Chuck Willen is a legend on the Asian Masters competition scene, holds a black belt under Ailton Barbosa from Coconut Creek American Top Team, and has trained extensively around the globe (or disc if you’re from 10th Planet). I first met Chuck back in 2012 at the original Bangkok BJJ, we’ve since randomly competed together in Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong and the US. I caught up with Chuck on his afternoon break from his current vocation at Homeland Security.
Ben: OK, it’s great to hear from you again, let’s start with a broad question, can you tell me about your background in martial arts? I remember you told me you’d been both a high school wrestler and judoka before starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
Chuck: I wrestled in Junior High, High School and 2 years of college (division 3). Started Judo at 12 and competed frequently. Got my black belt in 1987. Did Sambo nationals in 1986 but just trained Judo and wrestling. Trained a couple of years in Japan. Started jiu-jitsu at 50 at BKKBJJ.
Ben: Ah 1987 the year Guns N’ Roses released their debut album Appetite for Destruction, a personal favourite of mine. Legend has it you once wrestled a bear?
Chuck: I did indeed. Giant and stinky. 1986 Kansas City sports show. Not as fun as it sounds.
Ben: What encouraged you to begin training such a physical sport as BJJ at the age of 50?
Chuck: I was feeling out of shape and I wanted to regain the feeling of strength and confidence that I had when I was grappling. One of my coworkers was a young bare knuckles fighter and he encouraged me to try BJJ. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Wasn’t really sure what BJJ was. Remember, when I was doing Judo the Gracies weren’t on the East Coast yet. I think that they may have come to California in the mid 80s. Anyway, I went to Ben’s (Weinstein) class and was immediately hooked. 4 or 5 months later I was down 20 kgs.
When I was in my 20s I would go to a work seminar or social event and look at everyone in the room and assess if I could “take them”. I usually thought that I could take anyone in the room (right or wrong, that’s what I thought). At 49 I wasn’t feeling that way anymore and wanted it back.
Ben: I remember your first day at BKKBJJ when incidentally you were walking around naked as there wasn’t a designated changing area. Only in Bangkok.
Chuck: Sure! About the nakedness, that’s how we did it back in the old days. Men were not as concerned about being naked around other men. It was really common in the locker room and even at weigh-ins
Ben: Can you tell the story of how you got your nickname?
Chuck: Jeff Glover came for a seminar when I was about 5 months in. He asked if anyone wanted to roll with him. I immediately volunteered. He nicknamed me after that. It has to do with a guy in a movie The Fist Foot Way?. Not terribly complementary if you have seen the character.
Chuck: Do you remember it differently?
Ben: I actually thought Jeff’s nickname was a little sketchy being “The Pipelayer” but he said that was because he used be a plumber, I guess a bit like Super Mario.
Chuck: It seems to fit pretty well considering how I play a pressure game and top game.
Ben: I do remember Jeff suddenly calling out Chuck “The Truck”! loudly during the middle of the seminar, and it sticking ever since.
Chuck: Not feeling very Truck-like recently
Ben: You started competing almost immediately. You’ve had a lot of success winning major tournaments including Asians, Pans and I believe the World Championships? Can you give advice on how to train as a masters competitor?
Chuck: I placed 2nd at Master Worlds, 4 times, but won Pans at every belt and won a bunch of other tournaments. Compete often! Become comfortable with competition by competing often. I had 100 matches before purple belt. It keeps you focused in practice and provides feedback on your progress. Try absolute division. Face scary situations and keep moving forward. Facing your fears and overcoming them is probably the best reason to compete
I tried to compete at least once a month. Enter gi and no-gi, weight class and absolute class. Go up a weight if there is no one to fight. Go down age groups if you need to. Just get a bunch of matches under your belt. Nobody cares if you win or lose (except yourself).
People are afraid of getting hurt in competition. I have found that I am much more likely to be injured in practice. I have only had one serious injury in all my matches (dislocated elbow at 5 grappling as a blue belt in adult no gi).
Ben: I remember you taking quite a knock at the Copa De Hong Kong.
Chuck: Man! That was a nice shiner. Does that count as an injury? If so, then 2 injuries
Ben: I guess it was superficial.
Chuck: My face catches a lot of stuff because of my game. My professor says I look like I had MMA fights after a tournament.
I was remembering being a white belt and training with Ben for private’s. He told me that he thought I could win big tournaments in Masters. It made me realise the possibility of it and encouraged me to try. I also remember asking him if he thought that I could make it to Black Belt given my age. He said that I could definitely do it with diligent effort. He helped me to realise what was possible and started my quest to be a competitive Masters athlete. It’s important that we have teachers that encourage us to strive even though we are older.
Chuck: After Thailand I moved to Florida and got my purple belt from Master Liborio. About a year later I moved back to Tokyo Carpe Diem. Top Team is excellent but has a lot of big, strong guys. The style is very physical. Carpe Diem is super technical and I was a bigger guy there (large featherweight). Yuki Ishikawa gave me my brown belt after I won Pans. I went back to Florida and got my black belt last December at Top Team, Coconut Creek. Very cool to roll with the UFC guys. Totally different level than the rest of us.
The content of training sessions in all 3 places is very similar. But the atmosphere is different. I love training at all 3 places.
Ben: I think you hold a record for the most training sessions in a year at Carpe Diem?
Chuck: Not sure but I know that I trained more than 300 days a year and went twice a day pretty often. Love Carpe Diem Training.
Ben: Did achieving black belt put a target on your back for the younger and lower ranked belts?
Chuck: I haven’t really felt that but I’m older than most new black belts so maybe people go easier with me than they would with a 40 year old black belt. I do feel internal pressure to do well. It is really hard for me to roll with tough 20 something year old blue belts and not feel bad when I get owned. But aside from Megaton and a few other guys, not many guys in their late 50s can hang with a young and technical blue belt of a similar weight (I guess). By the way, Megaton is early 50s.
Also, I think that being an old smaller black belt is much harder than being a bigger old black belt. We have guys here who are my age that can smash a lot of young guys with strength and pressure. A featherweight or lightweight has to rely on technique but usually loses on speed and strength. Scrambles are really difficult for me now days
Never answered your cauliflower question. I had my ear drained in college but it was fine before I started training in Thailand. Both ears are a little messed up. Most of the problems came from escaping triangles as a white belt. Ben has great triangles!
Chuck: Here is some old guy wisdom: try to become good at learning things. Stand up when your teacher is showing a technique, move to a good position to watch the professor demonstrate, shut up and listen, if you don’t understand, ask. Actively try to process what is being taught. Try the new moves out when rolling with lower ranks.
One of the hardest things about being older is keeping your weight in check. If you want to be your best, you have to be strict about your diet
Ben: Do you have any recommendations for diet?
Also, I train through most injuries. I try to get on the mat no matter how I feel. Especially the day after competition, it is a really important day to get back to practice.
I don’t usually do anything besides jiu-jitsu. Sometimes I may run a little but most of the year I just do jiu-jitsu. Also, I try to never sit out any rolls. If I am banged up, I’ll choose a smaller partner and play defence
But, no matter what, I try to roll every roll. That’s why I am there.
Ben: Who would you consider your jits heroes or someone that’s inspired you?
Chuck: I like Bernardo Faria’s simple and effective style. He has really helped me to find the key to passing for me. I don’t have to be fast or deceptive, I can just engage and tough out a pressure over and under pass.
Ben: Which is the best seminar that you’ve attended?
Chuck: Not such a big believer in seminars but Felipe Costa changed my game as a white belt and I still use what he taught me (half guard).
Ben: OK, going to rattle off a few random questions…
Ben: American, Thai or Japanese girls?
Chuck: My kids will probably read this. But of course Japanese (my wife is Japanese so I’m covered).
Ben: Did you enjoy your first encounter with a ladyboy in Bangkok?
Chuck: Working at the counter at my neighbourhood 7-11. Really, they are everywhere.
Ben: OK not so jokey, and currently a popular topic of debate, do you think trans athletes should be able to compete in their chosen gender in BJJ?
Chuck: No, it’s just not fair. But outside sports, everything is ok, rest rooms etc.
Ben: If you could go back in time what martial art would you start with, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu or Wrestling?
Chuck: I love wrestling. So I’m biased. Wrestling is the sport with the widest base and is America’s real martial art. My maternal grandfather wrestled in college in the early 20s. Catch rules (submission wrestling),
I love takedowns. Judo is awesome but I hate the bastardised form of Judo that most non-Japanese practice (strength and power oriented).
Jiu-jitsu is fun and easier on my old body than wrestling and Judo. Also, I like Newaza so I prefer BJJ to modern Judo
I sometimes say that I wish BJJ didn’t have submissions and I’m only half joking.
Ben: Anything else you want to discuss? Viewpoints on anything jits related or even philosophical?
Chuck: I call my style of Jiujitsu G.O.T.S.O.T.S. Get on top, stay on top, submit. I guess that I am as old school as it gets except that I am not very concerned about “self-defence “ training. I grapple because I love it. I’m pretty sure that self defence is not an issue for guys who train. We are smart enough to stay away from stupid situations. If we need to go “hands on” we are more than ready.
Ben: Have you any stories about having to get “hands on”?
Chuck: I work as a Detention Officer but have never had anyone try me. About 12 years ago, when I was fat and out of shape and had been off the mats for 15 years, a big Kiwi guy wanted to wrestle me at the company Christmas party at a fancy hotel. I tried many times to dissuade him but he was shit faced and really wouldn’t take no for an answer. He grabbed me, I tossed him tai otoshi and mounted him. He gave up quickly. GOTSOTS.
Almost 40 years ago, when I was a college sophomore, a big guy on the football team (100 lbs bigger than I was) thought that I was “looking at his girlfriend”.
Before I could say anything, he punched me in the face and broke my nose, put my bottom teeth almost all the way through my lip. He stood over me thinking that I was done. I came back swinging hard. Stepped in bear hugged him, bit his chest, and he started pulling away and back. I caught him with a low back trip and he went down super hard. Completely out! But his friends kicked the shit out of me while I was on him. I got some cracked ribs but was smiling on the way back to the dorm. Nothing better than putting a bully down hard.
Interesting thing that I found out….. several of my Master 6 and Master 5 friends have endurance sports in their backgrounds. I did 4 Ironman distance triathlons, a couple of my friends did 100 mile foot races, that kind of thing
Chuck: One of my friends is a relatively famous author. He told me that writing is like sculpting. You put a bunch of clay on the table and then reveal the sculpture in the pile of clay. The difference, he said, is that a writer must manufacture the clay first. I hope that we have enough clay now
Benjamin: That’s meta. Have you come across any negative aspects of the jits scene?
Chuck: I’m not crazy about the way some of the leaders of the BJJ community act at tournaments. Really a stark contrast to the Japanese Judo community. Also, jiujitsu parents are horrible here in south Florida
I don’t like celebrating on the mat and I don’t like arguing with the ref (or even complaining about calls).
Benjamin: “Check your ego at the door” the biggest lie in Jiu Jitsu.
Chuck Willen: For sure, humble and noble Brazilians. I think that it’s about time to stop calling it Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. And probably stop calling it Brazilian jiu-jitsu, just jiu-jitsu works fine.
Ben: I think Rorion trademarked Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, but lost it in a dispute with our mate Clark’s dad. Where’s Dorothy when you need a millennial to Google?
Chuck: Did I tell you that I got my first jiujitsu paycheque last week? I’m teaching 4-6 year olds at ATT Fort Lauderdale. Very cute kids.
Benjamin: Oh wow that’s awesome. Do you find teaching to be rewarding other than financially?
Chuck: It’s fun but doesn’t pay very much. I’d like to do more teaching with adults. My ultimate plan is to become a cop (game warden) and get paid cop money with benefits and pension to teach jiu-jitsu.
Ben: What are your views on Brazilian supplements and TRT?
Chuck: Not sure what Brazilian supplementation is…..TRT works great, I’m sure but I don’t want to go down that road and find out that I can’t stop the TRT. Scary. And I’m too cheap to spring for it. And it might be cheating. And I have super high T levels from my “lifestyle”
Chuck: Working out, eating well and 5 virgins a night.
Ben: Sounds like a religious experience.
Chuck: A science.
Ben: OK let’s wrap this up, any final words or people you’d like to thank?
Chuck: I would like to thank Ben Weinstein for encouraging me and inspiring me to be a black belt. Also Ailton and Bruno for teaching me how a black belt should be and Yuki Ishikawa for putting together such a wonderful place to train.