My journey in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu started five years ago with a road rage incident.
I’d love to tell you I was blameless in creating this situation but that would be a lie. Like most cases of road rage, both parties were at fault. I had aggressively responded to another man’s aggressive driving. I had even gone so far to chase him down. But I immediately regretted that decision when he jumped out of his car.
I am no pushover, some would describe me as tall and athletic. Unfortunately, the other guy was also tall and athletic and, unlike me, he looked like he had been in fights before. He was imposing and fearsome and when he got out of his car I thought, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” I had a vision of my life as a newspaper headline: “Man killed by another man over something incredibly stupid.”
This clarity, thankfully, gave me the wisdom to de-escalate the situation. The other man yelled and shouted and I sat in my seat with the doors locked, hands on the wheel, looking straight off into the distance. I’ve learned this is a good strategy from nature specials where people avoid making eye contact with angry gorillas and I’ve practiced it several times with my ex-wife. In this case, thankfully, it worked. The other man eventually got back into his car and drove away when he realized I wasn’t going to step out and risk getting myself killed.
I felt a range of emotions after this embarrassing moment. First and foremost, I felt incredibly stupid to get so angry that I put myself into a dangerous situation that was completely unnecessary. That shame was tempered slightly by how I had successfully de-escalated it by staying calm and riding it out. I didn’t feel cowardly for staying in my car with the doors locked, that was actually my smartest decision in the whole sorry incident.
But this moment also forced me to confront the fact that I had no idea how to fight. None whatsoever. It saddened me to think of all the hours I’d spent in gyms and weight rooms, making myself stronger, faster, fitter, but I’d never properly learned how to use these muscles I’d developed in a real-world fight.
It was embarrassing for me to think that, in a situation where a fight was inevitable, I would call upon skills I had gleaned from a couple of boxing classes, some karate, and an assortment of Kung Fu movies from the 60s and 70s. Everything I knew about fighting was theoretical and while The Matrix is a very entertaining movie, it is a very poor martial arts instructor.
The question nagged at me, “If there was a fight, what would I do and how would I do?” As men, we like to imagine how we would act in these moments but if I were to answer those questions honestly, I would have no idea what to do and I would fare very poorly. That answer bothered me a lot so I set out on changing it and that led me to my first Jiu Jitsu class.
There is a saying in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that the hardest step in Jiu Jitsu is the first time you step into the gym. It’s true and I still remember the moment five years later. I stood in front of a door with only a small window giving a small glimpse inside. I had no idea what was on the other side – it could mall karate or Fight Club. I took a deep breath, thought “Here we go”, and opened up the door and began my journey into this strange and wonderful sport/martial art.
For those of you who don’t know anything about it, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a grappling sport so there’s no striking - no punching, kicking, or using your knees or elbows. You might think this would reduce the violence but it just made us more creative and, trust me, they’ve come up with some real doozies. Sometimes our instructor will demonstrate a move and I will wince and think “How could you possibly do something like that to another human being.” If you don’t believe me, look up a move called “The Kimura” on YouTube. We regularly do moves designed to dislocate shoulders, break arms at the elbows, and legs at the knees when we’re not actively trying to choke you. Sometimes when I describe Jiu Jitsu to people I say, “All the moves that are illegal in wrestling.”
The reason for this is because the goal, unlike American wrestling, is not to pin your opponent to the mat for a three count but rather inflict a state of pain and discomfort through these locks and chokes until your partner or opponent submits by tapping the mat, or you, or audibly saying “Tap.” When they do, you immediately release the hold. This is known as “Being submitted.” Think back to the days on the playground where a bully would grab some smaller kid, put his arm behind his back, and command the poor kid to say “Uncle.” We do a more organized version of that.
The thing I like about Jiu Jitsu best is its battle tested. Our class consists of some warmups, some instruction on a technique, and then something called “free roll” where we wrestle one another in pairs for 5 minute rounds. This wrestling is where the rubber hits the road. You aren’t punching at air or at defenseless punching bags, you are grappling with a real-life opponent and you can see what works and what does not. Feedback is immediate and oftentimes, very painful.
The thing that is perhaps most interesting about Jiu Jitsu is its less about athleticism and strength and more about fighting smart. It was developed and formalized into a system by a man who weighed 130 pounds who could not rely on his superior size and strength to defeat opponents. No, he had to learn how to use leverage and balance and turn someone’s force against them. He had to be clever and he invented a system that you can spend a lifetime studying and still have more to learn.
But now as I close in on my purple belt and five years after the road rage incident that got me interested in Jiu Jitsu, I can safely say I know how to handle myself in a fight. But I can also tell you, after five years of training, that I never ever want to get into a fight. It’s perhaps counterintuitive but studying this martial art where we learn to break arms and choke people unconscious has made me incredibly peaceful and calm.
I’ve described the sport in exaggerated terms here for humorous effect, I can tell you that Jiu Jitsu isn’t just about fighting. It’s more about life and how to deal with problems skillfully where no one gets hurt. Subduing opponents and safely de-escalating dangerous situations is at the core of the art. It’s remarkable but five years of learning the ways of violence have made incredibly reluctant to engage in it. As we say in the sport, “No one wins in a street fight.”