BJJ Journey: Black Belts Frankie Forza & Sonny Nohara Talk Sacrifices, Training Battles, and Growing On and Off the Mat

By Frankie Forza 

Best estimate — Sonny Nohara and I were two of the first 3,000 people in the world to earn a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. 

The truth is — every time I rolled with Sonny Nohara in practice, I wanted to beat him, dominate him. 

Unfortunately, Sonny usually got the better of me in our ultra-intense training sessions. 

We had well over 100 high stakes battles in the gym, where the air was often so thick with that “I am the Alpha Male/Top Dog” tension. 

I hated losing to Sonny, even in practice, and I know he felt exactly the same way. 

The thought of rolling a full 10-minute round with Sonny — and also never knowing which top grappler or UFC fighter would show up at Robert Drysdale’s gym, because those young lions literally came from all corners of the world — I used to get butterflies in my stomach just driving to practice. Those practice sessions were like MINI TOURNAMENTS! 

Sonny and I were not the best of friends. We were not asking each other to lunch or dinner or sending each other Christmas presents. 

But you know what? 

Sonny’s one of the two or three best training partners I’ve ever had. Our training room rivalries forced me to dig deeper, made me up my game. 

Sonny made me better, cornered me to victory in several tournaments, and helped raise my Grappling IQ. We were not the closest of friends but I always deeply respected him, his work ethic, the fact that he was living the Lifestyle. 

Some days, it felt like I was surrounded by nothing but 30 Hawaiians — like I was the only non-Hawaiian on the mats!! Haha. 

True story. 

But I tell you what, looking back now… those gym wars on the Drysdale Jiu Jitsu rank as some of my fondest memories in my 17-year dance with this wonderful sport. 

Thank you Robert Drysdale for being so awesome that you brought us all together and attracted talent from all over the world who educated and elevated us. Thank you Sonny, and Matt Villiatoria, Aaron Buck, Boston Jay Viola, Rene Lopez, John Freeman, Bones, Sonny Sebastian and countless others who challenged me day-in, day-out. 

Gosh, I wish my body could hold up like that forever… pushing to the max, to the brink, was so much DANG FUN!! 

When my body still agreed, there was nothing I liked more than an all-out “Who Wants It More” battle in training or competition. Those satiated, satisfied and fulfilled me the most. 

In this YouTube video series, the longtime training partners and Las Vegans — who received their black belts from world-renowned instructor Robert Drysdale — discuss their addiction to the so-called “Gentle Art” how it can take a toll on relationships with spouses and significant others:

Frank and Sonny reminisce about what it was like to religiously and passionately train in the sport BEFORE THERE WAS ANY MONEY TO BE MADE — back when the idea of profiting off your jiu-jitsu was relatively far-fetched. 

In Part 2 of their conversation (below), Frank and Sonny talk about Vegas’s status as “The 9th Island” and their intense training room rivalry: 

Part 3 of our Conversation: 

Part 4 of our Conversation: 

Part 5 of our conversation: 

Part 6 of our conversation: 

Part 7 of our conversation: 


Excerpts from the Conversation between “two guys who have paid their dues, been around a long time and seen everything.” 


Frankie: “We were in the sport when there wasn’t a lot of money in it, when it wasn’t fashionable or en vogue, back when your wife or significant other would say, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that? Get a real job.”

“The jiu jitsu wife had never really been done before, so nobody really knew what they were getting into.

“If someone is a football wife and their husband is a player or coach in the NFL, they are at least comforted by a big bank account or a credit card.

“Nowadays you can convince your spouse or significant other, “Hey, I’m going to open a gym and I’m going to make money. Back then it was, “Wait, you’re coming home, you’re tired all the time, you’re hurt all the time.”

“In jiu jitsu it was kind of like a surf bum — “My husband has an addiction but there’s no money coming in.”

Sonny: “Yes, it does take a toll on any relationship when one person is obsessed with jiu jitsu.”


Frankie: “Literally, every waking moment was me thinking of jiu jitsu. If I wasn’t at the gym training, I was still thinking about it. So you’d be at dinner, talking to your wife, but you’re kind of day-dreaming, thinking of jiu-jitsu.

Sonny: “It’s funny, I’m kind of past that point in my jiu jitsu journey, I still love jiu jitsu but I’m not as focused on it. And my wife now, she’s a professional in the education system, kind of high up there, so she’s always focused on thinking of what she has to do, so the tables have turned.”


Frankie: “That’s how I used to fall asleep — I used to play jiu jitsu in my head.

“I was so excited, even after training jiu jitsu twice a day, working at UFC, and then I would go home, couldn’t sleep, and would just play jiu jitsu in my head.”

WHY DO SO MANY HAWAIIANS MOVE TO LAS VEGAS (hence the nickname, “The 9th Island)? How many Hawaii transplants do you think live in Las Vegas? 

— Sonny answers circa Minute 4:25 of Video Conversation 2


— Sonny answers mid-way through Video Conversation 2.


Frankie: “The thing about fight sports is… If you’re not trying to be the Alpha, if you’re not trying to be the hammer, then you’re the nail. So it’s not just a matter of ego — it’s also a matter of survival.

”Meaning, if you’re not winning, then you’re usually the nail, and you’re usually getting hurt. So it’s self preservation, it’s survival. It’s not just ego gratification — even though that’s often a big part of it.

“If you had to go fight in a cage… I may be a nice, gentle guy… but I’m getting ready to walk into a cage. So I may have to go to a place mentally that allows me to be in the right frame of mind.

“Look, that other guy (opponent) is serious; he wants to hurt me, he wants to knock me out — he doesn’t care. So if I don’t put myself in the right mental state then I’m probably going to get hurt. So I have to be willing to hurt him MORE THAN HE’S WILLING TO HURT ME — and he’s willing to hurt me A LOT.

“Although in training there is a little different dynamic. Nowadays, people are more considerate in training. We were part of what I call “The Guinea Pig Generation” where were still figuring it out (balance). Every day (training) was ‘Everyday Porrada.’”