'Why am I doing this?' I think to myself.
'Vamos' he says. 'Let's go'.
It's my second day at Chute Boxe in Curitiba, Brazil, and my first Jiu Jitsu class for quite some time. Years in fact. I try to stall and get some air into my wheezy lungs by pointing to my water. He's having none of it.
'Vamos'. He repeats.
The day before I tried the Muay Thai class. The instructor was very good. Scary good. But even so I was a little less concerned about that class. I managed to absorb a bit of Muay Thai when I lived in Thailand, along with a great many kicks. So even though now my head kicks could only be truly called such if I were throwing them at someone much shorter than me, I still felt a little more comfortable there.
But this is Brazil, this is where they invented this Jits, where all the other members of the class seem to have a great deal more weight and general solidness about them than me. Testament to this is the instructor's nickname, 'Batata' or 'Potato'. The 200lb brown belt currently telling me to 'vamos' and roll with him. Now I don't feel quite as smug as I did the day before.
The class up unitl this point has been fantastic. It started late, a small example of the infamous 'Brazilian time' that I'm not quite accustomed to yet. Mercifully, no obstacle was made of my babyish Portuguese language skills, my status of 'gringo' having earlier been somewhat amusingly - for the Brazilians at least - revealed during a round of sit ups in which everyone had to count to twenty.
We communicate in broken English and Portuguese, even though they are all arraigned in gis of various colours, I'm informed that my tired looking t-shirt and shorts are 'no problem'. All in all I feel quickly welcomed and am even invited to the later class, all before this one has properly commenced.
We began with a light warm up that anyone familiar with a Jits class will recognize, Jiu Jitsu rolls, hip escapes and some pair work on flexibility (something that I'm in dire need of). Then the class moved onto drills seemingly focused on usefulness and ease of implementation. Nothing fancy: armbar escapes, guard sweeps that seem easy to work into sparring.
Prior to my arrival at the class I was quite concerned that keeping up with the instruction in Portuguese would be difficult, Jiu Jitsu is after all quite a subtle and technical business. However by paying attention and watching the demonstrations carefully I was able to get a reasonable idea of what was required.
We spent a fair amount of time running through the drills, each practising a few times then changing partner. Batata moved around the class pointing out the little bits of technique that his brown belt status allows him to pick up on. Then he gave what I assumed must be the introduction to start sparring.
Even though the class consisted mainly of white belts I was generally expecting to get rag dolled for a number of reasons. Not only was I at weight disadvantage, but I was also on their turf, in their house. No one is going to let the skinny gringo get the better of them. But primary among my reasons for being concerned was that I was never very good to start with, coupled with my almost comical lack of cardio. Wallowing on the Copacabana does not an athlete make.
To my surprise then, the first two sparring rounds actually went quite well for me. I didn't get subbed and did some useful things of my own, perhaps the fact that I was sweating like a broken faucet worked to my advantage and I managed to slither out of any dangerous positions. By the start of third round though I was starting to feel like Mark Coleman when he fought Shogun. I gaspingly asked for my opponents name but was not able to take much notice of the answer. When it starts the most I can manage is to try and hold on. Not so much 'lay and pray', more of a 'keep and weep'.
Then it's over. It must be. The class after all is past its finish time. My first class for five years, in Brazil, and I didn't get subbed. If my chest could swell with anything other than desperately needed oxygen perhaps a bit of pride might have worked its way in. I look around sucking air and manage a grimace of pleasure.
But I've forgotten about Brazilian time. If it can start late, then it must also run late. To do otherwise would be to not carry the tradition on to the next engagement.
'Vamos' says Batata.
My faintly happy grimace turns into a more traditional one, my call for water is dismissed and my skinny little leg cramps up. I wearily start to roll and try to get to side control over Batata's open 'I don't need to worry about you passing my guard' guard. I don't really remember too much off the next four minutes, other than it was much more in line with the rag dolling I was earlier expecting. My recollections are mostly a mash up of my wheezing, gi fabric and my rhythmic, all too frequent taps. I offer as much as I can, at one point he even lets me take mount, but moments later I'm somehow in an armbar.
After one final choke that I don't even recognize and haven't the slightest idea how to escape, he puts an end to my beatdown and calls a halt to the class. I want to lie face down on the mat, or be ill. However there is a snippet of formality to observe where Batata gives a short talk to the class. I try to pay attention as best I can but can't take much in due to the sound of my heart pounding in my ears.
A round of handshakes and hugs follows, I'm commended on my effort and called 'muito rapido' - very fast. Although it can't be true (as I spent half the sparring time almost entirely still) it brings back my earlier grimace of pleasure. I'm once again invited to the later class and we all attempt to communicate about the good and bad points of our just concluded sparring session. I'm told not to worry about the fitness, it will come. I'm treated like an old friend, any lingering awkwardness about my being a 'gringo' now being fully dispelled. I feel better, I feel like I didn't give up even when I really wanted to. A small triumph certainly, but a triumph nonetheless.
That I think, is why I am doing this.