In the submission grappling realm, John-Olav Einemo has already been to the mountaintop. He won the 99kg division at the 2003 ADCC World Championships, also earning the distinction as the only man to ever defeat the great Roger Gracie in the prestigious event.
But can the 6’6” Norwegian duplicate that championship success in MMA? A decade into his fight career, the answer lies in limbo. Einemo, 35, hasn’t fought in 4 and ½ years. Despite assumptions, he never retired from the game.
“I knew my skills were OK … it wasn’t my level that stopped my career, it was a lot of injury problems and personal stuff, so it was difficult to train professionally and travel all the time,” said Einemo, who has competed in countries such as Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Abu Dhabi over the years. “I had a young son to raise so I had more responsibilities and couldn’t just think about myself and wander around the world anymore. I always wanted to come back but there never really was a good opportunity.”
Einemo, a longtime training partner to Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, Gegard Mousasi and Russian standout Sergei Kharitonov, is set to make his UFC debut this Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia. The 253-pound Einemo had originally been slated to battle Shane Carwin, but a well-publicized illness suffered by Brock Lesnar forced some shuffling, pushing Carwin into the evening’s main event against Junior dos Santos. Standing opposite of Einemo inside of the cage will be Midwesterner Dave Herman, a Team Quest heavyweight who boasts a 20-2 record and has only allowed one fight to go to the judges.
“I felt a little bit disappointed, of course,” Einemo, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, said of the switch. “Shane Carwin is a bigger name. But I understand that these things happen and I have to adapt.”
Einemo doesn’t know much about Herman, other than the fact that he has a wrestling base, 5 submissions and 14 (T)KO victories – standard information available through a quick Internet search. Physically, Herman is virtually a mirror image of Einemo, only an inch shorter. Einemo said it would be a huge mistake to assume that he prefers to settle things on the mat.
“I want to be complete, I don’t just want to be a ground fighter or a wrestler,” he said. “I want to be able to stand with the best guys and go to the ground with the best guys … My chin is good, man. I have never been knocked out, not in a fight, not in practice.”
For years Einemo has been honing his standup arsenal in Holland with Golden Glory. He and his teammates often journey to Thailand for month-long training camps.
“We don’t train with the small Muay Thai guys. No chance. We take our own guys over there,” Einemo said with a chuckle. “It’s a great country for training. It’s hot, great food – it’s cheap. It’s an easy life for us there. Just our shorts and a scooter. Everybody rides one there because traffic is bad and it allows you to move between traffic and not be stuck in traffic jams.”
It is mentioned that the sight of a 6’6” man on a scooter, weaving through traffic, would be eye-catching. I ask him for a photo.
“It looks a little bit funny sometimes,” Einemo said.
One thing Einemo has proven is that he is mentally tough and never intimidated by opponents. He competed in the Abu Dhabi World Championships back in 2001 as a blue belt. In 2003, as a purple belt in BJJ, he never doubted himself against the best grapplers in the world, including the incredible force that is Roger Gracie.
“I knew that on a good day I could beat them,” Einemo said. “But I wasn’t really sure that I would win because my training before the competition wasn’t optimal; I wasn’t 100 percent and I had some injuries … But I had a good day. I won the match with Roger on points in the semifinal. I caught his back. I had his back for a great deal of the fight and I had a takedown and a reversal. It was a hard struggle. I knew about him beforehand, how he was winning the Mundials (BJJ World Championships) every year and kicking everyone’s ass.”
Gracie would avenge the loss a few years later at an Abu Dhabi superfight.
Einemo, who is fond of Roger Gracie, said he wouldn’t mind a rubber match between the two someday – in MMA. But that match could be a longshot since Gracie competes at light heavyweight and is currently under contract with Strikeforce. As for his other goals, Einemo chooses not to look too far ahead.
“I’ve had such good training and preparation and the best sparring partners, so that should take away some of the ring rust,” he said. “I’m just focused on this fight. I will do the best I can and then see who the UFC decides to give me next.”
“I want to be complete, I don’t just want to be a ground fighter or a wrestler. I want to be able to stand with the best guys and go to the ground with the best guys." - John-Olav Einemo