It was like a scene from Breaking Bad – but this was real.
A pound of dirty methamphetamine was spread across the mirrored closet door lying on the living room floor.
They were rinsing the drugs with acetone, but before they poured it through the coffee filters, there was a loud bang at the front door.
“I opened it and there’s a motherfucker standing there with a shotgun.”
“I’ll fucking kill you,” the thug said before he demanded money.
That was the day Kurt Oisander realized, “I’m not built for this bullshit.”
Those were Kurt’s wild twenties, but today, after living fifty-one colorful years, life is a lot different.
Kurt Osiander is an accomplished Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) black belt who runs the thriving Ralph Gracie Academy in San Francisco, California. He is a multiple time Pan American BJJ champion and has a four win, one loss MMA cage fighting record.
Kurt has become a cult hero in the BJJ community for his no-nonsense personality which has been featured in two documentary films and Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show, Parts Unknown. Kurt is well known for his Move of the Week YouTube channel which has been viewed over five million times.
I met with Kurt in San Francisco to discuss what drives athletes that stand out among their peers.
Kurt’s competitive drive was nurtured at a young age by his father, Lothar Osiander, a U.S.-German born in Munich. Kurt’s father was a high level athlete that coached Olympic and professional soccer teams.
Not surprisingly, Kurt excelled in soccer, competing on a Junior Olympic team and was on the path to becoming a professional soccer player until he discovered Jiu-Jitsu.
What motivates Kurt today is not much different than when he was a boy on the soccer field. Kurt’s father was a strict coach who drilled loyalty and honor into his athletes to motivate them.
“I’m really lucky I had my Dad,” Kurt said. “Honor was a heavy thing growing up… I’m not breaking my honor for anything.”
Kurt’s motivation has never been about personal glory, he’s always been driven by fear of dishonoring his clan. When I asked Kurt to define honor he replied, “Loyalty to your beliefs, how’s that?”
Then he offered an example. When temptation walks through the door, sometimes the guys joke with male bravado because he won’t cheat on his wife who he is very grateful for.
His response to them is rather elegant when you set aside the comedy that makes a conversation with Kurt so entertaining.
“If I would betray my wife, imagine what I would do to you fuckers,” he says referring to his buddies with a laugh.
His example seems personal, but the more he explains, the more I understand it is his personal code that fuels his competitive drive.
If he lost a Jiu-Jitsu match, he would call his instructor to apologize. He was less concerned about his personal outcome, by how the loss reflected on the academy.
I asked Kurt the difference between ego and honor. He explained that a lot of today’s superstars are driven by ego – they only care about looking good for money or glory.
“Fuck money – I just need enough to put a roof over my head,” Kurt said. “I’m not motivated by money at all, ever.”
Kurt grew up comfortably middle-class and speaks highly of his immigrant parents who came from real poverty. They raised him in Walnut Creek, California before it was too expensive to live there. Kurt reminisced how fun it was growing up, saying his childhood was exactly like the movie Dazed and Confused.
Kurt does not complain even though he spent much of his childhood grounded to his room. His father was an old school, strict disciplinarian and Kurt was a wild kid.
“I was such a pain-in-the-ass kid.” Kurt said. “I was continually doing crazy shit.”
Kurt had a lot of energy that his dad channeled into soccer to keep him out serious trouble, but things changed during high school. Kurt’s father moved to Los Angeles to take a job as a professional soccer coach. That distance ultimately led to his parents’ divorce.
His mother, an immigrant from San Salvador in Central America, was a conventional woman of those days who stayed at home. It wasn’t until the divorce that she started working and drove for the first time.
Kurt stayed with his mother, but even though he regularly saw his father, he was angry about the divorce and started rebelling.
“There’s no authority figure to beat the crap out of me,” Kurt said with a laugh. “I could do whatever I wanted so I was running around like a fucking maniac.”
Eventually Kurt decided to quit soccer to become the lead singer for a speed metal band.
“My German father – who stands over six foot with blond hair and blue eyes – looked at me like I told him I was gay.”
Kurt is known for speaking his mind. The more we talked, the more I admired his courage to be himself regardless if his answers were politically correct or not.
“What good is freedom of speech if everybody is so worried about what they’re saying,” Kurt said. “That’s not being true to yourself.”
Occasionally he gets some push back, but his response is, “Don’t look at me if you don’t fucking like it.”
In his early twenties, Kurt got married and they started chasing the dream of a house and 2.5 kids. Things were going well until she got strung out on drugs and had an affair.
That drove Kurt into a dark place. One night Kurt saw the guy sitting in an old wooden booth in a bar. Kurt walked up sat down to next to him.
“I wanted to kill that motherfucker, but I thought it would be better to be miserable instead of being miserable and incarcerated.”
This was the period when Kurt was using and selling a lot of drugs.
“I was fucked up, walking around with ounces of methamphetamine from Mexico.” Kurt was making a lot of money, buying nice clothes, motorcycles and anything that would provide instant gratification – the drugs attracted a lot of good looking, but dangerous women.
“I really wanted to tour in a band all fucked up on drugs and experience all that shit,” so Kurt tried out for a metal band that was going on tour in Europe.
At the same time, Kurt started dabbling in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“You’re going to cut your hair,” Ralph Gracie said when Kurt walked into the BJJ academy.
“I’m not cutting my hair.”
“You’re cutting your fucking hair.”
Two of Kurt’s friends tackled and put him in arm locks, one on each arm, while Ralph came at him with triage shears.
Kurt pleaded, promising he would cut his hair if he did not get on the band. Ralph relented. The band ended up choosing another lead singer so Kurt followed through and cut his long hair off.
On Kurt’s 30th birthday he decided it was time to make a change. He laughs when he tells me, “I’d been partying since I was eighteen. It was time to pull my fucking head out.”
I remember my dad saying, “You better find something you really like, because if you do it for money, you’re going to be miserable.” Kurt decided to train hard, work towards his black belt and make a career of Jiu-Jitsu.
On his own, Kurt detoxed from all of the drugs, “Except for weed, I grew up in California, I don’t consider marijuana a drug.”
By the time Kurt earned his BJJ brown belt, his leadership skills were undeveloped as he adjusted to becoming an instructor. The students were all his friends so was not used to being a disciplinarian.
“You’re too nice,” Ralph Gracie told him. “You’re not a good leader.”
Kurt looked up to Ralph, so it really affected Kurt to disappoint Ralph. Kurt was always into ancient history and warfare, so Kurt read everything he could find on leadership from people he admired – Cesar, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan and Titus.
Kurt used to do jobs clearing out estates after people died and he wondered, “Why does this guy have so many fucking books? Now I’m that guy.”
Kurt is well read so we compared notes on some of our favorite books like Meditations. After years of trial and error and studying leadership, Kurt feels he has matured as a teacher.
“I was accumulating my 10,000 hours of dealing with people, situations and personalities,” Kurt said. “It’s learning to be an amateur psychologist, medic and everything else.”
Kurt said teaching is a different skill than competing. There are world champions that can’t teach and there are guys who have never won a tournament, but make great teachers.
Kurt wants to be good at competing and teaching to emulate the leaders he admires that lead from the front. Much of his leadership style came from two men he respects greatly – his father and Ralph Gracie.
“The reason I talk to people the way I do, like when I scream at them on the mats, I learned that from my Dad.”
His father and Ralph were similar. Kurt described his father as the Ralph Gracie of soccer. Both of them would be on the sidelines yelling “What the fuck are you doing?”
They are both strict, but their players listen and go on to have great careers.
Ralph Gracie inspired Kurt to fight in MMA matches. Ralph fought in cage fights and Kurt wanted to emulate his teacher by testing himself in the cage.
I asked Ralph what separates great students from the rest and he said it is putting in the 10,000 hours mastering the fundamentals.
Kurt’s latest obsession is tattoo art so he has spent the past six years with the masters at Seven Son’s Tatoo, working towards his 10,000 hours in tattoo art. He shows up regularly and practices the fundamentals, just like he did with Jiu-Jitsu.
I asked Kurt what’s in his future and he said, “I’m going to be here for my students. I’ve got to take care of these guys.”
Kurt raises them from white to black belt and every year he has a bunch of new projects he wants to see through to fruition. Success to Kurt would be a bunch of world champions that say he was a really good coach and a cool person.
“I want to see these guys succeed, not just on the mat, but in life.”
Kurt explained how essential Jiu-Jitsu is to a lot of people and cites the military veterans as an example. Regardless of his personal politics, he wants our veterans survive and he feels he is in a position to help them through Jiu-Jitsu.
Kurt is involved in a program called Mission 22, which aims to help the twenty-two war veterans who kill themselves every day because of PTSD. These soldiers survive the enemy, but then come home depressed and unable to cope with civilian life.
In another interview, Ralph Gracie said Kurt would have died if he did not find Jiu-Jitsu. Kurt agreed that was possible.
Kurt explained that when people are going through turmoil, they need to get out of their own head and when training Jiu-Jitsu you can’t think about anything except what you’re doing in that moment.
When sparing with another student, “You better get your fucking head straight, because this is happening right now,” Kurt said. “After a class you’re better able to cope with life.”
As we wrapped up, Kurt said, “You’re always out there by yourself, so it sure helps when you’ve got a bunch of people behind you.”
Having that support is what Jiu-Jitsu provides for lot of people that otherwise might not have it in their lives.
Did you enjoy this interview? Click here to read interviews of other BJJ ledgends.
Enter your email below to be notified of the next interview.