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Fighting for Life
Fighting for Life: Why grappling is good for the soul
By Mr. Twisted
A full disclaimer before getting into the meat of this — I am stupid. I was 20 years old when the very first UFC was on Pay Per View — in my own hometown, no less — and I watched it. I watched Royce Gracie tear up guys much bigger and stronger than himself, and yet… I didn’t go seek a Brazilian jiu jitsu gym to train with.
While I did begin training in Muay Thai shortly thereafter and JKD (Jeet Kun Do) not long after that, it took me until almost ten years later to go into my first Bjj gym. And even then I was stupid – I got distracted and didn’t continue until 2008. It was then that I realized how foolish I had been for not taking it more seriously from the beginning.
Why do I say I was stupid? Because of how much grappling applies to life and what an amazing tool it is for both mental and physical training, as well as being downright therapeutic. It has a way of distilling life’s greatest lessons down into a 1 hour session of me getting my face smashed into a mat.
When I began seriously training, I had been out of active duty for a few years and realized that I needed…something. Something that would bring back some of those feelings I got after a hard day’s worth of infantry work. When I walked into Nate Marquardt’s gym in Aurora, Colorado, I knew I was home. Dudes were beating the snot out of each other and were simultaneously some of the most humble people I’ve known – they welcomed me in a way that felt far more genuine than the receptions felt at most churches.
Though I had seen a similar humility and welcoming attitude while training in Muay Thai both in the States and in Thailand, there was something different about guys who were deep into jiu jitsu. They reminded me of the hard-core surfers I had met while traveling – physically very capable but remarkably low-key. The better the practitioner of Bjj, the more they took on somewhat of a warrior-philosopher/guru role.
From my first class on, one word has been forced into my mind more than any other — humility. Every class was (and still is) completely humbling. I felt like a fish trying to ride a bicycle. I had been doing Crossfit regularly and it didn’t matter. Guys who were completely out of shape and had been out drinking heavily the night before were making me feel like a 9-year old girl. It was like being the really fat kid in Basic Training who couldn’t keep up with anything. I lost and I lost often. Every day.
And I loved it.
At least I must have loved it because I’m pretty sure I went a solid 6 months when I started before tapping out a single person (and that was only because someone newer than me showed up). I got worked over on a regular basis so badly that I should have just quit – I should have said “I just don’t have a knack for this” and walked away.
But I didn’t. And, after about 6 months of hard training, things started making more sense. Much like the line in the movie Fight Club about everything in life having the volume turned down, after doing Brazilian jiu jitsu for a while, life just kind of slowed down and mellowed out for me. I was much calmer about any number of things. No matter what was going on in life, I could say “yeah, but I don’t have a 225 lbs brown belt on top of me trying to choke me out” and everything else seemed to pale in comparison.
And I got better. When I went back into the Army as a reservist, I attended one of those two-day combatives courses that units go through as a whole (read: watered down). I felt like Royce Gracie himself. I tapped out people left and right to the point that people were coming up to me and asking if I was some sort of expert. “Not even close,” I told them. “At my gym, I’m bottom of the totem pole.” Seeing the reaction after saying that – on faces of guys bigger than me who I had just submitted – was worth all the sweat I had given.
But there was more than that. Much more.
I started noticing how all of the lessons I had learned in the Infantry and in previous martial arts made infinitely more sense. One of the first and most important lessons learned in Bjj is in regards to “space.” If a grappler is in a good position, they need to close space and keep things tight; if they are in a bad position, they need to create space, distancing themselves from the threat. These lessons bear more than a slight resemblance to the first two battle drills outlined in the Ranger Handbook and hold a significant amount of relevance to a great many of daily struggles we all face, as well.
The second biggest lesson learned is quoted often in beginner’s classes and is repeated over and over after that — “position before submission.” In other words, one must be in a superior position before they try to submit their opponent. Being in an inferior position and trying to work a submission will, almost without fail, result in either a joint moving the wrong direction or “sleepy time” for the guy ignoring the rule. This of course directly correlates to infantry tactics — if you’re squad is scattered out behind you and the enemy is in a fortified bunker that lies up a steep hill from where you are, it’s probably in your best interest to get your unit into a more desirable position prior to conducting an assault. Conversely, if you have bad guys in a bad spot, make it worse for them.
The teaching points don’t stop there and they don’t stop with combat, either. I can’t tell you how many times at my job I’ve watched people getting all squirrely over the smallest things, only to be watching them as the calm amidst the storm thinking, I can breathe. Life isn’t so bad.
Jiu jitsu forces me to problem solve in real time. It is reality smacking me right in the face that I must overcome or learn to get around. If I am in a horrible position, I ask myself this question: can I breathe? If the answer is yes, then there is a way to work through the problem — if only an inch at a time. If the answer is no, I tap out and I learn what I did wrong so I won’t do it again.
There is no faking it in grappling. When I slap hands with another person and enter into a friendly sparring session, there are no slights of hand — no smoke and mirrors to hide my lack of ability. I must confront it head on because it is going to get shoved in my face very quickly. It is there, in that spot, that we as human beings learn the most about ourselves. We learn to stretch — not just in a physical sense, but in what we have come to know about ourselves and how far that can go.
Yes, many of these lessons can be learned in other full-contact martial arts like boxing and Muay Thai. However, the evidence suggesting that being hit repeatedly in the head leads to brain damage is, unfortunately, pretty solid.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we all need to strap on the gloves from time to time and smack each other around, but Brazilian jiu jitsu is something I will be doing, God willing, when I’m 60 or 70 years old. I would do it every day if I had the time, and there is no end of things to learn within the system that can easily keep me occupied that long. Hell, I could write another few pages just on the lessons I learned this week, but I don’t want to get carried away. My current instructor is a big fella and if I give away all of his ninja-like secrets he’s liable to thump me even harder while making fun of my mom.
Brazilian jiu jistu is, plain and simple, physical chess. Moves and countermoves designed to advance to an objective that is at once self-preservation and self-perfection – a workout for the mind, the body, and the soul. The desire to learn only gets more intense with the increase of skill and the mysteries of forcing an opponent to move a certain way only grow deeper with every awkward position occupied. The possible moves, positions, and possibilities are endless yet always relate to and rely heavily on having a solid base — just like real life.
Unlike chess, however, it requires a lot of good ol’ fashioned sweat and it doesn’t allow one to walk away after a move has been made. I must learn to deal with problems presented to me immediately or face the consequences. It is problem solving in real time while having my weaknesses laid out on the mat for everybody to see.
Again, this is just like life, and why Brazilian jiu jitsu taps into something a counselor or “trained professional” never could. Plus, like most Bjj black belts (I hope), my coach doesn’t make me lie down on a goofy couch and talk about my feelings, and he charges substantially less to humiliate me than a shrink would, too.
One of the biggest things I miss about the military is the urgency needed to accomplish certain tasks. If I had to suit up to go on a QRF mission, things happen in the “right now” time-frame. In the civilian world, unless it is regarding law enforcement or emergency services (hospital personnel included), right now doesn’t exist – nothing needs to happen that quickly. I don’t need to get excited and in a rush about…well, about anything, really.
Grappling brings that back for me. It reminds me to live right now. It teaches innumerable lessons about the present moment as it occurs. Brazilian jiu jitsu offers me the opportunity to have that sense of urgency returned in a much less stressful – if albeit just as productive – manner. It is fighting for life of the mind, body, and spirit – and it does some serious good for my soul.