Brazilian Jiu-jitsu a Personal History

They’ve made a sequel to the Karate Kid. It’s really the only sequel that has any point to it. I haven’t seen it all, but if you were a fan of the original Karate Kid movies you’ll not only be tickled you’ll be a bit disturbed by the grimness of execution. There’s a lot of down-and-out portrayed. I’ll try not to give away any of the tale as it’s probably the most exciting thing to happen to the franchise ever, but it got me thinking about our dedication and our history. Many of you won’t know, nor care. After all, few stories about the self are of much interest to anyone who doesn’t know you! I’m a writer too, and I know that the last thing you’re supposed to write about is your boring ass life. Of course, it’s the thing we know best and even the great Kurt Vonnegut said, you don’t have to write about yourself, you’re going to anyway. And I’ve seen wanna be writers do some remarkably boring things and get recognition so there really are no rules.

Years ago I was an acolyte. I was a young fat kid with a desire to be Bruce Lee. There really wasn’t anyone else in those days that was more of a flagship for martial arts. This would have been about 1978 and I was a mere teen hoping my gawkiness and pimply face would be ignored once I was throwing the finest side thrust kicks the world had ever seen. I worshiped the guys who were teaching us, my brother and myself, and I wanted desperately to be just like them, heroes as I saw it. For some reason, it’s hard to see clearly when you’re in those circumstances. The rose-colored glasses eliminate the true dinginess of that original dojo we trained at, on fragments of carpets no less! Senseis Bob and Bob were men, plain and simple. They spent hours every week earning just enough money to keep the place going and teaching us rural dolts how to do blocks and knife defenses and side thrust kicks. It never occurred to me how little they earned. It never occurred to me how else they could have been spending their time. There were good and bad things about all of it, of course, as is the case with most things. My hero worship was too thorough, and it was a kind of pervasive part of the study. Sensei Bob—the founder—was treated with the kind of reverence generally reserved for cult leaders. It was a tiny cult, but it was definitely a sort of personality dominance. My brother and I would argue about how awesome he was, each topping the other in our strange desire to be the most devout. There were other kids there too, and we built relationships with them as well. Later, having been from the “old dojo” became a sign of credibility. By the time I was getting my brown belt, at seventeen, in the early 80s, we’d moved the dojo up the street to a former furniture repair shop. My dad, also one of the devout, spent a lot of his time, money, and expertise upfitting that building for our use.

In those days we stood in lines and threw punches and kicks as the instructor yelled “Move!”, after calling out what he wanted. We sweated and our legs ached. We did a lot of what turned out to be very standard self-defense material mostly, it appeared later, garnered from standard American Karate systems of which our Sensei Bob had been a black belt in. He kept his true background a bit of a mystery. There were stories, but they were almost certainly apocryphal in retrospect as so many of the old school sensei stories tended to be shared. The old having to kick everyone in the bar, and step over the bodies, like the old “Coward of the County” song was a common one. We had hick pronunciations for everything. We said “oodee-ates” for the Japanese “Ude Ate”. We had common Judo throws mixed up, calling “Osoto Gari” the “Small Outside Clip” despite knowing the “O” prefix there meant big! When I dragged in a Judo book to dispute this the black belts shrugged and sneered at that “sport shit”. For a long time I accepted that everyone else was stupid. It took a long time for it to occur to me that I could not have been that lucky to have just happened upon the smartest and bestest martial arts group of people in the world! And they were just down the street from my house! I mean, imagine the odds!

Fast forward a few more years and I’m getting my black belt, becoming a sensei myself. We’d travel to NYC to do this, to take part in a big meeting of black belts from various styles. This too was a remarkable thing to my mind. Sensei Bob didn’t just pass out black belts he required a set of his peers to observe us. These peers were serious dudes, also possibly a bit crazy. One was a former prison warden who enjoyed telling stories about beating up prisoners. Another was a boisterous New Yorker who would scream at you across the room if your gi was untidy. In a demonstration he gave one day he argued it prudent to offer an assailant a blow job, as it might save your life (largely calculated to upset the macho crowd I’m sure). I passed my test. Some of the material was pretty rococo but I trusted that it was real, that it had validity, that my bullish strength (6’4” 250lbs) was not just forcing sloppiness into art. There are pictures somewhere, a series of old video stills of me with a large afro—looking something like a second-rate Rob Tyner from the MC5—doing knife defenses and lock-step punch, club, and other defense techniques to acquire my black belt, and none of it material I practice anymore. When I started Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, despite its many detractors and critics, everything I’d done before fell by the wayside, and I’ve never looked back.

french wrestler and ladyIllustration 1: Fighting Damsel applies an old-school armpit lock (Waki Gatame) on Maurice Tillet “The French Angel”.  Good luck with that!

I’ve spent some time trying to make the transition I went through in those days (early 1990s) into something I can easily relate so that I can show you what I’ve done, and that you can trust me when I say what we’re doing is the best you’re going to get. Even when the Gracie affiliated schools are largely teaching the Karate I started with and abandoned as useless. Why was it useless? I’ll explain. “Stand-up” styles, so-called because they’re largely based on the idea of subduing an opponent on their feet, are largely occupied with doing some strike damage to “soften up the bad-guy” and then apply some form of grappling finish. Usually an arm or wrist lock, but also possibly other holds such as chokes or leg holds. These holds seem very tidy and practical when you see them demonstrated as usually there are well practiced participants in the demonstration who have learned through hard-knocks how to make the defense and subsequent submission look spectacular. The reality is much different however. Hitting people has unexpected consequences. Firstly you’re attempting to hit people, people move and react. They don’t stand in place and let you pick your targets. Secondly, no one hits as hard as they think they can. There’s a great Onion joke about how guys overestimate their ability to fight by 6000%. And that’s talking about people of similar size. When we really get down to the job, aren’t we trying to use a science to subdue a larger, stronger opponent? I was good at my stand-up almost certainly because I was big. As soon as I ran into people who were as big or at least as strong as I was the material fell apart. You couldn’t expect to put a person on the ground by controlling a wrist or with a singular hip toss attempt. People hate falling down. They rarely do so easily. In Judo you attempt multiple throws in dizzying combinations to get your opponent down. In boxing you throw multitudes of well practiced combinations in hopes of landing a strike. In stand-up self-defense we did one move in lock-step form for a particular defense. If it failed, and unless you were trained to take the fall, it was likely to, our response was a kind of panic stricken kick or punch. There was no comfort in the thought of skills. Our art, as many do, relied heavily on theory. The theory of what happens when you hit someone, the theory of where they’ll be after you rack them in the batteries. It was untestable, we thought, because we couldn’t go full power on our fellow students and so our confidence relied on the stories we’d been told of how Sensei had fought his way out of a bar.

me with old gang in bostonIllustration 2: Me in the blue top behind Kenny Florian joking with Patric Barbeiri. Training partners of mine in the 90s.

Enter the Anaconda. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu was surprisingly slow. My first times playing with it, I was surprised at two things. One, how easily the blue belt I played with at Craig Kukuk’s tiny academy, located in a Redbank, NJ mall, was able to trounce me. And two, how despite knowing what he was up to and seeing the creeping inevitability of the eventual hold-down, there wasn’t a damned thing I could do to stop it. Everyone who’s done BJJ knows this beginner’s tale of helplessness. It was the first time in my life I’d felt wholly without a hope of getting free. There wasn’t a kick or a punch or a bite I could have executed that would have solved that grappling dilemma. My years of youthful confidence in having the bestest art in the world weren’t just undermined, they evaporated. Within months my brother and I discovered VHS training tapes, Mundial fights from Brazil, and best of all Roberto Maia up in Boston. We talked about wishing we could trade ten years of our conventional training for just two or three of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. No joke. We discussed that very seriously.

The old timers knew the theoretical martial arts weren’t going to work. Jigoro Kano, the creator of Judo, included the “sporting” aspect of Judo, which, despite my old karate friends being disgusted with it, was actually an important training tool. It’s possibly the most important training tool. When his Judo school later beat the other Jiu-jitsu academies of the 1880s Japan to be the official training of the Tokyo police, it was largely due to this sport type of training called in Japanese, randori. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is effective in large part because of this training. The free training, rolling, or randori allows us to get used to a fighting body against us. It makes us able to get sensitive to balance and intent, and counter those dynamics on the fly. No more theory, no more lock-step requirements. You learn a move, you then try to apply it in the practice. That’s not sport, that is practical training for real fighting.

So here we are nearly thirty years later, squeezing the fight out of one another in exactly the same manner we did in those days, the Portuguese terms (mata leon, de la Riva, Omo plata) as natural to us as English, the fighter names we admired so from Gurgel to Ribeiro from Minotauro to Roleta are part of our nervous system, we gray bearded old timers shake our heads at the kids. You’ll never get it! You don’t know how we had to work, travel, and scrape to get what’s basically right on your front porch now.

In a grocery store some weeks ago I saw some young woman staring around like she were lost, but I soon understood–on the phone. She was vigorously giving a pep talk to somebody. You are so good, she enthused, you’re gonna beat him! She got behind me in line and I chuckled to myself with the way these kids today have no fear about having personal conversations right in front of strangers in public places. Then I heard her friend on the little speaker, “Oh my god, this guy’s open guard is sick!” I was stunned that this was a BJJ conversation! And since I was standing there wearing my gym’s shirt which is called Open Guard I turned away from her. She went back into her litany of encouragement, I paid the cashier and got out of the store. That’s where it’s reached now, our art, our passion, it’s trickled down to the level of “sick” and mindless soccer competitions. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not to my taste.

It’s not a religion. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu like it’s sister art Judo, is huge and thorough. You’ll never be good at everything. But you will be good at enough of it to make yourself effective (if you train it seriously that is!). And when we find things that work that we didn’t know before, we put them in! That’s all there is to it. If there was something better don’t you think we’d have found out by now?

So there you go, it’s yours, you’re welcome! See you on the mat!

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