I started this project for completely selfish reasons. Seph Smith is one of the main instructors at my gym, 50/50 BJJ and I had all these questions for him but no real opportunity to ask them. His schedule is absolutely packed. The only time I could maybe squeeze in a question or two would’ve been when he’s using the toilet between classes or when he’s in the locker room changing… definitely not ideal.
When I told him about this project, he was gracious and patient enough to set out sometime to let me interview him and snap these photos. Keep in mind that this is my first time doing an interview like this. I’m the proverbial brand new white belt stepping onto the mats for the first time with this thing.
Interview with Seph Smith
How did you get introduced to jiu-jitsu
I was taking a random Taoism class in college, and there were a lot of people in class who had done martial arts. It was a weird class where we would do some martial arts stuff in the classroom like stick fighting drills.
I just thought it was cool and wanted to do some kind of martial art. I’d done a little bit of karate as a kid and I wanted to get back into something. I asked a bunch of people in my class what was a good school in Richmond to go to. I didn’t know what martial art I was going to do, I didn’t care, I just wanted to do martial arts.
They we’re like, “Well you should go to this school, Prodigy Martial Arts, they have a lot of different martial arts.” So I went to that school and it was kind of a weird school. Most schools nowadays specialize in one or two things, like a jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. At this school, they had Muay Thai, knife & stick fighting, Jeet Kune Do, Kung Fu, and jiu-jitsu.
I basically tried everything they had, and just thought that jiu-jitsu was the most fun, so I stuck with it.
What’s you favorite thing about jiu-jitsu?
It has just always been incredibly fun for me. Of course, it’s great to have this thing that you can use in any kind of self-defense situation. I mean, that’s kind of a given. It’s a great thing to have so that you don’t have to worry about getting into any kind of altercation with someone. It’s not that you become invincible or anything, but it’s just that you have a much better leg up over the average person. That’s always a good thing.
It’s fun and it’s problem solving. It’s getting into the flow that jiu-jitsu can give you where you get into this groove where you’re letting go of everything else and you’re just making decisions as they unravel in front of you.
I don’t know what you’d call it, that groove that you get into doing jiu-jitsu. I’m sure people find it in everything that they do, like people find it in skiing or snowboarding or whatever, but just that ability to let go and do this thing that’s happening in front of you. I think that that’s great. I love that aspect of it.
Have you ever had to use jiu-jitsu in a self-defense situation?
Have I had to, or have I, are two different questions, but yes I have. I’ve been in a couple fights since I started training. Not many, but two instances come to mind.
One was when I was at a party about a year, maybe a year and some change after I’d started doing jiu-jitsu. I was at a house party and there was just this guy there that just kept basically picking on me all night. He’d started from the moment I walked in the door of the party up until the point when we actually ended up getting into a fight.
The guy had just come to the party planning to pick somebody to get into a fight with and trying to beat him up with whatever martial art he knew. He knew some kind of martial art, I don’t know what it was, but he just basically kind of pushed it too far and at that time I’d never gotten into a fight using my jiu-jitsu before.
You were a white belt at the time?
Yeah, I was a white belt. I think I went a little overboard on the guy because I wasn’t confident. I didn’t have that confidence to say, this is the all that I need to do. It was either go crazy or nothing, and I went a little crazy and ended up armbarring him really hard, triangling him, punching him a whole lot and knocking him unconscious. It was a little crazy. After I choked him out, I felt terrified that I had probably killed the guy, so I woke him back up and then he was okay. Then he started crying, which was just kind of a hilarious ending to that night.
Another time when I was back on one of my old teams, we all went out into D.C. on Halloween to go out to a bar. This guy started a fight with a friend of mine and then a bunch of people jumped in, so of course we jumped in to help break it up.
That was kind of a crazy situation too because you’re in the middle of a bar, in a club, and everybody’s throwing punches everywhere. You don’t really see where they’re going to come from and as soon as your try to commit to fighting one person, somebody else is jumping in too.
So I don’t know, I’ve used it a couple times, but I definitely think that maybe these things could have been avoided. Definitely the first one could have been, but the second one I think 10 times out of 10 I would have stepped in to help my friend if he was getting ganged up on.
I definitely think that doing jiu-jitsu helped me out in that situation and I was better off having it than not. But like I said before, it doesn’t make you invincible.
What do you think is the hardest thing about jiu-jitsu?
One of the things that I like about jiu-jitsu is that there are always levels to it. You’ll be able to beat some people, but then there are some people that just make you look like you know nothing. They just beat your ass. Then you see those people who beat your ass go out and lose to some other guy, and you’re just like, Holy shit, this just never stops.
The ability to be relaxed, believe in your jiu-jitsu, and be as effective as you can be- there’s a groove that you can get into where you’re believing in your jiu-jitsu and you’re not worried about what the other guy’s going to do. You’re just responding to what’s happening in front of you and being able to fight calmly and competently, even if things aren’t going your way.
That can be the hardest thing.
Of course it’s very easy to be relaxed, to just believe in your jujitsu and flow with somebody who you can beat up, but then when you go against somebody who’s better than you, then it becomes more difficult.
That, to me, is always the hardest thing, to grapple effectively against somebody who is just able to crush you.
What was your most humbling moment in jiu-jitsu?
I don’t know. There have been so many. It happens all the time. You run into somebody who’s just way better than you and just get your ass beat.
Ryan [Hall] beats me up regularly. That’s like a daily humbling experience. Rolling with some of the people that I’ve rolled with over the years, like Murilo Santana, who just absolutely steamrolled me when I trained with them. Bruno Frazatto is another incredibly good guy that I’ve trained with every year, a bunch of times.
There’re guys that are out there- I think if you’re doing jiu-jitsu, you’re regularly getting humbled. You SHOULD BE, if you’re not then you need to go find a place where you are.
Was there ever a moment when you wanted to quit?
No, not really. There have been dark times in my jiu-jitsu due to injuries, like when you have to get surgeries and you go through this recovery and it’s uncomfortable and painful and sometimes you don’t know if it’s ever going go back to being 100%.
There’ve definitely been highs and lows, but my love for jiu-jitsu has never gone away. I’ve never just been like, I don’t care about jiu-jitsu anymore, or, I don’t want to do it anymore.
There have been different times when I don’t want to be injured anymore and that just keeps happening. That’s a shitty thing. When it’s good, it’s good.
Could you talk about some of the injuries that you’ve had? Have you trained through things that you shouldn’t have trained through?
Sure. I’ve had three surgeries since I’ve started.
I had a shoulder surgery in 2009, and then in 2011 I had a labrum surgery on my hip. I also a hernia and although it was kind of a minor injury, the recovery for that thing sucked.
As far as my hip goes, I’ve got arthritis in my hip now. Basically I had pain in my hip and I knew that there was something wrong with it, but I just put off the surgery for over a year which was a really bad decision because I had this bone spur on the head of my femur that was just grinding up the cartilage.
If at the first sign of like, Okay, something’s wrong here, if I had gotten surgery, there would have been more repairable cartilage. But after training on it hard for a year and a half or so after I’d known something was wrong, I just ground that cartilage down until it was just shredded and a lot of it just had to be cut out of my hip.
I have a lot of hip problems now as a result of it. I could go get a hip replacement, which is just- that’s basically the end of my competitive jiu-jitsu. I know I will eventually, but I’m going to hold that off for as long as I can, at least until they figure out how to make some bionic hip, so I can be part robot and become indestructible, but they’re not there yet so I got to wait.
I definitely think that in jujitsu, if you have something wrong, like a shoulder tear or something- there’re certain things like if you strain something, it’ll get better on its own, you just take some time off and no problem. But if you’ve got- like a lot of people, they have a torn labrum, torn cartilage, or torn rotator cuff, or something like that, requiring surgery. But they’re afraid to get surgery so they put it off. I think it’s very unwise to do that.
You should definitely- if surgery’s the answer then you just got to bite the bullet and you‘ve got to go ahead and do it because you can definitely take things to a point where they’re just never going to heal as good as they would have had you gotten the surgery early.
The shoulder surgery I had was great. I knew something was wrong with my shoulder, I got it checked out, it was torn, they just fixed it right away, and now my shoulder’s 100%. If I’d done the same thing with my hip, I can only imagine how much better off it would be than it is now.
What did you do during your recovery period? I imagine after a surgery, you can’t do much for a least 6 to 8 weeks, right?
Yeah, well that’s just not the case for me. My job is being a jiu-jitsu coach, so after I had hip surgery, I’d just be on the side of the mat in my damn pajama pants and crutches, just sitting there on the sidelines telling people what to do.
I can tell you one of the most frustrating thing in the world, is to try to coach jiu-jitsu with only your mouth. Not being able to get on the mat and show people what you’re trying to do, because words only go so far. It definitely made me have to be more articulate, so there was something to be gained there, but I don’t want to do that ever again. I mean it sucks. It’s just really frustrating because you know that very easily you could show this person how to do what you want them to do, but you can’t.
Same thing with my shoulder surgery, but that was a lot easier because it’s just your shoulder, you can move your body around, but your hip is the center of your whole body and you just can’t do anything.
So you’ve never had a long continuous lay off from jiu-jitsu or a break or anything?
No, I’m never just like, I’m going to do something else for 6 months and then come back to jiu-jitsu. I’ve never done that. The only thing that’s ever taken me off the mats were injuries, and even then I would always still be there in class, sitting on the sidelines doing whatever I needed to do.
How do you balance other aspects of your life with jujitsu? Because I know how much time you spend at the gym: teaching, coaching, training for yourself and everything, it doesn’t seem like you have any time at all.
Yeah, you’re right. I don’t. It’s NOT balanced [laughing]. That’s all I can tell you, it’s just not. I do my best, but man, I don’t know. I just don’t have much of a life outside of it. Once I open up my own academy, I can promise that at the very least there’ll be no more 7AM classes [laughing].
Relationships suffer. I’ve had many of those fall through because of jiu-jitsu. Sometimes it’s hard to keep on top of your finances and stuff because you’re so tired from doing jiu-jitsu all day that everything else is just like, Well this is nothing because there’s not a guy crushing my face right now, so I don’t care. Then it ends up being not so good, but you just do your best.
When and why did you decide to do jiu-jitsu full time?
Maybe a year and a half after I started doing jiu-jitsu, I was like, This is what I want to do. At that point, I was just working to support doing jiu-jitsu. I used to do construction and granite counter top installation and work at restaurants or whatever. It was just something like, Okay, if I can do jiu-jitsu after work, I’m fine.
Then after doing that for a while, I decided I wanted to move away from my hometown. I started jiu-jitsu in February 2001. I fell in love with it pretty early and just felt like I didn’t care about school and college at the time. When I was in college, I was just going to school, taking classes, trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I really didn’t want to do anything. So when I found jiu-jitsu, I was like, This is it. I’m going to do this with my life.
Back in December 2005, I was actually able to have a means of doing it full time. My old coach was a student of Lloyd Irvin, and at the time when I lived in Richmond I would regularly drive up to Lloyd’s in Maryland once a week just to train.
I was driving up there so regularly and was just trying to train as much as I could. I asked him [Lloyd Irvin] if he would give me a job teaching at his academy, not just teaching but to work there so that I could train full time. He said he’d give me a job, so 2 weeks later I was out of Richmond and I’ve been in this area ever since.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about doing jiu-jitsu full time? From the perspective of a newbie, it seems like it can be a glorious life.
Yeah, I definitely want to punch people in the face sometimes when they say stuff like, “Well you just get to do what you love all day long.”
As if it’s not work and like it’s just all fun and games all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing jiu-jitsu. Over the years I’ve gotten better than I would ever have thought. I do love doing jujitsu, but it’s at a cost.
Teaching 5 classes a day, every day, is not always easy. Training for yourself is one thing, but running an academy, instructing others, being a good teacher, and having to be in front of a group of people interacting- sometimes you’re just having a bad day and you don’t want to talk to people, but that doesn’t matter because you’ve still got a class to teach.
You can’t just be like, Well I’m sad today guys, so I guess class is going to suck. You got to turn that shit off. It’s a job like anything else, and it’s a job that I choose because I love jiu-jitsu, but a lot of people act like it’s just playing around all day, and I just want to punch them in the mouth.
Is there anything you would tell a 17 or 18 year old kid now, who’s thinking about following the same path?
I would tell them that if they want to do it then go ahead. It’s going to be hard work, but if that’s their dream and they want to pursue it, then go ahead. Down the line, you never know. I would say one of the hardest things about it is coming to terms with the fact that you don’t always know where you’re going to end up.
I’ve had a few situations where I thought jiu-jitsu was going to be taken away from me because of injuries. I was just going to have to drop everything and start a new career. That’s not easy to come to terms with when you’ve been doing nothing but this for the last 14 years.
It’s a little bit scary. A lot of jobs have a lot more security. A lot of jobs are like, you work this many years and then you’ll get a pension or whatever. You have to do that all for yourself in jiu-jitsu.
I think as long as you understand that- I’ve seen a lot of guys that were training full time and didn’t care about money, and didn’t care about anything else except getting really good at jiu-jitsu. But then life would catch up with them and they get injured or something and they end up kind of like a shell of themselves where they’re all broken up and injured and they don’t have any money.
Then they can’t really compete with people who are up and coming. They just kind of fall off and into a kind of a sad place where they were chasing this dream but they got led into shit.
You’ve got to be smart about it. If you want to do jiu-jitsu for a living, you’ve got to learn how to market yourself. You have to learn business. You’ve got to have a clear plan, like, Eventually I want to own my own academy.
All right, how are you going to do that? What are you doing to work towards that? Are you saving money? Are you making enough money for your living? If you’re just barely making ends meet every single week, how are you ever going to get off the ground?
Some people find themselves in good situations where people invest in them and they get in good spots, if they’re really good, but some people don’t.
It’s not an easy path, but I think one of the things to pay attention to if you’re thinking about doing jiu-jitsu for a living is just making sure you don’t end up broken and broke.
You need to make sure you’re always planning for the next phase. If you have a phase where you want to put everything into competitions, that’s fine, but eventually you’re going to need to transition towards like, Okay, where am I going to be teaching? Or am I going to have my own academy? How am I going to do that?
Did you have a mentor that helped you along to do this?
Mostly Ryan [Hall]. When I started out training with Lloyd, I got to see how an academy works on the inside and got to learn a lot about running an academy from him. Good things and bad things. Things I didn’t really think would be great. Definitely Ryan. I hung out the most with Ryan, not just jiu-jitsu but also things in life. He definitely helped me prepare to open up this academy that I’m going to be opening up in July.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself as a white belt or a blue belt?
Definitely get hip surgery as soon as your hip hurts. Save more money. If I could talk to my younger self, I would show myself better ways to train, because when I first started doing jiu-jitsu, it was kind of the dark ages. There was no YouTube. There was no Mendes Brothers online or MGINaction.com. Everybody was just kind of working with the little bits of information that they had and it wasn’t much.
The other thing is we were also just trying to fucking kill each other all the time instead of training effectively. It was that go hard, be the warrior mentality, which was just stupid. We should’ve been trying to build different skills instead of just beating each other up all the time.
You look at different sports- there are really effective ways to train that don’t always involve riding yourself down into the ground. I think if I could have imparted better training methods on my old self, that would have been a good thing. I’ve been training jiu-jitsu for 14 years, and feel like I could have learned everything that I know in half the time.
From all your years of coaching and all the students that you’ve seen, what are the things that separate successful students from others? What are the things you see most commonly hold a student back?
The people that I see that do the best have two things.
Some people just don’t have any balance in their life. They’ll go real hard, they’ll be real into training for a while, then money or something catches up with them and eventually they just can’t be as old as they are and not making any money. They’ll get a lot of pressure from their family to do something else, and then they just quit, and they just go and get a job and do whatever. There has to be some sustainability to your lifestyle.
On top of that, some people only care about winning. Of course winning is important, but all they care about is just trying to beat whoever is in front of them in practice and they don’t focus on the jiu-jitsu itself. A byproduct of good jiu-jitsu is you get to beat people up, because jiu-jitsu works, whether you believe it or not, it does. But some people, all they try to do is win or they try to not lose. They just want to grab you and stop you from doing your jiu-jitsu and just hold on to you. They’re not learning.
You kind of have to let go of that stuff. You just have to let go and try things. You have to be playful with it. People always say “to keep it playful.” Statements like that are true, but they can be easily misconstrued. It doesn’t mean you can’t train hard. It doesn’t mean you can’t be serious about jiu-jitsu, but when it comes to technique and the application of it, you want to be able to play and just be able to try things. If they fail you need to pay attention. You need to say, Okay, that didn’t work, why didn’t it work and how am I going to fix this?
Pay attention to what you’re doing. A lot of people, they just show up and they just train and they sweat and they just do what they do and then they leave and they forget about it. I think martial arts are like anything else, it’s an art and you kind of have to live with your art.
If you take notes on all the details the instructor is saying, then you go out and try it, and when things don’t work too well you can actually analyze things. How did your training go that day? What happened? Did you feel yourself exerting a lot of energy? Did you feel like you were able to make things happen efficiently? Were you running into walls?
If you pay attention and write these things down, you can troubleshoot things and ask your instructor for feedback. You can say, I’m running into trouble, I keep trying this thing, but the guy keeps doing this and I tried it like 6 times and he kept doing the same thing to stop it. What am I doing wrong or what can I do to overcome what he’s doing?
You can build on these things, but a lot of people, they just don’t pay attention. They just show up and they just fight and then they go home and that’s it. You’ll get better if you do that. If you train that way you’ll get better over the years naturally just from immersion but it’ll be a much slower process.
If you’re not afraid to try new things and you try what the instructor shows you and keep working at it, then eventually you start finding little ways to make it work. You start understanding it more deeply, THEN you’ll get better. You will. If you believe in the jiu-jitsu, and you believe in your instructor and do what they show, it’ll work. A lot of people, they just halfway do what the instructor shows.
You tell people to stand up in the guard to break the guard open. They’re afraid to stand up because they got swept a couple times so they stop trying, or they halfway stand up then they get pulled into triangles and stuff. You have to learn how to stand up without getting knocked over, and the only way you’re going to do that is to do it 100 times and then 1000 times and then get knocked over a whole bunch and then learn little subtleties like how to lean a certain way to not get knocked over. You’re going to have to go through failure.
You’re going to have to fail and you just have to be like you don’t care. It’s not that you don’t care about getting better at jiu-jitsu. If you’re trying to do the right thing and you fail, it’s okay. You can just keep trying and eventually you’ll get it, but if all you care about is winning in the moment and you’re not thinking about the bigger picture, then all you think is, Well if I stand up right now, I’ll get knocked over, so I’ll put getting better at jiu-jitsu on the back burner, because I got to beat this guy in front of me.
That kind of mentality is what screws people up and holds them back the most; the fear of failure and the need to win in the short term. I think every person who’s in front of you is just a training tool to get better at jiu-jitsu. Sure, there are people you want to be able to beat up, but you can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. The most important thing is getting better at jiu-jitsu.
You’re using this person in front of you to get better at jiu-jitsu, not to beat them. Who they are or whatever is kind of irrelevant. I think that’s pretty much it, it’s just focus on the jiu-jitsu, focus on getting better and try new things and don’t be afraid.
How long into your own journey were you able to get to that point where you could set your ego aside and not just go for the win all the time, but actually try to learn?
I’d say it’s a process and it’s something that I still struggle with. I can’t say there’s a point in my career where I became perfect. Knowing what the problem is and always being able to effectively deal with it are two different things. I don’t know. I would say I still deal with it to this day, but at least I know what the right path is.
When I learned that? I don’t know.
For the average student that’s just a hobbyist with a wife and kids and a full time job, sitting at a desk all day, where they’re kind of out of shape, who only has 5 hours in the week to spare, what do you think would be the most efficient use of those 5 hours? As many classes as possible? Strength and conditioning work? Or a dedicated study hall where they write in their journal and they think about their game and how new techniques fall into their game?
You can always think about jiu-jitsu, watch instructionals, analyze matches, and do all that stuff by yourself. But if you have 5 hours to get out to do stuff, I would spend the whole time training. Jiu-jitsu should provide a level of strength and condition in and of itself. If you’re just trying to get as good as you can with that little time, just spend it in class. Come and train! Coming in as much as you can is the best way.
What kind of diet do you follow?
I’m almost vegan. I eat eggs and sometimes I use butter to grease the pan when I cook eggs. Other than that, I don’t drink milk or eat ice cream or any dairy products. I don’t eat cheese. Obviously no meat, but other than that I just eat a lot of grains, sweet potatoes, kale, and a lot of greens.
Are there any supplements that you use?
Sometimes I have a vegan protein powder that’s made from different greens and grains, like quinoa and stuff like that. Other than that, I pretty much just eat food. No supplements, really. Every time I buy supplements, it’s like I start taking it for a while and then it just kind of sits there in my house and I just look at it. I’ve never been able to stay on some disciplined regimen, but I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to take them.
Do you do anything outside of jiu-jitsu to supplement your training? Things like weight lifting, yoga, or strength and conditioning?
No. I don’t have time. I do stuff in the middle of the day to recover from the previous jiu-jitsu workout. I think that if people have the means to do it, they should. Strength and conditioning can really help out in the sense that it can protect your body from getting injuries and also just make you more effective. But for me personally, I haven’t been doing too much.
Do you have days where you do no jiu-jitsu at all?
Yeah, on Sundays. Sometimes I’ll teach a private lesson, but that’s about it. I won’t train anything other than that.
Do you do any active recovery that day, like swimming or walking?
Nope. Sundays are as lazy as they can be.
What’s next for you? I know you talked about starting a new school down in Richmond.
Yep, that’s it. I’m going to be leaving here in May and I’m going to go to Europe for a month teaching seminars. When I return, it’s going to be 100% putting my efforts into starting up the academy.
Do you have your name for the academy already?
Yeah, it’s going to be Upstream BJJ.
How did you come upon that name?
I wanted it to have something to do with the river, and it just kind of came to me. People call Richmond the River City because the James River flows through it. I just wanted to have something kind of river themed, so that’s what came to mind.
Where can people find out more about you and the upcoming seminars that you have? And where can they get in touch with you?
Do you have a list of the seminars that you’re doing in Europe?
Actually, I don’t have all of them in front of me as far as the exact dates, but basically I’m going to Iceland, Amsterdam, Germany, and to several schools in England.
Are there any sponsors that you want to shout out?
Absolutely. Inverted Gear. Those guys have given me a bunch of gear including gis and stuff. While I’d be happy to be sponsored by any gi company just because it’s nice to get gi’s comped, it just so happens that Inverted Gear’s gi’s are awesome. I really like the way they look and feel, and they all fit me perfectly. It’s almost like they were made specifically for me. I’m super stoked to be sponsored by them because I just really love their products.
Nelson Puentes and Hillary Witt, the guys who run the company are just awesome. They’ve come down and trained at 50/50 a bunch of times. I love training with them because they’re great people.
If you’re thinking about getting a new gi, you should think about Inverted Gear. They’re a little less expensive than Shoyorolls but every bit the quality. I love them and can’t say enough good things about them.
Again, I really want to thank you for helping me with this interview and answering all these questions. I’ve learned a lot from you as a coach and I really appreciate all the instruction that you’ve given these past couple of months since I moved here, so thank you very much.
Thank you Phil, I appreciate it man.
Seph also worked on instructional DVDs with Ryan Hall which you can pick up on Amazon:
- Ryan Hall – Passing the Guard
- Ryan Hall – The Defensive Guard
- Ryan Hall – The Open Elbow
- Ryan Hall – The Triangle
- Ryan Hall – The Deep Half Guard
- Ryan Hall – Back Attacks
- Ryan Hall – Inverted Guard
- Ryan Hall – The 50/50 Guard
If you ever find yourself in the DC or Northern Virginia area you should definitely check out 50/50 BJJ:
929 W Broad St
Ste 103 (Basement)
Falls Church, VA 22046