Yesterday I was promoted to brown belt in Jiu Jitsu after 7 years of training. To make it even better, the belt is under the wizard himself, Malachy Friedman. For all you non Jiu Jitsu friends, getting a new belt happens only 4 times over a 10+ span of time. In the economy of the sport, this is a red letter day.
I was absolutely surprised. This year has been a break out year for my training, but I still felt like there was more room for me to grow before such a thing. I'm almost uncomfortable with it right now. I feel like I found a thousand dollars in a parking lot.
I'm mostly thankful to have made it this far, and I'm reminded of how I started and how this sport has come to shape my life.
I found Jiu Jitsu in Copenhagen in 2011. I found it in pain and I found it in transition. It was the year where everything I knew was ending. My marriage, my faith, and my brother passing away. The tectonic plates of my life were shifting. My ex didn't get Jiu Jitsu, and neither did a lot of other people in my life.
In their defense, there is nothing worse than a white belt's enthusiasm for the sport. Its a kid that just got into card magic (also something my ex had to endure from me haha). You're gonna hear about it, and you're gonna have to listen.
Jiu Jitsu was important to me then because it gave me permission to be strong and to practice survival and attempt dominance. At a time when I felt like life was running the tables on me, here was a place where I could take all my love, and all my hate and pour it all out and walk out clean.
I'll never forget doing the warm ups extra hard one day as I was in the middle of divorce and apartment hunting and my coach making fun of me for it. But damn it was such a relief.
As it became a small sliver of my newly minted identity, I noticed things about myself. My body looked better, my shoulders more square. And more interestingly, when I would be out at bars or clubs, I was completely relaxed. The worst thing that could happen is someone tackle me to the ground and try to keep me there. And I was paying 500 Kroner a month for someone to do that 3 days a week. It made me more calm.
I made new friends. One of my first friends in the sport was a girl named Sabine. A unassuming German girl who was a white belt like me, but unlike me she was good haha. In my experience, women are an often times an underrated part of a gym culture. They learn early that power can only be overcome by technique and thus are often times better students of the game. Sabine always encouraged me and still does. I'll never forget when I was going to compete at the Danish open and she said she would be mad at me if I didn't do well. She was joking, but I have always been the type of person that rises to other people's faith in me. We are still friends and I can't wait to see her get her brown belt one day.
Another early grappling friend was a chef named Haan. It was Haan and Lisa's couch that I slept on when I broke up with my ex. He was a blue belt from Canada, and he was a great older brother character to give me advice on how to not be a dumb fuck white belt. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to meet a lot of Sabine's and a lot of Haan's.
One of the funniest moments from my earliest experiences in the sport happened at my going away party. It was there that I would meet a woman who would take on a huge significance in my life. We hit it off that night and she ended up spending the night. This was very new to me, being a recently divorced jesus boy. As we laid in the dark, she said to me
"want to know at what point I decided I was coming home with you?".
"Yes" I replied trying not to immediately produce a pen and paper to make notes on.
"When I heard you talking about Jiu Jitsu and grappling... I just knew you would know how to handle a body".
In retrospect that sounds like murder, but at the time it was hot and sweet and more importantly, a revelation.
This thing that other people saw as a reason to reject me was at the same time and in the same city, a reason for other people to want me.
I don't do Jiu Jitsu for other people, but its effect on others through me will always be a part of my life I'm sure.
After I moved back to Charleston, I looked for a gym to continue my training. I was a newly minted blue belt, and was excited to keep going. Then one day, doing a drop in class at a local gym, I hurt my back for the first time. It was awful. I was trying to build momentum in my life and this was the last thing I needed. I would wake up with red hot pain in the middle of the night, sciatic type symptoms. I couldn't put my ass flat in a chair for six months. It was discouraging. Physical therapy and time brought me back, but it was a journey.
I eventually ended up in a dirty gym in North Charleston 6 months later on the mats with Casey Collias, the teacher and later friend who would one day give me my purple belt. This was a very formative experience too. The gym was kind of a sinking ship, but on that sinking ship we had a strong Jiu Jitsu program where I met some life long friends that I still train with every week. We trained hard every day. Flow rolls was a punch line. We were only trying to go hard. Case in point, my first day there, I got caught in a purple belts triangle choke. I had my hand in so I didn't want to tap. He squeezed the triangle so hard that my nose almost broke against my own hand and swolle up like Geraldo.
It sounds weird to enjoy some of this painful training. But in my life, I was also in pain. I was starting over. I was living in my mother's house at 30, I was driving a $1100 car with no power steering and I was broke. But I was also building myself.
The theme of Jiu Jitsu in my life is that it gives me the strength to self identify in hard times. That is still true.
My current gym ATT Lowcountry, has been a crazy ride.
When that old sinking ship gym in North Charleston was dying, Malachy was planning a long awaited move back to Charleston to start his school. I had grown suspicious of other schools. A lot of times, we had local black belts visit who were not good at all. Even though I was just a purple, I didn't want to put my time in somewhere where I could touch the bottom of the pool with my toes. That concern was addressed in a 3 minute roll with Malachy in which he passed my guard, then let me re-guard oooooohhhh 15 times? Not exaggerating.
He was a good sport about it. He knew everyone had to test him before they would trust him. He was there in those early steps. He was there when we first got to know each other training in his morning classes. He came to my first headlining comedy show with his wife Sarah (the heart of our gym). He sympathized when I had yet another terrible back injury that put me out for a year. He had been through much worse and he was well acquainted with the fear and the despair that seeps into everything, not to mention the almost constant pain that back injuries can create. He had endured them, and he was my sherpa through it. He was also there when I started coming back. Getting beat by everyone, being out of shape. He was also there when I was getting therapy and slowly building my game up. He was there screaming his head off when I lost badly at IBJJF in May, he was there in the aftermath when I was embarrassed telling me that this happens to everyone, and he was there this summer when I won IBJJF in Orlando against tough competition. Never trying to crowd me, never trying to make it about himself, just quietly acknowledging the moment then moving on to the next.
The whole time, and I mean the whole time, I think I've heard less then ten direct compliments from him. And the truth is, I like that. Its so easy to say nice things to people so they will like you more, but he doesn't have that gear. I need an outside voice. I need someone to push me. But I really don't like being overinflated. It always makes me trust someone's judgement way less.
Malachy is an easily misunderstood person. His exterior is blunt, but underneath that is a deep seated intelligence and genuine concern for the lives of the people he teaches. He's a man of commitments with uncomfortable intensity. His gym and his family are everything. He has spent his life and time mastering one thing. In that regard, we couldn't be more different. I think thats why I know ATT is where I have grown the most.
Our team is so special too. They are the most good natured group of pyschos and nerds I've ever been around. I'm in constant awe at how good the white and blue belts are and I'm constantly amazed at how little I understand about this sport.
It never ends. That is either a terrifying idea or a beautiful one. Depending on what you want.
When I was promoted last night, I looked into everyone's face who congratulated me or shook my hand. They were all genuinely happy for me. Its so rare to find a room full of people who are simultaneously happy that you are doing well. Thats a precious thing.
I will always be someone that needs to live in different worlds to be happy. Comedy, music, grappling, Denmark, whatever. I need the variety. But sometimes I feel my time on the mats is the best part of me.
Its the thing that powers all the other pursuits.
Right now, I'm in the best position I've ever been with the sport. I'm healthy, I'm surrounded by old and new friends who are teaching me things every day, and helping me be better. I have great students of my own now, and I'm honored to help do for them in some small way what has been done for me.
Still, brown belt is a big thing. I don't see it as a new house. I see it as a nice car in a bad neighborhood. Its amazing and has many features, but it also makes you a target. But the culture of Jiu Jitsu is one of constant never ending challenge, and I gladly embrace that. I'm happy that I have the mental and physical health to be pushed, and even better to have it done by people that care about me in real life.
I'm so happy. And I'm thankful to everyone who ever grabbed my collar and sleeve. The accumulation is everything. Every roll has mattered in one way or another.
I have a bigger understanding of what I'm capable of because of this sport and I plan to see it through.
Thank you to everyone.