Why the World's Fittest Navy SEAL Does Jiu Jitsu

Credit: Courtesy Jocko Willink

Jocko Willink, retired commander of the Navy SEAL Team Three Task Unit Bruiser, decorated Iraq War veteran, and all-around brutal dude, remembers the first time he encountered Jiu Jitsu back in 1992. He got the snot knocked out of him.

A SEAL master chief introduced Willink to the rear naked choke, a staple of the Jiu Jitsu repertoire, by taking him and a handful of other strapping young men to the dirt like it was nothing. That day launched Willink's love for the sport.

Now Willink has his own gym, Victory MMA and Fitness, where he trains Jiu Jitsu not only as a combat system, but also as the ultimate tool for personal betterment — a subject he'll elaborate on this week as a guest of director Peter Berg’s Wild Card West Boxing Club's Call & Answer speaker series.

Can you speak more on that first experience you had with Jiu Jitsu?

That SEAL master chief had actually trained with the legendary Gracies in their original gym in Torrance, California. He was probably in his forties and a high-level white belt, which at the time meant that he could beat anybody, because nobody knew anything about it. He took us and taught us a few of the basic moves including the rear naked choke, the armbar, the guard, and the mount. It was probably 10 moves in total that he was using, and that is all it took for him to destroy us like we were children. Mixed martial arts in general were pretty hidden from the general public. People were still paying to go to a traditional dojo to meditate and hit boards that weren’t hitting back.

When did you end up furthering that initial training?

One of my friends, Jeff Higgs, another Navy SEAL, found a gym in San Diego and started training for real. He showed up at my house after three years of training and asked if I wanted to spar. He submitted me a billion times or so. Right after that I went down to that gym, signed up for classes, and started going two or three times a day. I have been doing that for the last 25 years.

What kinds of people do you see at your gym?

I see kids who are five years old, one guy who just started and he’s 72 years old. I have a son, and he has been training almost from birth. He’s a big 14-year-old, so we can get at it.

How did practicing Jiu Jitsu add to your life?

Jiu Jitsu is a great workout both mentally and physically. You want to be strong for it and flexible for it. You want to have explosive energy and you want to have endurance. So it's a very good all-around physical conditioning tool. Jiu Jitsu is probably the No. 1 activity that I could recommend to someone to improve their lives overall.

I can imagine that being in combat, your ability to hold your own in all kinds of engagements is a consideration?

It doesn’t hurt that it is a physical skill that I'd imagine that everyone would want to have. It's another method in which to defend yourself, if absolutely necessary. Who wants to leave the door open to being dominated physically by another human being? Jiu Jitsu gives you the ability to not be dominated by that person, and to me that's real peace of mind. I don’t have to worry about that when I’m walking around in the world. You know that you are able to handle yourself.

Did you impart that to the men who were under your command in the SEALs?

I loved teaching the guys as much as I could, and as much as they wanted. The thing about Jiu Jitsu is it is also not for everybody. It can be very humiliating and humbling. If you have a hard time dealing with the fact that someone smaller than you may be able to tap you out, it is going to be difficult. There are two reactions you can have to that reality. Some people take it as a reason to learn more so that it doesn’t happen again, and some people decide to do that by never stepping into a gym again. You really never know who will make what decision. For me, I knew I wanted to be able to make sure that it wouldn’t be done to me, and I would be able to do it to other people.