Today, I had my first BJJ class, and it was by accident. While the memories (and aches and pains) are still fresh, I thought I'd share them. It might interest those considering doing something new and challenging for the first time. But brace yourself- this is a very long post.
First, a little very brief background. I'm 39 years old (there goes one more shred of Internet anonymity). I've been practicing martial arts in some form or other since I was abut 10 years old. My motive was that I was an angry young kid who liked to fight. So I learned whatever I could, so I could pick fights and win them. Striking, grappling, it didn't matter- as long as it could work, I wanted to learn it. I guess you could say I was a mixed martial artist long before the term was invented.
However, I grew up and grew less angry, and eventually settled on formally training in Shotokan. I first walked into a dojo about 20 years ago, and over the years I rose through the ranks. At the same time though, I pursed a sedentary corporate career, and slowly grew fat and old. However, the love of martial arts never left me, and I recently decided that to complement my striking skills, I wanted to formally learn grappling. Properly. In a dojo.
Now, I still train fairly regularly, but on my own. I haven't been in a dojo in years. This means that while I still have skill, flexibility and strength, my cardio has gone to Hell. I am probably 40 pounds overweight, and have the stamina of a middle-aged accountant. However, I did not let this deter me. All this MMA watching and YouTube video digesting had stoked the old hunger to roll with another human being. I decided to act.
Apart from the redneck Judo I learned in my street-fighting days, the rolling I do with my home-made grappling dummy, and the basic foot sweeps, trips and takedowns you learn in Karate, I had never had a single grappling class. Because I believe in learning things properly (ahem, refer to my previous fanpost on sloppy striking in MMA), I made up my mind to become a black belt in Judo. Old age be damned. If my passion for martial arts hasn't left me at this age, it will probably still be there when I'm 80. So I fired up the Google, found a local Judo/BJJ club that looked good, and decided to go today. I stuffed my Karate gi and black belt in my rucksack and journeyed forth on my new adventure.
I thought today was the Judo class. I arrived and sat in the reception area, watching the class warm up. The instructor, a handsome and fit-looking young man with a black/red belt, walked up to me and nicely said hello. I said I just wanted to watch, but he invited me to join in. As an instructor myself, I had seen many students come to watch a class who secretly wanted to join in, but were too shy to make the first move. I smiled, because now I was that shy new student.
I told him I only had a Karate gi and no belt. He showed me a rack of white belts I could borrow, and five minutes later, I was standing in class, my white belt proudly around my waist, and feeling very pleased with myself. Being in a proper dojo again felt like coming home. But then, the training started, and it suddenly dawned on me: this wasn't a frigging Judo class. I had come on the wrong evening! I had just joined a BJJ class. I was slightly disappointed, because I'd been looking forward to practicing some Ronda Rousey takedowns, but I shrugged and decided that it wouldn't hurt to learn some of this Brazilian jits that everyone is talking about.
I was paired up with a nice blue belt, and the first thing we practised was some basic knee-on-chest pin controls combined with chokes. I learned how to do the pistol and baseball grips I'd been reading about on the Interwebs. My partner kindly gave me pointers on how to cause intense pain and suffering to another human being using your knees and forearms to deprive his brain of oxygen. I've always been a quick study, and the old martial instincts came back quickly. After a couple of drills, he told me I was executing perfectly.
When we paused, he asked me if I'd done any martial arts before, and I told him about my Karate background. He said he wasn't surprised, and that he had asked because I learned very quickly, and was very good with using my leg to brace myself while doing the knee-on-belly thing. I smiled and said yes, that was a Karate yoko geri (side kick) motion. He had told me he also did Karate, but dropped out at blue belt to do kickboxing, and then BJJ. I had made my first dojo friend!
But then, just when I was beginning to feel a little smug, shit got really real. We moved on to slightly freer sparring, and I was paired with this taciturn brown belt who was as strong as an ox. We were supposed to practise pins and escapes, and this was when my horrible cardio emerged like a zombie from a grave, to remind me that I was a fat, old guy rolling with fit, young martial artists.
I found it surprisingly easy to apply a lot of the stuff I had only drilled in my head or with my grappling dummy. This was because I do an unhealthy amount of thinking and analysis about anything that interests me, and like I said, I've always been a quick study. I was able to actually sweep this ox using basic bridges I had only ever drilled with a pillow man. I was using my knee to block him from gaining mount. And when I caught him in half guard, I felt so proud of myself. But then he got on top of me, I felt his power, and my heart gave out.
I have never in my life gassed the way I gassed then. It felt like my diaphragm would explode. My entire being was crying for oxygen. I tapped preemptively. This was no time to be a hero and suffer a heart attack. I'm not a 25 year-old kid anymore. I lay there on my back, desperately sucking wind and appreciating what Renzo Gracie meant when he said this is what death feels like.
But there was to be no rest for the wicked. The nice young instructor showed his evil side by ramping up the intensity and asking us to do full sparring. My first partner was a huge, fit guy. Same age as me, but clearly in infinitely better shape, and probably 25 pounds heavier- all muscle. It didn't seem fair. I could barely stand, and I was supposed to prevent this monster from mangling me?
Well, there was no way out. We started, and he swept me, pinned me and went for a gi choke. I succumbed without resistance, and tapped preemptively. He said "I haven't done anything!" It was a rebuke: he was criticizing me for being a pussy. At that point, the old competitive instincts rose inside me. In my Karate heyday, I used to be the guy in the dojo that everybody feared, and now this guy was calling me a pussy just because I'm fat and out of shape? I decided to show him that I had watched a few more YouTube submission videos than he had.
When we resumed, this time I realized I was gassing so quickly because I was too tense. I relaxed completely and breathed, engaging only the muscles I was using. Knowing he was much stronger than me, I decided to go for a gi choke. I also felt attack was the best form of defense: if he was trying to avoid being choked, he couldn't mangle me. So I planted myself in his guard and went for the choke like my life depended on it.
I've never been properly taught how to choke someone with a gi, and I guess when you learn from YouTube you miss the finer points. So I was disappointed to see that he remained conscious. However, I enjoyed seeing his face go deep red as I slowly and ruthlessly pulled his collar more tightly around his neck. Call me a pussy, will you? It was a stalemate, which made me feel good. I had at least made his life difficult. However I eventually gassed again and relaxed, and he took advantage and swept me. I must have committed some rookie mistake, because I immediately found myself in a guillotine. It felt like death, and I tapped.
My next opponent was the highlight of the night. He was a white belt, and a young guy. He was taller than me, but skinny. I am muscular, and knew I was stronger than him. I really, really enjoyed what happened next. I started in a top position, and what happened next was orgasmic. This kid didn't have a clue. I passed easily to mount, and I saw visions of Ronda Rousey in my head. I'm in this to learn how to finish people quickly, not roll about on the floor in a manner Rampage Jackson would justifiably find boring. So I pushed his shoulder to the side, flipped my leg over his head, and went for my first armbar on a living human being.
It was in! It was working! Holy God, but I felt good. This was the real shit, and the kid justified my love by immediately tapping. In my first ever grappling class in my life, I had just submitted someone with an armbar. Why was this momentous occasion not being videotaped for posterity? We resumed, and again I easily passed to full mount. This time, I decided to get creative. I pulled his head up, and went for a mounted triangle. It worked- sort of. It was sort of sloppy, but locked in. He wouldn't tap, so I grabbed his arm and despite his resistance, extended it for a triangle arm bar. He tapped again.
This was becoming too easy. I was supposed to be a white belt, but I was pwning this chap like a pro. So we switched position, and he started on top. Maybe it would be harder if I was on the bottom. Kid tried to pass to mount but was uncoordinated. I got him in full guard easily- first time on a real human being. Then he started reaching for my collar, and I grabbed both his wrists. Now, it was Anderson Silva I saw in my head. This was Chael Sonnen on top of me, and I was damned if I wasn't going to try a triangle.
I did. As soon as his arm moved back, my leg moved up. I locked it in. Again, a little sloppy- my pot belly means my hips don't readily leave the ground when I'm on my back- but it held and he was trapped. Again, I extended his arm into a triangle armbar, and he tapped. Then we restarted with him on top again. Now I was on a roll. I tried an armbar from the bottom, and Goddamn if it didn't work. Kid tapped again.
I swear I tapped out this kid at least 6 times in a row, using only moves I had watched on YouTube and practised on a stuffed diving wetsuit. However, I was most proud of the last submission. This was because I submitted him using a move that as far as I know, doesn't exist in Judo or BJJ. It was entirely improvised. Kid had me in side control. I was gassing again, and too weak to try to bridge, so I decided to do like a real martial arts master and adapt like water to the situation. I put my leg over his head and trapped his upper body in some sort of bizarre triangle.
There was no way this was a submission move, because his neck wasn't even under pressure. But his upper body was under control, and his arm was flailing in my face. So I grabbed it, but wasn't sure what to do with it. However, all the self-defense moves I'd practiced over the years kicked in, so I grabbed his wrist and twisted it to gain control of his arm, then braced his elbow with one arm while cranking with the other. I guess technically it was some sort of arm lock. The important thing was that his arm was trapped, twisted and hyper-extended at the elbow. He tapped.
Now, I was feeling like Damien Maia. And I had actually invented a new submission move on the fly. But of course, martial arts are there to teach you humility. For every guy whose ass you kick, there is one who will kick yours. My next partner was slightly shorter than me and also a white belt, but clearly much more experienced than the last guy. He was also built like Roy Nelson after a year gorging on cheeseburgers. This chap had a gigantic belly, and must have weighed 300 pounds. I do not exaggerate. The fellow had the build of a sumo wrestler.
We started with me on top. I learned from what ensued that the starting position is very important in determining where the fight goes. Not sure what to do, I tried moving to mount while applying the same collar choke I'd used earlier. In defense, he made a rookie mistake: he turned over and turtled. This is what I believe Joe Rogan calls 'giving up his back'. And according to Joe, I'm supposed to go for a rear naked choke. So I did.
Remembering to 'put my hooks in', I went for the choke. And then I flattened him out. I couldn't believe how naturally all this shit came to me. However, his RNC defense was impregnable. I tried everything to get under his chin, but he defended like a Mormon girl protecting her chastity. The fact that he had a fat, thick neck didn't help. I tried both hands, without result. I even tried a cross-face but to no avail. I tried to switch to a rear gi choke, but no dice. My fingers started hurting from him defending the knife-hand I tried to wedge under his chin. I almost got it once or twice, but his defense was too good.
And then I started to gas. With a guy this huge, I knew letting him go would be a mistake, so I held on for dear life. I thought of a leg triangle, but the man had the girth of a full-grown African hippo. So instead, I just locked my leg around him and squeezed, hoping to restrict his breathing and get him to relax his defense. It didn't work, and my legs got tired. Eventually we just lay there, with me controlling his back and gassing slowly. I was sad- it would have been really wonderful to get a RNC on my first grappling day.
I guess it was not to be. He sensed that I had gassed and relaxed, and twisted out of it and hopped to his feet with surprising dexterity for such a fat guy. I then made a rookie mistake. He was standing above me, and my Karate instincts kicked in- literally. I started upkicking him, before I realised this was illegal and stopped. However, my legs were now fully extended, instead of being bent and guarding my body. He dragged my feet to the side using a guard pass I immediately recognized as the one Anderson Silva used after dropping Vitor Belfort with a front kick.
However, instead of Silva punches, this guy went into side control. Now, imagine you are me: exhausted and gassing mightily. Then this guy who looks like Yokozuna plants his gigantic belly firmly on your chest. Having faithfully read all the BE BJJ training journals, I knew side control was the hardest position to escape from at the best of times. And in my gassed condition, this was certainly not the best of times. I was not going to get out: there just wasn't the strength to bridge, and I was genuinely worried that I would pass out from lack of oxygen. I tapped.
That was the last fight of the night, and the class ended. As I proceeded home, I was simultaneously exhilarated and weary. I wondered what parts of my aging body would ache the most. Predictably, my finger joints hurt: all that gi grabbing is hard on the phalanges. Strangely, my neck hurt too. I had no idea why. There was also some blood on my gi. I have no idea whose it is. As far as I can tell, I'm not bleeding. When I got home, I realized my triceps were aching too. There may be new aches and pains tomorrow- we'll see.
Will I go back? I honestly don't know. That gassing truly felt like death, and it will take me at least two months of training to get fit enough for it not to happen again. I'm not sure if my motivation will carry me through that, or if I was just restless and wanted to try out my grappling moves on a real person. I'm still processing the experience, and time will tell. But in conclusion, here are a few things I learned, for those who might be in a similar situation:
1. Grappling is easier than striking. I know my previous martial arts experience has given me the motor skills to learn quickly, and also the instincts and knowledge to understand the theory behind grappling. However, even allowing for that, it was surprisingly easy to learn and apply basic grappling moves. I think this is because grappling is more natural for humans. Gripping, hugging, pulling, wrapping our legs around a person, crossing our ankles- these are all natural motions we don't have to learn, only adapt to fighting. However, there is nothing natural about balancing on one leg while thrusting the other one at a person. Our hands were likewise designed for gripping and squeezing, not forming a fist and striking with.
2. Size and strength matter a lot. Looking at the times when I pwned and was pwned, even allowing for different skill levels, size and strength mattered a great deal. As a martial arts idealist, this makes me sad: I really want to believe that smaller guys can defeat larger ones just by using superior technical skill. And maybe they can- it's probably premature to rush to conclusions after one day. But when a bigger, stronger guy has his knee on your chest, brawn is clearly one of the main factors determining what happens next.
3. Cardio is king. Not much to say beyond that. Many BE readers are martial artists and know this already. For the keyboard warriors however, never again mock a fighter for gassing. If you haven't been there, you don't know what it's like. It is truly what death feels like.
4. Relaxation is a key skill in fighting. I knew this already from Karate, but as a grappling newbie, my first instinct was to tense all the time, thus accelerating my already inevitable gassing. Relaxing except at the point of executing a technique is the key to both effectiveness and stamina, whether you are throwing a roundhouse kick or going for a submission.
5. Martial arts are really, really fun- at any age. You will learn humility, because no matter how good you are, someone will kick your ass. You will also learn that everyone has a breaking point, and where yours is. You will feel the exhilaration of totally physically dominating another human being. And the camaraderie in a good dojo strips away all the layers of social pretension that make human interactions so complex. And of course, you will learn what death feels like. So If you are on the fence, I recommend it. Just avoid McDojos.