Years ago, I stumbled into a mixed martial arts gym in Vietnam merely looking for a new form of exercise beyond monotonous weightlifting and cardio. The gym held both striking and grappling classes. The striking instructor seemed scattered and unenthused, and besides, I soon realized my face is far too pretty to be the regular destination for fists and feet, never mind sharp knees and elbows.
How It All Started
The Jiu Jitsu guys, though? Self-effacing in tone but serious about their training, it seemed like a strange but alluring culture. Despite their cauliflower ears, taped fingers and toes, they turned out to be a warm and welcoming motley crew.
Sure, they beat the sh*t out of me, but they did it in a relatively peaceful manner. Jiu Jitsu translates from the original Japanese to “gentle art.” This grappling form of martial arts was built around a smaller, weaker opponent being able to subdue a larger, stronger one through takedowns and subsequent ground control.
The first months were rough. I never won, rarely survived, and usually limped home with my body and ego aching. Opponents half my size could simply flow around my motions — and if by magic — appear where I least wanted them. From there they’d apply a choke with some strange combination of fabric and flesh, or bend one of my limbs in a manner that God did not intend for His design. I’d be forced to admit defeat and tap in surrender, served another warm slice of humble pie to eat, digest, and ruminate upon until the next day’s serving.
My first professor, Rey “The Razor’’ Garcia, allegedly lived in the attic of the gym, but no student dared to actually ask. I estimated him to be in his late fifties, the crown of his head scrubbed clean of hair by time. The rest of his body reminded me of a 200 lb bowling ball, and he felt twice as heavy as one when he had his huge, weathered hands on me.
“I’ve been fighting my whole life,” He answered when I asked about his past. “Served in the Marines, then was a police officer in NYC for twenty years. Only three complaints in all that time, and two of ’em were drug-addicted wife-beatin’ pieces of sh*t.”
I didn’t ask about the third.
Reaching the Next Level in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Jiu Jitsu drew from indiscriminate lots, I found myself regularly training with men from all walks of life. Age, income, religion, and even politics were set aside before stepping upon the great equalizing mats.
The monotony I hoped to escape found me all the same, as even a novel activity can become mundane after months. Warm-ups consist of drilling fundamental motions like hip escapes, standing up (more complicated than you might believe with a hostile opponent harassing you) and shoulder rolls.
Once everyone is loose, the professor then performs the move of the day upon a student (affectionately dubbed the uke, a borrowed Japanese turn that essentially means training dummy). Students look on with faces of steely determination or lost fascination, we all attempt to clap simultaneously, and then break into pairs to attempt to emulate the move. The instructors and more experienced practitioners rove the room to correct mistakes and give tips. When they’ve seen enough, the floor opens up to general sparring, otherwise known as “rolling”.
This is the steak that motivates everyone to finish the salad of warm-ups and drilling for. Sparring with an equally matched opponent scratches an itch conventional society has all but stamped out of its adults. While children are allowed to rough house to their heart’s content, somewhere in their twenties, most adults are shuffled to bland calisthenics and weightlifting programs to maintain their fading figures.
In Jiu Jitsu though, this leash is laxened. Participants are given license to actually try, to fully exert themselves in something partially cerebral but quite primal as well.
I’ll never forget sparring with Rey on those old, rank mats in the gym. Typically, matches begin with both opponents standing, but Rey often began in a fetal position just because he could. Even with him spotting me every possible advantage, he’d still end up in a dominant position whenever he chose to act.
Afterwards, he playfully pointed out what I did well and where I should improve.
“I thought I had you there,” I’d gasped. “Felt like I had a window to reverse it, for half a second”
“Ah, that’s the beauty of this game, isn’t it?” He’d slap my back with one of those frying pan hands. “There’s this moment in every roll, where you can feel not just your own weight and body, but that of your opponent’s. Everything hangs in the balance there about how the rest will go. If you can sniff that already, good on ya. Being able to do something about it will come later. Just keep showing up, kid!”
Which is what I did. Two years later, I received my blue belt, the second of five belts in the hierarchy, culminating in the almighty black belt. More than the belt, though, I gained a north star. One has shaped and balanced my life for the better.
Why do I work out and watch what I eat? It’s not just for vanity and to maintain my delicate figure, but so I might have a conditioning edge on whoever I face on the mats next.
Why don’t I smoke? Well, because it’ll kill me in the long-term, of course, but also in the short-term, so I quite like being able to actually breathe when my neck literally is on the line.
Why do I train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? Something that almost certainly will lead to injury someday, where I pay for the pleasure of having a stranger’s sweat pour all over me, and I’ll never be more than an amateur hobbyist who simply shows up and does his best?
Well, that’s simple.
Because bruises heal. Bitter defeats and sweet successes fade.
After it all, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu just makes me happy.
“Brian O’Dea is a blue belt in BJJ and yoga teacher who enjoys using his extra bendiness to annoy opponents.
He believes in the sanctity of pressure passing and that eating dark chocolate with crunchy peanut butter is a peak human experience.