Updated: Jan 31, 2022
"I've heard that there will be days when I get to be the hammer," I say, defeated, as we line up to bow out. Sweat runs down my bald head and pours from the tip of my nose. Every joint aches from my shoulders, hips and knees to the individual knuckles in each finger and every toe. What my body has endured pales in comparison to the shellacking my ego just took. At least once a week, I give serious consideration to quitting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
My martial arts journey began in 1982, when I was nine. Over the past 39 years, I have trained in Tang Soo Do, Krav Maga, Aiki Jitsu, Aikido, Kung Fu and Capoeira, to name a few. I have earned three black belts in different, but similar arts, and have numerous citrus colored belts (yellow, orange, green, etc.) in the others.
I suppose I could have wrestled in high school, and wish that I had. I chose not to wrestle in high school because my high school wrestling team was comprised of the most elite collection of complete fucking assholes in unitards ever assembled. If douchery were an Olympic event, I know one New Jersey high school that would have graduated a litany of Olympians.
As a child of the 80's, I grew up on martial arts movies. Kung Fu Theater was my Sunday afternoon ritual. Any movie put out by Jean Claude Van Damme, Cynthia Rothrock, Sho Kosugi, Steven Segal, Jackie Chan, or Sammo Hung drew me like a fly to a cow pie on opening night. I loved those films and coveted what each star seemed to have.
Of course, I wanted to be a badass who could punch and kick his way to peer stardom, but I also wanted the spirituality, Zen, chi, wisdom, insight, and connection to the universe that I believed all of these movie stars possessed in spades. Mr. Miyagi had it in The Karate Kid. Bruce Leroy had it in The Last Dragon. Egg Shen had it in Big Trouble in Little China. Chiun had it in Remo Williams. I, alas, had nothing.
Don't get me wrong, I liked to act like the Zen master from time to time, spouting bullshit that sounded like it came from a fortune cookie, but inside I was still a hot-headed, unenlightened, dipshit kid from Dirty Jersey - and most of the time, I acted like it. The movies made it seem like martial arts training would result in immediate spiritual transcendence. I trained, but remained dumb as soup, and about as spiritual.
My introduction to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu came in 1993. I was in college, sitting in my fraternity brother's apartment, watching Royce Gracie dominate opponent after opponent in the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Although intrigued by Gracie, I remained disappointed that none of the other competitors were able to land a Van Damme-style flying helicopter kick to the dome and put Royce away. This meant that despite all of my martial arts training and experience, not only was I an unenlightened turd, but I was likely to get my ass handed to me by a lanky Brazilian in street fight. Fuck!!
I began training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu circa 1997 when a friend, who was then an advanced brown belt in the art started teaching me privately. This dude would work me to the point of vomiting. No shit!! I literally puked from drills and conditioning on more than one occasion. Then, he would want to roll and kick the ever-loving shit out of me for the rest of the session.
Sometimes his lessons were amazing. During one session, he locked up with me, threw me ass over pie-hole with Harai-goshi, got knee on belly, and finished me with an arm lock. I tapped. We got up, locked up, Harai-goshi to knee on belly to arm lock. I tapped. We got up, locked up Harai-goshi to knee on belly to arm lock. Seven fucking times, we went through this exact sequence seven times and there was nothing I could do to alter any aspect of it. Helpless and frustrated, I brooded as we took a water break. While drinking his water, my buddy says, "Hey man, block this water," and dumps his entire liter of water on me. "Why didn't you block the water?" he asked smugly.
"Because you can't block water," I responded trying to sound slightly less dumb than I probably was.
"That's right," he quipped, "So, how could you have not gotten wet?"
Immediately, I grasped the lesson. "I wouldn't have gotten wet if I wasn't there in the first place." We locked up again, but this time instead of trying to counter what I knew was coming, I just changed my entire approach making Harai-goshi impossible for him. Instead, he dropped me with Yoko Tomoe Nage, took my back and finished me with a choke. "Very good," he said as I tapped voraciously.
Sometimes, his lessons were less insightful. During one session, I was inside his guard, but did not realize that he had set in the grips for a baseball bat choke. I passed his guard (because he let me in order to finish the choke) and the last thing I remember was feeling very self-satisfied as this was the first time that I ever passed his guard. As I awoke from the choke, he was sitting beside me eating a slice of pizza. "You fucking left me here, unconscious, to go next door for a slice...?" I barked incredulously. "Hungry," he replied with his mouth full of pizza.
My friend eventually introduced me to the academy where he trained. It was in Bristol, Pennsylvania, a 45-minute drive from my house. In the 1990's most of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in America was in California. It was not easy to find a school on the east coast, and was probably impossible througout the rest of the country. In 2022, New Jersey is lousy with BJJ Academies. You can swing a stick and hit six of them. Tom DeBlass, Gary Tonnen, Gordon Ryan - all Jersey boys. Ricardo Almeida has a school in the very fucking town where I lived.
Anyhow, this was 1996-ish and I schlepped my fat ass to Bristol three time a week to train. It was a good academy. The head instructor was a black belt under the Machados, and many of his students were really solid. I got my ass kicked a lot, but I was getting better, creeping up on blue belt, in fact. The night I received the fourth stripe on my white belt was a Monday. I remember that because when I returned that Wednesday to train with my bright, new stripe, the school was fucking gone. Empty. Just an abandoned store front that, two days prior, had housed a martial arts academy. Standing there, dumbfounded, staring into the window of this empty building it didn't even occur to me that this would put a temporary end to my Brazilain Jiu-Jitsu career. Alas, there was nowhere else to train.
I had other friends who owned a Krav Maga academy and were in need of help teaching, so I spent the next few years teaching for them and training there. For a style that claims to use "whatever works," two people out of that entire academy ever wanted to train grappling with me. Krav was fine, but I never developed the same love for it that I had for BJJ.
After a few years, I moved from New Jersey to Indiana to pursue my doctorate. Muncie, Indiana made New Jersey look like Rio De Jeneiro when it came to Jiu-Jitsu academies. There was nowhere to train. The school I was attending had a Judo club, so I went there. The lead instructor was amazing, but the group didn't typically train very hard. I was a 35-year-old, married, graduate student looking to train in a martial art. Most of the other participants were 18-year-old, single, college students looking to hook-up and socialize, who also had some sort of interest in Judo. Less than ideal, it met the need while I was in school.
Upon completing my coursework, I moved from Muncie, Indiana to Carbondale, Illinois for my doctoral internship. After six months there, I found a bona fide Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy where I could train. It was 2011. I have been training with varying degrees of consistency ever since.
It is not my intention to value one martial art over any other. I wholeheartedly believe that various different martial styles have value, both for self-defense and personal growth.
As I got older, I learned that the spiritual, magical, wisdom portrayed in the martial arts movies of my youth was mostly fantasy. What might be truer than the idea that spirituality and wisdom is the natural biproduct of learning to punch and kick is that adversity develops grit, self-knowledge, resilience, perspective, and mindfulness. Training in a grappling art provides adversity every time you train. Not a class goes by where some giant ogre doesn't try to choke me unconscious or some pygmy sprite doesn't pull some inverted X-guard bullshit and try to attack my ankles like a rabid fucking ferret. Either way, I need to deal with the adversity. I have come to believe that this the primary difference between grappling arts and striking arts. Grappling training provides adversity in every training session. Striking arts, too, can provide such adversity, but don't necessarily. Most boxing gyms, for example, turn out bad motherfuckers because they gear up and bang at every practice. By contrast, your neighbor's 12-year-old who just got his black belt in Tae Kwon Do has likely never really taken a punch.
Because of the adversity that grappling provides, I have developed a love-hate relationship with it. Most days, I have to force myself to go to class. My imagination runs repeated images of me taking beating after beating and I become very motivated to avoid days like I had today. I was definitely the nail, not the hammer. It's been said that there is no losing in jiu-jitsu. Either you win or you learn. Boy do I fucking learn...
That said, after all these years, I have never regretted having gone to class. I always feel better afterward - every single time. Lessons learned on the mat have given me the tools to contend with every manner of personal and professional difficulty. I'm not saying that I always handle life's challenges well. After all, I try to remain committed to honesty in this blog. What I am saying, is that I shudder to imagine how badly I would have fucked things up if I hadn't had these experiences.
At least once a week, I give serious consideration to quitting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Other times, I am so grateful to have found BJJ and for the ways it has benefited me. Sometimes, all I can think about is my terrible fucking guard game and how it never seems to improve. Other times, I'm committed to growth and improvement. No matter how slowly, just be better than I was yesterday. My right shoulder is held together by bubble gum, and sometimes all I can think about is how badly it fucking hurts. Some days, I see very clearly that every single person on the mats has some strengths and some struggles, and training is very much about learning to integrate them all into a cohesive approach to dealing with adversity.
I think the pattern is this: When I focus on how bad I am (still) at jiu-jitsu, I want to quite. When I focus on how good jiu-jitsu is to me, I know that it will be an important part of the rest of my life.
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