The Ultimate Fighter
"We just have a great team at the gym as far as the staff, great fighters, great amateurs, great students. And I’ve had great teachers coming up." - Jason Mertlich
Jason Mertlich likes the number 47.
Many believe 47 is the universe’s quintessential random number. It’s a prime, a safe prime, a supersingular prime, a Lucas prime and an Eisenstein prime for starters.
It’s also the number of ronin or lordless samurai in the Japanese epic about a warrior’s code of honor. On the periodic table, 47 is the atomic number of silver, the most reflective known metal in the world, whose uses range from currency and jewelry to water filtration and X-rays.
So when it came time for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt to claim ownership of and put a name on his style of ground fighting built specifically for mixed martial arts, Mertlich knew exactly what it should be called: Four 7 Jiu-Jitsu.
“I would describe it as a culmination of my life in martial arts and sports and training,” Mertlich states. “It came to me almost like an epiphany about five years ago. I felt it was like a culmination of thoughts and ideas that have led to it being called Four 7. If someone came to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m getting ready to go to the Pan-Ams,’ I would say, ‘I might not be the best guy.’ We have a Pedro Sauer school around here and they send 10 guys a year there and they do very well. You’re still going to get good at jiu-jitsu training with me, but our goal here is on the sport of mixed martial arts. We don’t spend any time at all dealing with lapel chokes, with any grips with the gi because we don’t compete in that sport. Obviously, it has self-defense capabilities and we do law enforcement stuff, but 99% of our time is devoted to the sport of mixed martial arts.”
Born and raised in the Utah mountains, Mertlich’s approach to training some of the UFC’s best and brightest, like The Ultimate Fighter 11 winner Court McGee and the returning Josh Burkman, at The Pit Elevated revolves around his own life experience.
Growing up watching Bruce Lee movies on VHS tapes, Mertlich pushed his mother into letting him take karate lessons, which he did under Toshio Osaka in Salt Lake City. Eventually, karate was set aside as success in team sports like baseball and, especially, football in junior high through high school took over Mertlich’s life. But injuries sidelined Mertlich’s path as a burgeoning outside linebacker and defensive end as high school came to a close.
“I had a couple bulging discs in my neck, so the last half of my senior year I was dealing with those things until the next year,” Mertlich remembers. “I still had aspirations of pursuing college football. During that time, I was working and I had a girlfriend then. I never really had the push to try and walk on somewhere at the time. My life kind of changed directions.”
In a series of chance, or in retrospect destined, meetings in his twenties, Mertlich found himself on a new athletic journey with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“I got a job at an airline and I met this Russian guy there who had moved here four or five years earlier and he was the Masters’ World Champion in the snatch and clean and jerk for Olympic weightlifting,” Mertlich, who was a fan of Olympic lifting from his football days, said. “He invited me to come train with him and it happened that the place where he lifted weights was the jiu-jitsu school. When I went in there to lift weights, Walt Bayless talked to me and he had me on the mats the next day and had this 155-pound guy armlocking me. I had never felt anything like it in my life and I was hooked.”
The year was 1995. Mertlich had seen the first few UFC events and he thought Royce Gracie was amazing, but he didn’t know where or how to pursue submission grappling. From that first day on the mat with oft-mythologized BJJ black belt Bayless, Mertlich changed his life so he could immerse himself in this martial art. Mertlich quit his job and began mowing lawns to free himself up to go to Walt Bayless’ Combat Jiu-Jitsu twice a day and take as many private lessons a week as his schedule would allow. Mertlich’s time under Bayless left an indelible impression on him both in and out of the gym.
“Without a doubt, I can say Walt Bayless had the greatest impact out of any other human being on me as far as martial arts,” Mertlich said. “He is an amazing human being. He is so caring, so giving and so kind. At the same time, he’s this 6’4”, 250-pound dude who moves like a 155-pound guy. He’s just a super athlete. He came up playing football and weightlifting and was very athletic. At the same time, he was such a good person. He was like the role model in martial arts where you can be kind and giving and protect people and still be a killer. He’s an amazing teacher and an amazing technician. As big as he was, he was still super technical. He’s a very rare breed.”
After three years studying under Bayless and his litany of elite protégés, Mertlich began expanding his martial arts’ horizons and started boxing in Glendale, Utah with the late and great coach Louis Avila. At City Center Boxing, not only did Mertlich get out of his comfort zone by tackling the stand-up part of the fight game, but Mertlich was usually the only guy in the gym speaking English.
“Louis was a huge influence on my life,” Mertlich tells. “It was all these talented kids and it was in a rougher part of Utah and I loved it. Louis had an affinity for me and he gave me extra time and training and I really blossomed and loved the sport of boxing because of Louis.”
During this time, Mertlich was teaching BJJ classes and he was harboring a dream of becoming a pro fighter himself. In 2002, Mertlich started training and cornering MMA fighters who sought out his wealth of knowledge. The following year, Mertlich had his nose shattered by former WBC Continental Americas’ cruiserweight champ Gary Gomez as he was getting ready for a fight, forcing him to refocus his efforts in the gym on helping others instead of on himself in the ring.
“I would say the biggest strength is understanding athletic principles in how the body moves,” Mertlich explains. “All my experience through athletics and martial arts and my fascination with studying the human body - it’s how things work. Whether it is football or Olympic lifting or throwing a baseball or kicking a soccer ball or punching someone in the face or doing a double-leg takedown. Athletic principles generate force in similar fashions. The body moves the same way and generates force the same way. I feel like since I’ve done all of that that I can use language and metaphors and learning techniques that help athletes from whatever their background is to understand these techniques through their life experience.”
Near the end of 2005, a friend called Mertlich with a job opportunity that would change his life and solidify Mertlich as the head coach he is today. LA Boxing was opening a gym in Orem, Utah and was looking for an MMA / Jiu-Jitsu coach. Mertlich interviewed for the job and was hired on the spot. After a couple years of coaching there, Throwdown opened up a gym next door and poached Mertlich to be their head trainer. Less than two years later, the gym changed its ownership and its name to The Pit Elevated, but retained Mertlich’s services.
To this day, Mertlich’s Four 7 Jiu-Jitsu and his outlook on life serves as the core values at The Pit Elevated and he will be the first to say it’s through the help of everyone around him that he has molded his fighting philosophy.
“I’m just a product of great people who have been around me,” Mertlich humbly asserts. “I’m not anything great or anything special. If I didn’t have an amazing wife or an amazing son, I wouldn’t have the support structure to do the things I do. If I didn’t have a great gym owner, I wouldn’t have the freedom to bring in some of the best coaches in the world like we did when we had [associate head coach of wrestling at Penn State University] Cody Sanderson, Cael’s brother, for a few weeks. It’s been amazing. The ownership has been very supportive. We just have a great team at the gym as far as the staff, great fighters, great amateurs, great students. And I’ve had great teachers coming up. I think the main thing that I would really want to convey is that I’m so grateful for all those people because I could not do this alone.”