For Those About to Choke, We Salute You

Fightland Blog

By Eugene Robinson

Photos by Kasia Meow

There's an animal thing that gets increasingly hard to explain.

To the public? Who cares? But to your neighbors, friends, family, loved ones even? It gets harder and harder to explain.

"You got a fight coming up?" [Screaming off-camera all of the MMA fighters are making it known that competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is NOT "fighting". Whatever.] The guy next door asked me, smiling.

"Yeah. I won the 2013 IBJJF [International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation] Worlds at blue belt. I figured I'd go back as a purple and see…" I trail off since I have no real strong sense of what I'm trying to see. If not, in total, that animal thing.

By which I mean something that animals don't do at all: actively seeking the domination and subjugation of others likewise-minded for reasons OTHER than mating.

"How old are you?"


"Hahahaha… you're a year younger than me! Crazy!"

Yup. Like a fox. Because the body does what it's called on to do but most people stop calling on it to do very much after a certain point and so aging and the end of the road that looms after it can be held off just… a little bit, but very few do, or even try.

From laziness, fear, or comfortable surrender. None of which interests anyone heading to the big blue pyramid in Long Beach, California where a tried and true testing method breaks the wheat from the chaff since despite all of the hoo-hah about it not being about the winning, not a single person making the roadie to this Mecca is thinking of anything else.

Except for very possibly this guy.

"It's really not all about the winning."

We're standing in the bullpen. He's sidled up to me, maybe on the guess that demographically we're going to the same place, which as it ends up we are, but we're getting there totally different ways.

Because while we've clearly both got this in some sort of reasonable perspectiveit's a sport, just fun and gamesthe fact of the matter is for at least one of us this is about life and death and I don't think it's him. And after I listen to him talk about how the other competitors there "are taking this way too seriously. I mean this is supposed to be fun," I think to ask, "have you done this before?"

"No. It's my first one." The hearing of which amused me in the same way that Custer's Indian guide must have been amused before he headed off to kick some Indian ass. Because while it IS actually fun there are a lot of things that are fun but deadly serious and they all sit down at the end of this same alley and all have to do with the most serious form of interpersonal combat.

Hand to hand. Man to man.

And when they call his name and the name of his competitor and they work their way to the mat, shake hands and get the call to fight, his opponent explodes in a sustained attack of jiu jitsu brutality. Though there's supposed to be no punching the hands that hold the upper lapel in moving into position are hitting the novice's jaw.

The match gets stopped, the novice's lip is split and bloodied. He's dazed from repeated head butts. He gets manhandled right up until the match ends and they raise his opponent's hand.

I head on over to see how he is. "That guy was strong. And tough. I guess he wrestled. Who are you rolling with next?"

"That guy."

And I watch "that guy" walk up and down behind the desk. About 5'10". About 215 pounds. A friend of mine later in the stands hears guys from his fight team say, "look at that guy. He looks totally happy" and he turns around and discovers that they're talking about me because I do and I am and heading out to the mat I feel like the AC/DC song in all of its lunkheaded glory: for those about to rock, we salute you.

Goddamn right.

Shaking hands with the referee, and then That Guy, I haven't stopped smiling and don't. Not until he calls for us to fight and then I lower my level a bit, lock on to his upper lapel, grab his right sleeve and try to throw him to the ground.

Something more though, totally unseen and unfelt by everyone watching, but it's this silent speech that's happening between him and me. And it's about power and will and like one of my former teammates had said to me before I headed out to the mat, "you're a lot stronger than you look, so look to surprise him" and That Guy seems surprised.

Right up until he hits me in the jaw with his upper lapel grip. And my response? "You just started smiling again." Because? Because that was one of the most real things that had happened to me that day and I deeply, deeply respected both his desire to win and the reality that no one is dirtier in the clinch than me and now that that door has been opened I'm thrilled to see it so.

But from the outside, I'm thinking it looks like, two guys grabbing each other's robes at the senior center and the ref partially agrees and dings us both a point for stalling. That Guy says to me, "you see what just happened right? Let's get after it." But I know just where he stands and that's that if he drops a point to me he drops the Gold Medal and up until about minute 4 he fights like a man possessed. And with only two minutes left I now fight like the same trying to get on the board with at least some advantage, point or longshot choke, armbar or submission.

But it's a fierce contest, all animal, all the time, and he's tougher than shit and when I look at his belt and see that it's actually a purple with 4 white stripes, which is to say he's almost a brown belt, I feel some sense of satisfaction, a sense that soon dissipates after his hand is raised as victor on a score of -1 to -1.

Which means I lost my way to a Silver Medal. Referee's decision. The Ref tried to explain to me that he decided the way he did because That Guy attempted things more frequently. Things? "Takedowns, you know." But there were no points given or granted for whatever it was that I was trying to do which was to, in no uncertain terms, crush each and every one of his dreams of doing the exact same thing to me.

Crazy, I know, but as honest as I can be about a maelstrom that worked both inside of me and out and danced to the refrain of "I Am." Fill in the blanks later as seems appropriate: "going to kick his ass." "Better than him." "God."

But talking to That Guy later I find out that he's a former Ohio State wrestler and he, me and the novice all smalltalk chat back to the victory stand. Diets, training, nothing special, significant or super interesting though in general, the vibe is good, we feel good and while winning is not everything I'd have preferred to do that than not. But I can live with not since, unlike in Roman gladiatorial times, I can live with not winning.

Because there's always going to be the next fight on the next tomorrow and as long as you can ride that animal inside back again, you'll fight again, and win or lose again, all well worth it for even the briefest of peeks into wild desire and the outside chance of prevailing. Against? Just about everything.



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