7 pounds. 6 minutes. That would be one way to look at what this weekend at the Pan American Jiu Jitsu Championships boiled down to. Despite losing my match 6-0 via 2 guard passes, I had a great time in Southern California, in my first step up to international competition. It really is more than the match, and I feel I’ve grown greatly from the experience.
This was the first time I had competed as a black belt, and my first competition in 4 years. With an invitation to compete one month out, I was excited and motivated to represent to the best of my ability. Who would I be facing in the Master’s division, as an “old man” in the 30-35 year old bracket? How would my skills measure up? How would my own developments as a teacher, and deepened understanding of jiu jitsu, translate to performance on the mat?
Just as jiu jitsu is a microcosm of life, all kinds of unexpected developments occurred that I never before considered. Originally focused on my opponents, and studying any footage I could find on YouTube, I quickly realized it was a moot consideration if I wasn’t able to make weight. Although I regularly competed as an adult middleweight at 173 pounds as a blue and purple belt, I am no longer so light. Even with the 8 pound weight allowance for the gi (for a grand total of 181 pounds), I was overweight. The emotional rollercoaster of competition had begun. The risk of not making weight was very real, and although I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it, I committed myself to do everything in my power to make it happen. It was my mistake for selecting my former category. I recognized that failure to show up to battle would be unacceptable. Not making weight would be the worst way to lose a match, and I feel, it would be irresponsible as a leader.
Wednesday I realized the problem. Thursday and Friday were spent slamming water with minimal carbohydrates, and just enough food to keep me from ripping people’s heads off. My Friday night feast was a bowl of Fiber One, a banana, and a protein shake. I weighed myself obsessively, and felt a visceral surge of compassion for those that are overweight and regularly denying themselves through diets, and hungry Haitians forced to consume dirt cookies. Starvation is definitely a hell on earth.
Saturday morning, with my digital scale packed, Rick and I caught the 6 a.m. flight to LAX. We had breakfast in an African American diner, where we stood out like Mikimoto pearls on a black velvet coat. A very cool place, it was a refreshing change from the predominantly pale complexion of Bend. We hooked up with my sponsor, Bob Grunder, who was recovering from a very late night/early morning celebration. Rick and I crashed for a few hours in the hotel and then headed to the Saturday tournament, which was running the purple, brown, and absolute black belt divisions.
BJJ tournaments are quite the scene, if you’ve never been to one. 99 percent testosterone, seasoned with a heavy dose of South American machismo. I saw lots of familiar faces, and many famous ones in the art, including Alberto Crane, Jean Jacque Machado, Jacare, Fabio Gurgel, and Rickson Gracie, to name just a few. Everybody is striving for hyper-masculinity at these things, and lots of spectators do everything they can to attract attention to themselves, including standing in strategic areas, blocking the view of others and often impeding the flow of traffic, in the hopes that someone will call them on it. One fan of current world champion Raphael Lovato Jr, was screaming “Shtand up Lovaht! Single Lehg!” at an unimaginable volume, for a full 10 minutes, in the hopes the champ would hear him across the gymnasium. Half the bleachers turned around and glared at him, which I believe was the desired effect.
After a few hours, Rick and I cut out of the tournament and grabbed some food at El Pollo Loco, but not too much for me. I was still overweight and had just a few hours to cut down. It turned out to be the slowest fast food experience ever, with nary a paper product in the restroom or restaurant. Still wary of carbs, I had 2 small chicken pieces, steamed vegetables, a salad and 2 corn tortillas. Slollo Loco was a disappointment, and the last meal before my match.
Heading to bed, I was 181.4 with my gi on, and I didn’t allow a drop of water to pass my lips. I did a quick yoga routine to burn off a few calories that night, and another the next morning to get loosened up. After nature called, I was relieved to see that I was 178 pounds. I weakly smiled, realizing that I had actually overshot my goal and lost 7 pounds in 4 days. I rewarded myself with a banana and glorious swig of water. I headed to the gym with Rick and began to settle into the competition zone, as the Master’s division was set to begin at 9 a.m. I said hello to my girlfriend Julie who there there to support, and her friend Michelle. As a clinical psychologist, Michelle had some interesting insights on her first jiu jitsu tournament. Perhaps her most telling statement was the likeness of competitors to “hungry street dogs.”
My mental state would alternate between Zen calm and general thuggery. I needed to be serious, focused, and my body warm. In past competitions, I realized that my first match was often a little flat, so I jogged, stretched, bent, jumped, burpeed, and shook my wrists out until I felt I was warmed up and ready to go. Maybe I warmed up a little too much, but it’s hard to say. Everybody has a different approach. Some dogs choose to skulk up and down the warm up pen, growling to themselves. Others, like myself, busied themselves by running around chasing their own tail, prepping for the hunt.
According to the brackets, I had a bye the first round, meaning I automatically advanced to the next round. My first match was with 2005 Pan American Champion Luis Fraga. The match began and he waited for me to grab his gi. I did so and pulled guard immediately. I worked his collar and arm as he looked to pass. My guard never closed and he began pressuring to the right. I looked to pull his right arm out and hunt for the triangle, but he saw through that and patiently held down the leg I needed to extract for the submission. He began to pass, I tried to create space and he did a low cartwheel over my leg. He passed for 3 points, I scrambled, and eventually ended up in half guard. I wanted an underhook badly but he would have none of it. We battled in half guard, I tried to sweep, which created space, but he closed the gap. His pressure was tremendous. Eventually, he passed again, got points, then I went to my knees and stood up. Luis was up on points and backed away, wanting to burn time and perhaps fix his belt. I looked to the ref if it was an official time out and he gave no indication, so I pursued. Grabbing hold of his head and arm I leapt for a flying triangle, but wasn’t quite snappy enough. I went for an arm, he ducked his head, and we were back in guard. I tried desperately to make something happen but Luis was in control as he rode out the clock. We had a flurry of activity for the last 5 seconds of the match and time was called. Luis Fraga won 6-0, via 2 guard passes, and I tip my hat to the better man.
I am both disappointed and pleased my my performance. Physically, I felt very weak. I had no power, no juice, and felt like I was running on fumes, if that. I was no match for his strength or his pressure, and I’m sure my opponent could feel it. After the 6 minutes, I was wrecked, and even if I had won, I doubt I would have been able to continue. 7 pounds in 4 days took a toll and I will never do that again. But, from the perspective of budo, my fighting spirit was strong, even if I didn’t have the fuel to make my vehicle behave properly. I knew something was awry during the warmup, as I had no spring in any of my movements, but I pushed it out of my mind. If you’re going to a certain death, at least go down swinging. In a sense, it was a personal Thermopylae, and I pushed ahead against a foe with superior experience and firepower.
Luis ended up receiving the silver medal this year, losing in the final to 5-0 to Jared Vanderzyl, a black belt under Fabio Santos. Competition jiu jitsu at this level is a totally different animal than normal training. It’s like 5 step chess: every move is critical, and the smallest mistake can mean the end. The final match went something like this: Jared got a takedown for 2 points, ending up in Luis’ half guard. After a few minutes, Jared passes for 3 points, and then goes back into Luis’ half guard. And that’s it. Game over. It’s a very exact, and highly defined expression of the art, but it’s important to note that it is not the art itself.
In many ways, I was reminded of classical piano competitions I used to do as a teenager (although, admittedly, the crowd was a bit tougher at the Pan Ams). Everyone I competed against was good pianist, but the time and effort that it took to distinguish yourself to that next level of excellence was unreal. It was not uncommon for students to practice the same song for an entire year in preparation for the next contest- in fact, it was required. I had my own limits, though. I cut myself off from practicing more than 4 hours a day, as I could see diminishing returns for the massive investments kids would make for entrance to another elite sector. It just didn’t feel right for me to spend all that time playing someone else’s music, which spurred me to explore composition, music technology, and eventually guided me into my former career as an audio engineer. Those competitions were just one aspect of music, and one arena for a specific instrument. Draw your own parallels as you see fit.
The level at this year’s Pan Am’s was amazing. I realize that to win in that elite ring is an investment, which would require frequent competitions, access to other high level training partners, and a support team to keep things running smoothly when I step away. Like everything in life, the risk reward ratio’s must be measured and opportunity costs weighed.
As Mr. Harris wrote 10 years ago after receiving his black belt, he truly felt like a white belt amongst black belts. So do I, which is why I continue to devote myself to this deep and rewarding art. It is a very unique path of personal exploration and self discovery, which can find expression in rigorously adjudicated matches or creative rolling sessions with your best friends.
Many thanks go out to those that supported me in this venture: Robert Grunder, Rick Ellis, Kip Roseman, TJ, Donald, and my girl, Julie Wilde. Thanks to Luis Fraga for giving me another chance to discover who I am, and the support from all that have written me with encouraging words. You inspire me, and I only wish to return the favor.