During my Tom DeBlass interview, I get the feeling he’s a man who is leaving his fighting days behind, not just on the mats but in his life as well. As I ask him about various hot button issues in the sport, like referees and online flame wars, he doesn’t take the bait.
He clearly didn’t read the memo that calling people out, ranting against an organization, or just being loud, is the way you get noticed nowadays. Either that, or he doesn’t care anymore.
After all, Tom has little left to prove in his career. He has the medals, he has the academies, he has the instructionals, and presumably, he has the money to show for it. He politely corrects me when I ask if he’d like to build a large academy network now that he’s retiring.
“So I actually already have 22 affiliate schools, and I have over 400 students in my main academy. I’m scheduled for two seminars a month for the next two years. I’m happy with the way things are going. I’m coming out with a new leglock instructional. . .and I’d like to do a lot more public speaking as well. I’m very thankful for the way things have gone in my life so far and I just want to keep going and expanding and doing the best I can to touch as many lives as possible.”
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5 minutes before this picture one of my purple belt competitors didn’t listen to a word I said and gave up his back. I yelled so loud I almost had a stroke, get over it, tomorrow we are back at it again. Everyone else however did amazing. Beautiful night with beautiful people and beautiful vibes. Competition may be for everyone, but winning isn’t.
But Tom has something else: The BJJ community doesn’t just begrudgingly respect him. They genuinely like him. You can tell by the way reddit teases him for his legendary humble-bragging (yes, his whatsapp avatar is a lion) but then showing real concern when a recent hoax gave him six months to live. DeBlass chuckles when I awkwardly ask him to put to bed the rumors that he’s a dead man walking, as if he forgot all about it. He tells me it was a one off joke that started on the mats and took on a life of it’s own. He admits the subject wasn’t funny, but explains:
“Our sense of humor on the team is very grim at times. We all grew up with a very, very tough upbringing and life wasn’t easy for any of us. We had to laugh at a lot of things that most people won’t laugh at. But people caught wind of it and posted on reddit.”
I ask Tom about his relationship with the 144,000 person hivemind that is r/bjj, of which Tom is an occasional poster.
“You know, I post on reddit once in awhile and when I do I get a ton of love. But when I don’t post on reddit it seems like I get a ton of hate. I do my best and I can’t control how people. . .you know. . .their opinions.” He phrases the last line delicately.
I ask Tom if he feels pressure from being anointed as a sort of moral compass in jiu-jitsu:
“I’ve been through a lot and I’m certainly not a saint, absolutely. I don’t act different, and I don’t know if everybody sees me as a good guy.”
There’s nothing more to say, Tom is Tom. Maybe that’s why people like him. He’s a real person, virtuous enough to be a role model, but human enough that he’s not put too high on the moral pedestal.
During the Tom DeBlass interview, I brought up a recent Reddit thread claiming that the Renzo Gracie competition team was largely non-existent six years ago. Tom pushed back on that one, pointing out that Renzo has always had a world class competition team, just not as organized as it is today.
“I don’t know how people can say that the Renzo/Almeida competition team didn’t exist. I mean, we’ve have Matt Serra, Ricardo Almeida, myself. . .Team Renzo’s always had a strong appearance in ADCC, we’ve always had guys in Pride, UFC, we’ve always been competing at the highest levels. At every weight class.”
I can tell he’s a bit prickly on that subject, it seems like a good time to fast forward. I asked him about refereeing in the upcoming ADCC World Championships, of which Tom is very familiar because he runs ADCC North America. Tom obviously thinks highly of the ADCC organization. He acknowledged that reffing has been a problem in the sport, even recently. But he says organizations are doing more than ever before to clean up their officiating rules, and ADCC is a prime example.
“I see some problems with reffing, but at the same time I see problems everywhere. I mean, definitely at ADCC there’s no bias at all. Ever.” [Tom makes clear he cannot ref a match with a Renzo or Ricardo Almeida student.]
“In IBJJF we have seen some issues in the past. Maybe people favoring a few names and such. But I believe that’s getting better. I believe that the IBJJF is doing their best to hold their referees to high standards. We’re seeing less and less people “ripped off” so to speak. I think it happens sometimes, but not necessarily on purpose.”
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Looking forward to this years ADCC. This will be my 4th time attending ADCC, but first time not competing. I understand the sacrifice and hard works to compete at this level, so I respect the athletes even that much more. @mojassim80 told me this ADCC will be off the charts, I’m excited to see. I’m already planning the @adcc_northamerica trials for November of 2020. The future looks bright.
This leads to us talking about the modern state of the sport. I ask Tom what he thinks the biggest problem is in jiu-jitsu, what’s keeping us from getting to that next level. It’s the kind of question that leads to a clickbaity headline. Tom Deblass calls out so-and-so or Tom Deblass DESTROYS people who think BJJ is such-and-such.
But again, Tom just shrugs:
“You know, I don’t think jiu-jitsu has many problems right now. I think we are getting to the next level. I think more and more people are finding out about it, more and more people are getting better. I think it’s in the right direction.”
It’s a good reminder that so many of our complaints about the sport have only arisen due to it’s incredible success. When Tom won the ADCC Trails over ten years ago, there was no r/bjj, no streaming pay-per-views, hell, there wasn’t even many nogi tournaments.
I end my Tom Debass interview by probing a little about just what he considers “retirement.” With thriving masters divisions, Tom could easily compete for many more years. He admits that he’s probably going to keep doing tournaments, mentioning the IBJJF Master’s Worlds specifically. But he also says it’s time to focus on his students for awhile.
“The fact is, when I prepare for a competition I have to be a little selfish. Even this last Kasai that I competed in, the last two weeks before the competition was kinda about myself and I don’t want it to be that way anymore.”
“I’ll do a Masters Worlds, I’m definitely gonna do another Masters Nogi Worlds. . .but not right now. Right now my students need my full attention and that’s where I want it to be. I don’t have other people there that can coach on my level the way I can. So I want to be devoting 100% of my time to them. Because I do have some horses in the stable that can literally do tremendous things.”
Tom seems pleasantly content with his busy life, I ask if he’s overburdened by all his commitments, if he’d like to scale things down for a little while. Tom says not at all. Really, he seems excited to move fully into the giving phase of his career. I’m excited for that as well. Tom may have all the medals, but maybe his best work is yet to come.