The Church of Grappling

My reasons for grappling have evolved over the years. When I was a kid I loved shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and as a result did karate. I can’t really explain why I wanted to do martial arts more than I thought it was cool. At some point, I got really disenchanted with karate because we weren’t doing flying sidekicks and fancy acrobatics. I ended up quitting. When I was graduating from high school I got into my head that I would find another martial art to do at college; anything but karate. I looked through a bunch of clubs and ended up finding the UW Budo Club. The Budo Club was teaching Waboku ryu jujitsu at the time. Classes were split up such that Mondays and Thursdays were standing joint locks and throws; the kind of stuff you’d expect from a jujitsu that falls more in the Japanese category (though WRJ is an eclectic American art). Wednesdays were ground work. At this point, I was just grappling because it was a martial art that I had become infatuated with, and I guess I never really gave up on my childhood dream of becoming a ninja. I pretty heavily believed in martial arts for self defense still at this point too.

After two semesters of having my ass handed to me by Evan and Alex I felt like the guard was my biggest weak spot. I couldn’t pass it well, and I couldn’t attack from it. Someone had mentioned BJJ did a lot of groundwork. I had never heard of it before, but set off to see if there were schools around me. I was heading back to my parents’ place for the summer to work, so I called up Justin from Third Heaven and naively asked if BJJ would be able to help me patch up the holes in my guard game. I don’t recall his exact words, but it was something to the effect of “yes, we do that.” Looking back, it was probably one of the dumbest questions I could have asked after 8 months of grappling experience. And so I started BJJ to improve my guard, but still just as part of fostering my infatuation with jujitsu.

By the end of the summer, I had fallen in love with fighting on the ground. It was like a mental puzzle. I was starting to put on muscle mass from doing BJJ and MMA five days each week, but I was still just a scrawny 150 lb. (~68 kg) shit. BJJ had given me the tools to overcome even bigger opponents by thinking through the position and angle if I could just get to the mat though. I was looking forward to schooling the guys who were consistently beating me on the ground just a short four months ago. My reason at this point was the mental stimulation that grappling could give – you can be put into an insane position and just by understanding the concepts could end up getting into a dominant position and submitting your opponent.

I continued that way through college – jujitsu and judo during the school year, BJJ and MMA during the summers. My reason remained constant – I love puzzles and this was one of the best, ever evolving puzzles I had ever encountered. At some point I stopped believing in martial arts for self defense. Jujitsu stopped being a thing that I did and became a part of me – a significant part of how I would describe my identity. My reason was no longer just the puzzle. I still loved that aspect of it, but I was continuing to train because I really couldn’t imagine life without it.

I had a normal list of injuries throughout college – broken fingers and toes from judo, a broken ankle when I dropped Tanner on it, broken nose a handful of times, dislocations and sprains, but nothing that really took me off the mat for more than about 6-8 weeks ever. My senior year of college brought with it the worst injury I had ever experienced up to that point. I broke the fourth metatarsus in my right foot on a foot sweep gone awry in judo. I walked on it for a week, insistent that it was just a really bad bruise. The result was being off of the mat for months and missing my normal MMA summer. I had a really hard time coming back to the mat, but I knew it was something I still wanted. This marked the point where I had to slow down, where I wasn’t doing every tournament I possibly could or trying to actively dominate every roll I was in no matter how futile. I’d end up getting two more major injuries that would slow me down further in the future, eventually getting to the point I’m at now.

Slowing me down brought with it a new facet of BJJ though – the almost religious experience. Some people’s religion involves going to a specified place, to do some rote actions, part of which involves a recognized leader/expert giving them a lecture about some of the finer points they should consider while doing those rote rituals. Mine does too. The mat is my church, the instructor my priest, and drills my prayers. When I get to roll against an advanced belt, it’s about relaxing and just letting instinct take over. It’s like moving meditation for me. My brain turns off. If I think about anything but the roll I get into a bad position for not paying attention. If I think too much about the roll I end up getting behind my partner because he’s still working on instinct, and instinct is much faster than thought. This kind of moving meditation makes the whole world fall away for that few minutes. Nothing exists except the roll. People seem to refer to this as “flow state” and it can happen with just about anything you do, but ground fighting provides a surefire way to get to it for me.

I still love solving puzzles, and I’ll still throw myself into positions I’ve never experienced before to try to figure my way out. I still consider grappling a key part of my identity. It’s not just a thing I do, but a thing I am. But what grappling gives me, more than entertainment or a sense of self, is a release. No matter how shitty the day, no matter how stressed I am; if I can get in a good roll with a trusted friend, I can let it all go.


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