World jiu-jitsu champion Shane Jamil Hill-Taylor wants to be a role model for others Howard University student fought to get to the top and wants to stay there
Nearly a dozen brightly colored quotes are plastered across the windows of Lloyd Irvin’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Temple Hills, Maryland. The quotes — e.g., “I believe in my dream” — have long inspired the many children who attend the academy, but for one child in particular, they helped propel him to a historic first.
Shane Jamil Hill-Taylor had no idea his first visit to the summer camp in 2004 would eventually turn him into the first African-American International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) world champion before he turns 23 years old and graduates from Howard University.
“I didn’t think that I would be the first African-American black belt world champion,” said the Suitland, Maryland, native, who talks excitedly about the experience that changed his life.
“It was my biggest dream coming up and training and wanting to be the best,” said Hill-Taylor. It wasn’t until someone brought up that he was the first African-American black belt world champion that it “hit me,” said Hill-Taylor. “Just kind of stuck with me for a second. I was like, man, that’s like a crazy thing.”
Hill-Taylor was crowned champion after locking former IBJJF world champion Leonardo Saggioro into a position he could not fight his way out of. He heard his teammates cheering him on and felt overwhelmed. The victory was a win not just for him but for his team as well.
“For our gym, we haven’t had any black belt world champion ever. We’ve won world at every other belt, every level, every other tournament. We’ve had champions all the way up, all the belt levels, but we haven’t had a black belt world champion. So it was very important, and there was a lot of emotions to it,” said Hill-Taylor.
The 154-pound athlete started competing as a child in 2005 and went to every competition and every team event that he could enter. Four years later, he got the opportunity to go watch his teammates compete at the world championships in Long Beach, California. That first time hooked him and compelled him to work harder, which propelled him to the top.
“I got to see the highest level of the sport. I got to see the greatest in the world from every weight class fight. And that’s what really made me realize what I could do and what I wanted to do,” said Hill-Taylor.
Hill-Taylor trains every day, ranging from four to five hours a day, works at the academy’s after-school program during the year and summer camp, and is a full-time college student. He routinely trains once a day no matter what, and then twice a day seven times a week when a big tournament or the world championships are coming up. People are often shocked by his intense training schedule, especially since he’s a full-time student with a GPA above 3.0.
“I’ve been doing that since I started training. I train every day. I would do my homework every day, so it never felt like I was doing a lot. It was just average for me …,” said Hill-Taylor.
Hill-Taylor’s coach Donald Achnick calls his fighting style “creative precision.” Achnick said Hill-Taylor’s use of different techniques and unorthodox moves is one reason he believes Hill-Taylor will go far.
“He has potential to be the best featherweight in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the history of the sport,” said Achnick, head coach of the youth programs at Lloyd Irvin’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy. “But with his potential and with the way he approaches it, his work ethic, his natural ability … he’s going to keep doing great things.”
Hill-Taylor is set to graduate in December with a degree in sports management and a minor in economics. He helped to establish the now-defunct Howard Jiu-Jitsu Club for students interested in training outside of the class the university offers. Students met once or twice weekly to train, and Hill-Taylor served as a coach. After the club closed because of scheduling conflicts, he continued coaching and mentoring at Lloyd Irvin’s.
In a sport not known for cultivating black talent, Hill-Taylor wants his title to serve as encouragement to push boundaries and ignore barriers. He wants to be an example for African-Americans who want to fight their way to the top.
“When I was younger, when I looked at all my favorite competitors and all my favorite black belt world champions, none of them were from the same background or from the same culture as me. So for me to be someone that could pave the way for another young kid to have someone to look up to, I think that’s very important, and that’s something I didn’t have besides my own teammates,” he said.
“If it inspires a kid that trained jiu-jitsu, or someone to get motivated in jiu-jitsu or whatever they’re doing, if it could inspire them to work hard,” said Hill-Taylor, “[that’s] the biggest thing that me being the first African-American world champion could bring for anybody.”
Daren Nalle, 11, is one of Hill-Taylor’s students at Lloyd Irvin’s. He has known the world champion for five years. He’s proud of Hill-Taylor’s accomplishment, but he is not surprised he became the first world champion.
“He’s a role model to me. He makes me want to be a black belt world champion like him, and he makes me want to get better and better at jiu-jitsu,” said Daren.
When he is not training, competing or in class, Hill-Taylor likes to work on his shoe game. The avid sneaker fan — Air Jordans and Nikes, among others — has been building his shoe collection since high school. Outside of jiu-jitsu, his second-biggest passion is drawing art, and that’s what he would be doing if he weren’t doing jiu-jitsu.
After graduating, Hill-Taylor looks forward to traveling more to compete in places such as Europe, Brazil and Australia and continue the sport professionally. This past year, he was able to visit South Korea, his first time out of the United States. He was excited about competing in the same venue where the 1988 Olympics were held and being treated like a celebrity when he saw his face on a building-size banner.
Hill-Taylor also looks forward to using his degree to help the jiu-jitsu community. He wants to continue to be a role model, help others find sponsorships and create opportunities for people in the sport so they can have it easier than he did.