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As a two-time Olympic judo player, jiu jitsu black belt under Renzo Gracie and general badass on the mats, Travis Stevens could well be the USA’s leading grappler.

Having come agonisingly close to a medal at the London 2012 games, Stevens threw himself into the jiu jitsu limelight after competing at the Copa Podio, where he showcased not only his elite level judo, but also solid BJJ technique to boot.  

We caught up with Travis to discuss his experiences training judo and jiu jitsu, as well as working with Jimmy Pedro and John Danaher.

JJS: Hey Travis, thanks for talking to us! Could you start by telling us how and when you started to get interested in judo?

TRAVIS: I got started in judo two weeks before my 7th birthday and it was completely by accident. I had gone to the local youth centre to sign up for sports and checked the wrong box. When I got my practice times in the mail I was shocked to see judo and nervous to go check it out. But after my first class I was hooked.

JJS: What made you want to train judo as opposed to more mainstream sports like American football, or even wrestling?

TRAVIS: I love the competitiveness of the sport. American football is too slow and they walk around too much. It's not constant action. Soccer didn't have enough contact in it for me either. I tried to wrestle in middle school but I couldn't pass a physical to play any sports because of severe knee injuries I had suffered when I was 11. I finally passed a physical one month after the wrestling season had started and went up to the coach and asked him if I could at least practise with the team. I told him I didn't want to compete, just work out, but he laughed and said ‘no’.

JJS: Can you remember the first time you were called up to the USA National Judo Team and how did you feel the first time you fought for your country?

TRAVIS: I can. I was asked to be a part of the U23 team (the program no longer exists) and to compete at an event in Italy. I was excited as it was my first time in Europe, but I remember going to the competition the first day being very nervous. About half way through I turned to a friend and said: ‘these guys kinda suck’. I was not really impressed by anyone except for one or two players. So when I came back the next day to compete I easily made it to the semis. I finished my first opponent with an armlock in 30 seconds.

JJS: You are often described as the USA’s leading male judo player, so do you feel that puts a lot of pressure on your shoulders?

TRAVIS: Good question. I hear that a lot but it doesn't add pressure, it just makes me feel embarrassed to be a part of USA Judo. I mean how does a guy who has no Olympic medal and no world title hold the title of being the best? I know I consistently medal all over the world and I have fought every world championships with a severe injury. But, the rest of USA Judo team, on the male side, need to step up their games and start taking it a lot more seriously.

JJS: Could you talk us through a typical week of training? How many sessions, any strength and conditioning and rehabilitation work?

TRAVIS: I guess the easiest way to do this is to make a timetable of my training week:

7:15-8:15 nogi BJJ

10:30-12 judo

12:30-1:45 running and sprints

2-3:30 lifting

6:30-8 judo

10:30-11:30 running (only 1 week out from departure to competition)


7-8:30 judo

12-1:30 BJJ

2-3:30 lifting

5:15-6:30 BJJ

10:30-11:30 running (only 1 week out from departure to competition)


7:15-8:15 nogi BJJ

10:30-12 judo

12:30-1:45 running and sprints

6:30-8 judo

10:30-11:30 running (only 1 week out from departure to competition)


7-8:30 judo

12-1:30 BJJ

2-3:30 lifting

5:15-6:30 BJJ

10:30-11:30 running (only 1 week out from departure of competition)


7-8:30 judo

8:45-9:15 running and sprinting

10:30-12 lifting

6:30-9 BJJ

11-12 BJJ Teo BJJ

12-1 nogi Teo BJJ

2-3:30 gi RGA Manhattan

10-12 BJJ

The Friday options depend on my schedule. When I was getting ready for Copa Podio I used option two. If John (Danaher) asks me to help out in the city to get one of the fighters ready I use option two as well. Otherwise I stick to option one and drive to NYC right after BJJ at 9.

JJS: What would you say are the main qualities that you need if you are to become a great grappler?

TRAVIS: I don't think I'm qualified to really answer this question - there are better grapplers out there than me. I wouldn't by any means consider myself great. But I have noticed over the years that the people who make the biggest gains are the ones with a willingness to learn. The biggest mistake people make is they get a move down that they’re comfortable with and forget to keep growing and learning.

JJS: Who were your sporting idols growing up?

TRAVIS: I never looked up to anyone growing up. I never followed any sports teams or players. I played a lot of sports growing up but never watched them. I always hated watching, I would always prefer to be out playing the game rather than sitting and dreaming about playing it.

JJS: What’s it like working with Jimmy Pedro and is he a fan of your cross training in jiu jitsu?

TRAVIS: Working with Jimmy has been the best part of my training. He has inspired me on and off the mat and is one of the few coaches that I have come across that makes sure his athletes exceed in both judo and everyday life. I owe him so much I could never in this lifetime repay him or his family for the sacrifices they have made to make sure I'm successful in life. He has a love-hate relationship with my BJJ aspirations. He wants to see me succeed, but he also thinks I over stretch myself in my training. So he is always telling me to take time off or just rest. But I love my job and I love what I do. I don’t want time off; I want training partners who can keep up.

JJS: At what stage during your grappling career did you become aware of jiu jitsu and decide that you wanted to train?

TRAVIS: I first started training when I lived in San Jose with Dave Camarillo. I worked with Dave for about a year but never thought to compete or take it seriously. I was just doing it for the extra workout and I enjoyed it. But in 2012 I broke some bones in my foot, so I talked with Jimmy and spoke with him about going to Renzo's gym in NYC to train, because I couldn't do judo but I could sit on my butt and do BJJ - kind of, anyways. I booked a hotel for four nights every week for the next two and a half months and I did BJJ three times a day twice in John Danaher's classes. It was in John’s classes where I fell in love with the sport. I really enjoyed the way he structured the class, the way he thought and the people attending. Everyone was so helpful and I was learning so much. I was trying to take everything in that I could. John gave me my brown belt a month after attending his class. I was hooked after that first month and knew BJJ would always be a part of my life, just like judo.

JJS: We spoke to former British Judo Olympian, Ray Stevens (also a BJJ black belt under Roger Gracie) and he said that if he could have his career again, he would have cross trained more jiu jitsu during his judo career. Do you see the benefits of training jiu jitsu for your judo?

TRAVIS: I do! It's not so much that the techniques that are used in BJJ transfer over to judo very well. But, what BJJ does do for me is give me the confidence that I can't get caught and that I can catch anyone. So when I'm on my feet I don't have a fear of attacking because I know once we hit the mat I'm safe. Whereas when my opponent attacks he has to worry because he can lose if his attack fails.

JJS: Do you believe there is a difference in training mentality and etiquette between judo and jiu jitsu?

TRAVIS: There is for sure. Judo is a lot more aggressive and we tend to bully our way through positions. BJJ is a lot more technical. There is also a lot more drilling in BJJ because there are so many different types of positions that it's a necessity. Judo doesn't have a quarter of the positions that BJJ has, so we can do a lot more live training. If I had to compare the two I would say judo is checkers and BJJ is chess.

JJS: Do you think some judo players are closed-minded about the idea of training jiu jitsu?

TRAVIS: I don't think so. I know a lot of judo players who train BJJ. I just think a lot of people have a hard time blending the two together. It's kind of like lifting, people can go to the gym all they want but if they can't transfer what they have gained into their sport it's all just useless muscle.

JJS: How do the other USA team members feel about your ground skills? Do any of the others train BJJ?

TRAVIS: Most of them try to avoid doing any groundwork with me. Some do cross train, but not a lot. I know most of the players at Jimmy's program take BJJ and have had major improvements. Most of them find it hard to make the time with work, school and judo. I'm lucky that grappling is my life and I make a living doing that.

JJS: What would you suggest are the biggest differences between jiu jitsu and judo?

TRAVIS: The pace. Judo is so fast and aggressive; you only have a few seconds in each position to either finish or improve your position. BJJ can move fast but 75% of the time it is moving slow, where people will explode and get to a position, hold it and rest and think about their next move.

JJS: Tough question, but which grappling art do you prefer to train?

TRAVIS: I get more satisfaction from judo because of how aggressive and fast paced it is. I love that feeling of my body feeling broken and beat up after an intense training session. I do like BJJ because I can have a lot more fun with it. I can be a lot more creative and I can train a lot more often which is a huge plus.

JJS: Seeing how well Ronda Rousey has done in her new career, has it left you thinking about trying your hand at MMA?

TRAVIS: I don't follow her career, so I'm not sure how well she is doing and I don't keep in contact with her for any reason. I don't know how much or how little she is actually getting paid.

When it comes to myself however, I do know this. I would like to do MMA and fight for the UFC, but I just don't see how to make a living at it. See, you could come back with ‘well how do you make a living as a BJJ or judo player?’ But, when it comes to following your dreams, money is of no concern and I just don't have the dream to be UFC Champ. I love training MMA and if there was a sponsor willing to pay me real money I would do it. But, I have yet to have anyone come up to me with an offer.

JJS: You came agonisingly close to a medal at the London Games – did you ever consider retirement from judo after that?

TRAVIS: NO WAY!!!!!!!! I'm just getting started. I'm going to be a double world champ in the same year in two different sports (that is if my judo people ever let me compete at the BJJ worlds, lol)

JJS: You train at the Renzo Gracie Academy under the guidance of John Danaher. Danaher is known as one of the best teachers in the sport, so how have your personal experiences been with him?

TRAVIS: I get along with John very well. If it hadn't been for him I most likely wouldn't be having this conversation with you. It was how he taught and his personality that made me want to learn. He breaks everything down in a way that I understand.

JJS: Have any of the Renzo Gracie team members, like GSP or Frankie Edgar, ever asked you to help with their throws? Or any other pro fighter?

TRAVIS: Lol they wouldn't have to. Most people don't know this, but John Danaher has excellent judo. I remember sitting in on his first class where he was teaching judo as the takedown for the day, and I was blown away. His judo is better than most black belts who compete at a national level for the US. But, I have worked with Joe Lauzon and Tom Lawlor. And I've helped a few of the competitive BJJ players, but when I go into the academy I strictly think BJJ.

JJS: Do you like the way the grading system works in BJJ, with belts being given out at the instructor’s discretion?

TRAVIS: I do like that they hand them out when they feel it's deserved. But, what I don't like is the competition format. I guess because I come from judo I don't fully understand why there are world champion white, blue, purple and brown belts. I think the title of world champion is held by one person per weight not five different people across belts.

JJS: What made you want to compete at the Copa Podio and how did you get contacted by them?

TRAVIS: I wanted to compete at the Copa Podio because I saw names like Romulo and Keenan in the brackets. Because I come from judo I don't see the need to compete to try and win a brown belt world title. I wanted to compete against the best and I wanted to show everyone that I could do jiu jitsu. Everyone kept telling me just go out and smash them with a throw, but I wanted to prove I could compete with the best. I was not going to put on a performance like the other person who crossed over into the sport calling out the best. Believe it or not, I got to the Copa Podio because of Facebook. I had just got done training with Keenan while he was in Boston filming his DVD. So, I added him as a friend on Facebook just to stay in touch and he posted a photo of himself at Copa Podio. So I went to Copa's Facebook page and made a comment under the photo that read something along the lines of ‘you should put me in the bracket as I can give anyone in the bracket a run for their money, if not win’. I'm not sure if that's exactly what I said but it was along those lines. And sure enough, the next day Jefferson wrote me a message asking if I wanted in - and I said yes.

JJS: Even though you are an elite level judo player, it seems you are keen to prove you are a legitimate jiu jitsu fighter too. Was it hard trying to adapt to things like playing guard etc?

TRAVIS: No, I love playing guard. When I'm in the academy I always pull guard. I made it a point whenever I was in class, regardless of who was teaching, that I would do whatever it is that they showed and only play that game. So I've developed a well-rounded game because of it. And I still do it.

JJS: What do you think of the fighting style of guys like Paulo Miyao, who you faced in Brazil?

TRAVIS: I have a lot of respect for Miyao and how competitive he is. He earned it when I felt his ankle popping and he kept fighting. But, I HATE the berimbolo move and also 50/50 guard. I like the berimbolo as a sweep and an every so often back take when you can, but to use it as an all or nothing type move I think it makes the sport boring and uneventful. In my match with Paulo he never got to my back but there were times where he could have just sat up for two points and gotten a sweep. Instead he would rather go back to 50/50 or double guard pull position and wait until the last 45 sec to work hard and win by an advantage. He is an awesome strategist when it comes to competing and an awesome competitor but he is very boring to watch. Well boring for me anyways as I'm only part time BJJ.

JJS: Would you like to see jiu jitsu as an Olympic sport?

TRAVIS: I wouldn't mind seeing it in the Games, but it will never happen. Jiu jitsu is too club oriented. Even at the world championships people don't compete for a country, they compete for their clubs. It really prevents the sport from growing. Even if it becomes big enough in the world scene, until you get rid of that club mentality I think it will struggle.

Issue 33 with Marcus 'Buchecha' Almeida is available now! Subscribe HERE.


June 15, 2015 — Jiu Jitsu Style