I'm not sure how my path in jiu-jitsu compares to most people's. I'm sure most, like myself, had to overcome the nervousness or fear of walking into a gym for the first time. It's like a sea of sharks. All gym goers, even the lowest ranking white belt, have a larger skill set than you and the feelings of being inadequate and self-consciousness run through anyone's head.
I'm told wrestlers have less of a fear than the average person due to their familiarity with the art of grappling. I didn't grow up with a wrestling background and I had that same lump in my throat the first time I ever walked into a real gym back in Rochester, New York.
I had been training with friends up in the Adirondack Park, each of us sharing with one another what knowledge of the fight game we thought we possessed. Most of us had only watched old Van Damme or Bruce Lee movies. I learned bits and pieces of karate, Muay Thai and taekwondo over the years from various different people, but nothing of substance that would be usable in a fight.
Like a lot of guys at the time, we were watching The Ultimate Fighter every week and had lofty goals of being in the UFC. We would train, fight each other, fight anyone else who came along and at the end of it all go to someone's house to shower, eat, then watch old UFC or PRIDE videos. We would speak romantically of how one day we would make it to Las Vegas or Japan to compete in the "big show" and further down the road win the championship title in each of our respected weight classes.
I don't have anything to base this off of, other than pure speculation, but I think most things like this fall apart. Guys get lazy, don't want to do conditioning, get girlfriends, smoke cigarettes, drink to much beer, and get offended at any sense of accountability from other team members to train. Before you know it you have one or two guys left standing.
I was one of the two. Actually, I was the only one left.
I wanted more than the questionably legal fights I had participated in and went to join my brother in Rochester to pursue an MMA career. I trained alone in the beginning with the false presumption that I didn't need a team or sparring to make it. My questionable skills became sloppier and my motivation was starting to crumble. Without a team and accountability I lost any progression I was starting to make.
It took two losses in a row in a legitimate promotion before I realized I needed a team again, and for a change, actual proper training.
Not wanting to lose again and never get another call to fight, I found a gym that was close to where I was living. I was scared the first time I walked down the steps to where the cage, mats and boxing ring lay in wait. I had a feeling I was a really small fish in a big pond and I was soon to find out I was right.
Everyone was around the same size as me but had been training far longer and most had wrestling backgrounds. I was asked whether I preferred to strike or grapple and I was quick to answer strike. I only knew a couple submissions which I had a hard time setting up and I could never finish them.
One of my new coaches threw on some gloves and headgear and proceeded to kick my ass. I was winded in seconds, had poor defense and everything I threw at him was quickly deflected and countered. After the two rounds he informed me he had only been going about 50 percent.
I was screwed.
These were deeper waters than I was used to and I had to at least learn quickly how to tread the waves. To make matters worse I had a fight in five weeks and had only just learned that I really knew nothing at all.
My coaches, although tough, were also sympathetic. I went through a five-week crash course of wrestling, jiu-jitsu and striking coming out at the end still very raw but with a little more knowledge and confidence. I made the trek to Burlington, Vermont alone to meet up with a longtime friend who would serve as my corner man for the fight.
I was more nervous than I had ever been before, my personal life was a wreck at the time, and it was the hardest weight cut I had ever made. These factors and my lack of real skill attributed to my third consecutive loss.
After that fight I was pretty disheartened but not willing to give up. I wanted to fight again but the promotion didn't call and I didn't make any attempt to seek out a fight from them or otherwise. I knew I didn't deserve another shot. I stuck with it though and spent the next year or so really learning how to strike, grapple and mentally prepare for a fight.
The gym I was at offered MMA, boxing and jiu-jitsu classes and I took part in the MMA option. Twice a week we focused on striking, a mix of Muay Thai and boxing, and twice a week we focused on grappling which was mostly wrestling with submissions incorporated.
I put in the work, showing up for all classes and open mats. I could only afford to pay for the MMA class but eventually the boxing coach took pity on me and let me take his classes for free. The jiu-jitsu coach would also periodically let me drop in on his class and my skill set started to develop and grow. I started rubbing shoulders with real pro fighters, traveled to other gyms to train, and got top-level instruction from various coaches who rolled through during my time there.
I never fought MMA again. I had met and sparred with enough pros to realize I wasn't going to achieve my dream of being in the UFC. What I did do though was train hard, develop some good cauliflower ears, make lasting friendships and learn some priceless life lessons all while trying to achieve my dream.
At one point a submission-only grappling tournament came to town and since I was still training I entered it along with my coach. He won gold in his division. I lost my first match and then went on to take bronze. The medal still hangs on my wall and is a source of pride.
Years went by and I found myself living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, still dabbling in boxing, dreaming of competing in MMA again, and finally having the maturity to know that dream was ludicrous.
When I first met the woman who would become my wife, she introduced me to her cousin who had recently taken up jiu-jitsu. I had been rolling fairly regularly with a friend from New York who had recently moved to the area but taking a traditional jiu-jitsu class in a gi was not really on my radar. I had been trained after all by wrestlers and wrestle, I shall. He sparked my interest in exploring the grappling world clothed by a gi. I always enjoyed the submission angle of what I had been taught. It had after all been stemmed directly from jiu-jitsu so I had to be at least decent at rolling in a gi. Again, to my dismay I would later discover I was wrong.
I didn't walk into my first real jiu-jitsu class with the same lump in my throat as I had walked into that old gym many years earlier. I knew that I would be low man on the totem pole and that I had a lot to learn and relearn. All those beatings I had taken gave me the confidence to be comfortable in an otherwise uncomfortable situation. Plus I wasn't a small fish anymore. I wasn't a great white shark but I was probably closer to a sea turtle.
Just like my first day in the old gym I had my ass handed to me again. Rolling in a gi was like learning to walk all over again. So many more holds and angles to be submitted from. I was having a lot of fun though and, as I do a lot, smiling the entire time through all the submissions.
I've been training in a gi consistently for a few weeks. Once again, starting at the bottom and trying to work my way up. My goals are different now with aspirations of being a superstar left on the shelf of my past. This is fun, a release from everyday life , my peaceful state.