Misleading, fearful MMA story on NPR

This segment aired on the supposedly enlightened NPR last week, including my local NPR station. I would summarize the infuriating displays of ignorance into a couple of bullet points, but there’s not a sentence in this article that’s free of arrogance, glib assumption, or just plain misinformation. The author even tries to imply that boxing is less violent because “the idea in boxing, which has always styled itself as “the sweet science,” is not to get hit.”

Feel free to hit up the “questions and comments” link in the top-right of that page.

I heard about this segment because my boss brought it up at lunch, and found myself checking off the same old checklist: MMA is less dangerous than boxing and pro football, there’s never been a death in a sanctioned event, etc. The difference between MMA as practiced today and its image in the eyes the public at large is pretty shocking.

On one hand, lots of us complain about what a yahoo the average MMA fan is. But what if more evolved people understood how complex the sport is, and how honorable most of its fighters are? MMA needs better evangelism.

(Bonus: See Dana White verbally jiu-jitsu Bill O’Reilley in a similar segment last year)


Kyokushin, TUF, and Fedor


Tonight in our MMA class, we put on our gis and did some sparring under Kyokushin rules. This was a lot of fun. The rules go something like this: No hand strikes to the head, knees and kicks allowed to the face. The fight stops when it goes to the ground. This is pretty sweet because you can bang on each other as hard as you want and, while you might get bruised, you won’t get injured.

The idea here was that MMA fighters are obsessed with strikes to the face, to the point that, while attempting to pass the guard, they’ll get stymied when they could be pounding on their opponent’s legs, stomach, and any number of other targets. Cross-training is rightly seen as a valuable pursuit in other sports, and we profit in the martial arts from checking out other styles. That especially includes MMA and BJJ, which both become more like sports every day, with their own rules and conceits that take them a little further from the “street.”

I really got my ass handed to me. I’ve fallen hopelessly into the trap of becoming a grappling geek, and not even an especially talented one at that. Those Kyokushin guys are tough bastards, I’m sure.

It was good at least to find that I’ve at least gotten more accustomed to getting hit in the months since I first started cross-training in MMA. I’m not sure the term “tougher” applies here so much as “less pathetically fragile.”

On The Ultimate Fighter:

Tapout is everywhere on this fucking show! Every guy is wearing a Tapout hoodie, and not only that, every guy is wearing a different design of Tapout hoodie.

And it’s not just shirts. There’s board shorts, rash guards and gloves. The mats have Tapout logos on them. There are Tapout gloves, and Tapout baseball hats (immaculately white, and worn high and sideways by Matthew Riddle, my first favorite to get ousted) and the same substance-free commercial shown in the prime first half of each commercial break (My goodness, he’s an animal inside! Note that this commercial’s premise could work for any sport, including raquetball and other sports that prominently feature the letters “q” and “u”). I’m looking forward to Tapout Toothpaste.

Tapout is is one of those companies built, like Nike, on the disposable income of  fanboys, not so much founded as accreted around the last slide of some voracious young venture capitalist’s PowerPoint presentation. This brand’s prominence on TUF speaks to the relationship between this glamorous young sport and the high precision marketing blitz that sustains it. This is a fraught relationship, the kind which greasy eels like Dana White lubricate so well.

I don’t mean to be a hater, but look at it this way: Tapout is first and foremost a brand, which is penetrating that most delicate of sphincters, your retina, with its purchasing power. The Tapout gear was clearly foisted on these eager beavers who, beleive me, showed up displaying the logo of their home gyms, where patient and stern men have taught them more about themselves than any other school or sport ever did. Notice how that’s swept under the rug: Exclusivity demands that these guys adorn themselves only with the raiments of some soulless corporation, signifying absolutely fucking nothing.

This Upper Decker brought to you by the Tapout Brand Pooper Scooper. God, I can’t wait.

Oh, and speaking of God:

One final thing:

Fedor Photochop

Thanks to James Jon for the heads-up on the image.

Jazz Piano and Jiu Jitsu

In a recent study, some scientists strapped jazz pianists into an MRI and found that the brain suppresses its self-criticism during improvisation and kicks the part that does creativity into overdrive.

The study suggests that the region of the brain that does rational thought (the prefrontal cortex) is an angry little fascist that regulates – or more to the point, inhibits – the rest of the brain. I imagine the prefrontal cortex as a stony-faced little nun who is always sad and angry with you no matter how hard you try (I went to a Catholic school for three years). That’s why alcohol makes you feel more relaxed and less self-conscious before it turns you into a drooling idiot; the first part of your brain that gets shut down is that mean little nun.

Last week I watched Choke, the 1995 documentary about the Vale Tudo Fighting Championship from the same year. In the opening scenes of the movie, Rickson Gracie says this about jiu jitsu:

The most interesting aspect of jiu jitsu is the sensibility of the opponent, the sense of touch, the weight, the momentum, the transition from one movement to another. That’s the amazing thing about it.

You must allow yourself to go as like an automatic pilot. You don’t know exactly where you’re going until the movement happens. Because you cannot anticipate what’s going to happen. You must allow yourself to be in a zero point, in a neutral point and be relaxed and connected with the variations. You pretty much flow with the go. This is a point beyond the knowledge. It’s years and years of playing around, giving this kind of sensibility.

This short passage cuts to the essence of what’s unique about jiu jitsu among other martial arts, including other grappling arts.

I’m not a spiritual person. What most people see as the spiritual or mystical side of martial arts is, for me,  a matter of getting in touch with the part of yourself that lies beyond the oppressive little nun, which is to say, to tap 99% of your true potential. The ability to do this is what results in the “point beyond the knowledge” – the ability to flow, to zen out, to find the center, to go on autopilot.

Improvisation and the hard path to zen

Think about it: When you learn a new technique, you’ll follow its alien movement one step at a time. If you keep drilling it after class, you’ll eventually perform the move without having to think too much about the details at all. Then, one day, you might even be able to perform the technique live, against a resisting partner! Still later, you’ll find yourself performing technique after technique before you even knew you were going to do them. An experienced athlete performs the most complicated techniques as a matter of habit, or as Rickson would say, on automatic pilot. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

By itself, this isn’t all that interesting: you already do it in your everyday life. Say, when you come home with a bag full of groceries and you have to unlock your front door. You might hold the screen door open with your foot while you find the key with one hand, switch the groceries over, and unlock the other door with the other hand. The balance and precision required to do this everyday task are no more demanding than those required, say, for an arm bar from the guard.

The only substantial difference between unlocking your front door and doing an arm bar is that the arm bar is new and unfamiliar. Making it familiar is just a matter of practice.

Dismissing the Inner Fascist

But for most of us, that mean little nun is a huge obstacle to getting that work done. It’s not so much that we’re lazy (although that’s obviously a factor as well) as that we’re afraid of looking awkward, of messing up. The good news is you’re expected to mess up when you start out. The only way to get over the hump is to keep trying new stuff until you get it right. No one should ever be embarrassed to try something new and fall on their face. I have fallen on my face, literally, time and time again in training. It’s all part of the journey.

You should never be embarrassed to try a new technique and fail, or to repeatedly drill even the simplest techniques over and over again. These are the hallmarks of a future black belt in training. When I watch new guys train, I’m not interested in how naturally talented they are. We’ve all seen a million talented guys get frustrated the first time they can’t do something right away and eventually quit. What’s way more inspiring is the guy who sucked at something to start with, but kept at it, and can now do it effortlessly. He’s learned to unlock the front door.

I believe this extends to life outside the gym. Most of us are so terrified of looking awkward that we never try new and difficult things. But there’s the minority that’s willing to get out there and fall down trying. It’s not even a matter of talent. Those who are willing to fall down are the ones that end up getting really good. That’s the difference between the artist and the poseur.

Once you’ve got enough  jiu jitsu down deep in that reptile part of you, you will find yourself at that zero point, that flow, that eye  in the center of the hurricane. And that is the unique reward of practicing jiu jitsu.