Tom DeBlass is one of the most well-known names in jiu-jitsu. And although he owns an impressive competitive career including a black belt no-gi Masters world championship, a no-gi Pans championship, and a successful MMA career with fights in the UFC, DeBlass is quick to point out that his continued relevance in the jiu-jitsu world has little to do with his competitive accomplishments.
“I’ve won some cool stuff, but there’s people who have won more things than me,” DeBlass told Grappling Insider in an exclusive interview. “I do very well on the business side of things, even better than most people who have competed well, and I think that just goes to show you don’t need to compete to be successful in jiu-jitsu. I think you need to be authentic, and there’s no denying my authenticity.”
Indeed, whether he is talking about his ever-growing affiliation of jiu-jitsu academies (which now boasts over 30 schools), his continued success as one of the most sought-after instructors on BJJFanatics, or his ability to connect with fans worldwide, DeBlass always returns to his undeniable authenticity. Take him or leave him, but the Tom DeBlass fans and followers see is the real Tom DeBlass.
Of course, that authenticity isn’t worth much if it doesn’t authentically come from a good place. In terms of teaching jiu-jitsu and growing a successful team of affiliated schools, DeBlass starts with, above all else, trying to help people.
“I’m good at the business side of things because I don’t look at it as a business.”
“Contrary to what people think, for sure I’m a little nutty at times, but really my purpose is to help people and that’s genuine to the core,” he said.
“I’ve managed to stay very, very relevant my entire career and I’m not even competing,” DeBlass said. “It has nothing to do with competition. I think you could take all my titles and all the cool things I won and throw them in the trash and I still think that I would be relevant because I feel I can help people…
“I’m good at the business side of things because I don’t look at it as a business. Ironically, if I looked at it as a business I would do things much differently. My affiliation fee would be higher, but it’s not about the money to me, it’s about changing lives, and I think money has to be a consequence of helping people. If I don’t help people, I’m good for nothing, I might as well be dead.”
DeBlass’s authenticity doesn’t start and end in the training room. That principle extends to ever aspect of his life, including social media. DeBlass doesn’t see social media as simply a mindless way to pass time, but rather an opportunity to connect with fans, grow jiu-jitsu, and most importantly, help people feel less alone.
“I think people get to see that I’m human,” he said about his social media use. “I know in the world of worlds I’m nothing yet. In jiu-jitsu, I am somebody, and I think a lot of the jiu-jitsu guys who are somebody, they walk around almost like they don’t have to interact with anybody, like they have a chip on their shoulder… I don’t know what it is, there’s just not authenticity. I see it all the time. They only portray themselves to be just one way.”
“People have seen me suffer on the mats, in the cage, and off the mats; they know I’ve felt pain.“
A quick look at DeBlass’s Instagram shows that he is quick to share his successes and defeats, his celebrations and struggles (and a fair amount of silly memes). It comes as no surprise, then, that when DeBlass’s father recently passed away, he grieved openly, letting fans and followers in on the emotional toll of losing a parent.
DeBlass’s authenticity — especially when discussing such personal topics as the loss of his father — is cathartic not only for him, but his followers, as well.
“I know there’s people out there looking at the way I’m dealing with the loss of my father and it’s inspiring them to become better people. So me losing my father, it may save hundreds of other lives. What I mean is… people living in these states of depression where they’re walking around with a smile on their face that isn’t true. I’ve gotten so many messages saying ‘Hey, Tom, I lost my son, my daughter, God bless, I couldn’t even imagine. I lost my mother, I lost my father, but the way you’re approaching it is giving me a new outlook on things.'”
By sharing his struggles alongside his success, DeBlass hopes to help people going through their own trials and tribulations.
“People have seen me suffer on the mats, in the cage, and off the mats; they know I’ve felt pain,” he said.
DeBlass also recognizes the power of social media to grow the sport of jiu-jitsu.
“Social media has given us a platform that we didn’t have,” he said. “When I was a white belt there was no social media. After training you couldn’t come on and search technique… you couldn’t interact and argue with world class guys. That just wasn’t the way back then. And now I think social media has given us that platform to really grow and it’s up to us to really keep doing it.
“A lot of guys aren’t active and I don’t understand how people aren’t active on social media because for me, that gives us the opportunity to connect with people all over the world, even outside of jiu-jitsu. How do we show jiu-jitsu outside of our academy? Through social media.”
Naturally, the discussion shifts to Gordon Ryan. The consensus best no-gi grappler in the world today, Ryan is also the sport’s biggest star, in large part due to his active life on social media where he will interact with fans, talk back to critics, and talk trash to any and all potential opponents.
“I think a lot of people who are throwing stones at him, they should look in the mirror…”
DeBlass understands that Gordon Ryan’s popularity goes hand-in-hand with the growth of jiu-jitsu.
“As far as it growing more I think it has a lot to do with the polarizing Gordon Ryan.”
A Ricardo Almeida black belt and coach to Garry Tonon, DeBlass has long been associated with Renzo Gracie, John Danaher, Gordon Ryan and the Danaher Death Squad. And although he says Ryan is “like a little brother,” DeBlass has been critical of some of Ryan’s more aggressive trash talking tactics. The authenticity never rests.
“I have been critical of Gordon in the past. I don’t agree with everything he does,” he said. “I’ve had many conversations with him. I love Gordon, he’s like a little brother, like I truly love him. I know Gordon’t heart. I don’t agree with everything he’s done but there’s no denying he brings the monetary aspect into the game, and that’s what’s important to him. And that’s not what’s most important to me, but to him it is.
“I think a lot of people who are throwing stones at him, they should look in the mirror, as well, and think what could I do better.”
Ultimately, DeBlass’s successes and failures, whether on the mats, in the cage, in business or in his personal life, boil down to and reveal his never-ending authenticity. Tom DeBlass has never hidden who he is or how he feels, for better or worse, and that’s not changing any time soon.
“The way I do one thing is the way I do everything. I do it with my heart. I do it with passion. And I care. I think that’s the key to success. For me, the key to success is helping people and in that aspect I am successful… Jiu-jitsu has given back to me more than I’ve given back to jiu-jitsu. I’m in debt.”