Sort of. I should explain.
I’m of the strong opinion that at least once a year you should take on a physical challenge that seems impossibly hard. Running a marathon is the classic example. But I’ve run several, now, so last year I got stumped for my next ball-buster until I finally settled on Brazilian jiujitsu.
Jesus, Mary, & Joseph. I wanted a ball-buster and I got a ball-buster. In the five months since I started I’ve been getting smashed by strangers in literal five-minute fights1 twenty or more times a week. I go home bruised and lumpy. I’ve had a black eye and a dislocated thumb. There have been times when after class I’ve had to sit in my van in the parking lot and quite literally rest my forehead on the wheel and do nothing else except breathe until the fog clears enough for me to drive home.
It’s great fun. Seriously.
Hang on. Fun? What? Have all those chokes and all that oxygen depletion softened your BRAIN?
I don’t know. It was already pretty soft to begin with. But despite what I’ve just said, you might be surprised to hear BJJ called the “gentle art.” It’s all about the techniques of subduing an attacker through chokes, joint locks, etc. You essentially make your opponent realize that he’s in great danger of, say, having his shoulder torn out of its socket. And if he doesn’t submit, you incapacitate him by doing exactly that.
These techniques mean that size and strength are factors in a fight, but not the deciding factors in a fight. With enough training a smaller and weaker person can easily subdue a bigger and stronger person.2
But BJJ offers many more benefits than self-defense. For one, you learn a great deal of humility. Picture a sixteen year-old kid who’s half your size taking you down to the ground and strangling you with his legs until you surrender–despite your every effort to fight back. You’ll think: What is this devil-magic? I want some.
The more important benefit of BJJ, or at least to me, is its culture of respect. I don’t know how to explain it, really, except with a story.
I think I’m the only white belt who’s ever beaten a black belt in a regional grappling tournament. Kind of.
I’m in Nashville, TN, on March 23rd. My first competition. I’ve only been training for five months. I’m supposed to compete in age 40-49/beginner/lightweight/no-gi.3 Uncommon division.
Both my opponents are no-shows. I wait around until late in the day, but the tournament’s administration people can’t find any alternates and finally start talking refund.
I don’t let on, but I’m pissed. I hope the no-show guys are OK, of course, but I’m disappointed and I’m feeling disrespected. I work my ass off both on and off the mat, I had to cut weight for this, I paid the entry fee and got a hotel room, and I want to FIGHT, dammit. I’d much rather lose than win by forfeit.
So I tell the fight-scheduling guy to bring me the biggest black belt they’ve got. We’ll call it an exhibition match. He can submit me fifty times if he wants. I don’t care.
The guy gets this interested smile and says, yeah, we might have somebody. He goes on the radio and calls someone who let’s call Kenobi. I have no idea who Kenobi is, but Kenobi says sure, I’ll roll him.
I show up at the mat. Kenobi’s there. Keep in mind that I’m telling you about him from the best of my recollection, but it turns out that he’s a seventy-three year-old black belt who trains out of a Gracie school4 in either New York or Jersey. We spend a couple of minutes getting acquainted, and he’s AWESOME. Loves the sport. Started later in life and still trains a couple of times a week.
We hit the mat and it’s slap hands, bump fists, & go. But somehow in the takedown I come down quasi-controlling him from the side, and the rest of the match becomes me trying to work on his arms and neck and otherwise score points.
Kenobi is SOLID. He could’ve escaped whenever he wanted and he almost submits me three times. Once by arm triangle (a choke) and twice by straight ankle lock (a joint stretch.) But he’s leaving me space and such to escape, so it’s clear to me he’s chosen to fight me like a white belt would fight me. I feel like that at any moment he could’ve choked me to bejeezus.
At one point I look up at my coach and realize the entire area around our mat is thick with people watching and videoing. Somebody told me later it was the match of the day, but who knows.
At any rate, the ref calls time and I’m up four points. He raises my arm, I get the gold medal, etc. Laughs and hugs all around.
Kenobi and I spend a little time together afterwards. Remember that I’m forty-nine. I ask him for longevity advice and he talks about focusing on technique, training smart, recognizing your limitations, etc. But the main thing he keeps expressing is his love of the art.
And that’s the story. Our fight was 100% about fun and sportsmanship, not any kind of conquest or “VICTORY IS MINE!” or anything like that. It was an artistic moment I felt totally honored to have participated in. Would’ve been nice to beat guys at my level, but I learned so much and I’m happy that’s how things worked out.
A few of the many lessons I learned.
- Here’s something weird about being middle-aged: I lack for mentors. The guys who counseled me when I was fresh out of college are all dead. And I don’t really have a “wise old man” in my life I can ask for perspective. So I seize onto these opportunities when they come along.
- Besides my professor,5 who’s my age, my BJJ mentor in the gym is a purple belt in his mid-twenties. He’s taught me so much.
- Younger guys in the gym are starting to ask me for life advice. Relationships and finances and careers, etc. So maybe I’m becoming a mentor to them? That’s hard to accept because I don’t feel “old” and I don’t want to be thought of that way. Another lesson in humility, I guess.
Well. The guys in the gym are never gonna let me hear the end of this, of course. I now have a nickname: “Black Belt Killer.” I’m, like, whatever. It’s a good story and I guess I’ll be telling it for the rest of my life. And go figure, it’s earned me just a little respect.
“The beatings will continue until morale improves.” Yup. That’s how BJJ seems to work.
- Which, please understand, don’t involve striking or edged weapons or eye-gouging or whatnot, and which I’m free to end at any moment by tapping out. In BJJ the tap is SACRED. Failing to release an opponent the instant he/she taps can permanently injure them and get you kicked out of a gym.
- As a kid who got bullied in school I find that infinitely appealing. It’s not that I’m developing the ability to kill bullies with my bare hands; it’s that I’m developing the confidence not to want to. Which among other things shows how the strong anti-bullying movement that’s arisen in the last ten years or whatever is saving legions of kids from untold amounts of adult hangups. Trust me: I know. At forty-nine I’m still dealing with eighth grade. Which is bullshit, but true.
- A word of explanation. I’m 49, so 40-49 is my age bracket. Beginner means somebody with less than six months of training who’s never wrestled. A raw no-stripe white belt, in other words. Lightweight is from 150 to 159 pounds. A gi = karate pajamas. No-gi is much closer than gi to what a real street fight would be like because you’re wearing board shorts and a stretchy rash guard-type shirt. This outfit gives you what we in the south call “muffin top,” another important element of humility, or at least humiliation.
- The Gracie family–Brazilians, of course–are credited with developing BJJ from other martial arts in the early 1900s. If you train at a Gracie school you’re close to BJJ’s source.
- I.e., the black belt who owns and runs my gym and trains us.