So I’ve been training Jiu-Jitsu here in Rio nearly everyday for the past 4 weeks and it’s been quite the experience. I should probably first outline my situation with Jiu-Jitsu before I arrived. I received my blue belt after about 6 months of training back in Seattle, a time where I trained anywhere from 6-7 days a week. This happened about three weeks before I left for Rio, and in that time, I also managed to injure both my wrists before my departure. Both wrists. Now that takes talent.
The injuries put me out of commission for nearly the entire time I’ve been here in Rio. Add in the fact that I have a growing suspicion that it is much harder to earn belts here in Brazil, and that the belts where I train do not have graduations - so a blue belt of two years and a blue belt of two weeks will look the same - and the situation spells disaster.
I choose Gracie Humaitá and frequent the lunch class led by the renowned Rolker Gracie, a 7th degree black and red belt, one belt below the apocalyptic red belt. From what I've heard, there are only two red belts in the world. I first speak with this big hulking black belt and he asks me if I have any experience in Jiu-Jitsu. I tell him I'm a blue belt from Gracie Barra. He passes the information to Rolker who gives an immediate look of disgust.
"No man, he can't train here," I hear him say. "Gracie Barra is incorporated. These guys come in from other academies and want to train for a day and then they're gone. Forget that."
He passes the information back to me. I try explaining to him that Gracie Barra is my academy back in the US, but here it's located in Barra de Tijuca, a neighborhood about an hour from where I live. It's also a place that I've heard is like a glorified Miami, so I kinda never want to go there. He discusses this with Rolker and Rolker comes over to me to ask me two questions.
"What color is your kimono?” he asks.
"Blue," I say.
"It's not black?"
"No, it's brand new blue kimono. No patches.”
He gives this look as if he just swallowed some bad medicine, but whispers something into the black belt’s ear, and later they tell me to go change in the locker room. I walk past the mats and everyone throws me a curious stare. I wouldn’t say it’s aggressive, but suspicious, to say the least.
So here I am, a foreigner, waltzing in with a blue belt from a rival academy, having not trained for 8 months, and everyone is staring at me like fresh meat as I walk by. This is awesome.
The black belt tells me to roll with him the second I get back from changing. I manage to only get subbed 4 times. He gives a look of approval to Rolker, and asks if I want to go again. I figure I have to prove my durability being the new guy so I say "yes". I roll with five other opponents and lose every single match. It's also 104ºF that day in Rio. I survive the day, but don’t come back for another two weeks due to a shoulder muscle I pulled during one of the matches, which makes me think that the gym is too rough. But something about the place eventually calls me back, and I show up two weeks later, greeted by the same black belt.
“Oh hey! I was wondering about you.” he says, "Where'd you go?" There's this friendly look of concern on his face. I tell him about the shoulder injury.
“Yeah, I was surprised you went that many rounds. You know you didn’t have to do that, right?”
I’m kicking myself on the inside, but then think about all the things I did in lieu of training and quickly get over it. I suit up and get back to work. For the next week I’m getting my ass handed to me by literally everyone in the gym, down to the white belts. But after a few days of this repetition, people start treating me differently. They stop and start showing me what I’m doing wrong, how to defend, how to attack, how to survive a little longer. In Jiu-Jitsu, the seconds matter. If you can last a few seconds longer than the last time, that’s an accomplishment. In the end, it’s not really about winning or losing. Not losing as badly is good enough.
Jiu-Jitsu puts you in this strange state-of-mind where you are completely aware of your surroundings and the present moment, probably because if you aren't, you're ass is in some position that you didn't think was physically possible beforehand. You really learn about human anatomy, pressure points, the way joints are supposed to bend and the way they’re not. Half the time I still don't know what I'm doing, but my instincts have been getting better. My general approach is to prevent anything that the other guy wants. If he wants an arm, my neck, a leg, I just try and stop that from happening, unless of course he wants me to want it to be stopped, and before I know it my knee is being shoved into my face and the guy is using my own kimono to choke me out. That has to be the most embarrassing, having your own clothing choke you unconscious.
But now when I make a noise, either from getting the air pushed out of my stomach, or gasping through on my own saliva, my sparring partner will stop and ask if I’m hurt with a slight look of apology. It’s here that I realize that maybe my first class wasn’t about them being too rough, but more about me not tapping out soon enough. That’s all Jiu-Jitsu is about. Knowing when to give up and when to keep fighting.
You got all types of people training at the dojo, of all sizes, all backgrounds, all faces. Some of them look like the fat slob at the local cantina or the sweet-looking grandfather with a house full of cats, but either one of them will straight break your arm off if you cross them wrong. One of the older black belts, who kinda reminds me of some hard-ass police veteran that looks like a British Bulldog, insists that I roll with him nearly everytime I see him, and always calls me “filho”. It’s funny, almost, to watch us spar. He doesn’t start in the traditional starting position where the fighter is with their back erect in a sitting position, rather he lays on his back with his head pedestaled on his hand, as if he's getting a lazy tan on the beach. I usually last about 30 seconds sparring with him, and it’s even gotten to the point where he doesn’t wait for me to tap, just catches the position, looks at me, and we start over.
Over time though, I’ve gotten a little better and he’s applied a bit more force. One time, he has my head trapped between his calf and his thigh, and I could feel the pressure on my neck as he slowly closes the distance. It is a tight lock, but I could still breath, though barely. I use my hands to try and push out of the lock, struggling, squirming, gasping for air. I might be on the verge of losing consciousness, but I keep trying, hoping to escape, or at the very least, last a few more seconds. Finally, he just stops, lets me regain my composure and gives me this look. It’s a look of disappointment, as if I’ve once again answered incorrectly to a question I’ve seen so many times before.
“Filho,” he says me, “Don’t go too far past your limits. If you know you’ve lost, there’s no shame in starting over.”