First Sparring Class

I started going to the open class full time after Labor Day. At that point i was getting about 5 hours of jiu jitsu a week.  Intro & Open class on Monday & Wednesday and then a class on Saturday morning.  Most Saturday mornings there was a little bit of rolling after class.

As is not uncommon, the first couple times I rolled with anyone, I mentally started to panic. I’m not a claustraphobic person, but when one of our Judo black belts had me in side control, it felt like I was trapped. He had such good weight distribution that it felt like a pallet of bricks was on my chest. That combined with me not really doing a good job of breathing while rolling (I was holding my breath too much) and I felt like I was going to suffocate.

However, most Saturday mornings, it was only 5 or 10 minutes that I’d roll. I’d go against someone and after they tapped me out, I’d sit around for another match to finish and go against someone else until they tapped me. After a couple rounds of this, I’d decide I was too exhausted and pack up for the day (it’s an open ended time, leave when you’re ready.)

I waited until a little bit after I got my first stripe to venture into the sparring class. It wasn’t anything official, I could have shown up with a naked belt, but it was a mindset thing for me. I wanted to focus on getting my stripe before going to sparring class.

The first time I was a bit nervous. It wasn’t that I thought someone was going to break my arm, but the thought of going 50-60 minutes of rolling seemed daunting. Remember, 3 months before this I spent my free time writing code on my computer (I still do, actually, I just have less of it now thanks to BJJ.)  Adding to the amount of time, I knew that we had some really good BJJ players and I didn’t want to waste their time.

I showed up a couple minutes early and found out that AC was leading the sparring class that night, so I told him it was my first sparring class. I think I was hoping he’d take it easy on me.

We started with our normal warm-ups of running and teeter-totter-rocking etc.  After which time, AC says “Get a drink, fix your gi, get your mouth-piece and line up against the wall.”  As I did I figured he’d get a good look and match people up.  But that’s not what happened. He looks at me and says “Ok Nate, who do you want?”  My mind went blank. I didn’t know about 1/2 the class, so I just went with the guy next to me, a newly minted blue belt named Mike.

After everyone was matched up, I find out we’re starting in butterfly guard. At that time, my knowledge of butterfly guard was basically that there was something called butterfly guard.


I think I had a bit more of a blank look on my face than that guy.  To Mike’s credit, however, he spent a minute or so going over what his objective should be, as well as what my goal should be.  We started and I was not able to really do much. I don’t remember much of what Mike did, but I do remember he easily got mount and submitted me a few times.

After the first match we just found someone nearby and went the next round against them. At some point in the night I wound up going against Abe Wagner. To be honest, I was more than a little intimidated. After all, this was the same guy I watched on TV KO Tim Sylvia:

As would be expected, Abe tapped me out 3 times in about 30-45 seconds. Then, like almost everyone else that night, he showed me some things that I should be doing, and he told me what he would be trying to do. It turned more of an instructional than a real grappling section.

By the end of the hour I was dead tired (a common theme for me in BJJ.) But I had achieved the two goals I’d set for myself

  1. Don’t sit out any matches because I’m tired
  2. Tap before going to sleep.

I think I went against 7 or 8 guys, and I probably tapped 20+ times. 

The great thing about the sparring class, though, was how helpful everyone was. We didn’t just sit around and chat, but if they caught me with the same move a couple times in a row, they’d stop and help me understand what I was doing wrong. 

Over and over again a single philosophy has permeated my training at MidAmerica: I’ll help you get better, so you can help me get better.  It didn’t do anyone any good to go in and destroy the new whtie belt. But if they could teach the new white belt, and help him get better, then he’ll force their game to get better.

First Time in the Open Class

As I’ve said before, MidAmerica started an intro BJJ class this year, and that’s where I’ve been going since August 6th. After having gone to the intro class for about 3 weeks I decided after I changed out of my gi, I’d sit and watch some of the open class to see what it was all about.  

I was still at the point where I was leaving the intro class soaked and exhausted. After I changed and grabbed some water, I was sitting in one of the chairs lining the wall watching them run laps.  All the sudden I heard a voice

“Want to join us? We need one more.”

“I’m just watching. I’m not sure I have any energy left.”

“The hard part is done. You can throw on your gi and come in, if you want.”

I sat there for a minute thinking about how tired I was, but for some reason I replied “Let me go change.” I sent a text to my wife saying “Staying for second class” and went to change. In about 2 minutes I was on the mat. They had finished their laps and the rest of their normal warmups. They were doing their submission drills (10 armbars from guard, 10 from mount and 10 triangles.)

I got paired up with Scott, one of the intro teachers.  Once we got done with our submissions we circled up and Kyle (the phantom voice from earlier) asked us if we had any sweeps we wanted to work on. I didn’t really know what a sweep was, so I think I just kind of chuckled when he pointed at me and asked me if I had any.

We ended up working on a scissor sweep, flower sweep and maybe one more. Each sweep would wind up with Scott doing one rep to each side then walking me through the sweep and letting me get about 5-6 reps in before we circled back up and learned another one. 

After a very quick hour, class was done. I again changed out of my gi and realized I was even more tired & more soaked than before.  I sat in my car for a minute or two before driving off. When I got home I shuffled from room to room, too tired to actually walk.  It was the best exhaustion feeling I’ve ever had.

About two weeks after that day I started going to both classes, and with a couple exceptions, I’ve done both classes every Monday & Wednesday since September.


The More You Learn the Less You Know

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “The more you learn the less you know” (it was in the theme song to the show Growing Pains.)  I thought “That’s stupid, the more you learn the more you know.”

Since that time, however, I’ve encountered the truthfulness of that statement over and over again. When I studied phyiscs in college I realized there were people that were tackling issues I didn’t even understand. I leared that F = mA but also realized I had no idea what particle physics was. 

I’ve realized that in everything I’ve studied. It didn’t matter if I was studying engineering, woodworking, or theology. A tiny bit was enough to open my eyes to the fact that I didn’t really know anything.

With Jiu Jitsu it appears to be more than a mental assent to this truth. What made me realize this was a sparring session Christmas morning. There were 4 of us that showed up so we did a lot of “Pass-Sweep-Submit” drills from different positions. Essentially one person starts in a certain position, (e.g. full guard.) Then another person tries to pass his guard, while the first person tries to either sweep or submit.  After about an hour of this we circled up and Anthony gave us some pointers on things he saw, and things he was trying to work on.

That’s when it hit me. I was sitting with a brown, purple and blue belt. All of which seemed to have no problem passing or sweeping me, and holding their own against each other. And yet, AC said “Here’s the first thing I address in half-guard.” And went on to explain his method. It helped me tremendously (because I was clueless when it came to half-guard.) But it also seemed to help the purple & blue belt as well. That’s when it struck me, even though they handled me with no problem, and did ok against each other, there were still little tweaks to be made to their game to improve it.

If the position I learn as a whitebelt was all there was to do in BJJ, then once I mastered that I’d be on the same page as everyone. But that’s not the case. Some people have nasty full-guards, others might excel at half-guard or spider-guard or mount. It’s not enough to learn the basics, (although that’s essential) because there are a million little details that I don’t even realize yet that make a more effective guard.

Stripe Testing

It didn’t take me long at the gym to realize that some of the belts had pieces of tape on them. It didn’t matter what color the belt was, it seemed we had someone at every level (except black) with at least 1 stripe on their belt. As I asked, I found out to even be considered for the next belt, you have to have 4 stripes. Getting 4 stripes doesn’t mean you’ll get a new belt in a week, but rather the coaches will start evaluating for the next belt.

There are a few ways to get a stripe at our gym. One that’s common accross all belt colors is competition. Another way for white & blue belts to get a stripe is to do a stripe test.  It’s something that they offer every 3-4 months, and there was one coming up in October.

I asked one of my coaches if he thought I should test for the stripe or wait until the next time.  I’d only been there about 6-8 weeks when they announced the testing date. His response was “Take the test. There is no failing. There is passing, and there is learning.  Same with tournaments. There is no losing, there is winning and learning.”  He even told me that the first 2 times he took the stripe test he failed.

Based on his encouragment I decided I’d take the test.  They had a sheet of things we had to know.  It was all about technique. There were a series of positions we had to show escapes from, and other positions we had to show attacks from.

I was a bit nervous because some of the things we seemed to have done a lot (armbars from guard) and others we hadn’t done much of (escaping side control.) But the two coaches for the beginners class spent the 2 weeks leading up to the exam going through the sheet.  One teacher, Charles, even came in on a Saturday morning to go over the test for anyone who wanted to take it.  For whatever reason, I was the only one to show up that morning. Then the next day, the teacher who conducts the test offered a class to go over how he’d run the test. Again, I was the only one to show  up.  So in a way, I got 2 private lessons a week before the test.

The Saturday of the test, our other intro-class coach Scott showed up an hour early to help anyone with last minute tips.  At first there were only 2 or 3 people there.  By the time the test started there were 15 people.  We divided up into pairs and tested in front of 2 higher belts. They’d say “Let me see your armbar from guard” and then stop by each group and see both of us do it.  After every 2 or 3 moves we’d stop and our brown belt, Anthony, would walk through what it was they were looking for, in a fairly detailed explanation. Things like “I start with my hand here, put my foot here, swing there etc.”

As the test progressed I saw more and more things that I knew I didn’t do exactly right. I can’t remember details right now, but I’d see Anthony slide his hips at a certain point, and I’d realize I didn’t do that.

After the hour long test, we were lined up as our graders left the room to disucss who passed and who didn’t.  When Anthony came back in, he said he’d just go down the list in the order of how we signed in that morning. I thought back and realized that I signed up right after my testing partner, Steven. After testing with hiim, I was pretty sure he passed, so I was just going to listen for his name. Sure enough after about 6 other names, they called Steven. He walked up to the front, got a stripe from our black belt, shook hands with the brown belt and the 2 graders.  As he got back in line I thought “Either my name will get called now, or I’ll take the test again.”  They called out “Nate” and for about 2 seconds it didn’t register. I thought “I wonder who that is,” still thinking I missed too many little things to pass.  

It was at the same time encouraging and humbling. I’m encouraged because it means I’m progressing & learning. And it’s humbling because my knowledge is still so incredibly small compared to the higher belts.  BJJ is a long road, and the first stripe of the white belt is just a first step.

The Longest Weekend

Labor Day 2012 was the longest weekend of my year. On the 29th, I went to my normal Wednesday night class. Still sore from the Monday one, although not to the point where sitting with perfect posture mattered.  As we wrapped up class on the 29th, our teacher informed us that with Monday being Labor Day the gym would be closed, and so there would be no beginner class.

My first thought was “Good, that will give me a few more days to rest and recover.” At this point, my usual routine was go to class Wednesday, spend Thursday being glad I had the chance to recover. Then usually on Saturday  I’d think “Ok, so after tomorrow, I go to work and then get to go back to class.” But this Saturday I realized that wasn’t the case.  I’d have to wait 4 more days before I could go back.

It was strange, really. I was missing the opportunity to pay someone to beat me up. Somehow, I survived and when I got back to the gym on Wednesday I found out there were several other people who felt the same way. They were glad the gym was closed, but at the same time they really missed training.  That attitude has been prevalent throughout my time there. I’ve never gotten the feeling that people are there because they think they have to be. Everyone seems to really enjoy it.

My First “Private Lesson”

Two or three weeks into my BJJ journey, I showed up to my Wednesday beginner’s class. I was the first one there so I was talking to the teacher, Scott. (Charles teaches on Mondays and Scott teaches on Wednesdays.)  He was telling me that he was heading to Chicago that weekend for a tournament.  I think that might have been the first time I realized you could compete in just BJJ.  At the time, Scott was a blue belt, and so I asked him where he thought a blue belt from our school ranked overall.  Were we close to being purple belts, were we glorified white belts, or were we actually blue belts.  What he told me is, “You never take off a Vaghi belt.”

Rodrigo Vaghi is a pretty bad dude when it comes to BJJ and that’s who we’re affiliated with.  What Scott meant was, if you go to another school, they respect Vaghi and know what your skills are. Some schools, however, wouldn’t have that recognition so they’d make you start over. For example, if you said you trained under me, they’d say “Who? Here’s your whitebelt.”

That lead us to a quick conversation (all before class started) about how our gym views belt promotions.  Scott told me that he had been doing BJJ for about 7 years and was a blue belt. (He got his purple in October.) The way Mid-America works is that there is a lot of close interaction with the coaches, they see you progressing. They know where your weaknesses are and where your strengths are. They can tell if you’re dedicated & working or just there to hang out.  As a result, there isn’t a lot of testing (in fact between white & black belts, there are only 3 tests at Mid-America.)  

Scott also told me that this allows people to move at their own pace. I’m not the only  one at the gym who does not have a wrestling or judo background, sometimes it feels like it, but I’m not. I was told there might be people who come in after me and get promoted faster than me.  But the point was driven home several times in this conversation: Jiu Jitsu is about you. It’s about your body style, your fighting style and you’re abilities. If you are a stud, you’ll advance faster than normal. If it takes you a bit longer to pick up, that’s okay too.

This entire conversation lasted no more than 5 minutes.  It was now 5:30 and I was still the only one in class. So I had a de-facto private lesson.  A lot of the time was spent on the armbar from mount.  For the drill, we start with our hands on our partners chest, exposing our arms. At the start of class, I asked Scott when someone’s hands would be up like that.  And he showed me an instance of when (trying to push off) but he also showed me what would be a more likely scenario to get the armbar from mount.

I think he also showed me the Americana and Kimura from side-control.

To be completely honest, I don’t remember much of my “private” lesson from a technique standpoint. But I do remember the conversation that we had before & after class, about not feeling pressured to keep up with other people.

That has really helped me.  Brazilian jiu jitsu is a pretty humbling experience. Everytime I spar there is a room full of guys better than me, who can demonstrate it by making me tap early & often. The simple fact of knowing that each person moves at their own pace helps. If I didn’t realize that, I might not have the enthusiasm, because I’d just assume I wasn’t “a natural.” (Which I’m not by the way.)


If there’s something about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that non-players know, it’s that BJJ involves submissions. Things like armbars, triangles, rear naked chokes etc.  So it’s easy to measure progress based on how many submissions you have performed when rolling (whether in class or a tournament.) 

But there’s a danger to that line of reasoning You just might not be that good (yet). For most people when they start out they’re the worst person in their class. Of course, there are exceptions, those people who are gifted or have experience in a different grappling art. When you’re a couch-potato learning jiu jitsu, you are absolutely the worst guy for a while. And if you focus only on submissions, you might get discouraged quickly.

However, coming home tonight I realized that I can’t measure my progress in jiu jitsu by submissions. Maybe you’re different, but that’s the great thing about BJJ, it’s very individualized. I ahve to measure my progress in baby steps.

Here’s an example from this week. Our gym spars on Tuesday and Thursday. When I went on Tuesday it seemed the predominant way of making me submit was by armbar. I think out of the 7 or 8 matches, one ended with nobody being submitted, one ended by triangle and the rest were by armbar. It got to the point my arm was sore just from it being attacked.

Wednesday morning I realized that I was making a mistake that exposed my arm. Basically in a scramble, if someone was moving towards side control, I turned my back on them. That left my top arm exposed and all they had to do was throw their legs over and the armbar was basically done. I reasoned that if instead of turning away from side control, I turned into the opponent they would not have an angle to attack my arm.

So for tonight’s sparring class I wanted to make sure if there was a scramble I didn’t turn my back to the opponent.  I had 7 matches tonight (I really had 9, but the two advanced belts let me work my attacks.) Of those 7 matches, I was armbared one ime.  It wasn’t that nobody went for them tonight. I think just about everyone tried to set up for one, but I did a good job of not giving them the position and keeping my arms in.

It might not be sexy, but it’s little things that show me progress.


So what motivated me, a thirty-something couch potato to pick up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? Why not running or biking like most of my friends?  To be completely honest, I’m not sure. I know it started about 4+ years ago. My son, who was 4 at the time, was in “karate.” It was really a  mix of several disciplines, styled in a way that the kids had fun doing it.  One thing he learned was a hammer fist.


One night I’m flipping through the chanels and I hear Joe Rogan on Spike TV, while talking about an MMA match, say “He’s hitting him with a lot of hammer fists.”  I was curious, I had figured that the teacher made up the name to help the kids learn it.  As I watched the match I was intrigued (and really, hooked.)  I thought it was interesting, but one thing I knew, I didn’t want to get punched in the face (or anywhere for that matter.) 

As I watched more MMA, I realized that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was a big part of it, and as a discipline itself, you didn’t have to get punched in the face.  So I thought it would be interesting to learn.  But I didn’t do anything to learn BJJ for a long time. Then this summer I started a new job. And within 3 weeks we had 3 new employees (out of 5 total.) One day we were sitting around talking and we found out one guy is a home beer brewer, the other does fencing. They asked me what weird or unique hobby I had, and I didn’t really have any.  I used that as a reason to finally go try BJJ.

Another aspect of BJJ that I think hooked me was that it is at the same time simple and complex. In the open class at Mid-America, as part of the warm up, everyone does the same basic moves:

Armbar from Guard:


Armbar from Mount:


Triangle Choke:


It doesn’t matter  if you’re a white belt like me, or a a purple, brown or black. You do these exercises. It’s basic enough that I can do a (sloppy) armabr. It’s complex enough that the purple and brown belts are tweaking their moves to make them just right. It’s simple enough that after a month or so, I learned a handful of moves. It’s complex enough that I can spend the rest of my life making those moves better.

I think a final aspect that drew me to BJJ was the philosophy behind the belts. In BJJ there are only 5 belts

  1. White
  2. Blue
  3. Purple
  4. Brown
  5. Black

But just because there are only 5 belts doesn’t mean that you’ll be a black belt in 3 or 4 years. In fact, one of my instructors just got his purple this year, and he started 8 years ago. Brazillian Jiu Jitsu focuses on really learning the skills. I’d say it’s almost as if by the time you get the next belt, you’ve been operating as that belt for a while. And in my book, if it takes work, then you really earned it. I didn’t want to take a martial art where I moved up in belts as fast as I could pay for testing. When I get my blue belt, I’ll know that I’m truly at a blue belt level and I earned it.

So perhaps the biggest motivation for me to learn BJJ is my own personal psychosis — I need to be challenged,  I can’t take the easy way.  But whatever my motivation is, it’s working. I absolutely love going to the gym, and on days that the gym is closed, or I have to miss, I feel miserable.

Getting Started

On August 5th, 2012 I received a call from Aaron Cerrone at Mid-America Martial Arts. I had filled out a form on their website expressing interest in learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  I had chosen Mid-America because it had a bit of name recognition with me. I’ve been a fan of mixed martial arts for a while, and when Abe Wagner was on The Ultimate Fighter, I learned that he trained at MAMA. It had been a few years since he was on, but the name was still familiar and the gym was a 5 minute drive from my house.

I told Aaron my main concern was to learn BJJ for the sake of learning it, and possibly to get in better shape. I wanted him to know I wasn’t some young kid who was trying to be the next UFC champ (I was 34 at the time, and had thought about taking BJJ for at least 3 years.) More than anything, I didn’t really want to come in day 1 and be a punching bag (so to speak) for the professional fighters they had. He reassured me that about 90% of the BJJ guys were there for the same reason.

So on August 6th, I ducked out of work about 5 minutes early to make sure I got there in plenty of time to sign any waivers etc.  I got a quick tour of the gym, bought a gi, paid for a month and was told the intro class was starting in 5 minutes.  I went into the bathroom and put on the gi but didn’t really know how to tie the belt.  Toby, from the front desk took me back to the intro class (which I think had 2 or 3 other guys in it) and they were just getting ready to start.  First things first, the instructor showed me how to tie my belt, and after that we were in to warmups.

Normal warmups included a lot of exercises that were KILLING my abs.  Before this I had toyed with going to the gym occasionaly, but hadn’t really done anything physical in about 15-20 years.  I was relieved when Charles, the instructor, would walk around and check on everyone because when he was on the other side of the room I could take a second and catch my breath.

Next we moved on to the shrimp drill .

After we did this, I believe we worked on an armbar from guard, paring up with a partner and taking turns, he’d do 10, then I’d do 10.

Next thing I knew, it was 6:30 and the class was over. I changed out of the gi and left completely soaked in sweat.  I was already sore from all the ab work and movement that I wasn’t used to. When I got home I noticed I already had scratches and bruises from the class, but that didn’t deter me.

I woke up Tuesday morning and was sore from head to toe. I had to make sure I sat just right at work or I’d be in pain. I had 47 hours between classes, and I think it would have taken my body about 72 hours to completely heal. But what I didn’t want was to be “that guy” that shoes up on a Monday and then doesn’t come back for a week or more.  I also didn’t want to give myself an excuse. So Wednesday afternoon, I left work right on time, barely made it to the gym and went through the whole exercise again.  The difference this time was I had more time to recover. My next class would be Monday at 5:30.

I continued on that schedule of doing the intro class on Monday and Wednesday nights without missing a night (despite aches and pains) for the first 4 weeks.