Roy Dean: Creating Art Through Combat

At 16 years old, Roy Dean felt trapped in Anchorage, Alaska, so he left home for Japan as part of an exchange student program. When he arrived at his new high school, students were required to study one of the traditional Japanese arts, such as fencing (kendo), archery (kyudo), or floral arrangements (ikebana).

Steven Seagal was popular at that time,” Roy said. “I was interested in aikido because I wanted to be able to take on five guys in a pool hall.”

Aikido was not available at his Japanese high school, but judo was an available art option.

Initially, I wasn’t that pleased,” Roy said, “but judo changed the entire trajectory of my life.”

The judo program was conservative, so Roy was not allowed to wear a uniform until he first learned how to fall properly (ukemi).

Judo is very tough,” Roy said. “I did hundreds, if not thousands, of hard break falls and ended up with huge bruises on my shoulders.”

After six weeks of falling drills, Roy was finally allowed on the mats and given the opportunity to spar with the judo team captain.

No matter what I did, within seconds I was on the ground, looking up at the ceiling,” Roy said. “I would attack him again, and boom, like it was nothing. He must have thrown me at least 15 times in a couple of minutes.”

Roy was completely outclassed by the smaller and weaker team captain, but Roy was inspired.

It was electrifying,” Roy said. “He was small and not intimidating at all. If I could do what he just did to me, no one would be able to mess with me. I wanted that same power. It was mind-blowing.”

A lot of Westerners romanticize martial arts in the East, but that experience taught Roy the secret behind the mysticism.

I’ve had a fascination with Japan, but I learned that it’s just doing a lot of repetitions,” Roy said. “It’s a lot of shutting your mouth and being able to eat the pain. If you do that long enough, one day your body responds without thinking and you’re able to achieve amazing things.”

From that initial exposure to judo, Roy has been on a lifelong journey as a martial artist. He is a third-degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt as well as a black belt in judo and aikido. Roy has taught thousands of students around the world through his seminars and videos. Roy is also an author of two books that document his martial arts journey, The Martial Apprentice and Becoming the Black Belt and Roy’s latest, Blue Belt Requirements 2.0.


Growing up in Alaska required that Roy develop a level of toughness that many outsiders never experience. Roy attended a multicultural high school in Alaska, where the population is more ethnically diverse than an outsider might think.

People would fight in high school,” Roy said, “but it wasn’t South Central LA. It was one of the few places in the country with no Bloods or Crips. Everyone there, whether you were a janitor or a doctor, had to deal with the elements, so we were united against the weather.”

People were down to earth in Anchorage out of necessity. It was hard to be pretentious when New York fashions were gratefully traded in for North Face jackets and heavy boots.

But there were some tough guys up there,” Roy said. “Especially with the military bases. Those guys were always into martial arts.”

Roy grew up with both of his parents, who raised Roy in their later years. Roy’s father was two generations older than he was.

My father was with me, but he was distant,” Roy said. “He joined the Marines when he was 17 and went to the South Pacific to fight in World War II. My father was a Marine, with a crew cut, until the day he died.”

Roy’s father was from the generation in which a man’s role was to provide for the family, so instead of taking Roy to organized sports, his father spent his free time at the American Legion post.

That was his place; it was where he bonded with his fellow warriors,” Roy said. “I see that in myself. I don’t go to a bar, but I go to an academy to rub shoulders with young and old warriors.”

Roy understands his father’s role, but it created a void in his younger years.

My father was so distant that I lacked a male role model to emulate,” Roy said. “That was part of the appeal of going to Japan. I was seeking new experiences and adventures, or that next level in my life.”

After spending a year in Japan studying judo, Roy went to Ontario, Canada, to finish high school. While in Toronto, he encountered a man confining a woman in the subway entrance.

She was clearly distressed,” Roy said. “Her back was pinned against the wall and she was squirming to get away. I had a black belt in judo, but I still didn’t know what to do. I wanted to have the capacity to help her, but I did not feel qualified, and that stuck with me for a long time.”

After finishing high school, Roy continued his journey as a martial artist. He moved to Monterey, California, to pursue his earlier interest in aikido and Aiki-jujutsu that had been inspired by the martial arts movies of the 1990s. Roy became a full-time, live-in apprentice under a Japanese jiujitsu and aikido master.

By this point, he had also seen Royce Gracie decimate his opponents in the UFC. With permission from his instructor, Roy began cross-training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with Claudio Franca until Roy was accepted into the University of California, San Diego. The move to Southern California brought him to Jeet Kune Do and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor Roy Harris, who eventually awarded Roy his purple through third-degree black belts in BJJ.

After earning black belts in multiple arts, Roy gravitated to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

It’s far more satisfying,” Roy said. “Other systems don’t really have the randori sparring method, and there is a ‘martial truth’ that is readily apparent when you tap in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”

Roy explained that in other martial arts, it’s easy to dismiss a loss in training by saying, “Yeah, well, if you really attacked me, I could have done this or that.”

Nobody wastes their time saying that in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” Roy said, “Because Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the truth.”

Roy graduated from UCSD with an ICAM (interdisciplinary computing and the arts major) degree.

The programming classes were challenging,” Roy said. “but what it ultimately taught me was how to teach myself, and that was time well spent.”

To get through college, Roy learned how to find essential elements without getting bogged down in the minutiae. That was a skill that translated well into learning and teaching Jiu-Jitsu.

If there are 21 elements of a triangle choke, what are the three key components?” Roy said. “What are three major moves that I can use to block the choke? Realizing that not everything has the same level of importance helps filter what matters most.”

After college, Roy was hired as an audio engineer, where he did audio post-production and video editing. While working in that field, Roy realized he could blend his passion for martial arts with his career in media.

I saw these full-time martial artists who were visiting my instructor, and I thought that was the life I wanted,” Roy said. “They were making an enjoyable living without sitting in front of a computer in a windowless room for 10 hours a day.”

Roy opened his own Jiu-Jitsu academy and used teaching and instructional DVDs as vehicles to share his art.

If you look at it through a Brazilian lens, their ultimate celebration is competition and medals,” Roy said. “But I came from a very different background. I came from a traditional Japanese jujutsu, judo, and aikido background, so I saw it through the lens of Jiu-Jitsu’s historical evolution through the centuries.”

Roy sees himself as an artist, but he said the art must come secondary to martial effectiveness.

It’s art through combat,” Roy said. “You have to go through combat to transcend it into art. If you go the other way around, it’s very difficult. You get to the art by getting good enough so that it looks smooth and artistic, but you have to pay your dues to be able to make it look like art. The most important thing is that you don’t fool yourself.”

When Roy was a young BJJ competitor, he realized that he was not aggressive enough in tournaments.

I’m a nice guy,” Roy said. “I wanted people to like me and respect my skill. I yearned to have the ability to dominate with minimal energy and perfect technique. I never wanted to roll too hard for fear of being a dick.”

Roy explained that when people first learn Jiu-Jitsu, they are not “integrated into” their body. They do not have left/right or top/bottom symmetry. They are not sure what to do, so they just move with total body aggression.

They just move forward,” Roy said. “They don’t know that reverse, left, and right are also very useful. You can continue to make progress, but you don’t have to be locked in one direction.”

A breakthrough came when Roy took a more clinical examination of the fight.

What tripped the switch for me was getting to a point where I could be aggressive but without any emotion involved,” Roy said. “There’s almost a level of apathy with it. You don’t care whether it works out. ‘I am going to attack you, but I’m not emotionally invested in the attack.’”

Roy gave the example that when an opponent postures out of the triangle, he can switch to an arm lock.

Attack without being attached, because with attachment comes emotion,” Roy said. “If you want that triangle so badly, that’s where you waste energy, because your mind is grasping for that thing you thought you wanted. Aggression leads to frustration.”

Roy described fighting a 250-pound opponent who uses strength and aggression.

I know what’s not going to work,” Roy said. “He’s so big that I’m not going to sweep him. I have to climb or move around him. I don’t have to get sucked into that game with guys who are forcing it.”

When Roy was in the lower-belt levels, he would easily get caught in a battle of wills against stronger opponents, but it burned a lot of energy.

Don’t get sucked in” is Roy’s inner dialogue when fighting these opponents. “Today, I have so many more pathways around these guys. They haven’t explored those roads yet, but they’re there. You just need to spend a little bit more time driving around the city. Then you can take the shortcuts.”

The book Power Versus Force influenced Roy’s thinking, and he adapted the ideas to Jiu-Jitsu. The book teaches that true power comes from within, but force is what people project onto others.

You use all your strength to force the arm into the right position,” Roy said. “Maybe you’ll succeed, but maybe you won’t. Power achieves the same end, but in a more graceful way. Instead of forcing the arm, you attack the neck, which forces the arm to come up and present itself for a spinning arm lock. You don’t have to use that much energy. It’s good timing based off what they gave you.”

Roy said that when you begin learning Jiu-Jitsu it requires 100 percent effort to be effective, but as you gain more skill, you can begin to dial it back. 

I am at that point where I use Jiu-Jitsu like a finely tuned dimmer switch,” Roy said. “You don’t have to have it on all the way. As you get better, you can dial it back more and more. I will just match their light. If someone’s shining way too bright and I don’t feel like that today, I don’t have to outshine them.”

This is a distinction between Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and many other martial arts.

With the softer arts, you’re dialing the dimmer switch up little by little,” Roy said. “But then, if you meet someone who is at full brightness, you’re just blown away because you don’t have that capacity. Instead, you have to be able to go to full brightness and then dim it back.”

Jiu-Jitsu enables the fighter to accomplish the goal with less force, but Roy said that, as a man, you never stop paying your dues.

It doesn’t stop; you always have to learn more,” Roy said. “You have to be a lifelong learner and adapt to the world that is constantly changing.”

The lines became blurred when Roy’s need for continual growth intersected with Jiu-Jitsu tournaments.

I am a competitive person,” Roy said. “But competition is a weird realm where you can get lost. The problem is people get addicted to chasing championships, and it can be an endless level of dissatisfaction. The only way you can win some games is to not participate.”

Roy has won at the black-belt level, but he realized that to be a world champion black belt required another level of dedication.

I was not near that level, nor was I willing to do everything you have to do to be a consistent contender. High level is still not that level. I knew my place and I learned to be comfortable there.”

Roy enjoyed many years of competition, but as he grew, his passions also evolved. One of his earliest passions was music, and Brian Eno, one of the producers of the band U2, was influential to Roy’s thinking.

Brian Eno had the most amazing quote,” Roy said. “When it came to pop music, Brian Eno said that most people try to hit the bull’s‑eye. But the bull’s‑eye is very crowded, so why don’t you just make a new target?”

When Roy first launched his academy, people knew him as a good competitor, but they questioned whether he could be a good teacher. Later, when he was a well-respected teacher, people questioned why he did not compete.

You go through different stages of the journey, but I’ve tried to keep making new targets,” Roy said. “I went through that stage of hyper-competitiveness—whether that’s in a tournament or in the dojo—and I feel like I’ve kind of graduated beyond that. Now I use Jiu-Jitsu to empower others, regulate my mood, and have fun.”

When Roy opened his academy, he had to change targets by making the shift from employee to entrepreneur.

It’s a mental shift as much as a business shift,” Roy said. “I used to be more focused on becoming famous and making money. You have to get into this space of a prosperity mind-set, and that is a useful tool. But it’s not an end in itself.”

Roy has known many wealthy people and has seen their initial thrill of making money, but once they get used to it, making more money creates no emotion at all.

How much is enough?” Roy asked. “It’s just like competition. That’s an endless world that you can get sucked into. In terms of prosperity, I feel very grateful that I’m able to do what I do. I lead a comfortable life, but I’m not deeply obsessed with getting rich. I don’t want to be the richest man in the graveyard.”

Today, Roy’s focus is on creating art through Jiu-Jitsu media that inspires people from a technical standpoint but is also entertaining and pleasing to the eye.

I feel very fortunate that I was exposed to Jiu-Jitsu at a young age,” Roy said. “Today, I feel that I’ve turned the corner, because traditionally the warrior’s journey is warrior, teacher, healer. I haven’t done the healing arts yet, but I’m investing in the next generation to help them save a few steps along the way, as my teacher did for me.” 

Did you enjoy this story? Click HERE to get the book with other interviews.

motivationsmallYou can read the rest of the stories in the book, “Motivation: Stories of Life and Success From Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts.” Click HERE to get it at Amazon.

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