Defining the Polish Grappler

It is true there is no one-size-fits-all in jiu-jitsu. Individual preferences for guard, variations of passing, differences in strength, stamina, explosiveness, and mobility ensure that styles differ wildly from person to person. Nevertheless, there appears to be a certain commonality inherent in Polish grapplers, a shared ethos, bathed in a righteous belligerence that one must never say die.

This anecdote, I feel, goes some way to sum up this hypothesis. During a session at Warsaw’s Academia Gorila, I witnessed a blue belt refuse to tap to the kimura of a higher belt (I had my own experience with this particular blue belt; seemingly, gifted grip strength from the devil himself, he’d strangled me mercilessly last year. It was somewhat depressing to return and find him sporting the same colour belt). His shoulder made an array of stomach-churning cracking sounds before the higher belt responsibly let go of the hold.

The blue belt ruminating the following day on not being able to move his arm, gleaned there were two important lessons to be learned for everyone involved. Firstly, you need to concede before something pops. Secondly, don’t ever let go of a submission until your opponent taps!


Fighting for my Life in Warsaw

Typing these words is an arduous process. Right now, I feel like complete shit. I am being crippled by an unbelievable fatigue. I have zero motivation. My whole body is cramping intermittently. My thoughts are consumed with self-pity. I have once again fallen prey to the self-inflicted condition of over-training.

In my last piece I wrote:

“I think I have a developed a more sustainable relationship with jiu-jitsu, my body is not being continually ravaged and broken down, nor is my every waking thought invaded.”

It has taken less than a week for these words to become completely obsolete.

There is, of course, a reason for this: a return to Poland to train with my good friend and owner of Warsaw’s Academia Gorilla, Marcin Polczyk. I had only trained in the kimono a handful of times this year, but, for the next ten days, it would again become my second skin.


The stereotype of the brutish Polish grappler who relies solely on strength and seeks to divorce one’s limbs from their person is a pervasive one, at least in my part of the world. However, the truth of this can be called into question. Yes, every single round of sparring will involve your head on a chopping block, forcing you to fight for your life to dislodge it. But, no, this will not be based solely on brute strength – this notion is doing an incredible disservice to the high level of skill, efficiency and dedication I have witnessed on these mats. The studious application of technique coupled with the innate desire to fight for everything and never tap, ever, seems to be an endemic quality to the grapplers here.

Having to roll round after round with cats like this was going to result in nothing less than a beaten up and broken down version of me (which occurred very quickly, as it happens). It would be balls to the wall, and that was all there was to it.

By the second day of training, my descent had already begun, aches and pains called to me from my tiring body. I had been made acutely aware of the dreaded gi rust. I struggled to pry off the forceful and unrelenting hands that were constantly attaching themselves to my lapels, leaving me tethering on the brink of unconsciousness on multiple occasions.

My third session, the advanced class, was a euphemism for: everyone here is an assassin (yes, even the white belts).  After guard-retrieval drills, newly minted black-belt Marcin informed us –  sporting the sort of smile that indicates pure sadism – we would be rolling continuously for the remaining forty-five minutes of the class. The only possible respite would come if you were submitted, whereby, you would have precious seconds to suck up some oxygen while you awaited another submission to jump back in the trenches.

There was to be no break for me. I spent the entirety at war with fellow purple belt, (my new friend) Paweł Żochowski. While there were no submissions, I was, for the most part, fighting for my life. My seemingly indefatigable interlocker was able to slice and dice my guard, time after time, as my own power level began to deplete. I thought, I finally had it at about the forty-minute mark, when exhausted of all other options, I managed to catch the most bastardly submission of them all, the wrist lock. The fact his hand was pointed in an entirely obtuse angle did not inspire him to capitulate, no, he gutted it out until he was able to free himself. After that, I was done, clinging to half-guard, I impatiently waited for the clock to count down.


Returning to the academy the following morning – to take part in what was reassuringly called “Poranna grupa śmierci” (morning group of death). That day’s group included only the four of us. Pawel and Marcin, Brazilian brown belt, Carlos Sedlacek and myself. Rolling 6×6 minute rounds, the aptness of the name soon came to me, as I found myself in a moribund state. About half way through I began to struggle holding down the vomit, that seemed intent on violently ejecting itself from the pit of my stomach; the morning’s oats and peanut butter would not have coordinated overly well with the white of my kimono.

By the fifth-round my entire body had begun to cramp. Sat across from Pawel, our eyes met as we prepared for our second roll of the day together. Words were wholly unnecessary, as an unspoken consensus was reached – mutual respect was coupled with determined resignation that we would both push our exhausted bodies for another six minutes to get the tap that had so far eluded us. Of course, we fought for the entirety again without a clear victor, taking our total up to fifty-seven minutes without submission.

In the car leaving the academy, I experienced something new, bizarre and rather painful. I was attacked by stomach cramps (I hope it was cramp and not a hernia). Sitting bolt upright in a car seat and attempting frantically to push back the muscle that was protruding from my stomach was not an overly pleasurable experience. Anyone witnessing this absurd performance couldn’t have helped but consider me a fiend going through a particularly difficult withdrawal.

It feels awesome to be back in the kimono, but, it is abundantly clear that I have not developed the “sustainable relationship” with jiu-jitsu that I’d assumed. The seductive allure of the mats has once again left my body hating me. And, I am only three days in…





Loving Jiu-Jitsu Too Much

I am assuming that most of you reading this love Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But, have you ever arrived at your academy with a body which has been broken down by days of hard training, and thought ‘fuck this shit’? I have always lived life under the assumption that more of anything is better; however, I have come to see recently that under certain circumstances, the cliché: less is more, is actually a profound truth.

I really love jiu-jitsu and for the past eight years my daily existence has been consumed by it. Although, it wasn’t quite love at first sight, initially, I found it awkward, overly complex, and claustrophobia inducing. This was coupled with the fact you had to wear a weird outfit. But, it didn’t take long before I fell hard, its multi-faceted personality absorbed me; the way it seamlessly managed to function as a sport, a form of self-defence, and a beautiful art-form where one is able to creatively express themselves.

My life has revolved around it: training six days a week, studying matches, keeping abreast of the latest techniques, devouring magazines and books; spending all my disposable income on fresh new shit, and visualising possible mat-based scenarios while I should be working.

I was happy to give my heart to the mats; this was an unconditional love which ignored hurt and injury, agony and loss.

I wanted to spend as much of my time as possible in its sweet embrace. I had to get better. I had to acquire more techniques. I had to win medals. Logically I believed that the more time I spent training, the more skilled I would become. Like a jealous lover, I just knew that if I wasn’t on the mats somebody would take my place, they would be improving and I wouldn’t.

My desire was insatiable and even led me to quit my job to train full-time.

At the beginning of the year I made the decision to enter the bizarre and wonderful world of professional wrestling. Consequently, my ability to train jiu-jitsu became limited. It wasn’t the end of the affair, we weren’t going to be “taking a break”, but, we were certainly attempting a long distance relationship.

My new schedule afforded me the opportunity to train no-gi twice a week. This wasn’t easy. I missed spending time with all my dudes, I missed knowing, I was working towards the day that I received my black belt; I missed the “toxically masculine” environment and all the dick jokes; I missed being choked with my own clothing, and I missed my connection with the flow state that only jiu-jitsu could provide me.

As with any significant change, it was very alien at first. When I did train, I didn’t feel as sharp; while rolling, guys who I felt had no business doing so got the better of me (insert ego here!). I was riddled with self-doubt over my performance – which was compounded by recently returning from broken ribs – it felt like I was going backwards.

After a month or so, as I became acclimated to this new routine, something strange seemed to happen. I actually felt like I was getting better. I felt stronger, fresher and incredibly motivated.

Some of this can be attributed to the strength program that had been created for me (size being a prerequisite for pro-wrestling). For years, I had mistakenly followed the advice of Caio Terra: being a weakling was irrelevant, only techniques matters. This is sound advice if you are an anomie like Caio but well-meaning bullshit if you are the other 99 percent of the jiu-jitsu population. Although, the blame can hardly be laid at the feet of the pint-sized wizard. My blind adherence to this pseudo-philosophy should have been shattered after being bullied around for years by those stronger than me on the mats. Lifting heavy things seemed like an incredibly mundane act in comparison to rolling, so I simply didn’t bother. I loved jiu-jitsu not squatting.

Even with this addition, it sounds like an improbable paradox, how could one train less of a sport and actually improve? When I look at it objectively, training as much as I did, there was certainly a point of diminishing returns. While living in Rio, I would often train three-times a day, two sessions of hard rolling and an “essential” drill session (my body and I were often not on speaking terms). I was no spring chicken to boot, attempting this at the age of 30.

My overall enjoyment of training has radically changed. Now, every single session I am excited. I look forward to getting on the mats. I feel super fresh and inspired to learn. This is a stark contrast to how I used to feel. A number of times during the week I would arrive at training and be so tired that it was arduous even walking up the stairs. Worse still, I wouldn’t even want to go and had to force myself into my gi, resenting the fact. During these sessions I would invariably perform badly, grappling in an effete manner and get beaten down by cats. I would go home in a pit of depression, lamenting the decision of coming in the first place and convincing myself that my jiu-jitsu sucked beyond belief.

In hindsight, I spent a lot of time over-trained. Training was a chore. I had to go and that was it, I couldn’t let others get ahead or risk falling behind. Perhaps, this wasn’t actually a love affair, it was addiction. I was a fiend that put desire in front of well-being.

I think I have a developed a more sustainable relationship with jiu-jitsu, my body is not being continually ravaged and broken down, nor is my every waking thought invaded. For me, taking a step back has certainly reenergised and reinvigorated my love. I don’t need to train jiu-jitsu every day, nor am I jealous of those who do; there is more than enough jiu-jitsu love to go around! I actually think I am a better grappler now (without having actually competed this year, I have zero empirical evidence to back up my own hypothesis). Like all successful relationships, I have learned to really appreciate our time together as well as our time apart.