Super teams have been a big part of combat sports. Bringing together the top fighters is the epitome of the saying iron sharpens iron, and no single team has been better in BJJ than the Danaher Death Squad. But, like everything, it had a beginning and an end. In 2021, the team split, ending an era of submission grappling.
Let’s see what, when, and why it happened.
In July 2021, after years of dominating the submission grappling world, the founder of The Danaher Death Squad, legendary coach John Danaher, and one of the greatest minds in martial arts announced the team was splitting.
Here is all the information we initially had courtesy of Danaher’s Instagram post:
“It is with great sadness that I have to announce the breakup of the squad as a unified training and competition team,” Danaher said in his post.
“A combination of factors revolving around disagreements in the physical location of a future school, personality conflicts, conflicting values and an inevitable tension between the team brand and the growing individual brands of members were the main factors.”
Some of the other members also issued vague statements with no full reasons behind the unexpected split other than its final and permanent. More than a year later, we had more details, some of which confirmed the many speculations around the big event.
What Is The Danaher Death Squad
But why was the split such a big deal? Because the team was the most dominant force the sport has ever seen. John Danaher led the team of Gordon Ryan, Eddie Cummings, Craig Jones, Garry Tonon, Nick Rodriguez, Nicky Ryan, and many others.
The foundations of the team were built by Danaher, who started teaching at the Renzo Gracie Academy in 2011. He was the first man to create and systemize a complete system of leg locks in BJJ competition, which completely revolutionized the sport.
The infamous Leg Lock system consists of an elaborate system of leg entanglements (Ashi Garami), which inevitably leads to a leg lock finish.
Danaher has always stood out with his philosophy in the sport, and he is the main reason the DDS has had such an enormous impact and won so many accolades over the years. He dedicated himself fully to BJJ, and the results are undeniable.
He teaches the philosophy of an active but highly methodical game, always looking for submissions and not playing for points, and his students are a testament to that, with every one of them having a very high submission percentage.
The DDS’s unofficial beginnings can be attributed to when Eddie Cummings joined Danaher as a blue belt and started exploring the leg lock system when leg locks were largely ignored.
Seeing the success of Cummings, Gary Tonon joined the team, and the pair began dominating the no-gi circuit, mainly the EBI tournaments. The next big step in the team’s evolution was the rise of Gordon Ryan, who won every jiu-jitsu accolade by the age of 26.
With the team’s notoriety growing, so did its size, with Nicky Rod, Gordon Ryan’s little brother Nicky, Oliver Taza, Craig Jones, and others filling up the most dominant force in BJJ’s history.
Why Did The DDS Split?
COVID put a considerable break on everything, including BJJ. But some places had much more draconian restrictions, and New York was one of them, meaning the team couldn’t train and was forced to leave the famed blue basement.
The new destination was Puerto Rico, where the DSS could train freely but also had to live together and spend every waking hour with one another. In Puerto Rico, they all trained in a gym set up by Mo Jassim, the ADCC’s main organizer.
The problem is these athletes are fiercely competitive and already “compete” with one another on the mats, so they require time to unwind from any tensions that may have arisen during training. Time, which they didn’t get while living in the same place.
There was no way to escape one another because everyone shared a home, which caused tensions to spill over into the members’ daily lives.
Danaher specifically picked out Gordon and Nicky Ryan, and the conflict within their family was most likely the primary catalyst for the Danaher Death Squad to break apart. The death of Gordon Ryan Senior also fueled the conflict.
“It was an emotional time for everyone. I had an element of tragedy in so far as not only was it a team breakup, but it was also a family breakup, which was much more serious.
I believe that even the most intense family breakups can be reconciled in time. I also believe that once dialogue begins, people will remember how easy it is for us to get along and how tight we were for so many years. It’s easy to let a minute of anger destroy 10 years of friendship.”
The following quote from Danaher perfectly sums up what we all thought was the main reason for the split:
“This is a sport where they have one gold medal per weight division. As guys get better, they’re going to be looking at their training partners and thinking like, ‘I’m gonna have to fight this guy one day.’ And they’re training next to each other. Of course, there’s going to be tension. There’s always going to be disagreements about, you know, what’s the right way to act around certain people, certain issues and people are going to come into conflict when everyone’s been programmed to be an alpha competitor.”
The unstoppable force DDS was now split in two, but ironically enough, both sides ended up in Austin, Texas, opening new schools a 15-minute drive from each other.
Danaher, Gordon Ryan, and Gary Tonon formed the New Wave Jiu-Jitsu Academy, while Craig Jones, Nicky Ryan, Nicky Rod, and Ethan Crelenstin formed the B-team. The name B-team is something of an inside joke because the four were considered something of the B-squad of DDS.
The two teams have very different vibes and training methods. From what is clear online, Danaher is as strict and authoritarian as possible, but his sports results are second to none and speak for themselves. The B-Team is a lot more liberal, with more self-learning involved. Safe to say both teams have killers on the roster and still dominate most of the no-gi BJJ scene.
The only other meaningful comments on the split made more than a year after we by Craig Jones on the TFD Performance Podcast.
“There’s a lot of personal problems through the split that not necessarily directly involved me… In terms of me having serious personal problems with anyone, I’m not really that type of person…”
But he also said the two teams have a completely different vibe, and that says a lot about why there are two gyms and not one team like before.
The Danaher Death Squad was a great team that truly revolutionized the sport of BJJ and took it to new heights. This is partly because of the unique system developed by John Danaher, partly because of the insane amount of talent he managed to bring together, and partly because of the characters of the big names drawing attention to the sport.
I think the split was inevitable because bringing together the top dogs for prolonged periods inevitably led to battles about who will lead the pack. The benefit of it all is that we now have two big opposing teams with different approaches and philosophies, and this diversity and rivalry will undoubtedly lead to even further development of competitive grappling.