A Soul Surfer Savior for Jiu-Jitsu, IV

Part Four:  Training Like Mad for the Asylum



Sunday 0900


Joel, Alfredo, Ox and I are in the car again headed North with the chimarraỏ being passed between us.  Joel doesn’t mind driving this time and I make good use of two free hands and I rolled my own blunts in the passenger seat listening to the others talk about their upbringings.  What unbelievable circumstances brought us together?  Alfredo came to San Diego to help out relatives with their jiu-jitsu school in search of a better life that could be found in his native Brazil.  Ox was desperately trying to make a way for himself in a new sport with dollar signs on the horizon if he could gain the necessary skill.  Joel was bored out of his mind and tired of getting picked on.  I was an observer.


The no-gi competition was supposedly grappling at its finest.  The absence of the clothing worn by martial artists of judo and jiu-jitsu made grips and throws more risky and tenuous.  American freestyle wrestlers have a supreme advantage in that they are familiar with the holds and tactics used to compensate for the lack of clothing.  I had never witnessed a no-gi grappling match in my life and now I had the task of lending at least moral support to three guys about to throw their hats into the arena, so to speak.  On the way up to Long Beach the conversation drifted back to Ox and Joel’s similar San Diego backgrounds and both of their knacks for getting kicked out of the city’s school system.  As you may recall Joel failed to graduate from high school due to his frustration with teachers that didn’t allow him to make up missed work after his surf trips.  At first, Joel would just skip that particular teacher’s class, which was English, and later –perhaps after realizing that he would never receive a diploma missing English credits, he stopped going to University City High School altogether.  He was offered a second chance at a continuation at nearby Garfield High School but he couldn’t take the remedial nature of the classes and burned out on the tediousness of it all, again.  (Besides pro surfer Rob Machado didn’t seem to have any problems at his high school even after a surf magazine posted his modified schedule that included surfing for the first three hours of everyday.)  All this genuine gentleman’s effort exhibited by Joel was in stark contrast to Ox’s story that wove on and on through every school that Joel mentioned including four more.


Ox, the gentle giant, attended six high schools in part because he was a football phenomenon and also because his mother was a teacher in the school system.  Both of their stories reminded me of the ways in which public schools usually wind up failing the black community but their tales are white middle class abnormalities.  In Joel’s case it is easy to see how his mother made the leap from encouraging education to promulgating his spectacular earning potential by allowing him to accept sponsorship and compete on a pro circuit that left him in Amsterdam for months at a time and on his own, at the tender age of sixteen.  But the lesson that I took away from Ox’s story is that even though you may have a nickname derived from your ability to lift a v-8 engine block with chains it doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to apply it usefully without the proper direction and focus.  Some guys just don’t fit into any box that you try to put them in.  All of these guys were characters, which is the norm for the sport that we have all chosen.  Men that wrestle, in all of its many forms, are sort of weird anyway.  The car ride flew by because we were all in good company and soon we arrived at our destination for the second day of action. 


With three fighters to look after, I didn’t dare go towards the sandwich booths in the back of the Convention Center.  Instead, on this day of no-gi competitions, I fit right in with my lack of real uniform in the participants’ warm-up area.  Alfredo stretched.  Ox paced.  Joel put on a red judges shirt and entered the arena as a referee.  This sport is a mad house!  I suppose that I should have been sufficiently warned from the previous day’s proceedings as to the chaotic nature of the grappling community as a whole.  Wasn’t I just permitted to be named a coach and given unchecked access to the arena?  Event organizers are partly to blame for the less than stellar adherence to order, I mean even the major commissioners of the sport have had their share of headlines and accusations.  People say that the best fighters in the sport use steroids.  People say that the governing body of the sport is not organized properly.  Who knows if it is all true, but in the words of Marlow from HBO series The Wire “that’s what they saying…”  None of these indictments on no-gi grappling have enough weight behind them to warrant further investigation because the sport of grappling has very little earning potential.  The jackpot is in Ultimate Fighting, however.  Financial gains are only realized if a player is able to use his grappling experience as a facilitator to make the transition to UFC.


Just because this isn’t the UFC though doesn’t mean that the level of competitiveness isn’t high enough to provide incentive for cheaters.  Because the sport of grappling is taking off perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that they need to create a greater separation between the players and the judges. The guy that Joel submitted in a foot lock to win the gold in the gi tournament yesterday was actively involved in the registration process, pitting fighters against each other in seeding arrangements, as an administrator and referee.  It is not uncommon to see a fellow fight in one match and referee another.  Often there are fourteen year old kids working at the manual scorers tables.  You get the feeling that anything can happen at these events which move so quickly that it renders a blur in the memory.  One minute we were all together in the warm-up area and the next moment we were marching to the mats to watch Joel and Alfredo in their weight class that included all ages.  Without uniforms there is no measuring of ability and no-gi grapplers are lumped together by size rather than experience.  Neither Joel nor Alfredo seemed to be all that worried about it though, so I took it as a sign that I shouldn’t either.


Joel’s first match was against someone that was seriously pushing the limits of what could have been considered his weight class.  A light-skinned black man wearing only tiny black shorts and what appeared to be baby oil glistened with rippling muscles across from Joel on the mat before his first fight.  This guy looked impressive, and he won a previous match before this by arm bar, illegal lubrication aside.  “Watch out for the triangle,” came the cry from behind me.  I guess the word was out on Joel and his favorite submission.  He didn’t look worried at all, though.  When the match started the muscle-bound man came right after Joel.  Both men went to the mat at almost as soon as the match began and Joel pulled guard.  The technique of pulling guard is essential grabbing your opponent and sitting down on the ground, or in this case sitting down on the mat first.  No points for the takedown are awarded to either contestant but it allows for expeditious way to commence ground fighting.  Once on the ground though all of the advantage that the bigger man had didn’t account for much.


Joel went to work on him meticulously.  He trapped his arm and his head in between his legs and was working toward locking his foot underneath his adjacent knee in the figure four that was the cornerstone of his favorite submission.  Thirty seconds later it was over when the big guy couldn’t effectively withdraw from the hold and his oxygen supply was cut-off to the point that he was in danger of passing out.  Before that happened though, the bigger man tapped on the mat indicating that he had enough.  Wow.  Joel just beat some guy that looked like twice his size of with pure technique, albeit raw technique.  His unrefined mastery is very much a part of natural ability and a burning desire to win at whatever the cost.  After his hand was raised in victory, and the familiar sly smile faded, Joel sat down for what would be Alfredo’s first competition of the day.

Alfredo was a whirlwind of a fighter.  It seemed like his boundless energy could have been similar to the effects of the chimarraỏ that he sipped incessantly.  Short work wasn’t in the cards for his opponent, however.  Alfredo used the entire time amassing a ridiculous disparity in points by winning 26 to 2 on reversals and attempting a rear naked choke.  The poor guy couldn’t get Alfredo off of his back no matter how hard he tried and when the time expired the dejected contestant sulked off the mat embarrassed.  Joel’s training partner and rival exhibited the highest skill by dominating in his match from start to finish.  Alfredo did all of this without breaking a sweat and watching the match made me think that Joel was definitely getting a run for his money every time that the two faced each other in practice.  In order to be the best, you have to train with the best.  In an area with so many watered-down schools splintered off from the main Gracie school in Brazil, Alfredo’s link to his country’s pastime is California gold in the sport of jiu-jitsu.  It became clear at that moment that he shouldn’t be donning a brown belt and that it was probably a result of Alfredo having trained in Brazil for many years without a ranking system and taking significant time off rather than a lack of determination.


In Brazil, athletes train in judo at an early age and graduate to training in jiu-jitsu without the benefit of belts because of contempt for formalities.  “Badges?  We don’t need no stinking badges,” is what came to my mind although I think that the Portuguese and Mexicans are different.  Alfredo fit right in and was perfectly at home in the no-gi tournament whereas it was a new area entirely for Joel.  Joel recently decided that he needed the experience of no-gi grappling to make him a better rounded fighter.  He also took up Thai boxing and basic boxing for the same reason.  While we were waiting for the next fight to begin a curious fight broke out on the mat next to us.  One of the coaches became slightly entangled with the competitors, both minors, that he was intensely watching and shouting advice at in a heavy Brazilian accent.  The fact of the matter is that this “coach” was way too close to the events in which he was purportedly offering his expertise and he was none other than Rani Yahya, the 2007, 66 kg Champion at Abu Dhabi.  You would think that a guy that has won a major event like the Grappling World Championships would know the rules of engagement at such events but you would be wrong.  Rather than shake of the slight contact that was made, Rani sprung to his feet and walked on the already occupied mat and proceeded to stare down the opposing competitor and the referee judging the match.  When the referee attempted to remove Rani, he lashed out in a high arcing roundhouse kick that found its mark square on the opposing fighter’s jaw.  A grown man kicked an unsuspecting kid in the face.


Let us assume for a minute that there is kicking in jiu-jitsu or grappling, when there is none.  Let us assume that a coach of any kind could walk on the playing field of any sport and inflict bodily harm on contestants.  Let us assume that…  You know what?  That is already way too much to assume.  A brawl ensued.  The referee pushed Rani and managed to move him away from the fighters.  The crowd basically did the rest.  There were several punches thrown and perhaps a chair or two was swung as Rani ran for the escalators and safety outside.  This, more than anything that I saw the previous day, sums up the sport of grappling in the United States at this moment: unruly.  If Rani Yahya was in the corner of a boxing match and climbed into the ring with the same antics you can bet that he would be banned from the sport for life.  In this case though, I bet he never even got a stiff talking to.  Whom would he get it from?  Unless the kid who got kicked filed charges I bet there was no other recourse of action for him.  Even more unsettling than a grown man kicking some kid who was beating his protégé in a fair match was the fact that after the brawl, which lasted several minutes, operations resumed as if nothing had transpired.


After the commotion settled down Joel was pitted against Ryan Hall of famed, Lloyd Irving jiu-jitsu in Maryland.  This would prove to be the match of the day and the crowd, no longer fascinated by a lunatic’s antics, focused their attention on the match about to begin.  Ryan Hall came all the way from the east coast to participate in a tournament that would pay him absolutely no money if he were to win it all just for the love of the sport.  Much like Joel he was a jiu-jitsu student turned no-gi grappler at the behest of what could be a promising UFC career.  Ryan Hall stood a good four inches shorter than Joel but had the thicker frame of a freestyle wrestler and the cockiness of youth.  He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five with a baby face that belied dangerous ability.  A greater challenge for both contestants was not in the Convention Center this afternoon.   When the fight commenced both Joel and Ryan respected each other so much that they both immediately sat down to avoid a potential deciding point exchange on the takedowns.  Two fighters sat on their asses and smiled at one another less than two seconds after the referee said “fight!”  Ryan was first to the mat and, according to the rules, had the advantage of fighting from the guard with Joel as the pursuant attacker. 


The unfamiliar position may have thrown Joel off at first as he struggled to get past Ryan’s guard by just running past it.  After about a minute of these attempts with no points awarded to either player, Joel tried the daring move of jumping the guard but was unsuccessful.  The resulting entanglement left them both on the mat grasping each others’ foot for a submission.  The fifty-fifty split of foot locking is still a puzzle to me.  In order to gain the advantage of the secure hold a grappler must essentially give up his own foot for the potential counter move.  Both Ryan and Joel writhed on the ground for every amount of leverage while holding on to the extreme lower limbs.  All of a sudden though, Joel’s face appeared to grimace and he quickly tapped on Ryan’s leg in order to release the hold.  If Joel could have held on for another ten seconds he may have secured the victory for himself by applying the painful foot lock first.  If Ryan hadn’t released it when he had, however, we may never be able to watch one of the greatest surfers of all time ply his trade.  You need two feet to surf like Joel Tudor and foot locks are made for breaking feet.


After Ryan’s hand was raised triumphantly Joel reached across and gave him a handshake while wishing him the best of luck.  A class act from start to finish, Joel felt like he had accomplished what he came to do without risking too much of the career that puts Keith Haring painting on Tosh’s walls and rare surfboards hanging from the rafters.  I reminded him that most people in his position wouldn’t even be out there, but I know that didn’t affect him in the slightest.  Joel is a different sort of fellow.  Maybe the sport of grappling needs Joel like surfing seemed to need Joel so many years ago.  In a sport a little short on sportsmanship his laid back excellence could be just what the doctor ordered.  The sport of grappling needs someone to rescue it just like surfing did before Joel arrived on the scene so many years ago.  Time will tell because Joel is tickled pink to be a part of it all, for all of the faults associated with grappling.  When sitting on the mat next to me after it was all over he said, “That kid Ryan Hall is pretty good.  I’ll see him again pretty soon.” 


Joel would spend the rest of the time at the tournament coaching Ox in a heated match that saw him go down on a rear naked choke.  Joel was so frustrated at Ox ignoring his technical advice from the side of the mat that he eventually just got up and walked away from it all.  “It was too unbearable to watch,” he said.  Alfredo wound up taking the silver medal in the same division after losing on points to Ryan Hall, ending the duo’s bid to go 1 and 2 in the division.  Instead they would have to settle for what would have been 2 and 3 had Joel not abandoned the third place match to race home for an afternoon session of waves.  I guess there was no need to fight someone that he already beat for third place when he could be entertaining the likes of me.  Besides, his mom had dinner plans for all of us and I heard that Papa Joe and Josh speared a big one on their morning dive. 



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