A few years ago I started doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Within the first few months, it shifted from a hobby to an obsession.
I got into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because I’ve always liked playing sports way more than I’ve liked watching them. I love watching UFC, but I don’t want to get punched in the face. BJJ, often listed as one of the foundational martial arts that a lot of fighters had and with a focus on grappling and choking rather than striking, seemed like a good option.
I went to a gym down the street from where I lived, and after one very brief introductory class I signed up for a six-month membership that included a Gi, the thick cotton jacket and pants that are worn for jiu-jitsu. My first lesson was to learn how to tie the belt. My second was to learn how to tap out when it hurt. Subsequent lessons involved counting to 20 in Portuguese, breaking guard, shrimping across the floor and putting someone in an armbar.
The place stunk like sweat. It was hot. There was a lot of synchronized yelling. There were a lot of exhausted looking people, backs against the wall as they held a water bottle in their hands. It was the look of absolute physical exhaustion, where their eyes are barely focused.
Classes generally follow the same format at all the different gyms I’ve trained at:
A fifteen-minute warm-up made of a combination of running laps, forward rolls, backwards rolls, crawling down the mats, push-ups and sit-ups.
Next, fifteen to thirty minutes focussing on a technique. The instructor will gather the students around, and slowly demonstrate a move a few times through. The students will then break out into pairs, and practice the motions, with no resistance. Depending on the move, the instructor will teach a few different variations or will break it down into a few different parts.
This is followed by specific training, where the groups practice the move that was just taught, but with resistance.
The final portion of class is sparring, or “rolling” in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu lingo. There's no striking involved, so you can go at almost 100%. Rounds are typically six minutes. If you're against someone a bit better than you, they might make you tap 2, 3, 4 or more times in those six minutes. You'll feel like you're drowning. If they're a lot better than you, they won't feel the need to make you actually tap and you'll feel even worse.
The first six months were about getting beaten up. About getting tapped out. About spraining fingers and toes. About learning how to move your body in ways you never thought you could. About having your body bent in ways you didn’t think possible.
After the first few weeks and months, you start to figure out how to actually use some of the technique you’ve learned. You don’t learn how to use them effectively, but you learn them. When you think of BJJ, you start talking to yourself in thebroken English of the Brazilian instructors. Guard becomes "gword." You forget to add an S to plural words.
You learn to focus on what the instructor is saying, and to then focus on repeating the actions he just showed you for 10 minutes. 20 minutes. 30 minutes sometimes. You’re in your mid 30s, but you still stand in line with everyone else, and run laps silently with every else, when you’re told. Even though it’s an individual sport, you’re still part of a team. You’re a member of the gym, and you respect the processes and people there.
Eventually, everything comes together and you feel like you're actually learning something. A series of movements sticks. You submit someone during the sparring portion of class.
My friend Claudio always says that you can’t just tell people you like watching UFC in casual conversation.
“Most people still think of it as human cockfighting,” he says. “It’s a bloodsport. You never know how your coworkers or people like that are going to react when you tell them you like watching two mostly-naked guys beat the shit out of each other.”
He also loves watching it as much as I do, though. And him and I talk about it all the time. In fact, we have an going conversation on Facebook with two other friends where we talk about nothing but mixed martial arts. We talk about upcoming fights. We talk about the fighters, their technique and their backgrounds. When we can, we watch the fights together in person.
The four of us have different lives, and live in different parts of the country and world, but it’s a way to stay in touch. An upcoming fight becomes a catalyst for other conversation, and with fights almost every week and fighter interviews or videos being released even more often, the four of us are in almost constant contact. A link will be shared. We’ll comment on it. Someone will say they’ll read it later, because they’re busy with something in their life. We’ll talk about their life, what’s happening, and we’ll joke around. But we always come back to talk about fighting.
We’re all fans of sports. We grew up watching and playing hockey and soccer. But to us, martial arts at it’s highest level is just the most pure form of athleticism. For those 3, or 5, 5-minute rounds the only factors are the two men (or women) on the mats and how ready they are for this moment. Sometimes it comes down to luck, a bad referee or skewed judging. But for the most part, it’s just those two athletes and the sweat they’ve left on the mats their entire lives.
If you’ve never watched a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu match and don’t know much about the sport, you’re probably not going to enjoy watching it.
Most people can instantly grasp the idea of boxing or karate, where the competitors are trying to strike each other and avoid the other’s fists and feet. Everyone has also watched enough “professional wrestling” or done enough juvenile wrestling to get that as well: knock the other guy down, pin his shoulders to the mat and you win.
BJJ is different, though. A big part of it is being able to defeat bigger or stronger opponents. And a big part of that means being able to fight off of your back, meaning you can’t tell who is winning by who is on top.
A match is typically one round between 4-20 minutes, depending on the rules of the event, and is won when one person is able tangle the other’s limbsor or lock-up one of their joints in such a way that they are forced to acknowledge defeat (or risk serious injury) by tapping on the other’s body.
An armbar, where an arm is forced into a position such that pressure is applied to bend it backwards against the elbow joint (with the attacker’s hip typically as the fulcrum) is one example of a submission. Gripping the lapel’s of your opponents Gi with crossed hands and squeezing is another type of submission. A kimura is a painful submission that involves using both arms to lever your opponents shoulder joint in such a way that it risks ligament tears.
Sport Jiu-Jitsu, governed by the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJFF) awards points to competitors for getting into advantageous positions throughout the match. Knocking your opponent to the floor, taking your opponents back, putting your knee on your opponents belly, and mounting your opponent are all worth points. At the highest level, these matches are exciting. The competitors move with explosive speed as they spin, roll, and turn to try and get a better position.
Submission-only Jiu-Jitsu does away with the points, and a win is only awarded when one competitor is able to submit the other. The high-level matches here sometimes look like they’re moving in slow motion. Neither competitor wants to give up an inch on the other. Grips become everything. In professional, submission-only tournaments there is typically a 65% draw rate. That means even after up to 20 minutes of fighting, two-thirds of all matches end without a clear winner.
The sport is further broken down between Gi and No-Gi categories. The gi is a bit like a karate uniform: baggy, draw-string pants made out of thick cotton, a sort of jacket, made out of woven cotton, and a belt to tie the jacket up. No-Gi jiu jitsu, sometimes also called just grappling, is typically done with just a pair of surf-style shorts and a tight t-shirt called a rash guard (for obvious reasons: there’s a lot of sweaty body-to-body contact).
All of this is to say that with all the human-pretzeling that occurs in a jiu jitsu match it’s often difficult for a first-time or amateur viewer to really understand what’s happening or who is winning in a match. After a few years, I’m still not entirely sure. Anything can happen, and it can happen super slowly or explosively fast.
I’m still fascinated with watching. I love seeing where the top-level guys put their hands, how they grip, what they do in certain positions. Everyone says that their favourite sport is like chess, and I never really understood that until I really got into watching grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I might not understand every that the top level players are doing, but I can appreciate the thinking and athleticism that occurs when they pull off something great.
The history (and reality) of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is slightly cultish.
The story goes that in the early 1900s, some judo enthusiasts left Japan to demonstrate their sport, and competed around the world against wrestlers and strongmen. They eventually passed on their knowledge to a number of Brazilians, notably the Gracie clan, who then adapted it to be more about ground-fighting.
The Gracies have taken this bit of history a bit further and in an effort to mythologize both their own family and their sport have created the concept of “Gracie Challenges.” Their view is that a true martial artist should always be ready for a fight, and should never back down from an opponent. They welcomed people from all over showing up at their gym, and frequently filmed the resulting fights.
(The truth could be a little bit more controversial, with rumours that challenges where someone from the Gracie clan was defeated were never made public, that the Gracie’s hand-picked their opponents or that even the UFC was set up as a way to popularize the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu due to mismatched fights in the favour of the Gracies).
Every BJJ gym I’ve been to around the world has the same portrait of Helio Gracie at the front of the mats: the one of him wearing a white Gi, sitting cross-legged in front of a sort of red flag with a black lighting bolt and a phrase in Brazilian Portuguese. Every class starts and ends with the teacher and the students all bowing to that portrait. Depending on the school, there might be two portraits to account for another member of the Gracie clan or the founder of judo.
Lineage is an important aspect of the sport: Only another black belt can bestow a black belt upon someone, and all black belts proudly trace their lineage back through to the founder of the sports. It’s a bit like the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon thing, but with jiu jitsu gyms and teachers instead of movies.
Dig deep enough into the history and politics of other sports, and you’ll find that they too probably resemble something like the hero-worship and byzantine
After the first year of training BJJ you notice your hands are a lot stronger. You’ve got strange calluses on your feet and fingers, and your knuckles are swollen. At least one of your fingers will be crooked from a break that didn’t heal properly.
Giving someone a hug becomes difficult and awkward, because you either give up an underhook and feel out of place or you go for it and what should be a normal social interaction becomes awkward. Sometimes you instinctively make the first few movements for a leg trip before realizing you’re on concrete and the other person is totally unprepared.
At some point, your ears might start to cauliflower. Mine started with a little bubble on my right ear. It was soft at first, then it hardened. It hurt to sleep on for a month or so. Nothing terrible, just a slight burning sensation. I got ear guards. I wore them most of the time. I forgot them once, the bubble got a bit bigger. I forgot my ear guards again. My left ear is starting to bubble a bit (from what I’ve read, some people are just more susceptible to it).
At this point you also realize that there are no shortcuts. Technique and athleticism are the only things that will get you anywhere in jiu jitsu. Some people are naturally athletic, other people can work at it, but everyone has to put in the hours on the mat to learn technique.
I’m about about 170 lbs, and consider myself to be in pretty good shape, but I’m often humbled by the technique of smaller people on the mats. You might have all the strength in the world, but when a girl who weighs 30 lbs less than you can still put you in a position where you have to tap out or risk having your arm broken you realize just how much technique and constant practice matter. At the same time, it feels pretty good to be able to defeat bigger, stronger guys who don’t have the same technique as you. And it feels amazing to roll against someone at the same skill level as you, where it truly becomes a game of physical chess.
It also makes me never want to fight anyone. Having seen just how unassuming most of the people I train with are has taught me not to judge anyone’s fighting ability for how they look. The biggest, strongest guy there will flail and tire out, putting himself into weak positions and setting himself up to lose. The guy with tattoos who has spent his weekend watching UFC replays has no idea how to actually move himself and will get tapped out quickly. The quiet guy who sets his glasses on the bench beside the mats will quickly and efficiently defeat everyone he rolls against.
Rolling on the mats at jiu jitsu is also a controlled experience: the walls and floor are padded, there’s an agreed upon set of rules that includes an agreed-upon signal to stop. Fighters stop and reposition themselves voluntarily if they get too close to the wall or too close to another pair.
I like to think that, if confronted with a situation that required jiu jitsu, I’d perform well. But there are just too many factors in the real world to know for sure. All I know is that I never really want to fight. The best thing to be would be to just avoid it.
Besides: it would suck to get hurt in some sort of bar altercation and to be unable to train.
When I lived in New Zealand I used to stop by a store called “Auckland Martial Arts Supplies.” It was tucked between a Japanese izakaya and a convenience store on one of the cities busiest streets, but you’d still probably miss it.
It was the kind of store that smelled like the old books displayed on the shelf, and which probably hadn’t changed since before the internet. It was all dark, varnished wood and display cases with shiny silver weapons. It was a guy in the back smoking a cigarette while he sewed patches onto shorts while a woman in the front wouldn’t say anything to you unless you asked for a certain size or a certain product.
There was a shelf of books detailing all the secrets of the different martial arts systems. They were the type of books with glossy covers and black and white photos throughout. Most of them probably weren’t even in print anymore.
It was a kind of store that lived in obscurity. Unless you were specifically going in to buy a gi, grappling shorts or some other sort of martial arts training equipment, you’d never stop in. Even then, it was probably easier to order stuff online.
It was a holdover from a different era, and had that same feel that a lot of martial arts gyms have, with their dusty trophies and worn tatami mats. In some ways, it’s a shrine to a different way of life. To exploring an arcane art, and not being sure of where it would take you.
I still wear the Gis that I bought at Auckland Martial Arts supplies. One is blue, one is white, and they're both completely blank except for a little patch sewn on the inside of the lapel. It's a bit of a nice little reminder of what it all means to me.
The first time I competed was in the New Zealand No-Gi Nationals. No-Gi means that instead of wearing the thick cotton jacket, pants and belt, you only wear a pair of grappling shorts and a tight shirt called a “rash guard” (for obvious reasons). You’re not allowed to grab onto the other guy’s clothing and after the first minute of fighting, after both competitors are sweaty, everything becomes really slippery.
5 days before the fight, I realized I was slightly over the weight limit for my division. I cut down my calorie intake dramatically. I drank water. I ate lot of fruit. I didn’t drink beer.
I couldn’t get a ride to the competition venue so I had to ride my bike the 15km. By the time I got there, I was a little bit tired. And hungry. And full of nervous energy.
Walking into the venue didn’t help. There were a hundred people watching the 8 different mats from the bleachers. There were dozens of athletic dudes wandering around. Some had arms in slings. Most looked tired and sweaty.
My division didn’t start for another hour so I sat in the bleachers and drank water. I ended up talking to another guy who was in my division. He had an image of askeleton hand holding a gun tattooed on the side of his neck on one side and the words “Fuck You” tattooed on the other side of his neck.
My nervous energy increased.
I lost my first match in 3 minutes by kimura. I was eliminated from the tournament. I was pretty happy that I didn’t have to go against the guy with the neck tattoos, even though he was also eliminated in his first match.
I competed again a few months later in a smaller competition. I won my first match on points, got a by in the second round, then lost by points in the final, and ended up finishing second.
A few months after that, I competed again. This time in a larger competition. I also went up a weight class, so I didn’t have to go through that week-long crash diet beforehand. I weighed in at 78kg. Most of my opponents weighed in at round 85kg, and had to cut a bit of weight to get there (that’s about a 15 pound difference).
Instead of it being single elimination, it was a round-robin, submission-only style of tournament. I won my first fight in 35 seconds by arm bar. I won the second by baseball choke. I lost the third by kimura. And I won my fourth fight by another choke.
I tried to play the same game plan every fight: get a strong guard, and go for a choke, triangle or arm bar. It wasn’t until that fourth fight that I really relaxed into it. I knew that my ankles were locked tightly around my opponent, and I knew that when I grabbed the lapel of his gi and heard his coaches yelling at him that I’d already won. I was breathing super calmly. Slow, measured yoga breaths. I was almost smiling when I watched him start to panic as I wrapped his lapel around the back of his neck with my left hand, grabbing onto it on the other side of his neck with my right hand. His face was going red, then white, as I tightened my grip. His coaches kept yelling. Then he tapped.
I didn’t know anyone at the venue. There were a few people from my gym walking around, but none of the guys I regularly trained with. I also didn’t really know anyone in town, so there was no one to cheer me on. When the referee raised my hand, I just looked up and closed my eyes. I was pretty much alone.
It was only a second place finish. But it was in a large tournament in a big city, and I’d competed in a heavier weight class. It was very personal podium moment.
I spent most of July training at the gym where I first started doing jiu-jitsu. Some of the faces were the same. The instructors remembered who I was, but not my name.
I went 4-5 times a week, and it was over 30 degrees celsius most days I went. Almost 40 when you factor the humidity. Gis were soaked through after just the warm-up, and we followed the 60 minute training/practice sessions with another 60 minutes of sparring. I feel like I spent the entire month dehydrating. I went to morning classes and lunch time classes. Every class I went to, I learned. I got a little bit better. But I was also humbled. The guys who can train for two hours in the middle of the day are the guys who take it seriously. They’re the ones who are there every day, focussing on the basics, Putting the work in. Leaving everything on the mats.
After a month, I still didn’t really know anyone’s names, and they probably didn’t know mine either. We’d introduced ourselves to each other the first time we sparred, but after that it didn’t matter. After that month, I knew them each by the way they moved, and what they’d taught me.
I’ve moved to a different city now, and one of the first things I did was find a new gym. It’s in a basement, and the huge blue space of mats is interrupted with dark wood pillars, part of the building’s original construction, and they match the dark wood of the beams across the ceiling.
When I walked in, I could tell it was a serious gym. You could sense it in the way the guys walked around. The way they moved on the mats. The way the classes and sparring sessions are run.
I plan on getting a bit more focussed on on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu over the next few months. This place is going to be my second home.