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Discovering Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

My first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu white belt. Being a white belt is terrifying. You don't know shit, know you will suffer and your main goal is to survive, and come back to train the next day. This is the belt I received when I joined David Branch Academy.
Being a white belt is terrifying.

Being a white belt is terrifying. You don't know shit, you will suffer, your primary goal is to survive, and then come back to train the next day. This is a photo of the belt I received when I joined David Branch BJJ Academy, in Hoboken.

Open Guard is a series about MMA fighters and their lifestyle. It will explore all the many aspects of mixed martial arts, from the sport itself, to the business side, fitness and training, and so on. MMA is a combination of various fight sports. Each discipline is a weapon you add to your arsenal. If you go into a fight with only boxing skills against a grappler, you will very likely find yourself laying on the mat in unfamiliar territory with your opponent on top of you. You can't box off your back. If you come in as a pure wrestler, you may eat a well placed knee as you shoot in on a Muay Thai practitioner and it's lights out. Or you may secure a takedown and then end up being choked by a BJJ expert. It is a high speed human chess match, so to go 3 rounds locked in that cage, in a fight with very few rules, your skillset must be diverse enough to survive your opponent's artillerie, wherever the match takes you. To be a champion you have to be a master of at least one discipline, and be so highly skilled at all the others that you could potentially win the fight in a discipline you are less proficient in, or at least use those other skills to keep the fight where you want it to be.

MMA and BJJ.

MMA is not just striking. It is a mix of various striking and grappling arts, such as kickboxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. When the fight goes to the ground, your BJJ skills are absolutely imperative, especially against a strong wrestler. BJJ is extremely powerful, but without violence (well, we will talk about that later). You can submit your opponent very quickly, using body leverage to block his airways, stop blood flow to the brain, or bend a limb until it is about to break, or in rare cases it actually does break. If you don't know any BJJ, you will be the one who gets submitted quickly and will have to tap, nap, or snap. When I started working on Open Guard, I did not realize how essential BJJ was. During my physical and technical preparation, I came to the conclusion that there was no chance I could do this project without a deep dive into the world of BJJ. By doing so, I would not only learn techniques and skills that will be useful during sparring rounds, but I would also open my eyes to a whole new aspect of MMA that I was blind to when I was focusing on kickboxing only. With no BJJ skills whatsoever, I was going into sparring sessions with an enormous disadvantage and as soon as the action went to the ground, you could be sure I would tap within seconds. I was submitted with all sorts of arm bars and chokes. Honestly, it doesn't feel great, you get tired using only your strength because you have no technique, so going back to sparring right after a submission is not easy. I decided to change that, so I bought a gi and signed up for BJJ class.

First class.

There were not a lot of other white belts that Saturday morning. The class was structured into two phases: the first half was about learning the technique, and various combinations or variants of the technique. The second half was "rolling", which is essentially a fight on the ground, with no punches or kicks. The goal is to submit your training partner as if he/she is a live opponent. While learning the technique was OK, rolling for more than 30 minutes was extremely brutal. My professor, David Branch, says that BJJ is about increasing the level of discomfort and pain on your opponent, one move after the other, until he wants to give up. Discomfort and pain means the following: Knee on belly (your knee on the belly of your opponent, with all your weight on it so it hurts), elbow on throat (with your body weight to add to it), pressure on hips, wrist locks, elbow across the face, etc. You get the point, the goal is to be a big pain in the ass. That day, I tapped a lot and was exhausted, physically and mentally and frustrated to be submitted so fast. I found rolling to be way more exhausting than sparring, and somehow more violent. With sparring, you can move around when your opponent charges at you, and reset. In BJJ, there is no such thing. You are in there, crawling, and can’t get out to reset. I suffered minor injuries, such as nail scratches, bruises, cramps, eye poke but had an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction that dominated the negative aspect of learning. I was hooked.

Second class.

One week later, I showed up for my second class (I know, one class per week is far from a deep dive in BJJ, but scheduling has been an issue and I hope to roll much more very soon). This time, everything felt different and I am not sure I can explain why. I stopped wasting my energy while rolling, I was feeling the body movements of my partner, my movements were smoother, keeping pressure, grabbing legs, controlling wrists. I was rolling! I even managed to secure a couple of arm bars and guillotine chokes. In the process, I received a few knees and elbows to the head, and at the end of a round, my partner told me I was bleeding. I cleaned up my face and went back at it. Later, at home, I discovered the signs of intense training on my gi with some red strains and proudly showed it to my wife and kids so they know that Daddy is a warrior. Later in the day, I could feel the pain in my ribs, knees and muscles, but I was feeling really good overall. I was very satisfied and thought I had accomplished a lot already, physically and mentally.

Traditional Japanese martial arts.

BJJ reminds me a lot about my Aikibudo (Japanese Jiu Jitsu) classes I took while I was 20 to 25. I was living in France at that time, and about three times a week, you could find me on the mats of a small academy working on all sorts of projections. My Sensei was excellent, and the group was passionately living through this martial art. Once in a while, we were practicing with wooden Japanese weapons. Now that I think about it, many of the body movements you learn in traditional Japanese martial arts are fundamentals in BJJ. This is maybe why, by the second class, I started seeing improvement. I guess my body was slowly remembering those movements, rotations, feelings and it all came back naturally. Aikibudo requires a Gi (called Kimono in France), and most of the techniques start with the two partners standing, one simulating an attack, the other one defending. The goal of Aikibudo is to bring your opponent to the ground using projections or arm/wrist locks. We sometimes were doing pure technique, other times we were doing boxing sparring. Some guys were pretty decent boxers, but the majority of us were just there to punch people in the face with no technique, poor cardio, and for some reason it made us happy. When I think about it now, it didn’t make any sense not to include takedowns and submissions to our sparring. I ended up stopping when I realized (late, I confess) that the attacks and defenses were far from being efficient in real life situations. Sadly, one of our black belts was attacked in a grocery store and could barely defend himself. He was knocked out and beat up, and while he recovered from the injuries, I am not sure the mental trauma ever went away. One of our black belt once told me during class that Aikibudo was worth nothing in a street fight (Sensei heard, he didn’t like it, but couldn’t argue) and that if I wanted to know how to fight, I should do a trial in a club doing Krav Maga, which I did. The efficiency of Krav Maga is often contested, almost controversial, but I found it to be excellent for self defense. I practiced for two years and learned self defense and kickboxing basics and greatly improved my cardio. Then I moved to the US where I found a Muay Thai club close to where I lived, and trained regularly for four years. When I reflect on what I have been looking for, from martial arts to combat sport, I realize that I have been looking for a real, traditional and authentic sport that carries values, a sport that would, at the same time, be useful in real life situations. I never really found it, until I stepped in my first BJJ class as a white belt early in the year 2021. If you ever practiced any traditional Japanese martial art such as Aikibudo, Judo etc, then you will probably find some similarity in BJJ that will help you at the beginning.

History and community.

Without knowing much about BJJ, I educated myself about the history of this martial art. BJJ was adapted from Judo in the early 1900's by the Gracie brothers in Brazil. The Gracie family created a martial art focusing on self-defense. BJJ took the world by storm when Royce Gracie defeated all of his opponents during the inaugural event of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), in 1993 in Denver, Colorado. Royce was smaller and lighter than all of his opponents. The rules were simple, everything was allowed except bites and eye pokes and Royce came in as the underdog given the difference in size and apparent power compared to his big muscular opponents. Royce had three opponents to defeat, and he did so in record time, all by submission. The world was left shocked and amazed. The MMA community came to realize that there is much more to fighting than 2 people punching one another in the face. BJJ is part of the game now, and it changed the sport. Over the years BJJ became more and more popular and academies opened up everywhere, many of which proudly carrying the flag of the Gracie family. Interestingly, there is a unique and very strong sense of community amongst BJJ practitioners. I feel like this is because Gracie Jiu Jitsu was created and promoted by an actual family. The other sport I can think of with a similar connection between athletes is wrestling. You're not just another person in the academy, you instantly become part of the clan and everyone seems to accept that. There is a community of fervent BJJ supporters, active on the mats, outside the gym and online. On the mat, blue belts and purple belts will help you go through difficult positions. People will ask you what your name is, warmly welcome you, congratulate you at the end of the class, and make you feel good. Because the goal is to submit your opponent with techniques that can be devastating or even lethal, trusting your partner is extremely important. Going slow, being in control, paying attention to the pain you introduce on your opponent's bones, muscles or joint are essentials. This creates trust bonds with your partner.

Gi Class at David Branch BJJ Academy.

Outside of the academy, there is a kind of recognition that you belong to a tribe when you tell someone you do BJJ. As explained above, BJJ is violent and people's perception of who you are can change when you tell them you do BJJ. And online, well, this is where the community is probably the most active. You will find tons of debates about technique, videos, articles. There is also the business side of BJJ too, with instructional video content accessible via memberships, gi manufactures, streetwear, sportswear, gear bags, custom compression tees, hats, whatever you wish. But how can you talk about BJJ on the internet and not talk about the best part, the memes. Memes about BJJ are absolutely hilarious and are very real to me now that I know the sport a little bit more. They highlight the toughness of the sport, the difficulty you go through when you start, the mentality of athletes, in the funniest way. If you want a good laugh, I encourage you to check out some BJJ memes.

Recently, I received my first stripe and even if this may appear to be the smallest milestone in my journey, it meant a lot to me and all my teammates warmly congratulated me. This first stripe means I didn’t give up mentally, progressed technically and am going to stick around for a little while. I can already notice small improvements while sparring thanks to the time I spent on the mats learning BJJ. Even though I still get submitted, I don’t panic anymore and have more control over what is happening.

Finally, the concept behind Open Guard is to have an authentic conversation with fighters. This is why I am training so much. I want the discussion to start like a rolling session. We will high five, fist bump and roll through the challenging aspects of life as a mixed martial artist. I want to discover MMA by experiencing it, similarly to how I would learn a new BJJ technique. Your partner starts by showing you the technique, you see the various steps, feel the pressure, tap and then it is your turn. BJJ is an exchange of skills, and Open Guard will be an exchange of life experiences. The parallel between Open Guard and BJJ is huge, that is why the series is named after a BJJ guard.

One stripe at a time

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