From Johannesburg to Texas: Luke Griffith Opens Up on Crossing Oceans for the New Wave Experience

You can’t miss Luke Griffith when he walks into a room. Standing at close to six and a half feet tall, he practically blocks out the sun when I cross the floor to shake his hand. I’ve just arrived in Virginia Beach to cover Griffith’s first ever North American seminar tour, and his sponsor, Betty Broadhurst of Roll Forever, has graciously arranged for me to interview him at a nearby cafe. 

Griffith – quiet, polite, and cheekily generous – immediately swipes the bill for everyone’s drinks and snacks. The way he sees it, that’s the least he can do.

“I honestly don’t think a lot of people realize that I wouldn’t be able to be in the US without [Betty’s sponsorship],” he explains to me. “So everything that I’m doing to advance my career is only possible because of her, and because of RollForever, so I will be forever grateful for that.” 

Though Luke’s a relative newcomer to John Danaher’s world famous New Wave team – more on that later – the South African brown belt has been involved in jiu-jitsu since childhood. 

“My dad was my first coach,” says Luke, as we sit down with a couple of lemonades – on him. “We had this little garage gym, and we started with the Gracie Combatives DVDs.” 

Johannesburg, South Africa, though, wasn’t exactly a major mecca for submission grappling. Most of Griffith’s early training days were focused on the classical self-defense side of jiu-jitsu. It wasn’t until later that he took an interest in the tournament scene. Around his mid-teens, a few competitions started popping up locally – so Luke decided to give it a go.

As luck would have it, he fell in love immediately.

Realizing that he’d have to travel beyond Johannesburg to seek out growth opportunities as a promising young athlete in a niche sport, Griffith set his eyes on American shores. “I’d never been in contact with any [of the New Wave guys] ever,” he tells me. “I just showed up at Renzo Gracie Austin.” 

When Luke crossed the Pacific to further his career, he harbored big dreams of studying under John Danaher and training with Gordon Ryan – but those dreams didn’t exactly get off to the start he was expecting.

“The first day I trained, I got a staph infection – so I couldn’t train for like the first two weeks,” he remembers. He grows animated with equal parts good humor and mild embarrassment at the memory. “It was horrible! I trained one day, and that was it. But I came in and watched every single class. And I think maybe John noticed, so when I was finally able to train again, John invited me to the pro session.”

“And Gordon [Ryan] was very helpful. When I came here, I had no clothes whatsoever,” says Griffith. “Gordon gave me clothes – literally, brand new clothes. A lot of people don’t know that side of Gordon. He really is such a helpful person, and he was very, very friendly, very welcoming.” 

In short: sometimes, getting a staph infection has a silver lining – like getting spontaneously adopted into one of the most elite inner circles of submission grappling on the planet.

“I can’t make any promises, but it’s a real possibility!” quips Luke, laughing. 

As a man who’s been described as “the South African giant,” Griffith knows that his strength and size advantages make it easy for some to assume that he’s cutting corners on technical skill. As a result, he’s devoted his training wholeheartedly toward ensuring that everything he trains on the mat, he trains as correctly and intelligently as possible.

“I think that technique is always the most important part of anything,” he tells me. “And as strong as Gordon is, he’s still not bodybuilder strong, if you watch him lift. What makes Gordon so good is that he makes people work twice to three times as hard as he’s working. If we’re in a match, and we start off with the same amount of energy, if you’re using three times the amount of energy that I am, by the seventh or eighth minute of the match, you’re way more exhausted than I am – and when you’re tired, you don’t perform as well, technically, as you do when you’re fresh. 

“So I really think it comes down to tactically, knowing how to pace yourself for a match – and I think that’s something people don’t realize, but it makes a huge difference. I don’t think being technical is necessarily much harder for a person who’s bigger than a person who’s smaller. You just have to apply yourself to actually learning the techniques, and making sure that you’re doing everything correctly.”

As one of Danaher’s chosen, Luke’s had the opportunity to witness his formidable New Wave teammates in action firsthand. For example, one of the newest additions to Danaher’s talent stable – fifteen-year-old phenom Helena Crevar – is, according to Luke, every bit as ferocious as you’d expect of the girl expected to become New Wave’s first ever female world champion

“She is an absolute monster,” Luke warns me, grinning. “I will say, as nice and innocent as she looks with those pigtails, she’s not to be messed with. I haven’t rolled with her myself, but a lot of the other guys who have rolled with her say that she’s the strongest person on the mat.”

Chuckling, he quips, “We’ve had quite a couple laughs, because we’ve seen some photos of her and John next to each other, and she looks like she could be his daughter! I’m very excited to see what the next two years bring for Helena, training under John. I think she’s going to be even more of a force to be reckoned with than she already is. We’re very, very happy to have her.” 

Luke’s younger sister Hannah – an up-and-coming competitor in her own right, who earned a silver medal at Pans in 2022 – got the chance to roll with Helena while visiting her brother at New Wave. “[Hannah] loved it,” says Luke. “She actually trained with Helena for about two or three weeks before she left town, and she had a great time.” 

What about Gordon Ryan, the king himself? When asked if there’s anything that people in general get wrong about Gordon, Luke looks thoughtful. “People don’t realize that his personality online is exactly the same as it is in person,” he says after a moment. “If you’re nice to him in person, if you’re respectful, he’s respectful back to you. But as soon as you’re an a**hole to him, that’s when he’s like, ‘Why should I respect you back?’” 

“I think that people are very quick to judge other people,” continues Luke. “But when you’re put in a situation where thousands of people are criticizing you all the time, it’s tough.”

Luke similarly characterizes John Danaher as a genuine soul. “Honestly, I would say that what you see is what you get with him. I don’t think there’s much I’ve heard about John [within reason] that isn’t true.”

That includes, incidentally, the New Wave mastermind’s notoriety for wearing rashguards on all occasions. “We went out to a fancy dinner one time,” Luke recounts. He remembers dressing up, only to be greeted – as usual – by a rashguard-clad Danaher. 

Luke smiles, shaking his head as he tells the story: “He had this huge red dragon on his rashguard, and I thought, ‘Ah, that must be the dinner rashguard.’” 

Quirky fashion choices aside, one of the greatest boons of training in Danaher’s camp is that the jiu-jitsu guru isn’t just a creator of champions – he’s also a teacher of teachers. “I think that training and watching John’s DVDs really helps you to understand things better,” explains Luke. “The way he teaches jiu-jitsu is very easy to understand. And I feel like if you’re really good at jiu-jitsu, you should be able to understand techniques well enough to break them down into easily digestible parts for teaching.”

“The thing about jiu-jitsu is, as well as Gordon [Ryan] has done in competition and making money, as somebody who’s not Gordon Ryan, and doesn’t have that personality and reach that he does, a big source of income as an athlete is teaching,” Luke points out.

Teaching jiu-jitsu isn’t a cake walk for every athlete, either, and winning medals isn’t always a guarantee that you’ll be any good at it. “You can win ADCC and still be a terrible teacher,” says Luke. “People aren’t going to want to buy DVDs from you then.” 

Financial considerations aside, Griffith genuinely enjoys teaching and coaching – though it’s a skill he’s still developing. According to Luke, learning to teach is as much a part of New Wave’s culture as learning to compete. “I can’t say how good of a teacher I was before I got here, but I can definitely say that my teaching skills have increased dramatically since I came, just simply because of the fact that I try to imitate the way that [John] teaches – and he’s the best teacher in the world.” 

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine,” adds Luke, who helped run classes at his old academy in South Africa before moving Stateside. His seminar tour across North America – arranged with the aid of Betty Broadhurst and Roll Forever – marks an opportunity for him to prove his chops as a teacher, as well as a competitor. 

“To be able to travel throughout the US and do something that I enjoy – which is not competing – is also a really positive experience,” he says of the tour. 

Still, Griffith is known as a competitor first and foremost – and he’s taken on almost every jiu-jitsu ruleset under the sun, from traditional IBJJF points to EBI submission-only. His heart, however, truly belongs to the sub-only scene.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a pure EBI guy, though. “I like EBI to a certain degree, but people can still stall out there,” Griffith tells me. “So I would say that if I had a favorite [ruleset], it would be the Who’s Number One ruleset. Fifteen minutes, sub-only, ref’s decision.”

“Fifteen minutes is still a little bit short,” he admits. “And I like the idea of a no time limit match, but for public viewership, it doesn’t really make much sense – people don’t really get excited for no time limit matches because they go for so long. But I think that it’s the truest representation of jiu-jitsu because one person is getting finished. 

“So I would say that’s my [actual] favorite, but obviously, with ADCC being the biggest organization and the most prized competition to win, I’d put a lot of emphasis on [that ruleset].” 

That begs the question: what would Luke Griffith do, if he could create a unified ruleset for jiu-jitsu to set the standard for the entire sport? His answer is surprisingly prompt. 

“I think it would be thirty-minute submission-only matches. I think thirty minutes is a good amount of time, where it’s not too long, and not too short. And then it would go to a referee’s decision at the end [if no submission took place].” In short: an expanded version of the WNO system. 

Next on Griffith’s competitive calendar, he’ll be hopping across the pond to take on Roger Gracie black belt Santeri Lilius at GrappleFest15 on Saturday, April 1

“Santeri is a tough opponent, but there’s guys I’ve trained with that he’s competed against, and for sure, I know he’s not going to pose any threats to me,” says Luke. “I’ve been studying a lot of his tape, and I’m looking forward to the match because I know he’s a big name in Europe – and Craig Jones just vacated that GrappleFest title, so for me to take that would be a nice one to add to the collection.” 

Griffith’s never been to the UK, but he looks forward to getting to show off his jiu-jitsu in front of a European audience. “There’s a lot of good up-and-coming practitioners, especially in the UK,” he observes. “And I really enjoy the GrappleFest ruleset.”

He hopes that events like these will help get more eyes on jiu-jitsu globally. “I think getting more eyes on the sport is what’s actually going to grow it – and I think that’s just going to take some time. I think [Gordon Ryan] is doing a great job with that, so hopefully, in the next five to ten years, jiu-jitsu will be a major sport like MMA.” 

While he believes that charismatic, talented athletes with big personalities – like the Gordon Ryans and Conor McGregors of the world – will be key to attracting more audiences to jiu-jitsu, he’s not so sure that he sees himself as one of them. “I don’t know that I necessarily have the personality to be a Gordon Ryan or a Conor McGregor,” he tells me with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But we’ll see what happens in the future.” 

Don’t miss Luke Griffith’s official GrappleFest debut against Santeri Lilius on April 1, streaming via FiteTV.

Keep up with the latest news on Luke’s whereabouts and upcoming seminars, competition appearances, and other events by following him on Instagram


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