Off the Mat with a Bjj Black Belt: Steve Maxwell

Jiu-jitsu Times is excited to announce a new feature: Off the Mat with a Bjj Black Belt where we feature a short interview with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts from different academies around the planet.

This week we feature Steve Maxwell a 5th degree black belt who is one of the very first American bjj black belts as well as being one of the top experts on kettlebell conditioning.
Steve travels the world doing conditioning and jiu-jitsu seminars.
This is a fascinating interview with one of the true pioneers of bjj in America!

Off the Mat with a Bjj Black Belt: Steve Maxwell


“It’s a fun game and I respect the athletes who perform it, but 90% of the techniques will get you maimed in the street.”
Steve Maxwell

Jiu-jitsu Times: Can you tell us how and why you got started in bjj?

Steve Maxwell: I started wrestling as a young boy. My father was an ex-navy boxing champ in WWII and taught me and my brother the ‘sweet science’…b
ut I didn’t like boxing and discovered early a talent for grappling.

I wrestling throughout my high school school days and then at college in division 1 NCAA.
I was a good wrestler and loved everything about it.

After graduating, I coached in a public school and continued to do some wrestling. I entered several independent tournaments and stayed competitive,
but it was unsustainable once I stared a family and went into the fitness business.

I was always looking for something to replace wrestling in my life. This was at the height of the Bruce Lee phenomenon. Everyone was into kung fu.
I studied kung fu, karate, Muay Thai , but none were my cup of tea.

One day I was in a video store in Philadelphia and I saw a video entitled “Gracie Jiujitsu In Action”.. I took it home and watched–absolutely fascinated with the style.
It looked very similar to wrestling and I immediately saw how my previous wrestling skills would help me acquire this grappling style.

I started with the idea of simply being able to defend myself in a real fight.
I lived in a rough section of town at that time and I always felt a little fear that my wrestling and striking wasn’t up to snuff.

I attended the first Gracie seminar on the east coast 1989… It was an amazing experience.
Rorion (Helio’s eldest son) taught a magnificent seminar …and now the fire was lit.

I asked him how I could learn this thing and he invited me to come to Torrance, CA to train. At that time, Rorion was the only game in town.

Jiu-jitsu Times: Who have been the biggest influences on your jiu-jitsu and what did you learn from each of your professors

Steve Maxwell: I was lucky to find and to be taught by some of the best teachers in the world.
At that time I received my education, all of the brothers were one big happy family. On any given day I would get a lesson from Rorion, Royler, Rickson, Royce, or Master Helio himself.
Later, I trained extensively with Relson.

Others who I had the privilege of learning from were Fabio Santos, Craig Kukuk, Caique Enrique, Lowell Anderson, Richard Bressler, and Rilion Gracie.

Later, I learned a tremendous amount of competition style Jiu-jitsu from Saulo Ribiero, Xande Ribiero and Regis Lebre.
Regis in particular was my partner and training coach for several years. He took my competition game to the next level.


Jiu-jitsu Times: What is the place of jiu-jitsu in your life

Steve Maxwell: Since I travel full time, getting on the mat is difficult. I live on the road and am in a new city– or country– every couple of weeks.
My main concentration was always the self defense aspect of Jiujitsu.
I concentrate my efforts on the self defense aspect –that’s something you’ll have forever–so I practice when I can to keep my sword sharp.

Jiu-jitsu Times: Can you talk about your philosophy of brazilian jiu-jitsu – training and life. What do you try to teach to your students about the role of jiu-jitsu in their lives?

Steve Maxwell: Live, thrive and survive… develop a relationship with your higher power.
Don’t try to control everything–you can’t–but trust in something higher than yourself; this requires faith.
I practice “let go and let God”. But…allowing fear into the equation will nullify any positive results–this is where the faith comes in.

With Jiujitsu, I no longer try to win so much as play to not lose or not get caught.
Helio taught me to never try and control the opponent– move yourself not the opponent.
One shouldn’t exert more than 60% of your strength in any round; the exception would be to escape a finishing hold.

I also stipulate the “10 second rule” when rolling; if you can’t make something happen in 10 seconds in a particular situation, then let go and flow into the next position, and try something else.

For longevity in the game, tap early and tap often–don’t be hard headed. If you get caught– no big deal.
Fighting out of properly applied holds carries a huge risk of injury; training isn’t a tournament and training taps mean nothing.

It’s also important to get over the idea that you can’t tap to a lower belt; this is absolutely silly.
Some guys get really angry and upset, but this is because they suffer from misguided beliefs.
Size and strength overcome skill to a large degree.
Age is another factor; everyone slows down and starts to,lose their physical abilities with age.

Every 10 lbs. disparity and/ or 10 year age difference is akin to a belt rank. So, a 160 lb., 50year old black belt sparring with a 200 lb., 20 year old athletic blue belt would be like sparring another black belt.
Cruder, but there’s an exertion factor.
What the younger, heavier blue belt lacks in technique is compensated with with strength and athleticism.

Older Jiujitsu practitioners need to have realistic expectations about what they can do and not do.
Simply being able to get on the mat and have fun is a victory for the 50 plus Jiu-jitsu man.

You almost never see guys over 50 training in any dojo–and it’s because the guys are too busted up from their habit of extremist training.
Occasionally you’ll see guys over 50 who started late in life, but the guys who started when young are all too injured, and in pain, to continue past their 40s.

Jiu-jitsu Times: You have sold your USA academy and are a “traveling jiu-jitsu nomad” conducting seminars all over the world.
How did you decide to become a bjj world traveler What places have proved to be most interesting to you

Steve Maxwell: I wore two hats when I had my school, Maxercise–it was both a gym and a Gracie Academy. It was the first Gracie Academy on the east coast USA.
Running a business and working with your spouse can be stressful; my marriage broke up and I needed a fresh start and a change.

I always had a fantasy about living and traveling in a RV; I moved into a really nifty camper van and traveled around the US for three years.
During that time I’d train at various academies.

I launched my web site and started to do online coaching and training. I had a long history in the fitness business and I soon had a lot of clients set up.
At the same time, I began to get a few invitations to present fitness seminars internationally. Those first events brought other, more widespread inquiries.
I began spending more time out of the USA and put my camper van in storage; eventually I sold it on eBay and now I live in hotels full-time.

I’ve been to some pretty cool places; every geographic has its own dynamic and aesthetic.
I found Japan quite interesting; I really like the culture. China also was very interesting.

My favorite places are Australia and Europe– Germany in particular.

Jiu-jitsu Times: As an “old school” / self defense oriented Gracie Jiu-jitsu practitioner, how do you view the current sport jiu-jitsu trends (ex. emphasis on guard pulling, berimbolo, lapel guard etc.)

Steve Maxwell: It’s a fun game and I respect the athletes who perform it, but 90% of the techniques will get you maimed in the street.

I think everyone should at least know the basic standup self defense, including take downs, throws– as well as defending take- downs and throws– defending against strikes or kicks; defending against the stick, club, or knife; gun defense, and all of the escapes from various grabs and holds from the standing position.
The standup self defense of Gracie Jiujitsu is very complete and outstanding.

Everyone thinks Muay Thai or kick boxing is enough for standup self defense–this is largely due to the influence of MMA; but trying to punch it out with a large strong person is suicide.
Imagine trying to use your kick boxing against Mike Tyson– yet I could survive against a guy like that with Gracie Jiujitsu.

The self defense of Master Helio Gracie will allow one to survive against a much bigger, stronger assailant. Kick boxing will not. Helio told me his Jiujitsu isn’t something you do to someone–they do it to themselves.
The key to survival isn’t to beat a guy up– that won’t happen against a guy 80 lbs heavier and 20 years younger than you; but one can survive–and without significant injury–if you know what to do.

It’s also very important to develop awareness about your surroundings; awareness is the first step to avoiding situations before they happen. This means being full engagement in the environment, e.g., no ear buds.

Jiu-jitsu Times: Can you give some advice for students over the age of 35 that worked for you in your jiu-jitsu and conditioning training
What does the 40+ athlete need to focus on in their training?

Steve Maxwell: Most guys do not breathe properly; if you have a lifetime habit of dysfunctional breathing, it actually accelerates the aging process and does more harm than good…these guys are better off quitting.

Forget about heavy weight training and extremist workout plans like CrossFit– moderation is the key to longevity. That said, for sure, fitness and training is extremely important for the older athlete.

Joint mobility should be the focus of the older athlete’s training; do what it takes to keep the body supple and free of excess tension.
Strength exercises should be performed slowly, with absolute perfect form; explosive, plyometric type exercises will only get you hurt.

Jiu-jitsu Times: Can you tell us something interesting about yourself that most Jiu-jitsu Times readers would not know

Steve Maxwell: I am a nomad; everything I carry fits into a single 42 liter bag. When I first shed my material possessions–after the divorce– it was liberating.
The modern social convention is an “accumulation mindset” which is dangerous as it predisposes you not only too many houses, cars and sofas, but also to unwanted fat gain and diseases of proliferation–the metaphor carries over to the body and mind.
I encourage my clients to pare down and rid themselves of excess…not only material possessions but the excessive mind states that cause them to suffer.

Video: Gracie Jiu Jitsu: Vale Tudo Guard – Steve Maxwell

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