Inside The Danaher Death Squad

Published on by Nico Ball

Photos by Nico Ball & Jeff Chu

I recently had the opportunity to hang out at Renzo Gracie New York with Black Rob a black belt under Renzo that owns his own school in Hoboken, New Jersey. Black Rob gave me some great insight on the Danaher Death Squad and their coach, the mysterious man that has been drawing so much attention thanks to the recent success of his students.

The Disciples:
While some people may not be familiar with the Danaher Death Squad, anyone that follows events like EBI or Polaris knows about the three founding members and has probably seen them executing the famed leg locks and heel hooks that are characteristic of their style.

Eddie Cummings, Gary Tonon, and Gordan Ryan are the original members of the squad and the self-proclaimed kings of all that is NoGi. In order to dash any doubts of his royal ranking, Ryan has taken it upon himself to sport a crown that was carefully crafted by the lords of burger king and then eventually replaced by some plastic replica.

Opposition to their alpha status is met swiftly and fiercely by social media smack talk and super fight challenges where Ryan has graciously offered to put up his own money in order to quell any doubts about his superior grappling skills.

Most people consider the recent outpour of trash talk and team rivalry to be the death of traditional jiu-jitsu, but how many of these naysayers and Reddit warriors have actually witnessed a day in the life of the death squad?

The Doctrine: 
People don’t understand Death Squad and the commitment that these guys have to jiu-jitsu and training. These guys are there all the time.” Black Rob observed the day after Dillon Danis and Gordon Ryan’s rivalry almost came to blows at the ADCC trains in New Jersey.

Smack talk aside, the fact of the matter is that there is a lot we can learn from the Death Squad and their training philosophy. Jiu-jitsu is their religion, and they adhere to a strict doctrine of dedication that has set them apart from other athletes. These guys work hard, study harder, drill themselves to death, and then drive hours back to their own homes and academies to teach, rest, and repeat the whole process the next day. It’s a rough training schedule and on most days, it’s even rougher trying to make it financially feasible.

In a sport where payment opportunities are scarcely seen outside of Abu Dhabi or IBJJF Worlds, and where lower belts that have won nothing except large social media followings are sucking up all the sponsorship opportunities, you can’t blame these guys for demanding to be valued.

“You may not like them, but you have to recognize what they’re doing for the sport,”

Black Rob says in their defense. After all, back in the day when he was growing up, the idea of making a living off of jiu-jitsu, of traveling the world and competing and giving seminars wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities.

Their controversial tactics may be questionable but their passion and dedication to the sport is more than evident in the way they train.

Danaher: the Mythical Man of Manhattan
“They can’t be anything but confident in their game because they have one of the best coaches on the planet.”

He is the mythical man that lives in a basement in Manhattan where it’s rumored that he spends hours in a small locker room studying film. Not just jiu-jitsu, but judo, wrestling, boxing, and MMA as well. He is a connoisseur of the martial arts and can analyze the style of the best fighters at the drop of a dime.

He has a quiet demeanor with a menacing growl and an introverted nature that makes him seem somewhat unapproachable. However, anyone who has made it through the layers of his eccentric personality knows that “he is approachable and has the funniest sense of humor.”

He considers himself to be a “dictator” in respects to teaching the basics of jiu-jitsu, but he is an eloquent philosopher when it comes to explaining the intricacies of heel hook, leg locks, and the proper ways to execute them based on physicality or style. Hours of study and endless acquisition of knowledge have made him one of the best teachers in the sport despite the fact that physical limitations have kept him from competing.

What makes Danaher an exceptional teacher isn’t his ability to absorb knowledge and spout out facts about everyone’s favorite athletes, it’s his ability to help others reach their potential that has made him such a legend.

“John has made me a better teacher,” Black Rob confirms. “As a teacher of jiu-jitsu you want to give your students the best, like your children. You want to leave that mark on them. John helps me teach that jiu-jitsu. The beauty of what he shows you is that I would never doubt anything”

He doesn’t just teach what he likes or what he’s good at. He teaches what is needed to transform a good athlete into an amazing competitor and sets great teachers on the path to becoming masters. He shows the often-overlooked subtleties to techniques that are essential to understanding the mechanics behind each move.

The original disciples were Tonon, Ryan, and Cummings, but as their prestige in competitions grew, people started noticing their evolution and success in competition, Danaher’s schedule soon filled with private classes. Students from around the country take pilgrimages to New York to learn from the mythical man that lives in the basement at the academy.

Danaher, along with his Death Squad disciples can be found at Renzo Gracie Manhattan every morning. Their first training starts bright and early at 7:30 A.M., followed by a quick nap, some drilling, and then another afternoon training session.

Anyone that doubts their commitment should stop by and witness the hours of time they dedicate to the sport. Putting aside the recent controversy that has started to infiltrate the jiu-jitsu subculture, the fact of the matter is that we are witnessing a new generation of athletes that are changing the face of competitive jiu-jitsu and making huge strides in creating more financial opportunities for struggling athletes.