July 22, 2019

Reflections: A Year in Combat Sports

This post details my journey from not caring about combat sports to being an MMA and BJJ stan.

Reflections: A Year in Combat Sports

Introduction to Combat Sports

In the past year, martial arts has become the focus of a large portion of my interest and attention.  Before, I had misguided views on the nature of combat sports.  Apathy is likely the best word to describe my feelings for these sports.  One reason for this disinterest may have stemmed from the notion that I was not tough, athletic, or competitive enough to even reach a basic level of competency in any martial arts discipline.  The exact moment these feelings started to fade is unclear, but the disappearance opened opportunities which positively impacted my personal growth.  Martial arts has given me friends, a stronger work ethic, and a much needed creative outlet.

My roommate for the freshman year was an acquaintance from high school who I had minimal interaction with prior to college.  Being a geeky, city-loving person, it was hard for me to find similarities with the country boy who was my roommate Seth.  That is, until we found common ground which would prove to be the basis of our friendship: combat sports.  

Pre-BJJ Combat Sports Training

Going into college I started boxing as a means to exercise, focusing mainly on bag work rather than sparring.  I had gone through the typical progression of being introduced to boxing through the stories of Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and Tyson.  Listening to JRE podcasts introduced me to the world of MMA through hearing the stories of the fighters.  I was hooked.  Hearing people talk about the technical details of an MMA fight was addicting.  All my free time that summer was spent watching fights, highlights, interviews, press conferences, or anything content I could get my hands on.  

Coincidentally, Seth had a long-standing interest in combat sports.  He boxed recreationally with his friends and casually watched fighting events.  We quickly began sparring and talking about fights.  All our conversations found a way to diverge back to combat sports.  As someone who never followed any sport - even the sports I played - the experience was new and exciting for me.  Watching combat events with Seth and others in the dorm became a central part of our friendship.

At this point, I had stopped sparring in boxing in fear of damaging my brain.  This change came at a time when the group's interest shifted to primarily watching MMA events.  The dynamic nature of MMA was intriguing because seemingly anything could happen.  Watching fighters such as Khabib Numagomedov, Brian Ortega, Demian Maia, Charles Oliveira, and other grappling specialists piqued my interest.  Since I quit training boxing I was itching to participate in a combat sport.  At the end of my first full semester, as a new years resolution, I decided to begin training Brazillian Jiu Jitsu.

BJJ Training - First 5 Months

Swamp Academy

Swamp Academy BJJ

Going into our second semester of college, Seth and I immediately found a gym in Gainesville.  The members of Swamp Academy welcomed us with open arms into their community.   The head instructor, Ken, showed us the ropes through techniques which felt foreign.  Members at the gym, while kicking our asses in live rolls, gave us pointers for how to improve.  These individuals quickly became people I looked forward to seeing, wanting to learn as much as possible from them.

The positive learning environment caused Seth and I to go to practice any chance our schedules allowed.  Showing up almost every day in the beginning, I have received many a worried looks from Ken telling me to "ice anything that hurts" or "listen to your body when you need a break." In the first few months the progress was addicting.  I couldn't beat anybody.  Rolls with newcomers would end in stalemates.  Rolls with experienced higher belts would end in me flattened out getting choked or having my arm hyper-extended.  As a competitive person, this inspired me to keep learning and improving.

Around two months into training, I landed my first submission on a fellow white belt, a former football player who was much larger than me.  The roll began with me being accidentally slammed on my head from a headlock position while I attempted to take his back.  After that, I took a couple minutes to recollect myself and rinse the blood from my lip.  We continued rolling but this time I had a plan.  In the previous sequence, he blitzed me and almost instantly pushed me into side control.  Being a beginner, however, he left himself open me slipping into a guard.  By this time, I had learned lockdown guard from a higher belt at Swamp Academy.  When the roll began, I instantly sunk into a lockdown with double underhooks.  From here, I did the standard lockdown > whip-up > attempt back take > electric chair sequence.  Immediately after this roll I decided to try another tactic.  When my partner rushed me I immediately sunk a triangle choke.  While landing a submission on a white belt may seem insignificant, it marked a huge landmark in my progression.  Finally I had some tangible example of progression in skill.  Since that day I have chased the feeling of improving and learning new tactics.

As Seth and I continued to train BJJ we became more vocal about it to our friend group.  This has proved to be one of the best choices we made since it attracted two of our friends to try the sport.  Our friends Max and Ethan were instantly hooked.  Both had the strong desire to learn new techniques and participate in the sport.  Doing BJJ together brought us closer together, and we are now set to live together for the 2019-2020 school year.  Ethan continued to train during the summer and has been progressing faster than any of us.  I can't wait to see the growth and development of three of my closest friends in a sport I have come to love.

BJJ Training - The Last Two Months

Off the Grid BJJ

Off the Grid BJJ

Since I moved away from Gainesville for the summer, I have continued training in BJJ in two separate gyms.  For the first two weeks, I trained at a local gym in my hometown Cocoa Beach.  Frank, the head instructor at Off the Grid BJJ, took me in as one of his own.  I quickly learned that the kindness I experienced at Swamp Academy was not a foreign thing in BJJ.  The members of the gym treated me with respect, making sure I was included.  One of the members even gave me a free rash guard!

At Off the Grid I met new friends and learned new techniques that I continue to implement into my game.  The rolls were a breath of fresh air, as I could not rely on knowing the tendencies of my rolling partner like I could at Swamp Academy.  The two weeks at Off the Grid BJJ showed me new styles, new moves, and new people.

Tenth Planet Albuquerque - Dark Haven Studio

Tenth Planet Albuquerque - Dark Haven Studios

Desiring to try a new style of BJJ, I decided to train at a Tenth Planet gym for the majority of the summer.  While visiting my mother in Albuquerque I entered into the wacky Tenth Planet world through Dark Haven Studios.  Just as the previous trend suggests, I was welcomed to the Dark Haven Studio gym as if I had been there all along.  At the gym I have received lessons from five different people.  Each has a different style of teaching and fighting.  The variety is addicting, and I find myself going to classes as much as possible.  

The rolls at Dark Haven Studios are some of the most fun and creative rolls I have experienced.  Lower belts have a strong understanding of BJJ and flow through submissions effortlessly.   Rolling against the higher belts is awe-inspiring, because it seems like every move I make is stepping into a trap.  Merging the traditional Gracie BJJ style with the Tenth Planet style seems to have improved my jiu jitsu significantly.  Also, Dark Haven Studios emphasizes standup fighting to secure takedowns.  Since I had never trained standup prior to this summer, I have learned a wealth of new knowledge.  Finally, the Tenth Planet style incorporates many tools for people who like to play guards.  As someone who frequently pulls guard these lessons were a welcome surprise and have improved my ability to secure positions from guard.

Goals

Since I recently published a blog post about setting goals to create an effective routine, I would like to share some of my current goals for BJJ training.  Hopefully, these goals will help you set your own goals in the future!

  1. Compete in a BJJ tournament by the end of 2019,
  2. Compete at least 3 times in 2020,
  3. Go to Gi class at least once a week,
  4. Go to NoGi class at least three times a week,
  5. Work on developing options at the start of a roll other than guard pulling.

Conclusions

Training BJJ has significantly changed my life in a positive way.  Through the process I have met lifelong friends while developing a beautiful art form.  Every new location offers a new gym and experience in BJJ.  Students of the sport, in my experience, are incredibly friendly.  The communities I interacted with were packed full of people working hard to improve themselves and those around them.

Not mentioned in this post were the physical transformations I experienced during the process.  Since last year I have become significantly leaner and stronger.  Before training BJJ, I had reached a plateau at the gym when weightlifting.  Despite having not dedicated much time to weight training in the past year my max weights have increased.

The purpose of this post was to accomplish three goals:

  1. Reflect on my experience in BJJ,
  2. Take the time to appreciate the people who have contributed to my growth,
  3. Encourage others who may be on the fence to take the leap of faith and start training.

To accomplish #2, I would like to thank everyone who has trained with me for taking the time to give me tips and sparring time.  To add to that, thank you to Ken, Frank, and Donnie, the three coaches who have influenced my BJJ the most through constant mentorship.  Finally, I would like to thank Seth, Max, and Ethan for participating in this journey with me.  Without the help and support of people in the community this experience would not feel as mystical.

Hopefully #3 was accomplished through this post.  If you are still unsure whether you can't do BJJ because you are too lazy, old, out of shape, or any other excuse, I encourage you to give it a try.  Find a local gym and spend the time and money on a one month membership.  Go everyday and try to get better.  Understand that it will take a long time to get better.  At seven months of training, I still feel like I have so much to learn.  At worst you will have spent a month experiencing intense exercise and will likely drop a few pounds.  At best you may find yourself in a situation like many others, impatiently waiting for the next class to start so you can learn more.