By Tom Bell
Now, over a week since the event took place, the Polaris dust has long settled on the Jiu Jitsu landscape. Fighters have returned to relaxed training, no more camps, and enough time has passed to let anyone who fought on the night reflect on their performance. Dan Strauss is one of those people.
The 24 year-old Roger Gracie black belt met AJ Agazarm on the night in a hugely anticipated bout. Strauss is a team mate of Oli Geddes, who fell victim to the ability, as well as gamesmanship, of Agazarm at Polaris 1. There’d been several public exchanges between Strauss and Agazarm online in the build up to their bout, adding further spark to what was already a very interesting match.
Agazarm: a young prodigy, a World, Pan American and European nogi champion, former Division 1 wrestler and veteran of over 500 grappling fights. He competes at 76kg (usually).
Strauss: a man of imposing stature and ability, a Roger Gracie black belt who has shown he can hang with anyone on the European scene. A European nogi champion himself, not to mention the NAGA champion. He’s a legitimate strong man who can genuinely bend horse shoes, so bending a human is second nature.
Strauss spoke in depth with Jiu Jitsu Style to give us his take on the all of the evening’s proceedings.
“It’s awesome, it’s really awesome” says Strauss on Polaris Pro. “To be honest, it’s my absolute, favourite, number one thing about doing this – having the chance to go out, put on a show and then have that sort of support from everybody.”
Called to the mats, making his way down the steps of St David’s Hall through the lively audience to take his place amongst the other competitors, the Mill Hill BJJ man received the loudest applause of the evening. “It’s an unbelievable feeling that cannot be replicated,” explains Strauss. “I’m just very lucky to get that sort of ovation from all the guys that were there was wicked, I loved it.”
There were other domestic grapplers in the line-up, but it was Strauss’ reception that stood out. It would be hard to argue that Strauss didn’t rouse any support through exchanges online with his counterpart. An American was coming to town, for the second time, looking to take the proverbial scalp of one of the UK’s best.
Gamesmanship or smack talk, call it what you will, but it was rife between the two and it created anticipation seldom seen in jiu jitsu. Online exchanges were plenty, and we even saw Agazarm eating raspberries on the weighing scales, donning a lucha libre mask to make a mockery out of his opponent’s gimmick. It even inspired both Gawakoto and Meerkatsu to collaborate and draw a promotional image ahead of the contest – which of course went viral.
Was it manufactured? Is there really bad blood between the two? Well..
“It’s kind of a bit of both to be honest,” says Strauss. “It wasn’t really, really personal between me and AJ – I’d never met the guy and I don’t get too personal with people I’ve never met. You know, when it came to the stuff from the last Polaris, I thought it was a little bit harsh on Oli to show boat on him and you know I was a little bit pissed off and I wanted to give him a bit back.
“But in terms of being personal, that wasn’t the case, the ‘smack talk’ that everyone seems to have called it; it was just between two guys for fun. It wasn’t all show though, there was no manufacturing.”
“It was a friendly rivalry, that’s what I’d call it. You’ll find a much more heated, genuinely bad blooded fight at any given tiny little tournament in the middle of nowhere than we had, but obviously it doesn’t get the same kind of publicity.”
In combat sports, it’s often an unfortunate cliché that rivalry between two competitors results in a drab affair when it actually comes down to it. At times, high-level jiu jitsu has even been criticised for being too boring, as fighters literally compete for inches on the mat and are scared to open up. This contest, however, turned its back on cliché and delivered one of the genuine must-see contests in competitive grappling.
Was it the same for the Strauss as it was for his fans? Well, coming straight from the Ape’s mouth, it’s a bit of both.
“Yes, to a degree, AJ brought what I expected,” explains Dan. “He’s an awesome competitor who’s had something like 500, 600 fights. He’s a world champion black belt who has competed all over the world and he’s an awesome wrestler. So yeah, in terms of that, he’s a tough guy, he’s fast and quick, he’s got gas, he’s got awesome takedowns, to be honest with you though I thought I’d be in a bit more danger. I thought I’d be in a bit more danger and that’s it.”
Cartwheel passes, double legs, ankle picks – Agazarm threw it all Strauss’ way. “I never once felt threatened,” says Strauss. “His takedowns are quick, they’re explosive and he put me on my arse plenty of times [laughs] but to be honest with you, I’m sure anyone who watched the fight is well aware, I didn’t mind being on my arse!”
Strauss sat, slapped his chest and beckoned Agazarm towards him before standing and walking towards the Gracie Barra black belt with his arms open wide: “The only reason I was standing back up was because he wasn’t engaging, so I could have sat on my arse for ten minutes and we could have stared at each other and it would have been real boring. But those takedowns, I didn’t defend any takedowns. Now I’m not saying I could have defended it if I tried, he’s a great wrestler! But I wasn’t defending them.”
It paid off, or very nearly did, enough to make Agazarm respect his opponent when not once, but several times he found 90kg of muscle cupping his chin, vying for the guillotine. That was several times prior to the deep toehold that Strauss had, too. Strauss is after all, a patron of London’s Villain Barbell Club, where he not only helps teach, but also spends a lot of his time ripping copies of the yellow pages, lifting things the majority of us could only dream of and bending horse shoes with his bare hands.
“No, I wasn’t surprised I caught his neck a few times,” says Strauss. “The way I set up the guillotine makes it hard, no matter how you attempt the takedown, to not get your head in that position that I want. What I was also expecting, which he did incredibly well, was his movement within the guillotine. I’m not talking about letting me get under the chin, but not allowing me to get in the body position to actually finish it.
“His submission defence is obviously excellent, he’s real quick, explosive and he has great awareness and sensitivity to threat. Very difficult to submit.
“The hand under the neck, it was there every time but the one time I felt I was about to be able to go for the finish, I never quite got there because his movement was real good. He’s quick, he’s really quick but if I was 80kgs, I’d be quick as well [laughs] but you know the guy’s a wrestler, he’s compact so yeah there’s no doubt he’s going to be quick.”
Overall, the atmosphere in Polaris that night felt like a celebration of jiu jitsu, not just a show of it.
A glance to the left, there’s Simon Hayes, a stalwart of UK BJJ, sat alongside his son, Billy, a undoubted future star who currently sits ranked #4 in the pound-for-pound UKBJJA rankings. A glance to the right, a Gracie Barra cohort: Bradley Hill, Vanessa English, Laura Barker and Sean Coates, all some of the UK’s brightest and most active competitors. Lucio Lagarto Rodrigues black belts, Pedro Bessa students, including Greg Creel and Jamie Hughes, Leoni Munslow, New School BJJ’s world bronze medallist amongst many, many more.
Strauss was at the forefront that evening, certainly as far as the crowd was concerned, flying the UK flag alongside compatriot Tom Barlow, who also fought an American stalwart.
“I hope I did it proud,” beams Strauss. “I did feel, with the event being in the UK and having an American guy come over who fought a UK guy on the last show I felt that I had not just the support of the crowd, but that I was trying to put the UK on the map a little bit against a renowned international competitor so I really do hope that I did the UK proud.
“In terms of ‘bringing it’, he does get into people’s heads and he’s a showman and I think people can become overwhelmed by that and there was just no way in hell I would allow him to do that to me so I planned to ‘bring it’ from the very first minute.
“There was absolutely no way I would end up backing down. This is the thing, it was the exact same for him as well. Both of us, we talked the talk and when it came down to it, we both did it because I wasn’t backing down, he wasn’t backing down and that’s what happens when two people with the same mentalities meet. I wouldn’t give up, he wouldn’t give up and that’s what you get, a crazy show from start to finish.”
And what a show it was.
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