Interview with Travis Stevens, 2x Judo Olympian

travis-stevens-interviewTravis Stevens is an American judoka, 2-time Olympian, and has recently been making a splash on the jiu jitsu competition scene as a Renzo Gracie/John Danaher brown belt. Both in 2008 and in 2012 he put in an Olympic performance worthy of a gold medal, losing only on the thinnest of margins. A few weeks ago, I got to interview him over email. The text of that interview is below. Last week, I also had a conversation with him over the phone for the Take It Uneasy podcast. That episode will be up in the next few days.

Big ippon or big submission:

Lex: You’ve trained in both sports and competed in some epic matches in both sports. What do you love most in competition: a big throw (e.g. standing seoi) or a big submission?

Travis: Well for Jiu Jitsu it’s only about the submission, you don’t really gain anything for throwing your opponent through the floor, 2 points is 2 points regardless of how they fall. But for Judo I like to throw, I love putting people through the floor it gives you such a rush of pleasure. But I end up beating people on the ground because it’s so much easier for me. Judo players make so many mistakes it’s hard for me to not capitalize on them. I’ve been in some judo matches where I try not to capitalize on there mistakes but when they don’t fix there mistake or keep leaving there arm out there I’m going to take it and try to break it out of pure annoyance that they just don’t know any better. I take it as an insult that they feel they don’t have to protect it so they don’t.

Difference in competition judo and bjj:

Lex: From having watched your matches, it seems you have wisely approached your jiu jitsu ground game very differently than your judo ground game (newaza) in both technique and philosophy. What do you think is the difference in what’s required to win on the ground in sport judo vs sport jiu jitsu? Timing? Intensity?

Travis: Judo: I’m just a mean S.O.B. If I have to throw a right hook to get my hand under your chin so be it. Or if you don’t let me grab the back of your collar I’ll just start smashing your face into the mat in frustration. In judo I have such a small window to work with and a lot fewer moves to be able to pick from. I approach it with “the faster, more violent, and aggressive I can attack the position the better”. Most of this is because the refereeing in judo doesn’t have the knowledge to know if you’re close or just BS’ing it. So they stop a lot of things early when they shouldn’t and let a lot of things go for to long that they shouldn’t.

BJJ: there is only 1 move I do in BJJ that I use in judo I keep everything else 100% different including takedowns. I respect the technical side of BJJ a ton and try to never over power or run throw anyone. I try to use my movement to creat opportunities and use my creative thinking to try and make things happen the people would have never seen coming. I also try and stick to a lot of leg locks in BJJ. I love foot locks. And use the. Every chance I get even if I have to give up position.

The Takedown Blueprint:

Lex: You have a new instructional DVD out with Jimmy Pedro called “The Takedown Blueprint” that covers some of the most effective judo techniques for BJJ competitors, including seoi nage, tai otoshi, tomoe nage, sumi gaeshi, ouchi, osoto, kata guruma, and more. In judo, your style of seoi nage is similar in footwork and gripping to the Koga’s seoi nage. How did you develop your standing seoi? And do you think it’s an effective technique for high level jiu jitsu? Are there adjustments that would make it more effective?

Travis: I devolved my standing seio over the years of training just trial and error. It clearly works in high level BJJ competitions as I used it in Copa Podio but I would not recommend that throw to people. I would recommend a dropping one. It’s just too dangerous. Your back can be taken very easily. My body and the muscles needed to pull off that throw are very developed through years of doing it. There are a lot easier throws to develop that will score you two points and we show these takedowns in the DVD.

Fear:

Lex: We’ve recently talked about Tamerlan Tmenov striking fear into the hearts of his opponents. Has there ever been an opponent in your judo (or bjj) career who you feared facing? If so, how did you overcome that?

Travis: This is a joke and I laugh at people that get scared. How can you fear someone in a competition. There are rules in place to protect the competitors. If you look at a list of people competing and you fear someone in the bracket just quit and go home and save your money and don’t waste the time of the people who want to compete. Because what you really fear is yourself and you don’t have the confidence within yourself. You think you don’t have the ability and if that’s the case why bother. You should be itching to fight the best and prove yourself, not hiding in a corner hoping for easy street to just land at your feet.

Toughest opponent:

Lex: You’ve faced Oleh Bischof several times, with exceptionally close matches. He was the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold and silver medalist. Has he been your toughest opponent?

Travis: No Bischof was not my toughest opponent. He didn’t have throwing capability. And if memory serves me right he has only beat me on a penalties. But I never seen opponents as tough. Yeah I lose matches but not because my opponents are so great but because I make mental errors or take a risk that back fires.

Visualization and Game Plan:

Lex: Do you regularly visualize your matches leading up to competition? Do you have a specific game plan that you prepare and visualize for a particular style of opponent (righty, lefty, Georgian, Japanese style, etc)?

Travis: I do for left versus right. But not for individuals or for regions. I could care less what they do. I plan on going into the match and imposing what I want to do. But when I do visualization my opponent is a blur and I’m just focused on me.

Drilling:

Lex: For the beginner, intermediate, and professional judoka / bjj competitor do you see drilling as an important part of training? Is it essential to get thousands of reps in on a technique before you can pull it off successfully in competition? Or is practicing the technique in randori / sparring more important?

Travis: They are both equally important. Drilling is far more important in bjj because the moves are very foreign to the body. And there are so many types of positions you have to be familiar with that if you don’t drill you will always run into something you are not prepared for. For judo you can do all the reps in the world but if you’re too scared to pull it off in live training it will all be for nothing. So drilling is important but developing a lack of hesitation for the judoka is even more important.

Support Structure:

Lex: I remember reading an interview with you by Dan Faggella where he draws a distinction between two learning paths: that of the “soldier” and that of the “wanderer”. He put you and Ilias Iliadis in “wanderer” camp. You’ve traveled all around the world to train. Where did you look for the mental (not to mention financial) support in your journey? I imagine it gets lonely putting your body through hell without a strong support structure back home. Does it?

Travis: It doesn’t get lonely at all. I wake up every morning excited to do my job and train. I want nothing more out of life than to be healthy enough for the next training session. The financial backing for it will always be there I never asked for hand outs but people were always willing to help because they saw the effort I was putting in. And when there was no financial backing I got the money myself working for Roof Top Services of Central Florida, Inc, landscaping, you name it. I would work any job if it put money in my pocket that could go toward my goal.

Mental toughness:

Lex: You train 2-3 times a day, I imagine usually with very high intensity. Have you ever felt like not training or even quiting judo? How do you overcome days/thoughts like that?

Travis: I only feel that way when I’m training in Japan. Everything there is so boring. I hate training there. But anywhere else in the world I love it and wish we could train more. That feeling of tired is what I love. Your body has been pushed to the limits your mind can’t think straight I live for it. And if I’m in a lot of pain, I just tell myself I’ll feel better after. And I always do.

International camps:

Lex: Is participating in camps and training sessions around the world (like many European players do) the key in creating successful judoka who is able to win world or Olympic titles?

Travis: It’s a part of it. But it’s not the answer by any means. You have to want to learn and when you step on the mat you have to put your ego aside and be willing to see your faults and make adjustments.

Representing the United States:

Lex: I started judo after watching it in the 2008 Olympics. You and Ronda are the two people I remember from that Olympics. I imagine there are other Americans like me that were inspired by your performance. As one of the best American judoka, do you feel pressure to represent your country and inspire new athletes to join the sport?

Travis: I don’t. I’m very happy to hear that people joined because they were inspired by my performance. It truly does a lot for me but I know on the flip side I can’t make anyone do anything I’m just happy that they tune in for their support.

Future of Judo and BJJ:

Lex: You are connected to the elite-level of both jiu jitsu and judo communities. What is your sense about the growth of both sports in the coming decades? Do you see the recent rule changes as a positive change for that growth?

Travis: I wouldn’t say I’m at the elite level of BJJ. I have the potential to get there but I’m not there yet at least in my eyes. But I think BJJ has gone as far as it will in growth in the United States. With the caps on number of athletes as a whole rather than per division I just don’t see it growing. There is also no support for BJJ guys. Because they compete for clubs and not a country there is no organizing body for these people to receive help from unless the clubs start taking on a more professional role and paying top athletes to compete and represent them. But I don’t see that happening on a national level. Maybe a few guys here and there but nothing wide range. Judo’s rule changes are what they are. I hope that they take the sport to the next level. That way they haven’t been for nothing. But it’s hard to say. I don’t know what gets discussed behind closed doors.

Teaching:

Lex: Has your experience in BJJ affected the way you teach judo, given that as you said before BJJ is more detailed art? Do you like teaching? Do you see owning your own BJJ/judo academy in the future?

Travis: I love teaching I look forward to all of my classes as if I was going to train. I love to see my students grow and learn. I currently own two BJJ schools. And enjoy teaching at both. I wish there was more time in the day so I could live my dream longer.

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