An in-depth conversation about the parallels between life and jiu-jitsu with internationally ranked jiu-jitsu practitioner and community leader Rafael Davis.
“Life. One word. Life. Coming off my wreck, being on crutches for 6 years, battling depression, having these ups and downs about my life…feeling like an incomplete man because I can’t do some of the things I used to do…run, jump, jog…jiu-jitsu gave me my life back. It seriously put life back in my body…”
– Rafael Davis, two-time Jiu-Jitsu World Champion
To understand the quote you just read and to grasp the true meaning of it, you need to become familiar with the person who said it, his personal life journey, and the positive mentality that he uses today to help others less fortunate recognize their potential.
Rafael Davis is a two-time world champion in jiu-jitsu who has achieved the brown belt for his age level and competes internationally at 38 years of age. When I met Davis, there was no apparent injury that I could notice. In fact, Davis, who is 6’0” and weighs over 235 lbs., is a very intimidating person who sports the physique of a middle linebacker. I quickly learned, as the saying goes, not to judge a book by its cover.
This is a story that reaches beyond martial arts. It is a story about one person’s struggle through a debilitating injury, the mental and physical ailments that followed, and his ability to find an outlet in a surprising activity – jiu-jitsu. It was the art of jiu-jitsu that saved Rafael Davis, helped him recognize the challenges he would face the rest of his life and established the tools he could use to overcome the roadblocks ahead.
On September 28, 2001, Rafael Davis was at work like everyone else. That day varied slightly from Davis’s normal routine as he had planned to leave work early; something he never does.
“I actually left work 30 minutes early that day. I never leave early either. It was fate,” says Davis.
As fate would have it, Davis was about to be involved in an incident that could only happen if everything on that day went a certain way. Whether it was barely missing a stop light before it turned red, or a person using a crosswalk when they shouldn’t have been. These small occurrences, which normally would be chalked up to chance, all had a lasting effect on what was about to happen to Davis.
“I was leaving work. It was almost like it was meant to be. So many things had to happen to put me at that exact spot where the accident happened,” says Davis. He adds, “I was in the parking lot clowning around on my bike with some people, just having a good time. I even went back inside to call my wife before I left to tell her I would be home soon.”
To think that Davis, a person who never leaves work early and stopped to talk to some friends before leaving, was going to be put in a life-altering situation that night can only be attributed to something bigger. Little did Davis know, but all of these terrible occurrences, while tragic, would ultimately mold him into the person he is today.
“I was involved in a terrible wreck at the 94 highway and Spring St. exit around 7:30pm that night. A car lost control on the freeway, hit me on the off-ramp and hit my leg head-on. It just tore my leg up bad,” says Davis.
The accident happened in an instant and Davis didn’t have an opportunity avoid it. With a family waiting for him at home and a normal, active life at his fingertips, Davis was now being faced with a physical challenge that would leave him permanently disabled and mentally questioning his purpose.
“I told the doctors just save my leg and I will make it work. Just save it,” says Davis.
“It was tough. I had 12 surgeries and I was on crutches for over 4 years . . . At one point years after the accident, I was walking into a store and my leg just snapped from walking . . . I had to go back and have more surgeries then I was on crutches for another 2 years.”
Davis’s injuries were significant and permanent. Davis, a personal trainer for years, was an active person who appreciated his physical talents. He never thought his body would be challenged like this. That is where jiu-jitsu came into Davis’s life.
“A friend of mine [Kenneth Lewis] helped me get into jiu-jitsu in 2010. He asked me several times to go and I kept saying no because I was handicapped,” says Davis. He adds, “He was so persistent and he kept asking me to just try it.”
At that time, Davis, despite his leg injury had taken up the sport of racquetball. And it was no surprise to anyone that it came naturally to him and that he was actually winning tournaments with the use of only one good leg.
“Back then I was into racquetball and I was winning tournaments with a disability. He [Kenneth] came to me again and said, ‘man if you can move that well on a racquetball court then imagine what you can do on a jiu-jitsu mat . . . ’ So finally I did and I am so grateful to this day that he kept asking me,” says Davis.
Rafael Davis started training jiu-jitsu on April 9, 2010 at Club Pitbull in Point Loma, an area on the west end of San Diego. He attended open mats whenever he could and soaked up any small piece of knowledge that was made available to him. Davis was also a martial arts fan and historian, so to say that he was completely in the dark about jiu-jitsu would be a mistake.
“When I started in 2010, I wasn’t completely green so to speak because I had some exposure to [jiu-jitsu] and what it entailed,” says Davis.
Having been an athlete all of his life, Davis, who was also a certified personal trainer, jumped into jiu-jitsu headfirst and didn’t look back.
“Jiu-jitsu came very natural to me. I never had a martial arts background, but I was always in pretty good physical shape. I think that really helped me when I started training jiu-jitsu seriously,” Davis explains.
When Davis recognized his natural ability on the mat and truly focused on his training, it wasn’t long before he was competing at a very high level. Only five weeks after joining Club Pitbull, Davis, a newcomer to the jiu-jitsu world, entered his first competition, the Fabio Santos Open and amazingly took first place. Since then, Davis has competed religiously, winning IBJJF championships at the Master/Senior level, taking first place in the Carlson Gracie Invitational and second place in the IBJJF Spring International Open in 2012. In 2013, Davis was the IBJJF Pan Jiu-Jitsu Champion and just recently in 2014, he was the Division and Absolute Champion at the Five Grappling California 1 in the adult division.
Davis is currently ranked #1 by the IBJJF for his age and level and hopes to continue his winning ways well into his later years. For Davis, the idea of stopping now is completely out of the question.
“Five years from now I see myself being a world champion at the black belt level . . . I am already a two-time champion, but I would like to compete with the younger black belts around the world. . . I really want to challenge the best youngsters in the world,” says Davis.
It is that confidence and motivation that makes Rafael Davis an interesting and inspiring person and someone with whom I enjoyed speaking. After hearing Davis’s story and recognizing all of the accolades he has achieved with the use of one good leg, you would expect injuries to take their toll.
“Amazingly, since I started jiu-jitsu, I never had another injury in my leg. Before I started training jiu-jitsu I would have an injury once a year that would keep me laid up for 6-8 weeks. But now I feel better than ever,” says Davis.
It is 6:30pm on Friday evening and I have made myself comfortable at the Paul Silva Jiu-Jitsu/Carlson Gracie gym in Rancho San Diego as local students get ready for an open mat session. The instructors, who include jiu-jitsu legend, Professor Paul Silva, begin rolling at a leisurely pace to get things going. Slowly several students or varying age ranges, gender, and backgrounds begin their training.
Moments later, a well-built man who has the stature of an NFL player approaches the door of the gym and extends his hand to mine.
“Matt, hello I am Rafael, pleasure to meet you and thank you for coming,” says Davis.
If you haven’t met Rafael Davis and only knew him as a jiu-jitsu practitioner, you would certainly be intimated. And you would be mistaken. Davis is a welcoming person who is truly happy to be where he is today.
Our conversation is light, friendly and engaging. Davis tells me about his injury in great detail, explains the importance of jiu-jitsu in his life and also jokes around with ease.
Davis’s ability to toggle between meaningful quotes from historical writers and philosophers while tossing in some self-made jokes is both amazing and entertaining. If Dana White is holding interviews to replace Chael Sonnen, I wouldn’t mind seeing Davis take a stab at it. We talk about martial art philosophies, quotes from business literature, and, at one point, Davis makes an intellectually accurate comparison between jiu-jitsu and golf. At this point, I am learning something.
I asked Davis how he is able to do all of these things and accomplish his goals with his disability. How did he pull himself through the hard times and come out on top? And in true Rafael Davis fashion, I get one serious quote and one funny quote that made me smile.
“Anything you put your mind to, you can do. No matter what it is . . . I always say I am ‘Half-Man’ and ‘Half-Amazing,’ he laughingly says . . . that’s my saying,” says Davis. It is a perfect combination of words that describe Davis – humble, grateful, and confident.
Has Davis always had that attitude? Probably. But it wasn’t until that devastating night and his discovery of jiu-jitsu that he truly grasped his place in the world. A place where he could continue to enjoy his life, his family and his job while achieving his personal goals and helping others less fortunate.
In addition to his own training, Davis is part of a community outreach program called “Pillars of the Community” based near southeast San Diego. The organization covers several areas of community outreach, but Davis focuses specifically on his area of expertise; jiu-jitsu. A few nights a week, on his own time, Davis runs a jiu-jitsu gym for underprivileged kids who need a positive outlet for their lives.
“We put this gym in an area of town where poverty and violence is a reality. They have gangs, drugs and trouble all around them . . . we try to keep them away from that and give them a chance,” says Davis.
“A lot of these kids come from single-family homes and they can’t afford a mainstream jiu-jitsu school where the fees exceed $150 a month. We offer these classes at reduced rate so they can learn and grow,” says Davis.
For Davis, the idea of helping young kids recognize their potential and keeping them out of trouble at the same time is not only rewarding for them, but also for Davis himself. The reality of Davis’s unfortunate incident tested him, made him stronger and introduced him to an area of martial arts that created opportunities for himself and others.
He then parlayed what he learned from life and jiu-jitsu into a vehicle for spreading his knowledge to children who are less fortunate. All of these things have taught him two important life lessons.
“Honestly, it has taught me to be patient. I have always had a problem with patience. I am one of those guys who are all or nothing. When I want to do something I want to do it right then and there . . . jiu-jitsu has also helped me to become more humbling. You can’t pretend in jiu-jitsu; you have to put in the time. And you have to be patient and humble with the process of mastering the techniques. All of these things keep you honest in jiu-jitsu and in life. It will bring you back down to earth so fast,” says Davis.
After his time at Club Pitbull, Davis moved gyms and settled in with jiu-jitsu black belt and world-renowned grappler, Professor Paul Silva. Davis started coming to Professor Silva’s gym in October 2013 and since his first day, he became a fixture in the building.
“Professor Paul has such great students, a great vibe and atmosphere and I really took to it,” says Davis.
“When my professor in Point Loma ended up leaving I needed a place to continue my growth. Professor Paul has been in this game for such a long time. He is like a walking encyclopedia. Naturally I had to go with the perfect fit. I was always very close to getting to that next level of jiu-jitsu, but now with Professor Paul . . . he is going to take me past that next level. I am certain of it,” says Davis.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Professor Paul Silva in between rounds during open mat and discussed Rafael Davis’s journey to the Silva’s gym, his exponential rise to the top of the jiu-jitsu game in just four years, and what he thinks the future holds for Davis.
Professor Silva adds, “I truly believe jiu-jitsu saved his (Rafael Davis) life…”
“He (Rafael Davis) is just so humble and willing to learn,” says Professor Paul Silva, a jiu-jitsu black belt under Master Rodrigo Mederios and 2009 Pan Jiu-Jitsu Champion. Again, the word “humble” enters the conversation and I am not surprised.
To watch Davis on the mat is an impressive thing. His agility is not apparent from just looking at him because of his size, but watching him roll is a thing of beauty. But the most surprising thing I notice as I observe Davis rolling on the mat with a younger student is that Davis is multi-tasking. He is working through his techniques while also tutoring his opponent. He stops in the middle of a submission attempt to advise the young student where exactly they should have their hands. He completes the submission and the student taps out, but soon after, Davis is reenacting the same move and showing the younger student a small adjustment that could’ve prevented the submission.
“Practicing and teaching at the same time is one the best ways to further your own development…and when I am teaching, I am also learning,” says Davis.
And for Davis, learning is paramount to his own development. In jiu-jitsu, there is always someone who can challenge you, or even beat you. That is just the nature of martial arts. But the ability to continuously learn can mitigate the losses in the future. For Davis, this fact was proven earlier this year when he faced a young, strong opponent at the Jiu-Jitsu World’s in Long Beach.
“Take me for example. This year in the World’s, I lost in the quarterfinal to a kid who was young enough to be my son. He barely got me. But I learned so much from it,” says Davis.
Davis, a man who knows pain, loss and sacrifice more than anyone, rarely looks back on a fight with regret or uncertainty. However, it was Davis’s loss at the Worlds earlier this year that he feels was a good thing for his future.
“This past World’s loss was the toughest fight I have ever had. It was the first time in four years that I felt like I was truly beaten. I was outsmarted. I was overpowered,” says Davis.
As any jiu-jitsu practitioner would tell you, a loss can be a good thing. The opportunity to learn from the experience is an invaluable lesson that Davis took seriously.
“The biggest lesson I learned from that fight was in the midst of that fight I have to find a way to turn the match into my favor. I was unable to recover from that defensive mode. I will never let myself be in that situation again,” says Davis.
As our conversation comes to a close, I find myself still searching for the story I want to tell. The details of Davis’s story, from his unfortunate incident to his discovery of jiu-jitsu are astounding. The ups and downs can only be described as the highest of mountains and lowest of valleys with Davis climbing, falling, and climbing again.
I want to tell his story with a sincere, careful and respectful tone because quite honestly, I respect the man, and I can learn from him. We all can learn from him. Suddenly the following words enter my mind and I feverishly scribble them on my notepad.
“Fall.” “Try.” “Learn.” “Live.”
Rafael Davis fell in a way that would permanently cripple a normal person, mentally and physically.
Rafael Davis tried something that he never thought he could do . . . and succeeded.
Rafael Davis learned valuable life lessons through an unlikely outlet – in jiu-jitsu. And he continues to learn each day.
Rafael Davis lives his life to the fullest, cherishes the moments he has and appreciates the events that led him here to this gym, training with these friends, and teaching others whenever the opportunity arises.
Davis gives me one more quote that sums up his life and this article perfectly. Selfishly, this is a quote that can teach me a thing or two about life as well.
“As jiu-jitsu Master Carlos (Gracie) once said: ‘Either you win in jiu-jitsu, or you learn,’” says Davis.
As the title of this article suggests, this is a story about life and jiu-jitsu. Beneath the perceived violence of this form of human combat lies a beautiful art that can mold a person into something special.
For Rafael Davis, the discovery of jiu-jitsu helped answer his toughest question: What could give me my life back? Thankfully for Rafael Davis, his family and his community, he found jiu-jitsu and took it upon himself to make it part of his everyday life.
Rafael Davis currently trains at Paul Silva Jiu-jitsu/Carlson Gracie Team in Rancho San Diego and leads a community outreach program in Southeast San Diego with Pillars of the Community. Davis is a family man who enjoys training jiu-jitsu, hanging out with his family, and making a difference in the community he calls home. Davis is sponsored by Submission Fight Company and E Pro Nutri (Elite Pro Nutrition Inc.) can be reached on Facebook at Rafael Deon Davis.
A special thanks goes out to Rafael Davis, POTC, Mukaram Nizam, Ilham Ahmed Photography and Professor Paul Silva.