Walking up to the Crazy Cow Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Club in the city centre of Edinburgh, Scotland, there is a small paper sign on the door and an empty room with only mats lining the floor. In such a sparse space, one would hardly expect to find one of the UK’s best grapplers, William Watson, a purple belt under Ricardo Rivera, running the place. Watson, who recently earned second place in a prominent Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament in Edinburgh, lies alone on the mats and rises to greet me as I walk into the gym. The affable instructor’s gym is his second home and though he holds regular classes, he often just goes to the gym everyday and waits for one or two of his students to show up. If it’s a nice day outside, he understands that his students will be off doing other things and probably won’t show up. Over the years, he’s gotten used to enthusiastic students who come in claiming that they will be showing up everyday, dedicated to becoming great martial artists; while some stick to their word, most people end up losing the passion after only a few weeks or leave to follow their girlfriends around the world. It’s not something that Watson takes personally because he’s aware not everybody has the type of passion for the sport that he does.
Encouraged to take up Jiu-Jitsu by an ex-girlfriend whose former boyfriend was a top proponent of the sport in the UK, Watson got his start in BJJ by learning on his own from The Fighter’s Notebook, written by Kirik Jenness, owner of famed MMA website, The Underground. Watson travelled to Japan in 2001 to train at Gracie Japan and following that experience he was hooked for life. After a few months in Japan, Watson decided he hadn’t yet quite scratched his itch for the sport, so he moved for a year to Brazil, the Mecca of Jiu-Jitsu. While in Brazil, Watson hooked up with Rodrigo Medeiros – the two-time absolute jiu jitsu champion famous in North America for being UFC Heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar’s BJJ coach – and Ricardo Rivera, two of the top BJJ grapplers in the world who pushed him to the point he is at today. Watson found their guidance invaluable since, as he argues, in order to get good, one needs to know what it’s like to roll with a really good martial artist. Although Watson earned his purple belt in a short time span, he knows he could have been a lot higher now had he stayed in Brazil and continued training with a gi. Regardless, he doesn’t care what color his belt is; he only cares what he knows.
Once a student shows up and Watson starts helping him with his guard, it’s easy to tell that Watson has learned from the best. He rolls effortlessly in and out of submissions, only getting tapped once when he gives up a triangle – a feat that his surprised student claims he will be bragging about to a girl later. Pressing me for more questions as he rolls, it’s not only clear that Watson has great skills; it’s also quite evident that he’s a great teacher. Taking what he learned in Brazil, Watson adapted his skill set for his home country when he returned to Edinburgh. In Brazil, the humid climate makes training with a gi a necessity, since without it, submissions would be much harder to lock. In Scotland’s cooler climate, a gi is unnecessary, which is why students at the Crazy Cow Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Club don’t use one. Watson also knows that a gi can be expensive, which can be a turn off or beginners who aren’t quite sure whether or not they’re ready to fully commit to the sport yet. Besides, as Watson says, a gi limits what you can pack on trips around the world. Without a gi, you can carry a laptop, water bottle, book, snacks and whatever other small things you can cram into your travel bag. You can’t do that carrying a bulky gi around.
Although he trains his students without a gi, Watson does stick to one aspect of Brazilian style training, in that kids, women and men all train together. Everybody has the chance to learn from each other. Plus, it means Watson doesn’t have to teach a ton of different classes. He prefers to only work twenty-five hours a week at the gym so it doesn’t start to feel like a job. When he started training people, he never intended it to be a job. In fact, the club didn’t even start in a building. Instead, Watson points to the large park outside the window of the gym, which is where he and a friend started training on the grass – before the cold and wet weather hit and he decided he needed some shelter. After a short time in a smaller facility, Watson started getting too many students and needed a bigger place, the building he now occupies. His club has the distinction of being the first full-time BJJ club in Scotland, although a few others have popped up recently.
There are only a few mixed martial arts gyms in Scotland and though the sport is relatively unknown among the general populace, it is burgeoning. There are two MMA gyms in Edinburgh and one in Aberdeen. Based out of Glasgow is Scotland’s most renowned MMA club, the Dinky Ninja’s. Paul McVeigh, who is also well known in Scotland as a top fighter, heads the Dinky Ninja’s. These days, Watson is seeing more and more students come into his gym that want to become professional MMA fighters. One of the best is a student named Ryan Quinn. Quinn, who’s thinking about giving up work to train full-time, is built like a gorilla and once beat the entire Scottish rugby team in arm wrestling, one after the other.
As far as the general public goes, Watson feels the sport of MMA still has a lot of growing to do in Scotland. Most people, while aware of MMA, are unaware of the intricacies of the sport or any of its top fighters. A few years ago, when trying to watch UFC pay-per-views, bouncers at Scottish bars didn’t even know what MMA or the UFC was. Now, like in North America, every Joe Blow on the street is a “cage-fighter”. While there are many posers, there are a lot of Scottish “cage-fighters” who are the real deal. During my time in Scotland there are a handful of MMA shows, from small shows in a school gym to the largest one ever in Scotland that took place recently in Edinburgh’s largest arena.
Scottish fans of MMA can catch the Cage Rage and UFC promotions on television for free, though Watson has no interest in TUF’s Team U.K. versus Team U.S. season, since it reminds him too much of Big Brother. In fact, Watson doesn’t follow the sport much anymore at all. That said, he does name Georges St. Pierre as his favorite fighter. As an analogy, he compares GSP against his competition as being similar to British sprinter Lindford Christie racing against high-school students. As a top wrestler, GSP – along with Anderson Silva – is one of the only mixed martial artists who are actually pushing the sport forward, according to Watson.
Pushing the sport, and his students, forward is one of Watson’s personal goals. It’s also something he sees as imperative in order to make sure MMA continues to grow in Scotland. As far as how he tries to implant this idea into his students, Watson claims his motto is, “Don’t respect anyone, especially their health.” Of course, the good-natured Watson is only joking; his true mantra, which epitomizes a real martial artist, is unselfish: “I just like to get people good as fast as possible.”
With the help of good trainers and solid fight teams in Scotland, hopefully it won’t be long before we see a few Scottish fighters who can join the English ones who have already made it into the UFC. It shouldn’t take long, since the Scottish are genetically hard-wired to being fighters. Regardless of their ancient history, the twentieth century saw a few great Scottish boxing heroes – such as Ken Buchanan, Barry McGuigan, Walter McGowan and Benny Lynch. Even now the Scots have world-class boxers, in Ricky Burns and Willie Limond. As long as MMA continues to grow in the UK, I expect a few tough, scrappy, Scottish athletes to reach the top of the heap.