(The author sinks in a triangle choke)
For two years I was obsessed with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I trained three to four days a week, spending hours rolling around on mats in the basement of a nondescript midtown Manhattan office building, intertwined in vice-like grips with other sweaty men. By day we were lawyers, doctors, cops, and waiters, but by night we shed our masks and donned gis emblazoned with the Renzo Gracie name, relishing our direct lineage to the Gracies, the first family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. We tried not to ogle when Georges St-Pierre, Matt Serra, or any other UFC fighters were training there.
In jiu-jitsu I had rekindled a long-dormant obsession with hand-to-hand combat. As a kid I practiced the camel clutch, the figure-four leg-lock, and other signature WWF moves on my younger siblings; devoured the Rocky films and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s early work; and later “worked out” in my parents' garage, which my dad had rigged up as a pseudo-boxing gym. My best friend, Mark, and I would take turns swinging wild flurries of hooks at the heavy-bag before collapsing in exhaustion. What we lacked in technique we made up for in hormonal fury.
Soon I discovered the UFC via Blockbuster Video and was instantly hooked. I loved the raw violence; the style vs. style, Bloodsport-esque angle; and the fact that an unimposing, average-sized guy was calmly strangling men twice his size and repeatedly winning the tournaments. That man was Royce Gracie, cousin to Renzo, my future instructor.
Years later, now an adult with a fear of violence and conflict, I was shocked to discover that there was a huge Gracie jiu-jitsu academy within walking distance of my job in Manhattan. I had always assumed the sport was practiced deep in the Amazon in some sacred temple, never imagining that it might be accessible to a cowardly white boy like me. But there was no macho entrance ritual or gang-like initiation required; all I had to do was provide a credit card.
My transformation was immediate and dramatic. Riding the subway home after training, lugging a good twenty pounds of sweat-soaked gi in a backpack, it was all I could do not to laugh at the ignorance of my fellow subway passengers, who were unaware that a warrior traveled in their midst. I relished my initial stages of cauliflower ear, the cartilage hardening from hours spent grinding against mats and bodies, and I proudly displayed my growing assortment of scars and bruises. I didn’t think I was a badass -- I knew.
I thought about little else other than jiu-jitsu during that time. My anonymous Corporate American desk job asked little of me, and neither did the Masters Degree I was pursuing. When I wasn’t training I was watching instructional YouTube videos at work, boasting of my accomplishments to accommodating friends and family, or practicing at home with a grappling dummy I’d constructed with duct tape and a pillow. At the age of 30 I had either found my athletic calling or was in the midst of an early midlife crisis, depending on who you asked.
After five years of hustling to make ends meet in New York City, working a series of jobs that ranged from depressing to degrading, and abandoning a once-promising musical career, I had at last found something I excelled at and could give myself to. I was one of the best white belts at the academy, and I routinely submitted my training partners with chokes, armbars, and leg locks -- graciously demonstrating how I had tapped them out whenever I was asked.
At the height of my jiu-jitsu obsession, I decided it was time to enter a tournament. I’d be competing in the irrelevant 160-pound white-belt division, but in my mind I’d be representing the Gracie name in high-stakes combat, and I trained as if my life depended on it. I stayed after class to drill with the other obsessives and ran over the Brooklyn Bridge on my off-days to build up cardio. Weaving in between strolling tourists and aggressive cyclists, I practicing the same visionary tactics Michael Jordan used to prepare himself for athletic adversity. Somehow I thought this was rational behavior.
On the big day, I woke up at 6am, put on two sweatsuits, and ran around my neighborhood to shed the last few of the 10 pounds I’d lost to fight at a lower weight class. My younger brother had driven up to accompany me – he had no knowledge of jiu-jitsu outside of my rambling monologues, but he was excited to “corner” me and watch his big brother in action.
We arrived at a sweltering Newark high school gym and witnessed the traveling circus that is a grappling tournament. Eight massive mats covered the gym floor, each serving as its own competition space, complete with a scorer, a timekeeper, and a ref, who hovered above pairs of entangled competitors, their gis and rash-guards bearing the logos of schools from as far away as Toronto and Florida. In the exterior hallways, dozens of competitors jumped rope or did calisthenics to burn off that last stubborn pound, and jiu-jitsu merch vendors hawked board shorts, mouthguards, and instructional DVDs.
Around the corner from the vendors, the weigh-in scales were stationed, and I stripped down to my underwear in full view of at least 30 people, depleted and dehydrated but in a Zen-like state of anticipation. I weighed in at 159.6 pounds (a weight I’ve hovered at least 30 pounds over ever since), registered for my bracket, then took a place in the stands alongside my brother, where I rehydrated through incremental sips of Gatorade so as not to get sick. It was electrifying to be immersed in such a likeminded environment – from our vantage point we could see male and female competitors as young as 8 and as old as 50 competing, and the gym was a cacophony of applause, whistles, and shouted instructions. My brother was fascinated. Throughout the crowds I could see the Renzo Gracie logo scattered across the backs and chests of many competitors and audience members – it felt like being part of the home team.
On the mat just in front of us an all-star, open-weight tournament had begun, featuring Jason “Mayhem” Miller and a few other MMA veterans who had flown in for a shot at the $1,000 prize, barely enough to cover their travel costs. Soon I felt a rumbling deep in my stomach, which I knew could only be attributed to the diuretic I had taken the night before in a panic that I might not make weight. I quickly made my way down to the basement bathroom area, where I encountered six stalls all horrifically splattered with puke. Apparently the veteran move was to skip the ex-lax and just shove two fingers down your throat at the last minute.
Eager to put that harrowing bathroom experience behind me, I changed into my gi and began warming up. Despite all the training, I was still edgy – my only jiu-jitsu experience was at the academy, and it was hard to acclimate to such a frenetic environment. A voice over the intercom announced that the 160-pound white-belt division should report to mat six. It was time.
Check back tomorrow for part 2
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