They all deserve it.

My instructor, Muhsin, posted this on Facebook. Enjoy this man’s vocal stylings.

Modern Jiu Jitsu stays sharp through competition. The emphasis on live sparring and competition was one of Jigaro Kano’s innovations in Judo, and we carry that tradition on in BJJ.

Competition isn’t for everyone, but it’s crucial to the art. It fuels innovation and keeps people working hard. It’s the gun to your head  Chuck Palahniuk wrote about in Fight Club. When you know you’ve worked hard enough in training, you’ll walk into a tournament or a fight with a smile on your face.

Modern Army Combatives Level 3 – Week One

Whew. I’ve been trying to get a post in but I haven’t been able to scrounge up the motivation. Even now, I’m feeling super flat, but I’m going to power something out. I have been keeping a journal of what we’re doing each day.

The Program

The new MACP logo is pretty gangster, if you ask me

The Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP) is controversial for a number of reasons. The biggest issue is that it’s badly taught throughout most of the Army. It’s really still in its infancy, and there aren’t a lot of good instructors to go around. Secondly, there’s the question of whether spending valuable training time on hand-to-hand combat is worth doing in the first place.

Then, there’s a host of minor quibbles with the program itself, which are common to debates over martial arts in general: Why the emphasis on groundfighting? Why do we teach this or that in the first level of instruction? People ask why we’re teaching wrasslin’ when someone in a war zone is probably just going to shoot you? (Duh – We’re in an asymmetric war in civilian-dense war zones.  Soldiers need to be able to respond with non-lethal force in all situations)

My overall impression of the course so far: It’s a very practical crash course in self defense techniques. The schoolhouse maintains a high standard of instruction and expects a lot out of the students. If MACP was run this way Army-wide, people would understand the philosophy behind it, and it would get a lot more respect.

So here I am at the end of week 1. What have I seen so far?

The Schoolhouse

The Combatives schoolhouse is located in a nondescript brick building on the main part of Ft Benning, a stone’s throw where Airborne students practice parachuting from large cranes. The facility itself is very nice. The main area is padded with those 1×2 meter Zebra mats – enough space for four regulation competitions to be held at one time, with curtains that can divide the space into four separate spaces. There’s also a full weight room and a heavy bag room. The instructors wear ACU bottoms and black MACP Instructor t-shirts. Students wear full ACU uniforms with everything stripped off or, when we’re boxing, PT shorts and tan shirts with our names written in sharpie on the front and back.

Week One

The first week of the level three course is mostly a crash course in western boxing. We’ve learned footwork, punches and combinations. We moved very quickly from drilling single punches, to doing combinations, to high-intensity combination work on heavy bags and pads. Throughout it all, the instructors have been very good about fixing errors in our technique.

On Friday, we actually did some live sparring. Aside from having horrible technique, I did very well with this – I’ve definitely had more harrowing sessions with the gloves on.

We’ve also been reviewing all the material from levels 1 and 2. On Friday we took a test on running competitions and ran mock tournaments with students acting as referees.

The course is very physical. So far it’s been nothing outside my comfort zone, but we’re told it gets more intense in the second week, when we move into kickboxing. The third week is going to integrate takedowns, and the fourth week is going to involve “tactical” training, whatever that means. Somewhere in there we’re going to learn police-style control and detainment techniques.

Not on Brazilian Time

The atmosphere between students, and between the students and instructors is very laid back. There are lower enlisted, like me, along with Drill Sergeants, Special Forces platoon Sergeants, Captains, and even one Major in the class, but we refer to each other by last name only in class. It’s pretty surreal for me to be here, where I went to Basic Training, wrestling and boxing with Drill Sergeants. And one of my favorite guys here is Captain Murph, a Judo brown belt who calls me “dude.”

It’s definitely a military school, though. When I showed up a couple of minutes late the second day of school, I was bawled out by the cadre’s platoon sergeant and sharply reminded that, in the Army, on time is 15 minutes early. We’re not on Brazilian time here. The brisk pace of instruction is typical of Army instruction, as is the way we’re expected to do everything with a lot of hooah enthusiasm. We’re all expected to help clean up before and after class as well.

In Future

There are a lot of  characters in the class, and stories and subplots I’ll have to get to later. I promised myself I’d write something this weekend, and now it’s past my bedtime on Sunday.

That little voice in your head

Is he your friend? Or is he pushing you around and kicking you, and maybe you don’t even realize what’s going on?

This comic took my breath away. Click the image to see the whole thing.

I wish I could smash that little motherfucker so easily. Imagine how that would feel. With a little voice like that in your head, you’re not only sabotaging yourself, but you’re probably being shitty with the people around you as well.

I’ve struggled with this my whole life. If I daydream carelessly, I’ll go over all the mean things I’ve done, all the mean things that have been done to me, and all those lost opportunities. Disappointment after shitty disappointment. I know I’m not the only person who does this. How good can it be for your spirit to constantly put yourself down and mull over your failures?

In jiu jitsu, though, I’m stubbornly optimistic. I’m not a natural athlete. I’m not even a quick study. I beat myself over the head with new material and it all has to be broken down and somehow jammed through this tiny straw that leads into my brain. But I’ve kept plugging away at it, and eventually I’ve become pretty good at it.

What if I could have this attitude all day long, with the rest of my life? What if we all could?

We lack the courage to even imagine the kind of person we could be. Not only could we be more physically strong, we could be more compassionate, more morally brave, more at ease with the people around us. But most people never access even a tiny shred of that potential. Not only is it hard work, but who’s helping with this? No major institution in modern society encourages us to work on being happier and healthier. We’re isolated, both socially and economically, into our broken “nuclear” families. The food most people eat makes them fat, sick, and lethargic. Religion could help you access a richer spiritual and moral life, but all you hear about is who you’re not supposed to be having sex with.

Another Bruce Lee quote (emphasis mine):

If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”

If you work hard on yourself, you can become stronger, both physically and morally. It ain’t easy though, and there’s not much help out there. You have to pick up the ball and run with it yourself. For me, it’s been crushing my ego on the mat and discovering that a lot of the barriers I ran into, I had put there myself (or just allowed to remain through passivity and excuse-making). I know man-hugging isn’t for everyone. If it’s not for you, I hope you find your own way to break through and become the person you should be.

We’ll always be here.

I’m having a good week. After a lazy month, I finally got into the gym on Tuesday and followed it up with a pretty intense yoga class tonight. I’m feeling drained and sore all over, just like I did every night back home, when I was super serial about my training. (That’s serial as in serious, or maybe serial as in serial killer, as in I was a psychotic with no life except my training)

Part One: Always worth it

“Okay. Heads I go back to the MMA school and take these Jiu Jitsu classes. Tails, I go to yoga again.”

I flip the quarter and it comes up heads. I purse my lips and flip it again. Again, heads.

That’s how I ended up getting my sorry ass back into the gym for the first time in two months. I know. It’s shameful.

Of course, it was worth it. It’s always worth it.You hear it so much when you train. It’s a cliché: “You never regret training, no matter how tired you were before you came in.”

When I got there, Flocka (I am totally winging it with the spelling), a dude I’d rolled with a month ago asked me:”Where you been, man?” He’d invited me back to practice on Saturdays, impressed with my skill. This meant a lot to me because after after all the time I’ve had off, I feel like a white belt all over again, flopping around helplessly on the mat. Like a walrus, or a paraplegic who’s fallen from his chair.

I told him I’m still getting my bearings in this new town. That I haven’t bought a car yet, so it takes an extra push to get motivated. I omitted the fact that I’ve been having serious doubts about my own commitment to training in the first place. I told him I want to get in more, especially on Saturdays when I’m always free.

“Well, we’ll always be here, man,” he replied. He doesn’t know how much this meant to me. Thanks, Flocka.

Part Two: Turkeys

My buddy has called my legs “turkeys.” This is a word he’s brought from his homeland, which is Florida, which (the word, that is, “turkeys”) is applied to large, meaty legs. I think it’s usually used to describe females with large, powerful thighs. I possess turkeys naturally. And a big bubble butt.

Yesterday we did a pretty serious leg workout for morning PT, with box jumps and burpees. Then I rode my bike to the gym, where we did an hour of double legs, including partner lifts. Today, I rode my bike to yoga, where the instructor put us into Utkatasana and some other leg-intensive poses. What this means is that my legs are only gonna get bigger. It’s going to be hilarious when I fail to add bulk up top to go along with it. I’m going to look like a T-Rex.

Part Three: Playing Ketchup

I’ve had a couple of good days of training, but my diet continues to be an issue.

This is the least appetizing picture of a hamburger I found in 30 seconds.

This is the least appetizing picture of a hamburger I found in 30 seconds.

For lunch today, I succombed to a double quarter pounder with cheese from Burger King. That is to say: despite the fact that I had clean, paleo-friendly food waiting in my fridge, despite the fact that I looked at myself in the mirror this morning and saw very clearly where the 10 lbs I’ve gained has gone (hint: not lean tissue), despite the fact that I’ve been talking shit about switching to a paleo diet – despite all this, not only did I purchase this fast food item, I asked to “go large” due to french fries being easily the most seductive junk food for me, and not only did I purchase this fast food item, I sat down and put it all into my mouth, chewed, swallowed, and ate it. And immediately felt terrible.

Yes, I’ve backslid quite a bit. From my former glory. But I’ve been frustrated and bored, and I haven’t had any goals. Lately, I don’t even know why I get up in the morning. Without a goal, I’ve been rudderless. But what goal to pick? The most important thing is to have one.

“A goal is not always meant to be reached. It often serves simply as something to aim at.”

Thanks, Bruce. That means a lot.

Grow or die

We're just friends!

Honestly, I don’t know why people think Hoot and I are “an item.”

Let me take a step back: I got laid off last year while I was training for my first MMA fight. I decided to join the Army in September and graduated from Basic Training in December. I’m training for my job now. I still get homesick, mostly for my home Academy, which I consider more of a home than my old apartment. If you made a chart, I’m sure I spent way more of my waking hours training than at home.

When I got here I found a gym with huge wrestling mats rolled up at one end of the basketball courts, gathering dust. I started teaching basic jiu jitsu to a couple of my pals. We didn’t have access to anyone more experienced than me, and I was itching to get on the mat. It’s an awful, helpless feeling wanting only to train, and feeling your jiu jitsu drain away, as if through the soles of your feet.

During a PT session one morning, one of our sergeants told us: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” I totally agree, and I’ve been doing everything I can to keep my jiu jitsu from rotting on the vine.

I feel presumptuous being the only conduit for this precious thing.  Who would grant this responsibility on a twitching retard like me? As a purple belt, though, it’s technically my right to train new students. I’ve watched Hooton go from zero to having a basic understanding of a couple of positions. She’s a handful for inexperienced males who, a month ago, would have smothered her with raw strength. Seeing this, I’m filled with shame and pride. If hooton’s jiu jitsu sucks, it’s my fault.

Hooton evades the breakdance armbar

Friends from home will recognize a familiar scenario: My best friend in Maine was a girl who trained BJJ as well.I don’t know why my best friend once again a female grappler, but there is this: Out of at least ten people I’ve trained with here, only Hoot has stuck with it (Her real name is Hooton. I call her “Hoot,” partly because my phone’s T9 recognizes “hoot” as a word in text messages). She has all the makings of a great student. She never wants to go home from the gym, she rolls until she can’t breathe,  and she doesn’t whine when she suffers bumps and scrapes. She’s at the point now where she doesn’t feel completely lost when she rolls, and now all she wants to do after class is train. I’ve got a training buddy!

Leave it to me to get chummy with one of the few females here – because we both dig jiu jitsu.

Sprawl Choke!

Here’s a picture of me choking the shit out of her!

The Army constantly works against us, though: They have us on a pretty intense schedule: Wake up is at 4:30am and we aren’t released until 5pm. It’s hard to use even the little time we have: At this phase of Initial Entry Training (IET), I have to have a “battle buddy” everywhere I go. Since Hoot and I are opposite sexes, we have to find a third person to bring along to the gym whenever we train. Hoot is the only one who’s stuck with it. So, we’re always dragging some schmo along who isn’t really all that into it. It’s a stupid situation, the kind I was warned I’d find myself in when I joined the Army. The latest dude we’ve been training with seems to be more interested than the rest, though, and when we “phase up” to having the most privileges allowed here – hopefully this will happen within the next couple of weeks – we won’t need battle buddies anymore.

Last weekend, we went off-post and trained at the local BJJ school. Their instructor isn’t there on the weekend, but a couple of guys there are solid grapplers. It felt really good to train with experienced opponents again.

Looking for knee-to-belly against Joe

I’m getting more comfortable with teaching. Today I taught Hoot and our friend Frazier a bunch of cool stuff: A variation of the Sumi Gaeshi where you hold a Kimura grip and finish with that submission on the ground; how to establish and hold a basic knee-to-belly pin; and from there, a move my instructor calls the Nate (If any readers know a more universal name for this, please let me know). I’ve been sticking to basic techniques, but I was feeling saucy today. My buddies seem to have picked this stuff up pretty well.

I miss my gym back home. A lot. I don’t regret my decision to leave – I felt like I needed to bust a geographical move when I got laid off , and I’d always felt a calling to serve my country, at least for one term of enlistment – but I’m really not happy here. Everyone says that once you’re done with training it’s much less confining. I hope I can keep growing my jiu jitsu while I’m doing this gig.

By the way, we start Army Combatives this week. I’ll update with my opinions on this BJJ-derived program.

(Photos courtesy of Angel)

A Rebuttal to the Ball Region

Wednesday’s Penny Arcade is about MMA, and while I do think it’s funny, I felt like the authors are missing out on a lot of what goes on in an MMA fight. I decided to shoot them an email, which I’ll also post here.

Hello Jerry,

As an amateur MMA fighter and long-time Penny Arcade fan, Wednesday’s comic is a delicious intersection of two of my most-loved domains – a venn diagram whose circles I never thought would intersect. I also enjoyed the old podcast where you originally talked about your forays into MMA. I’m sure you’ll get a lot of ridiculous email from ridiculous people on this topic. I’d just like to make a quick point and get out of your way.

In short, I think the strip is really funny – especially “kick-kicking, a kick-based form of combat” – but I sincerely believe you are missing out on some really good stuff, and I assure you the appeal is not in the “look-away” moments. The appeal of MMA is exactly what you desire – a contest between diverse “systems.” The results may not be as balletic as you expected, but when two guys get into a real fight it’s rarely very “pretty” to watch. That’s not to say there aren’t incredible displays of virtuosity!

In the early days, it was an open question which “system” would carry the day in an anything-goes fight. We just didn’t know. There were lots of people who claimed theirs would be the “ultimate” fighting art, especially those who lived on money from students. As it turned out, the jiu-jitsu guys were able to close the gap and force their game on all comers for most of the 90s. That’s changed, and even guys who specialize in striking are now usually world-class grapplers. It goes both ways, too – you’ll see guys who are primarily grapplers scoring knockouts with punches and kicks.

Ironically, grappling is the most complex part of fighting. While striking is relatively simple and is all about timing, grappling is a “deep” contest that moves more slowly and has a lot more room for strategy and improvisation. In practice, though, it’ll always look like “sweaty ball-punching” if it’s not your thing.

The new UFC video game actually does a good job of capturing the complexity of MMA. I was really impressed with it!

If you find grappling to be fundamentally a bummer, you might enjoy watching muay thai fights, which are basically MMA without the ground game. Fighters are allowed to grab each other while standing, and even throw each other, but there’s no ground fighting. It’s often very pretty to watch. If you’re sincerely interested in MMA, I’d also suggest the 2008 documentary “Renzo: Legacy” (Trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zENt9OpmhY)

(also, a story I wrote for a local magazine about my first MMA fight: http://www.thebollard.com/bollard/?p=6262)

Anyway, thanks for your time!

-John Bronson
Portland, ME

Plastic surgery for cut-prone pro MMA fighters

A recent NYTimes article talks about a new plastic surgery that Marcus Davis (a Mainer like myself) and Nick Diaz have gotten plastic surgery to make their skin less likely to bleed when they’re struck on key locations on their faces. Basically, these guys apparently have sharp ridges that tend to rupture the skin when the face is struck. The doctor grinds these down smooth and sews the guys up again.

The story predicts that the surgey may become common in the sport: “Plastic surgery may become the norm for cut-prone fighters who are trying to prolong their careers.” The story says that boxers have been getting similar plastic surgery, whichwas news to me. The doctor who invented the surgury points out that MMA fighters often don’t getthe quality of stitching they should after they get cut: “The fighters sometimes receive suturing that is not suitable for athletes in a combat sport.”

On one hand, I like this, because cuts are one of the least conclusive and most disappointing ways to see a fight end. Some fighters use cutting as part of their strategy. This is weak, because it depends on the fact that there’s a referee and a fight doctor to step in and hand you the win. If the doctor didn’t stop the fight, it’s entirely possible the bleeding fighter could press on and win. Looking to cut is a way of gaming the rules, and I wouldn’t think of this kind of victory as a victory at all. Likewise, if fighters want to

So I don’t really have any reaction to this surgery specifically. We put vasoline on the fighters’ faces for the same purpose (that is, to prevent a glancing blow to open up a fight-ending cut). But it’ll be interesting to see what other kinds of surgery people try to get away with. We may someday have to draw a line between acceptable, preventative surgery and “performance-enhancing” procedures. I can’t think of such a procedure off the top of my head. Reinforced shins? Sharper elbows? Who knows?