(Read part 1 here)
After approaching the scorer’s table, I was told that my name was not on their list, so one of the officials began haphazardly scrawling additional brackets to accommodate me and a few other un-listed competitors, although he was only adding to one side of the page, which I found odd. But my confusion quickly gave way to jitters, as it was announced that I’d be fighting first. I sucked in a deep breath and tightened my belt.
My opponent and I shook hands, the ref blew his whistle, and we began that familiar cat-like dance of pawing for leverage and angles. I tried to stay relaxed and keep my balance, but it felt odd to be competing standing up – due to space constrictions, we almost exclusively trained on the ground at the academy. But my brief wrestling background had left me sure-footed enough that I wasn’t entirely out of my element. Suddenly my opponent grabbed my elbow and fell backwards, trying to pull me into an armbar. He caught me off guard, but I was familiar with the attack and quickly shuffled into side control, nullifying his attempt. Time stood still – my muscle memory fell into its familiar rhythms as I worked to improve position, and I could clearly hear my brother cheering me on. It as if the moment my opponent and I hit the mat, all my mental and physical preparation kicked in and calmed me.
As my hands clasped just beyond my opponent’s far shoulder blade, I saw an opening for an Ezekiel choke, which I had just learned a few weeks before and had used successfully in class. With my left hand I grasped the collar of my right sleeve, balled my right fist, then yanked it across my opponent’s throat. He squirmed a bit, then tapped, relenting without much of a fight. The ref raised my hand and my brother cheered. A few people applauded. I had won my first match.
Having no clue how long I would have to wait to fight again, I tried to stay focused and loose – I sipped a little water and stretched while watching the next matches. After half an hour, my name was called again. This time my opponent was noticeably smaller, and I was thankful for having moved down a weight class. Sticking with what had worked, I flung the guy to the ground quickly and slapped on the same Ezekial choke as before, with the same result.
A few minutes later I was up again, fighting someone who had also beaten two people already. The guy was squat with a sturdy base and a shaved head, and we spent a couple of minutes jostling for position on our feet, trading failed trips and throws. Eventually he lunged in too far trying to pull me down, and I capitalized on his momentum and spun him to the ground. Yet again, I found a quick opening for the Ezekiel choke, but this guy would not tap. He fought hard, eventually trying to sit up, but in doing so he only increased the pressure. Then he slowly released his resistance but kept his muscles clenched while making a gurgling sound and staring right into my eyes. It wasn’t until someone yelled, “He’s out! He’s out!” and the ref pulled me off that I realized I had just choked someone unconscious. It was an eerie feeling.
I kept fighting and winning -- once by triangle choke, once by a modified omoplata -- but gradually I was breaking down. One of my feet had split open from all the pushing off to gain traction and I was mentally exhausted from having to stay focused in between matches. A guy wearing a Renzo Gracie rash guard came by and introduced himself and asked if my foot was okay. I didn’t recognize him, but he said he trained at the academy and offered to crazy glue my foot closed. “It totally works, dude,” he said.
A few minutes later, Gordinho, a senior instructor at the academy, came by to congratulate me for advancing so far. He then told me that my next match was for the championship, which surprised me. The tournament had not been run particularly smoothly – there were often inexplicable gaps between matches and it was never clear when we had advanced to the next round. I also got the feeling that some people had fought more than the others. Nevertheless, I readied myself for my last match – I was one step away from achieving my dream.
I stepped onto the mat and shook my opponent’s hand – he wore a faded black gi and wished me good luck in a thick Brazilian accent, and I tried not to be intimidated. Fortunately his game was not as authentic as his persona, and I was able to take him down and advance position at will. I passed his guard repeatedly and mounted him twice, with Gordinho shouting encouragement from just off the mat, most of which consisted of repeatedly telling me to relax. By the end of the match I was exhausted and the Brazilian guy, sensing my fatigue, swept me, but by then I was so far ahead on points that all I had to do was hang on for a few more seconds. Finally the ref blew the whistle and I let my head fall back against the mat and raised my arms. Gordinho and my brother were cheering as I pulled myself up to my feet and the Brazilian guy congratulated me. My brother ran onto the mat to embrace me and I teared up a bit while laughing in disbelief at what I had accomplished – the emotional release was immense.
Gordinho praised my performance then wandered off to help the dozens of other competitors from the academy. I sat down, feeling the fatigue and burn in every muscle, and began chugging from a gallon jug of water. A few minutes later I thought I heard my name called but figured I was imagining it. But again, someone called my name, and I saw a fresh-looking competitor waiting on the mat.
“I have to fight again?” I asked the indifferent guy at the scorer’s table.
“Yeah, this is the finals.” he said.
“I thought that was the finals,” I replied. “That’s what Gordinho said.”
I asked my opponent-to-be how many fights he’d fought that day. “Three,” he said. Apparently he was on the more fortunate side of the bracket – this would be my seventh fight. I asked for five minutes to get ready, but it did little good. I stretched, I jumped around, I tried to get my mind back in the zone, but the adrenaline dump from my first "championship" fight had left me with nothing.
“Come on,” the guy at the scorer’s table said. “Just one more; you’ve got this.” His faith in me was surprising, but I would need more than that.
Our match began, and before I knew it I was face down on the mat. I found myself fascinated by a tiny crinkling sound, which turned out to be my elbow slowly bending the wrong way. I had fallen prey to a flying armbar – a fascinating feat of aerial trickery but a move no white belt has any business attempting, let alone pulling off. The guy was an ass kicker. I felt the instinct to tap kick in and I listened to it.
A little frustrated but glad that it finally over, I congratulated my opponent, who apologized for nearly ripping my arm off, which I held cradled against my stomach. I insisted that it was nothing, but I was a little disturbed that there were no available icepacks, let alone medical personnel. But I quickly forgot about my arm and took my place on a podium for the awards ceremony, flanked by the Brazilian and the badass, all of us beaming with pride.
Soon after, my brother and I were wandering around a sketchy Newark grocery store, trying to find an ice pack for my elbow – I had to settle for a bag of frozen peas. Wearing a huge medal around my neck; hobbling on sandaled, bloody feet; and holding the peas to my arm, I got plenty of stares, but I was so elated I barely noticed.
Once the rush wore off, the pain settled in. I had hyperextended my elbow, which knocked me out of training for a month and required two cortisone shots before I could fully extend it without shooting pain. When I finally got on the mats again I soon worked my way up to blue belt, but I never managed to recapture that initial manic obsession.
Six months later I found a demanding job in a field I cared about, and soon after that my wife and I had our first kid. Somehow what was once an obsession became something I no longer had enough time for. I guess I could have found a way to free up a night or two here and there, but I don’t think I could have handled feeling my game start to slip. I like to joke that moderation is overrated.
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