The Danaher Death Squad
The Danaher Death Squad is the name of the famous grappling team that trains out of the Renzo Gracie academy in Manhattan. The team is trained by the New Zealand born BJJ blackbelt John Danaher. The Danaher Death Squad are known for their exciting style of submission grappling, in particular their ability to attack their opponents legs. Unusually the team train and compete almost exclusively without the Gi and have become specialists in techniques that favor this form of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
John Danaher’s eccentric personality and somewhat philosophical approach to coaching and BJJ has made him very popular among the grappling community. In 2018 he was introduced to a whole new audience after featuring as a guest on the popular Joe Rogan Podcast.
Introduction to BJJ
John Danaher first moved to New York to do a PH.D in epistemology at Columbia University. At the time he was 235 lbs as a result of weight lifting. Previously he had trained as a kickboxer in New Zealand. When not teaching or studying at Columbia he worked as a bouncer in the city. While working the door sometime in the early 90’s he heard stories of a skinny Brazilian guy who had dominated much bigger fighters during one of the first UFC events. After hearing this Danaher was given a VHS copy of Royce Gracie’s performance at UFC 2 when he won 4 consecutive fights in one night against experts from established fighting styles such as boxing and Tae Kwon Do.
Shortly after seeing this video Danaher met a classmate who told him how he had begun training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The friend challenged him to a match in the philosophy department and Danaher was shocked when his bar fighting skills were quickly negated by his friends limited BJJ knowledge. Despite Danahers size advantage his friend had immediately had the upper hand as soon as the fight went to ground.
Danaher decided to begin training and signed up at Renzo Gracies academy in New York. At 28 years old he had begun too late to make a go at competing in professional MMA or BJJ. He also had a number of old Rugby injuries which had left him with permanent hip and knee pain. Despite this John kept up the training and soon received his blue belt. A couple of years later he was given the opportunity to coach when he was just one grade higher (purple belt). At the time Renzo and the other coaches were focused on their own fight careers and Renzo asked John to join the coaching team full time.
Work with GSP
George St Pierre is probably still Danaher’s most famous student. GSP began travelling to Renzo Gracies academy in New York in the early 2000’s. However it was not until 2009 when Danaher and GSP really started to team up. GSP sought Danaher’s advice ahead of his 2009 rematch with BJ Penn about how to go about passing Penn’s guard. GSP won the match decisively and easily passed Penn’s guard on a number of occasions. Since then John Danaher has been a constant presence in GSP’s corner on fight night. Apart from Jiu Jitsu Danaher also seems to have GSP’s ear on a number of other topics including weight management.
GSP’s own MMA coach from Tristar MMA, Firas Zihabi also followed GSP to train at Renzo’s with Danaher. He received his black belt from him in 2011 and there is a still a strong link between Renzo’s academy and Tristar in Montreal. The influence of Danaher’s teachings can be seen in the fighting style of many of the Tristar guys. They are nearly always proficient in leg locks and have used the back attack system in MMA.
The DDS Systems
John Danaher has organized his teaching of Jiu Jitsu into different systems. These systems are typically focused on one particular form of attack or defense. Each system also takes into account tall the likely responses of a fully resisting opponent. The systems have been developed specifically for Nogi Jiu Jitsu. Danaher often uses the traditional Japanese names when describing different positions in his systems
The squad are best known for their system of attacking the legs. John Danaher said that he made this conceptual breakthrough after seeing how effectively Dean Lister could secure Achilles locks. Danaher then began researching hip and leg control and began formulating his system for leg attacks. The system is built around the idea of trapping and therefore neutralizing your opponents legs with your own legs. Once this is achieved the opportunity to attack heel hooks and other submissions is greater. The system was first introduced to the world during the first Eddie Bravo Invitational Tournaments. Eddie Cummings, Tonon, and Gordon Ryan all displayed a level of knowledge in leg entanglements that surprised their opponents.
The squad have also become known for their use of the back attack system. This system involves processes for taking the back and neutralizing an opponents defense to strangles. The system is very effective for nogi grappling and has been emulated by a number of other high level competitors.
Eddie Bravo Invitational
The creation of the Eddie Bravo Invitational was a pivotal moment for the Danaher Death Squad. Up until that point there had been limited opportunities to compete at a level that would allow them to get the exposure they needed to be successful professional athletes. Other nogi grappling tournaments up until this point still used the standard IBJJF ruleset which did not allow heelhooks and often ended in boring stalemates. However Bravo designed the EBI ruleset in a way that would encourage action and submissions of all kinds. This rule set was the perfect vehicle for the Danaher guys skillsets.
Garry Tonon won the welterweight division at the first EBI event and would go one to win it another 4 times. As champion he was featured on the massively popular Joe Rogan podcast which helped to elevate the profile of nogi submission grappling and the squad. Teammates Eddie Cummings and Jon Celestine also won their own EBI events while Gordon Ryan has won the event a total of 4 times to date.
The ADCC is submission grappling’s premier tournament. The original concept was to pit BJJ, wrestlers, and other forms of grapplers against each other to find the best grappling style. It is a nogi submission tournament and is famous for some incredible performances from the likes of Marcelo Garcia and Roger Gracie.
In 2017 Gordon Ryan proved to the world that the Danaher Death Squad was more than hype when he won the 88kg division. He narrowly lost own on the absolute final to Felipe Pena but there was no doubt that the leglock and back attack system was for real.
The 2019 ADCC performances by the squad were even more impressive and showcased the growing depth of the squad. This time Gordon Ryan won double gold and defeated some of the sports top talent along the way. His teammates also had good success with Nicky Rodriguez surprising everyone by managing to get silver in the 99kg division despite still being a BJJ bluebelt. Meanwhile Nicky Ryan and Garry Tonon both got 3rd in their respective divisions. Part time DDS member Craig Jones lost in the final of his division to take second place.
The exact number of members of the Danaher Death squad does not seem to be well defined. The team has grown steadily over the last few years and is constantly evolving. Full time pro grapplers share the mats with part time grapplers and students. However there seems to be a few core members who consistently represent the team in major competitions.
Gordon Ryan is a New Jersey based grappler who trained with legendary BJJ competitor Tom DeBlass during his first years of BJJ. As a white belt he befriended Garry Tonon and soon began training with him at Brunswick BJJ academy. He then began making the journey with him to Renzo Gracies academy in New York to train with Garry’s new mentor, John Danaher. Under the tutelage of John, Garry, and Tom he quickly began to master different aspects of submission grappling and would soon become the standout grappler in the Danaher Death Squad. In 2019 he won double gold at the ADCC and cemented his legacy as one of the best nogi grapplers of all time.
Garry Tonon first began his training with Tom DeBlass. He would later train with Ricardo Almeida before finally settling at Renzo Gracies academy under the eye of Danaher. One of his main influences for wanting to train at Danahers was to learn leg locks after seeing Eddie Cummings success with them. Once he joined the academy it was not long before he was dominating submission only tournaments with his own leg locks. The success of Eddie and Tonon on the submission circuit gave rise to the name “The Danaher Death Squad”. Garrys main focus since 2018 has been MMA but he still occasionally competes in BJJ competitions.
Nicky Ryan is the younger brother of Gordon. He began his training in his early teens and quickly became known as a BJJ prodigy. He earned his purple belt at 15 years old. While still studying in school Nicky has been able to compete with some of the top talents in the BJJ world . In 2018 he secured his entry to the 2019 ADCC championships by submitting all his opponents during the trials.
Eddie Cummings was one of the original members of the squad and is often credited with helping to create the leg lock system that has become popular. Cummings came to the sport of BJJ later than most but has still managed to compete at the top level. His performances at EBI 4 & 7 showcased his leg locking talent and marked him out as a formidable grappler. Cummings has since left the DDS after what appears to have being a disagreement with John. He now trains at Unity team under Murillo Santana.
George St Pierre is one of the greatest if not greatest MMA fighters of all time. He has credited his improvement in BJJ to the work that he has done with Danaher and the DDS. Danaher has played a significant role in the evolution of GSP’s game and offers advice a range of topics for the MMA star.
Nicky Rodriguez is a former NCAA wrestler who first turned to BJJ as a way of getting in good shape for his prospective modelling career. He has been described as a genetic freak and is famous for his explosive take downs and scrambles. Rodriguez made grappling headlines when he secured his ADCC spot by winning the West coast trials in the +99kg division despite only being a blue belt at the time. He made even more headlines when he took second at the 2019 ADCC competition defeating the likes of Cyborg along the way.
Other notable students: Craig Jones (Part time), Ethan Crelinsten, Matthew Tesla, Nick Ronan, Jason Rau, Erin Blanchfield