The Martial Scientist; Asaf Michaelovitz
“To get the armbar, you need to grab the elbow and lift it to your chest. Not here (he grabs the partner’s wrist), not here (he grabs his forearm), and not here (he grabs near the elbow, the students laugh). At the elbow! It makes a huge difference.” This is a typical scene from the technique demonstration section in one of Asaf Michaelovitz’s (commonly shortened to Asaf Mich) morning NoGi classes. The black belt under his name and devout turnout of between 30-40 students for his early morning classes all seem to suggest that he is a veteran, a longtime and well-established Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach and practitioner.
In actuality, Asaf is more of a lightning rod. He was promoted to black belt after training for hardly five and a half years. He reached over 7,000 followers in about a year of making popular, short technique videos on Instagram. Perhaps most impressively, he’s amassed a loyal following of students with a diverse range of experience despite teaching for under 2 years.
If you’ve ever had a conversation with him, it’s easy to understand why all of this is possible for him. Grab at the elbow. Not around, not near, not close to, at the elbow. It’s his dedication to technique and detail, to the proper execution and not a win-at-all-costs attitude. “My coach Eran (Bert) recently told me that a Martial Artist should be comfortable moving his body in any situation, like for example dancing. I told him I’m not a martial artist, I’m a martial scientist.” A real and all-the-way-down understanding of why and how things work emanates from him in a steady flow.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his style of Jiu-Jitsu. At 5”10 and 150lbs, Asaf is hardly physically imposing, and yet even the best, largest, and strongest grapplers in the gym can hardly give him a challenge, let alone beat or dominate him. The reason is simple and as old as jiu-jitsu itself: technique. Asaf’s game does not require great strength or physical dexterity. All it requires is a massive commitment to scientifically breaking down what jiu-jitsu is and what the fundamental principles that guide it are.
“People often say that if you’re in the bottom position you should be trying to create space, and if you’re in the top position you should be trying to eliminate space, but as a principle that’s just not true. While it’s true of many positions, in closed guard if I’m in the bottom I should be trying to eliminate space and break your posture to attack or load your weight so I can sweep. In half guard, if my opponent is diving underneath me for a sweep, I’m trying to create, not eliminate, space. A better principle would be to eliminate space when trying to attack and create space when trying to defend, regardless of top or bottom position.”
Heavily influenced in his development by Marcelo Garcia, Asaf is well known as a guard passer for combining the three deadly passes: Knee slices, X-Passes, and Knee-folds. Tying them together in a frustrating harmony of switches and transitions, Asaf doesn’t so much give you the feeling of crushing pressure, but a painless, weightless futility.
Every grip, move, and transition is a carefully thought out and meticulously practiced expression of biomechanics producing an advantage in leverage or position. Attempts to explode out or power through Asaf are met with the empty space as he simply flows with your movement and counters in a new direction.
One of the things that sets Asaf apart from other coaches and higher belts is his belief in flowing. He defines flowing as a mode of sparring in which technique can be met only with another technique, and not with force or aggression. In flow, opponents are free to pull and push on their opponents without physical resistance but are expected to use pure technique to restrict the opponent’s ability to advance position or finish a submission. As the level of the participants improves, so does the speed and intensity with which they can flow. The purpose of this exercise is to highlight and explore holes in one’s technical knowledge, but also to help students sharpen their moves inside of a live sparring context.
Like many others, Asaf’s first exposure to jiu-jitsu came from Royce Gracie’s earth-shattering performances in the early UFC events. “When I saw a smaller guy with basically no striking beat everyone, I became super interested. I was especially interested in guard work from the bottom. I was shocked by what someone could do from below.” However, Asaf didn’t begin formally training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu until 2012. At the time he was a Krav Maga instructor, who had been drilling 10th Planet DVDs in his basement with a friend for a year.
Rising quickly through the belt ranks, Asaf credits a several-week trip to New York City, and specifically Marcelo Garcia’s headquarters, for a huge surge forward in his game. As an advanced blue belt, he received several critical details from legendary coach Paul Schreiner that have stayed with him to this day.
After being promoted to black belt, Asaf’s mission of progress continued but took a back seat to his next goal – taking someone else from white to black belt. “Learning and developing as an instructor is definitely my next big challenge. Teaching has both helped me see how much I can still improve, but also the magic of being able to give back to the art. I think that’s what being a black belt truly is – the moment when you’ve gotten to a point that you can give back.”
Additionally, he started venturing into a whole new space – social media. Asaf himself has a background in video production and dreamt of being able to publish technique videos, but at first, started with just one or two posts a week – quickly shot images with long-form captions on Instagram inspired by John Danaher’s popular format on the same platform. Shortly after, one of Asaf’s first students, Tom Shaked, joined in as a proofreader, a role that quickly expanded into full-on partner. However, the two soon decided to take the account to the next level and started posting daily under-a-minute video technique breakdowns.
Within a few weeks, they got the attention of multiple popular social media channels and started amassing what is today a 7,000+ strong follower fan base. With other platforms like Facebook and Youtube offering an avenue for longer-form content, the Asaf Mich brand is now expanding into new territory, creating higher quality and more in-depth Jiu Jitsu focused videos like Narrated Sparring, Strategy, and Technique videos.
When asked about the future, Asaf describes it as a mystery, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m excited about the new directions with YouTube and my growing classes.” The only thing that’s certain is that we’ll all be hearing, seeing, and learning more from this up-and-coming black belt.