Ancient religious texts the world over speak of events that are so rare, so inexplicable and unearthly that only one term can be assigned to describe them– miracles. Indeed, such was the case when, last Wednesday, one of the longest-held stereotypes in jiu-jitsu was broken. Not just broken, but shattered like a shoulder held too long in a kimura. Yes, it was last Wednesday that Samuel Drake, a local purple belt, showed up for warm-ups.
Jiu-jitsu isn’t a gentle art, despite this often-used title. However, it is more gentle than muay thai or other striking-based arts, where the goal is to neutralize your opponent by severely damaging their brain.
There’s part of our collective psyche as humans that love watching people who deserve it, get beat up and get their due. It’s part of the reason why superhero movies are so popular. There are fewer things more satisfying than seeing a mighty fist of justice crush ne’er-do-wells.
William Nickelson, a recent lightweight NAGA Blue Belt champion, was riding an all-time high Saturday night. It took several hard-fought matches to win that NAGA belt hanging over his shoulder, but the most exhausted muscles in his body were in his pinky and thumbs from throwing up the “shaka” hand sign all night.
A Starry-eyed blue belt’s perception of jiu-jitsu is, at best, a false binary. They will say there are only competitors and hobbyists– with no room for anything in between. But, as you spend more time on the mat, you find that this idea isn’t accurate.
Jiu-jitsu is different from other sports in many ways; when you think of athletic events, the biggest, strongest competitors are often looked at most favorably. Look at the four major sports in America. They all feature a popularity bias toward the biggest and strongest of their athletes. I couldn’t make it a day without being bothered by my school’s athletic director to join the football team. Indeed, size matters in sports.
Jiu-jitsu is supposed to be the great equalizer, the thing that allows small, wiry people to fight larger, stronger opponents. In a way, that’s true. If someone of a more modest physique learns jiu-jitsu, their chances of emerging victorious against an untrained or lesser skilled opponent of greater stature do go up dramatically. Indeed, we’ve seen this on display in viral YouTube videos, as well as personal testimonies from the art’s practitioners.
You’re an aspiring martial artist, and you hop onto Google to see what gyms are in your area. You’ll likely find that the market for martial arts is, well, oversaturated. Indeed, gone are the days of the massive monolithic karate dojos of the 80s and early 90s. However, martial arts schools are still as prevalent as ever– even if they might be renting space from a yoga studio or corporate weightlifting gym these days. But, the most important thing is the quality of instruction, not whether the owner of a school can afford to have a massive painting of a venomous snake on the wall (looking at you, John Kreese).
It can happen at any time, and more often than not, it happens at the worst possible time, when you’re about to compete, breaking plateaus, or any other similar groove. Yes, there’s no good time to get injured, but ligaments, tendons, and bones tend to snap at rather inopportune moments despite your goals– resulting in you having to pull out of tournaments and put a pause on your training.
You walked into a jiu-jitsu gym for the first time. Congratulations!
They say it’s never too late to start jiu-jitsu, and that’s true. Great competitors have started in their early to mid-twenties, and perennial practitioners have started even later than that. There’s never really an ideal time.