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Words: Sally Arsenault || Pictures: David Brown

Across the board in Brazilian jiu jitsu, the one thing athletes can agree upon is that they wished they had started training at a younger age. Athletes like 2015 women’s heavy and openweight World Champion Dominyka Obelenyte and feather weight Champion MacKenzie Dern were fortunate to begin training as children and found their places on the podium while still in their teens. But what about those athletes who were competitive in other sports in their youth before making the transition to BJJ? How do they fare on the mats in competition?

Renzo Gracie purple belt Nicholas Nahas is diligently preparing for his submission only BJJ match against Extreme Cage Combat Welter Weight Champion and BJJ black belt Matt McGrath on June 20, 2015. He didn’t begin training BJJ until six years ago, but Nahas has been a competitive athlete in a number of sports since high school.

Nick teaching the "Ninja Choke".

“I was a member of the Canadian Yachting Association and received my Gold VII level,” says Nicholas. “I mainly raced in singlehanded dinghies. I also obtained my brown belt in Uechi Ryu Karate, competed and did well in a bunch of karate and Tae Kwon Do tournaments. Once upon a time I used to ballroom dance and I was quite competitive in that as well.

“However, I would have to say that the main sport that I played growing up was football. I would leave football practice for dance lessons and when those were over, I would head to karate. The sport that I continued the longest was football. I went on to play provincially, played varsity in university and continued playing in the UK and Australia.”

During his time playing varsity football, Nick discovered Brazilian jiu jitsu, however due to scheduling conflicts, he wasn’t able to focus on the sport. He recalls: “It wasn’t until I was living in Australia that I decided to give it another go. I was playing football in a less competitive league and found out about a club near me called Fight Club Jiu Jitsu. I didn’t even remember how to do an arm bar, but jiu jitsu started to take a priority ever since my first class back. I have now been training jiu jitsu for a little over six years.”

Although his days playing competitive football are behind him, much of his previous training is applicable in jiu jitsu. Nick explains: “Football lends a ton of great qualities to jiu jitsu. Discipline is one of the more useful qualities you must learn in football. You have to listen to your coach or else you’ll be benched or kicked off of the team. It’s ingrained in you to listening to your coaching. In jiu jitsu, I can hear my coaches from the sidelines when competing. A lot of people just drown out the noise but I listen for it, it really makes a difference.

“Even though you’re competing individually in jiu jitsu, you almost always have other teammates competing at the same tournament. In football, you’re forced to work as a team so the whole teamwork aspect transfers over nicely in helping your teammates train and prepare for their matches, pumping them up and overall, being a positive influence for their training.

“Lastly, in football you’re grinding it out for four quarters. Whether you’re playing in the rain, snow, heat, mud, it doesn’t matter, you’re still giving it your all. You’re physical and you don’t quit until the last second. This grinding out, don’t quit attitude is a great attitude to have with jiu jitsu as well.”


The mental aspects of playing football have lent themselves well to BJJ, but Nick has been able to leave behind much of the strength work that was beginning to wear his body down.

“I believe the strength aspect is different,” explains Nick. “With football, you have to be strong. You’re always in the gym and you’re always lifting heavy. You’re concerned and tested on how many reps of 225lbs you can bench, what your max squat is, how much you clean, etc. There is no need to lift heavy in jiu jitsu, there are many more attributes that will compensate and for the most part, defeat strength. Being strong helps but I don’t need to put my joints through fifteen reps of 225lbs anymore. Speed, technique, flexibility, efficiency, patience; all of these are attributes that balance out and compliment strength

“The conditioning is very similar. Football has many pauses; you go all out for maybe ten to fifteen seconds and have a thirty to forty-five second break. This cycle continues for pretty much the entire game. Jiu jitsu is similar in the sense that you’re not going full tilt for the entire match. Whether you have a seven-minute match or a fifteen-minute match, it’s always best to use your energy efficiently or else you’ll lose your steam before the time runs out. Obviously you’ll perform better in any sport if you have good cardio but the “playing” time between the two sports are similar for sure.”

Also left behind are those repeated small blows to the head that happen consistently during football training. Occasionally in BJJ, a random head-butt will cause a concern but, in football, athletes can accumulate hundreds of blows to the head in only one season, causing permanent damage to the brain.

Read about the dangers of repeated small blows to the head HERE.

“The correlation between football and brain damage is scary,” says Nick. “I was fortunate enough to never incur a concussion but it was very common for players to become concussed, take a few plays off only to get back on the field and finish the game and that was at the high school/university level! These guys weren’t even getting paid!

“I would say hands down there are far more injuries and far more serious injuries in football than there are in MMA or jiu jitsu. From personal experience, I’ve torn my ACL and had reconstructive surgery to shorten the tendons in my shoulder as a result of football. The only injuries I’ve had from training MMA or jiu jitsu are just bangs and bruises and maybe the odd hyperextended limb.

“In my opinion, football is far more dangerous. Obviously serious injuries can occur in any sport no matter how smart you train but you are more likely to receive serious injuries in football because of the nature of the sport. A game is 60 minutes long and you’re running full tilt against someone with the intention of knocking him or her down.”

As Nahas moves forward towards his match in Submission Series Pro on June 20, 2015 here in Halifax, NS, he still can’t say that, looking back, he would have chosen BJJ over football if he could do it all over again.

“I don't think that I would chosen BJJ over football but I definitely would have stopped playing football earlier, started BJJ earlier and stuck with it,” explains Nick. “Both sports have great qualities, teach great lessons and discipline. I have made lifelong friends through both sports as well. I can't say I would have never have played football, but that's just because I've had such a positive experience with it.”

Nick has also been recently married and as he begins this chapter of his life and makes plans for his new family, I wanted to know what he hoped for his children, in regards to athletics.

“I ask myself this question all the time,” says Nick. “I always thought I would like my kids to play football, but I've been second guessing that thought with all of the concussion concerns. I will 100% encourage jiu jitsu and start my kids off as soon as I can, but I am not settled on football at this point.”

Follow Submission Series Pro on Facebook to find out about tickets and the free HD stream that will be available worldwide. I can’t wait to see the match between Nahas and MacGrath; I promise you, it will be a dogfight!

Submission Series Pro on Facebook

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June 04, 2015 — Jiu Jitsu Style