This one was an absolute pleasure. Carl Fisher is a BJJ black belt and head coach at Wimbledon BJJ. He has a wealth of experience spanning more than twenty years and I sat down with him to hear his journey.
Kieran – Okay, so take me back, where did you BJJ journey begin and what got you into it?
Carl – My background like most BJJ guys my age started in the Traditional arts; I got the beating of my life in my home town in a notorious taxi rank late one Sunday morning and had to take a week off work. A friend of mine was a Karate black belt and told me I needed to do something to defend myself and so I started Karate and got my black belt in due course. Around 1992, I met Jiu-Jitsu legend Trevor Roberts as I lived near his gym and bumped into him at the local shops. After chatting with him he said, ‘come to the gym and learn some Jiu-Jitsu cocker,’ in his rich Bolton accent and I was opened up to the grappling arts and graded up to 2nd Dan in Applied Jiu-Jitsu. Here I learned about groundwork and Trevor brought me into contact with other grapplers such as Matthew Clempner, who taught me Judo and Sambo and I started training at Atherton Fight Fit and trained with the likes of Darren Morris, Shane and Darren Rigby, Jack Mountford, Barry the Bastard, Dave Barry, Ian Bromley (RIP), to name a few. The training was very hard, just a t-shirt, shorts and wrestling boots, no fancy rash guards and spats and it was full-on submissions from the start. No IBJJF rolling to belt colour. Heel hooks, kneebars, face bars, fish hooks, eye gouges, oil checking, anything went to get the tap. In the early days and when I was training BJJ, I also trained with Roy Wood at Aspull Wrestling Club, together with his daughter Andrea Wood whenever I got the chance. Then in the mid-’90s, an article on UFC 1 appeared in Terry O’ Neill’s Fight Arts International magazine, by far the best UK martial arts magazine.
Kieran – The beating sounds terrible. Did you eventually find the people who done it and apply what you had learned or was it a case of it’s done now let’s move on?
Carl – It was a bad beating for sure, but Bolton was quite a rough place and I was one of the lucky ones as quite a few people had died at that taxi rank from violent assaults. A few months after the attack, I was at a nightclub with my older brother and the doormen from a pub I was working at. The main attacker was in there and (it was three on one attack, par for the course back then) I recognised him and told the doormen who told my brother and you can guess the rest.
Kieran – I guess he didn’t have a good time?
Carl – Yes, he did not have a good time for sure. Back to the BJJ journey question, the UFC article was in Fighting Arts magazine so the search was on to find BJJ in the UK. I remember Carley Gracie holding a seminar in the UK around 1994, but I was up North in Bolton and it was very hard to find genuine tuition. There was an underground network of people that shared the same passion and we would swap VHS videos of the Gracie’s in action for example and own the Fighter’s Notebook, as the internet was still in its infancy back then. I hooked up with a guy from Japan during my reporting days when I contributed to GONG magazine, and he would send me the Pride videos and I’d send him the UK MMA events at the time. Having Pride videos in the UK at that time was quite the catch and was such a delight to watch. Nowadays, everything is available in a nanosecond on a download, where’s the fun in that? So I was still training Traditional with Trevor and in 1999, I attended a seminar with John Machado in Hull and after speaking to John he said come on out to LA. So I worked my day job and door job at night and saved up enough and went off and stayed at the Surf City hostel in Hermosa Beach and trained with John and Rigan in nearby Torrance. I also trained with Erik Paulson right next to the hostel, he was teaching at Burton Richardson’s gym, so had an exclusive mix of Gi and No-Gi training for the whole summer. Funny story, on my first class at the Machado Academy I didn’t own a BJJ Gi and was training a lot of Sambo before I left and had graded to 2nd Dan with Trevor. So when I hit the mat, I had a Sambo jacket on, shorts and wrestling boots and my black belt with two stripes on…completely oblivious! I was shaking hands with Brazilians of all coloured belts, all smiles, and happy to be there, not realising these guys thought I was there to challenge them all! Suffice to say, that first session on the mats, the first roll, a huge Brazilian blue belt choked me out with a clock choke and then it began. Every coloured belt was queuing up to roll with me and I got murdered. The next morning, I turned up and bought a Bad Boy Gi and white belt! Rigan and John thought it was hilarious and from then I was known as the Crazy English Guy and all the Brazilians that beat me up the night before became my friends once they knew I wasn’t there to challenge anyone!
Kieran – That is funny, at least you became friends after. So you’ve trained in a lot of martial arts, Karate, BJJ, Sambo etc. How do these compare in terms of what they do for you mentally and what has been the hardest art to learn out of them?
Carl – Yes, very funny. Every time I look back and think, I didn’t have a bloody clue about a BJJ blue belt, never mind the higher grades. Every martial art I have trained has pressure tested me because every class ended up with sparring. The Karate sparring was hard it wasn’t semi-contact, but full-on contact. If you got a busted nose or eye you would carry on and you quickly learned how to defend yourself. The same with all the grappling arts, you sparred in every class, there was no hiding place and it gave you a mental fortitude to keep on going after every time you tapped. I’ve had the honour of sparring with some absolute monsters here in the North West at the time and got smashed every session, then had to go to work on the doors at night with a bust lip and a black eye, or a popped knee, or arm, and kept going back for more every week.
Kieran – You mentioned something called the Fighter’s Notebook, was that a magazine who something secretive like Fight Club?
Carl – The Fighter’s Notebook was a big folder of a thing, a manual for Mixed Martial Arts written by Kirik Jenness. At the time, it was the most comprehensive manual covering standing and grappling techniques and to own that was really something back then. No PDF files, just a huge chunk of the Amazon rainforest on your bookshelf!
Kieran – So that was the manual to have if you wanted to study martial arts? You said you would get smashed at each session, did that not discourage you? And what do you think it is that makes people come back even after getting beat up each time?
Carl – Yes that’s right Kieran, it was over 500 pages with grainy black and white photographs, but it was the must-have addition to your library. When I was training at Atherton I was 80kg wet through, the next guy was 95kg and went right up to Darren Morris who was a solid 110+ at least! You rolled with them and you got smashed but not in a bad way, it was hard training, so injuries are bound to occur, but I was working the doors back then and so this was much needed if I was to deal with much worse every weekend. A lot of people didn’t come back after their first class, their ego couldn’t take it, it’s a good question Kieran. I went back every time because I wanted to learn more and improve and it humbles you, makes you realise there are bigger and better people just around the corner or at the next training session.
Kieran – Working on the doors at night must have been mad. How many times did people try and have a go with you and not realise you are experienced in various martial arts? I bet they got a shock.
Carl – Once I got my black belt with Trevor, I started to teach for him and realised I needed to see if the techniques would work under real pressure; there are two ways you can do this, go out and get hammered every night and start fights or become a doorman. I chose the latter and got paid to test out my skills. I worked all over the North West, but my baptism of fire was working in Bolton, my home town at Ikon and Jumping Jaxx. Here the doormen were despised and every man and his dog used to come down and fight with us pretty much every weekend and midweek, no rest for the wicked. I wasn’t a very big guy back then just over 80kg and the rest of the lads were all big lumps (no offence lads) so I did get quite a bit of grief from punters trying to get into the club. A lot of the time you’re on the front door with a camera over your head so you have to behave, but now and then, you had your time to shine. Back then BJJ was, and still is now to a certain degree, known as pyjama fighting and was ridiculed as being ineffective. People back in the late ’90s hadn’t really heard of the UFC unless you were in that underground clique. Nowadays, everyone has heard of it and everyone is a cage fighter in town every weekend. Obviously, people’s eyes were opened when Royce won UFC 1, but back then in Bolton, hardly anyone knew his name, except me and a handful of others.
Kieran – I can’t believe people used to call it pyjama fighting. Did Gi’s look like a pair of pyjamas back then because if people were wearing pyjama tops that were like a Gi top they must have been cold all night.
Carl – I don’t know where it came from, to be honest, I think they said the same about Judo too. It was the same with me training Jiu-Jitsu, people would come and say ‘So you train Doo Ditsu do you?’ It got to the point where I couldn’t be bothered to correct them and I’d just nod my head.
Kieran – Makes sense. So let’s go to the next part of your journey. Competitions. You said you went to LA in 1999, was that for your first competition and if so, how were you feeling before getting on the mat?
Carl – I went to LA to train BJJ and that was when I had my first BJJ competition. It was a Machado Interclub in Los Angeles and I was a raw white belt. I’d only been training there a few weeks when Rigan asked me how much I weighed, I told him, and he said you’re in the competition on Saturday! I was thousands of miles away from home and was very nervous about the competition, but on the day I had Rigan, Jean Jacques, and Ricco Rodriguez cornering me. Not bad for your first competition! I lost my first fight due to nerves then entered the Absolute. I gave myself a talking to and got my first win via Americana, what a feeling! I lost my next match via triangle to the winner of the Absolute so I didn’t feel too bad about it. I learned a lot about myself and dealing with nerves etc, but the main thing is to believe in yourself 100%. Just go out there and give it all you got, it’s always a 50-50 chance of winning every match. Go out there and have fun and you’ll always come away with new friends and great memories.
Kieran – You had a great corner there mate. So you’ve been and competed around the world at various venues for competitions. What was the best place you visited and do you have a preferred competition you like to compete in?
Carl – I enjoyed every competition I entered, but travelling the world to compete was something very exciting and different. I competed a lot in Scandinavia in the early 2000s as I was doing a lot of reporting back then for the ADCC website, Grappling magazine, and many other magazines. So I’d get to go and compete and write up about the events. I enjoyed competing in Jordan in the Middle East at the Capital Challenge International event back as a purple belt. It was full of the top black belts at the time and we all stayed for free in the five Star Hyatt Hotel in Amman for five days as guests of the Jordanian royal family. I even ended up commentating on the black belt matches for the Middle East sports channels and I very much doubt they understood a word I was saying! I don’t really have a preferred competition, to be honest; Gi or No-Gi, I’m in!
Kieran – So you’ve competed a lot, but who has been your toughest opponent whether that be in a competition or a roll in the gym?
Carl – That’s a difficult one to answer. I’d have to say all opponents in competition were tough and many many rolls in the gym equally so. There are no easy rolls.
Kieran – Okay let me rephrase it then. Was there a particular time, in competition or rolling, that you learned something about yourself and if so, what was it?
Carl – No problem. I remember competing in the Hereford Open events run by Dave Coles back when I was a purple belt. I also used to referee at these events, as did many competitors at the time, and I had one fight and within under a minute I was 9-0 down and really in the shit. The guy was all over me and I thought it was game over and somehow I dug in, regained top position, and won the match via submission. Sometimes when you’re facing overwhelming odds, stay calm and believe in yourself, and you can turn the tide and come out on top.
Kieran – That’s some brilliant advice mate. Never give up and keep pushing. So you mentioned UFC 1 and Pride. What were your first impressions of those and did any of the fighters inspire you?
Carl – Yes never give up fighting! I remember watching UFC 1 and thinking this is awesome, real style on style and seeing a skinny Royce win with actual techniques was mind-blowing! On my journey, I got to meet UFC 2 veteran Remco Pardoel and we are still great friends today. I ended up training a lot with him at his family dojo in Oss in Holland (yes it’s really called Oss!) and through him met many famous fighters on the European and Scandinavian fight circuit in the early 2000s when I was working for the ADCC website. Watching the early Pride events – it was cool to see Rickson and Renzo fighting on the same card and Gary Goodridge and Oleg Taktarov – My biggest hero at the time was Mark Kerr and he was a beast in the early Pride days and watching him fight on the WVC event in Brazil where he fought Fabio Gurgel in the finals. In the prelims, he fought Paul Varelans and pulled off one of the biggest double legs in MMA history and totally smashed him up! Kerr was a beast at that time and he wore the infamous Bad Boy shorts, and I managed to get my hands on a pair of red and white Mark Kerr Bad Boy shorts way back in 2000 and I thought I was the dog’s bollocks. I still have these shorts today, much to Ian Butlin’s delight. I fulfilled my dream and interviewed Mark Kerr at ADCC 2001, I was in his hotel room and couldn’t speak for about ten minutes. I was so start struck. A sunburnt white belt from Bolton in a five-star hotel in Abu Dhabi speaking to my all-time hero. He was really cool about it and we ended up having a really good interview. These guys are elite level players in their game and are so approachable. Imagine me trying to get a 1-2-1 audience with Michael Jordan or David Beckham for example, there’d be a line of bodyguards for hundreds of yards!
Kieran – I agree and that’s amazing the fact you got to meet your hero. When did the idea of opening Wimbledon BJJ come about?
Carl – I moved to London in 2014 after working in Abu Dhabi teaching BJJ in the schools and got in touch with an old friend Luiz Ribeiro who runs London Fight Factory. Before I came to London I was with Gracie Barra from blue belt to purple belt, then with Combat Base where I got my brown belt. I then moved to the UAE to teach, came back then moved to London. At the time Ribeiro was with Checkmat and I managed to locate a venue to teach from in Wimbledon and so Checkmat Wimbledon was born. A few years down the line Luiz left Checkmat and I followed him when he joined up with Fight Sports, which is headed by Cyborg and with a few other clubs following Luiz, Fight Sports London was created, and I changed the club name to Wimbledon BJJ.
Carl – I’ve been a doorman for over twenty years and needed to work in that industry in order to pressure test my training so I can teach and sleep at night with a clear conscience, as there is so much rubbish being taught in the name of self-protection back then and now. BJJ and traditional jiu-jitsu have been with me in equal measure and I love to teach both, but in a nutshell, BJJ and Self Protection, or Combatives as it’s also known are poles apart. BJJ is Sport jiu-jitsu, Self Protection/Combatives is a way of training to give you the skills to survive a live confrontation, with no rules or referee, and sadly many times with edged weapons or with multiple opponents. In my years on the doors, the knee on belly from BJJ has helped me out on many occasions, especially working with the Police in my role within a Response Unit team at Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City Football Club. At Wimbledon BJJ, I teach Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and I’m the chief grappling instructor for Precision Self Protection, which is run by my business partner Gary Hilton. I teach PSP classes here in Wimbledon and Brixton and together with Gary, we run seminars in the UK, or we did until Covid came crashing in!
Kieran – That brings me on to my next point, how bad has covid affected Wimbledon BJJ and do you believe if gyms can be made covid secure, that they should remain open through lockdowns?
Carl – Covid has hit the gym hard and pretty much every BJJ and MMA gym in the UK. We had to close for the main lockdown and re-opened but could only train solo drills with social distancing, which sucks. With any virus, it’s very hard to stop it spreading and the very nature of grappling means that two people are in close contact with each other, a sure-fire way of spreading any virus, whether it’s Covid or the common cold. I think the gyms should remain open when they can according to the government guidance, without risks of being fined or closed down. Solo drills might not sound great, but I think people have realised just how important their clubs are to them once they had them taken away from them. Human beings thrive on social interaction.
Kieran – Some good points there. So you’ve also got a degree in sports science, is that right? If so, how do you apply it when coaching?
Carl – Yes, I’m not just a pretty face. I graduated in 2006 with a degree in Sports Science and Coaching and it has really helped me teaching with regards to the sports psychology side and with team cohesion; getting the best out of each student and helping them make a positive impact on them being with the club. The degree knowledge can also be applied to preparing students for competition by applying periodisation of training that helps an individual peak just before the day of the completion, giving them the best chance to win on the day of the competition.
Kieran – I am just a pretty face and didn’t understand some of those terms you used, I’m only messing. It’s great when you can put what you learned from university to use. Sometimes people aren’t that lucky. And last question, a little fun one. What is an interesting fact about you that not many know and what is the funniest moment you remember, in competition or the gym?
Carl – An interesting fact? Well, I live in South West London and I’m a member of the local gym. One of the members is the actor James Nesbitt and I’ve seen him many times naked in the gym getting changed, but it’s only bad if you make eye contact. The funniest memory I have has to be when I stepped onto the mats in LA in 1999 in non BJJ attire, as a newly minted traditional jiu-jitsu second Dan as mentioned in an earlier question. Sorry, in the changing rooms, not the actual gym.
For more information regarding Carl’s Self Protection classes visit his website: www.pspcombatives.com
For Carl’s gym visit: www.wimbledonbjj.com
Also, with covid lockdowns closing gyms, Carl has a youtube channel where he uploads BJJ tutorials. Check it out: https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCpP8rUPFj6wU0a7eNfe3zow/videos