He was in my closed guard, my legs wrapped around his waist with ankles crossed, keeping him from getting too close or too far away from me. He was straining to grab the collar of my gi, which could potentially be used to strangle me, causing me to tap out. A bead of sweat dripped from the tip of his nose into my eyeball as he seized the grip, and I didn’t care.
My training partner took advantage of the opportunity, applying a tight chokehold. He compressed my carotid arteries with the bones of his wrists, which allowed me to continue to breathe or even speak, but effectively cut off the blow of blood to my brain. This rapidly ushering me toward unconsciousness. I tapped.
The tap out signals submission. I died a symbolic death-many submission holds may cause death if not released. I accepted my own death, and owned my succession of failures and oversights that caused the chain of events which lead to it. I understood in the moment that I had been bested, and I relished the experience.
For the better part of the previous year I’d watched YouTube videos, starting with “Ribeiro Brothers Highlight” and “Game of human chess“, as suggested by my brother. He’d started training bjj about six months prior and had the zeal of a new convert. I had been watching MMA for a few years, and wanted to understand what was happening when the fighters were grappling. I soon joined online forums and asked a ton of silly questions. I called a school in the area-they didn’t have a schedule that worked for me, which ended up being a good thing. There’s a common saying (often wrongly attributed to the Buddha) “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”. This was my exact experience. Another school opened up a town over (and I eventually moved 2 miles away from) which offered exactly what I needed and ended up being a World-class facility.
I emailed the instructor back and forth until I could create an opportunity to go to the school for an intro lesson. I borrowed a used blue gi and fumbled with tying the belt- I hadn’t worn one since my karate days, and the ends of the belt went North-South instead of East-West. I stood in front of the mirror, with a crooked white belt and a size-too small uniform. I thought 2 things: 1) I can’t believe this is actually happening, and 2) I look super badass.
I bowed as I stepped on to the mat, and into a world I was ignorant and a little fearful of. I joined a subculture with etiquette, patois (not only technical jargon, but flourished with words cribbed from Portuguese and Japanese), norms, and an established pecking order, which was visually represented by belt color. The belt system originated in judo (bjj’s closest ancestor) and is commonly used for most martial arts. I, the white belt novice, gained a black belt mentor. The school was just getting established, so class sizes were quite small, and most of the students were at the same skill level. This allowed increased safety monitoring and personal attention for each pair of students, and created a supportive, collaborative learning environment. Sparring sessions began with a slap of hands and a fist bump, as if to say “Alright, we’re going to fight. Are you cool with that? Are we cool, no issues we need to deal with before we get this going”? At the end of class we formed a line and bowed to each student, clasped hands, and gave them a one-armed bro hug. I don’t think it’s a racist stereotype to say that Brazilians like to hug.
A common sign is posted at many bjj schools: “No shoes or ego on the mat”. It’s functional advice. Jiu Jitsu isn’t for everyone, and even if you’re a skilled athlete or martial artist from another style, your first attempts will be a spectacle. You will suck. Your suckiness will lead to you getting caught in armbars and chokes in myriad fashions you didn’t think possible, more frequently than you would like. You will be strangled with your own clothes, and you will get shoulder locked with someone else’s legs. You will suck for a very long time, and it will hurt. But if you hang in there, and keep showing up, you’ll slowly get better at stopping an attack. You will eventually learn to evade an attack. Then you will be able to prevent that attack by attacking first.
Along the way, in my experience, something else happened: I was no longer afraid, or at the very least, incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of touching another man’s body, or letting him touch mine. When I first started training, I felt a kind of claustrophobic entrapment, and I was uncomfortable with my perceived lack of control of my personal space. We had the stated expectation that we were not going to attempt to recklessly harm each other, and it was understood our bodies were going to be very close, we were going to be sweaty, we would be spending a considerable amount of time laying on each other chest-to-chest.
Like most people, I haven’t always been comfortable with my body. Being comfortable with the closeness of other men has helped me be more comfortable with my own body. I understand what I can do and what specific attributes I possess. My hip flexibility can make my guard hard to pass, and I can occasionally use my feet to help me escape from triangle chokes. The flowing movements of jiu jitsu can be beautiful and graceful, and I had to learn it was okay to express myself as a man in a way that included words like beautiful.
Of course, this male closeness is largely tolerated because it is under the veneer of sport. That it is mock combat which draws men near is all the better.
I spoke with a MMA coach who told me about an adult student who started training at his gym because he wanted to hang out with other guys. The student grew up raised by his mother, without brothers. He was starved for affirming male touch.
At this point in the conversation, the coach threw his arm over my shoulder and said “Imagine if all your life you never had anyone pal around with you like this”. He punched me in the shoulder and said “imagine if you didn’t have guys slugging you saying ‘hey, you’re a knucklehead”.
There’s much of the same ebb and flow in other sports. Heterosexual men often feel they can only be close to setup an affront to other men for real or simulated violence, whether in one-on-one fighting or as for a collective goal, like in a rugby scrum. The coach, while pulling me close, repelled me with a playful punch. This is male affection. The bonds with your teammates are strengthened with shared proximity and experiences, tempered with a healthy dose of consensual violence.
In addition to giving me measurable goals to strive for, a sense of ownership of my body, a lack of fear of the closeness of others by teaching me confront my fears, create and control space, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has given me a regular opportunity to interact with other men on a raw, corporeal level. I have been tremendously blessed to have this be a part of my life and physical education and self development.
I didn’t know if I would have the same experience if I were someone else, such as a gay man, or a woman, or a survivor of sexual abuse. That’s where you, dear readers, come in. If you’re not a grappler, what does the thought of very intimate nonsexual contact with people who may be strangers stir in you? If you are a grappler, what has your experience been? Has it been therapeutic, and move you far outside your comfort zone, as it has for me? I want your perspective and experience. What’s your story?