A Soul Surfer Savior for Jiu-Jitsu, III

Part Three:  Winning Is His Only Constant 


We reign all year ’round from June to June.” –GZA on “Shadowboxin” from the RZA album Liquid Swords


1130 Joel’s House


As I sat on the back patio, again, this time in deep recuperation from the early morning jaunt a car pulled up on the steep hill and Joel’s real jiu-jitsu brown belt contemporary and coach, Alfredo, stepped out of it.  Alfredo seemed to be holding some sort of coconut in his hand as he walked right into the house through the heavy wooden doors.  After all of the necessary greetings, Tosh included, it became apparent that we were going to take a little while longer to depart for the tournament.  Perhaps we weren’t waiting for Alfredo at all, I pondered in between clouds of smoke emanating from my overworked lungs; Joel was in his bedroom packing his bag and mentally preparing.  The longer this process of leaving took the better chance I had of becoming a vegetable in the hour and half car ride was my rationale.  I wasn’t really all that beat up as much as I was just tired from the night before.  Jah Rib was still nursing his sore namesake but even he had the energy to continue building the Marley board and taking pictures of every stage of development at The Factory.  I know because he showed me and everybody else like a proud father.  Andy had already picked him up and whisked him away because the artist wasn’t exactly happy with being away from his masterpiece for so long.  We were all somewhat grateful because Jah Rib has a meddlesome temperament and can be pesky at times.  Joel finally came out of his bedroom and greeted Alfredo with a mock flurry of Thai kicks, a shadow punch and probably his best judo throw, Uchimata. 


Multiple martial art disciplines meshing together is a blatant sign that someone is really interested in the new sport of Ultimate Fighting.  Alfredo was used to the outbreak and didn’t even flinch as none of the moves that Joel was performing resulted in contact.   The play fight concluded when Alfredo held up the coconut-looking thing and said he only needed some hot water before we finally left.  While Joel obliged him and also loaded bags in the car, I got a closer inspection of what he was holding on the front porch.  Alfredo explained to me in great detail that the wooden chalice was a part of a traditionally Brazilian drink made from herba mattẽ called chimarraỏ.  Alfredo is from Riogrande do Sul, the place where the drink originated and he claimed that the properties were similar to coffee even though the herba mattẽ looked like marijuana, but smelled bitter.  On general appearances alone, I was willing to try it.  A silver and gold straw with over one thousand miniscule holes in it called a bomba was used to sip the hot drink leaving the herba mattẽ in the cup.  The ritual apparently called for Alfredo to drink two cups and pass it to whoever wanted to partake next.  This was entirely familiar to me and before we even got in the Audi I had already finished four of them in rotation with Alfredo.


The best part about the chimarraỏ, pronounced like she-may-how, was that the herba mattẽ could be recycled again and again with more hot water added to replenish the drink.  It tasted as bitter as it smelled, but overall, the drink wasn’t bad and it may have snapped Joel out of his haze of procrastination long enough to get him moving.  Oh the things that you can learn about when you hang out with enough people with open minds and diverse friends!  We piled in the Audi and broke North on the freeway so as not to be too late for the event.  I drove to give the competitor a chance to rest without worrying about the traffic that is omnipresent in Southern California and Alfredo sat in the back seat pushing the herba mattẽ on us while we listened to “Soul Rebel.”  I was feeling great and that strange, new tea with the expensive straw probably had a lot to do with it.  The “small amount of caffeine” that Alfredo said it contained gave me just enough focus to manage the traffic as well as carry on a conversation fit for a short road trip from Del Mar to Long Beach.


Before Joel drifted off to sleep in the passenger’s side of his car he dropped a gem on me.  Apparently the weekend before he was in New York City and hanging outside of a downtown hotspot, La Esquina, and a friend noticed Stephon Marbury and decided that the two should be introduced.  While I was trying to figure out why a world champion surfer would want to be introduced to a perennial franchise killer in the NBA, Joel confessed that he had no idea who Stephon Marbury was, let alone what he did for a living.  As a New York Knick fan, I was astounded by Joel’s remark because how could you not hold a man up in disdain and infamy after your city paid him millions of dollars to come in at twelve out of a possible fifteen in the Eastern Conference?  (Well Joel is from San Diego and a recent seasonal New Yorker, after all.)  Despite Joel’s lack of professional basketball knowledge the introduction took place and a conversation ensued whereby a bullying Stephon Marbury aggressively inquired about the details of Joel’s Vans shoe deal.  (Note to so called ballers: if you have to ask then Nike is obviously gypping you.)  Of course Joel was a little cagey in his answers because he mistakenly thought Stephon Marbury must be a drug dealer due to his unrefined mannerisms, heavy jewelry, and otherwise tacky behavior.  Well there is that and the fact that Joel earned his shoe deal by actually trailblazing and winning while Stephon has a shoe deal based on street credentials not-worth-a-damn and a career generally centered on losing.  I laughed myself silly on the inside the rest of the trip.


1400 Long Beach Convention Center


Once we arrived and checked in at the Long Beach Convention Center Joel was on auto pilot.  He made the rounds like a professional fighter and began checking out other competitors to see whom he might be facing.  As for me, I was more inclined to check the plethora of hot chicks that apparently go to these events looking for boyfriends whose ass nobody can kick.  I walked around looking for a sandwich while catching an eyeful without drawing too much attention just in case I was staring at someone already attached to someone else and just waiting to try to put me in some sort of submission hold in between his scheduled bouts.  As far as jiu-jitsu submissions go there are some pretty painful varieties.  You have your arm bars that basically try to get your elbow to bend in the other direction and the submissions that focus on the lower joints of the body.  For someone that has studied judo it is a pretty pathetic way for a man to win a fight.  After all, if you are lucky enough to break someone’s arm or leg in a hold there is still a chance that the person could get up and attack you again if he is just that diesel.  This is why I have always been a fan of the choke, which the two sports have in common, and an ardent judo advocate for self defense.


Jiu-jitsu is supposed to be the martial art of choice for street fighting but when is the last time that you saw someone instigate a fight and sit down on the ground in front of you?  Believe it or not, this is a common tactic among the fighters at the tournament that I was watching and I couldn’t believe my eyes.  In most cases, however, the matches start from the standing position and points are awarded for take downs while the actual submissions are used to end fights.  If a fighter isn’t all that good at the standing position he could easily go straight to the ground to eliminate the possibility of losing points however in real life, this would lead to what is referred to in Brooklyn as a stomping.  The good part was we weren’t in Brooklyn although the chaos of the arena, coupled with the violence, was all too familiar.  A week long martial arts tournament of all kinds left the Convention Center with the air of an Ultimate Fighting event with tables set up all along the perimeter to hawk martial arts gear of all kinds.  Swords, uniforms, hats and trinkets could be purchased just steps away from the mats where people were grappling.


Joel had some time before his first match and I took that as my cue to let Alfredo warm up with Joel properly while I went to that cheeseburger place deep in the corner of the basement of the Convention Center.  I was starving and the surfing had taken up most of my energy for the day.  I wondered how Joel was actually going to do it because he only ate two pancakes and some “egg whites for energy,” whatever that means.  Either I was eating wrong or a semi-vegetarian weighing about 156 lbs was just plain tougher than I was.  No way some skinny little surfer boy would kick my ass is what I consoled myself with as I chomped on a bacon double cheeseburger.  I train on little chocolate doughnuts, sandwiches and blunts: a real black man doesn’t need gimmicky diets or practice in order to win some grappling tournament.  For the briefest of moments, I considered actually registering for the tournament citing my black belt in judo as a qualification.  Then I remembered something that my sensei told me a long time ago: overconfidence is a recipe for failure.  I looked in the direction of the fighters warming up and thought about the state of mind that Joel must be in right now.  Here was a man that has made a living doing the same thing that he has been the best at since he was fourteen years old.  Joel was willing to risk all of it and severe bodily harm for a hobby that he only took up five years ago.  Was he overconfident in his ability in surfing or in his ability in jiu-jitsu?


My answer came after I polished off the sandwich and sauntered over to the mats just in time to watch Joel in his first fight of the afternoon.  Joel versus unnamed assailant lasted little over a minute.  No points were awarded on the takedown and I don’t even think that there were points awarded at all before Joel went into his signature jiu-jitsu move: the triangle choke.  I watched Joel almost on his back in a half sit-up with the unnamed assailant between his legs.  “Oh he’s good,” one person in the audience remarked.  At first the unnamed assailant seemed to be attacking and then all of sudden it looked as if he changed his mind and was trying to withdraw.  “Yeah, he’s really good,” was the reply from another onlooker.  Witnessing Joel in competition with my own eyes for the first time I had to concur.  A long, lanky, flexible frame suckered some poor sap into thinking that Joel could be bowled over or plowed through.  Joel’s legs were in a figure four behind his opponent’s head when he tapped on the mat signaling to the referee that he had given up so soon after the match had started.  A familiar smile spread across Joel’s face as his arm was raised in victory.  If this guy is overconfident, I just didn’t see it: he’s just plain good.


With just one other match to fight in the Master’s division for us geezers over the age of thirty and still seeking thrills from wrestling, Joel took a seat Indian style on the mat and awaited the next challenger.  Alfredo went over some pointers but I just stared in awe.  It was starting to sink in that Joel could potentially win this thing.  Why not?  He was already guaranteed a silver medal after that last performance, in part because there isn’t a tremendous turn-out for the Master’s division and also because his ability is at a much higher level than his usual rivals.  This man is a professional of great leisure.  It just so happens that his hobby can be practiced in virtually every city in the world and that it coincides seamlessly with his “job.”  Joel will surf whenever he feels like it but he will also train in jiu-jitsu up to two times a day.  Waves aren’t good?  Go to the mats.  Daytime in New York City?  Go to the mats.  This never ending cycle of waves and wrestling is complimentary, athletically too.  Think of the benefits of cross training for surfing alone.  Perhaps it is just another legacy of another extraordinary athlete named Bo Jackson that used the training from one sport to springboard him in an entirely different sport?  After the article on his jiu-jitsu prowess that appeared sometime last year in Surfer Magazine entitled “Joel-Jitsu” I am pretty sure that nobody is going to try to put him in a headlock and shave his head when they get rowdy on the Big Island.  Certainly Danny Fuller won’t try it again, case closed, benefits realized.


Joel’s gold medal fight started out like the first bout earlier in the afternoon.  Both fighters were wary and cagey at first that the other would try a serious takedown.  Joel actually succeeded in making this concern come true by getting low enough to the ground and kicking one leg in between those of his competitor with his back turned in a wheeling motion.  His opponent recovered slightly but points were awarded even though the slightly flawed technique of Uchimata resulted in a half-fall.  I was proud.  With both opponents facing each other on the mat, however the advantage was clearly Joel’s.  Again, Joel went to work quickly and dispatched his opponent when he attempted to get a foot lock on him.  In a fifty-fifty chance, the opponent couldn’t make good on the odds as every second spent on trying to secure the foot submission was used by Joel to attempt the same maneuver on an equally vulnerable opponent.  Today Joel was quicker and perhaps more flexible than the other competitor because shortly after arriving in this predicament he was tapping out.  Joel Tudor just won the brown belt Masters gi portion of the World Grappling Championships.  Winning seems to be his only constant between two uncommon sports with many athletes choosing to practice both.


One other member of the school that Joel trains at in San Diego competed in the gi portion and managed to come away with a gold medal in the blue belt Masters division.  His name was Ox and he was 215 pounds of muscle and a spitting image of the European depiction of Jesus Christ, together with a massive beard and hair to match.  After looking at him I decided that it was probably for the best that I didn’t do anything stupid like submit my name for entry into a tournament that could contain the likes of him.  That is the thing with these open tournaments: you never know who could show up.  The structure of judo is more like professional boxing in that athletes are required to register with their state and national organizations.  The ranking system in judo, as well as other Japanese martial arts, is designed to allow competitors the best chance to advance themselves by selecting the tournaments or fights that will provide the right kind of exposure.  Jiu-jitsu on the other hand is a free-for-all.  The supremely recognized school is Gracie Jiu-jitsu located in Rio de Janeiro however there are plenty of other factions splintered off for United States consumption.  The sport of Ultimate Fighting has definitely contributed to the booming popularity of jiu-jitsu because it is widely recognized as a feeder sport into the bigger league of professional prize fighting.


Ox, despite a gentle personality, is one of those competitors actively pursuing his career in ultimate prize fighting and using jiu-jitsu as a vehicle.  Southern California is even more of a bourgeoning place for the sport because of the proximity to Tijuana, Mexico and laxer laws for gaming commissions.  All of the factors add up to guys like Ox gradually getting better at the sport of jiu-jitsu in the hopes of eventually making the leap to cashing in with a PRIDE or UFC contract.  After the tournament Ox, Alfredo, Joel and I went to Island Burger to discuss the day’s events and I flatly asked Joel if he had the same intentions as Ox.  I wasn’t surprised when Joel didn’t entirely rule it out.  At thirty-one years of age Joel still has the audacity to consider UFC as a possibility even if time isn’t entirely on his side.  Ox is even older, but without the steady income of a professional surfing career, the pressure to kick enough people’s ass to eventually earn money for it is even greater for him.  The popularity of the sport is overwhelming and the conventional wisdom that would tell normal people that thirty-plus is too old to take the severe punishment that the sport has to offer is often discarded.  1978 Olympic Gold Medalist Howard Davis Jr., a relative of mine, had a career that summed up this empirical fact.  After being named the most outstanding boxer in the Rome games that also included Boxing Hall of Fames Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks and Leon Spinks the twenty year old Howard Davis Jr. went pro compiling a record of 29 wins and only 3 losses before thirty.


Close to his thirtieth birthday he had a shot a title against Hector Camacho and lost in a unanimous decision.  To this day he remains the only American gold-medal-winning boxer on the 1976 Olympic Team to not win a world championship as a professional.  He would later remark that he just lost interest in the sport due to the punishment, and who could blame him with examples of others that tarried too long like Muhammad Ali?  While there is not much comparison from boxing to jiu-jitsu in the realm of brain punishment, one has to wonder if Joel and Ox have seriously considered the ramifications of  embarking on a journey towards a UFC which is widely considered as the most dangerous of all.   (My father told me that boxing was a young man’s sport as he steered me away.)  All of this after the age of thirty when even the most dedicated of pugilists has considering hanging up the gloves for good.  There is one other thing.  There are no gloves in UFC to hang up which is another reason why my hat is off to those blokes who get into the octagon or cage.  I like watching from home with a blunt in hand sipping beer and commenting about my own good-old-days because I can still remember them. 


We left Long Beach soon after Joel finished his tofu burger or whatever vegetarian substitute that sustains him.  Joel happily drove and talked of tomorrow’s no-gi competition and the fact that Alfredo was ready to come out of an injury-forced semi-retirement in order to compete with Joel.  This was starting to get interesting.  Two guys from the same school, in the same weight class were going to attempt to run the table and finish 1 and 2 in their division.  Who would win?  A waxing moon over the Laguna Hills suggested anything was a possibility.  The chimarraỏ kept me alert and talkative while I rolled down the window in order to smoke myself into oblivion to make me less so.  It was a full day the likes of which I probably hadn’t seen since my days in officer candidate school at the beginning of my military career.  I likened training in two sports constantly to the rigors of attending leadership classes and simultaneously proving your mettle in mandatory physical activity that included running and swimming six miles a day.  The sea going services have it hard and there are plenty of people in excellent condition that just cant take it because it is asking a lot of people to excel in two or more areas at once, every day.  From that analogy I was able to understand Joel a little better.  The true test wasn’t whether or not you could do all the activity in just one day, but if you could string those days together for four months.  Joel has spent roughly the last five years running like a marathon man habituated to first place.


Any grandparent will tell you that life is not a sprint; it is more like a marathon.  After today’s segment we were all headed for the sheets because another full day loomed tomorrow.  Grandma Denise was patient with Tosh all day and by the time he got the house even he was out like a light.



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