Anthony Bourdain and Other Civilians Throw on Gis

Fightland Blog

By Ottavia Bourdain

For two years now, my friends and family have been witnessing my descent down the jiu-jitsu rabbit hole. Some gave up on me after I turned down an invitation to go out for the 10th time because, you know, I had to train in the morning. Others just got tired of me talking about BJJ all the time. But some, the ones who count, stuck around. So I figured why not reward them with an introductory lesson?

They were all too aware of my love for the art, but I thought, no matter how much I try to explain what BJJ is about, no one will ever understand until they try. Some of my friends were less ... enthusiastic than others. Some saw it as more punishment than anything else. But a few saw it as a challenge.

Terrence Monte, my long-suffering yoga instructor, always showed a healthy interest in what I do; he even watched a few videos and asked me to demonstrate a few moves on him, at which point I might or might not have inadvertently applied a rear-naked choke and Terrence may or may not have unwisely neglected to tap, but that didn't hold him back.

I decided to throw him into the white belt class. The instructor asked me to assist to make sure Terrence kept up. Terrence was, well, exactly like I was when I first started out: tense and "spazzy" and trying to outmuscle his opponent when he couldn't get the technique right. I got a nice elbow in the mouth during his first attempt at an Americana arm-lock. I suddenly had a new appreciation for my instructors and training partners who had to endure this kind of thing from me for quite a while (and sometimes still do). Terrence did the whole class without falling behind. I caught up with him a few days later:

Ottavia Bourdain: Why did you agree to do this?
Terrence Monte: You made me. I'm not even sure I had a choice. But honestly, you spend so much time, effort, energy, and sacrifice doing this, I really had to know what it was all about. You could have been shoveling crap with your bare hands; anything that inspires you enough to spend every waking hour training for it, I'd want to participate.

What was the best part of the training?
I really enjoyed learning the specifics of the arm submission and then having to repeat it over and over. I finally felt like I had it down, and then at the end they let us "free fight" or whatever is the correct term. As it turns out, I didn't have it down at all. It really made me appreciate how many hours must go into the training until you can execute it without even thinking about it. You always hear it takes 10,000 hours to master something. That became tangibly, overwhelmingly clear after the lesson.

Afterwards I felt amazing. I was really focused. I had a great adrenaline rush going. I was buzzing for about three hours, and then I came crashing down. I slept like a baby. 

I couldn't believe how smooth and efficient the black belts were in comparison to even the purple belts (the white belts were grand mal spastic in comparison). There didn't seem to be a wasted movement with the black belts; even when they were knocked off balance they seemed to be in control of the situation. It was clear that technique would supersede strength in this type of format. That's something a little guy like me could get used to.

What was the worst?
The next day. So. So. Sore. 

Would you do it again?
Absolutely. I'd do it every day if I got to hit you in the mouth all the time. 

Second up was my girlfriend Sandra Ripert. Sandra is the wife of renowned chef Eric Ripert of New York's Le Bernardin. She's also the person who introduced me to my husband, and for that I'll forever be grateful.

I made sure to explain to Sandra what BJJ is about, but when she showed up at the gym she asked me where the boxing gloves were. I gave her a gi.

Her instructor Luciano Cristovam taught Sandra some basic throws, some self-defense moves, and the armbar from the guard. At first Sandra was a little taken aback by the physical position, unused to find herself lying on her back between the legs of a stranger, but as Luciano pointed out, that's the position women will most likely have to fight from in a street situation. After the session, I asked Sandra her thoughts.

Ottavia: Were you nervous before your session?
Sandra Ripert: Scared shit!

Were you uncomfortable being in such close contact with another person?
I am not really a shy person. Luciano was very professional, he explained beforehand what he was going to do, so the fact that my rump was pressed up against him didn't bother me because I knew that my intention was to lift and throw him over.

What was the best part of the training?
I loved the defense techniques he showed me to get out of choking or harmful situations. These techniques, especially the easy ones like how to get out of tight arm grip, are easy enough to remember and use anytime.

I felt so confident and fulfilled in knowing that I can throw a grown person to the ground, even a man, if need be. I think every woman should try out jiu-jitsu.

Terrence and Sandra were obviously the eager ones, and I knew they were going to enjoy it. But my friend Doug, of Big Gay Ice Cream fame, was also pretty easy to convince. I think he really wanted to learn how to get back at me for the various chokes he'd had to endure in the past. He rather infamously challenged me in Time Out Magazine to a grappling match in his ice cream shop, then backpedaled and claimed he was kidding. But it was too late; I was already on my way. I know the ensuing 19-second guillotine and tapout didn't feel so good. And as the whole (brief) ordeal made its way onto YouTube, the added bonus of public humiliation must still burn.

I scheduled him a session with Rolles Gracie.

Unfortunately for Doug, after a round of hip escapes and forward rolls, he was gasping for air like a beached flounder. He had to take numerous breaks. Yet he soldiered mightily through panic attacks and tunnel vision. In spite of his difficulties, he didn't give up and for that I'm very proud of him. After he recovered and was once again able to put sentences together, I asked him about his experience:

Ottavia: Why did you agree to do this?
Douglas Quint: I agreed to this because I'll try anything twice. Beyond that, I was intrigued because the Gracies have reputations as excellent teachers. As a former classical music student, then as a performer and instructor, a chance to work with a famous pedagogue, from Pierre Boulez to a Gracie, is not something I would ever pass up. 

Have you done any martial arts before?
I once got a card in the mail for a free karate class.

What was the best part of the training?
The best part was watching Rolles at work and appreciating that he could break things down into steps that even a monkey such as myself could learn. My other real impression was that it was all about respect, and that went in both directions. I really wanted to stop any of my own inner dialogue and try to do exactly what he told me. I also am amazed that, unlike you, the guy never insulted me! I seriously deserved it (in my opinion) but as long as I kept trying, he just kept teaching and encouraging.

What was the worst?
The was no stand-out "worst." Obviously I wasn't surprised to learn that I'm in horrible shape--I know that. I was especially tormented by the gi, though. I understand why you wear it, but my God, let the fat man take if off already!

What did you take away from your lesson? 
I was taken by how welcoming all the people at the academy were. No one said, "You're about to die," they all just said (more or less), "Enjoy and respect what's about to happen." I think that's a pretty good ethic to live by. 

I also learned that Chicken McNuggets aren't a great pre-workout snack. 

How did you feel afterwards?
Sore. But I feel sore after I get up off the couch, so that's no big deal. 

Would you do it again?
Sure. That was the first time, and like I said, I'll do anything twice. 

The real challenge was convincing my husband, Anthony, to do it. I'd been trying relentlessly since I started practicing, but he kept giving me the same old excuses: "I'm too out of shape. I'm too old. I'm too busy." He told me flat out there was no way he would ever wear a gi. Actually, I was a little concerned when he finally agreed. His excuses are pretty valid, after all: He's no spring chicken, and all those years of narcotics and cigarettes and drinking and the ATV falls sure didn't help his physical condition. There was some concern his heart would explode or that all those years of toxins would come leaking out of his ears. When he first stepped onto the mat I just hoped he wouldn’t die.

To my surprise he didn’t suck. He picked up moves pretty quickly from coach Igor Gracie, he wasn’t horribly clumsy, and, most importantly, he didn’t display any symptoms of imminent death! This was shocking. For someone who was so adamantly against it, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself. I couldn’t wait to hear his thoughts.

Ottavia: Why did you agree to do this?
Anthony Bourdain: Because I love you. Because you bribed me with the promise of prescription painkillers. Because when I agreed to do it, it was so far in the future that I never really considered what it might be like, given my age and general out-of-shape condition.

Were you nervous before your session?
Yes. Not so much about injury but public humiliation. As I recall, when you got me a few sessions with a personal trainer, I spent much of my first and last session lying on the floor struggling not to vomit in front of strangers. I definitely did not want to repeat that experience.

Were you uncomfortable being in such close contact with another person?
No. Not really. I wrestled a bit in high school. Did the judo thing. I've jumped out of a plane strapped between the legs of a fat Elvis. So I'm comfortable with the man-on-man-action thing. I'm pretty confident that grappling with another man isn't going to cause a late identity crisis.

What was the best part of the training?
Surviving it with honor. I enjoyed that moment of realization that I really do understand the rear-naked choke and could possibly use it in a field situation. (Actually, I realized I have used it, in the kitchen once, to restrain an enraged butcher from killing my sous chef.) I'm feeling pretty good about that. If I'm in a bar fight with an enraged vegan and lucky enough to get his back, I'm pretty confident I could stand a chance. It also made a certain kind of "sense" that I didn't anticipate. There is a technical satisfaction in slipping out of a situation. Geometrically, I'm talking about. Like, a couple of times I found myself thinking, "Who knew? This shit actually works! It makes sense."

Takedowns were fun. The sweep Igor taught me was pretty cool--and unlike a lot of the judo throws I learned years ago, actually useful, I'd think, in a real, non-gi situation. My armbar potential? Not so great. I can't see myself pulling that off anytime soon. It takes a cat-like grace and speed I don't possess. Armbar? No. Not yet. Crowbar better.

The best was that the whole time our daughter was watching. She's 6 and already far more experienced at BJJ than me and she seemed proud of me, which made me very happy.

What was the worst?
Those fucking gis may look cool but they're hot. And stiff. I was baking like a fucking meatloaf in that thing.

How did you feel afterwards?
I felt strangely elated and even proud of myself afterwards. I hate exercise, as you know. But this seemed to have a point to it. It was, as you've said many times, kind of a mental challenge, a chess game, in addition to the physical aspects. You feel like you're getting a bit better at something useful. Physical fitness is not for me its own reward. This, however, was rewarding.

Of course I was a bit sore the next day. But the drugs really helped.

Would you do it again?
Yes. Yes I would. It's really only a matter of finding a way to do it regularly. Given my ridiculous travel schedule, that might be tough. Maybe I need to hire a Gracie to travel with me.

What did you take away from your lesson? 
Once I got your back, and my hooks in? You're fucked. Okay, not really. Maybe if I had your back and my hooks in and a Howitzer. But I actually had fun. And came away feeling strangely good about the world. I'd actually consider doing it again. In fact, I will do it again. And this is a major development.

Anything you want to add?
I'm still not sparring with you, okay? And yes, I know you can still kick my ass.

And there it is, the ultimate proof that jiu-jitsu really is for everyone.

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