Jonathan “JT” Torres is digging into his lunch after another grueling training session at his Essential Jiu Jitsu gym in White Plains, N.Y. He’s allowing himself a small bit of beef mixed in with chicken and rice since he’s still weeks away from the ADCC Submission Fighting World Championships and he’s well on pace to make the 77 kg limit for his weight class.
A two-time ADCC world champion, and arguably the most successful all-around American jiu-jitsu competitor ever, the 32-year-old Torres has his diet, just as he does his training schedule and seemingly everything else in his life, down to a careful science. He’s allotted himself one hour for lunch and discussion before getting his set amount of rest between training sessions. Back when he was fifteen and just starting out in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he methodically sat down and listed his career goals along with a rough time line for when he should achieve them:
1. Get a black belt in BJJ
2. Win a world championship
3. Open his own school
The belts came right on schedule – he was promoted to blue belt within six months (by none other than his first teacher’s teacher, Royce Gracie) and made black belt within 4 years, an incredible rate of ascension marking him as something of a prodigy.
Torres credits an obsession with the “gentle art” as the reason for his rapid improvement. Having started out in karate in Rockland County, where he grew up after moving with his family from the Bronx, Torres earned a black belt in that art by age 14. He quit karate upon entering high school since it just didn’t seem as cool as his other pursuits of skateboarding and basketball but when he failed to make his high school hoops team, his father urged him to go back to martial arts.
“I didn’t really want to do karate again but the school also taught a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class once a week,” he said.
Torres had watched a couple of UFC’s and jiu-jitsu, he thought, was indeed cool. He tried one class and was hooked. Recalling the first time he learned to do a triangle choke, Torres said he used it that class in sparring and couldn’t believe it when his opponent tapped.
“I asked if he was really trying to fight it and he said he was,” said Torres. “That was the most incredible thing to me, that I could make somebody give up like that. It was like learning some kind of next level superhero stuff.”
Torres became a jiu-jitsu fanatic. He’d sit in his high school classrooms with his jacket on the back of his chair and spend classes reaching from side to side, seizing the jacket sleeves and practicing his kimura locks on them.
“This was before there was much jiu-jitsu on Youtube. But I’d still try to find as much information as I could. I’d get hold of old instructional tapes, go to Barnes & Nobles to read all the jiu-jitsu books or I’d look at Black Belt Magazine every time they had an article on it. I was only able to train on the mats two or three days a week but I was thinking about jiu-jitsu 24/7,” said Torres.
He doesn’t pressure his own students to become jiu-jitsu fanatics the way he was and said getting on the mats two or three times a week is plenty for the average student. But if someone comes to him and says their goal is to be a world champion, that is a different conversation and Torres up front tells them they have to be all about jiu-jitsu all the time. If their passion isn’t that great, a world title probably isn’t in their future.
Torres’ world title took a bit longer than he expected. He got his black belt in 2009 and had some notable early successes including a Pan Am championship. But he wasn’t quite able to break through on the biggest stage. Furthermore, he found himself without a team when his camp at Team Lloyd Irvin was hit by scandal as a couple of members, as well as Irvin, were accused of sexual assaults.
Torres quickly removed himself from the squad returning home to the New York area in 2013. He was planning to go train with legendary BJJ champion Marcelo Garcia in New York City, hoping to finally take his game to the next level, when former teammate Keenan Cornelius called him from California to tell him how great the training was at Andre Galvao’s Atos gym. Galvao, one of the most successful BJJ competitors in history, had always been an idol of Torres. The thought of training with him was too much to pass up.
Still young enough to take a chance, Torres decided to just pick up and move to San Diego with only $500 to his name. The one problem was Jolanda Scotto, the girl he’d started dating 8 months earlier.
“He told me he was thinking about moving to California and I said, ‘You’re thinking about it?'” recalled Scotto. “And he said, ‘Well, actually I’m leaving Monday.'”
Not wanting to leave Scotto behind, Torres said he’d like her to come with him.
Torres has a phenomenal positive energy about him and a confidence that things will work out, no matter what. Perhaps swayed by his optimism, Scotto decided to join him in California. They’ve been together ever since having gotten married last year.
The going wasn’t easy out west as the couple lived on the living room floor of one of Torres’ teammates the first few months they were out there and subsisted on a diet of mostly breakfast burritos. But, characteristically, Torres sees this as a positive.
“Living like that definitely makes you mentally tougher because you know how much you’ve sacrificed,” he said.
Within a few months he was capturing his first world title at the 2013 no-gi world championships. Despite his overwhelming optimism, Torres admits after coming close on several occasions, he’d begun to wonder whether the big one was in the cards. But there was still work left to do.
In the realm of jiu-jitsu, the no-gi world championship is huge but still considered a step below the “mundials” the world championship with the gi. Torres came close to that crown in 2014 making it to the finals before losing to Brazilian rival Lucas Lepri. Though he’d battled Lepri several times and scored wins against him, in their biggest match-up yet Torres was crushed 12-0. But rather than get discouraged, he looked at the loss as a chance to reassess what he was doing. He had plenty of time to do that as a severe knee injury followed by surgery soon kept him on the shelf for six months. The time was well spent though.
Galvao, himself, was preparing to defend his “superfight” crown at the 2015 ADCC world championships and asked Torres to prepare him.
ADCC (short for the Abu Dhabi Combat Club) is the preeminent event in the world of grappling. Held once every two years and attracting not only the best BJJ competitors but champions from wrestling, judo and sambo as well, it’s considered by many jiu-jitsu players to be even more prestigious than the mundials. Honored that the ADCC superfight champion, essentially regarded as the greatest grappler on earth, was asking him to be his coach, Torres jumped at the opportunity. In the process he learned a great deal about how to structure professional training sessions and be in the corner offering advice to a world class competitor.
His goal had always been to open his own school by the time he reached his late 20s and that point had arrived. So once more he took a chance. Torres returned to the East Coast to open his own gym in 2017. Never having run a school before and wanting to open something as professional as any major jiu-jitsu academy out there, it was a huge endeavor to take on, made even tougher by the fact he was in the midst of preparing for the biggest competition of his life, the 2017 ADCC tournament. Having Scotto with him to run the business side of the academy made things easier and Torres readily admits he couldn’t have accomplished most of what he has in recent years without her, her worry over details balancing out his buoyant optimism.
Torres has a knack for surrounding himself with people who seem to complement his strengths and weaknesses. It was also in 2017 he began working with John Marsh, a former All-American wrestler turned personal trainer who met Torres through a mutual friend.
“I’d seen some jiu-jitsu when I was wrestling but, honestly, the teacher wasn’t that good and I was at my best as a wrestler so I wasn’t too impressed,” said Marsh. “But when I met JT, I said, ‘Okay, this is my kind of pace and intensity.'”
Marsh became a jiu-jitsu student of Torres, going on to win an age group world championship. In return, he began working with Torres on his wrestling and his physical conditioning.
Torres is now widely regarded as one of the premiere wrestlers in the jiu-jitsu world despite never having wrestled competitively at any level. However, he was a regular at local wrestling clubs throughout his youth and Marsh said Torres probably could have been an elite college wrestler if that had been his focus. Instead, that focus remained on jiu-jitsu. With Marsh, he pushed himself like never before lifting, running, swimming and anything else the trainer could think of to torture him.
“I remember one day we did a shark tank where we had him do six 6-minute rounds of grappling and rotated a fresh opponent in against him every three minutes,” said Marsh. “Eventually, I could see JT physically breaking a little bit but the thing is, he never quit. Even when he was physically done, he kept forcing himself to grapple. He’s one of those people you just can’t break mentally.”
Torres needed every ounce of his determination at ADCC 2017. He made it through to the finals only to face the man who denied him a world crown in 2014, Lepri. That loss had been the subject of some deep thought by Torres, who realized the problem had been in the nature of the big stage. Earlier in an event, when there are multiple rings running, a competitor can remain anonymous. But when you get to the finals of a world championship, you’re the only match going and the pressure is ratcheted up.
Torres turned to visualizations picturing himself in just such a moment coming away with the win. The imagery paid dividends in the 2017 ADCC finals.
After 20 minutes of scoreless regulation, the pair went to overtime where Torres finally shot in on a low takedown attempt. Lepri sprawled deeply defending the shot but like water flowing around a stone in the middle of a stream, Torres liquidly slid around his opponent getting behind him and, after some jockeying on the feet, kicking out Lepri’s right leg to get him down. Though the takedown didn’t come quick enough to score points, it left Lepri on all fours with Torres directly behind him – the one place a grappler doesn’t want to be.
Renowned throughout the jiu-jitsu world for his uncanny ability to take people’s backs, Torres floated over from Lepri’s right side to his left, then quickly dove back over his foe to the right dragging Lepri around with him until he ended up fully on Lepri’s back sinking in a body triangle lock that gave him 3 points and the title of ADCC world champion.
Since then, he’s been nearly flawless repeating as ADCC 77 kg champion in 2019 all while turning his school into one of the premier BJJ academies on the East Coast and beginning to crank out championship students of his own. About the only road bump was the COVID pandemic, which nearly brought everything to a screeching halt.
“I won’t lie, it was rough and there was a point I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. Because of the rules in New York we couldn’t have classes in the school but we were still paying rent. I thought we might have to close down,” he said.
Almost as bad for Torres was the inability to do his own training. After reaching the heights of the sport and becoming the best in the world, he wasn’t able to meet with training partners or do anything more than drill with Jolanda at home. But he was able to work out a deal to keep his school open and now, in a new location, he’s teaching and training full time once more as he prepares for what could be an historic third straight ADCC championship in September.
Only Brazilians Royler Gracie, Rubens Charles and Marcelo Garcia have ever won the same weight division 3 times in a row. Torres has a chance to become the first American to do it. Though he’ll be 33 by the time the tournament rolls around, he feels he’s still in his prime and taking steps to assure he remains that way. While he hates the cold, he just purchased a big plastic garbage can to fill with ice and climb into after workouts to aid in recovery. He plans on cutting no corners as he looks to cement his legacy as one of the greatest grapplers ever.
“To be a world champion in any combat sport is tough. I don’t think anything is more grueling. I always tell my guys you just have to go through the grind because that’s how you rise to the occasion,” he said.
And no one grinds like JT Torres.
Adcc, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Grappling, Jiu-jitsu
Black Belt Magazine