Eating the Elephant – BJJ Year One

A number of years ago I watched an event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). By now there have been dozens if not hundreds of UFC matches. The brand is a global juggernaut. But in 1993, this was the very first outing of what would come to be elevated to the sport known as Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. While I had originally set out to write this essay on the topic of ‘what I’ve learned’ in this phase of my martial arts journey, let the record show that the first thing I’ve learned is that I’m actually old enough to refer casually to a martial arts tournament that is now twenty-three years old and that I watched on a VHS tape. Wow.

The rules were hazy: there was something about no biting or eye-gouging, everything else, it appeared, was on the table. There were no restrictions on styles, the event appeared designed to throw as many styles into collision as possible. Dumbfoundingly, there were no weight classes. The whole thing felt very hastily-rigged and danger prone. Unbridled injuries seemed inevitable.

Victory in the ring could be achieved in one of two ways: a knockout or submission. Submissions were typically achieved through a painful joint lock maneuver or oxygen deprivation. Yielding would be performed by “tapping out” or verbally giving up to the opponent. A referee would be in the octagonal cage, patented as “The Octagon”, to enforce these rules and ostensibly protect the fighters. Critically, the matches would occur in succession, meaning a winner would continue on to the next match, would very likely still be bearing the fatigue and injuries that the previous match had cost him.

It was chaos. I’m talking about Sumo wrestlers tossing Karate guys in a locked cage. Western Boxers trading blows with Kickboxers. Greco-Roman wrestlers versus Kung Fu. Street brawlers versus everyone. Total anarchy. And there was drama, upsets. For example, the 650-lb Sumo lost to some biker-looking Karate guy because the biker beat him into submission with his own visibly broken arm. These must have been the kind of hand-to-hand battles not seen since the Roman Coliseum. There were bloody faces, competitors spitting out teeth. Bedlam.

It’s important to note, this was amazing not least for the spectacle it provided, but because there was an academic, martial-science aspect to the proceedings that answered some of the oldest questions known to man: who would win in a fight? The boxer? The wrestler? (Probably the wrestler.) Does karate even work? (Yes!) Is Muay Thai everything they say? (Yes!) Is a black belt enough? (No!) Does the Title “Grand Master” necessarily mean you are any good? (No!) Many of these matches or combinations had just never been broadcast. Now, here it was.

And finally, the biggest question of all: given that we’ve found contenders from varied martial arts all over the world, what is the answer? Which is the most effective martial art?

The shock of shocks turned out to be not that one scraped its way to the winning spot but rather, the surprise was in how clear and unambiguously this question was answered. For its time, this question was resoundingly answered: the answer was, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it wasn’t close.

In 1993, few of us in the USA had heard of the Gracie family, now a globally recognized Brazilian martial arts dynasty. When they entered the arena, several brothers and cousins in white hoods walking hands-to-the-shoulders of the brother before them like a clan of warrior monks, the effect was one of intrigue. Who were these guys? They seemed to pass in order of size, biggest-to-smallest, so that the smallest one in the lead to which all hands pointed, Royce (pronounced ‘Hoyce’) was being presented to the Octagon like an offering. They seemed to know something that we didn’t know. Indeed, entering Royce, not even their heaviest or most accomplished guy, seemed to be a defiant gesture of its own. “You don’t need our best guys,” it said. Any one of us can win this thing.”

Their style was, to the eyes of the broader world, new and self-invented, though this wasn’t really true. It was an offshoot of one of the oldest Japanese Martial traditions, Jiu-Jitsu, which came from feudal Japan. The Gracie family professed to have mastered a reinterpretation of the style local to their country, so-called “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” or BJJ. In practice, it seemed to bear very little relation to the original Jiu-Jitsu, combining stand-up Judo with a kind of martial wrestling that focused on grappling from the ground to achieve arm- and leg-locks, holds, and painful submission techniques. One of BJJ’s signature positions, the Guard position, inverted the principle that the man on the bottom was losing, as BJJ practitioners seemed to dominate from the bottom, occasionally even submitting their opponents from had been considered, until then, a submissive position. The keys to this style appeared to be the BJJ practitioner’s ability to a) take their opponent to the ground, b) establish their dominance when on the ground, and c) their patience in achieving this goal. Once an opponent was taken down, however, the match looked a lot like a guy in a karate uniform struggling with a man-sized Anaconda. Valiant, sure, but the outcome isn’t in doubt. The only question is how long it’s going to go on.

Over several matches, Gracie dominated his category. While there were matchups for the history books up and down the card, Royce cooly drilled through his opposition, making his way to the finals with an icy determination that made his ascendancy inevitable. Early on the question became, not ‘could he win’, but almost immediately, ‘who will be fighting Royce?’ Clearly, if he intended to stand and exchange punches and kicks, he would be destroyed, but this wasn’t his plan. Many times he took punches and kicks– some that would have KO’d any other fighter– but he was able to still establish the lock and take his opponent to the ground, where he could take all the time he needed, play his game. No one seemed to have the tactics available that would stall his assault.

This was a signal moment in the history of the martial arts. For historical and geographical reasons, most styles had been constrained to fighting other people from the same style or nearby styles for hundreds of years. While there were inter-style tournaments, these were few and far between, and the early-90’s was still in many ways a pre-Internet era. There is also an uncanny effect when one trains with partners of the same style, in which they start to move and operate alike. Having different styles in direct contest is both invigorating and can be psychologically quite dispiriting for the loser. One of these people really has learned a skill that works. And the other is at least made to feel as if they have wasted what is probably a considerable amount of time perfecting something that is demonstrably inefficient to its purpose.

It became apparent almost immediately that certain arts had flourished perhaps because they had never been challenged. Equally, that others (BJJ and Thai Kickboxing come to mind) have been through the crucible and within the rules of their practice, “just work.” One of the first outcomes of the Gracie dominance over the next few UFC contents was the merging of these winning styles into a composite: Greco-Roman wrestling, BJJ and Sambo for the ground, Dirty Boxing, Muay Thai and Western Boxing for stand-up striking. This became sanded down and optimized into what is known as modern Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, to which BJJ contributes a significant amount of DNA. (MMA isn’t a fixed category, and continues to incorporate material from all catalogs.) Accordingly, in this cross-pollination, the past 25 years have been as vibrant as any in the history of the martial arts.

The events I describe above are now part of the historical record, written about in a few books, told and retold in dojos the world over, available to see on youtube and in documentaries. The field has changed. Most arts have by now incorporated techniques to defend against the tactics used by Gracie; certainly, no serious contenders stand to be surprised by them anymore.

I should say that the UFC has long since instituted a series of sweeping changes intended to protect the fighters and their careers, such as weight classes, rounds, and banning a significant number of dangerous or unsporting moves. I’m not interested in competing in the UFC. I’m too old, I’ve got too much else going on. Still, the results seemed inarguable. Whatever it was the Brazilians were doing would now need to be studied by any serious martial artist. I and many others would need to get up to speed.


If you are interested in learning about what BJJ looks like when practiced, view this video.

All this to say, it was then that I knew I would come to train in this style, but I wouldn’t return to it for another 22 years.

***

I love to train, it’s how I go to the gym. For the last ten years I’ve been training near-continually if I wasn’t going to the gym instead, and like other athletes and martial artists, when I don’t, my life starts to fall apart at the edges. I’ve trained now in Kenpo Karate, Hapkido and Arnis, Western Boxing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, and Russian Systema for 5 years. I’ve sampled Sambo and (Japanese) Jiu-Jitsu. Ever since I saw Royce Gracie’s maneuvers in UFC 1, I knew I’d end up at least trying BJJ when the opportunity presented itself, but I had a lot of other arts that I wanted to investigate in the meantime; basics to be covered. What it meant to punch, kick, how to protect your head and body, gain loose hips and strong legs, what it meant to manage one’s breathing, take a hit. How to stand. Where to stand. How to move.

When I divorced, I spent the first year getting up early in the morning to visit my daughter and get her ready for preschool. By the time I arrived at her house at 7:30, I was coming from a 5am boxing class. I was running on fumes, reorganizing my life, bouncing from apartment to apartment and survived on credit. There were a lot of times I could have fallen down; in many ways, that boxing class was the only thing that held my life together when everything else was cracking. Yes, because of training I’ve saved myself from injury by falling or flipping the right way, yes, because of training I was able to fight off physical opponents, yes because of training I’ve been able to protect women from being assaulted on the subway. But that year, boxing saved my life. You must train as if your life depends on it, because sometimes it does, but probably not in the ways you think.

Over a year ago I joined a BJJ Club in Brooklyn. I was freelancing from a home office for the summer, and it looked like I’d be continuing that arrangement for the near future so I was able to attend a dojo that is not only in Brooklyn, but also, critically, close to my apartment. While this is a very trivial point and shouldn’t be the basis of how to choose a school, you want to make it as easy for yourself as possible, because you will start to get tired, comfortable, you’ll start to plateau, and you just want attending to be easy (class itself should not be easy, but getting in the door should be). Half of winning is in the architecture. Also, most of the arts I quit were due to changes in my life circumstances or geographic changes that made attending the school impractical, such as traveling overseas, moving or switching jobs.

When I joined, I resolved to follow the practice I learned when training martial arts that didn’t offer belts. That is, commit for a year, don’t question the course but just keep going, then take stock, review a year later and then check-in at intervals thereafter. Part of this is because without belts there was no way to know when you were leveling up, but also because belts are artificial, time is not, and finally because there is a built-in insecurity behind training in the martial arts. You’re never really sure this stuff ‘works’, and if you aren’t careful you can spook yourself into thinking that what you are doing is valueless and leave before you are actually qualified to assess what you’re doing.

Some suspension of disbelief is necessary. A lot of material that comes to us from previous generations is simply untested, a lot of it is suspect (e.g. knife defense) and some of it is, from a modern self-defense standpoint, kind of superfluous (e.g., forms, ancient weapons, etc). When I moved on to train in Systema, I conferred with previous instructors. While none had much opinion on Systema, citing mixed reviews, I was explicitly told, “Go to Renzo Gracie’s BJJ academy in NYC. While I can’t tell you about the other stuff, his is a system that works.”

Five years later I left Systema not least because I had reached a plateau, but also because given the amount of time I had put in, I simply should have been a better fighter. I wasn’t sure that what I was learning worked, and I became increasingly concerned that I was wasting my time. Having left that practice, I’m able to assess that 40-50%% of what I was learning there was very useful indeed, and another 50-60% was at best partially effective. To tighten up that 60% I would need instruction that wasn’t locally available, which meant I had hit a plateau. I started looking for other schools, that was when I tried boxing and came to BJJ a few years later.

In the case of BJJ, I needn’t have worried. The curriculum clearly works and is tested in stress situations every class.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my own martial arts since starting BJJ was a reduction in the amount of force, but a corresponding increase in the output or effect. Efficiency has improved.

Another element I was looking to change was to be able to rely on more technique and less strength in training. I never wanted to use strength in my martial arts, this is because, on the one hand, strength is momentary or illusory. You age, you get injured, you gain and lose weight. Part of the purpose of training in the art is knowing that you’ll grow old with it and that strength won’t always be there for you. But the other side is that mere strength and force are a reliable indicator that you are doing it wrong; you are inefficiently positioned, you should move to a position where less effort is demanded. You’re fooling yourself. Timing, precision, relaxation, are better goals. BJJ is great for developing these characteristics, and I’ve seen an improvement over the past fourteen months.

Correspondingly, strength’s little cousin, aggression, is also something that I thought I had mostly pushed out of my martial arts practice, which I was surprised to discover had returned when I started to practice BJJ. The working hypothesis is that this is because of BJJ’s proximity to wrestling, which trained a lot of aggression and explosive speed into my muscle memory, you just need this intensity to be able to step into the ring, let alone to win in a competition. This just had to be unlearned to allow a lot of the softer sensitivity-training to sink in. This is a tough one: once you start to get moving with somebody it becomes hard to not go for open moves that become apparent, and one must learn to suppress the competitive instinct in favor of opportunities for better movement, but it’s worth the effort because it allows your body to memorize the movements without the background noise of trying to ‘win’, and so significantly accelerates the learning process.

I haven’t escaped this, but I see it, I look for it, I try to work around it. Sometimes it creeps in as simply as feeling my own mortality, knowing I’m in an exercise class, and just wanting to really get the most out of this body, see what it can do and use the aggression as a way to push myself, and that’s great, but my long-term goals are softer. (So to anyone who I messed up while getting there, sorry.)

The times I’ve lost sight of this even for a moment– those are the moments in which I’ve injured myself, and this is mostly-but-not-just a coincidence. Tension, reliably, leads to injury. Twice this has happened, and both times put me out for multiple classes. Not a lesson my ankle, elbow, or knee need to relearn.

My confidence on the ground has gone up a good deal, and as a former wrestler, that’s a big thing to say. I feel like I know something about the shape of my partners’ bodies the way your feet know the stairs to your apartment, this hip will tend to be here, that joint should be there. I don’t need to search for these things as hard as I used to anymore, I can feel them by touch and see them with peripheral vision. This is clearly the product of practice, and I wasn’t able to do it when I walked in the door (unless I was standing up).

Earned.
Earned.

Most of all, the single facet of the practice most taken to heart is the way the dedication that BJJ demands translates. The school tracks white belts’ attendance with stripes in a way that is not canonical to most BJJ schools but to remind the student of their commitment and their progress. I can look at my white belt (now tinted dark gray from the mat) with nine red stripes and a few black stripes and know that this means there were ninety-odd occasions that I thought I had something else to do and still walked into the dojo and got my thing done. I didn’t see improvements as they happened, no single time was the one that got me over. But It’s proven that I can point myself at a goal that is well out of view and just keep coming at it. I can, as the saying goes, eat the elephant, bit by bit. This is the discipline that one needs to finish a novel, learn an instrument or to get that promotion. And this is a kind of discipline that is impossible to fake or come to unearned– you know you can do it because you know you can do it.

See you in a year.


Also published on Medium.