Ode to the Cheesecake Assassin

From the highest of heights in combat sports, the UFC, to the pinnacle of daytime television, Bargain Hunt, my teacher, mentor and friend Danny Mitchell has always taken it directly to cats. Today, on the 15th of July his career as a professional MMA fighter comes to an end. This marks the culmination of a lifetime’s journey that began at the age of ten with tae kwon do. Traveling the world on the back of his combative acumen, he has competed in karate and kickboxing, full-contact stick fighting, judo, professional boxing, bare knuckle fighting, and wrestling.

Despite this drive to compete in every discipline that allows one to inflict pain upon others, he is, at heart, a jiu-jitsu fighter. To see the truth in this, one only has to watch a highlight of his spectacular submissions in the cage. Receiving his black belt at age twenty-seven, he has befuddled opponents with flying triangles, and tortured others with the rarely seen twister. With his long limbs and a seemingly photographic recall for technique (not to mention an obsessive-compulsive habit for notetaking) it isn’t a stretch to say that he was built for the Gentle Art.

This is my ode to Doncaster’s begotten son, the inimitable ‘Cheesecake Assassin’, and the indelible mark that he has left on my existence.

I first started training with Danny at the beginning of 2011. At that point I had already been on the mats for about twenty months, but looking back I was a very limited white belt. Like many who are reading this, I had quickly fallen in love with jiu-jitsu. I loved the positions, I loved the idea of beating others into submission, I loved using the gi; I loved the camaraderie with my training partners, I loved learning; I loved the feeling of awe that you were left with after a great session, I pretty much loved everything about it.My only issue was that I completely sucked!

There is always that one cat at your academy, everyone knows them, they just don’t get it. No matter how many times you show them something, they fuck it up. You humour them, in full knowledge that they are a lost cause. I was that dude.

This all began to change from the first session I took with Danny. In that inaugural class we explored the use of the kimura grip from half guard; opening the guard and using it to sweep. I was enamoured, both by the dude himself and his teaching methods. He taught what appeared to be simple techniques, they didn’t have eight complex steps to get to the final goal (this was the jiu-jitsu I had been accustomed to), and delivered it in a way that someone so devoid of skill such as myself was seamlessly able to pick it up.

I honestly could not believe it when we began to roll and I was able to immediately pull off the moves that I had been shown, it was a revelation. I really had no idea that jiu-jitsu could be delivered in such an effective fashion. As we prepared to begin rolling he asked me if I wanted to jump in with him for the first round, bear in mind that I had never sparred with one of my instructors before. My mind was officially blown.

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Promotion to blue belt in 2011

In the proceeding months he pulled me up kicking and screaming from the abyss of absolute suckage, and very soon I wasn’t that dude in class anymore. I wasn’t the guy that would just fall over from invisible sweeps, or capitulate without a fight, or fail to comprehend a technique no matter how many times it was demonstrated; no one was more shocked than me at this change. His teaching and approach to jiu-jitsu got me to blue belt in six months, which for so long had seemed like a distant dream.

I’d like to think that I’ve become a pretty proficient grappler since then!

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NAGA London 2015

In the years that have ensued, I have encountered many amazing and inspiring teachers. From my travels I have been lucky enough to train with some of jiu-jitsu’s most renowned and celebrated professors. But, I can honestly say that no one has a gift quite like Danny’s for imparting knowledge, his pedagogical prowess trumps that of anyone else. He has the unique ability to paint pictures with his words and create analogies that permanently lodge themselves into one’s consciousness (usually revolving around the intravenous consumption of flesh-eating opiate, Krokodil).

He is able to tailor lessons that benefit the whole spectrum of jiu-jitsu ability, essentially demonstrating the same techniques to the lowliest of white belts as well as killer purple belts and beyond, which is akin to teaching five-year-olds and university students in the same class. He is able to achieve this through an innate skill for differentiation, breaking techniques down to base level to facilitate the learning of novices while adding nuance incrementally based on a person’s skill, this ensures that everyone’s level is raised.

He is quick to correct mistakes and provide answers for those who have questions, but he fosters an environment where students are encouraged to learn independently. It is fair to say that I have borrowed liberally from his methods both on the mats and in the classroom.

Since that first lesson he has remained my favourite person to roll with, he is a veritable grappling chameleon, you have no idea what style you are going to be attacked with. We don’t have the opportunity to do it that often anymore, so when we do, I go all out and try and assassinate him. I realise this admission contravenes verse 337 of the unwritten doctrine of jiu-jitsu making me a heretic among purists. But, those who see this as disrespectful and haven’t themselves sought the admiration of their teacher by trying to murder them, are sorely lacking in ambition. Anyway, disrespectful or not, any attempt at doing so is entirely futile, and I am invariably humbled in a variety of ways; last time we rolled I was caught in a trilogy of differing one-armed chokes.

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Old-school tops off action rolling at the former, Caged Steel Gym.

To say that he is charismatic would be to completely undersell his personality, he cranks charisma up to the proverbial 11; looking like a council estate Jedi with his signature rat-tail and beige trackies, he is someone that you cannot help but want to be around. He is a natural leader, one that if he chose to wield his power for evil could have everyone drinking the Kool-Aid. I have never met anyone, who didn’t walk away from meeting him without thinking “that is a cool-ass mutha-fucker.”

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UFC Fight Night 48

Nothing can faze the Cheesecake Assassin – also akin to a Jedi Knight he doesn’t register fear or anger. When faced with the apocalypse, this is a man you want by your side, deadly with his hands, (worryingly) proficient with an array of weaponry, and seemingly unburdened by human emotion.

This is a cat who lives by the immortal words of Rowdy Roddy Piper: “When you think you have all the answers, I change the questions”. Case in point, the aforementioned appearance on the BBC’s Bargain Hunt.

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A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

This is also a jiu-jitsu black belt that bizarrely can be found chopping it up on the mic at some of Thorne’s famed Donk nights. For the uninitiated, Donk is a form of dance music that is profoundly unpalatable to anyone who hasn’t consumed at least seven pills. In what was undoubtedly a feat of amazing fortitude, I once witnessed him spitting over this painful cacophony of bouncy beats stone-cold sober.

I feel people throw around the idea, “jiu-jitsu saved my life”, far too freely. It’s a cute sentiment, but it sounds a lot like hyperbole to me. It might have stopped you from contracting type 2 diabetes from being such a fat whopper, but I doubt that it actually prevented your life force from expiring. Nevertheless, I know that jiu-jitsu has the potential to change lives because it literally changed mine, and that was down to Danny.

I had a very comfortable teaching position, there was a ladder with clear instructions of how to climb it, I could have sleepwalked my way into retirement. The skills I acquired from him, as well as watching how he lived his own life, showed me that there was so much more; he gave me an escape hatch.

In 2013 his jiu-jitsu emboldened me to quit my job and go to live in Rio to train and compete full-time. This experience has profoundly altered my direction and perspective on life. No longer was I willing to settle for anything that I didn’t love to do. Danny would never directly tell anyone to do anything, yet, I am just one of the plethora of students whom he has inspired to radically alter their lives in pursuit of their own personal goals.

He isn’t exactly sailing off into the sunset and will continue to drop knowledge on dudes at AVT, both in the gi and for fistycuffs inside the cage. But, he will be getting punched in the head a lot less, which is always a good thing.

So, it seems like the perfect time to say thank you to the man who has made my life unequivocally more awesome.

Beating up Kids

Is it ever ok to beat up children? As a high school teacher my job is dependent on avoiding that impulse. The law unequivocally sets in stone its unacceptability, even if the child in question is the fruit of your own loins. On the mats preying on the young is something that is most definitely frowned upon too. Although, jiu-jitsu offers ample opportunity for the opposite, I have spent an inordinate amount of time being beaten down and humbled by ‘mere children’; last year, I spent eight weeks on the shelf after having my ribs broken by a fourteen-year-old. In pro-wrestling, at last, I found a medium where it is perfectly acceptable to kick the shit out of kids, or at the very least simulate doing so.

Beginning my pro-wrestling training, I discovered very quickly that it’s something, which, on the whole appeals to young dudes. In comparison with BJJ which attracts both those who fear the mirror’s reflection and its daily promise of more wrinkles and grey hair as well as spritely young cats to whom immortality seems certain. Professional wrestling is the proverbial young-man’s game; training with young teens and being questioned on whether I own a ‘fidget spinner’ could not make me feel more old.

West Yorkshire based promotion UKW provides an excellent service in training young grapplers and getting them ready for the ring. Each month they put on their own junior show pairing young students with opponents of a similar experience level. This gives them an opportunity to hone their skills by performing in front of a small audience made up of family and friends. While definitely not a junior, I was looking for as much ring experience as possible and thus jumped at the invitation to perform on one such show when asked by my instructor.

I was to have a match with a trainee named Zenith, who at only fourteen-years-old already had two years of experience. An initial issue arose while planning the match, by virtue of the fact we were both heels – he was a ‘chicken-shit heel’ that relied upon nefarious antics to win, while, I played a badass heel that choked cats out. We essentially planned a glorified squash match – whereby I would handily beat him using my grappling-based move-set. He would use his underhanded tactics to get a couple of ‘hope’ spots in before I relieved him of his consciousness. I thought it was a concise little match that effectively told a story. Unfortunately, it was a story that nobody wanted to hear.

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Fourteen-year old Zenith doing his thing.

We were put in the main event of the show – which, as it turned out was a death kiss. The problem being, the penultimate contest had seen two talented high flying teens, who were going all out in an athletic back and forth contest, with acrobatics galore, and a clear hero and villain. The crowd ate up what was a really fun match. Watching in the back and knowing I was expected to follow that, I was consumed with impending dread.

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A difficult act to follow high-flyer Leon Blade.

I’d heard from a number of different sources, it was more difficult wrestling in front of a small audience – to me this seemed oxymoronic – less people should in theory mean less pressure. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I could viscerally feel the mood of the sparse crowd, and it was not positive. When people would comment on a crowd being ‘flat’, I had no real understanding of what this really meant – I certainly found out that night. The crowd of about twenty-five parents treated me with complete apathy. In an art form where success is predicated upon eliciting a reaction (positive or negative), it really doesn’t get any worse than that.

In hindsight, two bad guys wrestling, left no-one for the crowd to become invested in, they had just seen kids doing back-flips; watching a dude slowly contort another’s limbs failed to compel them in any meaningful way. Perhaps more importantly they had no interest in seeing a grown man aggressively beating up a helpless teenager!

Famed wrestling journalist / historian Dave Meltzer often refers to Terry Funk and his innate gift for sensing the mood of an audience. Funk was able to switch up matches on the fly, when he felt they weren’t resonating with those in attendance. He would ‘call an audible’ to his opponent and they would pursue another avenue to engage the crowd. That is all very well and good for the ole Funker, who has over fifty years of in-ring experience – I was in my second ever match and I was yet to acquire this skill. It didn’t take a wrestling savant like Funk to ascertain that my match was dying a death, but I just carried on and suffered through the entire thing conscious of the fact, yet unable to do anything about it.

Rather than acting magnanimously upon my ‘hard-fought’ victory, I cut a promo deriding my opponent and the crowd, who by this point I honestly despised. They still didn’t give a shit, in fact half of them left while I was in the middle of it. My self-esteem was literally in the toilet.

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Props to Darren Potts Wrestling Photography for the shots.

The biggest highlight of the night for me came when one of the young grapplers told his adversary to “smell my victory”. Unless his opponent was suffering from an acute form of Synaesthesia such a request would be physically impossible, but, nevertheless, it was a hilarious way to tell someone they’re a loser!

That night was definitely a learning curve, a resounding failure, no doubt the first of many in my foray into the world of professional wrestling. I certainly discovered that beating up kids is not as satisfying as one would imagine.

Check it out below in all its glory:

BJJ + Pro-Wrestling = Inner Turmoil

Taking up professional wrestling at the advanced age of thirty-three, I certainly had no aspirations to reach the lofty heights of other renowned grapplers who didn’t start until they were in their thirties like Bad News Allen, George ‘the Animal’ Steele and most famously Diamond Dallas Page. As previously noted, this whole endeavour was the culmination of a childhood goal, after which, I would be back in my kimono and the business of competitive grappling.

My original intention was just the one match, but, that quickly changed as I discovered how awesome it was performing in front of an audience and the creative freedom I was afforded within the medium. My goal expanded, I wanted to do as many shows as I could, and in the quickest possible time, before my already battle-weary body was completely decimated from the constant ‘bumps’ that were required. With that in mind, I vowed to wrestle whenever and wherever possible.

I had found a home at UKW where I was gaining much need experience (eight matches up to this point), but had no idea how to get booked on other shows. I sought advice from my fellow ‘workers’ on how one might get noticed by different promoters. I was given a number of tips. The most resounding of which was, you have to promote yourself; I needed to establish a social media presence – that of Francis Darwin. My first port of call was setting up a Facebook page – this is where I ran into trouble.

Sat in front of my Mac, about half-way through the creation of said page, my cauliflower ears began to burn, lit up by an unmistakeable sensation of ignominy. Why was I being punished with such an acute sense of shame? Its origin, I discovered after some thought lay at the feet of my gimmick, or at least its implications; Francis Darwin was essentially me, albeit an ego-maniacal version. In creating this page to promote a character that was primary a jiu-jitsu athlete, I felt like I was denigrating something that I love. I didn’t want to feel like I was becoming a parody of myself or disrespecting the art form which had completely changed my life, making a mockery of it as a vehicle to ‘get over’. I didn’t want to be thought lesser of by the wider jiu-jitsu community.

This inner struggle promptly inspired me to immediately stop what I was doing and sketch out this blog post in the hope that it would be cathartic. It wasn’t.

Now, it is worth noting, that my attitude towards pro-wrestling, its norms and time honoured traditions is hardly one of irreverence, I love wrestling’s little idiosyncrasies (and there are many!), but I had come from a very different world. One where, if you put yourself out there online, extolling to all what an incredibly bad dude you are, it wouldn’t take long before most people thought you were a complete penis-hole. In jiu-jitsu your ego is put in check from the moment you first step on the mats and continues to be regulated every single day by cats of all shapes and sizes choking you into submission. Conversely, a healthy sized ego seems like a prerequisite to achieving success in pro-wrestling. This fascinating dichotomy between pro-wrestling and fighting, and my uneasy relationship to it is something that I intend to explore further.

I realise that I am probably being completely pedantic about all of this, but, we all know how this ends, first Facebook and the next thing I know I will be introducing myself as Francis.

Anyway I did it – I created the page – if you would all be so kind as to ‘Like’ it, it will hopefully go some way in helping me progress in my pro-wrestling mission or at the very least it will do wonders in satiating Mr Darwin’s ever-growing ego.