Although I started BJJ way back in autumn (September?) 2007, and even though it’s a competitive sport, I had until now never once competed. The chief reason is that I’m just not that interested. I’m not naturally athletic, I’m not that talented, I’m unlikely to win anything, and I don’t enjoy competition per se.
But on the other hand there are good reasons for competition. Competitive combat sports are the best martial arts, and by competing you are forced to develop your skills to their highest level. Perhaps some train to compete; for me that’s upside down, and competition is a means to an end. The single biggest weakness I have in my jiu-jitsu is a lack of drive—initiative, assertiveness, determination, will to win. My biggest common mistake is to respond to something not going my way—someone begins to pass my guard, moves to establish knee-on-belly, what have you—with an attitude of resignation:
It’s just rolling, after all; doesn’t matter who wins or loses; this isn’t going my way, may as well let him have it. Obviously this won’t do for competition, but it really won’t do if you want to regard the martial art as a martial art. Giving up can never be an option (short of the point of tapping out due to absolute necessity, of course). And I do want to regard my jiu-jitsu as a proper martial art, so I have a great need to cultivate a more determined mindset.
And that’s why I wanted to compete, and go to the competition classes—to learn to fight to win; to apply the techniques I’ve spent years learning aggressively and with purpose; to cultivate the mindset where, win or lose, I will not give an inch without at least trying my best to fight for it. (Win or lose—because there will always be people better at jiu-jitsu than me, but that’s no excuse not to fight as best I can.)
So on October 11, I signed up for the November 5 CBJJF BC Open and started going to the Friday evening Competition Team classes. I was briefly stymied by a minor ringworm infection that kept me out of the gym for a week, but apart from that I trained hard and I trained a lot. With only three weeks to go before the tournament and no prior experience, I decided not to attempt to cut or particularly manage my weight, but go in for the experience and let the chips fall where they may.
I think those three weeks of training improved my game more than any three ordinary months of training ever have. I do not say that it improved my skills¹, because of course I can’t pick up or dramatically improve skills acquired over four years in mere weeks; but it improved my game because it provided both focus, venue, and opportunity to fight to win. I have a long road ahead of me and perhaps it’s still my biggest weakness, but I’ve never before made a focused effort to address it and I am a different jiu-jitsu fighter than I was a mere month ago.
Of the tournament itself, I have less to say. I got up bright and early, ate my usual breakfast as I knew I was in no danger of failing to make weight, caught a train partway and a ride the rest of the way. The tournament started at 9:00 and blue belt divisions were first. I fought in the medium heavyweight bracket (181–195 lbs), which is really too high for me, but that’s a worry for later. My first match turned out to be my only match, against a very tough opponent². He ended up establishing mount pretty early in the match, and despite my best efforts at bumping and shrimping I just couldn’t bump him and couldn’t quite make enough space to get a knee in and improve my position. On the positive side, I never just resigned, and I did survive for several minutes with a strong opponent on top of me without ever giving away either the choke or an armlock; instead I lost (decisively) on points.
I also signed up for the blue belt open division, because why was I there if not to get experience, rack up as many minutes on the competitive mats as I could? This was much later in the day, and by then I was starting to feel rather low energy for the early morning and not having eaten much; there was pizza available, but this didn’t sound like something I’d want in my stomach while fighting, so I stuck to a few bananas, a couple of small whole grain muffins, a protein shake, and some Gatorade; not bad but hardly real food. Still I went in and did what I could. My opponent this time was, I think, a bit lighter than me, but gave every impression of being a good deal more experienced. Just as in my first fight, I ended up in an inferior position pretty quickly. I’m happy to note that I didn’t resign just because he ended up in side, but fought as hard as I damn well could to avoid being flattened out and giving him those positional points (and that positional advantage for submission). Sadly, while I succeeded reasonably well in not being flattened out, I succeeded less well in preventing him from choking me out, and lost to submission.
Still, in spite of 0 for 2, and although it’s possible I may change my mind once I see the video, I felt and feel pretty good about it. So I lost my two fights. I expected to lose my fights; I went to get my first tournament over with and for the experience and for all the improvements I thought I would see thanks to the competition team classes, and I got all that I wanted. In addition, I know that I was disadvantaged in my first fight because I’m effectively fighting above my proper weight class; the cut-off was 181 lbs (in gi), and I weighed in at a mere 183 lbs. (I’m surprised I lost so much weight in just a few weeks of simply eating healthier food; a month ago I weighed in at 190 lbs! A few more months of this and getting below 181 lbs by February will happen automatically, no cutting reqiured.)
I suppose there are three take-home points from this tournament for me, though the first two were already obvious: Viz., that I need to be more aggressive when appropriate, and that I need to improve my escapes from inferior positions, especially mount and side control. The third, though, is this: Tournament fights really aren’t that scary after all. They weren’t really any harder, and not that much more intense, than the rounds we have in competition classes. And in those classes we fight round upon round, back to back; and then I start off already tired from at least one prior class and the warmup for the second class to boot. By comparison, these competition fights aren’t so big a deal! I can do that!
I also felt part of a team in a way I never have before. I’m lousy at team spirit, so if I felt included it means that the team dynamic is operating remarkably well. Funny, that, in a sport that is ultimately individual, where we spend practices strangling each other with gusto… Most particularly, Kabir, a purple belt coach, encouraged me to compete, gave me some advice on game plans, answered questions, and was miscellaneously supportive.
Moving forward, I think I shall compete again. It’s not that I enjoy it so much, although I have to say that I enjoyed the day a great deal more than I had expected; but it worked wonders for my game to prepare for one, and I really don’t think that source has run dry or will any time soon. If I keep training with this kind of mindset, and at least part of the same intensity, I might even begin to feel like I deserve my belt… I also think it will be interesting to see how I perform with a bit more preparation, and after having been on a healthy diet for longer, in a lower weight class. Leaner and meaner, if you will.
¹ I have improved one skill: I have greatly improved my mounted cross choke. After watching this video, I was reminded of or recalled a few details I had been taught before, but tended to forget: Climbing high in the mount, using the first grip to pull the head up to defuse the bump, and crucially, the different way of obtaining the second grip, which tends to take quite a bit of fighting for. Watching Rodrigo also illustrates important principles of using your weight properly. All of a sudden, I went from sinking a mounted cross choke every month or so to getting nine or ten in a night. Before, the mounted cross choke was something I would pretend to go for in the hope of exposing an arm for an americana; now I go for the choke every time and ignore the arm unless it comes on a silver platter.
² When I say that my opponent was tough, this is not inference just from him beating me, but also from watching his fight with Chad. The latter is a member of my school, and has this habit of winning everything—for instance, I gather that he won our weight class and the blue belt open weight division yesterday, and no one is surprised. When Chad beat my opponent by so narrow a margin as 2–0, that qualifies that opponent as tough in my book!