Keith Krikorian is living a jiu-jitsu lifestyle and thriving. A fixture of the elite no-gi competition scene, the 10th Planet black belt has spent the past few years competing wherever and whenever he could. And although Krikorian didn’t have a steady home gym for much of 2021, he ended the year impressively, with back-to-back tournament wins at the High Rollerz Invitational and the Combat Jiu-Jitsu (CJJ) Worlds.
Speaking with Grappling Insider, the always modest Krikorian is quick to point out that he typically excels in the EBI ruleset used by CJJ and High Rollerz. But it wasn’t simply the ruleset that led to his success, Krikorian stayed disciplined with his training, however fluid that situation may be.
“It’s very easy to slack off when you’re not expected to be practicing, you’re job isn’t teaching or running a school, it can be very easy to give yourself a break,” he said. “I think holding myself accountable, trying to make sure that I’m still studying, still drilling, still doing my strength and conditioning, and then obviously still attending class and getting rolls.”
On December 19, Krikorian collected four submission wins (three in regulation) to win the CJJ featherweight Worlds. It was Krikorian’s second time competing in CJJ. In his first appearance, he defeated Ivan Rodriguez by TKO — a relatively rare feat in CJJ. Although open-hand strikes are certainly useful in CJJ, they are typically used to establish position or set up submissions, not to end the fight.
Even with his success in CJJ, Krikorian has essentially no interest in taking it one step further and competing in MMA.
“To make MMA worth it for me personally, it would have to be a lot of money, and at the point, if all I’m competing for is money, then why am I even doing it? I don’t see anything like MMA in the future. I value my brain and mental health a little too much, ya know? And weight cutting is something I hate, and that’s something that is a necessity in MMA, and I don’t want to do that. Even if there was this huge money offer on the table, which I don’t see happening any time soon, I probably would still say no because it’s not really about the money. You gotta want to do it. As of right now I don’t really want to.”
A week before he captured the CJJ featherweight title, Krikorian won the 16-man High Rollerz Invitational. His second tournament victory in as many weeks earned him a $10,000 purse and humongous gold bong.
“It’s just very chill. Everyone is obviously high and smoking,” Krikorian said about competing at the 420-friendly grappling event. “So they’re pretty… ‘spacey’ isn’t the right word, but something like that. Which is cool, it calms down the competitive vibe a little bit. I’m used to being very high strung, especially when you’re at an event… There’s a lot going on and it can be very anxiety inducing. I wouldn’t say that the High Rollerz was that because it was so kinda chill and laid back…
“I like what they’re doing. I talked to the promoter after the show and he’s talking about using this universally used product, which is weed, to attract weed users, which is a lot of people, to jiu-jitsu, which is not well known yet, so I thought that was pretty interesting and pretty cool, kind of like a noble idea to pursue. So I had only positive things to say about that.”
Both CJJ and High Rollerz utilize the EBI ruleset. Coming up through the 10th Planet system under Richie Martinez, it’s no surprise that Krikorian is not only comfortable in EBI competition, he is one of the best in the world, particularly in the unique EBI overtimes (in which competitors try for the fastest submission or escape time from either back control or armbar control).
“A lot of people, they don’t really put the time into training that ruleset,” he said. “They would maybe train on the back or do situationals, but you have to put a lot of reps in. You have to put yourself there a lot. In San Diego, we spent how many ever years doing entire classes, an hour or hour-plus just being on the back or on the arm, and you get to troubleshoot a lot. When you’re putting yourself there a lot, you’re not only mentally getting used to someone cranking on your neck or cranking on your arm or whatever, but you’re troubleshooting all the spots where you need to.”
In terms of his specific approach to EBI overtime, Krikorian emphasizes the importance of dictating the tempo.
“Technically, I think that I am probably better than average at prioritizing getting off first,” he said with a healthy chuckle.
“Defensively, you got to start right away. You gotta go. You have to move, it doesn’t matter if you’re going with them or against them, but you have to start moving first. Offensively, you need to set up your control right away. Even just as you’re setting up the back control, just getting your seat-belt as tight as possible is really, really important. I see a lot of people have lazy upper body control, or start and they let the guy spin their hips and they have lazy lower body control, too. You really have to be sure that you’re starting right away. The best guys that I see in the EBI ruleset, they get to their spots first.”
Krikorian holds the somewhat unfortunate honor of being a three-time ADCC Trials silver medalist. His second place finishes at the East Coast and West Coast Trials in 2018 and 2019, respectively, were good enough to earn an invite to the 2019 ADCC Championships, but with another second place finish at the 2021 East Coast Trials, Krikorian still doesn’t have a confirmed spot in at the 2022 ADCC Championships.
The 2021 ADCC East Coast Trials were the largest Trials event to-date, and Krikorian’s run to the finals was impressive, as he won six matches, four by submission. Perhaps most impressive was Krikorian’s semifinal win over ADCC veteran and reigning IBJJF no-gi world champion Gianni Grippo. With just seconds remaining in the match and the score tied, Krikorian was able to find Grippo’s back and sink in a choke for a spectacular, last-second win. It was one of the most dramatic moments in jiu-jitsu of 2021, and was probably the most exciting moment of the entire tournament.
Still modest and humble, Krikorian struggled to celebrate the win.
“I was like ‘oh my God, that was weird, that was crazy.’ I couldn’t really process it, but I was also thinking ‘f***, that wasn’t even the finals.’ I can’t, I shouldn’t really be celebrating because that doesn’t even get you to ADCC, that’s just a harder step on the way there, so it was weird for me. Should I be happy, should I be overly excited or should I just try to straight face it through this? It was a weird feeling.”
Krikorian would lose in the finals to Art of Jiu-Jitsu’s Cole Abate.
Of course, Krikorian isn’t satisfied with second place. And as he prepares for the ADCC West Coast Trials in April, he reflects on what he needs to do to earn that elusive Trials gold. For Krikorian, the key is a shift in his mentality.
“I’m generally pretty low confidence when I compete,” he explained. “I’m always worried about losing, and I think that helps me in a few ways, but I think it also makes me struggle when I do get close to it because I never really believed in myself from the start, so I’m kind of surprised to even be in the finals or the semis or whatever…
“Going into this one I need to tell myself, I need to believe that I’m going to win, I need to label myself ‘West Coast Trials Champion.’ That’s not really something I let myself think about, but I think it’s important, if I want to be successful, I’m gonna have to believe in myself and I’m gonna have to really tell myself that I’m gonna win. And it doesn’t matter who’s there and who’s in front of me and I can do it and I will do it.”