In just a few short years, twenty two year-old Keenan Cornelius has captured the imagination of every young athlete striving to make jiu jitsu a career. Notable for his mixed success at the white and blue belt level, something switched within the Hawaii-born fighter in and around 2011.
As a purple belt, Cornelius won double gold medals at the four major IBJJF tournaments—the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, Pan-American Championship, European Open Championship, and Brazilian National Jiu-Jitsu Championship. As a brown belt, he won 109 matches straight. In his first year as a black belt, he won double bronze at ADCC, closed out the Pan Ams and won bronze in the open division at this year’s world championships.
After a strong showing at last weekend’s Metamoris, in which he earned a draw against ADCC champion Vinny Magalhães, Fightland spoke to Cornelius about the highs and lows of his life as a professional athlete in a growing sport.
Fightland: Talk to me about the sport jiu jitsu competition circuit. How does Metamoris shake up the scene?
Keenan Cornelius: It really helps out the guys who compete to make a living. It’s a weird culture where professional jiu jitsu fighters pay to go compete at Worlds and pay and go compete at these other tournaments. It’s nice to have a venue and event that really supports the fighters, Metamoris treats people the best out of all the tournaments. They pay the best, they really care about their fighters, they ask for your opinion on who you want to fight. They really work with you a lot.
It’s great they have connections to the UFC and are bringing jiu jitsu to a more public eye. It makes it more viewer friendly with no points, there’s nothing you really need to understand. One guy submits another guy; anyone with a basic understanding of jiu jitsu can enjoy that. They can get behind the characters of the fighters through profiles and countdown videos. As opposed to the Worlds where it's ridiculously complicated points system that nobody really understands—you have to be a purple belt to even understand the rules.
I think I’m going to be able to compete in the next couple of Metamoris’ as well, Ralek was telling me I’d make a return.
Are the IBJJF tournaments still the most valued tournaments on the competition scene?
They are important for history. It can change over time though. The Brazilian Nationals used to be a really big tournament and it was important if you won that. People said that the Brazilian Nationals were harder than the Worlds. It’s now dwindled because the high level guys are here in California. Now the biggest tournament is the World Pro, it’s the hardest next to Worlds. Worlds are still incredibly important to me and I want that black belt world title and I’m not going to stop competing. It was the goal I originally set out for in Brazilian jiu jitsu and I will see it through.
Can you talk to me about this year’s IBJJF World Championships?
I’ve just written it off as these things happen. There’s nothing I can do about it now, it happened. It’s out of my control. I’m obviously never happy with bronze; I actually lost the medal when we were filming the Metamoris video. I forgot to bring it back with me.
The main perspective it gave me was I never had problems with referees. In the last few years I’ve never had bad calls, but for some reason at this year’s Worlds all the refs were giving me a hard time. It was sad for me to experience that, I don’t know if it was a prejudice thing, all the refs are Brazilians. Me and JT were some of the only Americans. There are so few Americans competing, and now that some are doing really well, you wonder if there’s bias going on. If you watch my match with Leandro Lo [where I was diqualified], I blatantly swept him two or three times and if it’s a near sweep and like I swept him onto his back and then he came back on top that’s in sport jiu jitsu called an advantage. I wasn’t given a single advantage point for those things. I just look at it like another challenge. You have to beat your opponent and the refs. At the black belt level so few people can just go in and dominate, matches are decided in inches and these refs have so much power over it all, it’s like... what’s the point of competing if it’s stacked against you so much? But I’m not going to let that stop me.
How do you mentally prepare for the rigour of a tournament like the Worlds, where you could be fighting upwards of 12 people?
It’s kind of like a long process. When you sign up for a tournament, say you’re fighting at Metamoris. You could be thinking about it every day, but the second you stop worrying about it and accept that it's going to happen, it’ll help you the day of. I don’t even think about it. I went to training not even thinking about Vinny once during camp. I just focus on the training and enjoying the training. Metamoris kind of snuck up on me actually. Once you have the mind-set of not worrying about it during training, you won’t worry about the actual event itself. I practice letting all emotions out of my brain early, because there’s no sense in worrying about it. You can psyche yourself out easily by worrying. It’s better to let whatever’s going to happen, happen.
Do you throw away all your medals that aren’t gold?
I still have a couple of them. Usually I do just get rid of them. Not in a dramatic way, I just don’t like to see them or have them around. They look inconsistent; when I have my collection of medals I want them to be the gold. It’s inevitable, people lose. I like to hold myself to a higher standard because I don’t think that silver or bronze has any value.
Are you a fan of the point’s system, or do you prefer submission only?
I feel like more submissions come from the points system—you have to submit people when there’s points involved. In a submission only match, you can instantly feel if a guy’s good or not. When someone feels someone else’s pressure, you can turtle up. You stop worrying about the points and worry only about survival. In the BJJ Kumite, after a certain amount of time, guys would just stop going for submissions and attack and just purely work on surviving.
I've competed against the same people in a points match and was able to get submissions quicker because as I attack the back, they defend the hooks, and when their focusing on not getting scored on, it opens up submissions. In submission only, a guy won’t care. He’s just going to defend his neck. It’s easy to not get submitted and not get points scored. I prefer watching point’s matches over submission only. Submission only matches; I’m only interested in the outcome. In a points match, I’m curious to see everything that lead up to the outcome.
Copo Podio was considering banning all Lapel Guard from their next tournament? Is that unhealthy for the sport?
I think banning something should be the last ditch effort. If people can’t come up with a defense to it, to the point of banning it, I’ll just show some technique that shuts it down. There is a technique that shuts it down. The move isn’t the flaw; it’s that people don’t know the answer to it. It’s the lack of knowledge that’s the problem. I wouldn’t care if Lapel Guard was banned, it wouldn’t change anything for me. I started doing it because it’s a new and interesting thing to do. I have a solid game without it. I just enjoy the chess like aspect of jiu jitsu—making it more about the technique than about the battle of [strength]. I don’t know how dangerous this is. I did an Instagram post to try and stop people from being influenced about it.. It’s an effective strategy for sport jiu jitsu. The main problem [people have] with it is that it’s not useful for a self-defense situation, which jiu jitsu is supposed to all be about. But that’s not true. Jiu jitsu is also about the sport, like anything. The self-defense aspect of jiu jitsu can be learned in a couple of months. A six month white belt will be able to defend themselves against someone with no jiu jitsu.
Is creativity something you want to be remembered for?
It’s conflicting. I want to be known as one of the best competitors to ever live and train. I’ve noticed an even greater aptitude for the technique itself. Coming up with and understanding new techniques. I don’t know if I’m a good teacher, but I do have something unique to bring to the table. There aren’t a lot of people who are remembered for creating techniques. I went above and beyond to try and brand the Worm Guard to my name. I’m proud of it.
Techniques and creativity aside, how important is physicality to BJJ?
Intensity is one of the most important parts; honestly intensity is almost more important than technique. If someone’s more aggressive, then it’s not always about technique. A lot of wrestlers bring their mentality to jiu jitsu tournaments and just kill jiu jitsu guys because jiu jitsu mentality is so laid back. In wrestling, it's just go, go, go. The mentality and the intensity that people bring can really change the competitive outcome.
Luke Rockhold has come out and said he’d like to compete against you at Metamoris? How comfortable are you facing MMA fighters?
Guys who train MMA are splitting their focus. It’s impossible for them to keep up with someone who purely does jiu jitsu. MMA fighters can be really hard to submit, but positionally, you have to be really sharp. You have to be training full time to understand the tiny minutiae of the game. Jiu jitsu guys will win a jiu jitsu match, the same as MMA guys will win an MMA match. People like the appeal of jiu jitsu vs MMA, I don’t personally. I would do it, I’ve fought MMA guys and I understand their style of jiu jitsu for MMA.
Would you ever compete in MMA?
I used to be very interested in MMA and that’s why I originally started training in jiu jitsu. I wouldn’t go back to it anymore. I wouldn’t fight in MMA. The physical damage that happens over time is really intense. I trained MMA intensely for a short period, and I could see the damage it was taking on the brain and body. I got a couple of concussions from it. You can see guys starting to get punch drunk. I really value my brain. It was a dream of mine when I was younger, but it’s not worth the physical damage.
The Lloyd Irvin scandal occurred when you were a brown belt, a time in which you moved to Atos. Looking back at that experience, how did help you develop as a person and as a martial artist?
It definitely gives you a good perspective on people—people who surround you in everyday life. It kind of shows when you know someone and when you learn about someone, and then you see who they are, it helps you learn and it helps when you meet new people. You can recognise traits that have been seen in the past. I don’t know if it made me a better martial artist. The reason I left was because of morals. It was an experience, not a good one. Bad things happen and it’s up to you to deal with them.
There’s a problem that I see a lot in the jiu jitsu community. Have you heard of the Stuart Cooper and Roy Dean falling out? I don’t know who Roy Dean is, but when Stuart was filming a documentary about him, something happened between Stuart and the front desk girl. I guess they were hanging out. It’s like she was his possession or something. In the jiu jitsu community, for some reason, instructors can develop this weird power trip. There can be an idolisation of instructors and people just kind of bow down to these people. It can give them an inflated ego and an inflated sense of self-worth, and it’s a repeated issue in the martial arts community. Especially with sexual and physical abuse.
It’s sad for me to see people who are given this power and abuse it. I would ask people, who are putting themselves into an instructor position and becoming a leader to their students, really try and put your situation in perspective. Don’t let it go to your head and don’t abuse your power. These people are looking up to you and respecting you, but why are they doing that? Their paying you, but at the same time, they have this feeling of indebtedness to you. You’re just a person just like anyone else. The only thing you did was start an academy. Ryan Hall calls it hero worship. That’s a real issue. There are a certain percentage of people who just let it go to their heads. The way instructors can react to their students. It can be a problem. It seems unlikely, but it’s something to be aware of.
What’s next for you?
[Metamoris] was the one tournament I was really looking forward to after Worlds, I’ll probably do No-Gi Worlds in November.
See more photographs of Keenan on Stefan Kocev's Instagram.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.