I do think it is completely unnecessary to bring politics onto the mats. Jiu-jitsu should provide escapism from the continued polarisation of our societies.
However, that may no longer be possible.
In the run-up to the Brazilian presidential election, a number of jiu-jitsu practitioners and elder statesmen of the art backed the far-right politician – now president-elect – Jair Bolsonaro. It is easy to criticise their outspoken endorsement of this abhorrent individual. One could certainly question their morals. Their support for this demagogue shows, at the very least, a willingness to normalise his hateful rhetoric. Nevertheless, they certainly have every right to share their political opinions.
With that being said, using one’s position within the jiu-jitsu community as a platform to espouse a political view is one thing, but, the act of awarding an ‘honorary’ black belt to an unworthy bigot is something else entirely. I say this in no uncertain terms: Robson Gracie awarding a black belt to Jair Bolsonaro was an affront to jiu-jitsu.
Unfortunately, I learned a long time ago that the universal principles of jiu-jitsu are highly negotiable. The respect, the trust and the vaunted notion of family can be jettisoned in an instant. Akin to all areas of life, hypocrisy runs rampant.
One thing that remained sacrosanct was the black belt. This was something that set BJJ apart from other martial arts. To receive a black belt was recognition that you possessed the requisite skill to perform the art at its highest level. It was incontrovertible proof of your determination, passion and work ethic; the accumulation of countless hours on the mats, across a span of years. The black belt was an illuminating symbol of your unique achievement.
Over the course of a decade, I have given everything to jiu-jitsu. I am fiercely proud of the brown belt I have earned during that time. It has been the most challenging undertaking of my life, yet, one that has rewarded me in innumerable ways. This one contemptible act cannot take that away, but I do feel it undermines it. Gifting anyone – let alone this man – the highest of all accolades undermines the entire system. It is truly ridiculous.
The jiu-jitsu community should not ignore this ignominious act. Even in the most charitable of readings, Robson Gracie made a huge error of judgement. This has set a terrible precedent. Despite his venerated status – one of BJJ’s few red belts – his decision needs to be critiqued by all those who have embraced the grind and earned a belt in jiu-jitsu.
I’m not just disappointed, I’m angry. We all should be.
Anyone who has tried to teach jiu-jitsu to children will know it is no easy feat. Between minuscule attention spans, uncontrollable levels of energy, and the insatiable desire to poke, grab and beat one another, things can be tough. But, have you ever had to deal with a ninja dad?
Exploring more jiu-jitsu weirdness, I caught up with Pat Sheridan, who along with his brother John, own the Irish kimono brand, Sub Only. And together, they run one of Dublin’s most successful academies, Satori jiu-jitsu; recently moving into a huge new spot (which just happens to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing academies I’ve ever visited).
Working with young jiu-jiterios is where Pat’s passion really lies, he has created, from scratch, a successful jiu-jitsu curriculum for children and teens which is now one hundred and fifty members strong. Things weren’t always like this, though.
Pat began to teach kids’ classes as a young blue-belt. He spearheaded a program at another academy, where fifteen young students attended regularly.
The debacle began one Wednesday afternoon, after a dude in his early fifties signed his son up, this was no ordinary parent, this was a ninja dad.
After a few weeks, it became abundantly clear that this cat had studied a martial art before. At first, he would show up fifteen minutes early to ask questions. Then, he began to arrive even more prematurely to practice techniques with his son.
One afternoon, he demonstrated one of his own throws, “not a legitimate throw, it was crazy stuff,” Pat explains. He took hold of the boy’s sleeves, crossed them over, stepped his hips to the side and dumped his trusting progeny —who had no means of breaking his fall— face first into the tatami. This wasn’t something that would work on a resisting adult, but to a child who was just learning to break-fall it was sheer brutality. Following this incident, he was advised to stick to techniques from the program.
It didn’t stop there, though, explains Pat: “he would ask, ‘Are you allowed to eye gouge?’ and I would be like, ‘No, you’re not allowed to eye gouge!’ Then he’d be like, ‘Are you allowed a half-fist punch in the throat?’ and I was like, ‘No you are not allowed a half-fist punch in the throat!’”. By now it was obvious there was a problem.
It wasn’t long before Pat began to dread Wednesday’s kids’ class. The session began at 6 o’clock; the dude would arrive a full hour early. A couple of times he even turned up wearing what looked to be a karate kimono. Completely oblivious, he proudly sported a brown belt.
One week, while ‘teaching’ his son, out of nowhere he ‘ran’ up the matted wall, taking two or three vertical steps upwards before pushing off and landing back on his feet. The little dude was spellbound; he had just seen real life magic from his own dad.
Pat reflects: “If you don’t deal with little problems at the beginning, they manifest into a big problem. At this point this was a huge-ass problem.” This was Vesuvius beginning to stir.
The next week, upping his game, he ran laterally along the wall for a couple of steps. Hardly David Belle but to his wide-eyed son, he was a superhero.
Returning the following week, he was determined to go for it. “I think he had talked so much nonsense to his kid that he had become delusional and was pretty sure that he was a master of the craft,” Pat says. “Just what craft it was, was undecided!”
He stepped onto the mats with a look of cold determination, convinced he was the second coming of the Shogun Assassin. He took a short run up and hurled himself at the wall. Taking two vertical steps up before throwing all of his weight backwards, attempting –what could be surmised– a backflip.
Alas, there was to be no backflip that day. Ninja dad landed on his head.
The onlookers of this uniquely idiotic act fell into a shocked silence, no one moved or said a word until the guy unsteadily picked himself up. While not dead, he was clearly in shock. Yet, with the conviction only earned through a lifetime of moronic self-deception, he attempted to play it off like compressing his vertebrae was the real intention.
At this point it had to stop. Pat explains, “I had to tell him, we enjoy having your kid here and he is doing great, but you’re after killing yourself and you’re not even supposed to be in the class. We have to worry about the kids not you.” He took this as an insult.
The victim of the story was the man’s son, a young student who enjoyed learning jiu-jitsu, and playing games with his friends. The problem was, the malicious and farcical techniques being taught to him at home, were beginning to have a detrimental effect on his training. “Who does the kid listen to? His coach or his dad? Obviously, he thinks his coach is great,” explains Pat, “but his dad at home is teaching punches in the throat and eye gouges.”
The next session the eccentric father had been convinced to wait in the parents’ room. On this afternoon, his son saw the opportunity to do one of the extra-curricular techniques he’d been taught. Performing the aforementioned, arms crossed death throw. “I will never forget seeing it happen, the kid looked like he fell out of a building, the kid landed and his leg was beside his ear, like a chicken wing up beside his head.”
As soon as the child being thrown hit the mat he began to shriek; obviously, out of fear the student who executed the throw started to scream, as well. This immediately brought dad charging onto the mats screaming, ‘what the fuck happened to my kid?’
In the worst of all situations, Pat was forced to perform three tasks at once: tend to the injured child, calm down dad who was all red-eyed with rage, spit flying from his mouth; and manage the rest of the class, who by now, were all crying in unison.
Somehow, he managed to maintain his professionalism. He led the apoplectic dad –by the arm– back into the parents’ room to calm him down. “I was in shock, I thought no kid was coming back,” Pat recalls.
Fortunately, on returning to the mats it was evident there was no serious injury, the elasticity of youthful limbs had spared the student from any real damage. Nevertheless, twenty minutes in and the class was officially done – the guy got his son and left.
The other parents were understanding, commending Pat on how well he had handled the situation. There wasn’t to be any long-term negative consequences stemming from the incident.
You would be hard-pressed to imagine a more dire scenario for a teacher, but this incident taught Pat some invaluable lessons. Lessons which helped form the backbone of the successful program he runs today:
“Control your atmosphere, promote an ethos, have a blueprint for the way you do your classes, make sure it’s tried and tested, and stick to it, otherwise you’ll have a back-flipping ninja in your club.”
I have met some of the most interesting, intelligent and compassionate people while training BJJ. But, I’m sure you will agree, jiu-jitsu can attract some bizarre individuals, and on occasion the mats bear witness to some all-out weirdness.
I sat down with my coach, recently retired UFC veteran, Danny “Cheesecake Assassin” Mitchell to break down some of the more peculiar experiences he’d had in a lifetime in the martial arts.
One incident that stood out was the occurrence of the oft-fabled gym invasion.
On a grey morning in Doncaster, Danny — then an eighteen-year-old blue belt — was teaching a small class of students. A “pretty jacked up guy” walked through the door, eying up the proceedings. After delivering his technique (a triangle choke from guard), he approached the newcomer assuming, naturally that here was a prospective member. After introducing himself, he was met with a rather unexpected response, “this is shit,” the bald-headed newcomer belligerently stated. “What do you mean?” questioned Danny. “It’s fucking bullshit, this doesn’t work, I’d smash my way out of that,” the man replied.
The situation escalated quickly from there. Unsurprisingly offended, Danny offered the unbeliever the opportunity to test his hypothesis. The antagonist didn’t need asking a second time, sprinting onto the mats and lunging at the, then young grappler. Not wasting the chance to prove the efficiency of his jiu-jitsu, Danny quickly put him into closed guard, throwing up his long legs and sinking in a triangle. I would posit, this is where the dude began to seriously regret his life choices.
Like the drowning man as panic sets in, he soon became desperate. “He used his fingers and was literally gauging my face – putting his hands in my eyes and shit like that,” remembers Danny.
Ensuring the choke was as tight as possible, Danny under-hooked a leg to prevent being slammed. With zero chance of escape the man’s bald noggin began to swell, veins protruded violently, the unrelenting squeeze deprived him of the life-affirming flow of oxygen. Akin to jiu-jitsu’s belts the colour of his head changed incrementally from white to blue before ending up at purple. After this final promotion he took a well-deserved trip to Snooze Town.
The stunned class turned to Danny for some clarification to what the hell was going on; encouraging them to carry on rolling, he dragged the unconscious body unceremoniously to the edge of the mats. Awaking from his forced slumber, the guy unsteadily got to his feet, leaving without another word.
Pondering why this ever happened, why did this guy come to his gym of all places? Danny doesn’t think that he was intentionally sought out. At the time MMA was in its infancy in the U.K. and Danny was the proverbial “skinny youth”; hardly an imposing figure. He explains “Maybe he thought he’d come to some MMA class and he thought we’re all going to be punching each other and we’re rolling around on the floor and he thought it was a bit shit.”
Randomly, years later, on a night out, Danny ran into his bald challenger, who happened to be working behind the bar. There was to be no repeat (being brutally choked usually rids one of their misconceptions about jiu-jitsu!) as he hooked Danny up with free drinks the entire night. “Sorry for getting off on the wrong foot,” he apologetically noted. Perhaps, the understatement of all understatements.
In the battle of jiu-jitsu against all-out idiocy, there can only be one winner.