Words: Richard Baker
For this edition of White Belt fever, I had the pleasure of interviewing Harley Flanagan. For those of you that don’t know, Harley started a band in the mid 80’s called the Cro-Mags, whose impact on hard-core music was nothing short of stupendous. I read a copy of his recently released book: Hard-Core, a life of my own and upon reading it found out he was a Renzo Gracie Blackbelt. At which point I knew I had to interview him! Harleys nothing short of a colourful soul and has seemed to have lived a thousand lives. I was itching to discuss his time as a white belt, to see how a man with so much going on still managed to train and progress in BJJ.
What inspired you to start Jiu-Jitsu?
I remember seeing UFC 1 & 2 on VHS, renting them from a Blockbuster, and I had no idea what the f**k it was. I remember looking at the box and thinking what the f**k is this? The photos on the box looked like real fights, people were all covered in blood and I’m thinking to myself what is this, is this some fake wrestling s**t or something? It looks like it might be real, so I rented it, took it home and I was blown away. Royce was submitting all these big dudes, and I was blown away. I’ve had hundreds of fights in my life, I mean, I couldn’t even put an estimate on how many, but I had never seen anything like an Armbar or a Kimura or any of this s**t! So I made up my mind right then, if I ever get the chance to train with one of these guys I’m going to pursue it. I’ve punched a million people, kicked, head-butted and all of the other things you do in a fight but I had never seen anything like that. I was actually in LA at the time, and I came back to New York in winter ’95 and I met with Renzo in early ’96, started training with him and never turned back.
How did you meet Renzo Gracie?
When I came back to New York I was looking for a place to learn Jiu-Jitsu. I looked at a couple of traditional Jiu-Jitsu academies and even some Judo academies because I was just looking to get myself started down that path. Every day I’d go up to the magazine stores and browse through all the different magazines, black belt magazine and all the others and go through all the ads at the back, because I knew sooner or later one of these mother**kers had to come to New York. I mean, BJJ already owned the west coast and I knew that it was only a matter of time because you know, New York City is one of the centres of the civilised world so I knew that it would arrive eventually.
One day I opened up the back of one these magazines and I see and advert for Gracie Kucuk. I had no idea what Kucuk was (it turns out Kucuk was Renzos partner at the time). So there were two black belts teaching, Renzo, Kucuk, a Brown Belt and a purple belt from Brazil, and they were our instructors. That was the beginning of it, Renzo only had a dozen students or so when I first started training with him, and he was such a warm person, so welcoming and friendly. The guy is one of the coolest people you’ll ever meet, you really get that vibe right off the bat and I became close friends with him and there’s been no turning back. I’ve been friends with him now for twenty-one years, I teach at his academy here in New York City and I consider him a very close friend.
A lot of white belts claim they don’t have time to train, or can’t get into the gym as much as they say they’d like to. How did you balance getting mat time in while always being on the road with a band?
I was gigging a lot, but it’s just like anything else, you’ve got to be consistent no matter what you’re doing. I was going on tour for a few months and I’d come back and jump right back on the mats and start again. The only thing was that my cardio would suck for a bit because I’d have been out on the road and then I’d come back and get my ass kicked for a few weeks.
I’d still remember the mechanics of the techniques it was just a matter of my body catching up. It did take me a little bit longer than a lot of my friends to get my Black belt because I had such a busy life, but consistency is the key to anything, find the time man, if you are really dedicated to something you will find the time.
Even when I was on the road I would stop in academies in different states and different places and different countries. I trained every time I was in Japan when I was just a blue belt. I don’t know if you know much about our fan base but we have a lot of knuckleheads and a lot of gangbangers and wannabe tough guys who were into our music and a lot of gang members would come to the shows and at sound check would want to beat me and stuff. Everybody knew I was into training so everybody wanted to fuck around, so sometimes I’d line all these guys up and just subit ‘em. I’d be like okay let’s see if you can pass my guard, let’s see if you can take me down or whatever and I’d find little ways to entertain myself like that. At the same time I was spreading the word of Jiu-Jitsu because in the mid 90’s it was still pretty underground. There was a lot of non-believers out there who didn’t really think this shit worked. I made sure everywhere I went that I proved that it does and everywhere I played I always rocked my Renzo Gracie shirts and really spread the word, I’m a believer, ya know.
That’s one of the coolest things about BJJ now, you can just jump on Facebook, ask if there’s anywhere to train wherever you’re going.
Yeah it’s a different world now and also it’s a lot more open to the outsiders. I mean, in the early days it had a lot harder vibe. If you went into an academy and you were from somewhere else it was a little bit more clique like. I don’t want to say it had a gang mentality but yeah it was way tougher in the old days because, it wasn’t as family friendly. The people that trained were either MMA fighters or bouncers or just people that liked to fight and often got into fights, you didn’t have a lot of kids or women training. Now you come into the academy and of course you have a lot of MMA fighters but you also have a lot of just regular people, everyone from doctors to lawyers to construction workers and everything else, it’s all kinds of people who are interested in this sport, back then it was really just people who were into fighting.
What were your biggest challenges as a white belt? A lot of people starting out seem to struggle with the ego, physical fitness or just making time for training. What did you find was a big obstacle?
Ego always gets in the way you know because when you get to a certain point you start thinking that you know techniques but you’re still being forceful and you’re still using muscle because you haven’t really got it down that well yet. I remember right when I first started, I thought I was doing good because I was smashing people on the mats, Renzo shouts to me, (he probably wouldn’t say this to me now because we’re all much more civilised) but I remember him saying; ‘Hey Harley, what’s the difference between a blue belt, and a bucket of s**t?’ and I’m like, ‘ummm, I dunno’ (You see, I was a blue belt at the time) and he goes; ‘The Bucket’. I laughed, but didn’t quite understand as much as I do now. You get to a place where you start thinking you’re showing people up and you start thinking you’re a hard-ass and your pride starts to swell up because you’re getting the submission, you’re passing the guard, you’re dominating. Unfortunately, The fact is that the guys who you’re dominating and passing their guard don’t know s**t so it’s one of the really formative stages of Jiu-Jitsu, but man that was funny as hell.
If you could change one thing about your training in the old days, and your journey, would you?
Nah, you know something I was really lucky I started off with some of the best y’know. Early on at the academy we had Rodrigo Gracie, Matt Serra, his brother Nick, John Danaher, all these guys that were real beasts man I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean sure I look back at some old photos and old footage and I’m like ‘Man posture man, where’s your f**kin’ posture’ You know little stuff. I’d have probably cut my hair sooner, when I first started training I had long ass hair and probably should have cut that off but really no changes, no regrets. I’m really blessed and fortunate that I’m part of this world of Jiu-Jitsu. It started off all about fighting for me, and I can honestly say that for me at this point in my life it has nothing to do with fighting, it’s about the relationships that I’ve developed, it’s about the love of the art itself and I really love teaching. I love sharing the knowledge that Renzo has given me and it’s like being part of a bigger family, so what started off really about fighting, has all been replaced by love.
How cool is it having your kids at the academy?
Oh man that was a game changer for me, my youngest has been training since he was six, and he’s fourteen now. I’m watching him in the gym submitting grown men and adults who outweigh him, it’s awesome. I’m very proud of them both, they’re doing great. They’ve been competing since they were little kids. I always try to tell the parents of the kids at the academy, don’t just put your kids in training, you should train too. Give them some inspiration, bond with them over it. Go with them to tournaments, coach them and develop a relationship with them that’s deeper than just telling them what to do. When you start training your kids and you really know what they’re doing and they’re competing and you can yell out and coach them it’s amazing. Putting them in training is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, the other being me starting training.
How good did it feel when you got your blue belt?
Well, it was at our old academy, a pretty legendary place in a really rough area, there was a lot of crack and a lot of prostitutes. There were only two floors in the building that we were in, one was the academy and the other one was a methadone clinic. So on one floor you had a lot of messed up drug addicts and on the other you had a load of fighters. I remember I was training with one of the guys from Madball and was working him over, Renzo calls me over and says Harley I want you to go train with that guy over there. So, we start rolling and Renzo comes up behind me and cracks me over my back as hard as he possibly can with a belt. I didn’t know what was going on, I look over my shoulder and I see a big grin on his face and he’s holding a blue belt. I’m like Oh s**t, I was pumped you know! I was probably way overdue that belt, just because I used to train and then I’d be on the road a lot. I was a blue-belt for almost five years too man. The thing is, back in the old days it really took a lot longer to get promoted, you know, they didn’t hand them out like they do nowadays.
Harley has a book out now, about his life and times on the road with Cro-Mags, I strongly suggest you give it a read. It’s called Hard-Core, a life of my own and is available from his site, Harleyflanagan.com
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