I have always avoided physical confrontation. Throughout my life I’ve repeatedly concluded to myself that I’m not a fighter. Perhaps for no particular reason other than I’m just not a particularly big guy. Or maybe it was the contrast between myself and my friends; Growing up, my closest circle of friends were in a word- bad asses. They were football players. They were big, athletic, muscular dudes. On many occasions I had watched them fight without hesitation and beat the brakes off of whoever had the bad idea to challenge them. We grew up in a rural area, and fighting was a fairly common activity. Rarely a week went by without someone I knew landing in an altercation. Yet I always seemed to find some other way around fighting, no matter how much someone was trying to draw me in. As much as I’d like to say I did this because I placed value in taking the high road, the truth of it is that I was afraid to fight.
In spite of my lifelong propensity for avoiding physical conflict, I found myself walking into a bjj academy at the age of 33. Though I was quite unsure about what the hell I was getting myself into, I had watched the early UFC fights and knew that jiu jitsu was a super effective martial art with a somewhat supernatural reputation for giving smaller fighters mystical abilities to concur stronger and larger opponents.
I remember my first class was a combination of confusion and exhaustion. Such a class description held accurate for not only my first class, but my first weeks and months. Slowly, I came to understand that jiu jitsu is a grappling art. It teaches it’s students that all fights begin standing up, and most end on the ground. The emphasis of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is to show various techniques that allow us safely (as safe as possible) engage a standing aggressor in order to take the fight directly to the ground. The logic behind it is this: If I can effectively control and take a person to the ground, I can negate their size and striking advantages. The body mechanics of a powerful striker are maximized when standing upright, with feet stable and anchored to the floor; in this manner one can leverage the full force of the body behind a punch. All one has to do is to try and throw a punch while lying flat on their back in order to realize that its a severely handicapped position for striking. The disparity between these two positions: punching while standing vs flat on your back, provide the frame work for positional hierarchy in a fight. Simply put: there are some positions that are more likely to result in winning the fight and some that are more likely for to lose. Jiu jitsu teaches how to move safely, and incrementally through this hierarchy. Beginning from a standing position called “the free movement phase”, we learn to connect and execute a controlled takedown to the ground, and then to move through various positions called “guard”, “side mount” or “side control”, with the end goal being to transition into positions with the highest percentages of winning fights. Two of the most effective positions are called “full mount” in which your opponent is flat on their back and you are seated with knees on the floor and straddled across their chest; a powerful position for landing punches. The most devastating position is “back control”. Every predator in the wild kingdom recognizes the advantages of attacking from behind an opponent, and humans are no different as our backs offer an anatomical weak point that we cannot defend once controlled. The difference however is that most untrained humans prefer to resolve conflicts by standing face to face like horned sheep, ramming their fist into each other’s faces. Jiu jitsu offers a technical alternative, and most BJJ techniques and strategies revolve around taking the back of an opponent. Additionally, at any point during the positional navigation, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner could end the fight with one of literally a thousand submission holds. Every limb is susceptible to various joint locks and every position leads to some method of strangulation, many of such even include using your opponents clothes to do so. As of today I have been unwillingly strangled by my own clothes so many times that I’ve lost count.
The first time I sparring with a skilled BJJ partner I was controlled and repeatedly submitted in in such an effortless and precise way that it appeared, by every measure of my senses, to be nothing short of black magic or wizardry. Time and time again, over and over, I was placed in submission holds as if I were a tiny child trying to resist being buckled into my car seat. Despite being handled like an infant, and despite being shown techniques I didn’t fully understand and could hardly replicate, I did not find jiu jitsu discouraging. Rather, I found it inspiring. My training partners had something that I did not, and it didn’t appear to be strength or size, or agility. They demonstrated my deficit during every sparring session or “roll” as it is called in BJJ. Actually, many of the men and women who could dismantle me on the mats appeared to be less fit than me. What they had was knowledge and that was the source of my inspiration: I wanted to know what they knew. And so I kept on showing up. Everyday I would arrive at jiu jitsu class, bow onto the mats and try very desperately to suck less than the day before. Part of what facilitated my dedication was the atmosphere and culture of my jiu jitsu academy. It seemed like everyone sincerely wanted to help me learn. Like we were all on the same journey to grow in the art. Later I would learn this is common culture in the BJJ community. Every student, no matter the rank or experience level, remembers what it was like to be brand new on the jiu jitsu mats, and the general trend is that most people are eager to help new students. There seems to be something psychologically satisfying about teaching and sharing one’s passion with another. Even being a few months or a year into learning the art of jiu jitsu puts one in a brand new position of having knowledge to share with a newer student, and it’s rewarding to be on the giving end of this arrangement for a change. As a result of this BJJ culture, everyone was incredibly helpful in sharing pointers to help me improve, and offering corrections when mistakes were made.
Part of the effectiveness attributed to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is due to the unique ability to train it with 100% live energy. It is unlike other martial arts, especially striking arts, like boxing or kick boxing, where one must pull punches or risk seriously injuring a training partner. One cannot head kick, right cross, or elbow their sparring partners with the same force that would be used in actual combat, and therefore there is always some element of assumption about what will happen IF they were to apply the techniques with 100% force to an opponent resisting 100%. BJJ however, allows practitioners to recreate the sparring sessions with realistic intensity most similar to an actual fight. Since the focus is not on striking, but rather on the positional control that would maximize striking effectiveness, (as well as joint locks and strangulation), persons sparring can experience the full resistance of a real fight and simply “tap out” at any point without risking injury. Because of the tap out dynamic described above, BJJ is known as “The Gentle Art”. I must admit that it is slightly odd to simulate murder and limb breaking and call it a gentle art, but it is true that the injury rate for BJJ is considerably less than other combat arts, including wresting, judo and mma. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the BJJ culture was indeed the gentle, friendly nature of the training. To clarify, I don’t mean that BJJ isn’t physically demanding and I don’t mean “gentle” as if to say it’s easy. It’s actually very physical, it often hurts, and very few things about learning it are easy. What I do mean is that there is a universal sense of compassion and care for each other’s well-being. Sure, we’re pushing each other, and trying hard to strangle and submit one another, but the goal in training isn’t to actually break arms and strangle unconscious; the goal is to force my trainging partner to tap out. I would be mortified if I broke someone’s arm in training. As you become familiar with various submission holds, the instructors and your training partners help you will learn recognize when you have been caught in one, it then becomes very easy to tap out before any pain or joint damage occurs.
Measuring your own progress in jiu jitsu is often difficult. Especially when all of your training partners are getting better too. Initially however, there is such a deficit of knowledge that it’s fairly easy to notice that you are acquiring a new skill. But after about a year of training you might feel like there’s no clear path forward. It’s not uncommon to feel like your progress has stalled, sometimes people even feel like they are getting worse at Jiu Jitsu because the training partners they used to be able to submit are now giving them difficulty in sparring. Everyone goes through this phase, but the first time I experienced a plateau in development was the hardest. Then, we had some new students sign up at our academy. I had been working with the same training partners for months and months so I was excited to share things I had learned. When it came time to spare, I was amazed at how easily I was able to control and submit the newer students. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. It’s situations like that when you get a unique opportunity to measure your growth. With only 1 year of training, unbeknownst to me, I had acquired enough to skills to easily handle myself against larger, untrained new students. This wasn’t about ego, I didn’t take pride in being able to exploit their ignorance in grappling. It was just the first time I had an opportunity to truly observe the disparity between what a year of grappling and BJJ knowledge can do against someone who had no knowledge. And it was true, the knowledge I had gained was more important than the size difference. It didn’t matter that this new student was muscular, and heavier or younger. The knowledge was more important. It almost felt unfair, as I said previously: like I was exploiting their ignorance. They made so many mistakes that it was easy to lead them to exhaustion or submission. And I remembered how it felt when I was brand new, I remebered how knowledge had appeared to me like black magic, and now here I was standing on the other side of this very same awe, and there was nothing magic. It was just some basic knowledge and a few well practiced techniques.
The beauty of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is that there is no bottom to the well of grappling knowledge. The art is in a constant state of growth and evolution with new techniques being discovered endlessly, both improving and refining the most efficient was to accomplish goals in grappling. The landscape of grappling knowledge seems to have no horizon. The result is that no matter how long you have been training, you will always be able to stand on both sides of awe. You will always be in a position, no matter how good you are, where you can witness that appearance magic in someone who has more knowledge, and five minutes later feel that simple exploitation of ignorance when you roll with someone less skilled. This effect is continues indefinitely. Some people will develop a great depth of understanding in one position, while still working hard to remove deficits in other positions. There is no such thing as a complete knowledge of grappling, even the world champions continue to learn, and will likely find their championships usurped every few years by more skilled rivals. I recently had the great privilege of attending a BJJ seminar with over 80 black belts from around the world. World champions and lifelong practitioners alike on the mats, sharing techniques and passing knowledge. I could see the excitement, that very same excitement that was on my face when I learned my first technique, was still on the faces of all these legends. They had the same enthusiasm to teach and learn techniques that I see on brand new white belts.
Since beginning my journey into Jiu Jitsu I have learned so much. Not just about grappling, but about myself; about what I can handle and what I can accomplish if I work hard. I’ve learned to relax and breath even when I’m being smashed and the pressure to quit is high. The metaphors about BJJ and life are numerous. Learning to deal with the pressures and challenges on the mats are helpful to overcome the challenges and pressure in life. And because of this I see so many stories about how BJJ changed someone’s life for the better. Jiu Jitsu is my life now. I hope to learn and grow in this art for as long as I live.