John Danaher: The Legendary BJJ Coach

There are many reasons why I look up to John Danaher, one of the most influential jiu-jitsu instructors I have studied. Although he did not compete professionally because of injuries, his innovative teaching style, and passion for continuous improvement set him apart. His journey is also inspiring for both competitors and teachers in the space.


John Danaher is a New Zealander Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) black belt (4th degree) and Mixed Martial Arts instructor. He was most recently under Renzo Gracie at Renzo’s New York Academy. John has earned respect in the grappling community as one of the top coaches, and gurus like Greg Jackson and Vinicius Draculino praise Danaher for his teaching methods and knowledge.

Danaher grew up in New Zealand for most of his early life, although he was born in the United States in 1967. His father was in the New Zealand military and was stationed in America for a short time before moving back. He arrived in the states in 1991 to study philosophy at Columbia University’s Ph.D. program.

During this time, Danaher was a bouncer at a nightclub and weighed around 250 pounds. He saw many of his fellow bouncers approach fights with grappling techniques, which influenced him to look further into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Danaher first found out about Brazilian jiu-jitsu from a friend at school when he was 28 years old, and then he began classes at Renzo Gracie’s academy.

Martial Arts Career

Danaher did not begin his mixed martial arts career until he began training at Renzo Gracie’s academy in the early 1990s. He was one of his most passionate students and learned alongside Matt Serra, Ricardo Almeida, and Rodrigo Gracie. When he earned his purple belt, he started teaching students while Renzo traveled and competed in mixed martial arts competitions.

When other students at the academy broke off to start their own schools, Danaher remained at Renzo’s academy, and his teaching responsibilities expanded. Because of severe health issues with his hip and leg, Danaher never competed in martial arts competitively.

According to Renzo Gracie, John would dedicate 12-14 hours per day to perfecting his teaching craft. As he continued to work hard, Danaher earned his black belt in April 2020 with his training partner and friend, Shawn Williams.

Danaher’s Leg Lock System

Danaher is recognized for creating his signature system of lower-body attacks and leg locks, specifically in No Gi Jiu Jitsu. He first learned the fundamentals of leg locks from Dean Lister, an American grappler who trained at Renzo Gracie’s Academy for a couple of weeks. He explains the basics of his BJJ system in this Joe Rogan interview:

John Danaher Explains The 4-Step System of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)

Because he consolidated a wide range of moves and positions, Danaher formulated a predictable and systematic array of leg lock procedures that his students could execute. Many of Danaher’s fighters see great success in competition because of his teachings.

Danaher helped transform the jiu-jitsu community’s mindset toward leg locks. Initially, many saw it as an ineffective and non-technical attack strategy. Since then, Danaher created various arm attack systems (like Armbars and Kimura variations), front headlock, rear and back strange attacks, and guillotine attacks.

As of 2018, Danaher represents Sanabul, a combat sports brand, by serving as a consultant and brand ambassador. He also partnered with BJJ Fanatics to publish a DVD series, “Go Further Faster,” covering topics like guard passing, half guard, pin escapes, closed guard, open guard, and guard retention.

Danaher has a few film and television appearances, including a showing on the Showtime series Billions, where he plays Paul Giamatti’s jiu-jitsu instructor. He also co-stars in the “Jiu-Jitsu vs. the World” documentary alongside his fellow practitioners Renzo Gracie, Roberto Abreu, and Eddie Bravo.

John Danaher’s Most Famous Students and the “Danaher Death Squad”

After he received his black belt in the early 2000s, John was a teacher for some of the world’s top mixed martial arts competitors. Danaher is most widely known for working with athletes like Gordan Ryan, Garry Tonon, Nicky Ryan, and Eddie Cummings. The group of successful mixed martial artists eventually became known as the “Danaher Death Squad.”

Gary Tonon

Garry Tonon was one of the first grapplers who brought awareness to Danaher’s Death Squad. He dominated most no-gi submissions only tournaments, competed at the Eddie Bravo Invitational, Metamoris, and many sub-only super fights.  Tonon gained fame as one of the fiercest submission artists in the world.

Gordon Ryan

Gordan Ryan mainly participates in no-gi submission contests and won the ADCC world championship three times, Eddie Bravo invitational four times, and the IBJJF no-gi championship one time. He started training at 15 years old under Miguel Benitez before moving to John Danaher. Because Ryan is considering moving to MMA, you could see John Danaher’s combat methods in upper weight classes because of this decision. Gordon’s girlfriend Nathalia Santoro also trains under John Danaher.

Nicky Ryan

Nicky Ryan, the younger brother of Gordon, is the youngest member of Danaher’s Death Squad. Ryan first made a name for himself by winning adult tournaments when he was just 13 years old. He has respectable victories over Ricky Lule, Marvin Castelle, and other experienced fighters at only 17 years of age. His biggest accomplishment is winning a gold medal at the 2019 ADCC Championship.

Health Issues

Danaher was born with deformed patellas, and he was at risk for knee injuries in his earlier years. When he played rugby in the 1980s, Danaher experienced a severe left-leg knee injury that required surgery. These surgeries caused deformed and shortened ligaments, which limited Danaher’s ability to retract and extend his knee.

Throughout his life, Danaher’s imbalance caused gait issues, osteoarthritis, and a hip replacement. John knew that he would have a higher chance of success as a teacher than an athlete in competition. As he focused his time on developing his teaching style, he became one of the world’s best instructors.

John’s Recent Move to Puerto Rico

John Danaher announced in November 2020 that he would be ending his permanent teaching role at Renzo Gracie’s New York Academy. He decided to establish his own gym in Puerto Rico with his top students. Many of his students had already moved to Puerto Rico, including Nicky Ryan, Gordon Ryan, and Craig Jones.

In his social media post announcement, John thanked the city for how it changed him. But he mentioned that his changes are not complete, and he wants to start a new philosophy of teaching in Puerto Rico. According to Gordon Ryan, the currently scheduled opening date for this new academy is March 2021.

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