Monday, 1 February 2010

A layman's journey into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu:Part 1

In the beginning...

It’s a rainy Monday night and I am making my way across London to attend my first BJJ class. I am feeling a mixture of excitement and trepidation. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time and now I’m about to do it. I really don’t know quite what to expect. My knowledge of the art is limited to the MMA musings of Joe Rogan and the arm-bar I enthusiastically, yet regrettably attempted to put on my wife. However, I found when watching MMA fights I was naturally drawn to matches that ended up on the mat. The chess-like exchanges of limbs hypnotised me. So when searching for a class on the Internet I decided, with great wisdom and profound insight, to go for the one that was closest.

The gym was tucked away inconspicuously in a residential area of the city. I hesitantly pushed open the door, feeling bizarrely like a trespasser. The stairway up to the gym was lined with ornate trophies, medals and pictures from various eras of seemingly mythical men engaging in unarmed combat. It felt like I had stumbled upon an illegal organisation or secret fraternity.

After a reassuringly warm welcome from the gi-clad receptionist, I went in search of the changing room, unaware I was standing in it. You change where you pay and you shower at home. Across the gyms? sea of mats was a weights area that looked like the equipment would fetch a hefty auction price on “What’s in your attic?? The gym smelt of sweat and damp. It felt gritty, it felt raw, and it was a health and safety nightmare. I loved it.

I pulled on a sweat soaked gi from a previous session. It felt and smelt like it had been worn by a 300lb man with dysfunctional sweat glands. I said hello to a few of the more approachable faces, using the standard barely moving male head nod. However, I sensed this was not the time for hobnobbing: we were adorned in suits of war and our training was about to commence. I decided my need for social acceptance could wait. After a quick basic warm-up, techniques were taught by a colossally sized Brazilian Black belt, who decided to use me as his guinea pig to demonstrate classic side control.

Here I was made to feel like a helpless 10-year-old boy trapped and squirming under his gargantuan frame. This was a very humbling and distressing experience. Rarely do grown men willingly allow themselves to be put in positions where they feel powerless and not in control. I needed to rationalise this in my head, in order to justify my masculinity. “Of course he can hold me down, he is a Black belt for goodness sake, and it’s all technique. Anyway, I could probably beat him in a running race”. This made me feel better. Time flew by as I lost myself in this endless stream of new knowledge and techniques, I was absorbed. The class moved seamlessly from techniques to sparring. I was sure this was where I would get off the bus or be forced to become a spectator... not so.

My first partner was a giant middle-aged man wearing a Purple belt, and I picked up in small talk that he had a strong Judo background. He set me the „simple? challenge of passing his guard. I basically spent 5 minutes convulsing back and forward in his cobra-like guard. I was relieved when he eventually had the mercy to release me from the claustrophobia of his tree trunk legs. I was subsequently rag dolled by a small Italian who had effortless technique and moved like a cheetah. He did, however, compliment me on my „intensity? and gave me a few basic pointers. This boosted my flailing confidence. Finally I went on to face my last and most intense showdown of the evening: the shaven headed Polish juggernaut. The encounter began as is customary, on our knees. I informed him I was “new? hoping this would strike a chord with his compassionate side and in some way garner me some leeway. He barely acknowledged my petition, never breaking his compassionless cold stare. The clock started and I immediately felt his iron pincer-like fingers seize my gi, I knew this was not going to be just a sparring session; the favours were over, this was going to be a war.

He immediately pulled me into his guard with relative ease. However, something in me began to switch. His ferocity and aggression seemed to spur me into action. I began to recall the guard pass taught to me in the early part of session and set upon prising his legs apart and working for side control. I began breaking him down and maintaining my posture; I passed his legs and locked him in „my? side control. I maintained a face of rigid concentration, trying to hide my joy at executing my first guard pass, but inside I was dancing.

I sensed his frustration at being held down by a “newbie?, every second that passed with him trapped in my side control was chipping away at his frail ego. In an act of desperation he inadvertently gave me his back and I pounced on it like a man possessed. All I could think was “Rear-naked choke! Rear-naked choke!? such was the complexity and myriad of submissions in my arsenal. I set upon slapping it on him, telegraphing my intentions with ridiculously exaggerated and overly enthusiastic movements. A fight for his neck ensued; however, my arms were beginning to gas and my stamina beginning to splutter. In the throws of my novice grappling, I somehow found my dominate position reduced to holding him in my very loose half guard. By this stage I was hanging on for dear life, and then I heard those sweet words „Time?. I had made it, I had survived…. I was borderline dangerous.

On the walk to the station afterwards I was a physical wreck. My hands were powerless, struggling to maintain a grip on my lightweight back pack and I was wheezing like an old man with a 20-a-day habit. However, I was no longer an armchair critic. I was a fellow competitor, I was a warrior and it felt great. I talked about MMA and BJJ with a purple belt from Scotland as I walked. He described how he had once used his BJJ to defend himself when caught up in a street fight in Glasgow. I noticed he had cauliflower ear, something I considered a hugely unfortunate and grotesque side affect of competitive BJJ... But mysteriously, in that moment, I wanted one too.

By K.G McGlade

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