Tony Williams is the owner of Rebel Sport and Fitness, located at 842 N. California in Chicago’s Ukranian Village neighborhood. He has been teaching me Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu since 2008. In addition to being a BJJ black belt under Carlson Gracie Jr., Tony also played football at the University of Wisconsin and is one of the strongest pound-for-pound trainers I have ever met. His training style is a mixture of sports performance, corrective, and overall ass-kicking. I will stop what I’m doing to watch Tony when he’s training himself.
Brian Kent: You started your BJJ journey in college. As a football player and BJJ practitioner, how did BJJ help you as a football player; and how did playing football help your BJJ?
Tony Williams: Well, playing football definitely helped me in many ways that continue to this day. Playing at a Division I program taught me how to be a serious athlete. It gave me an understanding of the time that must be invested and the effort and strain required to succeed. The strength and conditioning of football gave me confidence and an athletic edge when it came to BJJ. Mentally and physically I would say there was a definitive advantage from the experience of football.
Conversely, BJJ assisted me in football in more unseen ways. For one, it taught me a different way of appreciating leverage and technique verse athleticism. It was a natural extension of the technical focus I was receiving in football. Good technique could out do good talent. BJJ constantly reinforces this over and over.
BJJ also helped me spiritually while I was playing or not playing football to be more exact. I was very frustrated that I was not playing very much on my team. It was a really hard pill to swallow at times. BJJ came to me at a time when I was wanting to prove myself. It fed my competitive fire and gave me something to excel at and build my confidence. It was my secret weapon that none of my teammates had and that gave me a mental edge that I was on a different level.
The irony is, if I had been playing more, I may not have had the interest to start BJJ. This is the beauty of BJJ in that reflects life and all its uncertainty and ups and downs. You will tap… You will be tapped!!
BK: You and I are quite similar. I completely understand how BJJ can give you a mental edge; I got back into martial arts for the exact same reason. Also, my college playing career did not go how I planned, and I too, needed an outlet.
Football players are taught to explode through their opponents, to physically dominate someone. BJJ is the “gentle art,” to use as little force as is required. As a hybrid, how do you blend what you learned from Coach Barry Alvarez and Carlson Gracie (Sr. and Jr.)?
TW: I actually believe both football and BJJ are more similar than different. You could argue that behind all the violence of football, there is a ton of finesse and subtlety. The same patience a running back has before exploding through a hole is much the same as setting up an arm bar then exploding to the finish.
BJJ is the gentle art but it certainly isn’t ballet. Both BJJ and football require “smart physicality.” I can run full speed down the field to tackle a punt returner, and if I don’t slow down and measure up the tackle, he’ll likely make one move and make me miss. So I must be smart in technique and aggression at the point of decision. With BJJ, I can see an opportunity for an arm bar, get 90% of the move locked in, but if I don’t time my technique and aggression, my opponent will escape at the very end.
Both sports also emphasize attacking aggressively but patiently. Not every drive scores a touchdown, and not every submission attempt gets a tap. So I’ve learned to not see my sport endeavors as differing. Rather I look for common denominators that tie them together.
BK: Once again, I completely agree — you’d think we were friends or something! Being under control on the field and on the mat is crucial; knowing when to be patient and when to be aggressive is a must. Football and BJJ are more alike than they are different.
What about your workouts? How do your organize your personal workouts and what type of body goals do you have for yourself?
TW: Workout wise my goal is to improve my BJJ performance. Therefore, I still very much train like an athlete as opposed to training for looks. Much of my training is inspired by Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell, Chris Doyle from the University of Iowa, and John Dettman from the University of Wisconsin. The Westside system has had a tremendous influence on how I train myself and other athletes alike. I do two workouts per week in a workout group. This is critical to eliciting your best performance. Good training partners to either push you, chase you, motivate you, piss you off, whatever… The social aspect of the weight room is certainly cultivated playing football.
There is no cookie cutter approach but the tenants of my training are:
- 1-day of max effort weight training per week. Simple goal of increasing strength and the skill of displaying it. Generally we max in deadlifts.
- 1-day of dynamic effort speed weight training. Here we use bands and chains in conjunction with Olympic weightlifting to work on power and speed strength. Many types of squats and pulls with bands and chains.
- Conjugate planning in which we rotate many variations of big exercises and constantly work on weaknesses through smaller movements.
- A good bit of metabolic work via kettlebells, sled work, varying high intensity cardio.
- A whole mess of BJJ training. Generally 3-5x per week. ALWAYS a lot of sparring!
- 1-2 more small workouts per week. This may include a max effort attempt in a single exercise or extra work in a few areas.
Due to Louie Simmons, I’m relearning to train the muscles responsible for movements, not just the movements by themselves. Dare I say it but it’s the “b” word… Bodybuilding! Functional bodybuilding!
This methodology has taken my current training to a much higher level. I get stronger in lifts by actually doing the lifts less. The constant exercise rotation is much more stimulating to me physiologically. The max effort training carries over to sport better than anything because basically everything in sport is max effort. Learning how to express all my effort, strength, and power when I want to is certainly a weapon when it comes to my BJJ. Play possum… play tiger!
BK: And that sir, is why you are pound-for-pound one of the strongest people I know. I was once told in confidentiality, by one of your fellow black belts, that you are the strongest 185-190 pound practitioner in the BJJ community. I think he was feeling sorry for me because I roll with you regularly, but a compliment all the same. Final question: What advice does 39-year old Tony give to 18-year old Tony as he prepares to jump on the roller coaster that is Division I, Big Ten football?
TW: Oh man! I would tell him to never confuse effort with results…. Deliver results with unquestioned effort. Uncompromising effort is the lowest common denominator to great success. Have no fear and don’t settle. See the big picture. Be bold and be relentless.