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An Interview with Matt Thornton


I had the opportunity for an interview with Matt Thornton. Matt Thornton is the first BJJ black belt in Oregon and started the first MMA gym there. Notably, he developed the martial arts philosophy of “Aliveness.” 

One of the more interesting things about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is that it’s a relatively new sport. You can trace its origins back a couple generations and you’ll find the guys that invented it. Their sons and nephews are the men who took it to America and sold it. It’s a big family tree with lots of branches. If you look down near the roots, you’ll see the name Matt Thornton.

During our interview, I got a good understanding of what “Aliveness” means. Matt shared his view on the complexity of violence, and talked about the great history of MMA in the Pacific Northwest. 

Image – Straight Blast Gym International


The Gift of Violence

DH: You wrote a book called “The Gift of Violence” and it’s coming out April 11th. What is the crux? What is the thesis statement of the book?

MT: I knew probably fifteen years ago I wanted to write a book. The book I had in mind was everything I’ve learned that I could pass on to people as it relates to fighting. How to think about fighting, what’s dangerous, what’s not dangerous, how to train, all that kind of stuff. That’s a pretty ambitious idea. Around 2014, I had lunch with Sam Harris, the writer, and I was talking with him about what I wanted to do. He looked at me and said, “you’re writing a book about violence.” The thinking in my mind was, where is that book going to go? It doesn’t belong next to Saulo Ribiero’s Jiu Jitsu University in the martial arts section.

He said immediately, “you’re writing about violence.” He was right, and so I started doing several years worth of research. Looked at all the data, read a good percentage of what was on the market about it already. Then I wrote the book down. From my perspective, anything anyone needs to know to keep themselves and keep the people they love safe is contained in that book. It’s not about techniques. There’s no actual physical techniques in the book. It’s all about everything except for that, and then it ends on a chapter about Aliveness. If you do want to go train combat sports, this is what you should look for, this is what Aliveness is, this is how to do it. I wrote so much I have a second book, assuming this one sells well, that will be about training.

This answers, what is violence? Where does it come from? How do you arrive at your conclusions about issues related to violence? Epistemology and how you look at data. We tend to proportion a lot of our effort towards things we have very little control over, and not nearly enough effort towards things we do have a lot of control over when it comes to self-preservation. Trying to reorganize that, what you need to teach your kids, all that stuff.

Towards the end, I talk to people about Aliveness and I try to encourage people that if you do want to take up physical training, I recommend a combat sport. Obviously, I’m partial to jiu jitsu. Honestly, if you took Judo, anything is going to be good as long as you have that Alive training. The first time you feel that aggressive energy, if it actually does get to the point where it gets to be a hands on self-defense altercation, you’re going to be the one who’s going to be more comfortable in that environment. I’d like to think I managed to pull that off.


DH: You brought up Aliveness. Aliveness was one of the things that attracted me to SBG in the first place. I was looking through the website and the concept of that just seemed to make sense. And then I get in here and I see the tree drawing. The roots are base, the trunk is posture, they grow through connection, and the branches are possibilities. In the beginning, you talked about developing the concept of Aliveness, could you take me through that?

MT: Sure. The question that I was obsessed with, even as a little kid, was “what works in fights, what doesn’t work?” I remember the first time I saw a Bruce Lee movie immediately going to have a conversation with my dad, who was a police officer, and asking him what part of what Bruce Lee was doing was real and what part wasn’t real. I was just obsessed with that question. When I eventually started training, I wanted to learn what works and what doesn’t work in a fight. I wasn’t the only one because I think in many ways the main thing about the UFC when it started. It wasn’t about, here’s a new sport. It was let’s pit styles against each other, right? They’d have a Wing Chun guy versus a Karate guy. That was the thing, which I thought was great because that’s what I was interested in.
The questions that would constantly come up, the questions I would ask, and the questions I got asked constantly, and the questions that still get asked today amongst young martial arts people is, what styles work and what styles don’t work? What I realized was it’s not about the style, it’s not about the techniques, it’s about the epistemology, right? It’s about how you arrive at your conclusion, not the conclusion. The arts that work all have one thing in common, they were combat sports. They worked not because they were a sport, but because in sports you care about the result, so you use a practical epistemology, which is some kind of opponent process, and that’s Aliveness. It’s some variation of timing, energy, and motion.

Image – Facebook

Every Judoka, every karate person, every Muay Thai person, every boxer in the world that’s engaged in that goes through training that is alive. You’re working against resistance. It doesn’t ever have to be dangerous, it doesn’t every have to be kill brain cells. Never. As you know, you could come in and you could roll super light with a 110 pound woman. Neither of you would get hurt, you wouldn’t hurt her, she wouldn’t hurt you, but it would have timing. There’s real timing and energy going on there. That was what I wanted to get across to people, because my idea was basically one word to describe that. Which is Aliveness, which means timing, energy, and motion. And if you get somebody to understand Aliveness, you never have to tell that person what style works and what style doesn’t, all those questions become answered. They’ll look right away and say that’s a dead pattern or see that in an alive environment and figure it out.

That was my first message and because it’s true, and I happen to be one of the first people to say it publicly in a way where other people heard it, it attracted a lot of people like John and Karl and those guys. They felt the same thing. That was the central message of SBG and the organizing principle, and it was the one thing that everybody in the organization had in common. There is no one in SBG to this day that would compromise on that. Whatever they’re training or whatever they’re teaching, whether they’re teaching law enforcement, cage fighting, or teaching self-defense, or women’s self-defense, whatever it is, it’s gonna incorporate Aliveness. It’s the categorical imperative of what we do.

DH: There’s McDojoLife on Instagram. That’s the opposite of Aliveness right there. After a month of being a white belt in an SBG, you can point at that and say, that’s doo doo.

MT: That’s where JKD was half alive and half dead. Some people understood it and some people didn’t. Some people were dishonest about it. Why would I teach my students something I know is not going to work?

Jiu Jitsu vs The World

DH: One of your five rules is roll honest. It’s weird in martial arts that there would be a distinction between full contact and not full contact. It’s like, what kind of contact do you expect in a fight?

MT: The big thing, when I first started, the big message, the reason the gym grew was aliveness. That’s what I spent the first five to ten years emphasizing, and that’s how the organization grew. Quickly after that, we started talking about functional training methods. We started to get a lot smarter about things like head contact. What we know now about traumatic brain injury we didn’t necessarily know. The training we were doing was way too rough back then, and over the years we’ve gotten better and better at it. Here, you have people from four years old, into their seventies. Dr. John is a seventy something year old black belt of mine.

DH: He’s a really tough roll.

MT: Yeah, anybody can train that way. The second ten years of me traveling around was trying to explain to people how to do it intelligently and not be giving each other brain damage.

DH: That was one of my questions in here. Your first set of black belts easily changed the landscape for martial arts. What were the differences between that set of black belts and instruction and the criteria you have for general training? Not necessarily what it takes to be a black belt, but what it takes to be a good instructor as opposed to back then?

MT: So you had two groups back then, you had my students that were here in Portland with me, my first group of black belts that came out of here. They’re not really different from the black belts we have now. Just that when they went through training it was a lot rougher. We did a lot more of what was called Vale Tudo, which is basically MMA. 90% of the time we were rolling we were hitting each other as well. Slapping the face and punching the body, and putting it all together.

DH: There is a little bit of that missing in Jiu Jitsu now, I’ve noticed.

MT: There is. Now what’s happened is that it’s branched off and you have a lot of schools who just focus on IBJJF rule tournament for the gi, and then you’ve got a lot of schools that are just like tenth planet, no gi for submission grappling, and you’ve got schools that are MMA. And the MMA schools just focus on the part of jiu jitsu that you can use in the cage. When I started, it wasn’t like that. It was all Jiu Jitsu Vs. The World. And so the first crop of black belts I had, they grew up, they trained in that environment, so that’s one thing that’s different. The second thing that was different, was there was two groups, the one group that was with me, and then you had the one group that gravitated towards me, like John Kavanagh and Karl Tanswell, guys that went on to become MMA pioneers in their countries. John, I think was the first black belt in Ireland. Karl was one of the first MMA coaches and black belts in the UK.

Those guys were like me. They were interested in the same thing I was interested in. When they heard me talk about it they’re like, that’s exactly what I believe and that’s what I want to do. We connected and they had basically started groups. In both John’s case and Karl’s case a lot of those guys, for the exact same reason I did, which was they wanted training partners. Then they evolved into becoming coaches, as they started to get into the sport.

Image – BJJ Eastern Europe

“He Wasn’t Using His Hands”

DH: Another coach who is also very influential but maybe very underrated is Henry Akins. He said in a lot of interviews and podcasts that when he was starting with Rickson (Gracie) that people from other disciplines would come in and test his jiu jitsu.

MT: They would challenge him.

DH: Yeah, and a lot of times it went really poorly for them.

MT: Yeah, pretty much every time with Rickson.

DH: And they would show up to class the next day. I know you have a pretty extensive Jeet Kun Do background, was there a moment when you saw jiu jitsu as it was starting in the United States and said, “oh wow, this stuff is the real deal?”

MT: One hundred percent. So I was teaching Jeet Kun Do here in Portland, and the part of Jeet Kun Do I was teaching, I was boxing at the boxing gym, thinking about becoming a professional boxer, and I was boxing five days a week, and I was teaching Muay Thai, and western boxing mostly, but also Jing Fong which is kind of Bruce Lee’s kickboxing stuff. It was a good experience in one sense for the few years that I taught there, and while I was in the years prior, the five or six years I was in the community, I got to meet pretty much everybody that’s a big instructor in the Jeet Kun Do world. I talked about this story a lot, and I talk about it a little bit in the book, just to give it context.

I became very disillusioned because I saw some of what they were teaching, the boxing and the Muay Thai was one hundred percent practical, and some of what they were teaching was ridiculous. Some of the ridiculous stuff was even past ridiculous, it was dangerous, because it’s involving things like knives, and people getting a false sense of what they’re capable of doing and not capable of doing.

What was worse was behind the scenes, when I would hear these guys talk, there was a duplicity about it. So they would say one thing to the students in front of a group, and behind closed doors they’d be like, “oh well if it ever comes to a fight, we’d just use the Muay Thai.” Well, why aren’t you telling that to your students?

About the time I came to that realization, Fabio Santos, who was one of Rickson’s black belts, he wasn’t teaching, because there really wasn’t any Gracie Jiu Jitsu outside of LA where Rorian had moved. He was just up here building sailboats for a job. Rorian called him and said, “I’ve got this big thing that’s starting. It’s gonna be next year. I want you to get in shape, because I’m gonna have a job for you.” He was talking about the UFC. He knew, because they’ve been running this experiment for thirty years in Brazil, they were going to win. He knew his school in Torrence was going to be flooded. He was trying to get Fabio ready to be staff. So Fabio’s way of getting ready, which is kind of funny, was he put an ad in the newspaper, you know, pre-internet, offering $50 to anyone that could come beat him up. My buddy and I saw that, and I get beat up every single day at the boxing gym, I might as well get paid to get beat up. I went and met him. Super nice guy. It looked like the first UFC. Me throwing a few punches, getting taken down, getting mounted, rolling, getting choked. I was hooked.

I immediately asked Fabio for lessons. And I got to train with him a few times privately, and then he moved. I didn’t get to see him again. From that moment on I was hooked. Fabio knew I was hooked, it was just, there was no way around it. Shortly after he left, I got a chance to meet Rickson. I went to a seminar he was teaching, it was small, there was maybe thirty people there, because nobody knew who he was. This was before he fought in Japan. He was wrestling with everybody and then after he wrestled with everybody in a row, he wrestled with me, but I realized about halfway through rolling with everybody that he wasn’t using his hands. He was submitting everybody without using his hands. He was just using his legs. Again, he pulled one arm out for me because I was bigger, but he wouldn’t have needed it. He tapped me in ninety seconds or something like that. He could see right away that this is what I’ve been looking for. This was the real deal.

I had always known that my weakness, and the weakness of what I was doing in general was being on the ground because I’ve been in a few fights. When you’re in a fight, you get taken down, and if you don’t have grappling, your boxing is not going to help you. I realized that was a weakness. I went back to the school where I was teaching and I tried to tell these guys about it. I was like, “this is amazing, this is everything martial arts talks about being, but isn’t,” and they just weren’t interested. Again, this is before the first UFC.

They had a lot of mythology in the martial arts about how you’ll never get taken down to the ground. You don’t want to be on the ground, on and on. At that point I basically decided I needed to open up my own place. And that was the first SBG, which was actually in Keizer, Oregon. It was a tiny place, not much bigger than my office, that I shared with a judo black belt. He was friends with Rickson, so we brought him up for a couple of seminars.

I got to train with Rickson, eventually got my blue belt from Rickson. He told me I could go ahead and start teaching what I know, and I started teaching. The thing is, when I began teaching I never had in my mind that I was going to be a martial arts coach. I never began teaching thinking I would be able to make money. Everybody told me that this is not how you make money. If you want to make money, you had to give people certificates and click sticks together and do that kind of shit. I started teaching just because I wanted to have people I could roll with. I started teaching so I’d have training partners for jiu jitsu. Pretty much every class was all of us rolling together. And that’s how the gym started.

Just to fast forward back into MMA, maybe year, two years after I opened up that gym, Randy Couture walked in, maybe it was more than that, maybe three or four years, Randy Couture walked in, and later Dan Henderson. They wanted to train. I was the only Jiu Jitsu guy around. We became training partner.s I worked jiu jitsu with him, and then boxing, worked with him for his fight with Vitor Belfort, and Maurice Smith. Somewhere in that, particularly when we were training to fight Maurice, I realized Randy was amazing at clinch. Better than the Brazilians were at clinch. The standing game. That was the final piece of the curriculum that we were building. You need stand-up, clinch, and ground. Randy’s clinch was superior. Then we had our curriculum. From there the organization spread, and now we have of course SBG Ireland, and Conor, and all the different schools. That’s how it spread out.

DH: Randy Couture’s stand up clinch makes giant dudes melt. It’s amazing.

MT: I think from the standpoint of MMA history, I don’t think he necessarily gets enough credit for this, but the first time people saw that, they saw what the power of the clinch was, and even how to use an underhook, was that fight with Vitor Belfort. He put him up against the cage and basically beat him to death on the cage. And Vitor melted from the pressure. I don’t think, myself included, that anybody knew that you could do that.

The Martial and The Arts

The further I get into martial arts the more I realize that you can break it down into two camps; the martial and the arts. There are combat sports, the martial, and ornate body movements which are the arts. Matt Thornton sums it up easily as “Aliveness” and “deadness”. His greying beard and wise demeanor cleverly hide the fact that he is one of the few people that has devoted his life to the study of effective violence. We’re lucky that he has used his expert mind to write us a book detailing this study. It’s called “The Gift of Violence”.

Available for pre-order now. 

Image – Amazon


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