I only came to know myself, my true Self, when I began learning the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It is within the warfare between two evenly matched opponents that a man can begin to experience his abilities and his limits. After my performance in September’s GTA Classic event, I learned about both my strengths and my weaknesses, and I walked away with a plan to enact that would help me prepare for my next tournament in the far-distant future. One month later, I found myself on the mats at the Grappling Industries competition. I had not had the time to build the skills I knew I needed to be successful. Our baby girl is just a week or two away from being born, and I could not risk becoming injured. Whose brilliant idea was it to register in two divisions in two different weight classes when ninety percent of my training is in no gi jiu-jitsu?
And yet…here I was.
Despite all of these legitimate challenges, I decided to compete. I had believed that I would simply attend to photograph my teammates and support their efforts, but my crazy brother (a former member of the National gymnastics team) had to ruin my plans with one simple sentence: “You cannot win from the stands.” So there I stood on those mats, wearing a new blue kimono, because I spilled an entire liter of Launch Fuel on the white one I brought that morning; I was waiting for the referee to signal the beginning just as I would soon wait for him to signal the end.
I went into this competition to learn. I knew that my takedowns were abysmal, especially in the gi, and that my submissions depended on me making it to specific positions that I might not make it to before being swept by an equal-sized opponent. These obvious flaws did not arise from poor planning on my part, rather it was the fact that I have been unable to lift or squeeze either of my legs for the past six months from a groin injury where I tore my adductor muscles escaping a knee bar. During that time I had only focused on areas that I could improve without the full use of what had been my most powerful assets. I had only regained mobility two weeks prior to the tournament after two weeks off and a course of antibiotics.
I knew that my experience in the kimono was nowhere near the level of my opponents, but I also know that I love how grappling in the gi feels. I feel connected to tradition. I feel like I am wearing the armor of distant warriors whose ethos is revealed to me more every time I roll with partners on the hard mats. Winning was never my aspiration for this division; my purpose was to participate in the division’s combat and remain safely intact with all limbs and my spine functioning.
My first gi match was my best. My opponent had a similar physique and skill level, and I felt like there was a mutual respect for each other that transcended the hope that either of us would win the fight. We tested each other for five minutes. No submissions. My opponent held advantage for all of the round, and his jiu-jitsu defeated mine at that moment, but when we walked off the mats both of us held an admiration for the other. Both he and his coaches spoke positively about my strength, and while he bested me 6-0 in points, I had kept him 14 points away from my fight at the GTA Classic. It was a victory for me personally. The Big Country MMA team impressed me with their sportsmanship and positive approach to the game.
The next three matches were a blur. My weaknesses were magnified by my inexperience with gi grips and defending against choke attacks. Each of the next three opponents found a different attack to submit me: Ezekiel choke, Breadcutter choke, and one I still do not understand. I tapped when I was certain that I had no defense, and I took no risks with my safety. But I knew that these were weaknesses, and I now had a much better understanding of how those faults play out in a real match, especially against taller men who can create much more leverage with their limbs. I lost all four matches, BUT I WAS THERE.
The greatest gain from the competition was the sense of team that I experienced with the other combatants from Toronto No Gi that day. Eight others had shown up to compete in different divisions within the no gi area, and many of them have been instrumental in my learning and my weekly happiness at the gym. Watching them compete and by my contributing to their day through camaraderie, photography, offering up a shaker for sports drink, and even stretching hamstrings for a teammate…all of these moments gave me the sense of belonging, and belonging in the mega-city of Toronto is a rare sensation.
My day did not end there. I had a final three matches with another opponent from Big County MMA. This time I moved up to the 190-210 lb weight class in no gi. We both felt a great relief to finally meet an opponent of the same height. Weight divisions often create a disadvantage for short, heavy competitors. Reach and leverage advantages that we have both previously faced would finally become nullified. What followed was my best fighting experience to date. We fought three rounds of five minutes each without submissions. Each round was close and hard-fought. Spectators seemed excited about the battle between two lumbering monsters giving it their everything for the sake of the fight. The referee commented that he was enjoying watching the war and had wanted to just let the time run.
In the end, I lost the final match by two points, but I had also won my first match ever. We both walked away euphoric from the tight engagement, and I felt like I belonged out there. I was also awarded a silver medal. A pessimist might argue that I won nothing and merely received a silver medal for participating. A pessimist might comment on my inability to attack with flying armbars and triangles. A troll might declare that I was a loser. But those negative comments would never understand the value and honor of jiu-jitsu; those comments would be made because he had not seen the battle raging for 15 minutes and from a place of fear that he or she does not understand that true victory is achieved through survival, seeing one’s true Self, and by offering your opponent a positive, fair fight so that the next time you face him you both have found ways to value the next battle. I felt like I had earned my place, and I truly felt like a winning competitor.
What did I learn about myself? I will never be able to move like a spider or like a snake or in the manner of a lion. Those are not my jiu-jitsu spirit animals, even if they are those of my teammates. I watched each of them move to their own natural rhythms on the mats, and was always compelled by how their true selves manifested on the mats. No. I found my Self on the mats in my first and my final matches, and if I am to continue my jiu-jitsu journey then I must remain true to those movements. I may learn how to improve my other movements, and indeed must to be a well-balanced practitioner, but the slow, powerful gestures and the dance macabre that I strike through brings me far closer to a small bear or wolverine [not the Hugh Jackman variety] than a praying mantis or a rattlesnake. Perhaps I am seeing too deeply into the metaphor, but somehow I feel like it is a metaphor worth delving into over the winter months ahead.
I would be remiss if I did not mention how critical it was for me to have my professor, Ian Freemantle, in my corner for the final three matches. His experience and instructions from the sidelines guided how I worked my way through a heavier opponent and gave me the drive to push through spots where surrender would have been a much easier path. The advice that rung out the most that afternoon was for me to “never doubt the action you must take, will it to happen and have faith in your jiu-jitsu, and they will make it reality.” Magic or science, the reality is the truth that moved my hips up from beneath a man struggling to choke me into submission.
In the end, I am grateful and feel like I have taken a next step forward on my path. I am far from being accomplished in this incredibly complex martial art, but I will take all that I have captured back into the workshop to hone my game for the next tournament and the classroom.