Becoming a Part-Time Grappler

I have been training jiu-jitsu for nearly eight years now –  for the bulk of that time I was lucky enough to have trained everyday, like most cats who find this wonderful sport, my desire was unquenchable. At the age of thirty I sold everything I owned and quit my full-time job as a high school teacher, to live in Brazil and train full-time.

For the past three and a half years, I have worked intermittently to finance my jiu-jitsu, living on the absolute minimum, refusing to buy anything but the most essential of items. My sole focus was training, traveling and competing, striving to better myself through the art; to say that I defined myself through jiu-jitsu would be an understatement. I have a plethora of hobbies and interests but jiu-jitsu literally changed the direction of my life.

Now, I have decided to take a step back and become the proverbial part-time grappler as I pursue something else that I have always loved.

I had fallen in love with pro-wrestling at the age of six, at the time I had not even seen a match, I became enamoured after stumbling upon a copy of the official WWF magazine at a friend’s house, it must have been just after Wrestlemania VI, as I remember seeing images of the Hulkster and the Ultimate Warrior. To a little dude that loved Superman, seeing two real life jacked superheros on the pages in front of me, meant I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t until Royal Rumble 1991 that I remember seeing any live action. I watched the whole show so many times, I could quote Gorilla Monson and Rowdy Roddy Piper’s commentary verbatim.

Pro-wrestling was something that I had never outgrown and continued to follow through the formative stages of my life, childhood, parental breakdown, awkward teen years, the death of loved ones, university, the breakdown of relationships and fully fledged adulthood. Name an important period of my life and I could tell you exactly what was going on in wrestling at the time.

I had an epiphany during Wrestlemania weekend last year. It occurred to me, how could I love pro-wrestling as much as I do without ever having tried it? As ridiculous as this sounds, pro-wrestling had been my inspiration to start grappling in the first place, jiu-jitsu felt just like the front-room wrestling sessions of my childhood where I attempted to force friends into submission with Rick ‘the Model’ Martel’s Boston crab. I concluded that never having attempted to learn this craft was a sad state of affairs. I made a decision that afternoon that I would need to have at least one match.

This wasn’t to be a complete farewell to jiu-jitsu, I would still be able to get onto the mats a couple of times a week teaching and training no-gi. But, to make a real go of this, I would be spending most of the week in the squared circle learning to ‘bump’, ‘sell’, and get ‘heat’, sadly, this wouldn’t give me any time to throw on the gi.

Ultimately, making this decision wasn’t easy, on one hand this is something that had been a dream since childhood, but, the kimono isn’t just an item of clothing used to facilitate the strangling of one’s friends, it is something that I use as a vehicle to express myself.  The thought of life without it, if only for the short term is thoroughly alien to me, it is something I will miss implicitly as I attempt to acquire the skills necessary to simulate beating people up.

This most definitely isn’t the end, the world-spanning adventures of Tales from Deep Half will continue, albeit on a part-time basis.




Competing BJJ in Brazil

Part 6: Grapplers are Weird

During my time in Brazil I spent many a weekend hauled up in huge gymnasiums and sports halls. This resulted in the mass consumption of terrible acai, and sitting through endless hours of jiu-jitsu whereby all but the most sublime guard passes, sweeps and submissions eventually faded into obscurity.

A typical tournament day with your team can last a resolve-testing twelve hours, from the kids who compete early doors through to master white-belts who demonstrate their unique brand of grappling right at the death. During this time, guaranteed you will bear witness to a whole host of funky shit.

Black belts wear what they want

When you are a veteran black belt and your cauliflower face bares the scars of a thousands war-torn battlefields where you waded through a sea of dispatched kimono-clad corpses, nobody is going to tell you what you can and cannot wear, regardless of how ridiculous you may look. This includes Havaianas with socks, wrapping yourself up in a leopard print blanket, or even rocking dress shoes to warm up in.


When you’re a black belt you are also free to announce to the world that you are indeed a badass who has achieved this highest of accolades. So, if you want to rock a shirt with a black belt on, that’s cool; matching bracelet, no doubt; fitted cap with the black belt printed on that piece, no fucking problem. You want to take it to the next level and stick a black belt on your glasses, go ahead, no one is going to say shit to you!

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‘Sweep him you son of a bitch’

The impassioned and somewhat crazed nature of Brazilian crowds is well documented – jiu-jitsu tournaments are no different, which is one of the things that makes competing in Brazil compared to everywhere else so special. This craziness is predominantly positive but it can overflow into critique, anger and even extreme vitriol when directed at athletes from rival teams or an official who makes a bad call.

Critique of the other in a sporting context is the natural order of things, and jiu-jitsu is no different in this respect. However, the derisive nature in which some instructors and teammates coach from the side-lines can at times be bewildering. I for one would struggle to find a modicum of strength to pitch that last-ditch effort after being lambasted for being a ‘filho da puta’.

One of my friends insisted on calling everyone ‘mulher’, somehow he assumed that using this gender pronoun as a pejorative would will one on to an inspired victory, it didn’t.

No Germophobes Allowed

Over the summer I saw someone throw up in the bullpen, it was as inconspicuous as one could hope given the circumstances, the dude in question ejected a little watery vomit at the side of the railings and scarpered pronto. I seemed to be the only one who noticed. This was not the grossest thing that I witnessed in the bullpen, I became aware of a curious phenomenon, competitors that felt no shame in hocking up and firing big fat, phlegm filled greenies onto the floor. This was repugnant on some many levels not least the fact that I had to use the very same cold concrete floor to carve out some semblance of a warm-up.

When I first began training in Brazil I was shocked by teammates who would blow their nose directly into their kimonos between rounds. Although, it didn’t take too long to become comfortable with the practice, eventually it became normalised to such an extent that I began doing it myself. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between one’s own bodily fluids and that of random dudes’; expelling snot-ridden spit onto an area where other dudes would come into direct contact with it, was just straight nasty!

Sectarian Conflict?

Coming from the secular land mass of the British Isles it never ceases to baffle me the level of religiosity that finds its way into jiu-jitsu competition in Brazil. Personally, I feel those athletes who so fervently thank God in-victory, should be thanking their coaches and their teammates. Nevertheless, each and every tournament, you will find athletes praying, and making the sign of the cross prior to their match, hopeful of Jesus’ intercession in their respective contests. I imagine an omnipresent God would take a great deal of interest in jiu-jitsu.


This belief in a metaphysical helping hand makes perfect sense when you consider, Brazil has the largest Catholic population of any country in the world, a staggering 130 million people. This is coupled with the evangelical church which now accounts for 22 percent of the population after years of exponential growth. In this sense the mats of Brazil’s jiu-jitsu tournaments foster the true spirit of ecumenism – different denominations gathered together praising their God in (relative) harmony.

Although, it would be interesting to poll the data to see which interpretation of God’s word proves the dominant one on the mats, maybe the analysis of such data could prove once and for all which is the correct path to true salvation.


Amassing a Jiu-Jitsu Army

Sunday afternoon in Warsaw, Poland, I found myself being driven out of the city by brown belt and owner of Academia Gorila, Marcin Polczyk, we were heading to one of his affiliate clubs for a spot of afternoon training. The Sabbath is usually reserved as my day of rest, but the promise of a post-rolling BBQ was not something one should squander.

I took in the idyllic Polish countryside, before pulling up to what was a busy lake, full of children and adults, spending their afternoon, picnicking, playing ball games, or paddling in the water. I couldn’t spot an academy or anything to facilitate jiu-jitsu in the immediate proximately. When, on closer inspection I noticed a large set of jigsaw mats smack-bang in the middle of the sand next to the water. The mats which were populated with 15 or so gi-clad men and women created quite the eyesore.


In 2012 whilst only a blue belt, Marcin established Academia Gorila, its genesis was not a premeditated decision to create one of Poland’s most successful academies (which it has become) but one borne of necessity. He had a circle of friends who would meet up daily and train, they had attempted without success to find an academy that worked for them; at that stage there was nothing on offer that matched their approach to jiu-jitsu.

As this circle of friends began to grow, he felt like the decision was taken out of his hands, they desperately needed a place of their own. He couldn’t find any reason why he shouldn’t start his own academy, so he did. Marcin’s approach to life is wholly pragmatic; he explains: “If you want to do something, it’s easy, you just have to start”.

At that time, he was humble enough to know that his Jiu-Jitsu was somewhat lacking. He was well aware that his group needed somebody that they could learn from, which is why he paid higher belts from the beginning. One of Poland’s top competitors, Jędrek Loska was the perfect fit. Loska, a multiple time Polish champion who had spent a number of years living and teaching the sport to children in Abu Dhabi, he provided a wealth of knowledge and shared the same vision of jiu-jitsu.

Originally it wasn’t intended to become his livelihood as he owned and ran a restaurant. “It wasn’t for money, it was nice to have our own place, training with your best friends on the mat.”, he explained. But the academy grew quickly as people liked the atmosphere, they started to bring their friends and very soon the original place they had rented became too small.

Looking today at the size of the academy which is situated in a prime spot in the middle of Poland’s beautiful capital, it isn’t easy to spot its humble beginnings, as seemingly hundreds of people come and go throughout the day taking advantage of the multiple jiu-jitsu, no-gi, Muay Thai and cross-fit classes. It would be natural to assume that it had come quickly and easily, but, you would be remiss to jump to this conclusion.

Marcin grew up in a post-communist Warsaw, where the residual effects of that time can still be acutely felt. Marcin explains that “to make business possible you need a big academy, as payment for services are not very much, you need a lot of numbers – in order to make a profit and run it as a successful business”. A bigger place, meant more marketing and his insistence on quality meant paying more coaches.


What has really made Gorila unique is its system of affiliation, which isn’t really an affiliation in the tradition sense of the word, it is more akin to an ethical jiu-jitsu movement. There are currently ten academies from Warsaw and its surrounding countryside which have come together under the banner, there are no financial ties, contracts; payments for seminars or a money spinning standardized gi system that bind them together. Marcin explains that he loves jiu-jitsu, and wants to see its growth in Poland, “It is easier to make it stronger when you aren’t taking any (financial) benefits from it”, he explains. “We are not asking people for anything, you just have to be cool guys”.

At the beginning they began by adding people that they were already friends with – then they started to talk with people from the jiu-jitsu scene. He provided an anecdote about how one of his affiliations came about, just through talking to a fellow competitor at a tournament, “he had the same goals, I asked if he wanted to be down and that was it.”

There is no laundry list of rules that the academies have to live and die by, the Gorila association works in the philosophical tradition of John Stuart Mill, Marcin explains “You can do what you want as long as you are not harming anyone else”.

Whilst not asking for anything he is keen to proliferate an ethos of equality, and getting down with the Gorila comes with a wealth of benefits. There is a sharing of tuition between the academies, Marcin himself is insistent upon high standards of teaching and learning so takes an active role in visiting the other academies. He advocates learning from one another, and is insistent on the team not becoming an echo chamber for his own ideas. He explains, “There is some much knowledge and different perspectives on jiu-jitsu, this knowledge we want everyone to share”.

Perhaps, the most important thing this association provides is the advice on how to run a business, Marcin has a proven business acumen having run a successful restaurant prior to his academy, and has the knowledge how to live and prosper from jiu-jitsu, which is something that he wants to share with his affiliates. “Our reference is our academy, it has been going four years and is one of the biggest gyms in Poland, which has some of the best Jiu-Jitsu in Europe, so that is something”. There is no denying the success of this model, at their last graduation there was over 250 students on the mats.

Surely, the next move would be expansion, moving out into Europe, but this is something that Marcin is hesitant about, concerned that growth would limit the contact and lessen the friendship mentality, which is the opposite of what he stands for. Marcin’s goal is that he wants to make Jiu-Jitsu bigger in Poland and attract more people to the sport, but, that doesn’t mean having a monopoly with the association.


Back to the lake, I didn’t end up getting the BBQ I had been promised. But, this was one of the most fun Sunday evenings that I can remember, 90 minutes of hard-training, making friends, sharing concepts and techniques, laughing and joking; this exemplified the spirit of Gorila.