From the highest of heights in combat sports, the UFC, to the pinnacle of daytime television, Bargain Hunt, my teacher, mentor and friend Danny Mitchell has always taken it directly to cats. Today, on the 15th of July his career as a professional MMA fighter comes to an end. This marks the culmination of a lifetime’s journey that began at the age of ten with tae kwon do. Traveling the world on the back of his combative acumen, he has competed in karate and kickboxing, full-contact stick fighting, judo, professional boxing, bare knuckle fighting, and wrestling.
Despite this drive to compete in every discipline that allows one to inflict pain upon others, he is, at heart, a jiu-jitsu fighter. To see the truth in this, one only has to watch a highlight of his spectacular submissions in the cage. Receiving his black belt at age twenty-seven, he has befuddled opponents with flying triangles, and tortured others with the rarely seen twister. With his long limbs and a seemingly photographic recall for technique (not to mention an obsessive-compulsive habit for notetaking) it isn’t a stretch to say that he was built for the Gentle Art.
This is my ode to Doncaster’s begotten son, the inimitable ‘Cheesecake Assassin’, and the indelible mark that he has left on my existence.
I first started training with Danny at the beginning of 2011. At that point I had already been on the mats for about twenty months, but looking back I was a very limited white belt. Like many who are reading this, I had quickly fallen in love with jiu-jitsu. I loved the positions, I loved the idea of beating others into submission, I loved using the gi; I loved the camaraderie with my training partners, I loved learning; I loved the feeling of awe that you were left with after a great session, I pretty much loved everything about it.My only issue was that I completely sucked!
There is always that one cat at your academy, everyone knows them, they just don’t get it. No matter how many times you show them something, they fuck it up. You humour them, in full knowledge that they are a lost cause. I was that dude.
This all began to change from the first session I took with Danny. In that inaugural class we explored the use of the kimura grip from half guard; opening the guard and using it to sweep. I was enamoured, both by the dude himself and his teaching methods. He taught what appeared to be simple techniques, they didn’t have eight complex steps to get to the final goal (this was the jiu-jitsu I had been accustomed to), and delivered it in a way that someone so devoid of skill such as myself was seamlessly able to pick it up.
I honestly could not believe it when we began to roll and I was able to immediately pull off the moves that I had been shown, it was a revelation. I really had no idea that jiu-jitsu could be delivered in such an effective fashion. As we prepared to begin rolling he asked me if I wanted to jump in with him for the first round, bear in mind that I had never sparred with one of my instructors before. My mind was officially blown.
In the proceeding months he pulled me up kicking and screaming from the abyss of absolute suckage, and very soon I wasn’t that dude in class anymore. I wasn’t the guy that would just fall over from invisible sweeps, or capitulate without a fight, or fail to comprehend a technique no matter how many times it was demonstrated; no one was more shocked than me at this change. His teaching and approach to jiu-jitsu got me to blue belt in six months, which for so long had seemed like a distant dream.
I’d like to think that I’ve become a pretty proficient grappler since then!
In the years that have ensued, I have encountered many amazing and inspiring teachers. From my travels I have been lucky enough to train with some of jiu-jitsu’s most renowned and celebrated professors. But, I can honestly say that no one has a gift quite like Danny’s for imparting knowledge, his pedagogical prowess trumps that of anyone else. He has the unique ability to paint pictures with his words and create analogies that permanently lodge themselves into one’s consciousness (usually revolving around the intravenous consumption of flesh-eating opiate, Krokodil).
He is able to tailor lessons that benefit the whole spectrum of jiu-jitsu ability, essentially demonstrating the same techniques to the lowliest of white belts as well as killer purple belts and beyond, which is akin to teaching five-year-olds and university students in the same class. He is able to achieve this through an innate skill for differentiation, breaking techniques down to base level to facilitate the learning of novices while adding nuance incrementally based on a person’s skill, this ensures that everyone’s level is raised.
He is quick to correct mistakes and provide answers for those who have questions, but he fosters an environment where students are encouraged to learn independently. It is fair to say that I have borrowed liberally from his methods both on the mats and in the classroom.
Since that first lesson he has remained my favourite person to roll with, he is a veritable grappling chameleon, you have no idea what style you are going to be attacked with. We don’t have the opportunity to do it that often anymore, so when we do, I go all out and try and assassinate him. I realise this admission contravenes verse 337 of the unwritten doctrine of jiu-jitsu making me a heretic among purists. But, those who see this as disrespectful and haven’t themselves sought the admiration of their teacher by trying to murder them, are sorely lacking in ambition. Anyway, disrespectful or not, any attempt at doing so is entirely futile, and I am invariably humbled in a variety of ways; last time we rolled I was caught in a trilogy of differing one-armed chokes.
To say that he is charismatic would be to completely undersell his personality, he cranks charisma up to the proverbial 11; looking like a council estate Jedi with his signature rat-tail and beige trackies, he is someone that you cannot help but want to be around. He is a natural leader, one that if he chose to wield his power for evil could have everyone drinking the Kool-Aid. I have never met anyone, who didn’t walk away from meeting him without thinking “that is a cool-ass mutha-fucker.”
Nothing can faze the Cheesecake Assassin – also akin to a Jedi Knight he doesn’t register fear or anger. When faced with the apocalypse, this is a man you want by your side, deadly with his hands, (worryingly) proficient with an array of weaponry, and seemingly unburdened by human emotion.
This is a cat who lives by the immortal words of Rowdy Roddy Piper: “When you think you have all the answers, I change the questions”. Case in point, the aforementioned appearance on the BBC’s Bargain Hunt.
This is also a jiu-jitsu black belt that bizarrely can be found chopping it up on the mic at some of Thorne’s famed Donk nights. For the uninitiated, Donk is a form of dance music that is profoundly unpalatable to anyone who hasn’t consumed at least seven pills. In what was undoubtedly a feat of amazing fortitude, I once witnessed him spitting over this painful cacophony of bouncy beats stone-cold sober.
I feel people throw around the idea, “jiu-jitsu saved my life”, far too freely. It’s a cute sentiment, but it sounds a lot like hyperbole to me. It might have stopped you from contracting type 2 diabetes from being such a fat whopper, but I doubt that it actually prevented your life force from expiring. Nevertheless, I know that jiu-jitsu has the potential to change lives because it literally changed mine, and that was down to Danny.
I had a very comfortable teaching position, there was a ladder with clear instructions of how to climb it, I could have sleepwalked my way into retirement. The skills I acquired from him, as well as watching how he lived his own life, showed me that there was so much more; he gave me an escape hatch.
In 2013 his jiu-jitsu emboldened me to quit my job and go to live in Rio to train and compete full-time. This experience has profoundly altered my direction and perspective on life. No longer was I willing to settle for anything that I didn’t love to do. Danny would never directly tell anyone to do anything, yet, I am just one of the plethora of students whom he has inspired to radically alter their lives in pursuit of their own personal goals.
He isn’t exactly sailing off into the sunset and will continue to drop knowledge on dudes at AVT, both in the gi and for fistycuffs inside the cage. But, he will be getting punched in the head a lot less, which is always a good thing.
So, it seems like the perfect time to say thank you to the man who has made my life unequivocally more awesome.