Training Diary: Two Thoughts on My Great Armbar of Triumph


(Ippon Kumite/Flickr/CC)

After I presented my blog in class a couple weeks ago, someone asked me “If jiu-jitsu is so hard all the time, why do you keep doing it?”

That’s a great question. I think everyone who does Brazilian jiu-jitsu asks that question from time to time. Or possibly all the time.

The answer I gave them was that sometimes everything clicks, and you actually manage to pull off something you’ve been struggling with in a roll, and it all feels worth it.

Last week, I was rolling, and I had one of these moments.

Armbar from closed guard is a pretty 101 BJJ move that most people manage to do in their first two or three months in the sport. For me, though, armbars from guard have been a pretty illusive. I have short legs, and a hard time moving around on the ground, and a total lack of confidence in my ability to keep my opponent where I want them.

Nonetheless, one of the things I’m working on is getting more comfortable with is fighting off my back, so I’m trying to pull guard pretty much every roll lately. I hate it. I’m getting crushed all the time. So I’m rolling and I’m pulling guard, and my opponent is in my closed guard, and his hands are really far up on me. Like recklessly far. So I move my body to one side. And he keeps his hands there. And then I give up the closed guard and I put my foot on his shoulder, because I can’t quite get my foot over his head in one movement, and now I’m expecting him to pull back. But he doesn’t. So I keep going, and next thing you know, bingo. I have the armbar on him, he’s tapping, and victory is mine.

Here are a couple quick takeaways from my great success:

1) Don’t be so conservative

I tend to play a pretty cautious brand of jiu-jitsu, and probably I should be a little more daring. Because you never know, you just might get it, and if not, you’ll force your opponent to defend and open something else up.

2) Keep practicing

I have drilled armbar from guard into the ground. It has been awkward and uncomfortable and annoying. But muscle memory is a thing, and after a while it will actually kick in.

The First Cut Is the Deepest OR Three Things I Learned From Coming in Third



That’s me on the end. (Photo courtesy David Holman, who won gold.)

Over the course of this blog, there will be a lot of talk about how bad I am at Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is for two reasons:

  1. I am not very good at it. I am not naturally athletic. I am strong, but I am fat strong. I have the flexibility of someone twice my age and the speed of a slow loris.
  2. I just got my blue belt. Which means that rather than living in the walled garden of all-white belt classes, I’m now rolling with purple and brown belts. People who really know how to do jiu-jitsu. So I get crushed a lot. Like a lot a lot.

That said, I have had some limited success in this. This is a post about one of those successes.

Back in July, I fought in my first ever tournament. I was terrified to compete. I’m not competitive by nature. It’s one of the many ways in which BJJ is a weird choice of hobby for me. (I’m also claustrophobic. More on that later.)

Much to my surprise, I came in third in my weight class.

Here are three things I learned from coming in third:

BJJ works

One of the core principles of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is that a smaller person can beat a bigger person using technique and leverage. (Hélio Gracie was a tiny, tiny dude.) Being that I’m 225 lbs., I’m almost never the smaller person in a fight. The exception being in tournaments, where I end up being the smallest guy in the heaviest weight class.

That means I wind up having to fight men the size of literal, actual bears. There is no ceiling in the largest weight class. The first man I fought was enormous, well over six feet tall and probably very close to 300 lbs. And I beat him. Using leverage and technique. BJJ really does work. Thanks Hélio.

Adrenaline management is everything

In my fight against the aforementioned bear man, he came at me with, well, bear-like ferocity. He pulled guard hard, squeezed me until I thought I would pop, and tugged at my arm like it had personally affronted him. But unfortunately for him, I managed to escape those armbar attempts, and after the third or fourth one, I watched him realize there was still two-and-a-half minutes of fight left. He looked deflated. I actually saw his expression change. He’d spent all his energy.

I am not good at BJJ. I have two techniques that work for me semi-reliably against people at my own level. I get mounted with an alarming frequency. I’m very susceptible to triangles. But I know myself pretty well. I kept calm under attack, and when he had burned himself out, I was able to capitalize.

Losing is learning

For my second fight, I fought someone from my own gym. Someone who is both a better natural athlete than me, and seems to have a brain that picks up techniques in a way mine doesn’t. Someone who constantly kicks my ass in training.

I would love to say that on tournament day, things went differently. They did not. It went sweep-mount-armbar. Just like it did when we fought at the gym.
But you know what? I didn’t care. I felt great. I got out, I competed, I beat someone, and then I learned I need to work on my mount escapes. I felt like a winner. Even if I came in third.