Sport Monday, June 6th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: IBJJF, The Asylum, Ash Amos, Hereford Combat Academy

"Scales say heavyweight, skills say lightweight": the soft-spoken star taking on the BJJ world

Sport Monday, June 6th

"Scales say heavyweight, skills say lightweight": the soft-spoken star taking on the BJJ world

When talking about great men and great moments in his sport, Ash Amos doesn’t pick out some brutal finish or a Hollywood throw that’ll end up all over Facebook minutes after it happens. He tells the story of Ronaldo Souza, known to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters simply as Jacare, or “Alligator”.

In 2004, in the noise and the heat of a World Championship final in Rio, Jacare found himself up on points against Roger Gracie, a man whose surname alone, synonymous with the sport itself, was enough to strike fear in to the hearts of his opponents.

With the clock ticking into the final minute Gracie locks up Jacare with an armbar. As he feels the arm break, Gracie releases his grip, believing that he had won the fight and the title.

But Jacare had not tapped. He instead got up, tucked his broken arm in to his belt and danced his way to through the final few seconds.

It’s the kind of story that ascends to a near-mythical status within a sport. But it talks to the values held up by Amos, and by his sport – both of bravery, and of an enduring and seemingly impossible self-control.

Put in the same position, what would he do?

“In training I tap. But in a big competition, I might let it break. The final of the Worlds? It might happen. If I’m up on points with 10 seconds left.

“If it gets broke, it gets broke. It’s a world title.”


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Among those unaccustomed to fighters – real fighters, not the Saturday Night Heroes you see squaring up outside chip shops – one of the more common misconceptions is that they are an arrogant breed.

It’s a narrative groomed by Don King, and one that has been embraced by a litany of Baddest Men Alive, from Ali through to McGregor.

And while it takes a profound level of self-belief to step inside a ring with another man, and to do so with the eyes of your friends and family upon you, the reality is that away from that blinding spotlight, the fight game is a humble one.

“I just think of myself as Ash from Hereford who trains hard and does alright,” Amos tells me.

Last weekend he came within two points of a medal at the same tournament where Jacare broke his arm twelve years earlier. In the three years since his first competitive bout Amos is undefeated in the UK among blue belts at his chosen weight. And in March, he brought home gold from the European Championships.

By any definition, the man is a beast.

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He has made grown men cry with wrist locks, and knocked cage fighters unconscious.

In the case of the latter, in his sole MMA fight to date, he ended the bout with his fists, he says “because [he] didn’t want people to think he was relying on [his] Jiu Jitsu.”

If there was ever just cause to walk with a swagger, Amos would have it.

And yet, sat on a coffee shop sofa, his 103kgs occupying a good deal of it, Amos recounts his meteoric rise through the ranks in the blue belt division with an endearing humility, seemingly as surprised as anyone with his success.

“There’s no ego in it,” he said. “I could have come back from the Euros on top of the world, walked in to the gym and got tapped 10 times.

“I know my level. I’m good, but there are definitely people better. At the moment I’m a guy – in five years’ time, I want to be that guy.”



"It’s a weird place. It’s this tiny miner's town with an MMA gym that turns all these crazy lads into amazing fighters."


If this county - and this country - prefers its stars understated, then the training required for BJJ will ensure few other outcomes.

The nature of it, the constant small wins and small losses of each drill, and the long hours spent on the mat – Amos trains six days a week, including Christmas Day –  fosters both a mental toughness and zen-like acceptance of defeat that sits more naturally alongside traditional martial arts that the grinning, blood-stained face of MMA.

“If you lose, it’s because the person’s better,” Amos said. “There’s no hiding from that fact. You’ve got to work to get better. I really like that it highlights your weakness, your character.

“If you’re not tough mentally you won’t stick it.

 “There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t talk about how you get on in training – “I tapped someone, I submitted him”. It’s pretty common that people get put to sleep. Training’s one thing... I can try things against a better fighter and get submitted three times. But you appreciate what they’re doing, and you learn.”



Amos’ road has most-recently led him to the star-spangled coastline of California’s Long Beach for the World Champs, where he spent much of the rest of the week watching fights three seats down from the newly-dethroned UFC champ Fabricio Werdum.

But being there was an opportunity forged in small gyms, a long way east, and fair bit colder.

At home he splits his training between a Hereford industrial estate, where, in a small corner of the city, coach Dave Coles has built a powerhouse – his fighters returned from the British Championships last month with eight golds – and an almost-mythical training base tucked deep into the Welsh valleys.

“If you drive through this town, Abertillery, you’d never guess that the biggest MMA club in Wales is from there,” Amos said.


“It’s an old miner’s town with mountains all around it. It’s such a weird place. It’s this tiny town with an MMA gym that turns all these crazy lads into amazing fighters. A lot of them don’t come from much - a bit like a lot of people from Hereford – but the coach, Richard Shore, is the most charismatic man you’d ever meet.

“He’s valleys through and through. And he keeps turning out these great fighters.

“There’s no ego up there. There’s just this great work ethic. You’ve got to stay ready all year otherwise someone will kick your ass that night at training.”

Working under Coles and Shore – better known as ‘Shaky’ – Amos has developed a style that that befits his imposing physicality, and one that is no doubt a product of his environment. He terms it his “I’m-Going-To-Smash-You Game”. Paired with a relentless desire to absorb and acquire more technical elements, and a speed honed from training with lighter fighters, it’s taken him towards the top of his sport.

And yet, all of this could quite easily never have happened.

At school – at Bishop's in Hereford – Amos was good rugby player. A strong prop, without doubt, but perhaps one who lacked the technical subtleties to be marked out as a great one.

On leaving, he continued at Hereford RFC along the same lines, until a shoulder injury sidelined him potentially, the doc would later tell him, for the rest of his playing career.

Turning down a surgical procedure that carried with it a limited upside, Amos resigned himself to hanging up his boots and picking up the dumbells.

Like many a red-blooded teenager, his next few years were shaped primarily by the familiar trifecta of “beer, weights and girls”. Until one day he went down to train with strength coach Darren Thompson.

Thompson’s Asylum gym is known for its spit and sawdust work ethic. His sessions are tough, without apology, and they attract those with true grit.

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When several Asylum regulars, themselves training in MMA, asked Ash if he wanted to spar, he jumped at the chance. Soon after, he set foot in Coles’ Combat Academy for the first time.

Amos remembers it well. “I was in pretty good shape to be honest – I was doing loads of rowing, loads of weights, deadlifting 250kgs, in my head I was a monster.

“I walked in the gym and got absolutely slaughtered. And by guy who, to look at – and he won’t mind me saying – didn’t look like an athlete at all.

“He must have choked me 10 times. We joke about it now.

“I was like ‘How can you be that fit and strong and get your ass handed to you?’– I just got obsessed from that.

“I started going down seven days a week.”

However the natural talent Amos showed was drawn out slowly and surely under the tutelage of Coles, before being honed and hammered in to shape through hour after hour on the mat.

Even now, Amos turns up long before class to drill movements over and over until the techniques are embedded.

Coles said: “The ‘secret’ to Ash’s success is quite simple. He turns up to training, trains hard (but sensibly), gets on with the tasks that he is set, and listens to his coach.”


When it was time to compete, the wins came easy.

Building a burgeoning reputation as a white belt – in BJJ fighters must stay on each belt for at least two years, at even then at the discretion of their coach – soon he was a fighter on the radar of everyone in his category, not just regionally but nationally.

Among them was BAMMA champion John Phillips, the leading middleweight in European MMA’s top tier and the defacto third tier of the mixed martial arts world.

“When I beat him, that’s when I thought, I’m alright at this,” Amos said.

His domestic dominance at blue belt over the last 18 months has meant that, while Amos still ranks top among UK fighters having accumulated points from winning previous tournaments, he has been able to move his focus to the big beasts – the European and World titles.

A bridesmaid in the Euros on three occasions, Amos approached March’s competition with a visceral hunger.

He would rather have won it before, he tells me, but those losses drove him further and faster towards his goal than anything else.

In preparation, he cut out the some regional competitions in favour of a gruelling training regime, both in the gym and in the kitchen, leaving no stone unturned, no choke unpractised.

Flying out to Italy a week early, he would compete in the Rome Open, an unofficial Top 5 comp in that almost every elite fighter in town for the main event would also suit up in order to sharpen their skills.

Amos went 3-0, two wins coming by submission.

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If that was an indicator that his Jiu Jitsu was firing on all cylinders, then the 26-0 mauling of his first-round opponent in the Euros was cause for the rest of the field to sit up and take notice.

At major competitions, blue belts fight for six minutes, no breaks.

Fights can be won either by points, obtained by completing a checklist of techniques that signify dominance – mounting an opponent, for example – or by submission.

“Sometimes I think I’ve won fights, not by being more technical, or as well-rounded as my opponent, but just by taking it to them.

“I used to go out and let them feel the strength. Take them down, grind it out. But I’ve moved on recently. I can still do the big judo throws and get to grinding, but I can also pull guard and sent them over the top.

“I’ve applied Shakeys MMA-style with the bit I’ve learned from Bryn Jenkins in Cardiff – it’s like mixing ultra-technique with ultra-pressure.”

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It was in Rome where Amos demonstrated this new level of subtlety. And he did so in emphatic style.

Pulling guard, he sent an opponent flying over his head in a move that would draw praise and raise eyebrows in equal measure. His game had evolved.

His second bout in the Euros was another resounding, if slightly cautious points win.

“Normally I look for the sub, but because it was the Euros, and because I really wanted to win it, I didn’t want to do anything silly. I was so methodical.”

And that win would come, 12 minutes later over a fellow Brit. At 4-0 it was the closest anyone would come to him in Rome, and yet his opponent was always at arms-length on the scoreboard – Amos described the win like an England rugby team playing for territory with a lead.

His celebrations were characteristically muted, but he shared the moment with those around him who knew just what it meant.

“I don’t overly celebrate,” he said. “I went over and gave my training partner a hug. He’d flown out. He knew how bad I wanted it. And gave Lara a hug. She puts up with all my dieting.

“Then we went to the Coliseum.

“It took a while to sink in. ‘European Champion’.”


Not unlike football, for those within the sport the Euros carry a level of prestige on par with the Worlds.

In BJJ, a sport on the cusp of professionalism, it is because while travel to California may be prohibitively expensive, the Euros draw a large number of talented fighters from across the continent – a deep pool that stretches from the judo heartlands in the East to a growing scene in the UK – as well as some of the American and Brazilian stars from established gyms who can afford the trip.

Yet despite this, technically speaking, you are not a World Champ.

Amos said: “I had never really planned on going to the Worlds. I’d done well in competitions, but I’d never won the Euros, and I thought I didn’t warrant it.

“People told me – if you’ve got a chance to go get a world title, you’ve got to try it.

“It was almost a realisation that I’m on that level. So then I had to get it sorted.”

On the mats of Long Beach State University, Amos looked at home. In three fights, he emerged with three wins, one submission to his name and one opponent left catching a little mid-morning nap.

And then came the Brazilian.

Often three wins is enough to put you among the medals, but, in a big group, sometimes it’s not. In the quarter-final Amos came face-to-face with a Brazilian, a full-time BJJ fighter from the sport’s homeland, a “monster” in Amos’ words, who had previously bested him 20-0 in a European final.

If the result was the same on this occasion, the manner and margin of the defeat could not have been more different.

The final score read 2-0. And Amos imposed his will on the fight to such an extent that not only did he force the experienced Brazilian to adopt tactics designed to cynically slow the pace in the latter stages, but he left his opponent so spent that he was unable to get through a semi-final matchup in which he was much-favoured.

Amos’ response was suitably philosophical, and unsurprisingly humble.

“Sometimes the performance is more important than the result.

“I don't mind a loss every now and again. It keeps me grounded and reminds me I'm not where I need to be and keeps me pushing.”

And then, when it's all said and done,  the dust has settled and the final World Champ has been crowned, what else is a heavyweight fighter from Hereford going to do in LA?

Ash has been named to fight in the high-octane, submission only TUFF Invitational series in London. For more details and tickets, visit the event’s Facebook page here.


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