In March of 2015, I took the plunge and, after much deliberation and almost a year of kickboxing at the same gym, tried BJJ for the first time. And I never looked back. That’s the narrative I put out there in this blog and when I talk about BJJ to people I know.
But like most of us, I tend to want to sand the rough edges off my stories. I want my life to have a logical narrative arc.
The truth is, I absolutely looked back. I spent the first year of my BJJ life debating whether or not I wanted to do this, avoiding class for weeks at a time, and generally questioning my life choices. I think most people who aren’t natural athletes feel like this. This is a hard sport, and unless you’re a wrestler or a judoka, it’s going to be unlike anything you’ve done before.
But also, that wasn’t the first time I tried BJJ. The first time I tried BJJ was in early 2011. I had just gotten out of a six year, marriage-track relationship. I had also just turned 30, and was completely convinced that my opportunity to make something out of myself had passed. Oh, and I was drinking a lot. Like a lot. Like an amount that, in retrospect, seems almost unfathomable.
I was watching UFC at a Tibetan restaurant in Parkdale that also occasionally doubled as a sports bar. (Early-stage gentrification Parkdale was a weird place.) I watched as young up-and-comer Jon Jones submitted Ryan Bader, and the crowd inside the restaurant got up and cheered. And I thought to myself “I should learn how to do that.” I might have actually said it out loud to no one in particular. The details are foggy.
Two weeks later, I went to a BJJ school near Yonge and Bloor. It wasn’t particularly near my house or my job, but it was on the subway and people seemed to speak highly of it. I don’t remember the particulars of the class, except that I trained in gym clothes because they didn’t have loaner gis, and that we were working some kind of submission from side control. Maybe Kimuras? I think it was Kimuras. I was a little overwhelmed by the fact that newcomers were just thrown into the stream of things and expected to “get it,” but my training parter was a blue belt and pretty nice. He helped me along. I felt good. Sore, but good. I thought this might be for me.
On the way out, the school employee I had spoken to earlier pulled me aside, and began to launch into one of the most high pressure sales pitches I’ve ever had put on me. Like the sort of high pressure sales pitch that I think is now illegal in Ontario. He laid out a very complex series of pricing packages very quickly, then threw in a bunch of discounts that were only available then and there. I immediately felt very overwhelmed and tried to walk away. He followed me, explaining that if I came back tomorrow, it would be more expensive. I didn’t go back.
About a week later, I went to another school, this one closer to where I lived at the time. The instructor seemed nice enough, not necessarily welcoming, but certainly polite enough. He helped me figure out hip escapes in the warm-up. Once again, I was in gym clothes and kind of thrown in at the deep end. Unlike the first gym though, no one was nice. Everyone seemed to have a story about using something they’d learned in class on the street. A disproportionately high number of people seemed to be bouncers. I rolled with someone who didn’t seem to entirely respect when I tapped. It was a bad time.
I went back for a couple more classes, because there were things I enjoyed—the figuring stuff out, the pushing my body—but every time I left, I wound up feeling like I’d hurt something. And the more I heard about people choking people outside of bars, the less i wanted to be there.
So I decided BJJ wasn’t for me.
Some years later, my partner suggested I take up kickboxing, because a lack of exercise was making me weird. I wound up taking kickboxing at what was primarily a BJJ gym, because it was across from my house. After a year of enviously looking at the BJJ students, who seemed to have a great community of weirdos, I decided to give BJJ one last try.
I’m so happy I did.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d found the school I’m at now back in 2011. And I’m not sure what the answer is. I might have stuck with it, but I was having trouble committing to or enjoying anything. BJJ might have just been another thing I burned out on. Maybe I found the right school when I was ready for it?