Henry looked across the mat at the Kung Fu black belt standing at the other end of the room. Weighing only 160 pounds, Henry looked scrawny wearing a white belt next to his 185 pound, black belt opponent.
During the early years of the UFC, students at the Gracie academies could be called upon to fight a Vale Tudo (anything goes) match against anyone who wanted to challenge Jiu-Jitsu.
Today that challenge came from “Kung Fu Joe,” the nick name the visitor earned while doing Kung Fu katas on the sidelines during Jiu-Jitsu class.
The instructor ignored the visitor’s snarky comments, but he drew the line when Kung Fu Joe started throwing ninja stars into the walls of Rickson Gracie’s academy.
“It was crazy,” Henry said with a laugh as he told the story about the visitor to their Jiu-Jitsu academy. “The guy was a nutcase.”
The instructor offered to let Kung Fu Joe join the class, but when he declined, the teacher asked if he was there looking for a fight.
Joe had been studying Kung Fu for 15 years, but it was only Henry’s second month of Jiu-Jitsu. Regardless, when the instructor gave him the nod, Henry was anxious to step up to the challenge.
“The guy was so disrespectful,” Henry said. “Someone needed to beat his ass.”
A couple of years earlier, Henry watched similar challenge matches on a grainy VHS copy of “Gracies in Action,” but he was unsure what to expect. Regardless, Henry peeled off his gi jacket and squared up with the guy.
That old fight footage is what drew Henry to Los Angeles. Shortly after seeing the first UFC, Henry felt compelled to leave everything behind and head west to seek out Rickson Gracie, who many consider the best Jiu-Jitsu fighter in the world.
Henry was only 20 years old when he packed a bag and moved to California without a job or a place to live. It was his first time away from his family in Oklahoma, but he chased his passion like a starving artist.
“I didn’t know anyone,” Henry said. “I was totally scared, but that wasn’t going to stop me.”
Henry took a chance and it paid off. In 2004, Henry Akins became Rickson Gracie’s third American black belt student. Many dream of a single private lesson with the legend, but Henry has spent more time training with Rickson than just about anyone.
Today, Henry is an owner of Dynamix MMA where he teaches Jiu-Jitsu and has accumulated a wealth of knowledge that he articulates with a depth I’ve never heard before. He has recorded much of that wisdom at HiddenJiuJitsu.com.
Henry’s passion for martial arts started when he watched Kung Fu Theater as a kid. He loved the stories of the Kung Fu guy that conquered the tyrant who oppressed the innocent villagers.
Henry also loved Bruce Lee, saying perhaps he identified with him as the rare Asian hero on television. Henry is a U.S. Citizen, born in Vietnam. When his family moved to Oklahoma, Henry endured quite a bit of racism and he got into his share of fights with bullies.
In high school, Henry discovered Tae Kwon Do and took it seriously. He trained two to three classes every day, but when another Tae Kwon Do student – an Olympic silver medalist – got beat up by a wrestler, Henry became intrigued by the dominance of grappling.
“When you ask for something, life often presents it to you,” Henry said about discovering the Gracies in Action video that set him on the course to Rickson Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu academy in Los Angeles.
When that challenge match began between Henry and Kung Fu Joe, Henry did a lead leg kick and wrapped Joe in an upper body clinch. Henry took him to the ground and Kung Fu Joe immediately tapped out on the mat.
“You can’t tap just because the fight goes to the ground,” the instructor said as he intervened. This was before the UFC popularized mixed martial arts.
They started again, but this time Kung Fu Joe was ready. He stepped back and threw a punch that glanced off Henry’s face, but Henry got the clinch, and dumped him on the ground again.
“I started cracking him a couple of times on the ground,” Henry said. “Then he reached up to put me in a headlock and boom, I caught him in an arm bar.”
After the fight, Joe sat depressed with his face resting in his hands. The first fight lasted 10 seconds. The second about 45.
“Man, I’ve been training Kung Fu for 15 years,” Joe said. “I feel like I wasted 15 years of my life.” Joe ended up joining the Jiu-Jitsu academy.
In all fairness, I suggested that Henry was not an average two-month white belt.
“I was living at the gym,” Henry said. “I was like a sponge doing four or five classes a day and watching all the private lessons when I wasn’t training. My two months was like most people’s eight.”
Henry was at the gym so much that they hired him as the gym secretary. He earned $200 for the 70 hours he spent at the gym each week.
Henry fell in love with Jiu-Jitsu. He was amazed when the experienced guys, half his size, could make him feel helpless and finish him at will.
Jiu-Jitsu has provided Henry with more than the ability to defend himself. He said confidence is the most common side effect of training, but confidence is a big part of feeling good about yourself.
“Jiu-Jitsu has been such an amazing spiritual journey. I’ve developed a much better understanding of myself and it has taught me self-love.”
Henry explained that what you learn in Jiu-Jitsu transcends into life and offers a perspective to live by. When you struggle on the mat you learn to overcome hardship.
“You learn that you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to tap, but you’re not going to die,” Henry said. “You learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations and that you can get through it.”
People develop confidence through Jiu-Jitsu from the obvious ways – being able to defend yourself and losing weight – but friendship is another important aspect.
“It has created so many amazing relationships. For the most part, I’ve met all my close friends through Jiu-Jitsu.”
Henry added that self-assurance makes you more attractive to the opposite sex, but he cautioned that confidence comes from more than just feeling like the alpha in the room. Confidence also comes when you no longer need validation from others to feel good about yourself.
“It’s complicated,” Henry elaborated, “because confidence is about how you perceive yourself, but that can sometimes be influenced by how others perceive you.”
“When I was younger, people’s opinions had more effect on me,” Henry said. “Now that I’m older, I’ve learned that people will always have their own view of me. Many times it comes from their own life and it really has nothing to do with me.”
Henry explained that no matter what you do, there will always be haters, and the more successful you are, the more critics you will acquire.
“I never try to offend anyone, but if someone doesn’t like me, that’s on them,” Henry said. “At the end of the day I like myself and I’m not here to get you to like me.”
This evolution in Henry’s philosophy influenced his view on Jiu-Jitsu competition. He has not competed since he tore the ACL ligaments in both knees during a match.
“I’m not in competition with anyone but myself,” Henry said. “As soon as you put yourself in competition with others, you’re going to be miserable. There will always be someone better than you and there will always be someone that has something you lack. It’s a human disease to always want more or better.”
We are sitting in bean bag chairs in Henry’s Santa Monica apartment and he mentioned how much money his neighbors have. He knows a guy that has $10 million, but is unhappy because he wants more.
“People always want more to prove to others they are successful.”
Henry is not against Jiu-Jitsu competition. He supports students who want to compete, but tournaments are not something that make him happy.
“The essence of competition is to prove you are better than others,” Henry said. “I don’t care if someone is better than me. My goal is to become better than I am today.”
This led to a discussion about ego and submissions in training.
“How do you define winning?” Henry asked me.
I stammered for the answer, suspecting that “Submitting your opponent,” was not the answer he was after.
“If I’m training with a white belt and I finish him 50 times in a row, did anyone learn from that experience?”
Henry said instead you should not be afraid to put yourself in uncomfortable situations where you can grow, even at the risk of being submitted.
“Do you define winning by getting a submission or by learning?” Henry asked.
Learning does not usually come from getting the submission. The same is true in life. When you win, you celebrate, but when you lose it forces you to reflect on what went wrong.
Henry is a very introspective man and is clearly on a journey of personal development. When I asked what drives him in Jiu-Jitsu, he was quick to answer as though he has thought about it often.
“A big part of my ambition is really my quest for happiness and inner peace.”
Henry has endured his share of traumatic experiences. Rockson Gracie, Rickson Gracie’s eldest son, was Henry’s best friend and training partner as they were coming up together in the art.
They dreamed of the day they would earn their black belts together, but that day never came. In December of 2000, Rockson died unexpectedly.
“At that time, I had never lost anyone close to me,” Henry said. “He was like a brother to me.” Henry stopped training for about six months because it was too painful to go to the gym.
“I was in a deep state of depression. I pretty much locked myself in my room, dude, for like 6 months.”
Henry credits one of his coaches, Luis Heredia, for pushing him to continue training. He would call and motivate Henry to return to the gym. There were days when Henry would show up to the academy and sit on the sidelines crying because he was so heartbroken and sad. Luis would pull him aside and they had deep conversations about life.
Henry explained how important it was that Luis pushed him to continue training because Jiu-Jitsu relieves so much stress and negative energy from your body.
“Jiu-Jitsu is a moving meditation,” Henry said.
The goal of meditation is to be present without thinking about the past or the future, but Henry explained how difficult that is because we spend much of our day worrying.
“When you’re being choked on the mat, you cannot be thinking, ‘Oh man, I had such a shitty day at work.’”
In other words, Jiu-Jitsu forces you to be in the moment because all of your attention is focused on what is happening now.
“Jiu-Jitsu has been a huge source of helping me get through very difficult times. Like I said, it’s a meditation – a moving meditation. It helps me clear my mind.”
Henry has done a lot of reflecting about what has led him on this path this path of self-discovery. Today, Henry’s motivation is completely different than it was 21 years ago when he started his Jiu-Jitsu journey.
“I’ve changed so much,” Henry said. “I’ve learned that it’s those times when I’m the most uncomfortable, when I’m the saddest, when I’m struggling the most… that I have the biggest epiphanies, the largest jumps in growth.”
Like all of us, Henry has been through hard times and Henry has been to some very dark places in his search for happiness.
After Henry opened his gym, he was struggling to make it financially. He committed his entire life to Jiu-Jitsu, but he was not making enough to live on.
He was also coping with injuries – one after another – which made him question whether he would be able to continue doing the thing that made him happy.
And to make matters worse, a significant romantic relationship came to an end.
If life came at us one problem at a time, we could take it in stride, but it’s when everything hits us at once that life becomes overwhelming.
“I was in a downward spiral and having some pretty self-destructive thoughts,” Henry said. “I was experiencing so much sadness, that I didn’t think it would ever stop.”
He began tearing up when he explained how overwhelming this time was for him.
“I put a gun in my mouth,” Henry said. “It was pretty bad, man.”
At that moment Henry thought about the pain he would cause his mother. She almost died giving birth to him in Vietnam, but he wasn’t sure she would survive the heartbreak of losing her son.
Fortunately, a friend invited Henry to a 10-day meditation retreat where he spent 10 days in complete silence. Being alone with his thoughts and without any external stimulus was one of the hardest things Henry ever did.
Henry was searching for something – trying to understand himself and his purpose in life.
“After I did it man, I felt like a huge weight and darkness lifted off of me. It was life-changing,” Henry said. The meditation retreat was a powerful experience that was a huge part of getting him over that hump.
“Looking back on that time, I think about how great my life is now and I wonder why would I ever do that? I was hurting. I didn’t want to accept it, so I considered a very selfish way out.”
Henry looks back at those experiences as a blessing even though there is tragedy.
“Pain is the best teacher,” Henry said of a quote he learned from his Dad. “It changed my perspective on life and my purpose of being.”
Henry said he has learned a lot on his journey of self-discovery. He has become more grounded with a better understanding of what is important. Most of the things that seem bad are usually temporary and not significant in the grand scheme of things.
“Life is constantly changing and everything we experience, whether good or the bad, is just a moment in time. All of our experiences and relationships, at one point, will all come to an end, so you have to enjoy the moment.”
Henry seems very optimistic and passionate about life today, so I ask how he deals with the difficult days.
Henry said he has learned to approach life from a place of gratitude. He begins each day with a meditation ritual where he takes time to be thankful for all of the blessings in his life.
“Happiness comes from within. It has nothing to do with what comes from the outside or what you own.”
Today he is more conscious – more aware of life’s ups and downs. He told me about a day recently when he got back from teaching a seminar in Australia. He slept all day and woke up feeling a bit depressed. He could not think of any reason why he was feeling badly.
“I thought about it for a moment and realized – it’s just something I’m experiencing right now. This will pass.”
Then Henry started thinking about all of the things he was grateful for and eventually the negative feelings drifted away.
“I am fortunate to have had this experience that people dream about. I was able train with Rickson Gracie for 15 years. I consider him the greatest Jiu-Jitsu practitioner ever and for many years I rolled with him every day with his constant guidance. Not only did he teach me the techniques, but also the philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu.”
“I’m fortunate I made this decision to move to California and dedicate my life to Jiu-Jitsu. It has done so much for me. Now, it’s my turn to give it back to the world.”
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