The name John Danaher was not a completely unknown one a decade ago. Apart from those that knew him from Renzo’s, most other people only got to know that Danaher exists because of GSP. When Georges St.Pierre fought, there was a strange looking guy always in his corner. Many people had no idea who he was. In the features leading to his fights, GSP explained that this guy is a real Jiu-Jitsu mad scientist and praised him more than any other member of his team. Yet, nobody knew anything about Danaher, his experience, background, no competition footage. We got to know a bit more about him on the Ultimate Fighter but not much. Working behind closed doors, the mysterious grappling philosopher managed to put together the scariest competition team in history – the notorious Danaher Death Squad.
Gi, or No-Gi, IBJJF circuit or the submission only community, there’s no competitor out there that is not aware of the Danaher Death Squad. The legend says that going up against even the most junior members of this team, all but guarantees your defeat. In real life, things are not much different. While some people might somehow, sometime survive against the Danaher Death Squad, winning against them is notoriously hard. Danaher’s disciples all abide by their coach’s philosophy and guidance, making them real grappling machines. They have their own hierarchy, they have their own system of building younger members and they’re crazy successful, even years after their emergence. Today, the squad has more members than ever, and they’re scarier than ever as well!
The reason behind the Danaher Death Squad’s grappling excellence is not hard to pinpoint. Their main virtue is discipline. Danaher is truly a grappling genius that is capable of finding groundbreaking solutions to every BJJ problem presented before him. All that the Squad has to do is follow his instructions to a T, put the hours in and get out on the mats to compete. This is the real secret behind their success. Such a bunch of proficient submission hunters of different ages, backgrounds, body types and capabilities can only work as a unit with something holding them in place. And, when the glue is John Danaher and his twisted mind, the term Death Squad is more than appropriate!
Renzo Gracie Academy’s John Danaher
Most people tend to take both Danaher and the Death Squad for granted. All they see is a bunch of leg locking specialists, led by a man who somehow hacked a series of submission that didn’t work before. That approach, right there, is why most people fail when they go up against a member of the Danaher Death Squad. John Danaher is actually as complete a grappler as possible and does deserve the mantle of world’s greatest coach thanks to his unbelievable mind.
The New Zealander’s background is now common knowledge. A Ph.D. student in philosophy turned grappler that ended up fascinated by the sport, Danaher dedicated himself completely to BJJ. As a purple belt, he started teaching classes at Renzo’s Academy in NY, and the seeds of his own brand of BJJ were planted. His background in philosophy, as well as the fact that he is a true eccentric, give Danaher a different view on life. Since his life is all about Jiu-Jitsu, you can see why his methods are so successful. He finds the solutions to most common issues that appear in the sport. Also hugely important is the fact that Danaher does not limit himself to the restraints of the sport of BJJ. Instead, he absorbs grappling as a whole, accepting anything that works into his methodology.
There is another reason why the Danaher Death Squad is so prestigious as well. Its members are mainly people that respond to Danaher’s very unique brand of teaching. It is not that he can’t teach everyone, it just takes (or took) a special kind of person to go deep with him. ANd the founding members of the squad did just that.
History Of The Danaher Death Squad
Explaining who John Danaher is in modern days seems redundant. Put simply, he is the most sought-after Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach of today. Full stop. Yet, there is much more to the mystery that is John Danaher than just simply leg locks.
The Danaher Death Squads starts when a guy with a similar mindset to Danaher’s joins the gym. Eddie Cummings is a physics major, who got into grappling at the university. He soo needed up at Renzo’s and his academic mind found the perfect coach in Danaher. Their relationship is the foundation of the Danaher Death Squad. Cummigns wholeheartedly accepted the leg lock game, which about a decade ago, was as close to blasphemy as you can get in the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Cummings dedicated completely to BJJ, working multiple times a day to understand and apply Danaher’s leg lock methodology in competition.
Other people in the gym soon caught up, fascinated by what Cummins was now able to do. Danaher took a couple more students and the Danaher Death Squad was born. Their rise to power was as methodical as John’s teaching methods. After hours upon hours of technical work and drilling, they started conquering local tournament featuring an, err, alternative ruleset. At the time, invitational tournaments like Metamoris, EBI, and Polaris started popping up, giving the squad a platform to truly shine.
Senior Squad Members
We already touched upon the original member of the Danaher Death Squad, Eddie Cummings. He joined “the Danaher program” as a blue belt, and ultimately got his black belt by the mastermind. Cummings is a featherweight grappler who never refused a match, regardless of the opponent’s size. He also submitted some of the world’s more renowned leg lockers to date, coming from leg lock- heavy grappling martial arts like Sambo. His only notable defeat came at the hands of Geo Martinez, who won via fastest escape in overtime at EBI.
The two that followed are the now legendary duo of Gary Tonon and Gordon Ryan. Tonon is actually a contemporary of Cummings. They started training in the blue basement together after Tonon saw how successful Cummings was with his leg lock game. Originally a black belt by Tom DeBlass and a with a strong wrestling background, Tonon adopted really quickly to Danaher’s philosophy, becoming a crucial part of the squad.
The third original member of the squad is young Gordon Ryan. He was a student of Gary Tonon and ended up in the blue basement courtesy of his coach. Ryan got his black belt from Tonon, after winning everything in sight at the local scene. He was the youngest of the three and offered a lot of perspectives. Ryan is actually still only 23 and already has accomplished more in Jiu-Jitsu than some people in a lifetime. As far as the Danaher Death Squad is concerned, he is currently it’s most active an known member.
Younger Death Squad Members
If there’s one person that can give Gordon Ryan a run for his money, it is definitely his younger brother, Nicky. The 16-year-old is currently a purple belt under Danaher and is the youngest ever ADCC competitor. He holds victories over notable black belts in the port and has his whole grappling career in front of him. He is the leader of the junior Danaher Death Squad, opening the doors to a bunch of new faces coming out of the blue basement. Interestingly enough, he spends all his time training and teaching Jiu-Jitsu, with no distractions whatsoever.
Ethan Crelinsten is now as notable as any of the Danaher Death Squad, despite being a junior member. He trains with Frias Zahabi (another Danaher black belt) but competes as part of Renzo’s team. He is another in a long line of incredible submission artists, with back attacks being his favorite weapons.
Another squad member originally (and still to a degree) from Tristar is 25-year-old Oliver Taza. He is another one of Danaher’s disciples that’s taking strides in BJJ, catching the eye of the grappling community with his submission heavy and aggressive style.
In 2018, an unsuspecting member of the Death Squad pretty much summed up what they’re all about. Filling in for a sick Eddie Cummings, teammate John Celestine entered EBI as a complete unknown. Since he was a late replacement he kept Cummings’ top seed spot in the tournament. Celestine ended up submitting everyone to the final, where he beat champion Geo Martinez in overtime.
There’s no way to talk about the Danaher Death Squad without mentioning Erin Blanchfield as well. She is a mainstay at the blue basement and one of the hardest working grapplers (and MMA fighters) there.
The New Generation
As the fame, or better said, the notoriety of the Danaher Death Squad rises, the squad itself expands. Today, there are so many members it is hard to keep a track of. Some of them are just starting to shine on the smaller competition scenes, proving that there’s a lot more to come. Others are still a work in progress and we’ll only see what Danaher has them doing in a few years time.
Some of the most notable start to be training under Danaher today include names like Jason Rau, Nick Ronan, and Mathew Tesla. While still not mainstays of the grappling world they show immense potential. Also, to be clear, being a new generation of the Death Squad is not something defined by age. As such, none of the above are younger than Nicky Ryan, but still, have miles to go. We can’t wait to see what these grapplers and all other potential Death Squad members bring to the scene in the coming years!
Danaher’s Philosophy Of Jiu-Jitsu
If there’s one thing that marks the philosophy that Danaher teaches to his followers, it is aggression. Unlike most attacking grapplers out there. though, Danaher is not a fan of doing things just for the sake of them. By aggression, he understands being on the offensive constantly. An offensive game, fro Danaher and the Death Squad members, is one of complete control and immobilization of an opponent before going for the finish. As preached as this concept is in Jiu-Jitsu, even the most high-level grapplers tend to overlook this concept.
The complete Danaher methodology is base do on a progressive attacking model. He is all about hunting but not like a rhino. Despite the Danaher Death Squad’s fast finishes, their style fo grappling is based on slow progression through plenty of control checkpoints. Their notorious leg locking system, for example, has a clear hierarchy based on mechanics and the opponent’s reactions. This allows them to constantly transition between control when they attack, which in turn, offers them the possibility of being constantly on the offensive.
The squad mentality closely reflects that of their teacher. They work hard, arguably harder than anyone. They also like to put pressure on their opponents, even when they’re on the bottom. having someone retreat is a great way of keeping control even if you do not have any. This is a great competitive mentality, once shared by each squad member.
The Leg Lock Game
The one characteristic that defines the Danaher Death Squad is, without a doubt, leg locks. They got to where they are mostly because of leg locks, and remain the fiercest leg lockers of today. Through his squad, Danaher has single-handedly changed the world of Jiu-Jitsu. Both the success and fame of the squad came as a result of their elaborate Ashi Garami system.
What Danaher managed to do is bring order to very chaotic part of BJJ. Most old school people do not like leg locks to this very day. the common perception was that of blitz submission that has a very low chance of success. At the same time, people thought leg locks inevitably result in gruesome injuries. Danaher demonstrated that the BJJ creed of “position before submission” applies here as well. He taught his students how to use controlling positions when hunting for leg locks, making lower body submissions much more understandable for everyone.
The Death Squad’s preferred submission is the heel hook. This still keeps them away from some of the biggest competitions due to the ruleset. However, as the rest of the grappling world will soon find out, the squad is about much more than just heel hooks.
After years of jealously keeping his system to himself, Danaher finally gave in. In 2018 he released the long-awaited “Leg Locks: Enter The System” DVD set, featuring his complete leg locking system. It is an amazing 10 hours in length, spread over 8 DVDs! The time to get it is now!
The proof that both Danaher and his Death Squad are really well versed in all submissions are becoming more and more apparent. They have a very slick back game, that has opponents even more confused. Danaher’s straight jacket system is as effective as it is complex. According to Danaher, the back is the ultimate position of control, even better than the Ashi Garamis that made him famous. Actually, Gary Tonon’s nickname is “the Lion Killer” which is a testament to his inclination towards back attacks
Speaking of which, Danaher followed up on his leg locks DVD with one focusing on back takes and finishes. “Back Attacks: Enter The System” DVD is all about torturing people from back control, just like we’ve seen the Danaher Death Squad do on numerous occasions in competition. Available now!
Apart from the back, front headlock attacks, most notably chokes, also play a huge role in Danaher’s Jiu-Jitsu. Gordon Ryan is one that has had particular success with the guillotine, among other chores. Since the squad also likes to wrestle, they use the front headlock to both threaten with submissions and takedowns at the same time. A perfect fit for the Danaher philosophy.
If you go back even further you can see Eddie Cummings doing crazy stuff off his back as well. He is a truly dedicated leg locker but is also a nasty guard player with particularly efficient triangle chokes.
If there’s one platform out there on which the Danaher Death Squad reigns supreme it is EBI. Eddie Bravo’s unique grappling tournament gave the squad the ability to roam free and destroy everyone. Since 2014, the squad has lost just one match, the one Martinez won over Cummings. Even that loss was prevented by Callestine not long ago. Out of all the champions EBI has, none feature more than the Danaher Death Squad. gordon Ryan, for example, ahs titles in a few weight classes, including the Absolute.
And, if EBI isn’t a big enough stage for you, the squad also boasts with ADCC champions. Namely, despite all three original members being EBI champions, only Gordon Ryan is an ADCC heavyweight champion and absolute silver medalist. A huge achievement for a 23-year-old. That is without mentioning the fact that his brother gave AJ Agazarm all kinds of trouble in the opening round of the ADCC.
Apart from that, the squad has accepted every super fight offered to them. Names like Rousimar Palhares, Reilly Bodycomb, Dillon Danis, Geo Martinez, Vinny Magalhaes, and many others have fallen victim to the Danaher Death Squad.
The future is more than bight for all echelons of the Danaher Death Squad. Gordon Ryan has signed upon for the No_Gi IBJJF pans, to start with. He is also focusing on becoming the world’s fiercest grappler in the Gi, something we all anxiously waiting for.
Gary Tonnon, on the other side, has focused is attention to MMA. He is currently fighting under the ONE FC banner in Japan, where he dominated on his professional debut. He is still going to compete on the submission only No-gi scene as well.
With the ADCC trials right around the corner, every member of the squad is expected to feature heavily. Young Nicky Ryan n particular is going to be looking for his second chance at stardom at the biggest grappling competition in the world.
Eddie Cummings is taking some time off the squad at present. The Wolverine is attempting to form his own brand on Jiu-jitsu along with the unique game. For an extraordinary grappler like himself, there’s no doubt he will be successful.
On a final note, let’s just reveal that Danaher actually despises the name Danaher Death Squad, which came to be purely by accident!