Pasha Stolyar

The jovial cheers of 20+ fellow teammates sitting cage side do nothing to diminish Pasha, whose instruction has more weight in the room and betrays the few little words he needs to communicate instruction. Coach purposefully navigates his way as the third man, never looking away from the action, never breaking his line of sight with the art.

The Ukraine, known for its hard life and style of grappling, oozes from Pasha as he fervently exclaims pride about the art of wrestling.

"It teaches you how to handle yourself in horrible situations, never give up, always scramble." Somehow, we hear it from Pasha and the term struggle, seems something incomprehensibly larger to anything I've experienced.

Pasha and Jitsy finger tape.

Recently, Pasha held a series of seminars in Russia with proceeds going towards worthy causes.

“The boys in Russia invited me over for five days, and we train twice a day about six hours.”

When asked if he had any specific training or conditioning for the trip and the physical demands therein, he nonchalantly tells me:

“I never stop training.”

Not boastful, nor braggadocious. Just fact, with a smile.

Staying ready means never having to get ready, even to fend off Russian assassins who have the same mentality as Coach Pasha, you are going to struggle and you are not going to give up. Unstoppable force meets immovable object, technique and physicality the determining factors.

“Most seminars are jiu jitsu but this was the first time we held an MMA seminar, we were collecting money for an orphanage over there.

We invited people and it was a week of martial arts, so I was teaching an MMA seminar and also a BJJ seminar. There was a donation box and all the money collected we took it to the orphanage there.”

The voice softens as he explains and seems to emphasize the orphanage more than the seminars, the very reason he was invited.

“For the first time I teach an MMA seminar, I’ve been coaching MMA for six years now and I consider myself quite successful in it….”

I nod.

“….. I had a lot of knowledge to share and guys who have had a lot of fights were like ‘Holy sh*t, no one has ever taught us that!’. So, I was very proud to introduce that, grappling for MMA. I taught them some of the takedowns I teach against the cage and the guys really appreciated that.”

Wrestling is domination. 

If seminars in trips gone by focussed on modern jiu jitsu, in lands synonymous with the art of wrestling, it’s difficult not to ask how the inhabitants have accepted the ‘gentle art’.

“They’re taking it up greatly right now. There’s something in that Slavic gene, they know how to wrestle and the guys from the Caucasus, Kazakhi boys they just know how to wrestle. 

In Australia you throw a rugby ball at someone they know how to catch it in a particular way. You throw he ball to a Slavic guy and they’ll wonder why it’s so weirdly shaped. The people from where I come from, when you lock into a clinch it’s a different type of clinch.”

A high tide raises all ships, and wrestling in the Caucasus region is equivocal to a king tide. For example, a village of six hundred people could have up to three world champion wrestlers. There’s either something in the water, or something in the culture.

Without many luxuries or resources afforded here in Australia, his countrymen are taking it upon themselves to master the grappling arts whether it be sambo, wrestling or improvisational folk style wrestling inherent to the area you find yourself in. 

“The thing I always bring back from there, whether it be the Ukraine or Russia or wherever else, is that I have to keep my guys on a roll all the time. The guys are so much more disadvantaged over there and they don’t have the facilities we have, but they’re just so much hungrier.

So, I’m actually doing the right thing by pushing my guys harder.”

Unknowingly, Pasha lets us know that behind the grind there’s a softer side to his coaching psyche and that he is introspective enough to reflect on his methods and the intensity within. 

“Not allowing certain things to get in the way of training, because when you come to train you need to train hard. I’ve thought to myself ‘maybe I should be more democratic, maybe I should soften up my style a little bit?’ but it turns out I’m right. I got to bring back (from Russia) that hustling spirit.”

Pasha knows his guys/girls and their individual abilities.
He remarks on the softer approach and the consequences it can have as well as the results of training too intensely. As far as softness in training translating into the fight is concerned:

“It’s not guaranteed but it might.”

He repeats himself with emphasis on the possibility.

It’s not guaranteed, but it might...”

The distinct impression that Pasha means better to be safe than sorry.

Ironically, safe in this instance means engaging in a fist fight with weeks of harsh mentally and physically exhausting training. 

Pasha front on.

“As long as you don’t get injured, I won’t change my style. It’s individual. I’m pretty good as a coach at analysing the psychological profile of a particular fighter so I know when to tell them ‘good job’ or I know when I need to tell them to ‘crank it up’. You cannot have the same approach to everyone. 

Today I had thirty people for sparring. It gets harder for me to be more individual. I have to cap because I don’t want to have too many people. People get the variety but they don’t get the coaching as well.

Excess numbers in a sport that requires bodies on the mat?

A good problem to have?

“But a problem nevertheless.
So many great teams fell apart because there’s too many people and too many egos being mixed up. Me as a general I have to make sure everyone stays in check. You can’t be a successful coach with just the art that you teach, you have to be good with people as well. 

There are coaches here in Queensland who are great with people like Vince Perry or Adrian Pang… They all have their own approach but they’re all psychologists.

But as you teach you learn….

As you teach you learn….

As you teach you learn….”

The repetition gives an insight to the cycle of ongoing development and the toll it can take on a coach. 

“Thursday, we had fifty people on the mats and I’m preoccupied by making people feel welcome. I couldn’t really train on Thursday, normally I like to get involved with the boys, and the girls now that we have a lot of girls training, trying to get with them but I just couldn’t.”

Females are relatively new to the MMA scene, especially when you consider the sport has exploded rapidly since the UFC’s first event in early November 1993. The first women’s MMA bout on such a scale was Ronda Rousey defending her UFC title in the same month in 2012, despite women fighting in combat sports and MMA for decades. 

The opportunities for ladies are now widespread in terms of competitive MMA, and Pasha gives us an insight on what it’s like to coach between sexes. 

 “I obviously don’t want to be too sexist about but you can’t approach guys and girls the same way. It’s an extremely unforgiving sport. What people need to see is that girls are totally different to guys, the emotional peaks they experience compared to guys are different and I had to manage a few tears. 

I’ve grown with it a lot more now and I manage it a lot better, I handle it like teacher’s handle it at school. I’m very proud of how the girls handle it too. The club moves on.”

With an ever growing stable of fighters, you can see how the demand of personalities, ups and downs, wins and losses would take their toll on a coach.

“Unfortunately, I’m one of those guys if I have five people and four win, I’m more concerned about the loss and the person. As a coach, the winning is exaggerated and the feeling of loss is multiplied. But you win or you learn, luckily I’ve been more on the winning side than the losing side”

The weight of what coach is saying is evident in more ways than one. The responsibility of investing in athletes and baring the soul of what you’ve literally bled for is sensitive to a coach. 

“By caring you open up an alleyway to being hurt…

Whether your fighter is losing or leaving or moving to another gym, you are leaving yourself wide open to be hurt.”

Hurt is an interesting choice of words with gravity to it. 

Hurt is emotional, it’s deep and it’s from the heart. 

“If you say you aren’t hurt then you don’t care that much.

As a competitor too, if that loss doesn’t hurt you then you don’t care.”

Hurt.

Loss.

Care.

Heavy notions with emotionally taxing consequences. To be apprehensive to open up to students would be understandable.

“Then you’re already losing them.”

Poignant point taken.
He changes from tonally vulnerable to vigorous passion. 

Pasha strapping his fingers.

“I can’t help, and as a coach it’s my weakness, I tend to show favouritism toward people who work hard. I pay more attention to people who bleed with me, die with me every day. I’m only human.

I’ve trained with athletic beasts before, it’s not lack of talent that kills them, it’s lack of heart”.

Pasha again shows some of the competitive edge synonymous with wrestling. Coach clearly has a spot in his heart for wrestling and also believes in its ability to develop one’s athletic and competitive constitution. 

Putting in plainly, if you have wrestling in your heart, your fighting heart will grow.

“Somebody is probably going to throw stones at me, but I think wrestling is the most important martial art for MMA.”

Home team bias aside, he is a fervent student of the dominant art of wrestling. 

A black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu you’d expect some internal conflict in Pasha around the best approach between smash n’ grab wrestling or the gentle art of jiu jitsu, but Pasha discerns the relationship eloquently. 

“It (wrestling) teaches you to never give up, always move and scramble in situations. There are good jiu jitsu guys who embrace wrestling really well and it becomes such a mutated style that it’s hard to tell whether it’s wrestling or jiu jitsu.”

The cohesion of these styles is, in my mind, the future of grappling arts and Pasha is unknowingly selling the idea to me even more so. But with this continual melding of arts, does it become increasingly difficult to explain the intricacies and subtleties of just what the hell you’re doing trying to strangle people?

I have to find out.

“Luckily I don’t talk to too many people that don’t know what it is. Right now, we’ve got our own presence and own people. Obviously, I get very heated when people say it (MMA) is just a blood sport. They reveal their own ignorance.”

A great point.
The art of combat is thriving on its own. If mixed martial arts were to find itself critiqued by those who don’t understand it, then it is most likely not for them. 

The sun rises and sets, and there’s no skin off the metaphorical nose of combat sports. 

Those who don’t understand it wouldn’t dare try, most likely. You have to be a certain type of crazy to try, let alone thrive in this environment.

“I’ve dealt with performance anxiety for as long as I can remember. But jiu jitsu is good for that. It makes me so much happier that I’m able to discover these dark spots in my psychological profile through jiu jitsu. Otherwise, my life would become too civil, too easy, I’d become too fat.”

Fat here is used literally and symbolically.

The guys and girls who let themselves go are resting on their laurels in the fight game. “Getting fat” is taking your foot off the accelerator. 

It’s wasted mass or wasted time not used refining oneself in the fire. 

Pasha looking.

“Jiu jitsu keeps me more grounded.”

Having issues with self-confidence and anxiety myself, even writing what you’re reading right now, I look for some explanation as to how Pasha can not be assured of himself. For my own selfish reasons, I wonder how a successful coach overcomes these obstacles. 

“It’s hard for me to say. Sometimes I’m not nervous at all. Other times I wonder what the hell is going on.”

I translate this as Pasha feeling the effects of anxiety and self-doubt and getting on with the job anyway.

This is the same guy who said “I never stop training” and “I never get comfortable”. 

Pasha gets used to the heat in the kitchen because he’s always behind the grill. I get more than what I thought from this answer. What some might find lacking in context I find simplicity in the obvious. 

But when I think I have it figured, there’s more. 

“I’m blessed with some really good training partners. I’ve always been a coach to myself to it be honest. I’ve trained with some beasts like Vicente Cavalcanti, Uroš Čulić, but it was all up to me to improve my jiu jitsu.”

Pasha owns the responsibility for his development.

It’s becoming clearer how you could fight the feeling of perceived incompetence if you accept the responsibility for yourself and train day in and out to live up to your own expectations.

Being an independent learner, discovering the path through a cut throat sport like jiu jitsu, does that make him a better coach? Pasha was an empty cup filling himself with theoretical and practical concepts of martial arts in the laboratory that we call the mats. 

“100%.

Me struggling through the learning process trying to find all the knowledge made me a better coach. It was never handed to me, I had to work for it”.

How much does this reflect on his coaching style now, that he himself took the initiative and explored on his own? I wonder if he expects the expect the same from his fighters or gives them overcompensation in the form of coaching that he never had.

“I train them up to the point where they understand the process. There are guys and girls who are so hungry for knowledge they pursue it. I shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that they know themselves how they like to learn. 

I’m teaching them to learn.”

In just under an hour with Coach Pasha I discover some key themes.

To be Pasha you must entertain the perspective that self-doubt is irrelevant if you thrive in the fire.

To be Pasha you must understand your personal responsibility to the learning process and take responsibility for it, as well as fifty or so others. 

And to be Pasha is to be one of the best in Australia.

Written by Jake Anderson.

Pasha Stolyar