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. 

Martial Arts Safety, Gracie Barra, Mike Swain, and Dollamur Mats

The fellow on the left is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt Flavio Almeida (read about his career, so far, here). On the right is Judo legend Mike Swain (bio on Wikipedia, here). I’m taking the photo out in front of Mike’s offices located in Campbell, California. Flavio came down 

to chat about what he’s up to with Dollamur mats and his organization Gracie Barra —and to teach a seminar at San Jose State University for the judo team that practices there 6 night a week (including judoka Marti Malloy, who’s headed to the Olympic Games (see here Wikipedia bio here). 

By the way, while I’m name-dropping, I should mention that I owe my renewed interest in judo, which was the first martial art I ever engaged in (my first lesson was in 1969), to UFC veteran BJ Penn. When I was last in Hilo, BJ told me he was seriously studying —and enjoying —judo, and that he wished he had started earlier in his career. BJ’s enthusiasm for what he was learning in his judo classes inspired me to start studying “the gentle way” again. 

On a funny sidetone to that, when I first started teaching and working out with BJ Penn back in the 90’s, I tried to talk him out of fighting. I told him about my kick-boxing friends who’d tried to make it as professional fighters and how hard it was and how little money they had made. I suggested, instead, that he let me introduce him to Mike Swain and that he should consider trying out for the Olympic judo team. I remember saying, “There’s no money in judo either, but at least it’s prestigious.” Boy, was I wrong. Obviously, BJ didn’t let that detour him from his path.


The Almeida / Swain (Gracie Barra / Dollamur mats) Connection

I’ve beenhanging out with Mike Swain lately, as, well…not only is he a longtime friend, but if you plan to start taking judo lessons, who would be better to go to but one of the best coaches / judoka in the world, right? It turns out that’s also why Flavio Almeida flew into San Jose, CA; not just to get some judo pointers, but to connect Gracie Barra to the best mat surfaces in the world.  Gracie Barra has adopted Dollamur Mats / Swain Mats as the official flooring of all Gracie Barra schools worldwide. 

I asked Almeida why:

"Safety," he said. "We have to put the safety of our students above all other considerations. Gracie Barra believes Dollamur mats are not only the best constructed mat surfaces on the planet, but that Mike Swain and Dollamur are committed to athlete and student safety as much as we are."

When he said that, it didn’t come off as a “line” from a company press release, I could see that he genuinely meant it. I got to chat with Falvio quite a bit, we even drove over to Master Ernie Reyes Sr.’s “Mastery Test,” where about 100 of his highest ranking students were getting ready for a 5 day testing ordeal. More on that and more of my thoughts on Almeida, Gracie Barra, and some video from the seminar at San Jose State coming in my next blog. 

Martial Arts Business: Judo, BJ Penn, a 99-year Old Teacher, and Something Old / Something New

Something Old, Something New: Tom Callos Talks About The New (Old) Business of Teaching the Martial Arts —in 2012

Something Old
In 1969 a judo teacher invited me on his mat for my first taste of the martial arts. This month, 43 years after that first lesson, I’ve come back to judo. I’ve come back to Jigoro Kano’s art due to the influence of three people:
  1. BJ Penn, who told me recently that he’d started taking judo lessons. According to BJ, the training was outstanding and he felt it was filling a gap in his knowledge he hadn’t previously been aware of. He also told me he was training at a dojo on Oahu that had been open for more than 100 years. BJ’s a longtime friend, occasional training partner, former student, and since he kicked the hat off of the martial arts world as we knew it, a teacher I try and listen to. In the case of judo, if it’s good for BJ Penn, it’s good for me too.
  1. Shihan Keiko Fukuda. It was about a year ago that someone sent me a trailer for a film in-the-works called, “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful,” which was to chronicle the life of Keiko Fukuda, the last living student of judo’s founder Jigoro Kano. The trailer brought me to tears, as Fukuda, then 98-years-old and still teaching judo, exemplified a level of commitment and dedication I could only stand back and stare at in awe. It may sound strange to some people, but after seeing the film (now titled “Mrs. Judo”) and meeting Shihan, I felt compelled to study judo in her honor.
  1. Judo world champion Mike Swain personifies the gentle spirit of judo. I have only moved with him on the mat once, many years ago during my 4th degree black belt test under Master Ernie Reyes, Sr., but lately I’ve been hanging out with him as we worked together on some projects for his mat company ( I’ve grown to respect the gentleness of his approach to business and life, which I attribute in part to his training —and it has renewed my interest in the philosophy and practice of “The Gentle Way.”

I’m now working on a project with Swain Mats and its parent company Dollamur Sports Surfaces to renew interest in judo training to everyone in the international martial arts community, or should I say “back” to everyone (in the non-judo martial arts world). To begin the dialogue about how that might happen, we’ve started a community of martial artists interested in judo and, well, pretty much all things that take place on a mat. Membership is free and the content on the site is, I think, noteworthy. If you’d like to be a part of the dialog and movement to bring (or re-bring) some good judo technique to all styles of martial arts, come join us at

Something New
While judo speaks to my sense of martial arts tradition, the kind of martial arts that is, today, blowing my mind is the kind that takes the work “Off the mat and into the world.” That’s the slogan for a giant project I’m up to my chin in called “The 100.” (
The 100. isn’t about the techniques of the martial arts, it’s about innovation and education. The work is about community activism, experiential leadership training, environmental self-defense, dietary self-defense, peace education, on-line technology for curriculum development, health education, and a truckload of other concepts that aren’t currently a part of the “martial arts industry,” but that are so right, so smart, and so relevant-to-today’s world, that it’s only a matter of time. The 100.’s on-line campus is abuzz with smart, hardworking martial arts teachers doing some of the coolest, most inspiring, and —I think —healthiest work in the martial arts teachers community.

It’s like I have one foot in the past and one in the future. I find it all very invigorating —and I invite you to join me in the work, if it speaks to you too. I’m curious, too, if you’re experieincing anything like this in your teaching career. If you are, come to and tell us about it.

Tom Callos
This report was produced for The One Hundred, by Tom Callos

This report was produced for The One Hundred, by Tom Callos