It’s Thursday night in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym, and there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. It’s what the gym manager jokingly calls, “Fight Night,” when the last hour of class is dedicated just to sparring. All around the mat people stretch out muscles that are already warmed up and make idle chit-chat as the instructor looks on, stone-faced. His eyes scan across the room as he decides whether or not he’s given them enough time to rest from the last class. Finally he fiddles with the timer, which only he really knows how to work, and calls out to his students,
“Alright guys, find a buddy!” The students’ eyes snap to the instructor and they rise to their feet, searching for their first partner. The instructor continues, “Neutral, on your feet. Clap hands and go!”
The buzzer sounds and the pairs square up, slapping hands together and giving a quick fist bump before engaging. This little act can tell you everything about the sparring session, called a “roll,” that you’re about to have. The most over-zealous students will slap your hand like it said something about your girlfriend, and you know that it’s going to be a hard fight. Personally the most terrifying exchanges are those purple and brown belts who will delicately slap your hand and grin sympathetically. They’re saying, “Don’t worry, I can break every bone in your body, but I’ll be gentle.”
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is special because it’s a martial art that you can train at high levels of intensity with minimal risk of serious injury. When you find yourself in a choke or a joint-lock that you can’t escape, you tap your partner and they release you. Then you smile, get back on your feet, and try again. It’s not completely safe, and injuries do happen, but the danger of head trauma is not as prevalent as it is in other combat sports like Boxing or Muay Thai. Because of this, the sparring sessions can be long and intense, a veritable gauntlet for people just joining the sport.
Twenty-four minutes later and four rounds into the night, you start to feel the strain as your breath begins to come in sharper and more ragged bursts. You’re beginning to tire out, but you rise to your feet and fix your belt and gi as you search the room for your next partner. To your chagrin the bigger, stronger, and more experienced student locks eyes with you. He nods at you sharply and you return it, trying not to look too drained.
“One more round.” You tell yourself.
As the buzzer sounds again he grabs deep into your jacket for a lapel grip and starts to establish control. You seize his sleeve with both hands and strip the grip away, but he sets the other hand on the opposite lapel. Growing increasingly desperate you break the grip, but he reaches a new hand in like a swimmer mid-breast stroke. Finally you falter, and fail to shake off his hand. He ties up your legs with his own and sends you clattering to the floor with a throw.
On your back, you struggle to regain position, to set your legs and hips so that you have some degree of control. Taking advantage of the position, your partner passes your legs and moves to side control. With his chest on your chest, he holds your weight down as you buck and struggle to break free. But you’re getting tired, and each attempt to make space gets harder and harder as you start to pant and sputter through your mouthguard. Your partner starts to fight for control of your arm to set up a joint lock, but you have just enough strength to change position when he does.
When you’re first starting Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, the experience is often compared to drowning. You have no idea what is going on, and every attempt that you make to save yourself just plays into your opponent’s hand. It’s an overwhelming experience that typically either sends new students running out the door or hungry to learn more. The sensation of being made utterly powerless by another person can be terrifying and eye opening, but also intoxicating.
Some people never want to be made to feel this way again, but others want to dive back in so that they can overcome it. They want to learn to control another person like this, and they want to be able to protect themselves from those who can do it to them. Jiu-jitsu students come in all shapes and sizes, from all different age groups and walks of life, but they all share this one trait. They felt this power, they got humbled and beaten, and they came back for more.
Trapped on the bottom underneath your partner, you remember that you are still a long way away from having this kind of skill and ability. But you remember what you’ve learned, and you fight to hang on as long as you can and to work yourself back to an advantageous position. At a certain point this kind of experience begins to look less like drowning and more like trying to swim upstream. You know that your opponent can and likely will submit you. But you don’t have to make it easy for them.
Finally, panting and struggling, you can’t keep him off of you for any longer. He traps your arm, isolates it away from your body, and begins to crank a joint lock on your shoulder. You contort your hips and manage to wrench your arm free, only to have him switch to another lock with your arm fully extended. The pressure comes on the crook of your elbow as it begins to bend the other way. After a few more twists and turns to escape, you tap him on the arm and he lets you go. You smile at him behind your mouthguard and he returns the expression. On weak legs you get up, and prepare yourself for the next attack.
When the round ends your chest is on fire, and your arms and legs feel heavy and weak. All you want to do is take this round off, sit on the sidelines, and get your breath back. But the buzzer sounds and you stand up, biting into your mouthguard and grabbing your next partner. It’s only one more round after all, and everyone else is still on the mat. You don’t want them to think that you can’t do it, and you don’t want your instructor to think that you’re not committed. More than anything else, you don’t want to let yourself down.
Finally the last round comes, and you just want to lie down. Your body aches, and your hair, face, and clothes are drenched in sweat. Most of it’s yours, a lot of it isn’t. Around the room you can see the others start to fade, and see their chests go up and down as they pair up for the last roll of the night. You grab a partner and slap hands, only wanting to get through this and rest.
But something strange happens when you start to tie up with him, fighting for grips and position. You’re exhausted, and you’re just about ready to fall over. But for some reason you throw yourself into this last match, giving your partner everything that you have. It’s five minutes of hell as you force your exhausted muscles to push just a little bit harder. As Kipling said, you “Force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve their turn long after they are done.” You finish that last round and fall back, resting on the mat and grinning like an idiot. Eventually you get up and make the rounds, shaking everyone’s hand and clapping them on the back.
Sometimes people ask me why this whole experience is supposed to be fun, and I think that the answer is simple. For an hour, you forget about all of the stress and background noise of your everyday life. When you’re rolling with someone, everything else falls away for a while, and ordinary life seems easy. If work is stressful, or your love life is in shambles, or you’re stressed about any number of different things, you realize how insignificant they are when you’re grappling for control with another human being.
The ancient stoics believed that you should practice discomfort to build your character and understand what you are capable of handling. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is one way of doing this in the modern world. Even if you didn’t submit anyone, and even if you got smashed by all of your partners, you still came to class and stuck through every round. You worked hard, you did your best, and you achieved something. You pushed yourself beyond where you thought you could go, and found a little bit of strength that you didn’t know was there.