For most athletes in the jiu jitsu community, grappling is their form of expression. It’s the thing they do to give themselves new meaning and add to their daily lives. For the full timers, it’s an obsession bordering on the compulsive.
That compulsive need for the sport bit Steve Maxwell, the renowned fitness guru known for popularizing kettle bells in the United States. Having fallen in love with the sport, he would eventually instill his own understanding of physical fitness in his son Zak, who is now a Gracie Humaitá black belt preparing for Metamoris 5 on November 22nd.
“He started doing jiu jitsu in the 90s in Philadelphia. He had a fitness club, and he went to one of the first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu seminars. He was a wrestler up until then, and just started putting mats in the health club and began recruiting guys. I was just a little kid, and I was around that. My dad was a purple belt who’d go out to California and learn from the Gracies.”
For many of us growing up, exercise and playing around can be an escape from school, home and chores. For Maxwell, physical health was a natural part of daily existence, leading to a very different relationship than most when it comes to physicality.
"Freya Portrait" by Zak Maxwell
“I never wanted to play sports as a kid. But exercise was different, it was ingrained in me. We had a rope that was hanging from the first floor to the second floor and I remember just climbing it all the time. There were pull up bars all over the place, weights everywhere. Dad used to bribe me, if I could climb the rope five times in a row then he’d give me a dollar.
I just thought it was fun, but it wound up making me really strong. I’m really grateful for it, it built a neurological strength that a lot of people have to work very hard to get. It’d get a little awkward when friends would come over and see the house and be like, ‘What are you doing man?!’”
Maxwell, under the tutelage of the Gracie Humaitá team—specifically Regis Lebre and Royler Gracie—became renowned at the colored belts, his crowning achievement coming in the form of gold at the brown belt level at the Mundials.
Having competed at the American black belt circuit for a number of years, Maxwell is enjoying the challenge of his next opponent, fellow American black belt Garry Tonon. Styles make match-ups, with each man’s being worlds apart.
“That style is a little bit tricky. Really you have to keep an eye out for what he does best, and being completely focused and not letting your guard down. Offense is not important for a submission-only match, it’s more defensive strategy for me. It’s not about surviving moves, but avoiding his offense, shut him down, stay safe and then open up”.
"Cure of Want" by Zak Maxwell
This isn’t Maxwell’s first Metamoris. He faced off against Carlson Gracie black belt Sean Roberts at Metamoris 3, earning an unsatisfying draw for both men in which Maxwell achieved mount and had Roberts in a close armbar.
“The whole experience was something completely new. I wasn’t 100% comfortable, there were still some things in my brain from regular jiu jitsu tournaments with points during the match—I had to override my own instincts.”
The big lights of the Metamoris stage, along with the pressure of being the representatives of jiu jitsu to a growing audience could leave athletes believing they need to put it all on the line, to attempt a Griffin vs. Bonnar out on the white podium.
“People hear that and they think that they have to match intensity or match pace. That’s not really my personality in life. That’s not the way I fight. To play into that would be a big mistake, and it’d probably result in me losing. Conservative strategy has always been the way I fight. That’s the route that’s always given me the most success. Focusing my energy and my mind has always been the way to go.”
"Down and Out" by Zak Maxwell
With the current generation of competitive black belts, there is a confidence built through belief and a rigorous approach to excellence through sports psychology. The likes of Rafael Lovato JR, Keenan Cornelius and JT Torres are renowned for their mental prowess as much as their physical prowess.
“As far as having a really specific set of goals in jiu jitsu, I was never really into that. I’ve never planned my career out, I just train, compete and whatever is going to happen, happens. I’ve never said to myself that I want to be this world champion or that world champion.”
Maxwell, meanwhile, has never been one to follow the crowd. While he enjoys the sport, he has no indications or want to transition to MMA or put himself through the rigor of owning an academy. He’s certainly not in this for the associated fame or monetary gain.
“It’s not like I don’t enjoy teaching jiu jitsu, it’s nice and I enjoy it. I have such respect for the guys who do own schools—they love jiu jitsu so much. You know, I really want to be an artist. I’ve been drawing ever since I was a little kid.”
I go and I train and I come home and I draw. Art has paralleled jiu jitsu for as long as I can remember. People always said I should do jiu jitsu and that path I was pushed toward, but with art I’m beginning to realize that it’s what I genuinely love to do. I love it so much I would do it even if it wasn’t successful.”
"Little Freya" by Zak Maxwell
Jiu jitsu can be an athlete’s form of expression: their personal imprint on the world represented through their movements against an opponent. Combining jiu jitsu with drawing, Maxwell is fascinated by the dichotomy of his personality that is represented through each of these avenues.
“They are both part art and part science. Just like in jiu jitsu, it takes just as much discipline to be a good artist as it does to be a good martial artist. Just how your personality can reflect how you do jiu jitsu, how you are represented through art can be totally different.
I think I’m a conservative and focused jiu jitsu fighter but I am the opposite when it comes to art. My art is more fierce. I find that so interesting. It’s a mind-body thing. Your fantasy life can be really rich and the way you interact with the world can be totally different. A seemingly meek and uninteresting person can have an incredibly detailed view of art and a rich fantasy life.”
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