Kingz Athlete Spotlight: John Hansen
For those who asked themselves “who is this guy?” – a valid question, considering his relatively low internet profile – John earned his way to the biggest stage in grappling via an astounding 30-second submission against Damon Ramos in the finals of the ADCC East Coast Trials. Though he didn’t make it as far as he had hoped at the World Championships, we know that won’t be the last time we see his name on the ADCC roster.
As stealthy as his internet presence might be, you can’t miss John in a crowd. A giant, even among the giants of the ultra heavyweight divisions, the 6’4” Midwestern native with the unassuming smile makes the likes Nicky Rod and Cyborg look average.
But greater than his sheer physical mass, is his deep humility and sense of self.
So, exactly who is John Hansen?
How long have you been training?
I started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 2010. Before that, I was training in MMA from about 2008 onward. But I had been watching the ADCC on the internet, and trying to figure out what grappling was, long before I started training.
How did you start?
In 2005, I graduated high school and went off to college. While at university, I found myself struggling to make friends and engage socially, just like I had my whole life. I was convinced that it was my 6'4" 145lbs frame that made myself invisible to women, and undesirable to engage with socially by men, so I began lifting and eating. By the end of my freshman year, I had successfully gained 25lbs, and was a slender 170. Convinced this was my ticket to positive social engagement, and the ever illusive "girlfriend", I kept lifting and eating.
During this time, I was obsessively interested in combat sports. I loved MMA and, while finding information on the IBJJF was difficult to say the least, everyone knew what the ADCC was. My favorite MMA fighters were Ricardo Arona, and Mark Kerr. They both fought in Pride FC, and commentator Mauro Renallo often listed their accolades; speaking often of their success in the ADCC. I had to know what the ADCC was, so I started searching out content. This was in the infancy of YouTube and the content was difficult to find. BudoVideos had the ADCCs out, usually 18 months later, and those matches were uploaded to YouTube and bitTorrent immediately. To say I was a combat sports nerd (as well as an actual nerd, with a dual major of Astronomy and Physics) is an understatement. But I watched that content religiously.
What started as watching grappling, turned quickly into me breaking down and zooming in on matches seconds at a time. I wanted to train, but neither knew people who did, nor had the courage to step on the mat.
So, instead, I watched the ADCC matches and practiced everything I saw on my body pillow in my dorm room. I did this for hours a day. Eventually, I went back home and a city adjacent to where I grew up (Omaha, where I now live) was having a BJJ tournament. I had an idea. I would enter the tournament, fight in the division, and expectedly lose. But, in losing, I'd have the opportunity to make a friend, and ask them where they trained and see if I could go with them. It was perfect. It had to work.
What happened instead was that I accidentally won the tournament. Then, I didn't feel like I could ask someone that I'd just beaten to train with them at their gym. This happened in my first tournament. This happened again, during my second, and third, tournaments. Each time I jumped up in skill division, from beginner, to intermediate, then advanced, then expert or pro. At the time, without guidance, I thought that if you won a tournament you were supposed to go up to the next level, like in a video game. This may seem like a juvenile consideration… but, when you've no resources to ask and no internet to really consult, you just make things up, as best you can, on your own. Within a year I was competing in the Expert or Pro No-Gi divisions, and have been doing so ever since.
What are your goals for the year?
As of right now, my goal is: win the 2022 NoGi World Championships at Black Belt Adult. I took bronze last year, but have made some major changes to my game since then, which I was able to display at this year's ADCC; the GrappleFest in Liverpool, UK, where I'm the current Open Weight Champ; and at the UWW World Championships.
I think these changes are actually more beneficial in the ADCC ruleset, as it allows for a lot more action and aggression, without increasing exposure, but I am very excited to see where they take me at No-Gi Worlds this year.
My only other remaining goals for 2022 in grappling are: raise at least one new world champion (at any belt) from my team in Omaha, NE, and to help at least one previous No-Gi Worlds gold medal winner to repeat their success at a higher belt.
What has been your greatest accomplishment and why?
My greatest accomplishment to date is probably convincing my wife Christina, whom is the most decent and genuinely good person that I have ever met, to date me. Then to grow enough as a man (or rather, grow far enough into the man that I could someday be) that a woman of such magnitude would think of me as a worthy enough partner to tie her boat to mine; take me as her husband, and allow me to take her as my wife.
How did it feel to compete at ADCC?
To be able to compete in the ADCC was a dream come true. Competing in the ADCC was something I'd wanted since 2006, when I was 20 years old. It hasn't been the biggest goal… it has been the only goal since I started.
Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to accomplish in grappling or BJJ, I would always tell them the same thing: I want to qualify for the ADCC, and then win it. That was usually followed with jokes, condescension, or laughter. I totally got it, and never took it hard; that's an insane goal for a normal person to have. As insane as it is for anyone, I understood that it was even more insane for a very poor athlete who decided at 22 years old that they were going to begin pursuing that goal. Being honest, I knew it was ridiculous, but what's life without dreams, right?
To compete at that level, and be counted amongst the absolute elite of the sport, is a true honor that I will never forget, nor take for granted. The friendships I formed, and the insight I was able to gain (both regarding topics on and off the mat) from some of the greatest grapplers of all time was an experience I'll always appreciate. On top of that, the production; the promotion; the goods and gear; the media; the matchmaking; and the profile that were set were the best I've ever seen at any grappling show ever. It was such an honor to be in the ADCC, but to be in this one? Truly magnificent.
Who is your role model and why?
I have a few that I would consider role models to me.
My father Les has always been a man I looked up to. He was my rock growing up, when I had a stunted ability to make friends, and generate long-lasting social bonds. My dad was always there to bounce ideas off of, and his personality is the polar opposite of mine. As such, if I need an opposing point of view, my dad is always one of the first people I call. He will give it to me straight, and help me to uncover any blind spots in my life. He once said to me: "John, all I ever wanted was to work as hard as I could at all that I did." That stuck with me, and was the basis for how I decided to approach life, and leadership, in all other endeavors. Maximum effort. Minimum wasted time.
Professionally, and in martial arts, my boss Dan Clark is someone that has mentored me for almost a decade. His ability to see a situation without bias, and to approach any situation with fairness and loyalty, are things I've tried to mirror in my life. On top of that, his lifelong dedication to martial arts is something I want to be able to say about myself when I'm his age. The man is almost 60, and still trains several times a week. A Blackbelt in Taijutsu, he was instrumental in the combat sports scene gaining a foothold in the Omaha, Nebraska area over 30 years ago.
Lastly: Joe Baudler. Joe has been a mentor to the combat sports community in Omaha, Nebraska for longer than I have been an adult. He fought professionally for nearly two decades. He has a pair of IBJJF No-Gi World Championships, and was one of the top No-Gi Masters athletes in the world in 2018. I met Joe in 2010, and he had a legend about him that was matched in the flesh. Omaha cop; SWAT cop (he and Dan Clark both); private military contractor; professional MMA fighter; and probably one of the hardest dudes I'd ever met in my life. Joe is 23 years older than me, and he is still one of my best training partners. Joe and Dan got together, and I don't really know their origin story, but by the time I had met both of them, they had built the foundation for anyone that would come from this area and succeed in combat sports. I hope to someday have an impact in this community that is, even on some small level, similar to the impact that they have had. Hard dudes, and good men first.
What is your favorite quote and why?
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt ("The Man in the Arena", from his speech "Citizenship in a Republic.")
“The Man in the Arena” is a speech about remembering that unless you're in the arena, you know not what the man undertakes. This is obviously meant for more than the competitive athlete; this is for the father; the soldier; the refugee. This endeavors to teach us that life is hard, and it cannot be known how hard it is if you are not in the arena, and balancing the dynamics and variables of whatever the challenge, with the very real pitfalls and fears that are upon any person participating in anything of import.
The second lesson is that to “dare mighty things” is, in itself, to wring the marrow out of life. It is a great thing, even in failure, as the man knows that at least he will never exist with those cold, dead souls that know neither victory, nor defeat. The act, in itself, ensures that the man who dares will always exist in an elevated state above those who chose the safe option. The safe and easy road is always available; but that is not the road men were meant to walk.
What advice do you give to those who look up to you?
The advice I would give is probably be the opposite of what most would normally give: Have a big goal, and keep moving the goal posts.
Let me explain: Whenever I approached a tournament, I would remind myself that while I wanted to win the current tournament, it was just a stepping stone to other goals. This kept everything in its proper context. Keeping an overall goal in your mind grounds you, and lets you know where you're at; always. Also, it always keeps you from getting ahead of yourself, and thinking you're better than you are. Finally, it always reminds you that, just as there is always someone tougher, there's always something more to be done. Even if I someday achieve that goal, it won't be the end. The greatest goal is always to repeat. Reigning, Defending, Repeating Champion has a hell of a ring to it. Even at the end, there's always another goal, by this metric. There should never be an end. Even if one effort concludes, to begin the next effort, so be it. Having a vector to push towards is paramount.
That's the thing about my faith, that I think most aligns with how I try to live my life. A spiritual leader, and deep mentor to me, Father Peter Nguyen, would say that any effort a man makes should be aligned with the aim of achieving the highest goal, while still keeping everything in their proper place. Why would a man do anything, if not to be the best they can be at what they do? As long as it's kept within the proper parameters of living a good life, the endeavors one takes should always be directed at the greatest level of mastery that can be achieved. That doesn't mean that I'll ever be Gordon Ryan. I'm a realist. But it DOES mean that my aim should be to be above him.
What does being a Kingz sponsored athlete mean to you?
Being a Kingz sponsored athlete means everything to me. First of all, the styles are my thing. Anyone who knows me in my life, will understand this: I like plain black, and clean designs. I wear black pants; a black polo; black shoes; and a black jacket 7 days a week. I have 50 black polos, and 10 pairs of the same black pants. I know what I like, and consider clothing to be not much more than what I need to get the job done. I have people come up to me at every tournament and ask if I'm wearing my "Tournament Outfit" to which I tell them "No, this is my everyday outfit" and I mean that. Likewise, I have 30 or so black Kingz Rashguards, in 3 different styles (I'm fancy) and 30 or so black Kingz Trunks, in 2 different styles. I have several Black Kingz gis. I love their clean designs; heavy focus on black; and well-made materials.
But that's just the beginning of what my relationship to Kingz means to me. When I started my relationship with the company, at the end of 2018, they were great to me. They supported me; kept me in great gear; and were always available if I had an emergency. However, it's the values and ethos of Kingz that really got me, and you see it down to the designs of their gear. It's humility; it's respect; it's courage. That's what Kingz means to me. They are such a good group of people. I'm a terrible advocate for myself, I always have been. When I'm with someone, I'm with them for life. If Kingz someday dropped me, I'd still buy their gear and wear it. I love the brand; I love the people; I love the message. #WeAreKingz.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I've always said I that I want my death to mean more than my life, and I mean that. The longer I live, the more I think a legacy is created by the daily actions we take. A legacy is built by the bricks we lay, and what we build that allows others to go further and do more. With that in mind, I hope I can leave a legacy that lasts. I don't need to be remembered, but I want the actions I've taken to be felt long after I've left.
I'm hoping that the community I help build in Omaha, Nebraska will grow into such a level, that people will no longer think they have to go to southern California, or Austin, to be great at combat sports; they can come to Omaha and have all that they need. I hope to someday have children with my wife, that are decent; hard working; and kind. That's important to me. I hope, by that time, that I'm the kind of husband my wife deserves, so that our children can see what a beautiful marriage is, and what they should seek out in their life.
I hope part of my legacy is in how I am remembered. I would want everyone that I met to know that I knew I didn't deserve what I had, but I was going to work as hard as I could to earn the place I was standing in.
I hope to elevate my family; my community; and the small group of friends that I have, and lead a life that is humble, and gracious. I'm an able-bodied American citizen; living in the USA; that has so much. For the sake of the +95% of the world that hasn't been given the winning genetic lottery ticket, I want to live as my father said above: I want to work as hard as I can, at all that I do. I hope, in doing so, that I can bring greater attention to the blessings of Jesus Christ, and glorify God in all that I do.
I don't think I'll know if I've built a legacy worth having, but I hope it's one of helping others to aim higher; go further; and do more than some underwhelming kid from Iowa ever had the right to dream. That's what I'd want my legacy to be.
**All photos courtesy of @jitzpix