This is a guest post by Chuck J. Ryant
Fifteen seconds into the world championship fight, Javier Vazquez stepped forward for a single-leg takedown, but when he planted his foot, his right knee buckled.
Javier did not stop. Instead, he continued to drop his weight and took his opponent to the mat.
Both fighters scrambled to stand up. When Javier stepped back, his knee collapsed again and a confused look spread across his face.
Seconds later, Javier stepped forward and threw a left-right combination, and his knee buckled a third time before he toppled to the mat. It became painfully obvious to everyone watching that Javier’s knee was wrecked – but he kept fighting. Javier battled not just his opponent but also his failing leg for three gruelling rounds of back-and-forth action.
Sports Illustrated named Javier’s three-round fight with a torn ACL the “most inspirational performance of the decade.”
Arriving in the Promised Land
Fighting through adversity has been part of Javier’s life from the beginning. He was born on the economically repressed island of Cuba, which his family fled when he was only four years old.
April 1980 was the beginning of the Mariel boatlift, a mass exodus of 125,000 Cubans who escaped Fidel Castro’s Communist regime to seek asylum in America.
As Javier’s family assimilated into American culture, his parents clung to fears that most Americans will not understand.
“We couldn’t even open a window for fresh air,” Javier said. “My mom was afraid someone would come in and steal everyone.”
Javier was sheltered and not allowed to play outside or make friends. It wasn’t until junior high, when Javier’s mother remarried, that his American stepfather pushed to get Javier a little freedom.
Javier grew up shy and insecure, but the same kid who was pushed around by bullies would later fight in 25 MMA cage fights.
Javier retired as a professional fighter after winning a unanimous decision against Joe Stevenson in the UFC. He earned the King of the Cage lightweight championship and also won the ADCC North American Trials. Javier won countless Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling tournaments, and Rodrigo Medeiros awarded Javier his Jiu-Jitsu black belt after only five years.
The story of how Javier transformed from a socially awkward kid to one of the top lightweight fighters of his time began when he walked into his high school wrestling room as a sophomore.
“Where’s the ring?” Javier asked, expecting high school wrestling would resemble the WWF. “I thought we were going to be slamming people off the ropes and stuff.”
Javier enjoyed the physical challenge and fell in love with wrestling. He loved when the football players complained about “hell week.”
“Football players do that shit for one week, but wrestlers do it every fucking day,” he said.
Javier had no self-confidence when he started wrestling, but his transformation began his junior year. He finished the season only one match away from placing in the prestigious California Interscholastic Federation (CIF).
At the same time, a friend Javier often beat in practice placed in CIF. Javier did not believe either of them was competing at the CIF level.
“I never thought I was good enough because I had been beaten down my whole life,” Javier said. “I had a mental block.”
Javier grew up in an unsupportive environment. “My family is the most negative family in history,” he said. “Everything was always terrible.”
Even today, Javier tries to be optimistic, but sometimes he falls back to his mother’s pessimistic example.
“Sometimes I just get negative, man,” Javier said. “It’s been drilled into me so much.”
After almost placing in CIF, Javier committed to training more intensely.
“I decided I did not want to be average anymore,” he said.
He didn’t miss a single practice that year, but even with his work ethic, he still lacked confidence. “You’re afraid to win,” Javier vividly remembered hearing his coach say. “You’re afraid to succeed.”
There were several matches the coaches believed Javier should have won, but Javier did not believe it himself. He had the skills but lacked the mindset.
Javier credits his wrestling coaches, Victor Robia and Arnold Albert, for building his mental strength. They understood Javier and knew to hold back any information about his opponents until after he won.
“That guy you just beat took second in CIF,” the coaches would say. “That guy’s a CIF champion.”
Javier was shocked and doubted he was that good, even after winning, but little by little he transformed into a different person. When he started placing at every tournament, his confidence grew.
“Winning became a habit,” he said.
He won 49 matches his senior year and was only one match away from placing in the state championship.
“Wrestling really changed my mentality,” Javier said. “It gave me confidence that I could win.”
Enter Jiu Jitsu
Javier continued his wrestling winning streak into junior college, where he befriended his coach, who was a lifelong martial artist – “a real ninja.”
Javier and his wrestling coach started watching UFC fights in the days when you could rent them on VHS tapes. Those fights inspired them to seek out Jiu-Jitsu instructor Rodrigo Medeiros.
The first thing Javier did in Jiu-Jitsu was to flop on his back – the wrestler’s weakness – so he could master the guard game. Before long, he was landing arm bars and triangle choke submissions.
When college wrestling ended, he shifted gears and competed in every Jiu-Jitsu match he could find. It didn’t take long before he was dominating the tournament scene, which was like a shot of adrenaline to his confidence.
The more Javier won, the more he grew to love competition – the lights and the rush of the cheering crowds – but more significant was being out there alone with no one to rely on but himself. If he won, he got the recognition. If he failed, that was on him too.
“I was winning most of the time in wrestling,” Javier said. “When I started Jiu-Jitsu, I was winning everything. When you get used to winning, you work hard to win. Losing no longer becomes an option.”
Javier said he tricked himself into believing he was the best in the world, and pretty soon that became the truth.
Always Bet on Yourself
Javier never thought of himself as a fighter, but he saw MMA as a natural progression to continue proving himself in competition. There were not as many people cross-training in those days, so he was confident he could easily win the takedown and finish by submission.
And that’s exactly what he did. Javier quickly racked up victories in MMA. Soon he was offered an important fight in Japan.
“It was a big deal,” Javier said. “The guy was a legend, ranked sixth in the world.”
When Javier requested a month off from his job to train for the fight, his vacation was denied.
Javier’s mother worked the same job for 30 years, so Javier credits her for his hard-work ethic. He was raised to keep his head down and grind it out for a steady paycheck; quitting a job on a whim was unheard of.
“I basically put all my chips on black,” Javier said. “I quit my day job and went to Japan.”
Javier won the fight, and although it did not lead to the “golden ticket,” he learned a valuable life lesson. “If you’re going to bet on anyone, bet on yourself,” he said.
Javier explained that we are programmed to work for other people in jobs that most people hate.
“If you hate your job, don’t stay there,” he said. “Use the time you spend hating your job to find something you like doing.”
Nothing Left to Prove
After a dominant 13-year career as a professional fighter, he took his own advice and retired.
“What more do I need to prove?” Javier asked. “I’ve fought the best guys and won. “I just didn’t want to do it anymore. The fear of stepping in the cage was a fear I just didn’t want to experience anymore.”
Javier used to manage that fear by focusing on what he had to do to ensure his fears would not come true. Javier was a workhorse and trained hard so he could focus on his game plan instead of his fears.
“In the early years, I was just having fun. I wanted to be the best,” Javier said. “But after six knee surgeries, the squeeze was no longer worth the juice.”
After he retired, it was not easy adjusting to normal life. He had been competing virtually nonstop from 1992 until 2011. Javier achieved a great deal of success as a martial artist, but he explained there is another side of success that has remained out of reach.
I asked how he defines “success.”
“This is where she’s going to argue with me,” Javier said as his wife, Rose, walked into the office and handed us fruit smoothies.
Rose Gracie is no stranger to Jiu-Jitsu. She is the granddaughter of the legendary Helio Gracie, the founder of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“Her thing is that money doesn’t matter,” Javier said, and Rose interjected by asking, “What’s more important: success or happiness?”
Rose explained that people often think they will be happy when they become successful, but if you wake up each morning and do something you love, you are already successful. You don’t necessarily need a fat bank account.
“I know people who hate life because their job sucks,” Javier said. “As far as teaching Jiu-Jitsu goes, I have a job that’s not even work – I am extremely successful.”
I asked if happiness is a difficult goal for a competitive person because it is not measurable. “In his eyes, it’s never enough,” Rose said. “He was taught to never stop and notice that we’re actually doing pretty well.”
“I’ve worked toward goals so much,” Javier said, “that I never get a chance to enjoy what I have because I’m always working toward the next thing.”
The Golden Ticket
His mother, who is 69 years old, still works 70 hours a week and never takes a vacation – not because she has to but because that is who she is.
“I don’t want to turn into that either,” Javier said. “That’s why I’m working so hard for that golden ticket.”
That was the second time he mentioned the golden ticket, so I asked him to explain.
“I think having a certain amount of money in the bank will allow me to relax,” he said. “When I get to that point, I believe I will achieve success.”
Javier explained that he is not looking to get rich but instead to reach financial freedom – consistent income that enables him not to have to worry about money for his family.
Strike-Based Jiu-Jitsu, Javier’s Gracie Jiu-Jitsu academy in Rancho Cucamonga, California, is a relatively young business. He opened the gym less than five years ago and has been putting in the gruelling hours all small-business owners invest to keep the doors open.
Although Javier retired from fighting, he does not appear to be slowing down. He has just shifted his ambition from fighting to teaching.
“Now my focus is to be the best instructor in the world,” Javier said. He realizes that is a subjective goal and not really obtainable, but that does not stop him from trying.
“I work a lot,” Javier said. “I teach 1,000 classes a year. That’s 20,000 classes in the past 20 years.”
I bring up the 10,000-hour rule for mastery from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.
“Yeah, I did 10,000 a long time ago,” Javier said. “Probably much more than that.”
When I wrapped up the interview, it became clear why Javier has achieved so much in his career, but he summed it up for me.
“My motivation was always to be the best,” Javier said. “I put 100 percent of my effort into everything I do.”