Jiu-Jitsu Belts and Friendships Must be Earned

Greater than any title I won [are] the friendships I’ve made through Jiu-Jitsu – Caio Terra.

I came across the above quote by Caio Terra before attending my first Jiu-Jitsu class. The prospect of making friends through Jiu-Jitsu wasn’t at all factored into my decision to enroll at Art of Jiu-Jitsu in Costa Mesa, California. 

While enrolling my son Jackson at the academy, I spotted an elderly gentleman—my best guess put him at 50—doing warmups with a blue belt tied around his waist. I knew enough about the ranking system to understand the blue belt is a lower belt. At the ripe old age of 40, I figured if that old geezer could train, what was stopping me? On the spot, I filled out some paperwork and enrolled with my son.

What immediately became clear to me when I started studying Jiu-Jitsu was all my cardio and strength training over the years was insufficient preparation for what I encountered on the mats. I had never engaged in any activity that made me work so hard. Fighting for my life made my heart feel like it was going to explode from my chest. 

As a result of juggling my career and family, I could manage to train two times a week at night. But when AOJ started a 6 a.m. fundamentals class, it allowed me to attend class three times a week. If I trained before my wife Jamie was out of bed, I figured she couldn’t hold it against me. Jamie didn’t understand why I was so insistent on training Jiu-Jitsu. It ran counter to my personality. I have never been a fan of being touched, but here I was rolling around with other people three times a week and loving it. 

There was only a handful of our training at 6 in the morning, and I was the only white belt. I spent the better part of two years getting creamed. Looking back, I had ample reasons to quit. I’m shocked I didn’t. I continued to work hard at something I wasn’t very good at. My ribs, shoulders, and neck constantly hurt, but I was committed. I wouldn’t be deterred.  

One day, I partnered up with Johnny Castanha, a blue belt who’d just returned from neck surgery. While practicing the drill, Johnny and I realized how much we had in common—he was 40 and a recovering alcoholic and drug addict like me. And, like me, he was doing his best to train while maintaining family responsibilities. We immediately clicked, even started a podcast, Best Frenemies. We coined the name Dawn Patrol for our class, which would never be the same again. 

We immediately started recruiting students to Dawn Patrol. “Have you heard about Dawn Patrol? Let me tell you about it.” We proselytized to anyone who’d listen. We had a Dawn Patrol patch made to give out to students who regularly trained with us. We were like pitchmen for some pyramid scheme. I would look at photos of the night classes and get jealous of how many people attended those classes. 

I often recalled Terra’s quote about the friendships he made in Jiu-Jitsu, but I believed that Johnny was an anomaly and finding a friend wasn’t my goal. At this point, I was a blue belt, so I only had three more promotions until the promised land of the black belt. It wasn’t about friendships. I had my eye on the prize: the black belt. 

While the good times in Jiu-Jitsu certainly outweigh the bad, there were bad times, too. There was a year that I didn’t submit anyone. I was still at the bottom of the class, and a good roll was one in which I didn’t tap. I began to question what I was doing. I wasn’t getting any better, and I was 43 years old. 

On the verge of hanging up my gi and blue belt for good, I confided my discouragement with a regular Dawn Patroller, Wendell Wong, another over-40 student who had trained longer than me. He listened to me whine about not improving, about not even knowing how to attempt a high-percentage attack if I managed to find myself in a dominant position. 

I ended my spiel by suggesting that I quit. But Wendell told me he was in a similar situation in the earlier days of getting his blue belt. Instead of walking away, he suggested the two of us roll every class, and he would only lightly defend while I attacked. I credit this conversation with changing the course of my Jiu-Jitsu journey. I was so used to only defending, that I never attacked. This gentleman’s agreement with a new friend in Jiu-Jitsu changed my mindset and perspective. I started tapping people. Wong stopped lightly defending because I’d improved to the point that he had to legitimately defend during our rolls. 

Again, I reflected on Terra’s quote, but, again, I dismissed it, because making two friends wasn’t a big deal. This wasn’t the point of my Jiu-Jitsu journey. It was to submit people and get my black belt — end of the story. 

My progression reinvigorated me and solidified my dedication to training. Just a few months earlier, I was close to quitting. Thank God I didn’t do that. I stuck around and reaped the rewards. I’d never allowed myself to get to that place again. 

I read a meme once that stated: “I don’t know if I’m injured, or if that’s just how I am now.” This summed up my physical health at the time. I was always sore. But along with the usual suspects of areas of my body that ached, my lower back started bothering me. I would take copious amounts of Ibuprofen and soak in the hot tub, which usually did the trick. But one day, I crawled on all fours to the edge of the mat after a particularly strenuous day of training and decided I should probably get my back checked out. 

The MRI generated a laundry list of things wrong with my back, including spinal stenosis, degenerative disc, and arthritis. The doctor said there was no way I’d escape fusing my spine at L4-L5, in addition to a laminectomy and disk replacement. There was no question I’d have to have surgery—the question was when.  

“If I have the surgery, how soon can I get back to Jiu-Jitsu?” I asked. 

“Maybe you should consider getting a new hobby,” the doctor said. 

“Out of the question. I’m going to have surgery so I can keep training. Black belt or bust.”

After considering his answer, he said: “In three months, your spine will be structurally sound, so I suppose three months.” 

Three months didn’t sound so bad. I could hold out that long. 

On April 17, 2017, I was cut open, and they put a bunch of hardware in my back. When I awakened from the surgery, groggy and drugged, a couple of Dawn Patrollers were the first to greet me with a bouquet of balloons. They had written notes on the balloons reading, “Congrats on your new vagina,” and “So proud of you, Christina.” Those heartwarming gifts prompted a stream of hospital employees to come into my room and take photos of the balloons.  

Having training partners go out of their way to visit me in the hospital made me reflect on Terra’s quote. Maybe there was something to it. I dismissed the notion. Friendship wasn’t my motivation. Getting back on the mats and earning my black belt was driving me. 

I started physical therapy six weeks after my surgery, and the therapist laughed at me when I said my surgeon claimed I could go back to Jiu-Jitsu three months after the surgery. 

“Maybe you should think about picking up a new hobby,” he said. 

It just happened someone from AOJ was working with a therapist right next to me during this conversation. “Don’t you dare get a new hobby,” the AOJer said. He was wearing an AOJ shirt, and we greeted each other with hardy “oss.” 

The therapist raised his hands over his head triumphantly as this just proved his point. Comrades-in-arms, we both said we’d never quit. 

Three months to the day after my back was sliced open, I returned to the mats. For two weeks, I drilled but didn’t spar. Sitting at the edge of the mat watching people spar is the worst. Why was I even getting up early? To yell “time” when the timer ticked down to zero? 

Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to spar, and I realized almost immediately this was a bad idea. My back hurt so badly that I was prescribed medication to ease the pain. A chorus of family and friends again claimed I should give up Jiu-Jitsu. I pretended to consider their arguments against the gentle art and ignored them. I was a blue belt on a mission. 

It was a long road to get back into Jiu-Jitsu shape, but when I did, fellow Dawn Patrollers said I was Chris 2.0. No longer satisfied by always playing defense, I was attacking and landing submissions on the same people who’d been smashing me for years. I was awarded my purple belt and gravitated toward leg locks, and, two years later, was promoted to brown belt. 

I was closer than ever to get my black belt—one more belt to go. Nothing could stop me now. And that’s when Covid-19 said, “Hold my beer.”  

Life as I knew it came to a screeching halt. California was out front on implementing a lockdown on everything but essential jobs. And Jiu-Jitsu didn’t fill the bill. When I whined to my wife about AOJ being forced to shut down, she said: “The only thing worse than Jiu-Jitsu for social distancing is being a worker in the sex industry.”    

I’m not going to lie—at first, not having to wake up at 5:30 a.m. was great. I slept more than I had since I was a teenager. And it was guilt-free. Nobody was training, and there was nothing I could do about it. I missed Jiu-Jitsu something fierce, but I was hunkered down with everyone else and would get back to training once the pandemic ended. 

I found myself talking to my fellow Dawn Patrollers, checking in on them, and making sure everyone was okay. I soon became more dependent on these phone calls as the pandemic continued without an end in sight. 

Greater than any title I won [are] the friendships I’ve made through Jiu-Jitsu. So what if I have some friends in Jiu-Jitsu? I’m training for my black belt. That’s why I do what I do!

As a result of the pandemic, a job I had for thirteen years was eliminated. I was unemployed along with millions of other people. I applied for countless jobs, and I never heard a peep from 98 percent of them. This was a challenging time for me. I’d always used Jiu-Jitsu as a way to shut off my head; it’s hard to give an audience to all the self-doubt in your head when you’re fighting for your life. But I didn’t have that luxury with my academy closed. 

I don’t know whose idea it was, but four of us brown belt Dawn Patrollers—Wendell Wong, Andrew Barron, Jean Popoviche, and me—got approval from our wives to train together in a garage. If anyone felt the slightest hint of sickness, we wouldn’t train; if any of us crossed paths with someone who tested positive for Covid-19, we’d get tested immediately and not come back to the garage until we tested negative, or wait 15 days if we tested positive. 

I can’t speak for the others, but my wife wasn’t thrilled I was training. But I suspect she saw how restless, irritable, and discontent I was when I left the house to train, and, by contrast, how I was the complete opposite when I returned. It felt so good to put on a gi and train again. I know a lot of people drank a lot of alcohol to cope with the pandemic, but, being an alcoholic, I didn’t have this luxury. All I have is Jiu-Jitsu. It’s my therapy. 

For six months, we trained in the garage. We had a handful of vetted individuals come training with us, but most of the time, it was the four of us pushing each other to get better. We cherry-picked parts of each other’s games. It didn’t take long for my new training partners to develop an affinity for leg locks, which forced me to get better at defending them. I started using X-guard and chasing submissions with the lapel, things I didn’t do before training in the garage. 

I was thankful for my new training partners. It was the bright spot of my day. I’d drive home and not have a crushing feeling of dread with the idea of looking for employment and the inevitable sense of inadequacy that followed when I didn’t hear back from a prospective employer. But it didn’t take me long to stop thinking about them as training partners and more as friends. They pulled me kicking and screaming to a place somewhat normal—or as normal as I could hope for in those crazy times. 

Health protocols eased in California, and AOJ opened for business. Then, something unexpected happened. Dawn Patrol, which was historically the smallest class at AOJ pre-pandemic, turned out to be the largest class on most days. Under the leadership of 20-year-old phenom Tainan Dalpra, Dawn Patrol regularly has 60 students on the mats. As a result, my circle of friends grew exponentially. I’ve seen the future of competitive Jiu-Jitsu, and they train at Dawn Patrol. Folks like Dalpra, Johnatha Alves, Cole Abate, and the Funegra twins, Mia and Ashlee, both terrorize me regularly. There is solid Jiu-Jitsu happening at 6 a.m. 

As I planned to write this personal essay and reflected on my Jiu-Jitsu journey, I uncovered a truth: There are a half dozen times I seriously considered quitting. At my age and my physical limitations, nobody would fault me for ducking out and never coming back. Hell, many still suggest I should stop training. But, thus far, I’ve persevered and I continue to train. 

I’m not too quick on the uptake, but I realized it wasn’t the allure of a black belt that kept me going—it was the friends I made through Jiu-Jitsu that motivated me not to give up. As I write this as a brown belt, I’m probably closer to getting my black belt than I am away from it, but it no longer drives me. Quite frankly, I’ve seen a handful of black belts drift away from training recently, and that scares the hell out of me. But when I get nervous about this, I realize I have put myself in a position that helps me avoid such a fate. I’m part of a close-knit tribe of like-minded friends, both men and women, who won’t let me stop training, even if I want to.

Because of the friends I’ve made in Jiu-Jitsu, my life is richer and fuller than I ever could have imagined when I stepped on the mat for the first time. I once read you should surround yourself with friends who push you to be a better version of yourself. I’m sure there are other places you can find friends like that, but I found mine at 40 years old at 6 a.m. in a Jiu-Jitsu academy. It’s because of this that I strive to be a friend like this to someone who has every reason to give up and quit. But I will be there to persuade them otherwise.

That’s what motivates me to get up when it’s still dark outside and go try to submit the many people I call my friends.     



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