Jiu Jitsu & The Long Haul


An unfortunate truth is that the most valuable lessons are oftentimes the least pleasant.

I was just five days out from my second amateur MMA fight, on top of my game and feeling like a world-beater, when I learned this firsthand.

It was one of the last hard sessions of our fight camp, and I was smashing my training partner.  It was a proper beating, the kind you only see between friends of this sort.  For the sake of the story, we’ll call him “Mike Steeil.”

I mounted.

There was no question in my mind which submission I was finishing with.  I knew it three moves ago.  Hell, I knew it three days ago.

We had just wheeled a shiny new technique out of the shop that week: the mounted gogoplata.  It isn’t exactly what you’d call a “high percentage” move, and certainly not something I’d even attempt in my fight.  It’s as hard to finish as it is to pronounce.

But, I was feeling flashy.  And Steeil, to his credit, was becoming exponentially harder to submit- which was infuriating for the young, stubborn, purple belt ego.  He saw it coming.  I was not to be denied.  Determined, I over-hooked his arm, slid my knee under his shoulder, postured up, and pulled my foot across his face.

It’s important to note, dear reader, that years of kneading dough as a renegade pastry chef had left Steeil’s right hand massive and viselike, like a human Fiddler Crab.

Alas, my telegraphed attack was easily stymied by his big, stupid, crab-hand.  I leaned into it anyway, of course.

Pop pop POP!” said my knee.  Training screeched to a halt as I limped over to the wall and slid down next to Professor Dante.

“I’m good,” I lied.
“You’ll be fine in two days,” he lied.

Aldous Huxley said something along the lines of “don’t burn the house down to bake a loaf of bread.”  Well, the roof was on fire, and I didn’t even get the damn loaf in the oven.  I was consumed with getting this particular finish against this particular person, so much so that I set my house ablaze to do it.

That isn’t Jiu Jitsu.  Not my teacher’s Jiu Jitsu, at least.  Ricardo once told me, “I never do anything that hurts me more than it hurts them.”  He said it with a grin, and the message was clear: don’t be an idiot, idiot.

It was an eye-opening experience.  Apparently, I was far less enlightened than I had thought, even though I read Siddhartha that summer.  And, unfortunately, I wasn’t as good at Jiu Jitsu as I had thought.

To be in this for the long haul, I realized, the stubbornness and vanity would need to die; taken to the shed out back and shot, Old Yeller-style.  Not the competitiveness.  Not the drive.  The egotistic obstinacy.

I would’ve loved to have landed the fancy new technique, especially on Mike Steeil.  Who wouldn’t?  But forcing a risky maneuver days out from a fight?  Show some damn restraint, kid.

“Falling in love with a solution makes it incredibly difficult to see its flaws.”
-Seth Godin

Surely I learned my lesson that day, right?  Not quite.  A laundry list of avoidable injuries are proof that my stubbornness knows no bounds.  I write this, even now, with a bag of frozen peas draped over a swollen ankle.  Just another POP! to notch my belt; a not-so-friendly reminder from the Gods of Prudence that I still have a long way to go.

But with each snap, crackle, and pop, my stubbornness recedes.  These days, I rarely go inverted or rely on flexibility.  I guard my shoulder like it’s a map to Shangri-la.  I’ve got decades to go, and need this meat-wagon functioning.

I’ve noticed that the extent to which we learn from foolish mistakes seems directly related to the severity of their consequences.  Get your guard passed enough, and you might start framing more.  Get your foot ripped off in a heel hook, and you’ll tap like a typewriter the next time you play footsies.

I still joke with Steeil about the time he broke my knee with his face, and think of him every rainy day when it creaks and cracks.  And for the record, five days later I went on to fight and win.  By mounted gogoplata.  (Kidding, it was a Kimura.)

author: Peter McHugh

Professor Pete McHugh is the owner and Lead Instructor of McHugh BJJ in Mt. laurel NJ. He is a black belt under BJJ & MMA legend Ricardo Almeida.


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