KombatClinic.com: Helen, thank you for taking time out to do this interview for KombatClinic.com for those of our readers that do not know anything about you or your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu career can we start with a little background to you, your martial arts and how you found yourself practicing BJJ?
Helen Currie: I started training Taekwondo initially when my son started, I just thought as I was there I might as well join in and whilst I enjoyed it at the time, I realised that there was a lot of things that needed to be addressed, what if I was grabbed? What if I ended on the ground? So I competed for a while, got my black belt then moved on. I ended up training in Darren’s (Helen’s husband)Taekwondo class, which was different from the other class that I started at; he had (unofficially) integrated some kickboxing and Thai techniques into the class along with some Hapkido that he was working at the time, which made the class much more rounded. However, after class we used to have open session for about 6 of the guys where we taught ourselves grappling from watching some instructional tapes, the likes of Renzo (Gracie), Kazeka Muniz and others. So were rolling even at that early stage and although it can’t have been technically very good, it was excellent training.
The downside? At that point we didn’t have mats so had to use a big carpet rolled out onto a solid wood floor and train on that even the takedowns. Then we met Ross Iannacarro who was a really nice guy so we trained in the NJJKC competition format, which was awesome because it allowed everything that we had trained separately to be trained together. Really enjoyed this training and the competitions, won some titles, which validated our training methods and shows that we were on the right track. So already having some standing skills and some groundwork I needed better takedown skills so I headed to Judo, got to top brown belt, had some tough matches and eventually got injured quite bad which just about put an end to my competitive career. Then one day completely out of the blue, we get a phone call from Andy Norman of Keysi Fighting Method saying he had been training BJJ in the States and met some guy called Chris Haueter who was going to come over and do a seminar, were we interested? And I guess the rest is history.
KC: Cool, I understand that between you and your husband, Darren, you run the ‘Combat Base Academy’ in Pontefract, W Yorkshire. Would you care to tell us a little about this, the ethos behind the academy and what people can expect froma session at Combat Base?
HC: The Combat Base philosophy is quite simple, we are a team and we all strive to help each other improve in all areas. Anyone who doesn’t share this doesn’t stick around. Our students are our friends, we are equally comfortable training with them at the gym, going out for a meal together or all crashing round at Mark’s to watch the UFC. What to expect? Hard work, there’s no substitute for that, not only training hard but training smart. Our classes are always conducted in a friendly atmosphere. Get the work done, no messing around then just hang out together. It really is a great way to promote the team aspect. Darren says the gym ethos is “The Man In The Arena” (Ed. note: ”The Man in the Arena” is the title of a speech given by former US president T. Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris, on April 23, 1910. It was subsequently re-printed in his book Citizenship in a Republic. It has been made famous most recently due a segment in the Renzo Gracie ‘Legacy’ movie where Renzo uses a transcript for his inspration) although I think he means woman. He put the full quote on the front page of our web site and uses it as a motivational tool with all the guys that want to compete.
KC: And is the academy pure Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or do you have a curriculum based around your own eclectic mix of fighting arts?
HC: For seniors, just BJJ really, some Judo, some wrestling which could be argued that is part of the BJJ syllabus anyway. [Chris] Haueter wrestled in USA anyway so always worked standing & clinch with us. Chris coming from the Machado’s too was exposed to all the stuff they were up to, the wrestling, Judo, Sombo, no Gi etc so passed that mentality on too. Testament to this is that some of our students have medalled in big BJJ tournaments, Judo tournaments, Sombo National Championships, multi style grappling competitions, both Gi and no Gi, and MMA. For the juniors, it is covering all bases: standing, clinch and ground. We like to know that the juniors are as well prepared for most things that they will encounter at school and whilst they are out and about with their friends and peers. They work striking, clinch and takedowns plus groundwork so they should be able to offer offence and defence in all areas.
KC: Speaking of ‘eclectic mixes’ of fighting arts, nowadays there are hundreds of styles of martial arts all over the world and more and more are cropping up as hybrids of styles/arts that already exist, you only have to flick through one of the lower end magazines to see this. Many instructors seem to be jumping on the bandwagon of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – a practice they once labelled a fad. The ‘BJJ police’ have uncovered some rather dubious credentials along the way. In the main, however, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners are pretty lucky due to the apparent genuine attempt by instructors to preserve the sports credentials as an effective fighting art. I know you like to refer to the martial arts as ‘combat athletics’ but could you take a little time to explain to our readers what BJJ means to you personally and in
your opinion where it stands in comparison to all other martial arts?
HC: There will always be cowboys in anything that is successful; luckily MMA has taken care of a lot of the charlatans, who wants to wear a Gi when you can go out in your favourite MMA t-shirt that proclaims that you are a cage fighter? The BJJ community is close knit so everyone pretty much knows who everyone else is. Any new team or new club appear and it is clear whether they are legit or not. MMA is a different thing altogether.
Coming to BJJ from a ‘traditional’ background I loved the practicality of it, the honesty of the art. If you try to make out to be something that you are not then you will quickly be found out on the mats. As I have said numerous times before I love the training and coaching methodology, it is not just collect a bunch of techniques that you train theoretically against a non resisting opponent, it is a combat sport to a point but I also think it is a great method of self protection too especially for women. I qualify this by saying not just the techniques of BJJ but the close proximity of a big guy, someone trying to pin you to the floor, the ability for you to think and act under pressure. It is claustrophobic to start with but with a little tenacity it really starts to build you mentally. If you ever need to protect yourself you better be mentally resilient or you are going to be in big trouble.
From a physical stand point Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has movement and energy, there are no predetermined patterns so you learn to be proactive and reactive, fighting from your back, using leverage and movement in place of strength, gives you a better chance I think. If it is against someone my own size I can get the takedown, take top and fight from there. How does it compare to other martial arts? I guess it depends on what you are looking for; people have different motivation to train. As for me I want to be as good as I can be, to improve my Jiu Jitsu as far as I can. Darren always encouraged people to take part in multistyle grappling tournaments to test our Jiu Jitsu against the other grappling arts, as he said he started BJJ as he thought it was the most efficient art/sport so wanted to keep testing it to make sure it stayed that. That way we were being subject to things outside of our comfort zone and had to adapt.
KC: As a female training BJJ in the United Kingdom back in the early days you would have had literally only a handful of peers doing the same (if any), dotted around the country. Because of this was there any one specific female Jiu Jitsoka that you looked to for inspiration outside of the UK or was it that because of a lack of coverage online and in magazines, inspiration came from the good old VHS like so many others?
HC: I didn’t really know any females when we started so inspiration came really from when we met our coach Chris Haueter and that really inspired me with the things he could do. He was around 150lbs at the time yet he easily handled everyone that he rolled with, seeing a smaller guy beating the bigger guys live was amazing, obviously we had watched UFC from the start with Royce [Gracie] beating the big guys but I had never seen anything like Chris before.
KC: Has this inspiration changed now female grappling, as a whole, is getting more popular having some great champions in Luka Diaz, Hannette Staak, Penny Thomas, Leticia Ribeiro, Megumi Fujii, Emily Kwok, Valerie Worthington, Lana Stefanac, Kyra Gracie and Felicia Oh?
HC: No, it hasn’t changed my inspiration but just shows how far things have come, we went to ADCC Barcelona as I particularly wanted to watch the women’s divisions, it wasn’t too long ago that there wouldn’t have even been a women’s division there but the quality was there for all to see. Now I understand that there will be women’s divisions at ADCC Pro Gi too. I have been fortunate to train with Felicia Oh and Cindy Omatsu at the Machado’s school in LA when we were over visiting the Haueter’s. Got to train with Megumi when she came over to our gym although I have trained most with Melissa Haueter who herself is a formidable competitor and was 2008 no Gi world champion amongst other things. We also just spent the weekend over with the Factory BJJ guys who were hosting Megaton Diaz, I was really hoping that Luka would come with him but unfortunately she didn’t. Also just missed Penny Thomas over here too, I just couldn’t get down to London on a Wednesday evening but would loved to have gone. It would be awesome to have more female black belts come over to teach seminars, I think everyone regardless of gender would benefit from that.
KC: And I am lead to believe that whilst training alongside Felicia Oh and other world-class female Black Belts you held your own pretty well. What was this like?
HC: It was excellent training although very tough, I was really pleased to have some outstanding female black belts to roll with, as for performance you have to remember that it is only training not a real competition. Darren said that I held my own but whatever.
KC: According to Seymour Yang’s blog, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is approximately 10 years old in the UK; I believe I am correct in saying at present (04.11.09) we have 22 British born BJJ black belts. Being the only women in the UK and the second in the whole of Europe to achieve such a rank it must be a great feeling knowing that you are literally part of the first generation of female Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts in Europe. I read an account in an interview with you a while ago where you mentioned that at a Jiu Jitsu/grappling event the judge didn’t believe you were matside to coach your husband and indeed needed some persuading! How much do you think perceptions towards women in BJJ has moved on since you first stepped onto the mats?
HC: That guy was funny, they weren’t going to start the match until I left, the ref was an old guy though so maybe he didn’t realise women did stuff like that, his wife was probably at home working on her loom or playing the harp. People over here who know who I am acknowledge what I have achieved although they still want to rip my head off but Ill save that for later. The US seems to be much more acceptable for women to train and I had some phenomenal training in the US. I think perceptions towards any female in a male oriented sport are still a little behind in the UK, not just BJJ but MMA too.
There are some really good female fighters in/from this country who are regarded as such Rosi Sexton, Rachael Wheatley, Diane Berry, all of whom I have had the pleasure of training with on occasion and have excelled in their own fields. I haven’t seen Pippa Grainger or Lisa Newton compete in BJJ but have heard nothing but good things about both, I think the females have more opportunities now so hopefully more will become interested in BJJ. If I can be pedantic I would say that BJJ in the UK is a little older, we trained with Carley Gracie back in 1997 and I think Bob Breen might have had someone here even before that.
KC: I would imagine that being a female black belt carries its own responsibilities in that many aspiring youngsters [and older female practitioners] may use your example as an inspiration and goal for achievement along their own path. I know there is an issue with retention of female Judoka at any age and as a result many National Governing Bodies (NGB) have implemented strategies to get females back onto the mats. In your experience what is the uptake like in female Jiu Jitsoka’s and do you find it harder to keep girls/women interested and passionate about BJJ that boys/men?
HC: Yes, women seem to come for a few weeks say they love it then don’t come back. They will buy insurance, maybe buy a Gi too then don’t come back. I train with the women myself, they do not have to train with men if they don’t want to, its personal choice. Grappling is so physical it can be quite intimidating so I never force them to do it but still very few women want to stick around. The women that do stick it out tend to become very good, one of my original students Cheryl Williams jumped right in and trained with the guys, got her blue belt then ended up doing some MMA matches too. She was tough. Got someone at the moment, Charlotte, coming over from York who has tons of potential. She again jumps in with the guys and trains, now considering some of the guys are not sexist and will try as hard against a woman as they do other men, this is very much to the women’s credit that they hang in there. I know some women will never feel comfortable with someone that is so much bigger and stronger but beggars can’t be choosers, sometimes you have no choice. Darren always says that I should be more selective in my rolling partners but I can’t help it. I don’t like to see someone without a partner so I just jump in this does have crossover though, if I can survive against the strongest guys in our gym then I would feel pretty confident if I had to protect myself outside the gym.
KC: In doing this issue of KombatClinic.com I have spoken with many female players from BJJ and Judo and all have commented on rolling (doing randori) with male counterparts where the males tended to use rather more strength than necessary simply to ‘keep face’ during training and in most cases the women have gotten injured. Firstly, have you ever experienced this? And do you think this is likely to feature more or less for women in the higher or lower belt rankings?
HC: Have I experienced males using strength to save face? Lol, every week. Darren says I should be more selective in who I roll with but I just kind of roll with whoever is there. Yes I have been injured several times and by people who should have known better, it is not only the newer guys rolling with strength and not realising what a good female can do but even at higher grades you still get it. In fact maybe worse at higher grades, imagine if a white belt guy could tap a black belt woman? Imagine how pleased he must be with himself if he can use all his strength against someone half his size and risk injuring them so he feels like a real man on the ride home?
2 quick examples, one of my Judo coaches from back in the day bust my elbow dropping his weight through my arm when he was attempting a Waki Gatame arm lock; he was only supposed to be demonstrating the move too. A well-known BJJ black belt broke my wrist and one of my fingers by ragging on wristlocks when we were rolling, instead of recognising that he had significant weight and experience advantage he went out of his way to prove a point I guess. Don’t get that mentality.
I once rolled with John Machado in front of 50 guys and because I got good position he let me finish off the arm lock and he tapped. He then proceeded to tell everyone how much better I was than them because I was the only one doing real Jiu Jitsu and they could learn from me. It would have been easy for John to smash me around but he didn’t, I guess he is comfortable with himself. The weird thing is when we go over to train with Chris Haueter it is almost the exact opposite, the brown belts and black belts always roll and play the BJJ game, they don’t seem to care if I catch them or get good positions on them, they can differentiate between training and competing. Last time we were over in US I trained with 2 of Hauteur’s black belts, Danny Suarez and Michio Grubbs, who were both outstanding and could have easily just outstrengthed me but they made a real match of it. I wish that attitude would filter throughout the rest of the world. If anyone is visiting San Diego you ought to look these guys up, be well worth your while.
KC: I read an interview that you did with Carl Fisher the other day where you said Purple belt is the most enjoyable of the ranks in BJJ as you begin to develop your own game by omitting certain features and drilling other aspects more depending on what you want to achieve. I was speaking with a BJJ black belt the other day and he said watching lower grades competing still inspires. White belts for their sheer tenacity and thirst for all things BJJ related, blue belts for their desire and motivation to impress [their eagerness to progress] and purples for their expansive means and methods [that most have developed themselves]. Are you the same and are the lower grades a big reason that you stay motivated to train?
HC: As a student, I train because I enjoy it; I train for myself to keep me fit, healthy and to relieve stress as I have a relatively difficult job at times. As a coach it is always motivating to see the guys at each level improving, the first time the light goes on with a white belt and he ‘gets’ it is always a good time. Then the transformation from white belt to blue belt, in my opinion, is one of the most significant. Technically they are picking up more and more, starting to develop a little of their own style and start to give you a few more problems when you roll with them. That is a repetitive process through all the belts and really gives me a good
feeling knowing that I am helping to shape that. So as these guys are getting better I always have to stay a step ahead so that helps to keep me motivated too.
KC: I expect a lot of your time is involved with coaching, even though your husband Darren is the main coach at the Combat Base Academy do you still find time to train in the same manner as you did before being promoted to black belt?
HC: Yes, I train every session and leave the bulk of coaching to Darren, he usually leaves the warm ups to me then takes over the technical aspect. I think that the guys like my warm ups. When we started we decided that Darren would be the main gym coach, check the blog post but I would be the children’s instructor and coach. Teaching the children’s class and watching them compete fills me with pride, watching them succeed at something they had previously struggled with is a great feeling and a good lesson for life. If at first you don’t succeed try again.
KC: Being a Black belt under Chris Haueter and many of your BJJ graded students being graded by Matt Thornton does your academy have an affiliation with the Straight Blast Gym?
HC: No not really, we got to train with Matt some times when he came over but the affiliation has always been to Haueter, he was my first real coach and will be until I quit BJJ. We got to train with Matt because Chris didn’t come over for a while. The story as I remember it was someone basically lied to Darren and me about Chris and lied to Chris about us so we were kind of out on a limb for a while. Matt wanted to come over so Haueter suggested that he look us up. Being one of Chris’s top brown belts at the time we knew Matt would provide a great environment in which to train so took the opportunity.
KC: Could you take a moment to explain what it must be like to have received your Black Belt in BJJ from someone like Chris Haueter, a Machado Black Belt and the first American black belt to compete in the Mundial de Jiu-jitsu?
HC: I felt very privileged to not only get my black belt but also be Chris’s first female black belt. He is an exceptional coach and instructor, his knowledge is unbelievable. Every seminar he teaches runs over because he gives people so much. Right from the very first time I trained with him when he did iron man, taking the time to roll with everyone who took the time to attend the seminar; I knew this guy was really something. He is also nuts so every time we get to train with him we have a good laugh too. Ask any of our guys about Chris and they all have their own favourite Chris stories.
KC: I understand both you and your husband have travelled a fair bit to train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and in particular under your instructor – Chris Haueter. I have a few of the SBGI Camp DVD’s where Chris appears in his capacity as Matt Thornton’s BJJ instructor. The SBGi camps seem to be very good and the DVD’s are fantastic with some truly great concepts being shared from the likes of Matt Thornton, Chris Haueter, Karl Tanswell, Luis Gutierrez, John Frankl, Tom Oberhue and John Kavanagh, have you ever attended any of these camps? And or have you been invited to instruct on any?
HC: No unfortunately we never got to go to camp; obviously we were invited and would have loved to have gone but we have family ties here that can be a little restrictive sometimes. They actually filmed some of the European Tour DVD at our gym so that is probably as close as we got. Other than Luis, I think we got to train with everyone on that list anyway here in the UK; there is some real talent on that list. Add to that list Mike Chapman too who came over to our gym with Matt one time. Darren has been around with Chris a little and helped teach seminars earlier this year when they went to South Africa. One of the seminars was sponsored by Bad Boy and was aired on South African national TV, it must have taken a lot of editing :0) There is an account of that on our website www.combatsport.co.uk
KC: Helen, it has been great reading about you and researching some of the questions herein but before we wrap up this interview I was wondering if you had anything you would like to talk about that has not been covered? Any messages for aspiring Jiu Jitsoka (male or female)?
HC: My message is to everyone, don’t put anything off just do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Start Jiu Jitsu now if that’s what you want. You are never too old, too overweight or too out of shape to start. Jiu Jitsu will change your life for the better. There are so many more opportunities for competing now, for men and women, everyone ought to try competition and make the most of the opportunity now because you might never get another chance.
KC: Thanks Helen!
HC: My pleasure