Garth Taylor was warming up, preparing for his fight at the Tijuca Clube in Rio de Janeiro.
It was the day that brown and black belts were competing in the World Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship.
Garth noticed a commotion as paramedics fought their way through the crowd to get to one of the fighters.
“It was insane how many people were crammed into that venue,” Garth said. “There was a guy who needed serious medical attention, but the medics couldn’t even get to him because it was so crowded.”
When medics reached the fighter, he was unresponsive.
“We were standing there about ready to fight as they worked that guy up and put him on a board,” Garth said. “There was no exit down there, no way to get him out because the crowd was so big and nobody would move.”
Another crew of medics stood on the second tier of the stadium, unable to get to the ground floor.
“They crowd-surfed him on a stretcher and took him out of the building,” Garth said.
Garth stood there wondering what had happened but later learned the fighter died during his match from a heart attack. As Garth watched all of this unfold, he tried to focus on his fight for the world championship.
“I was on deck and started wondering what if that happens to me,” Garth said. “I’m bigger than that guy. How in the hell are they gonna get me out of here? It was crazy.”
Garth Taylor is a pioneer of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the United States. He’s won medals at every belt level in the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Brazil. Garth is a five-time US Open champion and a veteran of the invitation-only ADCC World Championship, and he has notable grappling wins over Ultimate Fighting Championship stars Ricco Rodriguez, Josh Barnett, and Gabriel Gonzaga.
Garth’s Jiu-Jitsu career began when he joined the Santa Cruz High School wrestling team as a senior. The team had a thin roster, so he got a varsity spot his first year.
“I was wrestling guys who had been wrestling their whole lives, so I got my ass kicked,” Garth said. “It was trial by fire. The learning curve was steep, but after a while, I started winning too. I think I ended my first year with 10 wins and 10 losses. Some of those losses were just ass whippings, but I did pretty good for coming in off the street.”
Garth grew up in the Santa Cruz beach community, where everyone his age was a surfer.
“I think surfers are naturally good wrestlers,” Garth said. “They’ve got balance, they’re relatively strong, and they’re used to doing stuff by themselves. When I went on to coach wrestling, I would always recruit surfer kids because I knew that they would be able to handle it. I mean, it’s sink or swim in the ocean, right?”
Garth’s brother and all his friends were professional surfers.
“I wasn’t as good as them, but I loved surfing,” Garth said. “It was hard to get anybody to go out for team sports in our town because everybody surfed, but when I finally went out for wrestling, I fell in love with it. It was the first time I prioritized something, and I got my life together. I’d grown up smoking pot, but that year, I quit and got focused.”
Garth was attracted to wrestling for the same reason a lot of people avoid challenges.
“I loved how difficult it was,” Garth said. “It was so friggin’ hard—physically and mentally—and it’s challenging to compete by yourself. I like being responsible for what happens: win or lose—you’re on your own.”
After high school, Garth continued his wrestling career in college.
“I had the same learning curve all over again,” Garth said. “I was an inexperienced high school wrestler who was starting to figure it out; then I went to college as a very inexperienced wrestler trying compete at that level. It was tough, man. I got my ass handed to me all the time.”
Garth had some wins his first year, but he lost his varsity spot before the state tournament.
“I lost it in a wrestle-off,” Garth said. “There’s only one spot, and there are 40 wrestlers in the room. You have to fight your way to the top of the room before you get to wrestle outside of the room. But I kept plugging away, and in my last year, I made it into the state tournament.”
After finishing junior college, Garth returned to Santa Cruz High School, where he started coaching wrestling. That was when a friend told Garth, “You need to check out this street-fighting judo shit.”
Not long after that, Garth watched the first UFC that was broadcast live on pay-per-view television.
“There’s that street-fighting judo shit,” Garth said, surprised as he watched Royce Gracie win the tournament. “It was the first time I saw a grappling martial art. My karate friends said wrestling was not legitimate, but as a wrestler, I knew different. Once I put my hands on you, I’m not coming off, but I didn’t know submission holds. I knew these guys were doing forms and punching air, but every day in wrestling was combat. It’s not even comparable.”
About a month after the first UFC tournament, Garth saw a flyer advertising a Rickson Gracie seminar.
“I didn’t know he was the greatest Jiu-Jitsu fighter of all time,” Garth said. “I’ve been on the mat with very high-level wrestlers—national champions—but Rickson was different. I recognized it right away by the way he moved and carried himself. He was a masterful grappler.”
Seminars are different today because everyone already knows that Jiu-Jitsu works. In the old days, Jiu-Jitsu seminars were about proving the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu. Rickson sat in the middle of a circle of 50 students, and one by one, he called out each student.
“I got to wrestle with him, and he immediately took my back and choked me out. It was so fast that I didn’t even know what happened,” Garth said. “He submitted one person after another. None of us knew Jiu-Jitsu, so it was probably easy pickings, but it was still 50 guys that he tapped in a row. He didn’t dodge anyone, and there were some big, strong wrestlers in there.”
Watching Rickson roll at that seminar hooked Garth, and he immediately started training in Jiu-Jitsu. He trained with a few instructors until he found Claudio Franca, with whom Garth trained for 12 years.
“I was Claudio’s first black belt,” Garth said. “I competed like a madman before I got my black belt. I fought everywhere I could. Every year, I went to Brazil to fight in the world championships. Back then, there were only about five Americans competing in Brazil. I might be the first non-Brazilian to medal at every belt level at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship.”
UFC champion B.J. Penn and Garth were training partners in Santa Cruz when they were brown belts. That year, Penn went to Brazil expecting to compete as a brown belt, but he was unexpectedly promoted to black belt. In Penn’s first black belt competition, Penn became the first non-Brazilian world champion.
Garth was an average wrestler, but he excelled in Jiu-Jitsu. Garth started wrestling late, so he was always behind his peers, but in Jiu-Jitsu, he was ahead of the curve.
“When I started Jiu-Jitsu as a white belt, I had a lot of wrestling and competition experience,” Garth said. “Instead of wrestling uphill, I had an early advantage. That confidence made me feel like I was ahead of the curve, and that helped me become very successful.”
Garth’s success in Jiu-Jitsu caused him to love the sport even more.
“It was the first thing I was truly good at,” Garth said, “and it was the first time I got recognition for something. Where I grew up in Santa Cruz, if you weren’t a pro surfer, you were nothing. The town was loaded with really high-quality surfers, and that was how you earned status.”
Winning in competition filled a void that Garth had lived with for much of his youth.
“Wins brought more of the things I wanted,” Garth said. “I was trying to do something that mattered and would get me recognition. I was able to get more of the attention and acceptance I needed because my peers put me on a pedestal every time I won. That validated that I was relevant.”
Growing up with an older brother was difficult because it was hard for Garth to measure up to someone who was older and more gifted.
“It’s tough to live in someone’s shadow,” Garth said. “He was a professional surfer in a community where surfing was the number-one valued thing. Everybody loved him, and I never felt good enough.”
Garth admires his brother’s accomplishments in surfing and today as a carpenter and family man, but his desire to measure up to his brother drove Garth to eventually surpass his brother’s athletic accomplishments. Winning in Jiu-Jitsu helped Garth cope with feelings of inadequacy, but losing brought him shame and embarrassment.
“I have some self-worth issues, so losses cause me to question if I’m really supposed to be there,” Garth said. “Maybe I was lucky. Maybe all of it was a fluke. But it’s not, because I’ve been smashing guys at every belt level. But those moments still come, because a loss takes me back to everything that happened to me as a child.”
When Garth was four years old, his parents divorced, and his father slowly drifted out of his life. In Garth’s teen years, he’d see his father only once a year.
“My dad decided it was too much trouble to be in my life. Now he’s not in my life at all,” Garth said. “I wasn’t good enough to keep my dad around. That’s how I took it.”
Garth grew up in chaos without a father, and his mother, who is a wonderful person, struggled as an alcoholic.
“You grow up fast when you’re the child of an alcoholic, because a lot of times you’ve got to do the parenting—you’ve got to pick up the pieces,” Garth said.
Garth subconsciously used his success in Jiu-Jitsu competition to overcome his childhood pain. That continued until the final black belt match of the Jiu-Jitsu world championship in Rio de Janeiro.
“It was a big moment for me,” Garth said. “I finally got to the finals, and there was a lot at stake. The crowd was going nuts like only a crowd in Brazil can. When you go to the world championships now, it’s nothing like it was in Brazil. You’ve got to go there. You’ve got to see the passion. It’s in their blood—the passion—it’s crazy.”
After the long wait, the black belt final match started. Garth won the takedown and ended up in Marcio Corleta’s guard.
“Corleta went for a flower sweep,” Garth said. “When I based out on the sweep, he hit a bump sweep and went to mount. I was mounted and down six to two, but I heard my coach yelling that there were only 30 seconds left.
“I think about that match all the time because I was losing focus. I was looking at the crowd during the match. I was not able to maintain focus and concentrate, and all of this was going on in my final match for the black belt world finals.”
“Thirty seconds!” Garth’s coach yelled again. “You’ve got to go.”
“I just bridged,” Garth said. “I shoved my arm out thinking he’d probably go after my arm and I’d be able to get out of there and make something happen. Then it happened. What the fuck was I doing? I just fucked this up. I remember a distinct feeling of shame and embarrassment that I had just let this happen and there was nothing I could do about it. Corleta finished the arm lock.”
Garth hardly remembers his victories, but he remembers every moment of every defeat.
“The losses that eat at me and keep me from sleeping are the ones where I didn’t respond to the pressure,” Garth said. “If somebody beats me because they’re a lot better, I’m fine with that. I will go back to the gym and work on it and come back better, but the losses where I let other things affect my performance are the ones that just hurt.”
Garth took that loss hard until he returned home and realized that he had just won a silver medal in the world championship.
“I got over the feeling of shame of that loss when I started to appreciate what I’d accomplished,” Garth said. “I was the first foreigner to take second place in the world as a black belt, but when I got home, none of my regular friends really cared. That’s when I kind of changed. I realized that I was not going to get the affirmation I was chasing, and I didn’t really need it. I started to feel satisfied with my achievements, and I became less interested in competition.”
When Garth was younger, he did not understand the forces that unconsciously drove him. It was not until he was 44 years old that he took an emotional intelligence course in Las Vegas and he began to understand all these things.
“It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself,” Garth said. “I started to figure out some of the limiting self-beliefs that stemmed from my dad, and that helped me to get past them. I started to understand why I was on the hamster wheel, dating the same girls over and over. The same girl, but with different names.
“The course taught me to take personal responsibility for everything that happens in my life instead of playing victim. No matter how unfair it seems, if you take responsibility for everything, you don’t give your power away, which gives you the power to change it.
“It helped with my self-worth issues,” Garth said. “I realized that my dad was just a person who was struggling like everybody else. My mom is an alcoholic, but she is doing the best she can. I was just a kid, and their choices were not my fault.”
Garth is grateful that he had Jiu-Jitsu to help him get make these discoveries.
“Jiu-Jitsu gave me the platform to follow my dreams and feel validation,” Garth said. “It gave me the chance to work through my issues of self-worth and express myself in a positive way instead of a negative pursuit. Many of the friends I grew up with got caught up with drinking or methamphetamine. Jiu-Jitsu kept me focused during a time in my life when it could have been very dark. It kept me on the straight and narrow and gave me a focus.”
As Garth’s desire to compete diminished, he focused more on coaching.
“I love teaching Jiu-Jitsu,” Garth said. “I really believe it changes people’s lives. I see a guy when he first starts—he’s not strong, he’s not mobile, he’s not flexible, and he’s certainly not confident. You can watch people get stronger and fitter, they walk standing straighter, and they have more confidence in all areas of their life.
“They get into a community of people who are just like them,” Garth said. “There’s nothing like the friends you get in Jiu-Jitsu. The people you share that experience with are something special. It changes their confidence, it changes their capabilities, and it changes their lives.
“I get to watch when it creates a sense of community and ownership. I like to see them chase their dreams like I got to chase mine. I just love being a coach. It gets me fired up every day. I don’t know how else to say it.”
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