The Road to Black Belt with Ferocious Leg Locker Michael D’aguiar

Roberto Almeida (left) Michael D’aguiar (centre) Chris Smith (right)

The road to black belt is one every white belt begins, but few manage to complete. It really is a huge accomplishment, and I’m 100% positive every black belt has faced a few hurdles along the way – they just chose to keep going. After seeing Michael D’aguiar recently receive his black belt, I wanted to talk to him about his time doing the sport, things he’s uncovered along the way, and any advice he would give.

Earlier Life

So, what happened before the black belt? In just over ten years, Michael D’aguiar’s life went from semi-pro footballer to black belt BJJ competitor… “I used to do football. I was a semi-pro footballer up until university, and then someone said ‘do you want to come and grapple in the garden?’ And I was like, ‘what’s that?’ From that day – it was done, and I was addicted to it.”

D’aguiar is a well known British BJJ competitor who recently got promoted to black belt, he’s a Polaris vet so you may have seen him in the No-Gi on there pulling some leg lock stunts – but he never saw himself getting this far, let alone achieving his black belt too. In the BJJ industry, most of the elite competitors and higher belts have been training since they were kids; either brought up in a bjj family or introduced to do martial arts at a young age.

This wasn’t the case for Michael. Actually, he didn’t start any martial arts until he was 21. D’aguiar picked up jiu jitsu aged 21 after finishing university, and then decided to start BJJ aged 23/24 – so he was ‘quite late’ as he states, “I never did anything. People all around me always did Taekwondo and stuff when they were like four – I did nothing.”

Known for his leg attacks, heel hooks specifically, D’aguiar declares his inspiration, “The first ever thing I watched that got me into fighting was where Genki Sudo heel hooked Butterbean. Genki Sudo is this little Japanese dude, and he heel hooked Butterbean who’s like this American 200kg boxer, and I was like wow that’s f*king amazing. To be honest with you, I watched a lot of Japanese fights, and a lot of those fights were doing leg locks and I just started from there.” He continues, “But I am partial to a little guillotine – I’ll tell you that for free. There’s nothing better than just choking someone.” – agreed.

Speaking of his brief history doing Japanese Jiu Jitsu, it just wasn’t enough of a challenge for D’aguiar, “I went to the World Championships for Japanese Jiu Jitsu when I had been training for like seven months and I got invited to fight, they were all black belts, I’ve got photos of it. I hated it (JJJ) because I was beating people up within six months of joining, like the grandmaster whatever he was, like two minutes in, and I thought this isn’t cool but yeah I learnt a bit of Japanese, then some Judo and a bit of weird other stuff. Stabbing people with your fingers and shit like that.”

Although JJJ was a bit of a breeze for D’aguiar – he continues about his competition experience, “They GAVE me a black belt to wear. I went to Poland – it was nuts. It was like a bare knuckle fight. I wouldn’t change it for shit though – it was such a cool experience.”

How Long Did it Take?

On average it’s estimated to take around ten years plus, to achieve your black belt in BJJ, but it’s entirely dependent on varying factors like how much you train, skill-level, how much you compete etc. that can increase or decrease the amount of time taken to get to that level. I ask Michael how long he thinks it took him to get his,

“Just Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? In the Gi it’s been about eight to nine years to get my black belt. But I did MMA and stuff before, so from when I started martial arts in general, what am I now? 32? It’s been about 11-12 years. I had like a year where because of the politics of Jiu Jitsu I didn’t train just Jiu Jitsu, I was just doing MMA. So it’s probably about seven to eight years.”

Following on from that I ask, “how long were you at brown belt before you got your black belt?” D’aguiar jokes, “It must have been, I don’t even know, maybe a year? Like Nicky Ryan – my brown belt went quick.” D’aguiar was awarded his black belt on Nov 1st 2020, from Roberto Almeida, he trains at Xion Gym under Chris Smith, the first black belt in Andover, UK.

How Often Do You Train?

Training obviously plays a crucial part within personal development of the sport, so its important to train frequent and often. Depending on whether your a hobbyist or competitor will also depend on how much you train at each given level, with Michael being a competitor I was interested to see how much he trained throughout,

“Yeah, so from purple belt onwards I trained every day like two times a day. From white to purple was primarily MMA training so No Gi? Then from purple and above, just before purple, so right at the end of blue – to now – I’ve been teaching, training and coaching and all of that stuff.”

For faster development in the sport, a lot of people take up coaching when they reach higher ranks as they can teach themselves via teaching others. In BJJ you can coach at pretty much any level.

“I’ve coached all along but proper teaching and taking classes and stuff I reckon purple belt. A couple of stripes into purple belt, you start realizing that belts don’t really matter – it’s just a formality isn’t it? It’s like with No Gi isn’t it? If you’re good, you can be a good teacher – no one will give a shit if you’re a white belt. If you’re good then you can teach it.”

Did You Ever Think You’d Reach Black Belt Level?

Did you ever think you’d reach black belt level when you started BJJ? Mike laughs, humbly blurting out, “No chance!”

Due to the small area D’aguiar lives in, there wasn’t many high level belts in his area, or even many people training BJJ for that matter, “I never even saw one (a BJJ black belt) until like maybe two and a half years in – like a legit one.”

Having come this far, I wondered what advice would he have given to his white belt self now – as a black belt?

“I would say to myself – ‘don’t try to learn it all.’ White and blue you just try and soak up so much stuff. You watch YouTube all day long, you’re watching instructionals, you’re watching all of these other people and when you get to brown and black you literally f*ck off 90% of the stuff and do three things that work. White belt me used to try and soak up so much shit and like yourself, I was really amazed that small people could beat up big people. I thought this was amazing and this is sick, I didn’t feel it for years but the minute that clicks and you’re the hammer – that’s an amazing feeling. And to crack on because you do get there eventually. It takes a long time.”

If you don’t do it properly you’re just going to get bummed all of the time”

Applying weight correctly plays a huge role in BJJ particularly when you are a much smaller opponent, like D’aguiar “Especially because I’m not like 80/90kg like the rest of my gym has been forever, I have to apply it perfectly otherwise … Well you’re a girl and you do Jiu Jitsu so you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t do it properly you’re just gonna get bummed all the time.” BJJ isn’t an easy game, and it’s even harder for smaller people at the beginning as you have no immediate advantage on your opponents – like a big guy does for example. That’s just something you have to get used to.

“I have massive respect for women that do it because I think being smaller, because I’m a smaller weight too, even just to get to blue. Most white to blue don’t know how to keep their weight off you. You have to roll with brown, black belts, purple belts to really get a nice roll. The rest of it is just a fight for you all the time. Male or female.”

When starting off D’aguiar says, “You don’t know what you’re good at. What you should focus on is foundations, balance, and actually learning what Jiu Jiitsu is. What is side control and how do I get there?”

But BJJ is an ever evolving game, and no matter what your level, you’re always still learning, “I take my shoes off, get on the mat, and I couldn’t give two shits what’s happening outside. So it’s like a two hour chill without having to worry about anything else. I just love watching other people get that money moment as well. I love being able to give them that. So coaching is an amazing thing. Sometimes you’ll learn something and you’ll think fucking hell that’s just changed my life and it’s something you find so easy on the mats. I think you always chase that. Even as a black belt, you’re still learning. Every hour and again someone will show you something and you’re like why have I not been doing that for the last ten years?”

Losing Motivation to Continue With BJJ

Loss of motivation to continue with BJJ can stem from a plethora of things, such as personal life taking over, losing your mojo, not seeing any self improvement etc… Black belts are those that pushed through those hard times to get to where they are now, they didn’t give up. But what have those black belts done/ had happened to them to make them continue, and not give up?

Commenting on his loss of motivation, D’aguiar says “Yeah so I had a period where I wasn’t able to do jiu jitsu, I could have easily fallen out of love with it and thought ‘nah I’m not doing this anymore’ but someone always dragged me back.”

He expands, “There was just too much bullshit and not what jiu jitsu was about, or well what I thought it was about. So I hated it for a little bit and I think you’ve probably had this – every hour and again, being a smaller person coming up in the beginning it just was shit. Some nights you’d just get bummed and you’d go home and you’d think f*king hell maybe this isn’t for me. You know? But not too much stuff. I can’t really explain it, I’ve said it to loads of people and they don’t really get it. I don’t know what it was, but, I just can’t not do it. I love it. I don’t think about anything else.”

D’aguiar continues, “Even when I was an MMA fighter I’ve always been a grappler. I’ll always just try to take you down and submit you – that has always been my thing. And I like the idea of submissions, like you totally dominate them to be able to make them tap. It’s just the natural thing for me was always grappling. I think I always would have gone back to it, but I did have a period where I was like this is shit.”

And like any industry, BJJ can be cut-throat at times, “At purple, brown, and black, you realise there’s a lot of hateful people and if they don’t like you – you’re just f*ked off. You won’t get on shows, you won’t get on anything. If you’re under some black belt in the UK, people don’t like you straight away just because you’re under a certain black belt’s name. This is the problem – anyone attached to Jiu Jitsu will be able to tell you a political story – now why is that a thing? Why is that?”

I’m sure many of the things that made D’aguiar demotivated with the sport, almost every BJJ practitioner can relate to – especially white belts, “I don’t like the fact that you can say something, and just because someone is purple brown or black it means that they’re right. Why? Because I’ve done it longer than you? What does that mean? It means nothing. Jiu Jitsu in general isn’t very welcoming to white belts so if we want to grow the sport we need to be better. Then at the same time, you are viewed as f*ck all until you get your purple belt. I don’t like that. I think it’s bullshit. How does that motivate anyone?”

When people say you have to be in it for the long haul – they mean it.

No-Gi or Gi?

Most fighters have a preference as to whether they prefer No Gi over Gi and vise versa, Mike is a renowned No Gi fighter so his answer was a little unexpected,

“The Gi to be honest with you. I go through patches. Obviously because I’ve always competed No Gi and made my money No Gi and made my name as a No Gi leg locker – people don’t know this, it’s actually like a secret about me – I actually f**king love the Gi. There’s just so much to it, I do crazy stuff in it because I like to have fun in it, as I’m not in it as much as I am No Gi. That’s like my fun time.”

D’aguiar interestingly confesses that he actually trains in the Gi to prepare for his No Gi fights, “This is a secret as well – people ask how do you prepare for your No Gi fights? And I say I do a lot of training in the Gi. I know this sounds weird right…but it’s also f**king tiring isn’t it? Wearing like a 2kg outfit – it’s tiring. I get more tired doing the Gi, so for cardio and that I do Gi. But then closer to the event, obviously I whack it off and do a lot more No Gi. But yeah, I like the Gi because it makes you more tired and there’s more stuff.”

Most high level competitors do tend to fall into either the Gi or No Gi bracket, and since D’aguiar falls into the No Gi bracket, I wondered why. He says, “I think it happened naturally as you know, I like leg locks. You can get away with a lot of heel hooks. You can’t do them in the Gi, it just eradicates everything. Also I think being smaller, I’ll always have huge respect for the small guy that’s stuck around in the Gi because that must be a f**king nightmare. Imagine doing Gi two times a day, being a small dude, training with big guys? Because they can just pin you on the ground – which is a ballache. As well, I just think the way I went, the stuff I did was always No Gi. I personally believe there’s more money in the No Gi than there is in the Gi.”

Injuries – They’re Inevitable

Injuries are inevitable in BJJ, your limbs are being twisted the wrong way and you’re aggressively scrambling with another human being at least a few times a week – so they’re bound to occur. Signing up to do any martial arts, you’re agreeing to the pain that comes with it, and the pain that comes after, when you’re injured. Pretty much everyone that’s colour ranked in BJJ has faced at least one injury, and for seasoned professionals – it can be a lot worse.

“My worst injury is my … well both of my knees are f*ked, my MCL is completely gone in my right leg. Then is it LCL? The one on the inside? Was f*ked for a bit. I don’t have an ACL in my right leg which is the big one that goes over the front, and my left leg MCL is pretty much hanging on by a thread, and my ankles are f*ked but that’s pretty much from competing and letting it pop all the time from foot locks and shit like that. From my waist down I’m f*ked. From my waist up – I’m not too bad. I’ve got this thing, but it’s a really long word which I can’t pronounce which is primarily why I had to stop MMA because I’ve got the beginnings of brain damage from being hit in the head. They don’t know if it’s from MMA, football, or my mum dropping me on my head when I was young. They don’t know what it was, so I don’t actually know if it’s getting worse. I would need another scan to check that – but I haven’t done that yet. So all the CLs – I don’t have ankle ligaments and my brain is f**ked basically.”

Besides all of the painful injuries he’s picked up along the way and the ones he currently has, he confirms my point, “Thing is though, it’s a combat sport called combat sport – so you sign up for it. You know what you’re getting into. It’s like with the Gi, you should know, your hands will be f**ked in a few years.”

The better you get the worse your body will get unfortunately, but it comes with the sport, “When you get to purple, brown, and black you’ve been through all the shit and that’s why they call it the journey right? Because you stuck it all out. I don’t know if I would change it too much because Jiu Jitsu always has been and still is – the killer martial art. We shouldn’t really tame it down too much. To be a black belt in Jiu Jitsu you can f**king look after yourself.”

The Future of the Black Belt

Does it all stop here? No chance. D’aguiar has only just begun. “I want to do some IBJJF stuff now because they’re allowing leg locks. Not only because of that, but like I said to you, imagine being European champion at black belt in Lisbon and stuff like that. I just want to test myself and keep testing myself all the time.”

He continues, “I just want to compete as a black belt. See where I am, test myself a bit more. I would like to do an MMA fight as a black belt, but I’m a bit hesitant about it. If I had another brain scan and they said it’s not getting any worse then I’d probably have one. What’s another bang on the head? One more! And then with IBJJF I just think you can travel more. It’s easier to do stuff with IBJJF – with superfights you have to wait for your chance and then get involved. But with IBJJF I’d like to go to Portugal as a black belt, do some comps, it’d be sick. Like I said, secretly I think I’m alright in the Gi – so we’ll see how it goes.”

I asked if he would compete in the Gi as well as No Gi to which he enthusiastically responds, “F*ck it yeah – 100%. That’s what I want to do. Just unleash in the Gi!”

To seal off the interview I asked, “So if someone was to look to you for advice (of any rank) and was to say “if you could tell me one thing” what would it be?”

D’aguiar responds, “I would say the quicker you can find your niche, the better. Me for example, I’ve had a lot of success with heel hooks or leg locks in general because I truly have studied that area to a T and constantly. I’m not interested in anything else. And funnily enough when I roll, 98% of the time I’ll finish with a leg lock – that’s not a coincidence. Just do it, and do it more. If you haven’t found your thing just keep waiting because someday someone from somewhere will show you something and you will go ‘right, that’s what I like’. So I’d say literally, find your thing, and go for it. When people are like ‘I like wrist locks’ I say ‘well if that’s your thing go for it – it’s low percentage, but go for it, be amazing at it’.”

Even though it can feel like it at times – there’s no rush, “There is no rush in this game and you’ll go through phases. Like at the moment I’m not leglocking anyone, I’m focusing on back takes. So you should pick things that you like. I’m doing crazy back takes in the Gi, because that’s what’s interesting in the Gi for me at the moment. If you leg lock everyone it’s just boring so you have to progress. When I compete I’ll be like right I’m back to the leg locks. So you always go back to the thing that you’re good at.”

Even though I know everyone finds the word cringe, but BJJ really is a journey in so many ways, and many more that I’m yet to discover – just like everyone else. I find it inspiring to know just how possible it is to succeed in BJJ when you stick at it – and that also goes for a lot of things in life. Congrats to Mike on his black belt, and good luck to the rest of his BJJ endeavours, I look forward to seeing him on screen in the Gi sometime in the near future.

Instagram : @mdaguiarbjj

Lucy Wynne

Twenty-one, from Stoke-on-Trent now living in Manchester. I'm an avid writer, music lover and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) enthusiast. I began training BJJ in Southampton when at university, and I've trained ever since. #OSS

Lucy Wynne has 42 posts and counting. See all posts by Lucy Wynne