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.