Focus

Days till fight: 155   |   Current weight: 203.3lbs   |   Goal weight: 185lbs

Something that must be said, despite the appearance of obviousness: training for a fight is hard.

In the two weeks since my last blog post, I've attended 7 jiu-jitsu classes, two CrossFit classes, run, jumped rope, and carefully monitored my diet. My body is now in a constant state of near-exhaustion, and I'm feeling aches and twinges in my joints that I've previously only experienced in idle daydreams of old age. Nevertheless, my determination to succeed remains strong, and I am ever fortunate to have the support of my wife - without her, this whole crazy scheme would be impossible.

My Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes have been, without question, the focus of my training thus far. There are so many ways in which practicing jiu-jitsu has challenged my preconceived notions, instincts and physical limits. The first element that had to be overcome (and one which I continue to struggle with) is to simply be at ease while in physical contact with my classmates. I've always been a person for whom physical contact with others mostly left me vaguely uneasy, not counting family or a handful of very close friends. I am not often a "hugger," and I generally avoid standing on crowded trains, as being pressed against strangers in an enclosed space makes my skin crawl. I feel perfectly at ease hugging my friends and family, or wrestling with my son, but at the same time, I loathe the feeling of my dentist leaning waaaay into my "personal space."

All that has to be set aside when practicing jiu-jitsu. Rather than shirking away from uncomfortable proximity to others, I have to expect it, embrace it, lean into it, and be at peace with it. This is not easy, but in the moments in which it all starts to work, I find myself achieving a level of focus and hyper-awareness that I haven't experienced in my life thus far. My wife has long tried to get me to embrace meditation in various forms (chanting mantras, yoga, etc.), but I could never shake the overwhelming sense of boredom long enough to experience the inner peace that she and other meditation-enthusiasts so often rave about. I was startled last night to hear myself describing a small moment of success in my latest jiu-jitsu class in very similar terms to those used by people who practice transcendental meditation: intense focus, hyper-awareness, a fleeting sense of certainty that I understood the placement and role for each of my limbs even as I was being twisted into an inverted pretzel and simultaneously dropped on my head and choked nearly unconscious. It's also entirely possible that oxygen deprivation is playing a major role in these moments of apparent clarity.

Our jiu-jitsu classes are typically split into three roughly-equal portions: a lengthy warm-up and stretching session, a technique lesson with low-speed, low-impact practice, and finally 15-20 minutes of "free rolling," in which students are paired off (generally newbies like me are paired with more experienced students) and use all their skills and strength to attack and defend positions and submission-holds in 5-minute rounds. The warm-ups are grueling and the lessons are fascinating, but I find myself most eagerly anticipating the end of class when we square off and attempt to apply the skills we're learning in real (though always friendly and respectful) competition. To date, I have not submitted a single 'opponent,' and I honestly consider it a victory to simply avoid being choked or having a limb torqued in a weird direction for more than a minute or so.

One of my classmates in particular has been exceedingly generous with his time, energy and coaching. He has been learning jiu-jitsu for a little over four years, and he has embraced the art with style and grace. He is slightly shorter than me and considerably leaner than I am currently - I probably outweigh him by 40 or more pounds right now. What he lacks in bulk, he more than makes up for with flexibility and skill - the classic combination that lead the slender and nerdy-looking Royce Gracie to dominate bigger and meaner-looking foes in the earliest UFC events. This classmate, whom I'll call Jay, displays a rare combination of humility and confidence when we train together, and I owe large portions of what progress I have made to his patient teaching. 

Jay and I have been frequently paired up for both the lesson portions of our classes (where we practice positions, transitions and submissions on each-other until they start to feel comfortable and routine) as well as the free-rolling sessions at the end of class. Jay expertly combines his skills with an astounding degree of physical flexibility - he is able to comfortably endure (or even put himself into) positions that would likely have me rushing to the ER. Grappling with Jay is unnervingly akin to grappling with a shockingly-strong octopus - every time you think you've got an arm or leg under control, half a dozen more wind their way around your neck. As noted above, and bearing in mind that I'm still a rank amateur at jiu-jitsu, I really do consider it a victory to keep from being submitted for a minute or more. Even in the rare instances when I find myself in a superior or advantageous position (either through lucky panicked thrashing or positional generosity on the part of my opponent), I rarely know what to do with the advantage, and (unsurprisingly) I generally find myself in trouble pretty much instantly. Still, though, I'm satisfied that at this early stage in my training, I'm aware enough of the benefits / disadvantages of many positions (largely though years of watching MMA matches as a fan), and when I replay my free-rolling sessions after class, I am often able to pinpoint where my mistakes were, which opportunities I missed, and what I should try next time.

The fight I'm training for is still months away, and I'm fully aware that it could still fall apart. My opponent or I could be injured in training and need to drop out, or the event could be cancelled, or any number of other things could crop up to prevent the fight from taking place. However, now that I've started training in jiu-jitsu, I cannot imagine ever, ever wanting to stop. This really is the most addicting sport I've ever encountered.