Everyone knows I love completive jiu-jitsu. It’s obvious after being in my presence for a short time because I never shut up about it. Talking about my grappling accolades is my favorite pastime.
But now, I own an academy, and my competition compulsion has shifted to my student’s success on the mats. And with the recent explosion of professional jiu-jitsu as a viable option, my ego and passion are driven by helping my students to achieve their goals of glory in some of the same arenas I dominated.
But most students are not blessed with the drive, physical attributes, and desire to chase their journey in that direction. Most of my students show up to do battle with themselves through the course of their long journey toward black belt solely on my mats, and the gratification from their journey often inspires me more.
My friend Jim has Parkinson’s disease. It’s a horrible affliction that affects the central nervous system leading to tremors, motor skills deficiency, and depression. Jim suffers significantly due to its hold on him.
He started with boxing private lessons but decided he wanted to do a jiu-jitsu tournament, to which I cautiously agreed. Jim is a very actively 61-year-old man despite his ailments and has a physique that puts most guys half his age to shame. But I always keep an eye on him. Because, sometimes he needs protection from himself, and as his coach, it’s my responsibility to keep him safe.
He previously trained BJJ and was taking classes regularly at my gym, so my assistant coaches and I agreed he was a special guy from day one. So, we were excited to let him conquer that next hurdle of a competition.
Jim is also a brilliant guy. He earned a BS from the General Motors Institute, an MBA from Cornell, and became an engineering professor at Wright State University after receiving his Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo School of Management. He also has a low-functioning autistic daughter that requires 24-hour care maintained by his wife and himself. Some of us complaining about our daily struggles should think twice before lingering on them.
The day of the tournament came, and Jim was ready. A local BJJ tournament is a marathon for a coach, especially when you are just starting. Kids begin at nine AM, and the action is typically nonstop till they finish. Then the adults start. Jim’s first match wasn’t until later in the afternoon, but he still showed up around eleven AM to support and help if needed. That’s just the type of person he is.
Like all my other first-time competitors, he was nervous. I always tell the newbies that feeling never goes away even after years of competing. But, the first time is always the hardest for everyone until they learn to contain its grasp.
The venue, a beautiful multisport facility recently constructed in one of the many modern suburban outposts surrounding the greater Tampa metropolitan area, was a welcomed change from the high school auditoriums I’ve grown accustomed to spending Saturdays coaching in. This place even had a passable concession counter and a bar selling cold beer.
Local tournaments are not the best at matching up opponents. They don’t have enough competitors to fill their brackets with players in the same rank, age, and weight classes, and Jim would, unfortunately, fall victim to these flaws. There aren’t too many 60+, 190-pound blue belts to go around, a concern I had from the start. But Jim exhibits the throw caution the wind attitude that coaches long for. Show me a competitor with the self-belief that his opponent is only an obstacle to overcome no matter how unbalanced the odds, and I’ll turn them into a champion. In this case, though, I was worried. But Jim was never deterred.
That old man stricken with Parkinson’s had six matches against guys half his age, one against an opponent I would have chuckled under my breath, shaking my head in concern if I had to face. The dude was barely 30 and an athletic specimen with pink hair and prison tats.
He lost every match but the last, a consolation prize he won via disqualification, but he never quit fighting for every sweep, takedown, and guard pass for every second he was on the mat. It was a testament to who he is. A warrior that has looked death and the eye and replied, “Not today” time and time again.
The week prior was our team belt ceremony, and my staff agreed Jim earned his blue belt, but we withheld it so he could compete as a white belt in the tournament the following week. I decided I’d present it to him after he competed the following weekend, win, lose, or draw.
At the end of his final match, I hid his new belt under my shirt and tied it around his waist while he stood on top of the awards podium. Jim cried and whispered thanks in my ear while a crowd of cheering onlookers clapped. He had become a crowd favorite early in the day.
Building jiu-jitsu world champions and UFC fighters is every coache’s dream, and I believe I will accomplish both before I am done. I’m too good at this shit not to. But students like Jim genuinely exemplify the power of jiu-jitsu.
Jim has thanked me many times for helping him get his life back. But, the thanks should go to him. I am just a regular guy who worked as a bartender for 20 years, training whenever possible, and I’ve done some amazing things in the process. But having a man I admire as much as Jim look at me with tears in his eyes is worth more than any medal in my trophy case. I’d trade them all to change one more life.
Jiu-jitsu’s power is beautiful, and I am honored to be able to wield its might.