Dan Camarillo’s Journey From Wimp to World Champion Fighter

dan-camarillo-jiu-jitsu-1Three men circle the woman standing in the lobby of the Denny’s restaurant.

One of the men starts arguing with her loud enough that everyone eating starts paying attention.

Undeterred by those watching, the man starts pushing her around near the cashier’s desk.

There’s a uniformed security guard passively watching the scene unfold.

You’re a whore,” the man says just before he starts laying into her with his fist.

Dan Camarillo glances around the crowded restaurant and not a sole stands up to help the woman.

Dan sizes up the three larger men. “You’ve got to back me up on this,” he says as he looks towards his younger brother Dave Camarillo.

Before Dave answers, Dan confronts the man who is completely engrossed in assaulting the woman.

The man pulls his arm back to punch the woman again, but Dan deflects his swing.

For the first time, the angry man notices Dan, turns and pushes him backward.

That was the final straw. Dan slammed the guy to the ground and beat him until he stopped fighting.

Dan was in his mid‐twenties then, but he wasn’t always the type to confront a bully. In fact, he was quite the opposite.

In high school, Dan was a shy, quiet kid who would avoid conflict. He was tall and lanky at 5′11″ and 143 pounds. He remembered a day when another student threw a can of Coke at him and Dan stood still, saying nothing.

That side of Dan’s personality is surprising because in high school he was a National level Judo champion. Even after about two thousand Judo matches, he did not have a lot of self‐confidence.

Today Dan has a very different perspective.  

To be honest, that backing down kind of crap encourages a bully. He’ll just pick on you more.”

I sat down with Dan and talked about the many interesting experiences that made him into the man who would later defend that helpless woman at Denny’s.

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Today Dan is a 4th degree Judo black belt and a 3rd degree Jiu‐Jitsu black belt. He has accumulated thirty‐seven years of training Judo and Jiu‐Jitsu. He has competed the majority of his life and has won at the national and world levels and also dabbled in mixed martial arts (MMA). At age 43, Dan continues to compete in Jiu‐Jitsu matches while running Camarillo Jiu‐Jitsu in Bakersfield, California

Dan’s martial arts career began when he was five years old when he tried Judo with his father. From that day forward, his father would not allow him to quit.

Dan’s childhood was consumed by Judo and he missed many of the things his friends invited him to. Dan occasionally resisted Judo classes, but he always conceded to his intimidating father – a stern disciplinarian who yelled a lot and stood 6’4” and 260 pounds.

Like most children, Dan did not understand his father’s pressure, but now he believes his father was right all those years.

Kids don’t understand when parents push them to work hard, but “If you’re good at something, you should probably stick with it. When you’re older you won’t be able to.”

His father’s discipline did come at a price. When he was twenty‐one he competed at the Judo Senior National Championships as a black belt, but he lost to a brown belt.

After the tournament, his dad was upset because Dan should have won. Dan was confident, but once the match started he could not make anything happen. 

Dan was so sick that day that he weighed 146 pounds in a division where people were cutting weight to make 160‐pounds. His father took him to UCLA Medical Center where they ran all sorts of tests, but could not figure out why he was losing weight. 

Dan later figured out that it was stress. Dan and his father had been clashing about his training. On the weekends, Dan was driving two hours to the Bay Area to learn Jiu‐Jitsu under Ralph Gracie.

I was constantly being yelled at. I was so stressed,” Daniel said. “When my father and I argued I felt like I was doing Judo for him. I wasn’t doing it for me.”

It was not easy, but Dan decided to give up Judo and move to Mountain View, California to focus on Jiu‐Jitsu. Within two weeks of moving, Dan’s health began restoring.

Dan’s father was grooming him for the Olympics and was immersed in the Judo community. He was on the board of the U. S. Judo Federation and often flew in top Judo trainers to live at their house. He even coached the high school team that traveled to Kashima, Japan and won the fifty team tournament.

This rite of passage of sorts was what Dan needed at the time, but it did come with some regrets.

I had a really good chance at the Olympics if I didn’t quit Judo. I’m dead serious about that.”

That same year, Dan lost his first Jiu‐Jitsu tournament — the Joe Moreira National Championships which was the biggest in the United States at the time.

That bothered me, dude. I wasn’t used to losing.”

Most Jiu‐Jitsu competitors learn more from their losses than their victories. That appears true for Dan, because that loss drove him to move to the Bay to focus on that tournament for the following year. 

A year later, Dan returned and destroyed the blue belt division.

I think I tapped everybody, but one person.”

After winning the gold medal in his weight class, he fought the absolute (all weights combined). Dan submitted everyone except a big guy in the finals. When Dan was down two points, he went to submit the guy with an arm bar.

Dude, your arm popped,” Dan said after the match.

I know, man,” his opponent said, but he wouldn’t tap. 

That was the best feeling in my life,” Dan said. “Because I did it for myself.”

Ralph Gracie showed Dan the part that had been missing.

Before Jiu‐Jitsu I was not a fighter,” Dan said. “People say you can’t call competition a fight, but I completely disagree. It’s a fight and if you don’t look at it like a fight, then you’re gonna lose.”

If you want to win in competition, it’s all mental,” Dan said. “Ralph taught me how to fight.”

Dan used to bring his laid back personality to the mats and was successful in Judo, but when he brought mental aggression to the mat, he wiped people out.

I was curious how Ralph instilled aggression and Dan told me about a Jiu‐Jitsu tournament years back where UFC fighter BJ Penn was competing. After the match, Penn was frustrated because he was not able to submit his opponent.

Winning by points is not winning.” Penn said when he looked at Dan who was standing next to him. “Isn’t that right Dan?”

Penn also trained under Ralph Gracie. The school philosophy was that you can win a match by points, but you beat a man by forcing him to submit.

Ralph was stern with students. Outsiders might say excessive, but Dan repeatedly told me how important Ralph’s contribution was to Dan’s success on the mat and life. 

If you did something wrong, he would hit you with a bamboo stick. He wouldn’t hurt us, but he made sure you knew if something was unacceptable.”

At tournaments, he would sit on the sideline with a stern look that meant, “You better beat that guy.” Dan learned to drive through his opponents as fast as he could and get off the mat.

When I ask Dan what Jiu‐Jitsu gave him, his answer was simple.

Confidence.”

Then he elaborates. “Before Jiu‐Jitsu I probably would have gotten beat up at Denny’s.”

This Christmas he told his mother, “I’d be a wimp if I never learned Jiu‐Jitsu. I literally would have been a wimp.” His own mother agreed.

But fighting was not the real benefit, it’s much bigger than that. 

Dan explained that many men are unable to stand up for their families. They may never get in a fight, but they will face confrontation.

In life people will try to intimidate you – bosses, lawyers, salesmen or others will coerce you into making bad decisions. It takes courage to challenge these people.

That same courage helped him in other ways. In high school he was consumed with Judo and did not talk to girls much. When he moved to the Bay, he went through a bad breakup.

Dan’s buddy said, “Dude, we need to get you out,” because Dan would not do anything but lay around his room. His friend starting taking him out where Dan had to learn to talk to women or be alone the rest of his life.

For a young man, it can be frightening to approach a woman. More so than fighting in a cage. 

Okay, I’m just gonna go up and talk to her. I’ll learn that way,” Dan said. That confidence came to him after training with Ralph.

I understand what he means about women, but regardless, I ask what he is afraid of.

Failing,” Dan says. “I’m afraid of failing.”

Dan tells me that last night his daughter climbed into his bed after she had a nightmare. He was sitting there looking at her and thinking, “I need to figure this out. I need to provide for my kids,” Dan tells me, referring to unpredictable income as a small business owner.

Today my worst fear is not being able to support my family. I have to be someone that she looks up to.”

That fear seems different than what he might have felt during his two mixed martial arts (MMA) fights – but perhaps it’s the same.

The only reason I stepped in that cage was because I was scared,” Dan said. “Competing forces me to test myself.”

Dan was not afraid of getting hit. He said you don’t feel the pain until the next day anyway.

His biggest fear was losing.

There are people watching me,” Dan said. “I’ve been doing this my whole life. I don’t want to go in there and lose badly.”

Dan said his drive is part fear and part desire to accomplish something. He admits there is some ego that drives his fears.

Recently Henry Akins taught a seminar at Dan’s gym. Dan asked if Henry still competes and he replied, “No, that’s an ego thing.”

Dan agrees, but competing keeps him going. “I perform better when people are watching.” 

We agree that ego fuels much of a man’s behavior.

Dan took ten years away from competing to focus on teaching and building his school. With teaching, work and family, he was afraid he would not train enough to be competitive.

When he finally stepped back on the tournament mat, he beat his opponent rather quickly. That built his confidence, but like most who earn their next belt, he questioned whether he really belonged at the black belt level.

He immediately signed up for the Pan American tournament and won his first match with a flying triangle choke. His second opponent was Cleber Luciano who he used to admire while watching the black belt super‐fights. Dan lost by only one advantage.

After that tournament I knew I belonged,” 

Since then, he has won the U.S. Open three times, submitting every opponent. As a black belt, he has only lost three matches.

Dan takes teaching seriously and says it’s hard to fully invest in teaching and competition. You cannot give one‐hundred percent to both.

Today his job is to motivate his students. In the early years his dad made sure he went to the gym and later Ralph provided the greatest motivation of his life. It was a lot easier when he did not have to think and just did what he was told.

I wish I had a coach telling me, ‘Get out there and do this,’ because honestly, there are times I’ll teach and then just sit back and watch.”

He still puts in some tough training sessions, but Dan’s competitive side wishes he pushed a little harder. It’s hard to compete at the top levels without a good coach.  

I love winning, dude.”

Why do you love it?” I ask a seemingly dumb question.

Because it feels so much better than losing.” We both laugh and I decide to leave it at that.

Dan has been teaching for almost two decades so, I ask what distinguishes the top students. He says the people who advance fastest are the ones who love to be at the gym training Jiu‐Jitsu.

Dan tells me about a girl he promoted to blue belt after only one year. Some criticized him saying he should have waited longer, but then he explained her ambition.

She trains two times, every day and takes copious notes during class. She beats all the white belts in class and after he awarded her blue belt, she won her first tournament by submitting a girl who had been training for three years.

What separates her, I suggest, is her obsession. Dan says sometimes that’s what it takes if you want to be really good.

Dan reminded me of the great quote, “A black belt is only a white belt who never quit.”

For my final question, I ask if he would have done anything differently.

Dan thought about it and said he did not do well in school, so taking the education path probably wouldn’t have worked out.

He enjoys teaching his students and often receives compliments that his academy has a welcoming family environment that other gyms lack.

I don’t have family that lives here,” Dan said candidly.

Being here and having these Jiu‐Jitsu friends to hang around…”

He pauses again to think.

…the academy has become my family. This is probably where I’m meant to be.”

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Photo by Blanca Marisa Garcia

4 Replies to “Dan Camarillo’s Journey From Wimp to World Champion Fighter”

  1. I have known Dan since we were doing judo in 1984. Jim was hard on his sons, but I agree with Dan the maturity was not there to deal with it. However in Jim’s defense he is very deaf. He would yell because he couldn’t hear himself. Jim brought a lot of high quality instruction to us kids and we didn’t realize how valuable it was. I’m a bit bigger than Dan and I used to try and toughen him up when were on the mat. I would yell and do little dirty tricks. He would never react, just sit there and take it. Now he’s a man, who is still smaller than me, but beats me up and I’m grateful. Now he teaches me like his father before him.

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