I know what you're thinking: wait a minute, did I log onto the wrong blog? Chris Ryan went to a JIU-JITSU tournament? Yes indeed I did. My friend Noah had been training for months, and it seemed like a rare cultural experience - - I had nothing to do, it was $10 at a convenient location, how could I pass it up?
The tournament was held in the gym at Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The gym was two floors below sea level, and let me tell you, it got pretty stuffy down there. I would guess there were about 200-300 spectators. I kept hoping I'd run into someone I know. Can you imagine? "Chris Ryan, what the HELL are you doing here?" Didn't happen.
Jiu-jitsu is sort of Asian-flavored wrestling. Here's how a match works - - I'll use men in my example because the women had already finished by the time I got there, it was only men I saw competing: The two men come onto the mat. They each shake hands with the ref, bow to each other, and shake hands. The ref starts the match and they go at each other. Usually they're on the mat within thirty seconds, if not within five. They each try to maneuver the other so that the other is in submission, which generally means his back is on the mat. The ref keeps score of how many times each participant is able to overpower the other. The match ends when a set number of minutes has elapsed (it varies by level), or if the match is voluntarily ended by a participant, or if the ref stops the match.
The most interesting part of the process, for me, was what happened immediately after a match ended. The two guys got up off the floor, stood around nonchalantly for a few seconds getting their looks together (adjusting their jackets, retying their belts, picking their pants out of their cracks). The judge took a hand from each of the guys and raised the hand of the winner. Then the guys gave each other a light hug with a manly slap on the back and they walked off the mat, smiling, laughing, like they're gonna have a couple brewskies.
I talked with Noah about this, the whole thing seemed very gentlemanly and well-mannered. He said it is. But I asked if you have to feel like you want to destroy the guy during the match. You do. That's a strange duality.
Stage One: It is an honor to meet you, sir.
Stage Two: MUST DESTROY!
Stage Three: Hey buddy, good job, you're pretty good.
I'm in pretty good shape, by my own standards, but I was the shlubbiest guy there, participant or spectator. That was eyebrow-raising in itself. But the greatest shock of the afternoon was hearing these words over the PA: "David Daniels, please report to the podium to collect your medal." David Daniels is an American counter tenor, was big in the 90s and is still performing on international stages. I assume that wasn't him collecting a medal, but you never know.
And then it was Noah's turn. The other guy got on top of Noah pretty quickly. Noah spun around a bit with his legs, trying to flip the guy, but he didn't He wrapped his arm around the other guy's head, which I was hoping would turn the beat around, but it didn't. Noah kept trying for a while and then tapped the guy on the side to indicate the match was over.
I asked Noah how he felt about it.
NOAH: That dude was SCARY. He was tall, and he had four of these stripes on his belt, and I only have one.
ME: So it wasn't an even match?
NOAH [whispering]: Not really.
The stripes on the belt have to do with your level of training, the other guy had a notable advantage over Noah. Here's a note from Noah: "Submissions usually involve a choke, meaning cutting off blood circulation by applying pressure with your arms/legs/the other guy's collar to the carotid arteries, or a joint lock, which is what I got caught with. The move he used on me is called an Americana and involves creating leverage to pressure the shoulder by bringing the person's elbow forward and their hand back."
Jiu jitsu in a lot of ways is the great leveler. So many things don't matter: your race, color, creed, country of origin, sexual orientation, or knowledge of 1970s television. It was sort of inspiring that way.