TV’s most beloved dad, Ed O'Neil, famous for his roles as Al Bundy on Married with Children and Jay Pritchett on Modern Family, recounts his history in BJJ, his relationship with the Gracie family, and his tips for anyone starting to train jiu-jitsu in their 40's and beyond.
Jits: How did you first get introduced to BJJ?
Ed: My friend John Milius was taking classes in Torrance, California. He’s the producer/writer/director who did Apocalypse Now, Jeremiah Johnson, etc. He talked me into going down and meeting the Gracies. This was about 23 or 24 years ago, I’m not totally sure, I’ve lost track of time. I went and met with Rorion, he gave me a free trial lesson, like they do with everybody, and that was it, I was hooked.
Jits: Before this, how much did you know about BJJ?
Ed: I really didn’t know anything about it at all actually. When I was a kid, I did a little boxing, and I was pretty athletic, I liked football, handball and baseball. I was quite physically active as a kid and I have been all my life, but I was never really interested in martial arts. I always associated martial arts with the seemingly fake fighting styles portrayed in the movies, with kicking and punching and yelling... I never put much credence in it. So when I took that first class with Rorion, it was kind of an eye-opener.
Jits: So you’ve known Rorion for quite a while now. How has that relationship developed?
Ed: Rorion and I have been rolling together for a long, long time. I feel very close with him, we’re almost like brothers. I’m also very close with the whole family, Royce, Ryron, Rener, Ralek, all the kids. It’s been a very nice relationship for me, I consider them almost like family.
Jits: How often do you train?
Ed: Well, I’ve been busy with Modern Family, and so I only get over to the academy about once a week. So I’m just sort of keeping my foot in the door. I roll with Rorion for about an hour each visit. I try to do something every day though, like chin-ups, cycling, rowing machine, a little bit of weight training, dumbbell presses, some squats... whatever I can do to keep being able to get up off the toilet.
Jits: Have you ever competed?
Ed: No, I stick to training with Rorion for the most part. I doubt I’d ever compete. I’m not interested in points and that sort of thing - I never really liked that aspect of it. There’s a lot of holding and stalling, I never really found competitions too exciting. I just enjoy the self-defense aspect of it.
Jits: How old were you when you started training?
Ed: When I started I think I was around 42, and I’m 66 now. At the time, I had never done anything like this, so it took a lot of adjusting on my part; the idea that you don’t want to use strength, and all the breathing and relaxation... all that stuff was not very natural for me. But I found that as I was a bit older when I began training, I kind of had to learn all of that pretty quickly, because otherwise I’d get too tired too fast. So it actually worked out OK for me.
Jits: What suggestions would you have for people who are just starting to train in their 40’s or later?
Ed: Well, it takes a little bit of courage. It’s an unknown kind of thing, and maybe people are afraid that they’re going to get beaten up or choked out, or break a knee or an arm. If they’re watching MMA and they see Rhonda Rousey break a girl’s arm in half, it can certainly give one pause. But the Gracie’s are a great bunch to learn from, they’re not interested in beating anybody up, they’re actually very gentle, as is the art in general. Rorion and I actually roll pretty hard, but of course he never hurts me. But certainly, for people beginning their training, first you have to ‘check your ego at the door’ as they often say, although the expression has become a bit overused. I think you have to go in with a real curiosity and a willingness to learn. Something I’ve seen a lot, even with people that have been training for a long time, they don’t want to get into certain positions; they like to dominate if they’re strong, they like to stay in the top-game. But of course, that’s only good if you happen to be stronger than the guy you’re rolling with. But you have to learn and train in all positions and become comfortable in all positions. That’s something I think Ryron proved in that Metamoris match against Andre Galvao; he let Galvao have any position he wanted, and he was comfortable. He said, it won’t matter what position I give him, he won’t be able to tap me. I think that’s what people have to learn, it’s to just relax, and to develop the ability to know what your opponent is going for before he goes for it. I had several classes with Helio while he was alive, he was always stressing that you shouldn’t use strength, and if you used any, he would chastise you about it. He would sarcastically say ‘oh you’re so strong!’ and it wasn’t a compliment. If you use that strength, you’ll undoubtedly tire out. But I must say, when I started training, it was a very strange feeling being in somebody’s guard, that closeness, the sliding of the hips, it has a snake-like quality. I was just very uncomfortable - it felt like any move I made was the wrong move. But I kind of liked it too, I felt like it was amazing. But let me give some advice, if you train too much, you run the risk of a burnout. You may love training, and be passionate about it and want to train every day given the chance, but you don’t want to go crazy with it; sometimes it’s good to take a day or two off, and you’ll find that it’ll refresh you in a funny way, and little injuries will heal up. And on the days you’re not training, you’re thinking about your training and sometimes things will come to you.
Jits: Tell me about your relationship with Helio.
Ed: I think I probably had about 12 private lessons with him, and he was just amazing, you can’t imagine the technique he had, it was crazy. It was like he knew what you wanted to do before you did. I used to call him the little alligator; it felt almost like he was sleeping, and pretty soon you started to feel safe... and then the trap would snap shut. He was very cagey, and he had all kinds of little tricks. It was really something else. He was an excellent teacher. He didn’t speak any English, and I only know a little bit of Portuguese that I picked up on the mats over the years, but we got along great.
Jits: What’s your diet like? Do you subscribe to the theories behind the Gracie Diet?
Ed: No, but I should. In fact I was just thinking about this the other day, I was up in Napa at The French Laundry, drinking wine and eating too much. I’d like to drop 20 and see how I feel. Things are difficult for me because I like to eat! It’s hard for me to find a balance, but for my age I’m very strong and I still have pretty good endurance. But most importantly, I know how to relax out there on the mats. Rorion and I sometimes roll for 45 minutes without stopping.
Jits: How do you feel about BJJ as a sport vs. BJJ as self-defense?
Ed: I’ve never really had an interest in sport BJJ. I’ve been to tournaments and watched competitions, but it’s just not my thing. It’s a way of competing, and a way of challenging yourself as a jiu-jitsu athlete, but I much prefer the self-defense aspect of it; how to protect yourself in a street fight, which isn’t really present in BJJ competition where things revolve around points. In a real life situation, you have to be ready for all different kinds of attacks, so I think that if you only train in sport BJJ, you’re practicing certain positions and movements over and over again that might even open you up for certain kinds of attacks. It’s two different things entirely, two different animals.
Jits: How popular is BJJ in Hollywood?
Ed: I hear that actors try it here and there, but it’s still not very common. Of course, Joe Rogan trains, Michael Clarke Duncan did too while he was live, Brad Pitt trained a little bit, so did Jim Carrey. But actors usually go off on a film project or something, and it’s hard to stay with it. I don’t know how I was able to just keep doing it, probably because I developed such friendships with the Gracie family, I just kept wanting to hang out with them.
Jits: Have you ever brought BJJ into work?
Ed: Actually, we did one scene in Modern Family that was pretty funny, and we even mentioned the Gracies too. In the scene, I was trying to teach my son, who’s gay, how to fight because he had a problem and asked me for help. So I said that there’s one choke that the Gracie Brothers use, it’s called the Mata Leao, the Lion Killer. And so I spun him around and he was struggling, and I ended up choking him out by accident. This was all part of the script of course. In fact, when I put the choke on him, I had to be very careful that I wasn’t actually choking him, I had to find the balance of having it look right, but not actually choking him. It was fun.
Jits: What are your predictions for how BJJ will grow around the world in the coming years?
Ed: Well it will certainly continue to grow along with the popularity of MMA, that definitely helps a lot. But I’m always scared that MMA might have a little bit of a burnout, just because of how quickly it has grown. Plus, MMA comes along with a lot of things that I have mixed feelings about; the spectacle of it is a bit annoying, the screaming announcers, the lights, it reminds me a lot of professional wrestling. The BJJ community is certainly associated with MMA growth, but it’s really a very different profile. We’ll have to see what the future holds.
Jits: Is there anyone you’d like to train with that you haven’t trained with before?
Ed: When I was first starting, I was rolling regularly with Royce and Rorion, I had a class with Royler once, I had a class with Relson...the only one I haven’t ever trained with was Rickson, but I would love to have a couple of classes with him.