I know the title of my blog is All About Judo, but this article is going to be primarily about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and how my views of the sport have drastically changed over past almost 11 months.
I will start by saying that until January of this year I had absolutely no interest in anything to do with BJJ other than what I saw when watching the UFC fights every few weeks with my friends from judo. For the past few years my club has been keeping score at local BJJ tournaments as a fund-raiser. This had done nothing to change my interest in the sport. I know I said in a previous article (http://www.allaboutjudo.com/purest-thug/) that I was a proud judo thug, but in all honestly, I’m a purest in that I have never had any interest in any other martial art or sport pretty much since I started judo. As a purest I have always thought judo to be superior to BJJ. If you are into BJJ don’t freak out, that is what I thought, not what I currently think. My primary focus is still judo but I have definitely gained a huge amount of respect for BJJ and its practitioners.
I didn’t have a problem with anyone for being in BJJ, but after going to the tournaments and seeing what, compared to a judo tournament, is total chaos is hard to get used to. I’ve been going to these tournaments for about 2 years and still don’t truly understand the rules or scoring. The other thing that drives me crazy is how they let the action carry on into the other competition area. They also literally let them go to the floor with people sitting all around the edge of the mats. I don’t think I will ever get use to that aspect of BJJ. I also don’t care for how long the refs will just let the fighters lay in guard or side control. In judo we don’t get enough time on the ground but in BJJ they get way too much. I know judo is not perfect, and even less so now that the IJF is taking more and more judo out of judo, but that is not the point of this article. I will also admit that I had a preconceived notion of the typical BJJ player, meatheads all covered in tattoos from head to toe. Of course there are plenty of judo players with tattoos but it is less common to see a judo player, in my experience, completely covered in tattoos.
As I said, until January I had absolutely no interest in trying BJJ. So what happened in January? We were looking for some other programs to fill the down time in our dojo, Denver Judo, and we got a call from a guy who wanted to teach BJJ. Two guys came in on a Saturday in January after judo practice to talk to us and of course the first thing I thought was that they fit my stereotype of a BJJ fighter. They were both covered in tattoos! They both turned out to be really nice guys and started changing my opinion of BJJ right away. What I was most impressed with was their attitude toward teaching and learning. They both talked about how impressed with the “vibe” of Denver Judo and they did not want to just rent space from us and teach BJJ, they wanted to be part of our community. I had not realized that one of them had taken the beginning judo class a few years ago with one of our other instructors.
I was very impressed with them personally and while I am prone to snap judgments like thinking a certain way when I see someone with lots of tattoos, I am able to recognize this flaw and realize when my initial impression is completely wrong. We talked about what they wanted, which actually included working together to help us all grow and become better. I really liked their approach and wanted to encourage our judo student to give it a try so Heidi and I decided to give it a try as well. Heidi had taken a few classes but I had not, so in February of this year we both stayed after judo practice for the first BJJ class and we loved it. So this is how Alchemy Martial Arts joined forces with Denver Judo.
When I decided to try the BJJ class I thought it would be fun but that was really all I thought it would be. I have to say I loved it. Our coaches Joey Chase and Jason Cox really do an excellent job and it has been a great experience so far. One of the things that struck me is that I am not nearly as good a grappler as I thought I was. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never thought I am a great judo player but I have always thought I was pretty good on the ground, but BJJ has opened my eyes to a lot of not necessarily new techniques, although there is plenty of that too, but new concepts and a new way of looking at things. As I said before, I am first and foremost a judoka but even in the short time I have been studying BJJ I have started to change the way I view and even teach grappling.
Heidi and I did very well initially because of our years of judo and in my case wrestling too, so there was some initial talk of bumping us up in rank but when I talked to coach Joey, I told him that I don’t want to be promoted because I’m a black belt in judo and aggressive on the mat, I want to be promoted on merit when I earn it. So I guess that was when I realized I was going to be sticking with it for a while. After a few months, he did promote me to 4 stripes on my white belt but Heidi who had competed in a few BJJ tournaments in the past, competed in a local event and dominated her division then walked through the absolute division so Joey promoted her to blue belt on the spot. I was very proud of Heidi but I was also proud of my stripes. It’s funny that after 26 years in judo and earning a 5th degree black belt, how excited and proud I was to get my 4 stripes on my white belt.
It was cool to go to the BJJ tournaments and see people from our club doing well and actually knowing, sort of, what was going on. Then there was talk about me competing. Even though my views on BJJ had gone 180 degrees in the other direction I was not planning on competing. If you have been following this blog you will know that I retired from competition in 2007 and the way I look at it, retired people do not compete. Plus over the past 4 years I have had my rotator cuff (shoulder) repaired then had my biceps tendon on the same arm cut and reattached, and that is since retiring from competition. When it came up again one day I said “I’m retired and retired people don’t compete” to which Jason replied, “You are retired from judo, not jiu jitsu!” I couldn’t think of anything to say to that so I left it alone.
A few months down the road there was another tournament in Denver and only God knows why, but I mentioned to Heidi that I might consider fighting. I thought I might be a hypocrite if I didn’t at least compete once. I have always thought that anyone who practices a sport should at least try competing once. How do you test what you are learning if you only train with the same people and never do it live. I couldn’t very well tell my students they should try it at least once if I was not willing to do the same.
The bigger issue for me finally came out in a conversation with my wife, when I told her not to register me yet, I still wasn’t sure. I told her that if I was going to be totally honest, I was afraid, not of fighting, I have been fighting/wrestling my entire life, but I was afraid of fighting and not living up to what I thought everyone’s expectations of me were. It’s hard for me to admit this to myself, much less anyone else but my ego was getting the better of me. Not that I think I am so good at judo, just that because I was a Paralympic and World Champion in judo, I worried that if I did not do well in the tournament, I would let everyone down and lessen their opinion of me. Plus my son would be there and he has only seen videos of me winning, he had never seen me compete. So there was a lot of pressure to win, or so I thought. I was also concerned that I had been having trouble with some nagging injuries all summer plus I had been sick so I wasn’t in as good a shape as I would have liked.
A few days before the registration deadline I had a talk to our coach, Joey and he completely understood my though process but he reminded me that all the pressure I was under was all of my own doing and that no matter how I did I would still be Paralympic Champ and World Champ and this was something different. Then he said something along the lines, but of course you are going to kill it, or something like that, so I put my ego aside and entered the tournament.
I have to say, I am so glad I did it. Even though I was a white belt in BJJ I had to fighting in at least the blue belt division, so for my first tournament I entered the over 30 division in the 185-205 class. It was a really great experience so I am definitely going to do it again but I am working on getting down below the 185 mark to fight smaller guys. When I competed in judo, it didn’t matter if I fought a bunch of long grueling matches or 2 30 second matches, the next day my back and neck were always extremely sore. Because I spend so much time in my first math in guard posturing up to pass the guard, my abdomen, especially on the left side was so sore. I fought on Saturday and my 45th birthday was the following Monday and I told Heidi that this was the first time I have ever woken up on my birthday and literally felt older.
In case you’re wondering, I did win., mostly because, though I was out ranked, I was a much more experienced competitor, and I had some really good coaching. I won’t go into the details of all the fights here but the first guy I fought was definitely the best and being that I got sick the day before the tournament I was exhausted and my forearms were hard as bricks. He was a super nice guy and thanked me for the opportunity to fight. I thanked him and told him it was my first tournament in a while so I was hoping for a fish the first round and definitely did not get one. He told me he was hoping for the same thing. The matched ended 0-0 but because I was more aggressive and was in control for most of the match, or something like that. I won. I was standing there at the end trying to tie my belt with my dead arms thinking I was going into overtime. When the ref raised my hand I was confused but so happy I didn’t have to continue right then.
I tweaked my back in the second match and was really not sure if I would be able to continue into the final. I couldn’t lift my left arm and Coach Joey asked Heidi if he should pull me. Heidi told him I knew my body and my limits and was experienced enough to pull out if I didn’t think I could fight. Fortunately I had long enough between the semi-final and the final for my back to feel a little better, so I went into the final and threw the much taller guy with drop seoi nage (one arm shoulder throw) then got side control and held on to win. During a scramble I ended up with him in my guard right near the end and I even got to pull spider guard which I had worked on a little in practice. You’ll have to google that if you don’t know but apparently stumpy legged people like me don’t often use it, but I like it. When they were awarding the medals, Coach Joey presented me with my blue belt, which was awesome too.
Joey and I talked and we decided that if I fight once more in the 30 and over division and win again I will fight the next one in the regular division and take a shot at the younger guys.
The point of my article was not to talk about the tournament but just to tell you about my experiences so far with BJJ and why I decided to try it in the first place. I typically go to 3-4 judo workouts per week and 3-4 BJJ workouts per week when I’m able. Actually, now our Friday night classes are combined so I only have to do 1.5 hours on Friday rather than 3. That is a lot of fun and I get to train with and coach the judo guys at one end of the mat then go to the other end and learn an ankle lock, it’s a blast. I still get about 3 hours in on Saturday.
I’ve always liked the phrase “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Now I’m actually trying to live by it. Our coaches are truly great guys and great teachers/coaches, and I have truly enjoyed having Alchemy Martial Arts affiliated with Denver Judo. We make a great team and I hope this continues for a long, long time. I will always be a judoka at heart but now I am a judoka who has developed a love for BJJ.
As always, thanks for reading.
I’ll talk to you soon,