What a strange new hobby I’ve adopted, this last year spent writhing around under florescent lights with men whom intend me harm, gnashing teeth and painful grunts—I think this is what the 80’s were like. I do this by choice, the writhing and wrestling thing. Hours upon hours of each week dedicated to the art of synthetic combat, everything about my thirties becoming harder and harder to explain to my Grandmother. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a strange name for what we’re doing. It’s like bellying up to some slop hole for breakfast and ordering a glass of Ecuadorian Coffee to go with your hashed Idaho Potatoes and two fried fetuses from Davy-May’s Local Farm Fresh Eggery & Discount Tire. It’s like Judo, but with fewer loud grunty flips and tosses, and the name—Jiu Jitsu—just another adopted Japanese phrase for “the gentle art,” or whatever other lie we use to get middle aged divorcees to put on the leggings and take an overpriced kickboxing course. It’s “Brazilian” Jiu Jitsu, which sounds exotic, like the wrong kind of internet research might have you shaving things and hitting the tanning bed, arriving for your first class more ready for an orgy than combat wrestling. Same thing in some circles, I suppose.
It all started with the infamous Gracie family, which I realize is partially true now that I finish typing this sentence. Like every martial art, there are sixteen different accounts on who invented what, who kicked whose ass, challenge matches and all that style-vs-style stuff we keep reading in the subtitles to our favorite slap-fu movies. Ten thousand years ago, some husky handsome bastard named Maeda swum his way from Japan on the back of a dragon, his intentions to bring Judo to the world, so the story goes. When racial bigotry kicked him off most continents, the Brazilians handed him a mixed drink, a green flag, threw him on the dance floor, and got him popping and locking with the mocha skinned beauties for which they are famous.
Questionably vague stories about the Gracies helping Maeda “get established” in Brazil float around, but the long and short of it is that a Gracie guy named Carlos learned Judo from the mysterious Japanese fighter, then taught his brothers. Helio, one of the brothers, was sick and frail, and after communing with a magical talking serpent made of rainbows, modified the stuff to help smaller folk break arms and choke people out. Wikipedia has other accounts, but we’ve already made it this far, and I think the stuff about dragons makes the story sound less like a History channel documentary on rock quarries, and more like one of Joe Rogan’s mushroom freak-outs.
Years later we start to see those grainy VHS tapes of Brazilians in pajamas, writhing around with challengers from different schools with different arts and different ideas on combat. Each one plays out the same, a few seconds of flailing and loud “hi-ya’s,” followed by what looks like two koala’s lazily wrestling over a peanut, then the Brazilian guy casually walks away from an unconscious body. The first few Ultimate Fighting Championship fights ended this way, and at the time they were the most boring thing on your television since something something 90’s sitcom joke. Royce Gracie, lanky son number twenty-six from Helio’s infamous loins, arrived at the UFC and with his writhing and wrestling broke down the meatheads and super-ninjas in devastating and frustrating new ways. Locking up arms and legs, snapping bones and choking people into unconsciousness all from the most uncommon of places: the ground.
The frilly dance moves of the martial arts classes Americans had been taking for years and years were all thrown out of the cage by, as far as they new, some tricky brown dude with high cheekbones. Cut to twenty years later, and that ground fighting stuff that Royce was showcasing is a staple in cage fighting. You can bring your Taekwondo and stick-fighting skills into the ring if you want, but as we see in every match these days, if you don’t know your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (or how to stay on your feet), the match is over before it begins. Cut to the YouTube videos of rowdy gang bangers in a dirty Burger King getting choked out by some dude in a Harry Potter t-shirt.
I got into the punchy kicky world of martial arts in my early twenties, sneaking off to Aikido classes and earning a variety of colored belts over several years, but I never felt terribly safe with the stuff I was learning. Aikido was fun, good exercise, and taught me a lot about joint manipulation, balance, and how to interact with a diverse set of hippies who own actual throwing stars, but I wasn’t sure about using it in the much-lauded “real world.” I had a brown belt before I quit, a couple of tests away from the big black dresses they like to wear, but I always knew that unless I traveled back in time a few hundred years and started carrying a sword, or started a Color Me Bad revival, I wasn’t going to be doing much self-defending. After a bit of research and trying an actual BJJ class for myself, I was instantly converted and addicted. I’d left the world of respectful bowing and walking on egg-shells around a Sensei, to the bro-heavy arena of fist bumping and painful tap-outs. I never thought I’d be that guy, but I’m in love.
At work, two very different men paint me with two very different brushes. The one likes to tell people that I’m a UFC fighter, which I warn him is a fast way to getting my ribs kicked apart in the parking lot by some young somebody. The other likes to crouch down in his chair, splay his fingers apart to form “tickle hands,” and tell people in a creepy voice that I “like to wrestle.” Showing up to the workplace with blood or a scratch or an ice pack on one of my joints may seem big-balled and macho to the uninitiated, but I know the story—I woke up at 5am, drove to the academy, then had my ass kicked for a couple of hours by someone eighty pounds lighter than myself and several years older.
The gym is an informal thing. We do wear the pajamas (odd days we just wear shorts), and have a few belts that take decades to get, and we do a quick bow to get on the mat, but that’s it. There is no Sensei, only a coach. There are no formal tests, only real live wrestling-skill progress. There’s no strange formality about fighting someone (referred to as “rolling”) and it’s all done in an atmosphere of properly channeled testosterone, a quick hand-slap starts the match, and a buzzer or someone rapidly tapping with their fingers stops it. It’s a big ugly brilliant Brazilian thing, learning to fight like this, all elbows and knees, legs flying everywhere, trying to keep things as hetero as possible while you and another man sweat and grind all over each other. A passing description of the stuff could easily refer to either a combat sport or slow creepy prison rape.
You can’t just pay dues and break boards for two years, in BJJ you either get better and win, or you don’t progress, so black-belts are harder to find. The guy who heads up the academy, referred to as Professor (I don’t know, ask the Brazilians) is a black belt, and ours is a young, smiley, happy, friendly, deadly assassin bloodthirsty murder machine. He’s actually Brazilian too, which helps with the authenticity of it all, but I’ve only ever spoken to the guy twice: Once when I was promoted, and again when the class went to a loud bar to watch UFC fights on television, where I asked about his youth and he nodded saying “yeah, probably.”
I take the morning class, up at five and two bathroom trips later, on to the mat for training. It means I don’t really know anyone else from the gym aside from the guys I train with and my coach, who’s fond of farting during a roll or singing “hello darkness my old friend,” in my ear after sinking a particularly devastating choke hold. It’s a weird hobby for me. I like my English bulldog, smoking my pipe, sitting in a chair, butterscotch, reading, air conditioning and complaining about people younger than me. I also awake unreasonably early and go to fight club. Your day starts with a cup of coffee, and mine starts with a stranger laying on me while someone in the corner commands him to break my arm. Maybe I should learn to knit.