This article originally appeared in GracieMag
If you’d told me in my first year of university that I’d be spending the next ten years of my life travelling making my living through martial arts, I would never have believed you. I doubt my parents would have been all that impressed either, after years invested in the education for a more conventional path. Yet here I am. Through Jiu-Jitsu, I have been able to visit dozens of countries around the world. I’ve shared the mats with some of the greatest practitioners of our era, and received my black belt from the greatest competitor in history, Roger Gracie. I’ve met hundred, even thousands of people united by their passion for a shared sport. These people have opened their homes and academies to me for no reason other than the art we all hold in common.
That said, it’s not always been easy. In my first year of living the dream, I spent six months crashing in an apartment rented by some friends. I slept on the floor in the corridor just in front of the bathroom, and every couple of weeks I’d get woken up when one of my flat mates would accidentally kick me in the head as he stepped over me. In the years since, I’ve acquired at least one impressive cauliflower ear, fingers that look like gnarled twigs, and a whole list of other minor injuries that will likely stay with me for the rest of my life. In turn, I have also had experiences that will stay with me just as long.
I have stood by the mats in an open air arena in Abu Dhabi at night and watched members of the royal family cheer on their favorite fighters as television crews broadcast the matches live across the country. In that same stadium I found myself warming up next to Marcelo Garcia and, still an impressionable purple belt, I asked him if I could shake his hand for luck. He looked at me slightly strangely, but obliged. It didn’t bring me enough, sadly.
I translated my way through ordering a pizza from room service for the Miyao brothers. I watched in disbelief as Rafael Mendes submitted me in under twenty seconds. I spent eleven weeks on a whirlwind tour of the USA and Canada, staying in nine different cities and competing in a tournament in each one of them. Every week I would spend time with a new group of people, new training partners and a new environment before fighting, refereeing and moving on to a new city to begin the cycle anew.
As for refereeing? Well that could be a whole catalogue of experiences by itself. I’ve been threatened, insulted and been told innumerable times that I’m blind or don’t know the rules. But there have been a share of good stories, too. To pick just one from this year’s world championships, I was refereeing a match where Bernardo Faria faced off against an opponent who I didn’t recognise. After dominating him he turned to me with a huge smile and told me that he’d lost to him in the final of a competition years earlier and had finally got his revenge. His opponent smiled too, I raised Bernardo’s hand, and they walked off the mat as friends, chatting and joking together.
So how to end this little piece of journalism? I don’t know, simply because the lifestyle is something that doesn’t have an ending. Jiu-Jitsu has opened doors and pathways that I couldn’t even have imagined the first time I stepped onto the mat, but the best thing about it is that the journey, amazing though it has been, is far from over. There is still so much left to do.
On January 10th, I had the opportunity to fight current World No-Gi Champion AJ Agazarm in a superfight in Cardiff, Wales. Originally he was scheduled to face fellow Brit Daniel Strauss but after he picked up an injury at the ADCC trials I was offered the opportunity to replace him and jumped at the chance. For those who don’t know, I have a fairly extensive competition history with AJ, having fought him several times both in Europe and in the US, with him coming out on top each time, always on points. I’d had some good moments in all those fights despite the final results, and I figured the opportunity to face him in a 15 minute submission only matchup would be a good way to see how our jiujitsu matched up as finishers.
For the fight itself, it definitely didn’t go the way that I had hoped. I got outworked both positionally and in terms of submission attempts, and got my elbow popped in pretty much the first attack of the fight. I had a couple of better moments later on, but ended up getting caught in a triangle from an armbar about 11 minutes in and with nowhere to go, I had to tap. Honestly, he pretty much had me with that first armbar, but I don’t think that I would have been able to forgive myself if I had just tapped like that after all the support and encouragement and training I had had leading up to the match. So my elbow took a little tweak and we kept on going. And that pretty much summed up the match.
What was much bigger than the match itself was the whole experience of the competition. Walking out with that many local supporters (and the knowledge that there were even more people online rooting for me) was a tremendous experience. A big thank you to all the Polaris organisers (and there were a lot of them) for putting together a show filled with international top level grapplers. Here’s looking forward to the next one, and an even bigger and better event!
( Image Credit: Andy Douglas / bjjstyle.com )