A Soul Surfer Savior for Jiu-Jitsu

A Soul Surfer Savior for Jiu-Jitsu


Part One:  Things Are Not Always As They Seem to Be


"I was a terror since the public school era / bathroom passes cutting classes squeezing asses…" – Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G. from the Who’s The Man Soundtrack 


San Diego, California

Friday, July 27 2007


It is a good thing that the drive time from Los Angeles to San Diego is only a couple of hours.  I make the trip from time to time in order to catch up with my most successful professional surfer friend, Joel Tudor.  Two hours is a much better drive than the four hour trek I was making to kick it with him in New York City when I lived in DC.  And it is not that I am adverse to road tripping, especially back to the state of my birth, but college is over and time runs shorter as we get older.  Anyone that knows Joel though could probably tell you that catching him anywhere is quite a tour de force and this Friday evening was no exception.  I headed south from Los Angeles right after work and prayed that there wasn’t some super swell of waves somewhere far off that would keep him permanently inaccessible.  When I arrived at his house in Del Mar, my worst fears were heightened when my knocks on the door went unanswered. 


Surely, I had confirmed and reconfirmed my weekend trip but to the likes of someone that seems to be in perpetual motion like the water he gracefully rides, you could never be too prompt.  Fortunately Joel is a family man these days and his mother is quick to notice visitors that linger in the Tudor vicinity, the conflux of two streets where most of the Tudors are centralized.  Joel is a lucky man to have a family so close because he has a two-year old son to look after in addition to his surfing career, surfboard company, wetsuit company and other sponsored enterprises.  When Joel is busy doing just about everything his mom Denise opens the doors, polices the perimeter and makes the best chocolate cake that you will ever get your mouth on. 


This time Del Mar’s biggest draw on a longboard was helping an expatriate photographer friend of ours make one of the best surfboards better looking with the addition of a killer Bob Marley photograph. When I called him on the phone five minutes earlier he insisted that he was “only ten minutes away” in Encinitas so I was prepared to settle in and stake him out like a stalker.  Let’s face it: surfers and photographers aren’t known for their time management skills, and he would have to come home eventually.  After all, how far could he go with a two-year-old Tosh demanding to see “silly doggy,” also known as the cartoon “Scooby Doo” in a few hours? By the time Joel pulled up in his all white, yuppie edition Audi sedan I was already in his house chatting with his mother about what we had planned for the weekend.  The best part about Joel’s parents is that they use very little pretenses because they have known Joel the longest and have the best idea of what to expect next when it comes to him.                    


All the surprise was mine as Joel got out of the car together with his wife and our expatriate photographer friend.  He had a sly smile on his face underneath his green and white trucker hat and with the toothpick in his mouth he could have easily broken out into a “Deliverance” redneck impersonation.  I’d like to think that seeing me definitely brightened his mood and we went through the required handshakes, snaps and claps reserved for long separated hipsters.  How long had it really been?  We missed each other in New York City earlier this spring when I took an ill-advised trip on the account of hooking up with a print model.  (Who else is utterly fascinated by women that are only fascinated by themselves and could care less about a real relationship as long as the woman is super hot?)  He opted to stay in NYC for the beginning of summer in order to take advantage of increased temperatures and clubbing opportunities but when he got back to the west coast we missed each other again in Malibu despite having similar weaknesses for the Big Apple and The Left Coast.  Joel is a veteran baptized by immersion into the New York City club scene by my very own.


Could it have been that the very last time that I saw Joel was at his own wedding this past September in Maui?  Indeed the whole entire downtown crew of Manhattan could claim good representation, our photographer friend included.  DJ Mateo spun tunes while Mike Seis and others nodded to the beats approvingly.  The photographer took shots of the guests and hosts alike at the wedding and of our downtime surfing breaks like Mala and Electric Lady Land.  Someone even had the gall to come from Rome, Italy he was so certain that it wasn’t an event to be missed.  We all dug deep to be there.  Higher times could not have been found among so many closely connected cliques on the Sandwich Islands.  All this fun was had with the assurance that the mileage would pay off because Joel was in love, although I did check to make sure that his parents, Denise and Papa Joe, were going to be there before I booked my flight.  I don’t attend fake vows which I cite as the principal reason that I have never been married.  Well there is that and my uncontrollable attraction to all things shiny and without substance…


I guess we have other things in common, too, which is why we are such good friends.  Joel is a perennial flake of magnanimous proportions.  I’m going to stop short of calling him the biggest flake in our extensive crew because at least Joel doesn’t lie when you call him out for not being where he said that he was going to be.  That is mighty good of him considering a particular friend who consistently insists that he is in one singular place on the phone and yet totally violates the space time continuum when confronted with the information that the person that he is speaking with can physically see that he isn’t there.   (You have to love night club proprietors in New York City.)  The worst thing that Joel will do is not answer the phone until the messages become full.  This renders him in a state of limbo that is only slightly nobler than giving you the expectation that you will be called back.


The phone is for suckers anyway.  [Players Note: if phone pimping were possible then pimps wouldn’t mind going to jail.]  There is no substitute for face to face time even in the digital media age of text messaging, instant messages, Facebook, and MySpace.  While it may pay to be computer savvy, it doesn’t necessarily increase your knowledge just by being on one.  Imagine that life is lived by the living for me, if you will.  Computers aren’t alive at all and are rather poor representatives for the living.  (This does not mean that I will take down my topless photo of myself that I use on all of my web pages.)  Ever since I have known Joel Tudor he has been out there living life to the fullest.  The best of us are Renaissance men that use style like currency to put the importance on genuine articles, like it is supposed to be.  Everything is personalized in his world because his popularity, and livelihood, depends principally on his style and other peoples’ perception of that style.  If surf judges are any indication then his sense of style is impeccable and, although it has been compared to many, others rarely stack up to it over the long term.


Our friend the expatriate photographer also knows this intuitively, as an artist should, and has integrated his career with Joel in a fine silk gold mesh.  A black surfboard that may never be ridden, certainly only by a master –if only for the lack of an unsightly leash box, is a fine representation of the collaboration of art and surfing.  It is also a good excuse to come all the way from New York City to San Diego via Jamaica.  Our friend may have no use for the board for a while anyway because I noticed him listing to one side, holding his ribs, as he came in the door and offered his usual greeting of “what ‘appnin’ brethren.”  He certainly isn’t the type to want to get out there and push the envelope when it comes to surfing dangerously without any attachment to the board other than your own ability to stand upright on top of it, but he might allow Joel to break-in his creation.  Joel surfs well enough without a leash or wax to give a nod to the notion and legitimate school of thought that surf boards should only be made for riding.  Nobody so real would associate with a poser, so Joel’s Major General Photographer put on another star.


Apparently in between his grueling schedule to get the board completed before his departure on Monday our friend was practicing what he preached when he went on one too many surfing excursions with Joel and broke a rib.  (This proves that keeping it real ain’t easy, man.)  As the story was told right there to me at the time Jah Rib, as he will be affectionately known as until he clears up the whole immigration thing, was “bulldogging” his surfboard through some heavy breakers when he went over the falls and the rail found one of his ribs.  The excruciating pain caused Jah Rib to lose consciousness three times and also rendered Joel the only person available to fill out the emergency room forms at the hospital.  That is what friends are for.  Joel seemed to take greater pleasure in the telling of the story with Jah Rib’s classic accent, especially the part when the administrative nurse asked why he came to the emergency room in the first place.  (Jah Rib’s answer was “because I’m in pain, mon…  I’m in paaain!”)  You definitely can’t make fun of people in the same way in an article as you can in person, so if you ever meet Joel Tudor ask him to give you his impression and you won’t regret it.


These days Joel seems mired in a lot of details and might welcome the comic relief even if it is just a chance to hear himself laugh.  A few weekends before Joel missed the U.S. Open of Surfing because the waves were small and also because he wanted to give someone else a chance at winning.  It is an event that he won nine times but he still attacks it with the seriousness of the consummate professional.  It is difficult to imagine that being a professional surfer is a grind, especially a long boarder, but he handles everything with the determination and drive that allowed him to ignore the pessimists that told him that such a career wouldn’t even be possible.  His serious side comes out when you add water and Joel was rewarded for his efforts by being inducted into the ASP Surf Hall of Fame years ago.  Even San Diego University City High School has Joel on their Wall of Fame despite being told that he would never earn a diploma from them because he took too much time off for a sport that “wasn’t real.”  Joel is the kind of guy that can play the straight man and look you dead in the eye and tell you that “school… you don’t really need it,” and it comes off without a hitch.  You know, kids, he never did get that high school diploma but there is more on that later.


The overall mood of the evening was light and jovial with Tosh running around playing shoot-‘em-up in a remarkably old school way using his fingers and sound effects.  Joel’s son proved to be quite vocal with a variety of words and a mastery of the horse whinny for his trusty, hand-held, toy steed.  After all, it was Friday night and the regular work of the day was over and the sun was almost setting on another perfect California day the majority of which I spent in my truck.  (The hazards of not writing enough professionally will force even the most creative scribes to get a real job.)  Welcome to Southern California where everyone has ambitions outside of their means.  Local socialites in the surf community dropped by the Tudor compound almost randomly to ascertain what the evening would have in store.  Some didn’t even stop, but just honked their car horns in reverence to Joel’s surf greatness as they flocked down the hill to catch waves at dusk.  There would be no early evening surf for Joel, Jah Rib, and I this fine evening.  I insisted that the boys eat Japanese as soon as Tosh went to bed while under his mother’s supervision.  My ulterior motive was to lobby for some surfing time tomorrow morning on his father’s eight and half foot, electric baby blue egg-shaped surfboard.  (Dare I say that a doper quiver of boards does not exist among generation X or Y, for that matter?)  As usual I left my board in Los Angeles because bringing boards to Joel’s house is like bringing sand to the beach. 


I have a mind to show up to his house naked one day just to see how much sponsor gear together with his own company creations that I could come away with.  Joel has the hospitality and generosity that would prevent him from dismissing me as a nudist freak and otherwise, I am certain that he wouldn’t care in his current mind state.   Tosh has left his indelible mark and somehow, material accumulation for the sake of accumulating got knocked down yet another notch, even if great sponsorship made everything linked to surfing free along the way.  He partnered up with a friend in Japan, Mitch, who helps make Amsterdam Wetsuits one of the best suits on the market.  He might not have it all covered, but he’s covered a lot.  Joel seemed to be distracted about a tournament that was afoot tomorrow: a jiu-jitsu tournament.  Now why would a perfectly great surfer who happens to be in the Surfing Hall of Fame risk his life and limbs to be in a martial arts tournament?  Because that someone happens to be Joel Tudor, master of just about everything he has ever put his mind to.  Indeed the surf champion is embarking on a second sport and taking to it rather swimmingly.  More importantly, the sport has taken to him.  Joel has progressed steadily in the sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and now sports a brown belt, one belt short of being called a master, at his practices and competitions.


I guess you could say that mixed martial arts have affected everybody in one way or another.  I even started thinking that my beloved judo was outdated after seeing the likes of Chuck Liddell, but I still don’t own cable television in the era of direct TV.  The bloody sport has made me consider paying for pay-per-view on more than one occasion and it has made Joel Tudor one mean surfer to try and take waves from.  Well actually, maybe it was just the Hawaiian hospitality that made Joel think that he should have some sort of formal training to avoid those headlocks from the locals that like to pick on “haoles,” even those foreigners that seem to be able to walk on such formidable water as Pipeline?  As the story goes the locals on the disreputably cliquish North Shore of Oahu plotted to cut Joel’s hair by force and like a classic karate movie, he was bent on both revenge and defending himself from future attacks.  With all of the advice that Joel has given to the main perpetrator, the notorious Wolfpack’s own Danny Fuller, he ought to be ashamed of himself.


After doing an inventory on the situation it became clear to me at the sushi restaurant that Joel was a little nervous about the jiu-jitsu tournament.  He was barely talking and he took long sips of his green tea.  Jah Rib and I split a bottle of house sake and I threw on another Japanese beer on our tab for good measure.  Together with one of Jah Ribs’ pain medications, I was relaxed in the silence and I ate well.  In any case, I felt like I should drink until my heart’s content because I wasn’t the one competing the next day.  Never even in my wildest days of training in a similar sport would I have considered entertaining friends the night before a Howard University judo team meet.   (Judo and jiu-jitsu are remarkably similar, although some may call me qualified, the arm bars seem to come a little too quickly in mat fighting for this judoka’s tastes.)  Believe me; we partied hard back then to keep up with the legendary quota of 8 fine beautiful black sisters for every regular black man, such as myself.  Take this as your hint to go there one day, even if it is just for homecoming.  The only competition that I was interested in at the Japanese restaurant was the one that Jah Rib and I had to get to the bottom of the sake bottle.


Then suddenly with no warning and precisely no deliberation or hesitation whatsoever, Joel piped up when dinner had concluded and said that we were headed to a nightclub called Landlord Jim’s.   Downtown San Diego was the destination and from the description, it was our kind of place: a bar with a DJ booth that pumped bicoastal hip-hop music –heavy on the NY side even.  This was reportedly less of a see-and-be-seen type of vibe than New York City but almost as fun if you’re homesick for the sort of hole-in-the-wall establishments where you can get ripped listening to the latest and greatest.  The best part about the place wasn’t even the lack of cover charge, Guinness on tap, or tall cans in paper bags, it was the DJ who had the good sense to keep blasting lyrics by the Notorious B.I.G. over recent and relevant beats.  “Party & Bullshit” was just what I had in mind when I came up for the weekend to San Diego in the first place, even if I didn’t recognize the spliced track, I could recite all the words.


While I was busy proving my New York hip-hop superiority and otherwise dancing by myself without spilling my glass of Guinness, Jah Rib started to feel his wounds and asked Joel for the car keys.  I guess a broken rib is no joke, and no matter how you try and power through it the pain will eventually catch up to you if you attempt to ignore it.  I am sure that Jah Rib dreamt of his Marley Board as he took one for the team and slept it off.  We both appreciated his valiant effort to continue on, although we wound up partying to about 2 AM.  During the course of the evening Joel didn’t take one drink but he was hardly a drag.  He settled in on a spot at the bar, making small talk to passersby and a regular or two who recognized him.  Lulls in the music selection shed light on exactly what was consuming Joel; The World Championship of Grappling was going to be held at the Long Beach Convention Center tomorrow.  If I was going to ride the electric baby blue, ‘Papa Joe’ surf board we would have to do it early and then go there before the afternoon.  He asked me if I wouldn’t mind coaching him and I considered the proposition as more of an honor than to actually be beneficial to anyone.  (His real jiu-jitsu brown belt contemporary, Alfredo Barum would be there too so I needn’t worry about my technical shortcomings.)   After I said yes Joel bought me another Guinness though, and I understood that at least one person was going to get something out my coaching: me.


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