To teach a champion, you have to understand his influences. For Georges St-Pierre, no mortal is more instructive than the brilliant mind of John Danaher.
Inside a windowless, underground office at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City, John Danaher is sitting behind a computer, pondering an article he’s just read on the Internet.
Outside the door of the office on Dodger-blue mats, an afternoon jiu-jitsu class waits patiently for him to emerge—10 minutes pass, then 20. Danaher is only feet away, but none of the students poke their heads inside his office or dare to interrupt with sounds from their own conversations. As America’s busiest city bustles overhead, 50 of the Big Apple’s most successful professionals sit cross-legged and silent, waiting for their teacher to pay them attention.
When Danaher finally emerges, he beckons over a 160-pound black belt, and in a soft, clear Kiwi accent says, “Today we will learn the Tomoe Nage. The first step to the Tomoe Nage is to make sure you have a solid grip on your opponent’s lapel. The second is to grab his sleeve at the elbow with your other hand…”
Danaher’s words give way to action. The third-degree Renzo Gracie black belt sits gently to his left hip as he puts his foot into his opponent’s waist, then he rotates in a circle before using his leverage and grip to flip him ass-over-head. He recomposes to his feet, stiffens his back, and repeats the same instruction. The serious-faced Danaher never changes expression or opens his mouth to breath.
After a third demonstration, the class retreats to mimic at they’ve seen. Professor Danaher sits against the wall and scans his classroom.
The class is here to absorb what UFC fighter and Danaher-trained grappler John Cholish has jokingly referred to as the “Danaher Experience,” a reprieve from the false machismo and over-confidence of typical jiu-jitsu and MMA coaches. In this room, the attention is placed on the student and optimizing his physical attributes through a carefully crafted learning experience. No excess explanation, just the facts.
When you grow up on an island, most of what you learn comes from the written word. For Danaher, who was raised in the “idyllic and fulfilling” town of Whangaparaoa, New Zealand, it was books about America that offered him both an escape and education. “I avidly read about American history,” says Danaher. “I think because I knew I’d live here one day.” Much of his life on New Zealand’s north island was Spartan-like. “I didn’t watch television until 1976. And even then it was to cheer wildly for the Americans during the Montreal Olympics.”
A bright student, Danaher breezed his way through high school and college, earning a Master’s in Philosophy from Auckland University before being awarded a scholarship to Columbia University to earn his Ph.D. He arrived in New York City in 1991.
Danaher, then 240 pounds and power-lifting as his “main source of physical recreation,” found work as a bouncer at the Upper West Side’s Crane Club, an establishment that had started out hosting Jewish singles parties but had since attracted professional sports teams and more malevolent late night intrigues. According to Dr. Peter Maguire, a historian and author who befriended Danaher at Columbia, “He was level-headed in confrontation, a total gentleman. That is until the second he wasn’t.”
Columbia University by day and the Crane Club by night, Danaher’s life in the early ‘90s was a compartmentalization of his passions. In Morningside Heights, he could teach “Intro to Moral Philosophy” to undergrads and write his dissertation (paraphrased as “Logic of Theory Change in the Physical Sciences: What Makes Scientists Want to Revise Theories in the Face of Contradictory Evidence”), and in the evening he could confront violent humans. It was on the barstool that Danaher got his first up-close study of the physical and psychological solutions used to control another human’s aggression.
“Violence is universal, but in America, there were subtle differences,” says Danaher. “In New Zealand, there were more fist fights. In America, there was more talking before fights, and less actual fighting. But when violence did break out, it got more serious quickly, especially at hip-hop clubs, which tended to have more of a knife and gun culture.”
Danaher didn’t just learn about gunplay, he also witnessed the advantage American wrestlers were enjoying in street fights. “In New Zealand, wrapping up another man was seen as unsportsmanlike, but I could see they had a leg up.” In late 1994, a friend showed Danaher a grainy video cassette of UFC 2, and the control-hungry Kiwi formed an instant attraction to Brazilian ground fighters like Royce Gracie. Puzzle solving as a means to control another human—the conceit was too powerful for Danaher to ignore.
Danaher began training with Craig Kukuk, the owner of a small gym in NYC who was often being visited by Renzo Gracie, Matt Serra, Ricardo Almeida, and “other luminaries of the sport.”
“John looked like a sasquatch back then,” says Serra. “He was 250 pounds, hair down to his shoulders, and he’d roll in a mesh Giants jersey.” Serra, whose favorite anecdote about Danaher is that he wore a rash-guard and a jean jacket to the former UFC champ’s wedding, describes Danaher sartorial individualism as “I don’t give a fuck.”
By 1996, Renzo had settled in New York and promoted Danaher to purple belt. Entering his final year at Columbia, Danaher was splitting time between rolling jiu-jitsu and preparing the defense of his dissertation. Renzo had just lost Serra and Almeida to relocation and needed someone to instruct his day classes. He offered Danaher the position, forcing Danaher to decide between quitting his Ph.D program and losing the opportunity to pursue jiu-jitsu as a full-time job.
“I wanted to remove him from the academic world,” says Renzo. “I thought he was going to kill himself. Very depressive, very sad constantly, you know? I saw that, and I said, ‘You shouldn’t write about things that put you down for weeks.’ He was writing about religion—I said, ‘My man, our religion is jiu-jitsu! It’s our lifestyle!’”
Danaher took an afternoon to “ruminate” on the offer. He chose jiu-jitsu. “People thought I was crazy, but the thing is, I always did philosophy because I loved it, and I didn’t feel the need to get a piece of paper that said I’d finished. I was in a new area of inquiry, and I wanted to get as good at that as I had been in the academic work.”
“Danaher’s an autodidact,” says Dr. Maguire, who had wished to see his friend complete his dissertation defense. “His jiu-jitsu is different because he’s pulled the problems apart and studied them objectively. He’s a study in violence, and he’s earned his Ph.D in human aggression. What we’re seeing now is his twist on the sport.”
Danaher had been working with Georges St-Pierre for three years when the Canadian had his first UFC title defense against Matt Serra. Although Serra no longer trained in NYC, he was Renzo Gracie’s first American black belt and Danaher’s former coach. Once the fight was booked, Serra called Danaher and asked him not to coach St-Pierre.
Danaher agreed, and Serra won by TKO, but after Serra’s victory there was a long line of fighters between St-Pierre and a rematch, leaving the former teacher of “Introduction to Moral Philosophy” in a serious moral quandary.
“The most dangerous thing from Matt’s perspective was showing Georges how to beat Matt Serra,” says Danaher. “I would never do that—it would be nothing less than a betrayal. On the other hand, I’d be betraying Georges if I didn’t help him beat Koscheck and Hughes. I couldn’t be loyal to one without being disloyal to the other.”
Despite the fighter’s brief détente, Danaher still wasn’t allowed to train St-Pierre inside the academy. To accommodate him, St-Pierre would wear a “baseball cap, hooded sweatshirt pulled over his face, and a bulky leather jacket” and wait outside Renzo’s for Danaher to finish his final class of the night. The pair would then call up local karate schools and dojos and ask to use their mat space. “They’d always try to turn us away, but then they’d see Georges pull down his hood and they’d freak out.”
After the destruction of Koscheck and Hughes, Danaher once again stopped coaching St-Pierre before his rematch with Serra, a gesture that both fighters and teacher seem to agree was a difficult and proper decision. “It was never awkward with me and John because he always did the right thing,” says Serra. “He stayed out of it and didn’t coach him for the rematch. It was a tough spot, but he a very honorable dude.” St-Pierre won the rematch and regained his title.
With the Serra fights behind them, St-Pierre and Danaher grew even closer. They started reading the same books, discussing philosophy, and studying…dinosaurs. They’re unapologetically nerdy about their non-fighting intellectual pursuits, but the bulk of their conversations still cover the psychology of human aggression and how to dictate and control an opponent. Their concentration is what you should expect from a pair who have revolutionized ground fighting in MMA and made St-Pierre the best wrestler in the history of the UFC.
Today, Danaher’s world is filled with learning and teaching. Whether he’s in Montreal with Georges or NYC with a room full of respectful blue belts, Danaher is no longer splitting his passion for philosophical thought and physical applications—he now has a laboratory where he can combine the two.
“Look, I wouldn’t call him ‘Little Mary Sunshine,’ or anything,” says Dr. Maguire. “John Danaher is a realist and a stoic. Human happiness has never been an objective of his life. But he is a born teacher, and he’s found his classroom.”