“Black Belt Slayer 2.0” on Conquering ADCC Trials: Jay Rod Talks Belt Ranks and Buggy Chokes

Photo: Jiu-Jitsu Times/ Kitt Canaria

Jacob “Jay Rod” Rodriguez may technically have less than two years of formal jiu-jitsu training under his freshly-earned purple belt, but he’s no stranger to elite grappling. The younger brother of Nicky Rod, the original “Black Belt Slayer” himself, Jay Rod hopes to make his own waves in the sport. “I think at the start of [ADCC West Coast Trials], I was a little nervous, because I was thinking about people’s expectations,” he tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “But after the first day – my first two matches – I kind of thought to myself, it is what it is. At the end of the day, I’m myself. I’m not my brother.”

While he’s quick to acknowledge Nicky Rod’s influence on his development as an athlete, Jay Rod’s also aware that the differences in their body types necessitate different approaches to the game. “Because I’m lighter, I think I’m kind of forced to be more technical with a lot of the stuff that I do,” says Jay Rod. “The higher you go with the weight classes, especially at 99+, it’s all really wrestling heavy, and you don’t see as many leg entanglements and stuff. But in my weight class, you’re kind of forced to be in those positions all the time, immediately.”

The style of grappling favored at his weight class occasionally made Jay Rod’s early training days pretty dicey. “Even when I was the first training in Jersey, I was immediately forced into leg entanglements,” he remembers. “In other situations, I’d be like, ‘Oh this guy’s not that good, I can explode out of it, like Nicky Rod would.’ But I can’t really explode out of [a good leg entanglement by] a guy who knows what he’s doing. So I had to get good, really fast, at dealing with leg entanglements – and really everything else too. All my technique had to be really sharp right from the start.”

Photo: Jiu-Jitsu Times/ Kitt Canaria

All that work paid off. The younger Rodriguez – already dubbed “Black Belt Slayer 2.0” by some members of the jiu-jitsu community – stayed true to the family nickname by sweeping his division at ADCC West Coast Trials with no less than seven submissions victories. “It hit me when I went home, when I was lying in bed,” says Jay Rod. “Just like, ‘Wow, I actually did that.’ It was unimaginable at the time.”

So how does Jay Rod feel about being dubbed the second black belt slayer in the Rodriguez family? “For sure, I embrace the nickname now,” he says grinning. “It was my brother, and now it’s me. It’s my turn.”

Another surprise for Rodriguez was the purple belt he earned shortly after his victory – tossed his way by none other than teammate and B-Team superstar Craig Jones. “I really didn’t expect that at all, but it is what it is – and it’s really cool,” says Jay Rod. “I had no clue it was going to happen.” Granted, given that both Rodriguez brothers have been famously shaking up the jiu-jitsu rank pecking order since their white belt days, the color he wears around his waist doesn’t matter too much to Jay Rod. 

How does it feel, being a blue belt who’s caught competitive black belts in major tournaments? “It’s f***ing nuts. It’s just not supposed to happen, you know? But it happens.” Jay Rod laughs. Like his brother, he claims wrestling skills as the secret sauce behind his unusual early success. “Our wrestling, where it’s at, it’s very good,” he acknowledges, “but it’s also our mindset when we go to compete. We’re very thankful to compete, I also kind of have the underdog mindset. I don’t have any pressure on me. I have nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, the black belts that are rolling against me are like, ‘Oh my god, what if I lose to this blue belt?’”

A wrestling background alone, however, isn’t an unusual skill on the jiu-jitsu scene, especially at more advanced levels – plenty of black belts were also wrestlers first. So what is it about the Rodriguez brothers’ wrestling that made them so good, so early? “Our wrestling is up to par, but also the way our genetics have panned out has really helped us,” says Jay Rod. “We’re crazy flexible for no reason. I never even really stretch, but my hip mobility is really good. I can’t explain it. We’re athletes, but we’ve also got good fight IQ for the sport. We just know what to do in a lot of situations, and we put in the work every single day.”

“All these black belts, they’ll train for five, ten years, but the ten years that they’ve been training, they might not be the most focused,” says Jay Rod. “Our training, every single day, it’s hyper-focused. We take everything very seriously. And after our training sessions, we’ll go over the problems we’re having with each other. That’s another reason I’m surrounded by [teammates like] Craig Jones and Nicky Rod. They’re studs. Everywhere you look [at B-Team], there are studs. So I’m very fortunate in that respect.”

The Rodriguez brothers also aren’t the only color belt competitors who have achieved early success against black belts. “You have people like Cole Abate, who was a blue belt – now a purple belt – who’s just murdering everyone!” Jay Rod points out. “It just shouldn’t make sense, and it’s crazy to think about.” 

It begs interesting questions about what role – if any – belt ranks should play in modern jiu-jitsu, particularly at the highest levels of the sport. “I think belts should be for hobbyists,” says Jay Rod. “I don’t think belts should be for competitors. You can be a competitor like me – I was a blue belt – and I was finishing black belts. That just shouldn’t make sense. So in my eyes, it really doesn’t matter. That’s why, in my opinion, belts should just be for hobbyists.” 

Photo: Jiu-Jitsu Times/ Kitt Canaria

So how does Jay Rod – with less than two years of formal jiu-jitsu experience – handle something as tough as ADCC Trials?

He cites his open-minded attitude as one of the most valuable assets he carries into competition – which is why he avoids approaching opponents with an overly specific game plan. “I like to have a vague outline of what I plan on doing, but not a specific game plan – because I feel like if I have a specific game plan, I’ll be very narrow-minded when competing, and only try to do those things,” he says. “That tends to not work out for me, so I’d rather have a vague outline of what I’ll do.”

That creative adaptability tends to work out well for him. According to Jay Rod, his most memorable victory at trials was the brutal buggy choke he pulled off in the finals – a relatively rare submission from under bottom side control. “All the rest were rear naked chokes – six rear naked chokes – and the last one was the buggy, so that last one stands out a lot [to me].”

He originally learned the buggy choke by studying fellow phenoms Kade and Tye Ruotolo, perhaps the most famous buggy choke finishers on the current competition scene. “I started watching their YouTube videos, and saw how they hit it,” says Rodriguez. “I started playing around with it here and there, and I play with it a lot live now, now that I’m at B-Team – which is good, because the guys get really good at defending it!”

How good is good? Considering the elite caliber of B-Team, about as good as you can get – and their defenses against Jay Rod’s buggy choke attempts aren’t exactly sunshine and roses. “Ethan [Crelinsten] will pick me up and scrape my forehead against the f***ing ground,” Rodriguez says bluntly, shaking his head with a rueful grin. “Or I’ll hit it on Craig [Jones], and Craig will go to his back and throw up a buggy of his own. It’s not easy to hit it anymore, but I was drilling it a lot.” 

Jay Rod’s version of the buggy choke deviated somewhat from the more common variant popularized by the Ruotolo twins. According to Rodriguez, that was due to the slippery nature of his final opponent. “I had locked up the buggy choke, [but] it was hard for me to get it really tight, because [my opponent] was shirtless, and he was able to finagle his way out a little bit,” recalls Rodriguez. “So we were having a little hand fight battle right by his neck, and then after I passed his hand, I kept my knuckles in his neck. He held on for a little bit, and then he ended up tapping.” 

Mind you, it took Jay Rod some trial-and-error to perfect his own buggy choke – and avoid the violent slam escape which quickly made rounds on YouTube at the same ADCC trials. “At my last [ADCC] trials, I put up a buggy choke as well, and I [also] got slammed,” admits Jay Rod. “The guy ended up getting disqualified, which is how I moved on from that match, but here, when [my opponent] started to posture up, I didn’t fully lock up the choke with my other leg. I kept my other leg in between his legs to keep me down.”

Intelligently playing off the ruleset this time also helped. “I think in ADCC rules, you can’t slam if it’s not a fully locked submission, so that kept me safe.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the elder Rodriguez’s success as a grappler that first inspired Jay Rod to get his start in grappling. Like Nicky Rod, Jay Rod was a wrestler long before he was a jiu-jitsu player. “Nick got me into wrestling – I saw him doing really well in wrestling, and I wanted to try it when we were younger. There was never any pressure from our family, though – our parents let us do whatever we wanted. They were very laid back about it all, which I’m very thankful for. Like if there was ever a loss, they weren’t the kind of parents who would grill me about it on the drive home. That wouldn’t have been fun. There was no extra pressure, and I’m glad.” 

As a result, for both Rodriguez brothers, the drive to succeed on the mats was largely internal. “My brother blew up on the jiu-jitsu scene pretty immediately – and that was around my junior year of high school,” says Jay Rod. “I saw him competing, and as time went by, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with school, so by the time senior year rolled around, I’d just decided to do jiu-jitsu. I saw that my brother was killing it, and I knew I was a good wrestler, so why not?”

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic struck at the end of Jay Rod’s final wrestling season, which initially prolonged his transition into jiu-jitsu – but when he did start jiu-jitsu, he attacked it with a ferocity that started paying dividends with almost unprecedented speed. “It’s been about a year and five months since I started jiu-jitsu,” says Rodriguez. “I didn’t compete much during the first year – the main focus was really on translating my wrestling to proper, good jiu-jitsu. Being good at flowing between the two. It’s very hard to do that. It’s hard for good wrestlers to adapt to jiu-jitsu at first. I remember my first few months, I’d take all these shots, and just get guillotined over and over again. But with everything in this sport, you learn to adjust. It was rough, but I had good people pushing me along, and really good teammates.”

In fact, one of the great boons of being a member of B-Team, for Jay Rod, is the sheer diversity of high-level grappling styles he gets to tango with on a regular basis. “The thing with B-Team that’s so great is that I can ask the same exact technique question to all the guys on the team, and they’ll all give me similar, correct answers. But everyone on the team does it just a little differently. And that’s what makes it so great – one guy’s thing might not work for you, but someone else’s will. At the end of a training session, everyone shares their own way of doing the same thing, and that’s what’s awesome about B-Team.” 

Photo: Jiu-Jitsu Times/ Kitt Canaria

So now that Jay Rod’s earned his spot at ADCC 2022, what’s the plan moving forward? “Kind of the same thing as Trials,” he says. “Underdog mentality, staying wrestling heavy, staying on top – but nothing specific. Leading up, I’m going to keep working on stuff like leg lock escapes, but staying open minded.”

While Jay Rod doesn’t yet know who he’ll be facing at ADCC, he does know of one potential opponent in his weight class: the legendary Craig Jones himself. “I know Craig’s in there, because he was talking s**t,” Jay Rod says with a laugh, “so I’m gonna f*** him up!”

All playful ribbing aside, the prospect of an ADCC match against Jones isn’t something Jay Rod takes lightly. “Craig f***s me up in training, so I’m gonna have to poison him or something,” he jokes. “Otherwise it’s just not gonna work out for me.” More seriously, he adds, “The most frustrating thing about [Craig Jones] is that he comes up with stuff that shouldn’t work – but it does. He’s very creative in that sense. He just pulls s**t out of nowhere, and it works all the time. It’s effective. But it can be very frustrating.”

What’s Jay Rod’s prediction if he matches up against Craig Jones in the finals? Rodriguez laughs. “I think we’ll end up in a double buggy entanglement.” Stranger things have certainly happened on the mats.

What about his plans after ADCC? Hopefully, if Jay Rod continues his crowd pleasing performances, some good matchup opportunities for superfights. Although some jiu-jitsu phenoms – especially those with heavy top game and strong wrestling skills – start eyeing the MMA world for a shot at greater visibility and bigger pay days, Rodriguez doesn’t see himself taking that path. “I don’t like getting punched in the face,” he explains frankly. “Superfights would be fun, though. I like having one match a day – a tournament’s a mission. It’s not necessarily fun. Emotions are just up and down, your body gets super tight – so tournaments, at least for me, are just for when you have to do it. I had to do ADCC.”

ADCC also offers Rodriguez’s favorite ruleset in jiu-jitsu. “I like sub-only – and I really like ADCC because it’s very wrestling heavy. If you’re not on your feet, you have a higher chance of losing,” he adds. “It’s good for me, and I think it’s good for the audience as well. People want to see hand fighting and people trying to kill each other. They don’t really want to see guard pulls.” 

The dynamism of rulesets like ADCC’s – and other no-gi submission-only venues such as EBI and WNO – has also allowed more pure sport jiu-jitsu players to eke out a living without having to turn to MMA. “I think money is definitely getting better in the sport of jiu-jitsu,” says Jay Rod. “I was talking to Craig [Jones] about this, and he was explaining that when you’re coming up in the jiu-jitsu scene – especially back when he was first coming up – there’s such a long period of time where you’re just broke. You just have no money. And it’s scary. This is not a career for everyone. You have to put everything into this, because this might be it.” 

Just as he embraces adaptability and creativity in his own jiu-jitsu game, Jay Rod welcomes the idea of bucking tradition in the jiu-jitsu world as a whole – especially if it helps grow the sport. “I think there’s just more of everything right now. You see more competition – you saw how big this last [ADCC] trials was. The sport is growing rapidly. It’s crazy to think about. And more people want to watch too. I think the only thing that’s holding jiu-jitsu back from growing really fast like MMA did is the different rulesets that every promotion has. And solely as someone watching, it’s kind of hard to understand all of them.”

He also feels that the growing popularity of no-gi competition – and its more dynamic pace compared to most gi matches – may also be boosting the sport’s overall watchability. “I think no-gi allows you to be very wrestling-heavy, and lets you get into a lot of scrambles. That’s not to say that you can’t wrestle or scramble in the gi. But it’s almost like a different sport. There’s just so much more going on, and there’s a lot of technique that’s gi-specific, and it’s not crazy exciting a lot of the time, in my opinion.” 

Has Jay Rod ever trained in the gi? He smiles, looking slightly sheepish. “I did one time! I went to a class that I thought was no-gi – and then they put me in a gi, so I figured I’d try it.” He starts laughing. “And I hated it so much! It was terrible. It just wasn’t for me.” 

In his idea jiu-jitsu world, he’d love to see the ongoing growth of aggressive, wrestling-oriented submission grappling. “Obviously, I want more viewers – that’s huge, more fans watching, which also turns into more money for promotions and competitors, which is always good. It’s crazy how fast the sport’s growing, and you see even more wrestlers nowadays. I went to an IBJJF where I was in the blue belt bracket, and everyone there was a wrestler. And I don’t think that would have been the case five years ago. That’s kind of unheard of. But the sport is changing now, which is good.” 

Tune into Jay Rod’s upcoming ADCC run on September 17.

Keep up with Jay Rod’s career by following him on Instagram.


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