Jiu-jitsu black belt circles globe to find mentorship in Alabama

Published 6:14 am Sunday, April 4, 2021

Yonatan Harel left his home in Israel to set out on a global, year-long quest (and counting) — all to seek out the best instruction the world has to offer as he immerses himself deeply in his martial arts passion. It’s a search that had already led Harel — a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with 17 years’ training — to studios in California and Brazil. Now, it’s led him here.

Harel, 41, is currently in the middle of the three-month Cullman stretch of his extended jiu-jitsu sabbatical; a stint whose sole purpose is to train under Daniel O’Brien, the owner and chief instructor at Cullman’s Triad Martial Arts Academy. To say he’s seriously committed is an understatement: Harel had never set foot in a small Southern town before this year, but he rented a local apartment and did most of the same logistical legwork any other new resident would have to do. Now that he’s here, he says he’d do it again — in a heartbeat.

“I have zero regrets about coming here,” says Harel. “I don’t want it to sound too much like a shameless promotion, but people who live around here should know that they have something that is world class and extremely unique at their doorstep.”

He’s talking about O’Brien himself, who took over the Triad legacy established by original studio founder and widely-acclaimed 5th degree jiu-jitsu master Johnny Lee Smith. Smith studied in the early 1990s under Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rickson Gracie, and there’s a strand of Gracie’s revered approach to the discipline that threads directly from Smith’s early training days to O’Brien’s own technique. In the small but intensely dedicated global jiu-jitsu community, Smith achieved household-name recognition in the 1990s — and O’Brien is doing it again, more than two decades later.

It was just that kind of recognition that led Harel to seek out a residency with O’Brien in the first place, with a literal ocean of distance posing no obstacle in Harel’s determination to learn from the best.

“I was watching an instructional video online, and it had a number of people in a seminar-like setting,” Harel recalls. “One of the people — I didn’t even see his face — asked the instructor a question about Rickson (Gracie’s) methods, and someone spoke up in the video and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Daniel O’Brien?’”

That led Harel straight to an online search, where he quickly discovered why strangers on the internet were mentioning O’Brien’s name.

“I got online and watched his matches — specifically one where he was going against a guy who’s really well known; someone I knew about,” he explains. “To see Daniel be so effective against that guy, for me, was just mind-boggling. He has a unique efficiency; this way where he doesn’t even seem to be using his strength or trying to be physically dominant. Once you see it, if you’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for very long, you realize what it takes to achieve that. I was like, ‘Yeah — I have to train with this guy.’”

O’Brien embraces the confidence that Harel, as well as the rest of the regular local students at Triad, have placed not only in his skill, but in his ability to teach. A big part of teaching is the willingness to continue learning, even as students look to you for mentorship, he explains, adding that Harel’s own high-level jiu-jitsu ability — as well as their shared focus on improvement rather than competition — gives him a unique training opportunity, too.

“The way I do things is unique, but at the same time, I’m not the only one who’s doing them,” he says. “But I do think I’m pretty decent at explaining what I’m doing, which I learned from Johnny — who really had a kind of ‘superpower’ for explaining things and just being a really good teacher.

“Part of the beauty of jiu-jitsu is also that it has to be ‘felt’ as well as just the explaining part of it, and Yonatan’s a black belt. His body can ‘listen’ better because he’s been doing this himself for 17 years. It makes him ask different questions, and I definitely appreciate that I have a black belt student to roll with. I’m getting to solve puzzles that I don’t typically get to solve.”

Beyond Triad and Harel’s multiple per-week sessions under O’Brien’s one-on-one instruction, there’s also his temporary home in Cullman — a place Harel never knew existed, and with a small-town culture that he’d never experienced before. So far, he says it’s been a breeze adjusting to a slower pace of life in the Deep South.

“It’s my first time in a small town, and I had no idea what to expect,” he confesses. “Daniel helped me with getting the apartment; the car; the things you have to have, and the Triad community has been right there for me too. At the gym, all I see is just a bunch of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Everybody’s welcoming, always inviting me along to do stuff. They’re very open.”

“That’s one of the good things about being in a small town,” O’Brien adds. “Everybody wants to help out; everybody feels connected.”

Sometime after his stay in Cullman is over, Harel plans to take what he’s learned here and at the other stops on his jiu-jitsu journey, and put it all into practice back home.

“The goal at some point in the not-so-distant future is to open a jiu-jitsu academy in Israel,” he says. “My goal of being here for these three months is this hope that Daniel can sort of put me on the right track of how to advance from here; of how to get better along the lines of that philosophy of using less to achieve more.

“Obviously I’m not gonna leave knowing everything that he knows. But I’ve already learned a lot, just having your eyes opened to this unique way — kind of like an art — of Daniel’s approach. I’ve studied with other trainers, in L.A., in San Diego, in Brazil. I have nothing bad at all to say about any of them — but this is just different. There’s a different level of body awareness and sensitivity that I’ve never felt training anywhere else. That’s something I would never have really understood if I hadn’t come here and experienced it for myself.”