I Was a White Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for Twelve Years

I was recently promoted to the rank of blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by Professor Hans Hutton. But my first BJJ class was all the way back in late 2006. At the time of writing, that was almost twelve years ago. Yes, you read that right. I was a white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for twelve years.

Blue belt promotion under Professor Hans Hutton, June, 2018

I initially became interested in the martial art and sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu while in the home stretch to earn my shodan (first degree black belt) in Japanese jujutsu. I was the personal student of my sensei, and was training in that far more traditional art 5x a week.

So I can’t say it didn’t hurt when I realized upon learning about “that other kind of jiu jitsu” that most of the techniques I had spent so many years trying to master would not be any more useful to me in a real fight than knowing how to tie the belt.

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Japanese jujutsu black belt test at UC Santa Cruz. Hakama give you wiiiiiiiiings!

My first Brazilian jiu jitsu class was in 2006 at the University of California Santa Cruz, in the school BJJ club run by Paul Schreiner and Garth Taylor. I distinctly remember one day asking Paul if wrist locks worked from standing; Paul held out his hand and told me to turn his wrist. I couldn’t. So much for my black belt in Japanese jujutsu.

And so I jumped in, head-first. Within days of starting, I became totally enamored by BJJ. I watched every Gracie challenge on YouTube and went to as many classes as possible. I got pinned to the mat by 1,000-pound knees belonging to guys who had used their training in real fights, in MMA matches, or at the beach, or wherever. My second week, one blue belt got frustrated with me being unable to perform a hip throw during a self-defense drill and told me, “If you do that again, I’m going to toss you on your head.”

It was awesome. What was normal in BJJ class would’ve been grounds for immediate dismissal in my former, more traditional art. Bloody, drenched in sweat, and aching in muscles I didn’t know existed, I was hooked.

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East Cliff, Santa Cruz, CA

But, as painful as this is to admit this even with more than a decade of hindsight, I was also undisciplined and immature back then… even more so than I am now.

I brought friends to class who ended up training more often than I did. We were all so stoked on “the Jits” that we would even hold fight nights in the living room of our college house and wrestle each other to submission on the carpet, sandwiched between a huge, probably lethal brick fireplace and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that led out to the porch. Not the greatest or safest place to train. We would talk on and on about jiu jitsu at parties like we were guests on the Joe Rogan podcast, but with each passing month I began to dread training, because I secretly hated to lose.

I was young and dumb, and didn’t understand the value of consistency. Twenty-one year-old me was too much of an egotistical little shit to realize that I had to get back on the horse as soon as I was done falling.

So I fell, and I fell.

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Fight Nights at Sunnyslopes, AKA “The Real Sunny Hill,” ft. Sean and Josue. I miss that Lord of the Rings poster…

By early 2008, within a year of starting BJJ, I had quit. Of course, I didn’t know I had quit. In my heart, mind, and occasional YouTube comments, I was still 100% “in” jiu jitsu. But I started making excuses and stopped going to class: “I’ll go next week,” “I tapped that new guy with an Americana from mount, so I don’t need to go to class,” or the most common, “I still hurt from the last one… I’ll go back next week.”

I still wanted to train, and dreamed of one day not tapping every five seconds. I constantly told myself I would get serious about it again “soon,” but could not bring myself to put in the mat time necessary to improve.

Days turned into months and months into years. I spent the next eight years being THAT GUY, the one who shows up to class once or twice a month, takes it personally when he gets steamrolled, and disappears again. I moved from school to school, and city to city like a drunk looking for his next storefront to sleep in. I took my inevitable defeats on the mat as personal bruises rather than what they are, as opportunities to grow.

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Don’t. Quit.

Although quitting jiu jitsu back in 2008 is probably my life’s biggest regret, the lesson I take from it is that it’s never too late to pursue the things in life that give me a sense of purpose, just as it is never too late to try to amend my mistakes.

I have struggled with depression since I was a teenager. Sometimes, it was crippling. When I moved abroad for work in 2013, the demon came back in a bad way. Then one night, after an eye-opening conversation outside a Scottish bar with a fellow martial artist (and now dear friend), I had an epiphany and saw that maybe self-medicating my problems with alcohol, funny memes, and horror fiction was no longer the only option.

Why not go back to jiu jitsu? Why not try again? Is there anything stopping me but fear, and my regret about quitting? 

I asked this to myself, and I had no decent answer.

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Krakow, the city of Polish kings, and the place where I fell in love with jiu jitsu again.

So, I enrolled in a BJJ academy in Krakow, Poland, where I was living at the time. The instructors spoke English very well, and immediately welcomed me on the mat despite that I was foreign and my Polish was terrible. Those first few months back in were rough. I got my ass kicked by 16 year-old prodigies and big new guys alike. Three months in, I tore my groin and had to sit out for another few months. That false start, and the guilt I already felt for being gone so long, took their toll.

But I did what I had never successfully done up to that point, and I got back on the horse. My injury healed and I kept going to class. Eventually I reached the point where I was training 3x a week. I pushed myself to not miss class unless I was sick. I was sad to leave the academy when it came time for me to go back to the United States, but I knew that no matter where I landed, I had to keep training.

My career as a screenwriter for video games has given me many opportunities to travel, but this has also meant I never stay in one place for long… jiu jitsu academies being no exception. In the three years since I started training again, I’ve been enrolled at four academies: in Krakow, in Boston, in Los Angeles, and my current school in Munich. I’ve done two BJJ Globetrotters camps, and dropped in at at least ten schools in the USA and abroad while I was traveling. At each of these places, I got my ass kicked, I made dear friends, I learned great techniques, and most of all, I felt like I was with family.

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A finer group of human beings, I have never met: Hidden Hand Jiu Jitsu in Hermosa Beach, CA.

That is what jiu jitsu is to me. It is the family I get to choose. And family isn’t only there to make you feel good or support you when times are tough. Family is also there to push you and force you to try to become the best version of yourself.

My experience in jiu jitsu so far fills me most of all with a deep sense of gratitude. What a privilege it is to take these first steps on my journey with so many incredible people. How lucky I am to learn these lessons from them: that no matter what negative bullshit life throws my way, I still have the power to grow; and no matter how dark things get sometimes, there is still always a place I can go to feel welcome and where my problems vanish, where I can find tranquility: the mat.

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BJJ Globetrotters Summer Camp in Copenhagen, 2017.

Whenever I travel to a new city, whether it’s for work or leisure, I always bring my gi. A few weeks ago I was vacationing in the Black Sea region with some work friends. We were in Chisinau, and my first Google search was for BJJ academies. I found one and dropped in for a few classes. The experience was incredible. Most of the guys had only been training a few months under their instructor, a brown belt, and I don’t think any of them were older than twenty. Yet the students were tough, and the instruction amazing despite the language barrier. After only a few classes, I felt I had made friends who I would be happy to see again ten or twenty years from now.

Some people tell me I am crazy for training when I’m on the road. But I know that deep down, there is a quitter in me who would love nothing more than to win. I cannot let him. If I take a break of one or two weeks for no reason other than I’m in a new place, he might peak his ugly face out and throw me off the path. Weeks could turn into months again and months into years. Of course I still struggle with putting my ego in check every time I get smashed and feel butthurt about it, but here is one example of where ego can be a good thing: if I let my inner quitter win, it would mean one more fall, and I’ve already been down that path – I don’t want to go there again.

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Dropping in for a class at Bercut Fight Club in Chisinau, Moldova

To me, Brazilian jiu jitsu is the most miraculous invention ever created by man. It teaches the weak to become strong, the cowards to become brave, and the smaller person to prevail by using leverage and gravity. But jiu jitsu is even more miraculous than that. It taught a depressive, lazy, pessimistic fuck like me the value of discipline.

I have learned that defeat, injury, and illness are not merely frustrating setbacks, but inevitable ones. Even with the desire to train hard and improve, sometimes there will be real reasons I cannot; from viruses,to broken digits, to my life uprooting and thrusting me elsewhere across the globe. There is nothing I can do to prevent temporary set backs. The only thing I can control is picking up and moving forward again.

Killers in action at Hutton Academy, Munich, Germany

I try to think of cities that have never been rebuilt. I cannot. I try to think of artists who created works I admire who did not similarly go through many periods of self-destruction and rebirth. Again, I cannot. My friends and family have changed – and I have changed also, haven’t I? I have, many times, and often I have grown and adapted with or because of those people.

Perhaps, so it is in jiu jitsu, it is also in life: the things that are most meaningful to us are those that we must perpetually rebuild in the hope of making them better.

I know this is only the beginning, and I eagerly await all that lies ahead.

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Lots of gis at the BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp.

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