Rylan Lizares wants to be champion.
That goal has not changed. In fact, it has broadened.
Lizares’ drive to be the best has not wavered for nary a moment for the near 20 years since he first set foot on a wrestling mat. Nowadays, the born and bred Hawaiian’s ambition is to not only be a champion competitor, but a champion teacher, a champion mentor, a champion coach, a champion gym owner and, really, a champion at life.
He is way too humble to admit this, but Lizares is succeeding at his goal.
“I was always coaching people,” Lizares said. “Back in wrestling, I was team captain. I was always mentoring people who wanted help as much as I could. It was almost by accident or mistake, but, in my head, I thought that opening my own gym I could train full-time and I could make money competing full-time. In reality, I was a full-time coach and a full-time trainer. I think a lot of people make that mistake when they open their own gyms. At the time, I wasn’t really ready to let it go. Today, I don’t think I’m still ready to let it go. I accepted the role as the coach - that was my responsibility when I opened the gym that I was going to do coach first. From day one, I loved it. I’ve always felt joy helping people reach their full potential and meet their goals.”
At 33 years old, Lizares is the head instructor and owner of Gracie Technics Jiu Jitsu Academy in Honolulu. He’s a husband to Tiffany, a soon-to-be father to a baby girl, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under living legend Pedro Sauer, a former NCAA Division I athlete, a former high school wrestling standout, but Lizares is most famous for the homegrown talent his gym has been raising for the Octagon called Hawaii Elite MMA - specifically, current #5 ranked UFC featherweight Max “Blessed” Holloway.
Looking at his timeline, most of Lizares’ life choices and, eventual, accomplishments have bled from one to the other because of a love for grappling - first wrestling and then jiu-jitsu. Being a practitioner of one and going to the other is not unusual, but what is highly unusual is having these ground-based martial arts stumble upon you because you’re too busy breakdancing.
“I started my career wrestling in high school,” Lizares said. “I hadn’t done most sports prior to that. I kind of had a knack for it. My freshman year in high school, I made it to varsity. I was able to make it to states. I was able to place in the states for three years - 4th, 2nd and 3rd. It was just by accident. One of the wrestling coaches, he caught me breakdancing, so I got detention. He gave me the shot to get out of detention by going to wrestling practice. It was one of those situations where it kind of found me.”
One can only hope that at Hawaii’s Aiea High School, wrestling practice is still used as optional punishment for breakdancing. This strange cause and effect discovered a diamond in the rough with Lizares going on to win multiple athletic awards and, later, send Lizares to wrestle for and attend Oregon State University. Besides getting him to the ‘mainland’, Lizares’ high wrestling ability coupled with him living in Hawaii gained him almost immediate access into the world of fighting and the tutelage of BJJ black belt and PRIDE veteran Egan Inoue.
“I got introduced to MMA and jiu-jitsu in the process of going to college,” Lizares said. “In Hawaii, we don’t have any collegiate wrestling. At the time, the only people who were wrestling were MMA fighters. My brother had brought me down to the local gym, which was Grappling Unlimited that was run by Egan Inoue. This was that ‘golden era’ of MMA in Hawaii where Egan, ‘Cabbage’ [Wesley Correira], Falaniko [Vitale] were all starting their careers, so it was a really good time for me to be in the gym. It was definitely intense. It was a huge room - maybe 30 or 40 guys in the room wrestling. There were a lot of future stars that were in there that I wasn’t even aware of. It just was that kind of environment. It was intimidating, but it had good camaraderie as the team was on a rise. They were winning all of their fights in the SuperBrawl events and Egan was fighting in PRIDE. It was a very good time.”
Moving from Honolulu to Corvallis, Oregon was, originally, for wrestling, but it became where Lizares truly fell in love with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Lizares stepped away from the school’s team to focus on raising his grades, while continuing to wrestle for intramural teams. Luckily, a friend invited Lizares to “the Oregon Pound” jiu-jitsu Club, which is a still-running Pedro Sauer affiliate and, eventually, a Gracie Technics affiliate. With Lizares going on to become a black belt under him, Sauer obviously was an enormous influence and source of inspiration for Lizares.
“My instructor Pedro Sauer, he was the one who truly planted the seed of jiu-jitsu in my brain and he allowed me to see jiu-jitsu in terms of more than just techniques,” Lizares said. “There’s a lot of strategy, a lot of principle involved. Once I got a taste of that, it translated into all aspects of my life, especially in jiu-jitsu and fighting. These fundamentals are universal in all forms of combat. It really opened my eyes it was the turning point of being a competitor and a coach. I was brought up in a typical wrestling mentality with hard work and dedication and putting the pressure on. In that sense, I was just like any other wrestler. But when I take a look at in now, I was always of a jiu-jitsu mindset in terms of energy efficiency and strategy.”
Over the next decade plus, Lizares would reboot himself as a competitor in gi and no-gi jiu-jitsu tournaments all over the world. “It was the same mindset as before, I wanted to be champion and I was willing to go anywhere, do anything and train with anyone in any way to accomplish those goals,” said Lizares who became a fixture at NAGA event and the IBJJF World Championships as he ascended from blue belt to black. “Before I opened my school, when I was just training myself and competing in jiu-jitsu, I felt like I was training harder than anyone else on the whole island. You could name any MMA fighter, any jiu-jitsu player, any football player - that was my mindset. There’s no one on this island training harder than me.”
It’s almost surprising that Lizares didn’t by default end up in a pro MMA debut during this time. Having trained with MMA fighters in MMA gyms for years, Lizares expected it would happen, but his focus on competitive jiu-jitsu didn’t falter and that would go right into his calling as a coach. In 2008, Lizares would win the professional absolute division in the Grapple Fest Hawaii no-gi tournament - where he would submit eventual UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks in the semifinals - and, later in the year, would start the gym he always wanted to be a member of.
“I have no fights, I have no official fights,” Lizares said. “That was always the intention when I got into the grappling. At the time, Egan required all of his jiu-jitsu guys if they wanted to be a black belt they had to do an MMA fight. A lot of people were kind of fast tracked toward that. Because I was in college, he never really pushed me to take that route. I kind of just did the sport grappling. Even to this day, I think about competing in MMA. The only thing that is holding me back is my role as a coach. Once I decided to become a coach, I decided to put the students and the fighters first. If I pursued a career in fighting, it would take a lot away from them.”
Lizares’ training for himself became training for others as he opened the Gracie Technics gym to improve his own skills, but it’s where Lizares gave himself the role as head coach making him ultimately improve others’ skills. Technics has always been Lizares’ brand even when he was in college and training guys in a garage. It stayed with him as he worked and mentored under great martial artists like Inoue at Grappling Unlimited and TJ Thompson at ICON. Of course, Technics would be the name of his gym, which he started with his own ideals as an athlete in mind, but would become the proving ground for Lizares and company’s MMA team - Hawaii Elite MMA.
“I wanted to create my own culture and create my own students,” Lizares said. “We’re always trying to progress the art. Find new improvements, find more efficient ways to solve problems. The gyms here didn’t quite have the feel I was looking for. We have great gyms here, but they didn’t have the feel I was looking for. It’s very hard to make a living off of a gym, especially a small gym. There were incredible instructors in Hawaii, but they really couldn’t dedicate their full lives to teaching the art. They would come after work to teach and they were tired. They were amazing teachers, but the focus wasn’t there, in the sense that that was all they did. It rubs off on the students because the gym isn’t their full priority. When I opened my gym, I wanted to fully commit my time and energy to the gym, to my students to help them grow. Ultimately, the only thing I wanted to think about was martial arts.”
Easily, the brightest shining star of the Technics gym and Hawaii Elite MMA team is the owner of an active seven fight win streak inside the Octagon - Max Holloway. While other talents like Russell Doane, Louis Smolka, Yancy Medeiros and, previously, Dustin Kimura have been and continue to be standard bearers for the team in the UFC, Holloway is a truly special case. At only 23 years old, Waianae’s first son is the youngest fighter in history to 10 UFC wins, and seven of them are finishes. As Holloway has opened fighters’ and fans’ eyes these past few years, Lizares admits he was a little blind to Blessed at first.
“He was young,” Lizares said. “In Hawaii, we have tons of talented strikers. I think we have some of the best striking talent in the world and Max was one of those guys. Max already had credentials in kickboxing and he was already making a run in his pro career, but me being a jiu-jitsu guy - he was just another striker who could be taken down and finished. He was brought to the gym by Dustin Kimura. Honestly, I never really took notice of the kid just because we have a lot of guys who walk in the door who say they want to fight MMA. I tell them the same thing and I lay out the same plan for all of them. Only a handful listen. After spending a lot of time with him and training with him, I got to see he had a capacity to be a lot more. I think what really allowed me to see Max’s potential is his mental power. How mentally strong he was. That’s something you’re really born with. We can develop it as a coach a little bit, but it’s either something you have or you don’t have.”
After a 4-0 pro start in the 50th state, Holloway would make a difficult Octagon debut on short notice at UFC 143 against Dustin Poirier. “Jumping in there was quite a task,” said Lizares of “The Diamond” subbing Holloway in the opening round. It was Holloway’s over-aggressive attack that got him on his back against Poirier and the youngster learned that lesson quickly. Four months later, Holloway returned to the Octagon with maturity (and more training camp time) and took a one-sided, but, measured, unanimous decision win over Pat Schilling.
“In those first two fights, it was him finding the balance to be able to be comfortable enough to put himself out there to finish the fight, but not give too much that it could set him back,” Lizares said. “From that fight to the next fight, he’s almost a completely different fighter. He went out with the intention of finishing [Poirier] and with that type of strategy against a guy with a ground game - you’re going to get taken down, tied up and finished. The next fight, he was very reserved. Almost too reserved. He had openings to finish, but he knew the win was very important. There was a point where Max had [Schilling] hurt and the coaches said to Max to back off and he completely backed off. He didn’t just bring down his aggression, he completely broke away. That may have lost him the potential finish, but he was really starting to believe in what we were saying and the gameplan and the strategy.”
One UFC win led to two more by 2012’s end, as Holloway scored a second round TKO over fellow stand-up specialist Justin Lawrence in June and earned a hard-fought decision over veteran Leonard Garcia that December. The following year would be a trying one for Blessed as he dropped a controversial decision to Dennis Bermudez followed by another decision loss to current interim UFC featherweight champ Conor McGregor. Wins and losses are not the best litmus test for evolution though, as Holloway was going from a frenetic striker to a well-rounded fighter.
“I think every fight he’s grown,” Lizares said. “I think with every fight you see a different aspect of his game. Be it his stand-up, his takedown defense or his ground game. In the beginning, it was prevention. He was still developing, still learning jiu-jitsu. He almost has no ground when he started with me. The first fights, it was about not letting him get taken down or if he gets taken down then working his way back to his feet. I think all the way up until the Bermudez fight, he would avoid the ground at all costs. With the Bermudez fight, he was able to show he had a bottom game, he hunted for submissions. He ultimately lost the decision in that fight, but he showed that you couldn’t just take Max down and finish him like how Dustin did.”
While fighting is not like other pro sports with seasons, 2014 was the start of something new for Holloway, Lizares and Hawaii Elite MMA. First, the gym survived a personnel shift, which meant Lizares and fellow head coach Charles Kipilii Jr. came out on the other side with a new striking coaches Ivan Flores, plus strength and conditioning coaches Darin Yap and Chris Ranes. A newly dedicated team of coaches lead three Hawaii Elite MMA fighters to fly across the Pacific Ocean and make statement after statement after statement inside the Octagon on January 4th at UFC Fight Night: Saffiedine vs. Lim.
“That was a new age of our gym - of Hawaii MMA,” said Lizares. “Max had went into that Conor fight with no striking coach. By the next fight, we got him a striking coach and we organized our new team. In Singapore, we had Dustin Kimura, Russell Doane and we had Max fighting on the same card. All from Hawaii and all training in the same gym - they all had finishes. For us, it was history. Three Hawaiian fighters go out and finish. Two of them were performance bonuses. That was really kicking off the new era of our gym and our team. From that win, I could see how this success started the growth of the team and the consistency in the coaches. From there, we were really able to build a foundation that allowed Max to become successful.”
Holloway scored a Knockout of the Night bonus in Singapore then three more stoppages and another bonus by the end of 2014. The striking savant even threw a guillotine choke finish in there to boot. Not to be outdone by himself, Holloway took a unanimous decision over Cole Miller, submitted the top 10 ranked Cub Swanson to get a Performance of the Night bonus and, most recently, just won his first main event against fellow contender Charles Oliveira in August. With each fight, each win is that steady growth Lizares saw in Holloway from his first UFC fight to his second, but it’s magnified with these higher levels of opponents.
“It’s an amazing streak, but every single fight is your next biggest fight,” Lizares said. ‘With Max, with each increase in opponent in ranking and skill, Max meets that level. Every single time we have camp, he is learning new things about himself and the opponent. Max takes it to that next level. He’s really an MMA fan. He watches all the UFC events and locally he attends all the amateur and pro events. He really lives this MMA lifestyle. It allows him to have an open mind because he sees so much, the good things and the bad things. He’s very coachable in that sense, he allows himself to be very coachable in that sense.”
All wins are not created equal, and the victory over Swanson made believers. The headlining scrap against Oliveira ended almost as soon as it began, whereas Holloway got to display his technical and terrifying stand-up for nearly three full rounds against a known top striker who not long before owned a six fight streak in the UFC. It was a coming of age performance where Holloway controlled, threatened and even finished an acclaimed and dangerous opponent. Not to mention, Holloway winning via submission will always be an extra thrill for Lizares.
“It was, of course, amazing,” Lizares said. “It’s something Max does all the time, years at this point, but no one saw it. The thing about Max is, he’s so good on the feet that it is easy to shoot on him. It’s easier, it’s safer. He beats you up so much on the feet or he makes you feel so uncomfortable that he almost forces you to shoot. Once he starts to get confident with his takedown defense and submission game, that’s when you really see him capitalize on people doing that. They shoot and he capitalizes on guillotines or stuffing shots and countering. It all played out. I’ve seen that same type of series play out in practice. It wasn’t new to me, it is something I know he’s capable of, but it was just great to see fall into place.”
Up next, Holloway is set for a clash with heavy-handed Jeremy Stephens at UFC 194, which is headlined by the UFC featherweight title unification between champs Jose Aldo and McGregor. As they prepare for that fight, Holloway continues to be the example Lizares would love all his students to follow both in and out of the gym. Besides enjoying working with Holloway, Lizares feels lucky having Holloway in the gym for other Hawaiian fighters to see what is possible. And Holloway has fully embraced that role not just as a fighter, but as an inspirational figure.
“He’s always been a great fighter and a great leader for the team, but he’s starting to become a leader for the island, a leader for the state, a leader for this division,” Lizares said. “As he matures, he has the potential to be one of the best ever we’ve seen come out of Hawaii. Max is a homegrown Hawaiian fighter. His camps, his training, his coaches are all local. It’s very eye opening. He’s a fighter’s fighter. He always wants to fight, he always wants to be active. Now, it’s taking the right fights in terms of trying to push him toward that title shot and also that connection to the public, to the audience, to the fans they are the ones who can really help him reach that superstar status that he needs. Now, the fighter he is he is pushing a movement for Hawaiian fighters, for UFC Hawaii.”
Of course, Holloway is inspiring. Of course, so is Lizares.
Lizares has turned heads as a grappler, as a coach and as a gym owner. Lizares still trains like he’s expecting to make his MMA debut or jiu-jitsu comeback, and who says he won’t do either or both. And if he doesn’t, Lizares’ competitiveness is still alive and well as he travels to different gyms, picking up ideas and ready to bring it back to his own. Like Holloway’s, Lizares’ story is a young one with much more to be told, and he’s still so busy trying to improve himself, the gym and the fighters who find their way to him to realize it’s a good story - a championship one.
“I never really stop and think about what my story is going to be,” Lizares said. “I kind of live day to day. Even in the sense, I want to improve, but I don’t think I’m done. Almost on a drop of a dime, I’m ready to compete. I’m in the gym six days a week, two to three sessions a day depending on if we have camp. I personally jump in there and spar with the fighters if we don’t have the right sparring partners. I’m there as a body. For me, I grew up with those values that it is hard work and discipline. My story is still untold. I was joking with Max’s manager Brian Butler, ‘Hey, if the UFC needs an 0-0 fighter for CM Punk then throw me in (laughs).’ In my head, there’s still a lot we have to accomplish for myself, for the gym, for the fighters. Hopefully, that can be inspiration for them too.”