I wrote this last week, and was looking for a place to publish it. Then I remembered I had a largely abandoned martial arts blog. (Thanks to Natalie Zed for her notes.)
Muay Thai: Has been abroad, wants you to know about it.
Muay Boran: Has also been abroad, low key condescending about Muay Thai’s travels. “Yeah, Full Moon parties are cool when you’re 19. Oh, you went at 28. That’s cool too. I just like it to be a little more real when I travel.”
Pradal Serey: Thinks it’s cute that Muay Boran thinks a hostel in Nepal is “real.” Has been kidnapped by insurgents in three different countries. For no real reason.
Karate: Has trouble reading a room. Talked to you for way too long about model trains. Isn’t very confident with women.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Has trouble reading a room. Talked to you for way too long about Bernie Sanders. Is far too confident with women.
Capoeira: Keeps finding reasons to take his shirt off. Has brought bongos.
Taekwondo: Seems like kind of a boring normy girl at first. It turns out she’s really funny and a great dancer after three drinks.
No-Gi Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Doesn’t agree with everything Jordan Peterson says, but…
Tai Chi: Talked to you about astrology for a very long time.
Wing Chun: Tai Chi’s boyfriend. Vegan. Let’s you know about it. Has a ponytail. Overpronounces foreign words. Is pansexual.
Medieval Martial Arts: Friend of Wing Chun’s. You initially think he might be in a polyamorous triad with Wing and Tai Chi, but later on Tai Chi tells you she doesn’t even like him and is sick of him hanging out at their apartment all the time.
Akido: Sits in the corner alone all night, doesn’t talk to anyone. Stares very intensely. Messages you the next day to say she had a great time.
Hapkido: If someone confuses her with Akido again, she’s gonna fucking lose it.
Dutch Kickboxing: Has been mistaken for Muay Thai like seven times tonight. It’s cool though, he’s used to it.
Boxing: Has a lot of cool stories about the ’90s. After half an hour, you realize that’s pretty much all he’s gonna give you tonight.
Sumo: Seems really intimidating at first, but is actually a really cool guy when you kick it with him. You think he and Taekwondo would hit it off.
Judo: Is a little bit older than everyone else at this party. No one would notice, but he keeps self-consciously mentioning it.
Knocking and Kicking: Is even older than Judo. Isn’t worried about it at all. Somehow it makes him cooler.
Krav Maga: Just lost a LOT of money in crypto. Is doubling down.
Kendo: Krav Maga’s weird English friend. Has a lot of opinions about what women should and shouldn’t do. His glasses are filthy.
Eskrima: Came with Krav Maga and Kendo, but doesn’t, like, “know them know them.” They just train at the same place. At one point someone thinks he’s a pizza guy.
MMA: Dressed like he just got here from 2007. Kind of a macho dick. Starting to make people uncomfortable.
Sambo: Putting out a very intense vibe, but is being cool for now. Later on in the evening, after MMA says something weird to Taekwondo about how she’d get in a lot of trouble “out on the street,” he has a few quiet words with MMA. MMA leaves shortly after. Everybody cheers.
Jeet Kune Do: Is wearing sunglasses, inside, at 11:30 p.m.
After four months—and if I’m being completely honest—six months off of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I’ve made my return to the mats.
It is FUCKING HARD you guys.
I have this thing I always say about BJJ, which is that physically it’s hard, but it’s never harder than I expect it to be. Mentally, emotionally, it’s a killer. This is truer than ever right now. Physically, if anything, it’s actually easier than it was. (More on that later.) But again, physically isn’t the hard part.
So, for those of you playing along at home, I had a combined septoplasty and turbinate reduction in July, because I couldn’t really breathe out of my left nostril in any meaningful way. At the time, I said I was going to have to take three months off, but in reality, three months was the MINIMUM amount of time I was going to have to take off. At the three month mark, my nose still hurt like Hell if I washed my face too enthusiastically. Four-and-a-half months post surgery, I finally went back to training. By then, though, the holidays were almost upon us, which meant that I was heading off to such exotic locales as London: No, the Small One, Scarborough and Detroit. It’s now January, and I’m only starting to re-establish a training routine.
Everything is different now. People who were roughly my equal are miles better than me. Everyone seems to have at least one move where they choke you with the lapel of their gi, I am perpetually frustrated.
So, since I’m taking three months off BJJ, I’ve decided to use this space to talk about a non-BJJ thing that’s been on my mind.
(For the three of you who read this blog that I don’t know personally, I’m recovering from the surgery nicely, I’m breathing better already and working out at the Y almost every day to stay in some kind of shape during my time away from rolling.)
A quick question. Am I on acid? Or possibly having some sort of weird fever dream? Because those are the only two scenarios in which tomorrow’s “superfight” between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor is a thing that makes sense.
I mean, don’t get it twisted. I’m not naïve. It makes sense because we live in a world in which people will pay scads of money for it. We also live in a world in which a man who is totally unqualified both professionally and temperamentally, a monstrous human, and quite possibly in the early stages of Alzheimer’s managed to become the leader of the free world because people like to watch him insult people on television. The fact that Conor McGregor has only managed to use that same core talent to talk himself into a multi-million dollar fight purse is relatively small beer.
To be clear, I’m not cheering for either of these men. Floyd Mayweather is a serial domestic abuser. Conor McGregor is a fucking racist and the avatar of everything that’s wrong with mixed martial arts right now. I’m basically cheering for a flock of fighting cocks to get released in the ring to peck and kick both of them to death. Fuck both of these guys entirely.
But from a purely sporting perspective, this fight is completely insane. It seems insulting to all of our intelligence that it is somehow taking up most of the oxygen in sports media right now. Floyd Mayweather, for all his awfulness as a man, is the best boxer of his generation. (I am counting Trip G as a member of a different generation, even though they’re pretty close in age.) Conor McGregor is an amazing MMA fighter, and one of the best strikers in that sport.
But being the best striker in MMA is like being the best soccer player among NFL place kickers. It’s a related skill, for sure, and an interesting fact, but Barcelona isn’t going to be giving you a call any time soon. Brighton and Hove Albion probably aren’t even giving you a call. Scunthorpe. Maybe Scunthorpe United would take you on. McGregor needs to be fighting the Scunthorpe of boxers. But of course, there’s no money in Scunthorpe.
The idea that McGregor is a competitive opponent for Mayweather is completely a farce. It is a lead balloon that is somehow miraculously being held aloft by the sheer volume of hot air coming from the fighters themselves, as well as Dana White, Showtime and a sports media trying to find something to get excited about in the face of an imploding combat sports landscape.
(So Max O/Flickr)
Conor McGregor has about as much chance of beating Floyd Mayweather as I do of beating Conor McGregor. Floyd Mayweather handily beat Manny Pacquiao, a man who once looked superhuman, and who has forgotten more about boxing than Conor, who last boxed as a teenager amateur, will ever know. Think about that. Are we really supposed to believe that Conor McGregor is a better boxer than Pacquiao? Than peak career Ricky Hatton? Hatton ran through 43 consecutive opponents, before losing to Mayweather in 2007 and eventually partying himself out of the sport. Are we really saying McGregor is a better boxer than his fellow ginger Canelo Alvarez? Mayweather is the only blemish on Alvarez’s otherwise spotless record, and Canelo is still out there absolutely annihilating people. (He’s fighting Trip G next month, an actual boxing match between the two best active fighters in the world that people have totally forgotten about in the run up to this circus fight.) Can anyone who has watched even three minutes of boxing in their entire life, and doesn’t have a shit ton of money wrapped up in this absolute farce of a fight, say any of those things with a straight face?
Sure they can, if they’re either a massive McGregor stan or are completely detached from reality. McGregor is a 40-1 underdog, but honestly, he should be a 400-1 underdog.
As I write this, I’m sitting in Super-Jet International—where the owner/barista reminds me a fair bit of Colin Quinn’s character in Girls—listening to AC/DC’s “Money Talks.” The song choice feels a little on the nose. Because that’s what this fight is about. It’s what every fight is about, but this one is a different degree of magnitude.
For over a decade, boxing and MMA have gone back and forth trying to be the dominant combat sport in North America. The boxing establishment have dismissed MMA as a band of thuggish upstarts, MMA’s army of young, digitally active fans have called boxing a boring old man’s sport. But now they’re both in trouble.
Brock Lesnar has gone back to pro-wrestling, Ronda Rousey is probably going to join him, and Jon Jones couldn’t pass a drug test with someone else’s urine. The UFC’s glamour divisions are helmed by guys like Tyron Woodley, a great technician who is almost astoundingly unfun to watch, and Stipe Miocic, who knocks guys out, but who you would probably walk by in a crowd. Flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson is tied for the most successful title defences in UFC history and has totally dominated his division, but has been woefully underpromoted and overlooked in favour of bigger fighters with bigger personalities. Their most interesting champions are women’s strawweight champ, Joanna Jedrzejczyk—who might be the most technically perfect kickboxer of any gender on the planet—and men’s featherweight title holder Max Holloway, a tough, affable Hawaiian with the face of a 13 year-old. But neither of them have anything close to the crossover appeal of a Lesnar, or Rousey, or a GSP. No one is asking Joanna Jedrzejczyk to star in an action film.
Boxing, meanwhile is now a niche sport in North America. Outside of a few specific regions (Quebec) and ethnic communities (Latinos), boxing isn’t really on anyone’s radar. It’s biggest stars are European and Latin American. Every so often, something big happens and people go “Oh yeah, boxing!” But for most North Americans, boxing comes after the MLS, after NASCAR, after MMA. It’s on a par with lacrosse.
Boxing needs this fight, but that doesn’t make it a boxing match. It’s a circus fight. It’s a sideshow. It’s Ben Johnson racing a horse, except I’m not sure who’s Ben Johnson and who’s the horse. But whatever. Money talks.
So, I’ve spent my entire life thinking that I’m just not very good at breathing or smelling things? Like those are just skills I never acquired. It probably says something about my sense of self that I assumed breathing and smelling were skills and I was bad at them. But that’s for sure another story for another day.
It turns out that I hadn’t just failed to learn how to breathe. I had a pretty severely deviated septum that no one had noticed before. (Shout out my sleep doctor for noticing that I sounded congested 100% of the time.) Anyway, on July 13 I had my septum repaired. On a scale of 1-10, it sucked profoundly.
I somehow got it in my head that I would be off BJJ three weeks. That is at least in part because I WANTED to have that in my head, and didn’t really get clarification from my surgeon about when I could go back. Thankfully, a concerned friend looked it up for me.
Three months off contact sports. Minimum. If I don’t want my septum to re-deviate and to have to do this all again.
One of the really amazing things about Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the people you meet.
In big cities, we tend to select our tribe. We find people who are like us, and we stick together. To look at us, my core group of friends seems pretty diverse. And in terms of of ethnicity and sexuality, it is. But in other ways, we’re remarkably homogenous. We’re all somewhere between our late 20s and early 40s, with the bulk of us being in and around 35. Most of us are childless. Most of us work in either “creative fields” or tech. Our politics range from centre-left liberalism to Anarcho-socialism. No one is especially religious.
My gym friends, on the other hand include evangelical Christians, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, electricians, lawyers, bouncers, students, traditional conservatives, labour union leftists and a weirdly high number of libertarians. They come from Poland and Portugal and Jamaica and Costa Rica and Korea and Israel and Somalia, and of course, Brazil. They also include people from across Canada, from Vancouver Island to Manitoulin Island to Nova Scotia. More than half of them are parents. Most of their kids train, too. They range in age from 16 to their mid-50s. It is a truly staggering cross-section of humanity.
And we all manage to get along, because we have this one thing in common. And we do talk about other things, and we do disagree about them, but we manage to not go off on each other, because it’s hard to other someone who showed you how to do a forward roll guard pass, or helped you come back from injury, or who’s kid you kept from wandering out of the changeroom without pants on. Sometimes we even manage to change each other’s minds about things.
When I was coming back from my recent toe injury, I wasn’t super into training. It felt like a struggle. It still does, a bit. But what keeps me going is the community. I miss the gang if I don’t see them for a week. They’ve become my friends, and new friends are hard to make as an adult.
Hey! So this is actually a post I wrote 90% of a couple weeks ago and never bothered to finish because I’ve been working an actual go-to-it job while also freelancing, and also having an Olympic-calibre summer cold. (I met with a client feeling like my eyeballs were boiling in my skull.)
Anyway, reading the mostly-finished post I decided I was still feeling those feels, so I finished it.
So, my first training back from injury, toe buddy taped and all, wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I struggled tremendously. Not only was I a little [more] out of shape [than usual], but it was all lasso guard and spider guard and triangles.
I have short legs and almost zero hip flexibility and sub-par core strength. Lasso and spider are guards that don’t really work for me as a result. Triangles are a pretty BJJ 101 thing that I should be better at, but I’ll really only try for one if my opponent is just kind of handing it to me, and even then, I probably won’t finish it in time.
It was mega frustrating.
But then at the end of the class, I rolled with a higher belt. He’s an older dude, by the relative standards of the gym—maybe 10 years older than me?—and he’s just started teaching kids and white belts. He has a real mellow demeanour. He immediately puts you at ease. Now, that mellow demeanour doesn’t mean he didn’t arm bar me three times in six minutes or something, but we were laughing while it happened, and he took the time to show me how he was catching me over and over again.
It was really nice. It made struggling through an hour of lasso and spider guard worthwhile. That’s why I do this.
Why am I even doing this? I could be at home filling up on injera and watching this guy.
Right now I’m at a place where training isn’t especially enjoyable. I look at the clock a lot during class, and it moves really, really slowly. I go through phases like this, especially when I’m coming back from injury, or when I’m depressed, or when my anxiety is especially bad.
Everything is hard. My body won’t do what I want it to, even more than usual. Everyone around me is kind of getting on my nerves. Rolling feels like I’m being punished for something.
If I’m having an especially hard time, you might catch me cursing under my breath a lot and questioning why I’m there and why I do this voluntarily, “for fun.” Because it’s not fun right now. You know what’s fun? Watching wrestling and eating Ethiopian food.
So why AM I doing this? I could be at home with tibs and Lucha Underground. Instead I’m drilling double leg defences.
Because I always feel better after.
No matter how much I hate it while it’s happening, I always feel better after. Going when I don’t want to go is like a gift to future me. But not even far future me. Like 90 minutes from now me.
That knowledge, that I’m going to be happier later, is enough.
Not my toe, but not unlike what my toe looked like last week. (Tony/Flickr/CC)
When I started this blog a few months ago, I was struggling to return to BJJ after being injured. Now, I’m working on re-imagining it, turning it from a night school project into a thing I’m just doing as part of my life and training. And as per the circle of life, I’m injured again.
Now, it’s not nearly as bad as last time. Last time I had a head injury, which are scary and can be disorienting and leave you messed up for weeks. This time I have a broken toe, which is mostly just a pain in my ass.
(An aside, do you know that for a broken toe all they can do is tape it to another toe? It’s called “buddy taping.” Because your toe has a friend that makes things less painful. How emotionally resonant is that?)
Anyway, every time I get injured, people question why I do Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is sort of a subset of the response I get to telling people I do BJJ in general, which is “Why would a seemingly sane man in his 30s who is, to put it diplomatically, clearly not a natural athlete, take up a sport where you fight people?” People think I’m trying to prove something, or have some sort of issue I’m trying to work through. And for sure, they aren’t totally wrong. There are a lot of psychological issues that I’m working through that BJJ helps me with: my anxiety, my depression, the sense of helplessness that comes with those things, my feelings of not being “enough.”
But those are all side benefits I discovered after I started training. Mostly I’m just trying to get some exercise.
“But why this exercise? Why couldn’t you do something more reasonable, like running?”
And this is where I start to get annoyed. Because I have some people I love dearly who are runners, and I would never shit on someone else’s preferred form of exercise, but the idea that running is somehow a saner, more reasonable workout than jiu-jitsu is garbage.
Runners are prone to everything from plantar fasciitis to torn glutes. (No, that really happened to a friend of mine mid-marathon. That’s real.) They damage their knees and hips and ankles and then claim that those stupid toe shoes will fix things. Runners have a bizzarro culture in which pain is just a thing you “push through,” and finish your marathon, torn glute and all. The only reason running is considered “reasonable” exercise” is that a) it’s of our culture, so people are used to it and b) it doesn’t LOOK as unsettling as people grappling. (I’m not saying that North Americans invented running, that’s stupid. I’m just saying it’s thoroughly integrated into our culture.) In reality, slamming your feet down on concrete for dozens of kilometres a week is no more or less reasonable than rolling around with your friend trying to catch an armbar.
All exercise has a risk of injury attached to it. Running, BJJ, skiing, yoga, “the gym,” all of them have risks. So does crossing the street. But the greater risk comes from not exercising at all. Exercise is good for you. It makes your life better. And occasionally being banged up is a totally reasonable price of admission for the overall benefits.
(And I want to head this off at the pass, I’m not talking about weight here. I’m talking about metabolic and mental health. There’s not a one-to-one relationship between metabolic health and weight. Also, one of the best BJJ players at my gym has a gut not unlike mine, but is fast and strong and technical as balls, and could for sure armbar every fitness guru out there. Corey, if you’re reading this, you’re my hero, guy.)
Injuries happen, but finding the activity that keeps you healthy and sane is priceless, even if none of your friends understand it.
As the three or four regular readers of this blog know, I started it as a project for a night school class. (This class, if you were wondering. Cannot recommend it highly enough if you’re interested.)
After the class ended, I took a couple weeks to decide if I wanted to keep it going. Because frankly I have a bad history with starting blogs and not keeping them up, and I didn’t know if I wanted to add another one to the Chris Dart Blog Graveyard.
But then I realized that this blog has kind of given me the creative outlet I haven’t had in a long time, so I decided to keep it going. It’s weird, or maybe it’s not, but since I write for a living, I do almost zero writing for myself. Once I’m done work, I don’t actually want to write at all. This is for sure one of the downsides of following your passion. The other big one is unpredictable income. But that is not about BJJ, and another story for another day.
The other thing is, this blog has changed how I train. I’m more aware of what I’m doing and what’s going on. I’m paying closer attention to not only the techniques I’m learning, but also how I’m reacting the learning process. My mindset is different. If I get frustrated or upset or down on myself on the mat, I take the time to think about why that’s happening.
So the blog will continue.
Also, I want to put it out there. What do you, all four of you. want to see here? More Humans of BJJ? More training diaries where I talk about feelings? Do you want me to start talking about gear and gis and rashguards? Do you want BJJ history? Let me know.
Because I have no idea what I’m doing from here on out.
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?