The theme of the white belt is survival, nothing more and nothing less.
I never began jiu-jitsu at the age of 43 with the idea of competing. I began my journey as a way to rebuild my body, as a practical hobby with self-defense applications, and a way to make a few casual friends in the big city of Toronto. Plus, there was lots of cool clothes that go along with the BJJ lifestyle. I was willing to give it a try for a year and see what happened. Jiu-jitsu was nothing like I imagined and the rabbit hole presented itself rather quickly.
I am not a fighter. I have actually done everything I can to avoid physical confrontation. Martial arts were cool because they were an art that you practiced while alone on a mountain in the snow. Ninja and Bruce Lee filled the dreams of my generation’s imagination. However, I, like most males on the planet, somehow believed that if a physical encounter ever happened that my two months of karate, three months of judo and four hours of tai chi would easily defeat my opponent and leave me looking really cool. After my first roll with Fabien Hamdani, a smaller and faster blue belt, I realized that I had absolutely nothing that would protect me against little children and smaller adults…and he simply let me try things before easily crushing me. I was out of breath and exhausted. I was not a fighter.
Ten months have passed since I joined the Toronto No Gi team. In that time I have truly struggled, been pushed beyond what I ever thought I could do, and then shown what I actually have to do. In many ways, it is exactly like the sci-fi film, The Matrix: I have taken the blue pill and now I see how the world really is and how it really can be for me in the future. While I have faced a great many impossible mountains in my life (learning to play jazz bass, learning to cook, becoming a professional photographer, finding my teaching job), I was always able to succeed rather quickly by working hard and immersing myself in the concepts of the task at hand. Jiu-jitsu has no bottom. There will never be a time when “I got it” and can move on to learning something else. I soon realized that I either walk away from the practice or I give my life’s spare time to its study.
I will never be a superstar competitor in this sport. I simply do not have the years left in my lifespan to progress to a competitive level. I may progress through the belt levels over time, but even that seems less important than the act of practicing jiu-jitsu and the act of defeating my ego which tells me that I should go home because it is all too impossible. What I do is practice and enjoy the moment.
Competition. When the GTA BJJ Classic Tournament appeared on a friend’s Facebook feed last week, I felt compelled to look at the divisions and format. Inexplicably, I mentioned to my wife that it would be cool to compete in a tournament before we have our baby in November, but that there was no way I could get ready in six days AND it was a Gi-only tournament, so that would be way beyond my wheelhouse. I hummed and hawed. My wife pointed out that I had trained all summer in a Gi uniform and that really what could go wrong. That is when it crept out of the darkness: fear. I knew what could wrong, and I did not want to seriously tear more muscles, have a broken arm or end up unconscious. I knew this because I felt the difference between sparring and fighting when I participated in an in-house tournament to help provide data to some really cool NeoJits analytics software. I had hurt for a few days and I had suddenly realized what real force was behind the people in my gym. Even the thought of actually competing in another competition sent shivers down my spine and a a weight on my chest.
I did what any reasonable person should do. I asked my coach if I could take a private lesson and see whether he thought I might be even close to ready for such a challenge. I showed him the position that I was able to hold throughout the summer, quarter guard, and we worked through what I could do from there. We talked about the other clear challenges with my lack of live-tested takedowns and that the competition was in a Gi. By the end of the lesson, it was pretty obvious that I was not truly ready. I came home and I directly signed up in the Male/White Belt/Medium Heavy/Seniors 40+ Division. In my heart I knew that my coach was right, but I also knew that he did not say I could not and that after my last tournament attempt he would have. He left it up to me, and I chose to take a risk.
I had two days left before the competition. I chose not to go to class, but rather run with my school cross-country team and to study how to defend against a few specific loop chokes that another instructor warned me about. I needed to move beyond my fears, and the only way to do that was to experience the self-doubt, the hopelessness, the bad dreams, the tense muscles, the attempt to make myself angry and intimidating…all of which led me to the same place: acceptance. I accepted that I was facing for what might be the hardest part of my jiu-jitsu journey yet. I accepted this to be truth, and it was.
The vibe at the tournament was frantic, but then also calm. I had no idea where to go. No one else from my team was there to compete as it was a Gi-Only event. I only knew a few rules. I put on my Gi, signed in and then interchangeably stretched and watched other competitors compete. I had a game plan, and I had what I wanted to accomplish before the buzzer rang. My goal was to not be submitted by my opponent. My focus was to control my opponent. My dream was to make the podium. My game plan was to look for a takedown or accept that he would find one, but that I needed to experience what that was like. If I could get on top then I would progress through side control to mount and attempt to tire my opponent out through pressure. If not, then I had to stay off my back, use my quarter guard for control and look for an escape as he became frustrated and moved to the next position.
My opponent on this fine Saturday morning was my personal goliath. He had the physique of a body builder, the strength of an ox and there were either two or three stripes on his white belt. He wore a nice, but well-worn Shoyoroll Gi, and he moved with great confidence. When we met he jokingly asked why I had taken the stripes off my belt for the competition. And so we began…
I knew I could not match his strength. He simply outclassed me as a physical specimen and he easily perceived this. I knew that I was not going to catch him with the judo I learned in Grade 6. I took my coach’s advice and stuck to what I knew, which was accept the takedown, sprawl and aim for closed guard. When he hit me it was with the force of a rugby player and he hit perfectly, but I did what I had to and looking back I am shocked that I walked away from this match unbroken. I found an overhook as he smashed forward and closed my guard. From here I knew that the remainder of the four minutes would demand that I stay to my plan: I needed to survive and not submit despite the fact that he had a significant strength advantage that would allow him to force his techniques upon me. As he moved from closed guard to side control to knee on belly to mount to high mount to back to s mount, I kept my composure and defended the chokes and submission attempts perfectly. I had a few escape attempts, but my sweep was immediately reversed. I was simply out-classed from above.But…I held on and then caught him in my quarter guard leaving him unable to move forward to to find any submission (especially the arm bar he wanted) that could defeat me before the five minute timer rang.
In the end, I had survived. I did not dominate anyone. I never even came close to a submission. I gave up 20 points as my opponent went from one position to another seeking a submission. But I did not submit. I survived. For all of the trolls and haters on social media, few have ever had to outlast anything more than a long wait at the Tim Horton’s drive-thru. Last night in UFC 203, CM Punk quickly lost to Mickey Gall. A great many fights are lost in the first few seconds. I lasted, was not submitted, and that was the greatest victory I could have hoped for yesterday. Unexpectedly, I was awarded the bronze because the first place winner submitted and injured the other participant. I earned my bronze medal not because I defeated anyone by points, but rather because I did not allow another man to injure or submit me, which I have come to learn is the true measure of combat and the value of jiu-jitsu.