John Danaher: BJJ Philosophy Explained (In-Depth Guide)

By Tsavo NealLearning BJJ2 Comments

john danaher bjj

Want to know what makes John Danaher so successful at coaching and teaching jiu-jitsu?

As the coach of all-time great Gordon Ryan and leader of New Wave Jiu-Jitsu, John Danaher is known as BJJ’s greatest mind.

But how can you learn from John — and become a better, more effective grappler?

In this article, I dive deep into the mind of John Danaher, explaining his most important teachings so that you can implement his advice into your own training.

This article will help you incorporate John’s philosophy, systems, and curriculum so you can become a BJJ athlete.

Let’s dive in.

john danaher and gordon ryan

(NOTE: The source of the information in this article is from John Danaher himself: his interviews, podcasts, books, instructionals, etc.)

The Grappler’s Guide To John Danaher (BJJ): Quick Links

John Danaher’s Background

John Danaher is Brazilian jiu-jitsu and martial arts instructor and coach.

He’s a 6th-degree black belt under Renzo Gracie at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan, NY. He’s been a black belt for 20 years (since April 2002)

He is 55 years old (born on April 2nd in Washington D.C.).

He’s 5’10” inches tall and weighs approximately 200 pounds.

Today, John teaches in Austin, Texas at the ROKA gym. He’s the lead instructor and coach of New Wave Jiu-Jitsu.

In his early teens, John suffered from a bad knee injury while playing rugby. The injury caused him to dislocate his knee ligaments multiple times per year.

When he was 19, he suffered a final injury in his knee, which removed all function from it. He had a failed operation on his knee, and he was never able to straighten his knee again. Simple actions like walking and kneeling became extremely painful — and remain that way today.

Despite his chronic knee condition, John began training jiu-jitsu at 28 years old.

How John Danaher Discovered BJJ

John Danaher was raised in New Zealand, where he played rugby and also trained in the striking arts (boxing and kickboxing).

John moved to New York to study philosophy. He was in the Ph.D. program at Cambridge when he first discovered jiu-jitsu.

In his early days in New York, John worked as a bouncer. He was also into weightlifting and powerlifting.

john danaher young as a bouncer in NYC

John Danaher in his bouncing/powerlifting days in New York

As a bouncer in the early 90s, John was shocked by how effective wrestlers and Judo players were in street fights. Because most of the street fights he witnessed ended up on the ground, John notices that most striking arts were rendered ineffective.

This is around when John first heard about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He became aware of the martial art from the early UFCs, seeing videotapes of “some Brazilian guy strangling everyone.”

While he was in the Ph.D. program, a friend of his who was also in the program came into his office for office hours. He told John that he had started BJJ, and asked John if he wanted to join.

A skeptic, John was unconvinced about the effectiveness of the art. At the time, John was 230 pounds, and his friend was 140 pounds and had been training for two weeks.

John wanted to see how effective BJJ was, so he put his friend in a front headlock. His friend was able to slip out of the headlock and ended up behind John, so John had to run away.

John was fascinated by the fact that his much smaller friend was able to thwart his strength. So, John took his first BJJ class, training with Matt Sera (who was a blue belt at the time) at Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan. He vowed to become at least competent at jiu-jitsu because he believed it would make his life easier as a bouncer.

As a result of training jiu-jitsu, John says that his work as a bouncer became “massively easier.” This drove his obsession with jiu-jitsu. He claims that BJJ has (literally) saved his life at least 4 times while he worked as a bouncer.

John’s original aim was to become a professor of philosophy. However, when John was a purple belt, 3 senior student’s at Renzo’s left to start their own schools. Renzo, at the time, was fighting in Japan. This is when Renzo asked John to start teaching at the academy.

This is when John got serious about jiu-jitsu. He decided to become the best BJJ teacher that he could be. 

Despite his knee injury, John eventually received his black belt from Renzo in April 2002. And now, he’s known as one of the best jiu-jitsu teachers in the world.

john danaher rash guard fuji

John Danaher with Renzo Gracie in his trademark Fuji rash guard

John Danaher’s BJJ Philosophy & Systems

“Don’t listen to what people say. Watch what the best people do.”

In this section, I’ll explain John Danaher’s BJJ philosophy, his systematic approach, and how he pioneered the no-gi leg lock evolution.

John’s BJJ Philosophy

John Danaher’s background in philosophy has shaped how he thinks about jiu-jitsu. He uses this academic approach to study and teach jiu-jitsu.

His definition of jiu-jitsu is as follows:

“Jiu-Jitsu is an art and science which looks to use a combination of tactical and mechanical advantage to focus a very high percentage of my strength against a very lower percentage of my opponent’s strength at a critical point on their body such that if I were to exert my strength upon that critical point, they could no longer continue to fight.”

John’s BJJ philosophy is pragmatism, which is “a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.”

He is hyper-focused on teaching practical, high-percentage moves that work on an opponent who is 100% resisting — and discarding anything else that doesn’t fit within that paradigm. He believes that a huge part of jiu-jitsu is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the human body.

John’s BJJ System

John Danaher believes that BJJ is a skill and tactics-based sport. Therefore, athleticism isn’t the most important factor. You can make any body type work for BJJ, you just have to tailor your game to your body.

John is admittedly obsessed with the “science” aspect of the sport; specifically, probability and decision-making.

Early on in his career, he realized that the success of BJJ lay in its systematic nature.

john danaher systems

John approaches jiu-jitsu as a systems-based approach to fighting. He breaks jiu-jitsu down into 4 steps:

  • Step 1. Take your opponent to the ground.
    • It removes your opponent’s ability to use their legs, where they derive most of their energy and explosive force.
    • This takes away the riskiest element of fighting; quick, dynamic movement that can generate massive amounts of kinetic energy.
  • Step 2. Get past his legs.
  • Step 3. Go through a hierarchy of pins (which are graded in value according to your ability to strike with effect on the ground).
  • Step 4. Submit your opponent.

(Leg locks, which I’ll discuss shortly, only fit within the system when the system isn’t working — when you can’t take your opponent down or get past his legs)

John recognizes jiu-jitsu as an overall system with many subsystems within it. For example,

  • Leg system
  • Back system
  • Front headlock system
  • Kimura system

He’s taken these niche areas and created systems within systems. So, if one system breaks down, you can apply a different system.

He looks to train his students in one of these very niche areas far more than their opponents. Then, during competition, his students will force their opponents into that niche position; an isolated domain where they have more knowledge and skill than their opponent. It is in these niche positions where they dominate the match.

This is one reason why his students, like Gordon Ryan, are so effective even against opponents who have been training longer.

John calls this approach “Integrated Subsystems“, and it’s how he innovates jiu-jitsu.

John only teaches 6 submission holds:

He understands that the number of submissions that work in high-level competition is very small. So, he works backward from this information, doubling down on these specific positions.

John Danaher Leg Locks: Pioneering The Leg Lock Evolution

“If God is taking away my legs, I’m taking away everyone elses.”

While he was training at Renzo’s, John Danaher learned the basics of leglocks.

But everything changed when Dean Lister came to the school while John was a brown belt.

He famously asked John: “Why would you ignore 50% of the human body?” And this is when John began to focus more on leglocks.

John loves the leglock game because leglocks make jiu-jitsu a two-directional sport. If you can’t get to your opponent’s upper body and neck, you can fall back and attack their legs.

In this way, leglocks fit outside of the 4-step system John describes above; leglocks only fit into the system when the system is not working.

When you can’t take your opponent down, get past his legs, or pin him, you can fall back and attack his legs. And the best place to apply leg locks is from a bottom position.

john danaher leg locks

One of the first things John noticed about leglocks at that time was the lack of control. BJJ players made no distinction between the method of breaking and the method of control. So, John decided to specialize in the control aspect of leglocks.

John prefers control before submission over position before submission. This is a deeper and wider concept and helps explain his approach to leglocks.

He breaks it down like this:

  • Ashi Garami (leg entanglement) = Control
  • Submission = Breaking

John uses principles (truths that serve as the foundations for systems) and heuristics (mental shortcuts to help you make better & quicker decisions) to clarify the leglock game.

The foundational principle of control for leglocks is Double Trouble: if you control both of your opponent’s legs, they can’t use the second leg to defend the first.

The heuristics of leglocks are as follows:

  • Leglock Heuristic #1: Whenever you go into a leglock scenario, the person whose feet dominate the inside position will dominate the leg control game.
  • Leglock Heuristic #2: Whenever you go to attack someone’s leg, 80% of the resistance on the leg you’re attacking comes from the other leg.

Despite his specialty in leg locks, John still values strangles above all other submissions.

He also doesn’t view leg locks as inherently more dangerous. For example, he’s seen more kimura injuries than heel hook injuries.

His students are heavily focused on the control aspect of leg locks. They aren’t slamming on submissions from non-control positions.

If you’d like to see an excellent example of John’s leglock system at work, check out his breakdown of Gordon Ryan vs Cyborg on the Joe Rogan podcast:

John Danaher’s BJJ Coaching Methodology & Curriculum 

“Most jiu-jitsu players know what they’re doing on an unconscious level. My job as a coach is to make it conscious.”

In this section, I’ll explain John Danahaer’s coaching methods, his BJJ curriculum, and how he prepares his athletes for competition.

John’s BJJ Coaching Methodology

John Danaher believes his job as a coach is to transmit his knowledge to his students so that his students can develop their skills. He builds his training program around this idea, creating a path from new knowledge to polished skill.

From a gym culture perspective, John builds a culture of control over speed of execution. When athletes are focused on control over speed of execution, fewer people get injured in training.

In the training room, John encourages his students to focus on developing their skills above all elsenot on winning or losing rolls. He believes that you shouldn’t care if you get tapped during training, because you are developing and honing your skills.

To build his coaching programs, John is always seeking principles and heuristic rules. He sees these as the basis for good training programs because they transfer vast informational content in a short amount of time, rapidly increasing one’s performance on the mats. Instead of trying to remember ten thousand small details, remember a select few principles and heuristics.

For John, drilling is all about helping his athletes get a sense of the problems they are trying to solve and working towards practical solutions.

tom hardy with john danaher

John Danaher and Tom Hardy

It’s critical to bring progression into drilling. Drilling is 0% resistance, whereas competition is 100% resistance — and you can’t go from 0 to 100. While his students drill, he ensures they are slightly increasing their level of resistance each time.

John believes drills have diminishing returns. Once you’re at a high level, simply repeating a technique on a non-resisting opponent won’t make you any better.

Any movement that doesn’t improve on the skills you already have — or build new skills — is a waste of time.

The point of drilling is not mere numbers or volume, but skill acquisition. So, when his athletes drill, they never focus on numbers, they focus on the mechanics of a technique.

If John is teaching a 2-and-a-half-hour class, 30 minutes will be drilling. He much prefers positional sparring over drilling, and believes that drilling for numbers is a waste of time.

John’s BJJ Curriculum & Training Tips

John Danaher teaches jiu-jitsu 7 days a week.

He doesn’t teach a set curriculum. Instead, by observing his athletes, he focuses on teaching them in the areas where they are weakest.

A huge part of John’s training programs is putting his athletes in bad positions so they can work on their survival and escapes.

John believes that survival and escapes are the first skills that students should master. In doing so, you’ll develop confidence, and confidence is what enables you to perform under pressure.

While doing jiu-jitsu, many of us are naturally risk-averse. We don’t want to get put in bad positions and submitted. But if you master survival and escapes, it takes away that innate fear of bad outcomes. You know you’re able to survive, and then escape. You go from the physical element of skill to the psychological element of confidence.

Therefore, John teaches beginners from the ground up — and experts backward.

For white belts, John advises that they work on survival, pin escapes, and guard retention first. After that, most of them would benefit from half guard bottom.

john danaher pin escapes

Building those skills in your first 6 months will help you immensely. His new students don’t even see the top position until they’re solid off their backs.

John’s BJJ curriculum for new students looks like this:

John’s curriculum for advanced practitioners starts with submission holds. They look at the mechanics of breaking people.

John believes that if you only train using the same set of moves, you will not grow as a BJJ player. Growth comes from small beginnings and builds over time.

With lower belts, you should be learning the fundamental body movements that underly BJJ, experimenting with new moves, and building up your weaker moves. As they develop, you attempt them on higher belts, and eventually, you use them in competition.

The most important part of developing these techniques and skills is trial & error. Harsh testing verifies or falsifies them.

John believes that the most important aspect of mental toughness is discipline. Showing up consistently is much tougher than overcoming the fear of competing.

Persistence and consistency aren’t just showing up every day. It’s also about persistence of thinking: pushing yourself into more and more efficient methods of training. It’s about setting short-term goals and putting those into a system of long-term goals: the macro, “mental” aspect of jiu-jitsu.

A good training session is where your mind is buzzing about the possibilities for tomorrow. After a training session, use your BJJ journal and ask yourself:

  • What did I do well?
  • What did I do badly?
  • What could I do better tomorrow?

Preparing For A Competition

From George St. Pierre to Gordon Ryan, John Danaher has helped many great fighters prepare for their bouts.

John Danaher coaching BJJ athletes

He believes that the majority of what constitutes success in competition is your training program.

For John, the main focus of the training camp is about solving the problem that the particular individual (the opponent) poses.

John approaches each fight camp with 2 questions:

  1. How are we going to win the fight?
  2. How are we not going to lose the fight?

If you dominate the setups, dominate the pace, and dominate the direction, you’ll dominate the fight.

The mindset that John instills in his students is one of “unexceptionalism.” The fans in the stands, the lights, the noise — all of it is an illusion. Remove all of that, and competition is exactly the same as what you’re doing in training.

Gordon Ryan approaches his competitions in this exact way. John says that Gordon looks tenser in training than in competition because his training partners are better than those he’s competing against.

John believes that the one indispensable virtue of champions is persistence: your ability to stay in the game long enough until you get the results you seek.

Despite his coaching brilliance, John attributes all of his success to his students:

“Whatever debt they owe to me I feel I owe at least as much to them. My students literally give me everything. I’m a notoriously difficult person to get along with. I’m demanding. I’m a perfectionist. I can be downright unpleasant when my body is in pain. I’m short-tempered. And yet they’re like angels.”

John Danaher BJJ: Conclusion

So there you have it: how John Danaher thinks about and coaches Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

His philosophy, systems, and coaching have produced some of the all-time great MMA fighters and grapplers.

You can find his BJJ instructionals on BJJ Fanatics.

What do you find compelling about John Danaher? How has his thinking impacted your game?

Leave a comment in the section below.

Happy rolling. 🤙

tsavo neal

Tsavo Neal

Tsavo is the founder of BJJ Equipment, an assistant BJJ instructor at InFighting, and a BJJ purple belt. He's a passionate hobbyist and BJJ gear/equipment aficionado. He launched BJJ Equipment in 2022 to make it easy for grapplers to find the best BJJ gear so they look, feel, and perform at their best on the mats.

2 Comments on “John Danaher: BJJ Philosophy Explained (In-Depth Guide)”

  1. You actually make it appear so easy together with your presentation but I find this topic to be really one thing which I feel I’d by no means understand. It kind of feels too complicated and very broad for me. I am taking a look forward in your subsequent post, I will try to get the cling of it!

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