Embracing the Underdog Role in Abu Dhabi
The 2017 edition of the World Pro in Abu Dhabi has been a hot topic in the jiu jitsu world. The main points of discussion revolve around various format changes, including new qualifiers to prevent two athletes from the same country from meeting in the finals. The ultimate goal of this format is to create a true World Champion, with athletes forced to face opponents representing different countries. While no one can deny jiu jitsu’s international growth, it is clear that Brazil is still dominating the upper belt categories. Among 19 weight categories for black and brown belt males and females, 15 of the gold medals were captured by Brazilian athletes. Only 1 American was able to capture gold in all of the brown belt adult categories, 77 KG GD Jiu Jitsu representative Thomas Keenan.
“When I was in the tunnel before walking onto the mats, I was looking around thinking, none of these guys are expecting me to win. I loved embracing that underdog role.” If you look at Thomas’ accomplishments on paper, it’s easy to infer that there were plenty of tough guys in his division. Among those vying for the title that day were Pedro Ramalho of Team Manoel Neto, Yusef Kaddur of Claudio Calasans BJJ, and Dante Leon of GF Team. “I used a lot of the mental strategies that Gustavo goes over with us every day, blocking out all negative thoughts and telling myself it doesn’t matter if these guys can beat me 9 out of 10 days, today will not be one of those days.”
These mental strategies were especially helpful in Thomas’ semi-final match with GF Team’s Dante Leon. Dante is a multiple time Pan American and World Champion and has been a highly touted prospect since blue belt. As if Dante’s accomplishments on their own weren’t enough, the thought of their previous match at a 2016 edition of the New York Open was also weighing on Thomas’ mind. “I remember going into the final in New York and telling my grandfather, who had come to see me compete for the first time, about how tough of an opponent I was going up against. Dante pretty much smashed me and I ended up tapping from an armbar. I knew before our match at the World Pro that I was a completely different competitor and fighter. My driving force was my will to prove to myself that I can compete with the best in the world and honor my team and family.”
With the thoughts of their previous match blocked out of his mind, Thomas found himself scoring early on Dante and looking at a 4-2 lead going into the final minute of the match. “I was on the bottom in 50/50 and I knew Dante was going to attack my feet with the time winding down. At that point in the match there was no way I was going to tap and I was able to hold on for the win.” The final against Yusef Kaddur of Claudio Calasans BJJ was even more dramatic. With the score tied going into the closing seconds, Thomas shot in for an ankle pick and was able to put Yusef on his back for 2 points.
“When they called my name to receive the gold medal it sounded and felt just as I'd envisioned. It was very surreal and humbling. The prize money and medal was just a bonus. What I gained stretched well beyond any physical award. I reconfirmed to myself that I am who I always knew I was, a champion.” Thomas will carry the momentum from this win right back into training and his preparations for the 2017 IBJJF World Championships. “I plan on going into the 2017 Worlds as neither an underdog nor a favorite. Instead I plan on debuting the best version of Thomas Keenan on June 3rd. My belief has become a conviction and I know that I have the best support team keeping me focused on what's within reach. I believe in myself and I believe that if you want something bad enough you'll find a way. If not you'll find an excuse.”