The Quiet American: After Winning the San Diego World Pro Cup Trials, Maxwell looks to a big 2012
Words by Nolan Necoechea
You may not know a whole lot about promising young Gracie Humaita black belt, Zak Maxwell. The 23-year-old Philadelphia native has kept a low profile despite a hefty trophy case that includes a brown belt World Championship and black belt gold at last year’s Las Vegas World Pro Cup Trials. After Maxwell's latest trip to the top of the podium, that might change.
Maxwell stamped his ticket to Abu Dhabi for the second year in a row at this year's San Diego World Pro Cup Trials with a victory over jiu-jitsu royalty and fellow Gracie Humaita black belt, Kron Gracie. Gracie has been on a tear, silvering at Worlds and nearly submitting Marcelo Garcia at ADCC (to Garcia's own admission). Making Maxwell's performance all the more impressive – he didn't give up a single point the entire tournament.
The final was a technical battle. Having trained together many times, Maxwell was acutely aware of the threats Gracie brought to the table, namely an aggressive submission game. The back and forth contest saw Gracie dictate early, controlling Maxwell's sleeve and attacking from closed guard. Maxwell survived the onslaught and pulled guard halfway through the match. He looked to be in control after a slick omoplata, but Gracie reversed the attack into a takedown bringing about the series of events that would decide the match.
“I had to turn to my knees, and he was on my back. I think if he would have gotten my back, he would have choked me for sure. He takes your back, and its pretty much game over,” Maxwell said. But Maxwell kept his balance, fought off Gracie’s hooks and gained the advantage. Before Gracie could recover, Maxwell took his back, effectively securing win.
Despite the gravity of the victory, Maxwell was characteristically reserved after the win. No running into the crowd, no victory lap, just a nod of his head. Because they are teammates, Maxwell said, “it just wouldn’t be right” to celebrate. Still, you'll be hard pressed to find a big Maxwell celebration anywhere online.
This could be because, while jiu-jitsu is a humbling experience for almost anyone who puts on a white belt, Maxwell's beginnings were especially humbling. He never got to compete against his own age group in school - no soccer, no football and no wrestling.
“There were no sports. We didn’t even have a playground,” Maxwell said.
When he got serious about jiu-jitsu around the age of 12, he was taking his white-belt lumps against grown men.
“I was a little kid. I couldn't break 100 pounds until I was nearly 15. So I was getting smashed by big guys for a long time," Maxwell said.
Maxwell began his athletics with home-schooled jiu-jitsu. Steve Maxwell, his father, was the first to teach him. The strength and conditioning guru owned the Maxcercize Gym and was one of the first to own a jiu-jitsu academy on the East Coast. The elder Maxwell would travel to Torrence, California, to train with masters like Rorion and Royce Gracie and then bring the techniques back with him. So as young child, Zak learned jiu-jitsu from his father and even competed occasionally as a 6 and 7 year old.
But it wasn't until around the age of 12 that Maxwell really became engaged in the gentle art.
His parents brought up Regis Lebre from Rio de Janeiro. Lebre is an accomplished black belt under Royler Gracie and Saulo Ribeiro. He pushed Maxwell to train more. With more training came greater appreciation and eventually greater enjoyment of the sport. With his father guiding his conditioning and nutrition and Lebre his jiu-jitsu, the young competitor developed into one of America’s brightest jiu-jitsu prospects.
Maxwell was winning and medaling at tournaments like the Pan Ams and Worlds as early as blue belt. He said his greatest achievement thus far came in 2010 when he won the brown belt absolute division at the Pan American games as a lightweight. Only the top 3 competitors from each weight class were allowed to compete in the absolute, making the open division particularly tough. "That was a pretty good day," Maxwell said.
He now hopes to find success of the same caliber at black belt. He recently moved to San Diego where Lebre opened a school a few years ago. No longer needing to travel across the country to train with his longtime instructor, Maxwell hopes to compete a lot more in 2012.
The difference between Philadelphia and his new home in San Diego is stark, Maxwell said, and he believes the move will help create an excellent "bubble" for training.
“Just the awareness of jiu-jitsu is a lot greater here on the West Coast. On the East Coast some people still don’t know what the UFC is. Down here, wherever you go maybe 2 out of 5 cars in every parking lot has some kind of jiu-jitsu sticker on the back.”
For those of us secretly hoping to see an American in the upper echelon of the Brazilian dominated sport, Maxwell’s recent victory over Kron Gracie and his new dedication to competing more are promising signs. Maxwell, however, doesn’t view the jiu-jitsu landscape by nationality.
"I'm just trying to be the best out of everybody, not just the best American," Maxwell said.
He'll get his next chance to move closer to the top this weekend at the Pan Ams in Long Beach, California.
Photos curtesy of Sean Diaz of SD ProPho