John Danaher Talks Hip Pain and Heartbreak

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

If what the spiritualists and psychotherapists say is true and the best way to find meaning in our meaningless universe is by connecting with our fellow human beings, then what quicker way to salvation than the realization that some other person suffers the way we do? Shared pain makes brothers of strangers. The story goes that when James Joyce and Marcel Proust finally met in 1922 the sparkling literary tête-à-tête everyone expected came to nothing more than a comparison of medical ailments. You can keep love, hope, beauty, art, music—commiseration is the surest path to communion and then enlightenment.

So, a few weeks ago when I was diagnosed with a hip condition called femeroacetabular impingement, I found myself pining for commiseration. Not because I was in pain or having trouble stepping onto a curb or struggling to get into my car, though I was, but because my condition was preventing me from performing a proper Muay Thai roundkick. And that to me was a great tragedy. I need fighting in my life the way some people need god or drugs, and now my hips, my legs, and the fates were conspiring against me. My doctor gave me a choice: surgery followed by six months’ recovery or simply continuing what I was doing, hobbled and without the possibility of ever coming close to my full potential. Six months of nothingness vs. the maddening perpetuation of my inabilities. Heartbreak vs. hip pain. I was 39-years-old and felt 100.

And then, two days ago, a light appeared, a light in the form of John Danaher, the jiu jitsu sage with a graduate degree in philosophy, one of the architects of the careers of UFC champions Georges St-Pierre and Chris Weidman, the legendary fighting teacher who has never competed himself. During a short video profile I stumbled on Danaher admitted that for most of his life he’s been plagued by hip problems that are now threatening to make it impossible for him to continue rolling. I felt awful for him and great for myself. Here was someone in the same predicament I was, a fellow fighter facing the same kind of identity crisis, the same anatomical refusals in the face of great spiritual desires. I had to talk to him. I needed to commiserate. I needed hope. And John Danaher was going to lead me through the darkness whether he knew it or not. 

So yesterday I tracked him down at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan, where he was getting ready to teach his second jiu jitsu class of the day, and begged for a few minutes of his time. As I’d always heard, he was generous and thoughtful and profound. And he spoke very quietly. All the way back to Brooklyn I was praying that his voice would be audible on the tape when I played it back: Please God, don’t fuck me on this!

John Danaher: My body is a complete and utter wreck

Fightland: Well, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. I’ve been having some trouble myself, and I saw a video recently where you were talking about the injuries you have and the possibility that they might prevent you from doing jiu jitsu.

I was in a peculiar situation because I entered the sport of jiu jitsu at 28 with an already crippled leg. I have slightly deformed patellas in my knees, which makes them extremely vulnerable to dislocation. So as a child and teenager I had many, many dislocations of my left knee. In my late teenage years a final dislocation left me with a leg that was basically useless. I had a difficult time extending and retracting the leg. I had no strength whatsoever. It was difficult for me to even walk in a straight line. I had an operation. But you must remember that arthroscopic surgery was a relatively recent thing then, and I was given the non-arthroscopic surgery. I was given the old-fashioned style of surgery. With a hammer and chisel they went into my left knee. The intention was to shorten my left medial ligament, making it more difficult for my left knee to dislocate. That was the idea. Unfortunately the surgeon cut the tendon too short and it wouldn’t reattach.

So I had a series of surgeries to reattach the medial ligament. Unfortunately the number and extent of the surgeries built up a huge amount of scar tissue in my left knee, and to this day I have a deformed left knee, which doesn’t straighten. So I have a lot of muscle-wastage in my leg. I basically have a crippled leg. And in that condition I entered the sport of jiu jitsu.

Over the years, walking with a limp and basically trying to get through life and jiu jitsu compensating for a deformed and weak knee, my hip took the brunt of that work, and in my mid-40s I started to develop osteoarthritis in my left hip. And now I have full bone-on-bone contact in my left hip, which is a rather unpleasant experience. If you look at MRIs of my hips, my right hip looks fairly good for a 48-year-old person, whereas my left hip looks like something of a car wreck.

Is that why you never competed in jiu jitsu?

I always believed that if I wanted to do something I wanted to be one of the best people in the world at it. Given my crippled leg I think it would be difficult to be one of the very best competitors in the world. Competitors have a very busy schedule. They have to go through a training camp and peak for a competition. For me, every time I rolled I felt that I was one wrong movement away from getting an injury. And given that, it would be unlikely that I could, through a period of years, over the course of a year, maintain a competition performance level that would make me one of the best in the world.  

But I was confident that I could be one of the best coaches in the world. So I decided to fix most of my attention on coaching. My now goals are mostly bound up with coaching rather than individual competitiveness. The fact that I’m not rolling every single day as hard as I can isn’t a terrible thing for me.

I more or less gave my life to teaching jiu jitsu. I’m not married. I have no children. And so the children I have, I guess, are my students. And I get every bit as much pleasure, in fact I get more pleasure, from watching my students than I do from any feeble achievements than I’ve done for myself.

Is there anything you can do to improve your hips?

I’ve been advised that the two ways to get around this—hip replacement and hip resurfacing—and I’m currently weighing my options.

With modern hip replacements it’s reasonable to expect to walk with crutches and cane out of the hospital and to be walking under your own power within two weeks, in a good case. With hip resurfacing it’s typically just a little bit longer at the initial stages but then accelerates when you start getting one or two months out and you can get a fairly quick recovery.

Doctors generally recommend no impact activities with hip resurfacing for six months to a year. So I could probably teach classes with in two months and then do very light, controlled ground work within, say, four to five months. And then hopefully a more physical style of jiu jitsu within a year. That would be a good scenario.

Is there a possibility that you wouldn’t be able to roll anymore at all?

There is a danger with hip replacement that you can get dislocations. You get a dislocation rate of between 3.5 and 4.5%. And that’s just average citizens. I’m sure it’s worse in the sport of jiu jitsu, where you could easily imagine a scenario where you’re defending open guard and the guy cartwheels over your leg and your foot catches in his gi or belt and your leg gets pulled out.

When you’re rolling are you in constant pain?

I’m in pain from the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep. So I’m used to it. People don’t realize this because I don’t show any feelings but just the simple act of kneeling down on the ground, which is probably the most common position in jiu jitsu, is very painful for my left knee.

So, my hips are currently keeping me from fighting to my potential and the situation is forcing me to weigh the possibility of months off against never functioning at my peak. Considering how long you’ve been doing jiu jitsu and how important it is to you, when you think about a year of recovery or never being able to roll again, does that give you pause about having the surgery?

I would be a liar if I said to you there weren’t nights I went to sleep cursing my fate: “What were the gods of fate thinking when they gave me this leg?” But ultimately you’ve got to come back to several things that keep us strong in these moments of doubt:

First, six months seems like such a long time, but measured against your life it’s the blink of an eye. Think of how many things have happened to you in the last six months and how little you remember of them because it all went by so quickly.

More importantly, never underestimate the power of human adaptation. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself and then I realize there are people out there with infinitely worse problems than I have, who would literally give everything they had for the wrecked body that I have. Including people who engage in various grappling sports. I’ve seen wrestling champions with one leg; I’ve seen wrestling champions with literally no limbs. Human beings have one thing going for them: They can adapt to the craziest circumstances.

I got to an acceptable level of skill in jiu jitsu just through adaptation. I had a crippled body but I had a good analytical mind. There’s always a way to adapt, even a body as fundamentally screwed up as my own, to get to the goals you want. We find ways to get around problems. Give us enough time and we an adapt to any set of circumstances, even a crippled body.


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