Nicolas Gregoriades: unlocking the root of all fears and neuroses

Nicolas Gregoriades left his home in South Africa and arrived in London with only a couple of hundred bucks in his pocket. After trying another gym, he eventually discovered Roger Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu academy.

When Nicolas knocked on the door, a tall but unassuming kid answered. “This guy doesn’t look tough at all,” Nicolas thought.

He looked like a regular dude,” Nicolas said. “He had that foppish haircut and was kind of pale. I thought these crazy fighters were supposed to be tan, Mediterranean-looking guys.”

Nicolas had some no-gi grappling experience and had been submitting a lot of guys at home with kneebars. One of his friends knew of Roger Gracie and heard Nicolas was visiting the academy.

If you kneebar that guy, I will call you ‘sir’ for the rest of your life,” his friend said.

My kneebars are amazing,” the overly confident, 20-year-old Nicolas said to his friend. “Jiu-Jitsu guys don’t know kneebars.”

Roger was gracious and welcomed Nicolas into the gym during their lunchtime class.

I’ll never forget that day,” Nicolas said. “There were only four guys in class, so I asked if I could spar with him.”

That was the beginning of Nicolas’ four-and-a-half-year journey to becoming Roger Gracie’s first black belt. Since then, Nicolas has taught Jiu-Jitsu seminars around the world, founded the online community and podcast The Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood, built the online Master Academy, authored two Jiu-Jitsu books, and produced multiple video training products.

I look back at that decision to train with Roger as one of those pivotal moments in my life,” Nicolas said. “Things could have been very different if I hadn’t knocked on that door that day.”

Nicolas had never heard much about Roger, but after they rolled together, Nicolas knew he had discovered someone special.

In the ignorance of youth, I thought I was a tough guy,” Nicolas said. “I was good at this grappling thing, but he smashed me. I mean, he totally smashed me and made it look effortless. I was super-excited because I could see the potential if I could get anywhere near that good.”

Before he met Roger, Nicolas had left his family’s home in Cape Town, South Africa, for London—a common destination for young people from former British colonies like South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.

In Cape Town, I felt like a big fish in a small pond,” Nicolas said. “You know that expression, ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ Back in those days, a visiting purple belt in South Africa was a big occasion. I needed to expand my horizons if I wanted to progress.”

As far back as Nicolas can remember, he was fascinated by martial arts. His father was a karate black belt, and Nicolas can remember sitting on the sidelines as a young boy, watching his father’s class.

I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing. My dad is a superhero,’” Nicolas said.

At seven years old, Nicolas started taking a judo class.

I absolutely loved it, but I was kind of disappointed we weren’t striking,” Nicolas said. “At that age, you watch all the movies and think the best martial artists can kill a dude with a one-inch punch. Little did I know, judo was one of the best things that could have happened, because later my Jiu-Jitsu development accelerated from the grappling I learned in judo.”

Nicolas took a break from martial arts during his teen years, but after high school he began dabbling in boxing until a friend told him about a cage-fighting gym.

I was a young dude, and I wanted to know the best stuff,” Nicolas said. “I wanted to know how to be the most dangerous guy I could be.”

Nicolas and his brother went to a class taught by a man who had done a little training with the legend, Rickson Gracie.

He was this Yoda-type gentleman who taught himself the basic principles and the science behind fighting,” Nicolas said. “He had been a fourth-degree karate black belt, but he renounced his belt when he realized it was a highly dysfunctional art.”

At the end of that cage-fighting class, Nicolas was paired up with another new student.

He taught us the rear naked choke,” Nicolas said, “and when we sparred, I strangled that guy so easily. This stuff works. I had to learn it.”

Nicolas trained there for a couple of years and then opened his own grappling club.

I was a 20-year-old kid who thought he knew it all,” Nicolas said. “But once I graduated college, I wanted to leave South Africa. I realized that I couldn’t develop the way I wanted to without leaving to expand my horizons.”

Nicolas began training in London before Roger Gracie was recognized as one of the best fighters in the world.

I often think how different my life would have been if I’d gone to another gym,” Nicolas said. “It wasn’t until later that I realized just how incredibly lucky I was to have stumbled upon this gem. Roger let me train for free when he hardly knew me, and I doubt there would have been another gym that would have done that. I’ll never forget it.”

When Nicolas arrived in London, he was in excellent physical condition and knew the fundamentals of grappling. He was submitting many of the students at Roger’s school, so within a few weeks, Roger awarded Nicolas his blue belt. Before long, he was teaching other students in private lessons.

Nicolas’ life was consumed with Jiu-Jitsu. He lived next door to the academy and spent five to six hours training and teaching every day.

That was the first time in my life that I understood the power of focus,” Nicolas said. “Focused will and focused intent were the greatest gifts I discovered during that period. Jiu-Jitsu was my focus. There was nothing else. I wasn’t there to party, and I wasn’t there to make money. I was there to get my black belt in Jiu-Jitsu.”

Nicolas credits that focus and teaching for his rapid progress.

Learning and teaching, together, create a recipe for something very special,” Nicolas said. “They’re synergistic, and when taken together there’s an exponential increase in retention. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

Nicolas attended three to four classes a week, and then taught what he had learned to students during his private lessons.

It was almost like an incubator,” Nicolas said. “If I attended Roger’s class on Friday, I’d have four back-to-back private students on Saturday to teach what I’d just learned. I’d be able to revise and consolidate those techniques with four hours of teaching to reinforce that knowledge.”

Nicolas said that Jiu-Jitsu students are typically shown a handful of techniques in a class and then return a couple of days later to do a completely different set.

The retention is so low because they’ve only had one exposure to it,” Nicolas said. “I really want students to review as much as possible. At the end of every one of my classes, there is always review. Then a couple of days later we’ll review the material again. I’m trying to recreate that forced review that I went through.”

After only four and a half years of training in London, Nicolas was awarded his black belt by Roger Gracie.

I’m happy to be a Jiu-Jitsu black belt,” Nicolas said. “Goddamn, it sounds clichéd, but it was the journey that was special.”

After earning his belt, Nicolas’ perspective on goals began to change.

I’m embarrassed to say that I just wanted that belt,” Nicolas said. “I wish it was something deeper than that, but I just wanted to be a black belt.”

Author and Jiu-Jitsu black belt Roy Dean had once told Nicolas, “As a man, you are constantly paying your dues.”

That struck me to my core,” Nicolas said. “I’d always thought that there was a destination in life that you arrived at, and once you got there, you could check that box, and you were done.”

Nicolas explained that once you get in shape, find a good wife, or build a successful business, it’s tempting to think you can take your foot off the gas.

With the black belt, I thought I was done because I’d reached the top of the mountain,” Nicolas said. “But today I realize that anything you achieve is not the destination. It’s a continuous journey. You have to continuously hone, refine, and keep progressing, otherwise it decays. The journey never ends.”

That said, Nicolas recognizes there is an objective element to Jiu-Jitsu belts that inspires students to keep training.

Most purple belts can beat blue belts, and brown belts can beat purple belts,” Nicolas said. “Having that measurement is motivating for people because you get an indicator of your progress. Whether people like it or not, it’s one of the reasons Jiu-Jitsu academies are more popular than no-gi academies.”

As an entrepreneur, Nicolas is learning that most people have it wrong when they chase money. Instead they should try to provide as much value as possible, and the money will follow. Jiu-Jitsu is similar.

I think I would’ve progressed even more quickly if I didn’t chase the belt,” Nicolas said. “I should have focused more on the lessons and how much fun I was having hanging out with cool dudes while we learn to strangle people.”

With years to reflect on these experiences, Nicolas has a better understanding of what drove him to chase that belt with such vigor.

I realize that a large part of my journey in trying to be this stronger, tougher guy was because I wanted the approval of my father,” Nicolas said. “My father is a very ‘alpha’ dude, but I was a little bit of a nerdy kid that loved to read. I always thought he would have been happier if he’d had a son who was like the quarterback on the football team.”

Nicolas was not gifted with athleticism, but there are many fighters he’s trained with that are blessed with athletic talent. Nicolas recalled one of his training partners who could have eaten jelly beans and watched TV all day and still remained in great shape. During one of their training sessions, his partner commented on Nicolas’ strength.

God might have made you, but I made me,” Nicolas told him. “When it comes to athleticism, I fucking bled for that. I started with less, but I worked on it more.”

Nicolas said there’s a difference between talent and skill.

Talent is a fickle mistress,” Nicolas said. “Talent can come and go, but skill is something you earn control over.”

Nicolas had a decent childhood, but the relationship with his father was strained.

My father was quite hard on me,” Nicolas said. “He always held back approval, but in hindsight, I’m glad he did. It drove me to work out like an animal, and eventually I became athletic. I became physical. I became what my dad respected.”

One day, Nicolas received a letter from his father confessing how he felt about his children.

I look at you and your brother, and I’m so proud of you,” the letter said. “You boys are everything I wanted to be when I was your age.”

If he had sent that to me five years earlier, it would have been like the sun shining upon my face,” Nicolas said. “But the funny thing is that once my dad was ready to finally give me his approval, I no longer needed it.”

When Nicolas was a kid, his dad was his hero. But as Nicolas grew up, he discovered that his father had a very difficult childhood of his own and was a man with flaws like everyone else.

I think most others that have been through what my father went through wouldn’t have even tried,” Nicolas said. “He definitely tried his best, and I’m thankful for everything that led to this point. I definitely had resentment, but I’m at peace with it now.”

Nicolas’ mother had a very different effect on his ambition.

My mom made me feel like I could do anything,” Nicolas said. “I don’t necessarily know whether that was true, but it has never left me.”

Nicolas recalled a time in elementary school when he ranked fifth academically out of the 38 students in his class.

This is totally unacceptable,” Nicolas’ mother said when he got home. “You and I both know you should’ve come in first.”

In contrast to the relationship with his father, Nicolas was not seeking approval from his mother.

It was more that she instilled a belief that I had this thing, and I should not waste it,” Nicolas said. “Trying to live up to the impossible standard my mom set made life difficult, but in the back of my mind, I believe that if I can do anything I want, then I should want to be something really good.”

Through a lot of self-reflection Nicolas began to understand some of what had been driving him, but there was still a void that he could not figure out.

I wasn’t a down-and-out dude or anything like that,” Nicolas said. “I had good friends and I could make decent money teaching Jiu-Jitsu. I just felt there was something missing. I hit a point where my mind was torturing me. Every morning I’d wake up and my mind would find the thought that would cause me the most pain and just start whipping me with it over and over again.”

Nicolas pushed on as he tried to think his way through it.

My mind was not my friend,” Nicolas said. “I always thought my mind was my greatest ally. It was my weapon. It had always helped me solve problems and get what I wanted, but I realized this thing was out of control. The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master, and at that point my mind was the master of me.”

Nicolas turned to meditation, which helped him quiet the chatter in his mind.

Meditation was the crack that started the flood of desire to dive deeper,” Nicolas said. “I wanted to become the best human I could be. I wanted to become a person worthy of the black belt, instead of just wanting the belt.”

Nicolas watched a documentary about ayahuasca, a brew made from the bark of a tropical vine that is traditionally used in spiritual medicine ceremonies with indigenous people of the Amazon.

I just kept lying awake, thinking about it,” Nicolas said. “There was just something not right. It was this itch that could not be scratched. There’s something missing, and life wasn’t what I wanted it to be.”

Eventually Nicolas decided to see if he could find the answers he was seeking with ayahuasca.

I thought if I could take something that pulls back the veil and allows me to dive to the root of my psyche, I might find the splinter and be able to dig it out,” Nicolas said.

When he drank the shot-sized glass of medicine, he lay on the ground until it finally began to kick in. Then he started to freak out.

Anyone who’s done ayahuasca knows that the true growth happens when you surrender and let it do what it needs to do,” Nicolas said. “It’s difficult to describe because it was such a foreign experience. It took me to a depth so deep within, it was beyond anything I was prepared for.”

The gift of ayahuasca was that it took Nicolas beyond the ego and conscious thought.

Ego is a defense mechanism,” Nicolas said. “We develop it to create boundaries that keep us safe. The ego serves a purpose, but it in many instances it can become unhealthy.”

Nicolas described ayahuasca as a virtual teacher that cuts through the ego and showed him the root of all fears and neuroses.

My biggest fear is not living up to my full potential,” Nicolas said. “Every boy, whether he knows it or not, craves his father’s approval. It’s one of the reasons that many segments of our societies are fucked up. In households where there is no father figure, it causes a huge psychic gap in boys and they try to fill that any way they can.”

But ayahuasca took him to a level beyond those conscious fears.

It took me straight to my deepest layer,” Nicolas said. “Ayahuasca was trying to show me that one day I’m going to die. That is the root underneath everything. If you’re afraid of a snake, it’s not the snake you fear, it’s that you’re afraid of dying by the snake.”

Nicolas began to understand that we all eventually return to nature, and it felt peaceful from that perspective.

After ayahuasca, it was almost like this brake had been released,” Nicolas said. “It started with a desire to get my father’s approval, but when I realized I no longer needed it, I stopped hero worship, including my dad, Jiu-Jitsu teachers, celebrities, or anyone. I no longer require the approval of anyone except myself. 

And when I dug deep enough into my fears, I realized that the worst that could ultimately happen was that I die. Once I began to understand that death is not something to fear, it gave me the courage to try anything, because everything else is insignificant when compared to death.”

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2 Replies to “Nicolas Gregoriades: unlocking the root of all fears and neuroses”

  1. I love this article! My favorite line is, “I should have focused more on the lessons and how much fun I was having hanging out with cool dudes while we learn to strangle people.” That is the best part isn’t it.

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