Tuesday, 2 February 2010
By the end of 2009 MMA was practically on the operating table bleeding out. It seemed every major MMA promotion was being hit with injuries and ailments with fight cards all over the world receiving CPR and emergency rescue surgery. This was no better evidenced than at the ‘cursed’ UFC 108, which had over 8 fighters sidelined due to injury. The UFC’s first show of 2010 originally had some mouth watering match-ups, Silva-Belfort, Carwin-Lesnar etc. Whilst the eventual fight card was not quite as blistering as the one initially proposed it was good to see the UFC still manage to put together a somewhat competitive event, more on that later.
2010 started with a bang or a ‘snap’ shall we say. On New Years Eve Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki seized the arm of Sengoku champion Mizuto Hirota with an esoteric hammerlock. He broke it and then followed it up with a middle finger to his opponent, his corner and the audience… oh the teenage angst of it all. I think this was Aoki’s way of saying to America ‘I’m a marketable badass, come get me”. Any publicity is good publicity as they say. It seems to have worked as Strikeforce are courting his signature and it looks likely we will be seeing him fight in the U.S this year.
Speaking of middle fingers we found out this month that Brock Lesnar is officially back. As frank and confrontational as ever, he cussed Canada’s healthcare system where he was initially treated, as being like a ‘Third world country’. He then proceeded to call Frank Mir a ‘stalker’. "I don't think I beat him as bad as I could," said Lesnar. "For me to get my hands on that stalker again ... Frank Mir has made it a mission of his life [to get a rematch]. It's been a while since I've had a stalker but we'll take care of that." (ESPN Radio 1100) …brilliant.
Monday, 1 February 2010
We are all too familiar with the timeless image of the wise martial arts master. He seems to be completely at peace with himself, his foes and the world. Nothing can surprise, overwhelm or intimidate him. Pain is merely a state of mind and the only person who can truly defeat him, is himself. This is the picture we conjure up when we when we think of what a ‘spiritual’ warrior looks like (being of south-east Asian origin and having a long moustache helps too). It seems that in relation to fighting, this kind of thinking or outlook is now confined to the pages of ancient myths or the films of Ang Lee. However, the dimension of the spiritual has always been deeply woven into the fabric of the martial arts. It might be said that a martial artist who does not acknowledge the spiritual aspect of fighting is not truly a martial artist. Budō is the Japanese term used to describe the martial arts. If we break down the words meaning we see that Budō is a compound of the root bu, meaning war or martial; and dō, meaning path or way. So put simply it means ‘the way of war’. The concept of following a ‘way’ is not about adhering rigidly to a set of rules and techniques, but is instead about becoming a disciple of an art, allowing it to inform you in body, mind and spirit. This means that the martial art permeates into our lifestyles. In influences our mind-set, how we treat others and how we make our decisions and choices.
MMA in many ways has moved away from the ritualism and ceremony of the traditional martial arts. As we have ‘mixed’ the martial arts into a fast growing sport, we seem to have strained out the spiritual aspect of what it means to be a fighter. The underlying sentiment is that all that spiritual ‘mumbo-jumbo’ is just for people that like to make shapes in the air and breathe a lot.
The sound of a raw powerful car engine shakes the frail plaster walls of the Carlson Gracie Boiler Room gym in West London. Someone changing into a crisp white gi casually says "Oh that'll be Simon". When you first meet Simon Hayes you cannot help but see the corresponding metaphor to his personality. His presence in a room is instantly felt, either by a friendly “OOOOSSS!” or a barked command from the dressing room at some fighter who is not giving a hundred percent out on the mats. Simply put, Simon is a man’s man. Physically he is of average height with a strong compact frame and a face that tells a hundred stories. Friendly but fierce, poetic but pugnacious, once you peer beneath his rough exterior you find he is a man littered with paradoxes. As you speak to him you realise why he is so highly regarded by his contemporaries. He bursts with energy and enthusiasm and it’s contagious. He had me wanting to turn off the tape, get changed and head for the mats as soon as we began talking. What is obvious from the outset, however, is that Simon is a man on a journey, a journey of self-improvement and discovery. This is characterised by a deep desire to grab hold of all life has to offer him, complimented by the ability to respond to failure and success with equal measure. I wanted to find out how his journey into martial arts began. What had driven a young boy from South West London to become a black belt in two martial arts, a brown belt in another, win the European BJJ Championships, compete in amateur MMA and pioneer one of the most successful Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teams in the U.K?
If you are a keen follower of the UFC you may have noticed in the last few main events the lack of fights won by submission. The statistical truth is actually more startling. In the last four fight cards, only one fight was finished by submission (Alan Belcher, UFC 93). Granted the UFC is not the final word on the state of the ever evolving world of MMA, but as the bastion of professional MMA worldwide is there a cause for concern? Or is this merely just one of those passing oddities and business will return to usual in the upcoming events? How would MMA suffer from a decline in the art of the submission? These are important questions to ask, particularly as the sport continues to find its feet in the mainstream market. Perhaps the art of submission is suffering from the lure of “Fight of the Night‟ bonuses and an emphasis placed upon fighters to “stand and bang‟. This appeals to a wider and less MMA savvy audience and quickly raises a fighter’s profile and fan base. Referees also seem somewhat quicker these days to make fighters break the clinch or stand up due to “inactivity‟, responding perhaps to the booing from a particular demographic of spectators, or pressure from the executives upstairs to keep it “entertaining”?
Fade to blue...
On the tube ride to training the other day I slipped into a daydream. I imagined myself walking to my gym on a typical cold, dark, damp winter evening. As I continue to walk I become aware of some sinister movement in the shadows being cast on the pavement by the street lights. All of a sudden I am surrounded by a band of street thugs who viciously set upon me. I fight hard, taking a few of them out, but eventually I am overpowered and left beaten and robbed in the desolate street (I agree it is strange I get beaten up in a daydream of my own making, I am not sure what this says about my self-esteem).
The learning curve
What makes a winner? My friends and I were discussing this one night in the pub after training. We concluded that you just seem to get those people that are born winners. It feels like in some way it was pre-determined by God or the stars that they would be brilliant at a given sport, and that is that. Then there are the rest of us (the majority), who fit into the average to good, but not brilliant category. We are all just trudging along looking for a spark or distinguishing moment in the long and over crowded road of sporting mediocrity. I have always been pretty decent at most sports. I was not necessarily picked first in the playground, but I was never made to do the demoralising walk of shame upon being picked last. Thankfully that is one childhood scar, among many, I do not bear.
The enemy camp.
The gym I have been training at is the only BJJ gym I have ever been too. I basically walked in off the street and just started training. I had watched a lot of MMA and wanted to armbar and triangle people. I knew nothing of BJJ lineage and family specific styles. I had my first lesson at this gym and I have stayed there ever since.
The only other gyms I have seen the inside of have been those featured in the many thousand YouTube tutorials. These clips are like small windows into the worlds of other gyms. They have different instructors and styles, and other men and women just like me congregating each week in their respective part of the world to engage in the intricacies of ‘the gentle way’.
I entered the gym with the skip of victory in my step. I was still high from a victorious game of 5-a-side football earlier that day. I was ready to execute the same cut throat finishing from guard as I had in front of goal. I had only been back a week and a half since my prolonged summer absence and had eased myself back into training with a couple of tentative daytime sessions.
I felt ready for an intense Monday night of training, a good warm-up, techniques and tough sparring. However, by the end of the warm-up I was beginning to think I may have bitten off a little more than I could chew. My 5-a-side victory was fast becoming a nostalgic distant memory and the often cruel reality of BJJ cardio was rushing into the present to crush my will and put my suspect conditioning into perspective. It was going to be a long, long night.
It is no coincidence that a two month absence of my Layman's Journey has coincided with a roughly two month enforced break from training. My job (in music) requires that I travel and in the summer months it is generally for extended periods.
I will be honest; it has been a tough two months. Surfing the web in shady internet cafes looking for uploads of missed UFC cards that have slipped through the nets of the copyright police. Waiting for twenty minutes while Marcelo Garcia tutorials are "buffering" on my Blackberry, then being on the receiving end of strange looks as I mime out grips for a particular sweep whilst sipping on a latte in Starbucks. To the passer-by I'm just another 'crazy' playing his own personal game of charades.
The gentle way...?
Anthropologists have suggested that early man, over time, has had to overcome their physical disadvantages to beast. He is weaker, smaller, slower and without the natural weaponry like fangs and claws.
For most of history man was the prey and animal the predator. However, over centuries man has used his superior intelligence and ingenuity to become the ultimate predator on earth. It seems that despite this, however, deep down, fear is still hardwired into us. The fear that we are prey and not predators, that we are weak and not strong.
All the ‘rites of passage’ we conjure up for teenage boys so that they can become ‘men’, are to enable them to overcome this fear. It is basically saying 'you are no longer the protected or the prey; you are the protector and the predator'. My friend recently gave his son a knife for his 18th birthday. I don’t think he gave it to him with the intention that his son would begin wielding it on the mean streets of London, but on some level it was symbolic of him saying to his son; you are ready to fight, to be a protector, to go out on your own.
In the ring, the truth will out.
It's 6am on a Tuesday morning and I am jogging. I hate jogging; it bores the crap out of me. However, what I hate more than jogging is losing a jiu-jitsu fight because I have run out of breath. That feeling of knowing what to do, but not having the energy to do it is infuriating. It’s a terrible reason to lose; it is like you have completely betrayed yourself.
I have my first tournament in five days. This is why I am running, I will not betray myself. The fear of failure will drive a man to great lengths.
As I run I think about my last sparring session. I think about game plans and I hum the Rocky theme tune under my breath. It sometimes helps me to get through a jog by pretending I am acting in the movie of my own life and this is the sports montage. The bit where they show the lead character (in this case me) training for his climatic moment and managing to fit five years of technique and training into a two minute clip set to motivational music. By the end of it he is ready; there is no more that can be passed onto him. Maybe this is just the actor in me coming out, but whatever it takes to get those miles done and get back to that hot shower.
Submitting My Ego
It’s Tuesday afternoon and I have the day off work, so I am heading to the gym to train at the new daytime class. There is something about training during the day; it makes you feel more committed and hardcore. Like in some way you are living the life of a professional athlete and all the guys that go to the evening classes are a pack of part-timers. It’s a fleeting thought that is soon sobered up by my part-timer cardio and the familiar faces of my fellow white belts upon arrival. We go through the now accustomed structure of the class, warming up, techniques, drilling and then sparring.
Sparring, for many, is the most enjoyable part of the class and that’s basically because you get to fight, and let’s be honest that’s what we are all here to do. However, the beauty of sparring is not mindlessly smashing whoever is in front of you, as appealing as that might sound. The exciting and enriching thing about sparring is that it is like learning to speak lots of different languages. In each opponent you face, you encounter Jiu-Jitsu spoken with a different accent, with its own phrasing and subtle nuances. Some languages are flowing, expressive and colourful. Others are stern, rigid and staccato.
I think men have a natural propensity to get obsessed with their interests.
There are no half measures when it comes to getting quizzed up and equipped for your chosen activity. I can be fairly frugal when I need to be, but when it comes to sports gear I want the best and will fork out whatever it takes. I mean, there was no chance you would have caught me wearing Gola’s back in the nineties before they became ironically cool.
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.