Matt Leighton: Unrated and Uncut
If you ever find yourself wandering the halls at the University of Iowa, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a world champion drilling some of his signature moves, such as the ‘Bavarian Liver Tickler’. You may not know his name yet, but you soon will. He’s on fire, and I’m not just referring to his mixtape. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to meet Bonsai and Tipping Point BJJ brown belt, Matt Leighton.
BJJ Tees: Matt, last year you won the No Gi Pan Ams and the Worlds No Gi. You started off 2017 with a European Championship, and now you’ve just won the Canada National Pro, earning the golden ticket to compete in Abu Dhabi. Like Katy Perry, you’re comin’ at us like a dark horse.
Matt: Let’s keep the Katy Perry references up. She’s my idol, and seventh favorite guard passer.
To what do you attribute your success at all these tournaments?
I attribute most of my recent success to the work that I’ve been doing for a while. I feel like, in this sport at least, the results will not show right away. You can work very hard for a very long time and not succeed, but if you have faith in yourself, eventually you’ll succeed!
In the past year, you also made a big move from your hometown of Chicago to Iowa. In what ways has this been a good move for you? Have you made any changes to your game?
The move to Iowa has been great! In Iowa, I’m able to hyper focus on Jiu-Jitsu. I don’t have some of the distractions that I had in Chicago. Chicago is a big city, with a lot of my friends, and there’s always stuff to do outside of BJJ. In Iowa, I only worry about teaching and training. I have friends in Iowa, of course, but they are all through BJJ, so I hang out with them at training. I feel like I’ve been able to up the intensity in my training as well. I have a fresh batch of training partners here who play different games than those I was so used to. That would be the biggest difference in my game: intensity!
What’s your daily schedule like?
On an average day, I wake up at eight and drill for one or two hours. After, I do 100 gi pull ups, then eat and rest or teach a private. In the afternoon, I will go to night training/teaching, usually starting around six PM, and going until about nine. Once that is finished, I’ll head home, eat, and sleep. My day is pretty simple. When I have down time in the middle of the day, I’ll try to do something relaxing like play video games or creep on people via social media.
Next month you fly to Abu Dhabi to compete in the World Pro. How do you feel going into this tournament? What have you been doing to prepare?
I feel great! I am preparing the same as I always have. I train very specific parts of my game that I know I will use there, as well as drill those positions. I push myself hard in the room every day, seeking out my hardest training partners when I am most tired. If I make mistakes, I’ll take a lot of time correcting each mistake. I like to think of it like this: you can either choose to die in the room, or die out in the competition. You’ll die regardless, so if you push yourself to your breaking point in the room, you’ll be ready to kill in the big show.
Is there anything special you do to get pumped up before you compete?
Right before I compete, I just try to make sure I’ve had some food, plenty of water, and some coffee. Sometimes I’ll listen to music, but don’t always before I compete to get pumped up.
You’ve also jumped up a couple weight classes lately. Is it a challenge to compete at a heavier weight?
I believe I have a really strong game at the heavier weight class, even though I’m lighter than my adversaries. I make up for it with good technique and cunning strategy.
What is your diet like in preparation for a comp?
My diet is non-existent. If I have to lose a bunch of weight, I’ll clean it up and drop portions, do what I have to in order to make the weight. If not, I eat whatever. I like to feel good and comfortable day-to-day, so I eat whatever I want.
You’re living the dream right now, being able to train, teach, and compete full-time. How do you make it work?
Being able to teach and train full-time is a blessing. It took a lot of sacrifice, and even more hard work day-to-day. It works because I have awesome people helping me succeed. They want to see me do well, they support me, and they are the keys to my success and ability to do what I love every day.
What are some challenges you’ve had to face in the past, leading up to all these successes?
Challenges have varied from people telling me that pursuing this lifestyle is a waste of time, to living on the mats and having no money for long periods of time. I stayed the course and had faith in myself at all times. You should never take directions from people who’ve never been where you’re trying to go. I remembered this throughout, and took criticism and advice with a grain of salt.
What are some of your goals for the future?
My goals for the future are as they have always been: Keep getting better every day, become a black belt world champion, work towards owning my own school, and develop relationships that will last a lifetime and improve my quality of life everyday!
When can we expect the release of your next mixtape?
Christmas 2017: Keep everyone warm for the long winter.
Good luck in Abu Dhabi, Matt!
Check out his highlight here
You can follow Matt on Instagram @mattwleighton .