Praise for Marcelo Garcia’s tough call

Monday, April 17, 2017

Last week Marcelo Garcia announced in his Manhattan academy that he had suspended two of his leading students, Dillon Danis and Mansher Khera. It couldn’t have been an easy thing for Garcia, perhaps the greatest submission grappler of all-time, to do.

Khera is the first student to go all the way from white to black belt under Garcia, becoming an international level champion along the way. Danis has trained with Garcia for years, earning his black belt and becoming one of the best submission grapplers in the world.

I certainly don’t know what has gone on in Garcia’s academy of late with those two team members and others, and I haven’t kept up with any public statements or incidents involving Khera that could have upset Garcia or cast a shadow on the MG Academy. I also don’t know Danis at all.

I assume he’s a great kid. He’s certainly an excellent submission grappler on the rise.

In fact, the dude is such a phenom that Conor McGregor has paid for Danis to be a main training partner in the past year, and he is set to make his MMA debut in Bellator on the strength of his reputation and accomplishments in the Jiu-Jitsu world. So, Danis, like Khera, is a great athlete who earns points for MG Academy and shows that Garcia, just 34 years old, is a skilled teacher as well as practitioner.

Whatever Danis has accomplished and however good a person he is on the inside, he’s been plenty arrogant, and disrespectful in public. All that is fine, I guess, especially in our world of reality star turned presidents, money-burning, boastful prizefighters, and others who monetize their trash talking.

It isn’t acceptable in Marcelo Garcia’s book, however. I’ve occasionally wondered what Garcia – probably the most soft-spoken, humble, and gracious public figure I’ve ever spent time with – thought of Danis’ public, brash, faux-McGregor personality. Quiet, classy coaches often deal with loud, disrespectful charges with an uncomfortable smile, shake of the head, and shrug of their shoulders.

Still, I silently wondered if Garcia was tired of the negative headlines involving his academy’s name. As it turns out, he was.

Much of Garcia’s emotional and profound explanation of his decision to suspend Danis and Khera could read like a manual for what values martial arts training should impart on a person.

“You don’t have to demoralize a person to be a champion,” Garcia explained to his class and, presumably also to someone like Danis who has spent much of the past half year insulting every other fighter whose name came out of his mouth. “You don’t need to act stupid to win a match… We can do better.”

Garcia went into some detail about how he came to develop his own martial arts identity and personality, eventually learning how heavy the yolk of being a black belt and instructor can be. “That responsibility” to set an example for others, he said, “really pushed me.”

Garcia said he’d hoped that his students would follow his example in this regard – in acting “proper, nice, gentle, classy.” Not all of them have, according to Garcia, saddening him and prompting him to make his decision and statement.

It’s important to understand what a gutsy move this is for Garcia, and what signal it sends as to the type of coach he is and what he wants his academy to be known for.

For all the romanticized literary accounts of coaches as mentors, few real-life coaches ever put themselves out on a limb the way Garcia did by using tough situations as teaching moments. Danis and Khera bring a lot of notoriety to Garcia’s instruction, after all.

Both of them are winning big, showing that Garcia’s style works for others, and are pretty directly helping bring money into his academy by succeeding in competition in his name. Making money doesn’t seem to matter as much to Garcia, however, as setting a respectful example, and treating others well.

Most coaches would be thrilled and completely satisfied to have champions in their gyms and to have their teams known as winners. Garcia wants his academy and lineage to be known for more than just winning.

As he said in his statement, he wants it to be known for being “classy.” In combat sports, it can be easy to look at opponents as enemies.

Heck, during particularly competitive sparring rounds we can even be tempted to think of teammates as adversaries. What Garcia is trying to remind us of is that opponents are not enemies – they are people, just like us.

“We have to try and be nice to people,” said Garcia, summing up his philosophy. “We have to try and be nice to people because we need people. We cannot be alone. We cannot be just by ourselves. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, and you need people to help you. If you’re down one day, you’re going to be glad to have people who care about you, help you. I realized people really weren’t focused on that.”

Marcelo Garcia the coach wants his students to be the kindness in the world that they themselves would want to receive. What a concept – a coach who cares more about being nice than winning.

I don’t have intimate knowledge of the MG Academy, but if Garcia did what he did for the reasons he gave, then we should all applaud him. Hopefully, his students, especially his suspended ones, will learn from this teaching moment.

It has to be a rough time for everyone. Both Khera and Danis have important matches coming up, and now they’re suddenly out of a gym.

To be sure, both would likely be immediately welcomed by any number of other gyms who would be glad to put their stamp on two elite athletes. What Khera and Danis decide to do, either take their suspensions, work on themselves and then ask Garcia to be let back in, or go join up with coaches who won’t demand the type of challenging introspection he is, will likely set the course for the rest of their careers, if not lives.

About the author:
Elias Cepeda is a host of Sports Illustrated’s Extra Rounds Podcast, a staff writer at FloCombat, and has a weekly column for The UG Blog.

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