My Students, BJ Penn and Keenan Cornelius: How to Create Martial Arts Champions

Well, as of this last weekend, two of my students, two young men I started as white belts, have become the stuff of martial arts legend. BJ Penn became my student at age 17 —and, well, everyone knows his story. My son, Keenan Cornelius, this last weekend, became the first person in the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation’s history to win double gold-medals in “The Grand Slam.” This means he won 1st in his division and the absolute division of The Pan Am Games, the European Champions, The Brazilian Nationals, and The World Championships. 

The accomplishments of these two fine martial artists —and my connection to them —make me somewhat of “an expert” in the discussion of how to “make” champions. So, here, I’m going to share my secrets on what it takes to take young people and turn them into world-class performers:

I don’t know.

I don’t know why, exactly, BJ and Keenan are so darned good. Honestly, I don’t know why they shine so brightly —but I can say, resolutely, that I don’t think my role in their success was/is a big one. I was just at the right place at the right time. I made introductions. I came with a certain skill set —and for some reason, I was the first one to start rolling the ball that eventually became an avalanche of  accomplishment and skill in these two young men’s lives. 

I can, however, attribute my success to the fine people I’ve been influenced by —and in turn, I can say that without them, these two world-class athletes would have had to meet someone else to “get the ball rolling in their careers. 

Bruce Lee played a little role in where I came from and why I do what I do; had he not been in The Green Hornet, which I first saw as a little boy, I might not have sought out martial arts training as early as I did. Jigoro Kano and the very first martial arts teacher I ever took a lesson with (in 1969 no less!), a judo teacher, played a role. Lou Grasso, my first Taekwondo teacher played a huge role, as did my many classmates and friends from his school. Ernie Reyes, Sr. played a giant role —in too many ways to list here, but I can say for certain that without his leadership and friendship I wouldn’t have done much, as a martial artist, for anyone else. 

Jhoon Rhee, Joe Lewis, Bill Wallace, Jeff Smith, Dan Inosanto, O’Sensei, Mike Swain, Fukuda Sensei, and 100 other martial arts athletes and teachers who’ve inspired me over the years —they’ve all played a role. 

Being absorbed in the martial arts world, completely, whole-heartedly, and with love and respect, these are the things that put me in the right place at the right time. The practice. The training. The struggle. The path set out for me through the examples of my seniors and other martial arts icons, that’s what helped me contribute, in the small way I’ve contributed, to the careers of these two martial artists. 

How can you make this happen in your own career? How can you be a champion-maker too? Lol. I don’t know —except to suggest that you follow as clean and clear a path as you possibly can. That you train, yourself, as hard as you are able —and that you keep an open mind and be as straight-up as you can. The rest is, as far as I can tell, luck. 

Oh, and I’ve discovered that I’m not the teacher, I’m really the student. I owe far more to BJ and Keenan than they’ve received from me. 

Why I Love to Teach Martial Arts, Today. (Martial Arts Business)

Let me tell you what’s fun about my work (as a martial arts teacher).

It’s really fine to coach young men and women to become exemplary athletes; athletes with focus, determination, self-discipline, courage, a great attitude, and the will to succeed. I’ve taught some fantastic athletes too, black belts who could wheel-kick you’re head off, from any position, any time of the day or night. Fighters who could punch so hard and so fast that duking it out with them was nothing but an exercise in frustration and pain.

 I’ve coached some world class athletes too, like BJ Penn and his brother Reagan, who take the concept of sports performance to another dimension.



But that’s not what my work is about, not anymore; not at age 51 and with 40 years of experience studying and practicing the martial arts. No, today what I most enjoy about my work is taking martial arts athlete/teachers and nurturing in them a completely different kind of excellence-in-performance.

One of my star students (and at the level of expertise the examples I’m about to give you are operating at, I can’t really call them “students” anymore, as they’re as much my teachers as my pupils, friends, and peers) is Brian Williams, who is, I believe, in Kenya at the moment on a humanitarian mission. Brian’s world class martial arts performance and project is What BJ Penn is to BJJ and MMA, Brian is to kindness, acts of compassion, and taking his martial arts training out of the dojo and into the world.
Another star performer is martial arts teacher Gary Engels. Gary’s “master project,” is based on the teaching methods he’s been practicing in his martial arts school called The Leadership Academy. Gary lives in a town of less than 3000 people, yet his students have planned, executed, and documented more community projects than any other school in America —and maybe in the world.

Gary’s project-in-the-works is This young man is on his way to making Project-Based Leadership Training (PBLT) a standard part of all martial arts schools (especially those that teach young people), everywhere.
I’m helping black belt and nutritionist Mike Tubbs of Canada craft a master’s level project called The Dietary Self-Defense Program. I don’t see how in today’s world we, the martial arts “industry,” can claim to teach self-defense if we don’t address what we eat, how it’s grown and produced, where it comes from, and the cost of its production. Mike is hard at work on what could become one of the most important —and long overdue —programs in the international martial arts community. Visit
Joe Van Deuren in Maryland and Peter Liciaga in New Jersey are two black belt teachers who know how to get things done. Joe’s Where Does the Rain Go? Project, his School Teacher Grant Program, Teen Suicide Prevention work, and art programs for young people are, I believe, setting the bar for the kind of martial arts that could be taught in the future, if teachers only had someone to show them what’s possible. Joe’s doing that. Peter’s work in designing bullying education materials and teaching kids how to teach other kids, well, it’s a thing of beauty. See Joe’s work at, see Peter’s at
Danny Sikkens and Jeremy Smith are two of my black belts that run a non-profit martial arts school outside of Portland, Oregon. They currently teach more than 400 students at Aim High Martial Arts and specialize in teaching leadership and community service. See Aim High at
My organization, The 100 ( has more than 100 black belt school owners and teachers in it —and each one of them is working on defining one or more projects that reflect their ability to take what they have learned through their training —and apply it, spectacularly, in the world.
Being a part of this work, being a catalyst for this kind of martial arts practice, THIS is, today, what’s most fun, most exhilarating, and most rewarding about my work as a teacher of the martial arts.

Thank you to Larry Czerwonka of The Big Island Internet Society for conducting this interview. Educational activist Tom Callos talks about his on-line school and think-tank, The One Hundred, and how he is out to change the way Martial Arts is taught and thought about by the community at large.

Brian Williams, the BJ Penn of Kindness

I have a lot of students. Students who have been with me since they were children and students who I’ve only known for a short time. It’s unfair for me to single out two, among thousands, but today I have to shine the spotlight on two young men I’ve had the privilege to teach. 

BJ Penn was a 17 year old when he came to me —and now he’s a giant legend in the martial arts world, with millions and millions of fans. I trained with BJ for a year, tried to talk him OUT of fighting professionally (we have to laugh now), and, well…now all I can do is sit back and watch, in awe, at where his career has taken him. 

My experience with BJ reminds me that you cannot (and should not) ever judge a book by its cover. You never know what a young person has inside them, so you’re wise to treat every one of them like they could be the champion of the world in something that’s important to them. 

Which brings me to the young man teaching all those even-younger people in the photo above. That’s Brian Williams, who became my student when he was 4-years-old. Today he heads (I just now got the letter from him you can read below, about an upcoming humanitarian trip to Cambodia). 

Brian is to kindness what BJ Penn is to the world of mixed martial arts. 

The truth be told, I knew Brian had great inner-strength, as I put him through some of the hardest training I’ve ever put anyone through —and for many years. He come up with a group of young athletes in my school who were second to none. But I didn’t know Brian was going to do what he is doing today. Now I get to sit back and watch, in awe, at where his career is taking him. 

Take a look, please, as Brian suggests below, at

What a pleasure it has been —and still is —to be a teacher. 

Tom Callos


Hello Everyone, 

If you are receiving this email, it is because you showed interest in joining Think Kindness in our next Global Act of Kindness. This year, we have partnered up with an amazing charity and several orphanages in Cambodia. During our 15 Day trip, we will be delivering over 1,500 pairs of shoes to several rural orphanages and villages. We will also bring medical and school supplies as well as teaching art and basic hygiene classes to villagers. 
We will also be taking children to tour ancient temples… things they have only read about but have never seen. 
THIS IS NOT A VACATION: - It’s a trip to make a difference in the lives of children around the world. To bring the acts of kindness, shoes, and gifts from those in the U.S. and acting as messengers on a global level. While we are there we will see how we can bring back their story and tell it to those that may be able to help make an even bigger difference in the area’s in which we visit. 
This is going to be an AMAZING JOURNEY! We only have spots for 10 people, and it’s on a first come first serve basis. To see the proposed itinerary, videos and to pre-register go

Hope you can make it!!!

Brian Williams
President & Founder

Think Kindness
Phone: 775.636.8026

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