Midlife Crisis in Canvas : My Journey into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ... A Beginning
By Andrew George.
I can remember a point in my early thirties that all of a sudden my love for contact sports began to backfire. Every weekend rugby game I played would no longer have me ready good to go for a Tuesday evening training session. The benchmark of whether I had had a good game or not was measured by how many days into the working week would pass until I could undo my seat belt unassisted. Although the willingness to participate never diminished with age and speed and strength are still there - its the recovery time in which you really pay the reaper. Those big hits just seem to linger a whole lot more. I had played rugby since I was nine and boxed since I was 18. I loved both - but the concussions and breaks began to take their toll so I vowed to give them away.
My retirement from rugby was a constant battle. I was the bloke with five schooners under my belt on a Friday night always talking myself up, and always offering my services to my mates undermanned Subbies teams. Without fail, I would be nursing another separated shoulder and sporting a very pugilistic looking black eye on the Monday morning. I was often accosted by work colleagues on why this strange calamity continued to sneak upon me every few weeks. They were concerned - it was clear that I had a problem.
Was I an addict? Ask the Viking’s.
I love the Norse idea of heaven. Viking warriors would be sent to Valhalla, which would involve fighting all day, at the end of the day have all injuries and wounds healed and then to party all night. Just like my twenties.
Except at the end of these days battles, no wounds magically healed …
Giving up rugby coincided with me becoming a much more attentive fan to Mixed Martial Arts. You only had to be a casual MMA fan to know that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was one of the catalysts to the birth of the sport. Although I was very familiar with boxing and Muay Thai techniques - it was the grappling and the enigmatic BJJ that fascinated me the most. The physiques on some of the BJJ specialists were a cross between rock climbers and gymnasts. They would calmly fight of their back against gorilla like wrestlers. The grapplers also all seemed to have extraordinary endurance - and certainly in the case of the famed Gracie family - reveloutionised the face of combat sports before my very eyes.
What I did miss from rugby? It was the all round physical fitness, rush of blood of competition, the confronting physicality, the battle planning, the quick decision making and the friendships easily found. I had struggled to find anything after my pseudo retirement that remotely filled the void.
I was complaining about this whilst watching a UFC card with some old rugby friends. They too lamented the loss of the times where we treating our bodies like my fathers sports car when he was interstate. As a community Australian men are normally raised playing and watching Rugby League, Union and AFL. The loss of testing ourselves against each other through sheer kinetic force due to our old age, meant we felt relieved of part of our very Australianess. Most of us chose to go on to live this vicariously through our childeren.
“You should give BJJ a go” said my mate Simon.
Turned out Simon had been furtively attending BJJ classes in the evenings on the North Shore. It provided an immediate explanation to his exponentially growing shoulders, diminishing waist line and inexplainable pretentious support for Jake Shields.
“Come down. I will have a roll with you”. After playing years of rugby with Simon, who loved to lurk out on the wing and saw less contact than a schoolbook in Marrickville, I smelled an ambush - and politely declined. However that small interaction got the cogs turning. I got on line and looked for something more local and enticing.
Although I’m not normally influenced by advertising, the following Friday afternoon had me walking tentatively into the UFC Gym in Alexandria. The UFC Gym is more a facility than a gym. Its roughly the size of an aircraft carrier and even has a real McCoy octagon set up in the middle. I soon found myself bookng into a No Gi Jui Jitsu class. This meant I did not have to buy a Gi and I could road test this BJJ thing. I kept calling it “No Jee” class and got funny looks from the receptionist It seemed that the easiest way to indicate your have no idea of martial arts was to mispronounce this two letter word.
The class had about 20 guys, and like all other dogs in the cage I began sizing myself up against my new class mates. I am in my late thirties and weigh in at about 93 kgs. I had played back rower all my sporting life so was reasonably heavy set compared to my peers. I was surprised mostly at the age range. I did not expect to be able to compare notes with anyone about favourite Hoodoo Gurus songs … but sure enough there was a strong presence of X Generation marking the spot.
I introduced myself to the instructor - an English bloke called Dave Brooksbank. Dave had the rangy look of a tent fighter, a thin smile and the cauliflower ears Rex Mossup would be proud of. Dave was an MMA fighter with a BJJ black belt. I asked him what the fastest way to a black belt. “10 years and 10000 hours” he answered without smiling. “Not phoning this one in then” I quipped. “No” Dave answered flatly. Dave didn’t even own a phone. Couldn’t help but like this bloke.
The moment he spoke to the class his voice carried a note of authority that his black belt accentuated. He ordered us through a series of warm ups.
Now there are warm ups for sport and then, there are warm ups. I remember being told to skip 30 mins before a two hour boxing session or the 20 minutes of sprint intervals before contact work at rugby training … but gymnastics? Dave had me doing cartwheels, handstands and forward rolls. After initial disorientation I found a real enjoyment on doing a series of physical movements that had been denied to my sense of play since my primary school playground. Walking forwards in a hand stand was then followed by a series of shoulder rolls at various heights and speeds finishing off with something called a “hip escape”. 15 minutes in I was sweating, laughing and a surprisingly sore core.
The next thirty minutes focused on three technical moves or transitions from a defensive posture to an attacking posture. Much like other martial arts classes I had attended it was a matter of being shown the correct technique, then trailing at slow pace with a partner and then after numerous attempt it was eventually sped up to be done at full pace with the opponent.
Once you started to sweat it became harder to keep hold of each other as both your fitness levels became tested. The words “greased eel” comes to mind. I asked Dave about this and he commented on the difference between Gi and No Gi. With a Gi on, sweat has no bearing on your ability to hold an opponent and the friction between the fabric slows down the contest.You can transition a lot faster and there are fewer holds in No Gi due to the fact that there were less ways to get hold an opponent offensively and defensively. Dave commented that as an MMA fighter he had started on No Gi and eventually took up Gi to perfect his technique. Functionally as self defence it seemed that the Gi could teach me more. I had no plans of fighting anyone naked in the near future so Dave’s arguments in favour of BJJ with Gi certainly had merit.
I remember clearly at this point feeling a unique buzz of elation that had formerly been reserved for the rugby field and boxing ring. I was tapping into that wave of controlled aggression which for me has always given me that serene calm I can only speculate that my girlfriend gets shoe shopping. The best part was that much like rock climbing and surfing this was something that clearly benefited your conditioning generally but also was something that demanded mental discipline and a knack for tactical decision making whilst rolling around the floor trying to choke another human being.
I learnt an anaconda choke, a single leg wrestlers takedown and a transition from side control to full mount. Thanks to the UFC and Joe Rogan I had a lot of the vocabulary already partly translated - although I started to get an appreciation for the in depth knowledge the commentary provided. So it was armed with these three techniques that I entered the final part of the class. twenty minutes of sparring or “rolling”.
Rolling sounds so quaint and although not inaccurate fails to capture the spirit of the contest. Sort of like calling state of origin “footy”. We had to pair up with someone of our approximate hight and weight. A tongan bloke about 4 inches taller than me introduced himself with an affable smile as “Tony”. Tony like me was relatively new to this. I asked Tony how much he weighed “118 kgs” he said with a grin. I grinned back - my amateur acting pedigree making it almost believable. This was it - I wanted contact sports and the good lord had delivered in spades.
As soon as we were underway the fire of adrenalin seethed through my blood as Tony pawed at me from standing position like a curious bear. I knew that me grappling this monster was a forgone conclusion so after three very unconvincing fients I resigned myself to attempting a single leg takedown to get underway. Somewhere in the middle it went wrong and I was flying through the air and slammed into the mat. Tony jumped on top of me but thankfully was as unaware of how to secure side control as I was to escape from it. By this stage my psyche had completely suspended disbelief and thought I was in a genuine fight. I could taste of copper in the back of the mouth and my lungs heaved for oxygen as 118Kgs bore down whilst I fought Tony’s repeated attempts to take one of my arms home with him. At some stage in the five minutes I slowed my breathing and focused on the movement of my opponent and my countermovement. Much like boxing there was a lot of feints and counter fients and counter - counters to disguise an aggressive transition. I realised as Tony’s breathing got heavier as he scrambled to keep me on my back that like most big men his stamina would eventually wain. I upped the tempo and then exploded into a hip escape once he seemed gassed. It worked I scrambled out from underneath him and as I rose to my feet he rose with me. Clearly exhausted and off balance I pulled him forward into a turtle position and secured a reverse choke. I had no idea what I was doing except that it was like an upside down rear naked choke. I asked myself the timeless question “What Would Matt Hughes Do?” and put every ounce of strength into the choke. It took him 20 seconds of wheezing for Tony to finally tap.
We lay there laughing and exhausted. I felt like I had just hit a hole in one. Given my lack of technique, over excitement and general poor game management I also felt like I had just sprinted a mile. Dave hovered near and ordered me to change to another opponent. Full of piss and vinegar and ready to show Dave he had just unearthed a grappling savant I squared up against my new foe Mike. Mike was in all the right kit and was clearly not new to this. I had about two inches and 10 kgs on Mike and was smug in my smile as we touched fists to signify the beginning of the next round. I immediately drove Mike into the deck, he effortlessly rolled and I found myself on my back as he smoothly isolated my arm and tapped in a text book arm bar. I stood up bewildered and asked him what belt he was. “White”. Damn - I just got annihilated by a white belt! Although I was much more conservative for the rest of the round. Mike proceeded to tap me three more times and I realised that although I was stronger, larger and fitter - arse will only beat class in BJJ in the most rare of circumstances. With that I took another point from my first class. This was a sport that could not help encourage but humility.
By the third round I was so exhausted I could barely stand up. My opponent was significantly smaller and assaulted me like an obstacle course. Every time I got on top of him he scrambled on to my back like a crazed spider monkey. I would feebly attempt to defend a choke with my lactic leadened forearms. The fourth round was a blur of surviving on pure instinct and often finding myself searching for that steely resolve and cutting deals with myself not to quit. I was amazed that whilst I tumbled around the mats I regularly could hear my own laughter.
The class ended and I went through the end of class custom by shaking hands with all my class mates. I immediately felt the bond of shared adversity with these guys of various ages and different walks of life. Just like in the sheds after a hearty game of rugby.
I immediately accosted Dave after class and let him know how much I enjoyed myself I had just engaged in over forty minutes of heavy duty grappling without any serious injury apart from a few bruises and a large dent to my pride. I felt that same satisfaction that I had a the end of those sports I had given up due to the toll they kept taking. I explained this to my instructor with enthusiasm. David Brooksbank offered the wisdom “you want to be changing nappies at 60 , not wearing them”.
As I walked out of the gym I found myself immediately sizing up the selection of Gi’s on the display wondering what colour I would get. I was addicted.
I slept very well that night and dreamt of canvas clad Vikings …