‘I want to see jiu-jitsu be less cliquey’ – Dante Leon opens up about the culture of BJJ

Elite no-gi competitor Dante Leon spoke in detail about the ways he would like to see the culture of BJJ improve.

A world-class black belt since 2017, Dante Leon is a close observer of the BJJ community and culture.

The current Who’s Number One lightweight champion recently spoke to Grappling Insider about a wide range of topics, including how he believes the BJJ community could improve.

Watch the full interview below.

First and foremost, Leon believes that BJJ should have a better sense of history. He recognizes that, while the art is rapidly growing, most people starting jiu-jitsu have no knowledge of many of the sport’s top athletes and former champions.

A 2019 IBJJF no-gi world champion in his own right, Leon says that many new practitioners are only aware of today’s most popular current competitors:

“As a community, I think we need to study more and get more educated on our history and the greats that we have. There’s so much great jiu-jitsu out there that a lot of people just don’t ever look at because they look at everything that’s on the surface. They look at what is, when they come in, they open up Instagram or they open up Flo, maybe they open up the IBJJF’s page, and they see a 15-second video of somebody. They go on his Instagram and look around, they do their homework that way…”

By looking at past champions – even those in the not-so-distant past, like Xande Ribeiro or Rafa Mendes – Leon believes that new practitioners will have a greater understanding of and respect for jiu-jitsu:

“It’s going to give you a pretty solid understanding of where everything came from. And I think that can change everybody’s ideas and philosophies of jiu-jitsu. I think it can impact it positively.”

Beyond having a better sense of history, Leon thinks BJJ could improve itself by eliminating the “cliquey” nature found in much of the culture.

As the owner and head instructor of Adamas Jiu Jitsu in Toledo, Ohio, he works hard to avoid the type of drama and unnecessary competition between groups that he thinks is plaguing the sport:

“I want to see jiu-jitsu be less cliquey. The competition scene I don’t see anything really that bad with it. I think it’s going really well… I just want to see the culture be less cliquey amongst the people coming in. There’s nothing worse than when you go to a jiu-jitsu gym or you walk into your class and there’s little cliques. People over here, people over there, things like that. Gyms just have a way of getting cliquey. It’s kind of a thing that happens with jiu-jitsu, kind of a thing that happens with Crossfit. The biggest thing I do is try to keep my gym drama-free…

“You can’t build this environment where people think they’re different or they’re superior because they do jiu-jitsu. This is an environment where people need to come in and just enjoy it, just train.”

Leon believes that much of this “cliquey” culture starts at the top with black belt instructors. 

He says that many instructors abuse their misplaced sense of authority. Instead of simply teaching the art and guiding their students, these instructors use their position as a way to inflate their egos:

“This stuff comes from the top down. S*** rolls downhill. When you have these instructors who think they’re the highest level and they use that kind of energy, that kind of facade to mask over s***** character, s***** ethics in a gym, that’s when you have problems. When you have a gym where you just lead a gym, very simple, we’re here to teach jiu-jitsu, we’re here to have fun, we’re here to help you out, that’s what we’re here to do. You’re not here to vent about your day. You’re not here to beat up people. You’re not here to compete with anybody. You’re not here to argue with people…

“It’s not a social club. It’s not a retreat for anybody. It’s not a secret getaway or any kind of too-cool club like some of the gyms get to be. I truly believe that. I think it goes from the top down.”

Leon says that the situation is improving, though.

As jiu-jitsu grows and as more and more people are promoted to the rank of black belt, he sees fewer and fewer instructors and gym owners abusing their position:

“There’s not as big of an opportunity for the black belts and the people at the top to bulls*** their way through anymore. You can’t really lie about this stuff anymore. There’s too many people who are at the rank of black belt so you can’t really be an ethereal being anymore, just having 10 years of experience or just because you’re a black belt.”

Ben Coate

Ben has been involved with grappling, whether through wrestling or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, essentially his entire life. After wrestling throughout his childhood, Ben found Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a young adult and quickly fell in love. He has been training for over ten years and currently holds the rank of brown belt, and remains involved in both the MMA and BJJ scene. Ben has been writing about combat sports since 2017. He has interviewed and profiled some of MMA's biggest stars, including multiple UFC champions.

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