Steven Abood is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu under Grandmaster Relson Gracie with 23 years of experience. He is the founder of Samurai-Con, the world’s greatest martial arts festival featuring some of the most popular and knowledgeable martial artists. This interview discusses the significance of martial arts such as bjj as well as life lessons learned from the wisest participants of this art.
Discover Steven’s martial arts story and learn how you can be a part of the exciting festival where you can win exclusive prizes, gain knowledge and have fun with other passionate martial artists, and more!
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Full Name: Steven Abood
Belt Colour: Black
Professor: Grandmaster Relson Gracie
Short Term Goals: Launch Samurai-Con, a virtual martial arts festival going live on June 12th, and promote Invincible Jiu-jitsu, my synthesis of traditional Helio Gracie Jiu-jitsu for self defense, and the traditional Jigoro Kano Jiu-jitsu (Kodokan Judo) for self defense.
I also want to finish my book series on women’s self defense which I call Invincible Woman Self Defense, and promote that program beyond the university (where I’m a post-doctoral researcher in molecular biology) where I volunteer to teach it.
How long have you been training jiu-jitsu?
I attended UFC 3 in 1995 and purchased Rorion Gracie’s tapes right after that and started practicing the movements, but officially I started training jiu-jitsu at an academy in 1998.
Where do you train martial arts out of?
I run my own group and spend most of my time in the Naples/Miami, Florida area, although I’m also teaching in Atlanta and Cleveland often.
Do you prefer gi or no-gi?
Gi in the winters, no gi in the summers! But I believe that you should be comfortable training in both and be able to defend yourself if you or your opponent is wearing clothes or no clothes. No gi is great but if you get into an altercation it is likely (hopefully) that the attacker will be wearing clothes!
When I wrestled and then first went to a judo school, a lot of my wrestling techniques from the clinch didn’t work because I wasn’t used to an opponent having a death grip on my clothing.
So you have to be able to handle both. Someone shouldn’t be able to throw you off just because you or they are wearing clothing. At the same time, people who just train in the gi aren’t used to the fast pace, lack of grips, and slipperiness of no gi.
So I like to train both, and at times, both while incorporating defending and delivering strikes as well.
Have your instructors helped you in other aspects of life other than BJJ?
All my martial arts teachers have taught me life lessons in one way or the other. Master Moo H. Kim, who I grew up training with, taught me profound life lessons about goal setting, discipline, resilience, and courage.
Sensei Steven Alphabet, my judo teacher, is a great example of compassion, friendship, and “social jiu-jitsu”. It would probably take a book to describe all the gratitude I feel towards my teachers and the life lessons they taught me.
What are some lessons you learned from BJJ that apply to everyday life?
There are so many. Resilience is at the top of the list. To seek comfort in uncomfortable situations. This is something Rickson spoke to me about and which I recounted in an article for Black Belt magazine maybe 10 years ago (available for free at samurai-con.com). Also, sometimes you can’t escape the situation, and you just have to survive until the situation changes!
How often do you train martial arts?
Definitely not as much as I used to due to the pandemic, but I try to do something related to jiu-jitsu, even if it’s just the solo jiu-jitsu exercises I took from Rickson, every day.
What made you want to start training martial arts?
My dad started me with an ex-Korean special forces master of Tae Kwon Do, Hap Ki Do, and Judo at age three to make sure I wouldn’t be bullied. So it all started, like it has with so many others, with the need for self defense.
What made me continue training? I suppose when you’re a teenager and a young man it is to become strong. Later it changes to more of an intellectual interest in the mechanics of technique and the genius of how these systems of self defense work. And then even later you realize all the health benefits as well as the mental benefits.
That’s when the training becomes merely a vehicle for something else, that endless quest for self-perfection. When you start teaching others, it comes full circle again with the need to make them strong so they can defend themselves, before they receive all the other ancillary benefits.
Do you plan on training martial arts your whole life?
Since I started at age 3 and am 43 years in with martial arts, and about 23 years in with Gracie Jiu-jitsu, it looks that way!
What’s it about BJJ that makes it so addicting?
I think when you’re younger it’s the Pavlovian response to submitting a resisting opponent that keeps you going, that same dopamine-fix we get from any reward that makes us play video games late into the night.
As you get older and (hopefully) wiser, it may change a bit to the fascination with the technical complexities of the contest, like someone in love with the game of chess, for instance. And the social aspect and camaraderie of training for war, in a sense, with like-minded individuals is primitive and powerful.
This triggers Oxycontin and other bonding hormones and neurotransmitters with deep evolutionary roots responsible for the cohesion of a tribe against outside invaders.
What has BJJ done for your physical health?
It definitely has helped me remain lean, flexible, and maintain great endurance. But the dark side that we don’t talk about enough is that being encouraged to roll with monsters way beyond my weight every day by teachers eager to prove the effectiveness of jiu-jitsu, and sparring hard all the time during my 20s, has definitely caused some serious chronic neck, back and other injuries that have plagued me as I got older. So I make it a point when I teach not to make the same training mistakes that I did coming up. A flame that burns too brightly burns out quickly.
I believe in training hard with resistance, but intelligently, so you don’t injure yourself and are in a worse position to defend yourself than when you stepped into the academy.
Has BJJ benefited your mental health?
During law school, before I returned to obtain the Ph.D. in molecular biology, I often trained jiu-jitsu twice a day no matter how busy I was. In retrospect, I think that training so much helped me handle an extremely high workload, because it helped put me in such a positive mental state.
If you could restart your BJJ journey, would you do anything differently?
As I mentioned, I definitely would have been more careful with my body and injuries. There are many ways to train both smart and hard, and this is the training environment I strive to create with my students.
What’s your advice for someone that’s never tried BJJ before but is interested in trying it?
It’s difficult to give advice to the uninitiated because like Zen, many of the lessons of jiu-jitsu must be experienced to be learned. We all hear don’t reach up from mount bottom or you’ll be arm-barred, but how many of us listen to that lesson without first being traumatized into learning to keep our elbows down by being arm-barred multiple times? It’s like the movie “The Matrix”: No one makes the jump on the first try.
But good general advice would be to find the right instructor, make sure the academy you choose emphasizes what you want (you won’t be a sport champion at a self-defense oriented school and vice versa), bow on and off the mat, wash your gi, try to manage your frustration when you get tapped, etc.
Maybe the most important thing in the beginning is consistency. Commit to coming back a certain number of times per week for a certain period of time. Like with anything else, you only reap the benefits after putting in the time.
Do you have any aspirations in jiu-jitsu?
I have so much to work on. I’ve spent so many years studying under the best teachers so intellectually I know what to do, but making everything reflexive so that all situations are responded to in the moment with the correct technique and correct timing is another story, and a long pursuit.
Maybe that’s why they say that the black belt is just the beginning. So, I’ll just say, improve everything! Beyond my own personal training ambitions, my aspirations are to spread my synthesis of Invincible Jiu-jitsu comprising the old traditional methods of Helio Gracie Jiu-jitsu, with the throws of Jigoro Kano Jiu-jitsu (Kodokan Judo) in the best way to as many people as possible.
A large part of this aspiration involves the spread of the Invincible Woman Self Defense program, since girls and women comprise the population most targeted for violence, and are most vulnerable to it.
What’s your favorite BJJ moves?
As Robert de Niro replied in the movie Ronin when asked what his favorite gun was, “it’s a toolkit”. Whatever is necessary for the job! But I certainly have a list of technical sequences that I favor, centered around the fundamentals.
If you didn’t discover jiu-jitsu, where do you think you’d be now?
Surely I’d be in a place without many of the good friends I’ve made.
Would you like to see the sport of jiu jitsu become more mainstream?
I’m honestly kind of ambivalent about this. If it becomes more mainstream that’s great for the athletes, purses, and ability to train full time. On the other hand, there are advantages to its remaining niche, such as the ability of almost anyone to train with the best in the world.
Have any of your martial arts training partners pushed you to reach your full potential?
Good training partners are indispensable to progress. On the attacking side, the more things they are able to counter, the more the craftiness and precision of your sequences must evolve. On the defending side, the less mistakes you’re permitted to make. But it should be noted that practitioners of lower skill are also invaluable in sharpening both your attacks and defense.
You can’t instill reflexes if you’re always fighting for your life. Just make sure to let your lower-ranked training partner work their sequences as well. A partner too frustrated is going to quit, and then you’re without a training partner. Why would someone come back to pay for the privilege of getting the crap repeatedly kicked out of them if they don’t get to practice too?
When you were first starting, what was the most difficult concept of jiu-jitsu that you had trouble getting?
I started a few months of no-gi training at a “garage school” before the official school opened. When I first wore the gi at the academy, I found it horrible to wear – heavy, hot, and confining. I felt I had gone from total freedom of movement to wearing a weight vest combined with a straight jacket. It makes me laugh to think how uncomfortable I was, but I suppose it was like that Miyamoto Musashi quote:
“If things seem difficult at first, it’s because everything is difficult at first.”
If you could roll with any jiu-jitsu practitioner, dead or alive, who would it be?
Since I’ve had the privilege of training with Grandmaster Helio Gracie before he passed, and have rolled with Rickson, I’d say Rolls Gracie.
If you had to describe Jiu-Jitsu to someone that's never heard of it before in under 5 words, what would those words be?
Wow, UNDER 5 words is tough, but I guess I’d say “grappling-based martial art”.
What has been the most memorable moment you've had on the martial arts mats so far?
Private lesson with Grandmaster Helio Gracie.
What makes you want to inspire and motivate others?
I’m sure a large part of it comes from my parents and upbringing and the example they set as well as read me about in books.
Was there a difficult moment in your life where jiu-jitsu helped you get through it? If so, please explain.
As I mentioned earlier, I think jiu-jitsu helped me get through the chaos that was law school, and working during law school. But overall, I think the things I learned from starting martial arts at an early age helped me persevere when times were tough.
It also helped me focus on solving the problem at hand. When you’re about to get kicked in the head or choked unconscious, you learn to forget about other concerns other than the main issue really quickly!
What inspired you to start the Invincible Woman Self Defense program and The Last Line Defense program for high-risk executives?
A friend of mine was sexually assaulted and many other friends also conveyed to me their stories of relationship abuse, which awakened a personal urgency to help contribute to an amelioration of the problem.
Then while interning at the Carter Center in International Human Rights for President Jimmy Carter and at the FBI, I learned more and more about the magnitude of the problem of violence against women.
At the same time, I was learning first-hand about the power that Gracie Jiu-jitsu had for a smaller individual to survive against a larger attacker, even when the smaller individual was on their back, a situation extremely relevant to a sexual assault. All these experiences led me to focus a good deal of my energies on creating the best possible women’s self defense course, incorporating rapid-learning educational principles.
I hope women continue their training after the course but the course is designed to give a complete framework of how to survive in the event of an assault for the most common attacks that women would be likely to face.
Nine psychological technique lessons accompany the nine physical technique lessons, and deal with everything from detecting lures that can lead to an abduction to managing the fear during an assault that can lead to freezing if unmanaged. My college degree in Psychology and Ph.D. in Biology, as well as further training with psychologists and an ex-CIA operative, have helped with creating these aspects of the program.
The Last Line Defense program arose from the realization that in the moment of an attack, it’s often too late to rely on anyone but yourself. In the case of assassination attempts and other assaults on high-risk executives and politicians, this is often true even if you have a security detail around you.
Ideally prevention is the best cure but what do you do if prevention fails? High risk executives and politicians often diligently prepare their first line defenses such as preventative measures taken by their security details, but often neglect their last line defense. And like women, executives traveling overseas and politicians, who by definition have a portion of the populace vehemently opposed to them, are targeted for an increased risk of violence due to who they are.
The Last Line Defense program teaches the defense reflexes necessary to have the best chances to fend off an assault, assassination, or abduction attempt. So like the Invincible Woman Self Defense program, I started from the perspective of a problem to solve with two targeted and vulnerable populations.
What is Samurai-Con and what can participants expect?
Samurai-Con is the world’s greatest martial arts festival, coming to you virtually on June 12th!
I began Samurai-Con with the idea of creating the martial arts party I’ve always wanted to attend. I modeled it after the sci fi and fantasy conventions such as Dragon Con I’ve enjoyed over the years, with features such as an Artist Alley, trivia, and movies parties, but all with a martial arts theme, of course.
I also thought that after last year, and with travel not the way we once knew it, we could all benefit from connecting with old and new friends socially, as well as being able to take the virtual classes with live Q&A of the best martial arts teachers in the world, all in one day, and from the comfort of our homes.
So if I had to sum it up, I’d say Samurai-Con will be a one-day martial arts party where you can learn from the best martial arts teachers in the world, taking their classes and asking questions through live Q&A, with all the elements of a large sci fi or comic-con.
Seven pieces of martial-arts themed art depicting everything from samurai to Bruce Lee, that were specially commissioned for Samurai-Con, will be raffled off during the show.
There will also be an Exhibitors Hall with awesome discounts and deals.
We’ll end the night with a movie party screening of Ghost Dog, followed by an afterparty hosted by Dr. Alexander Bennett, a professor of martial arts and Japanese history at a university in Japan, who translated Hagakure, the samurai text featured in the film.
So prepare to be entertained, educated and awed! As far as martial arts, it’s really going to be a first-of-its-kind event and a can’t-miss-event for martial arts enthusiasts.
Who are some of the guest speakers that will be sharing their vast wealth of knowledge this year?
As far as guest instructors and speakers, there’s going to be something for everyone.
If you’re interested in samurai, swords, the Japanese martial arts and history, we have Dr. Alexander Bennett, a Tokyo-based high-ranking master in numerous Japanese martial arts, Tokyo-based Paul Martin, the former curator for Japanese swords at the British museum, Highlander TV star Adrian Paul, an expert in sword choreography, and Romulus Hillsborough, an expert on the 19th-century samurai revolution.
Continuing with Japanese martial arts, those interested in ninja will enjoy learning from Ninja master and Special Operations Sergeant Hakim Isler, a student of the first American ninja Stephen K. Hayes, who moved to Japan in the 1970s and learned directly from ninja Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi.
It’s not confirmed yet but Grandmaster Hayes himself may also make an appearance at Samurai-Con! Ninja history and Japanese folklore and pop culture expert Matt Alt will be giving a talk on the history of the ninja.
For those interested in Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do, Sifu Burton Richardson, who began his Jeet Kune Do training under Bruce Lee protégé Guru Dan Inosanto all the way back in 1979, will join us and teach historical aspects of Bruce Lee’s art.
There may also be another famous Inosanto Academy instructor from back in the day that we can’t quite announce yet. And although I will be teaching Gracie Jiu-jitsu, I am a Level 1 instructor in Jeet Kune Do, Filipino Martial Arts, and Jun Fan Kickboxing, and will be available during the Q&A segment to answer any questions on it.
For those interested in the grappling arts, we have myself, who was awarded a professorship of Jiu-jitsu and black belt directly from Grandmaster Relson Gracie, Richard Bresler, Rorion Gracie’s first private lesson student who began with Rorion all the way back in 1979, and maybe even Grandmaster Relson Gracie himself!
Finally, for striking aficionados, in addition to the JKD striking alluded to above, we have Thai Fighting Arts Expert Kru Pedro Solana, and “the Punisher” herself, five-time world kickboxing Kathy Long!
Where can people learn more about Samurai-Con and how can they contact you for more information?
What would you like to say to everyone that has supported you on your journey?
Especially to my parents who started me in martial arts, I can’t thank you enough!
When the journey is over, how would you like to be remembered?
I’d like to be known as someone who did his part to help preserve the old Gracie Jiu-jitsu and Kano Jiu-jitsu (Kodokan Judo) for self defense, and cared about his students’ progress and lives.
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