With guidance, he was able to realize that when an aspect of his game was not working, it was time to go work on something else. This allowed his game to branch off and develop organically. Early on, with a game wholly dependent upon the triangle choke and having a guard that the majority of practitioners could not pass. The challenge came when he did come across that person of great skill who would pass his guard. Once they did, he neglected to analyze and determine if there was something flawed in his technique that allowed the good guard passer to get by. Instead of beating his head against this newfound flaw in his guard, he decided to focus on escaping every opponents side control. This approach eventually opened things up in his guard game.
“Most people want to get so good and they think they know it (Jiu Jitsu),” says Hall, “Trust me, no matter how good you get, even if you’re a black belt, you don’t know it. Once you understand that and you realize how much you can learn. I learned something tonight about the movement in class that I want to improve. I learned that tonight from my students,” Hall smiled as he said this, “If you always have that attitude, you’ll love what you do.”
When asked what shout outs he’d like to end with, Professor Hall got reverential. “People use the cliché that jiu jitsu saved their life. It literally saved my life. I would not have been the person I am without the goals and jiu jitsu. Jacare is a father figure, but more a friend than a Director or Instructor. Marcus (Hicks) is a brother. He is a person that makes sure I’m doing things correctly. Octavio (Couto) is a guiding hand. He’s always there to show that there’s a simpler way to do this, a better way and it’s easy.”
It was at this point in our conversation that I asked Professor Hall about his cancer. I wanted to know how he was doing and was he out of the woods. He was not. He recently had a recurrence and had wrapped up a round of chemotherapy very recently. He explained that he was just at the point when he was able to train again and his plan was to compete in the Austin Open coming up and then schedule his next round of chemotherapy. He is extremely hopeful and plans to be in Vegas at the Masters and Seniors World Championships this year.
Professor Hall is also thankful for his students. “They are the ones that have made me successful. Especially my senior students: Mike Foster, Brian Lewis, Ronald Green, Daniel Crouch and Fernando,” says Hall with pride. “They push me. They know what I want to do. They’ve pushed themselves to where they are not clones of me. This is what I always strove for. They are harder on me than sometimes going to train with good black belts because they are able to read what’s going on,” he explains.
“Thank you to Origin Gi Company, as well which is a company I can truly believe in,” says Hall. “I don’t want to keep naming and forget people, but Alan Shebaro changed the way I look at things. Alan Mohler, my first instructor who black belted me. He was Jacare’s first American black belt.”
“Jacare, Marcus, and Octavio are pure. They want to eliminate the BS,” says Hall with pride, “That’s my style. No BS.” He goes on to describe the idea of “aliveness” in jiu jitsu. Early on he struggled understanding where to go in certain situations and how elements of the game were connected. Overtime he realized that “aliveness” was being able to be supremely focused on what you’re doing at the time and remaining in the moment. In jiu jitsu and life, people get lost in what bothers them. They lose sight of what they have to do. “If you spend too much time out of the moment you are in, you will miss how good you really have it, ” says Hall.
“Jiu Jitsu took a person in me…I was a coward. I took the easy road. I was always smart enough to get myself around situations. If it was going to be hard, I would think my way around it. I never had to face something and put the work in and keep chipping away at it, until jiu jitsu made me face that the best thing about it was it was all about YOU. You can blame your instructor, you can blame your training partner, you can blame whatever you want. But it’s you,” explained Hall. “It’s about understanding where you have to go and what you have to do.”
I would like to thank Professor Hall for welcoming me into his academy. I would like to thank each of his students for making me feel at home. I look forward to visiting again soon. It was here in this short visit that I learned a great deal about jiu jitsu, but more importantly, I learned something about life.
If you’re in the Dallas area, please check out Professor Stephen Hall’s academy.
Check out his Facebook presence at:
Thank you also to @lisalisapics for graciously allowing me to use the primary image for the article. Check out her work on instagram.