Its not the prettiest store front I have ever seen, in fact its pretty scary looking from the outside. Straight out of a Russian gangster or mafia movie, it is housed in a literal warehouse, in a row of warehouses. It could have been the set used for many of these movies however without the crack pipes and prostitutes milling around. The entrance is a single nondescript door with a few hanging fliers that look like they are advertising the release the Ramones first album. No big sign to indicate that you were where you were supposed to be. Some green and red lettering can be seen on the door, which upon closer inspection reveals that you are indeed in the right place.
Opening the door you are struck by the smell of effort, hard training and sweat, with a little guy musk sprinkled in. Its not dirty, just a smell that was once foreign to me (and which now indicates to my senses that its Go Time). As you make your way down the hall to the outer sanctum you see poster after poster of mean looking monsters of men staring out at you looking as if they were ready to tear out your lungs and feed them to their pit bull. Championship medals and belts, right out of the Mid South Wrestling days, are displayed in a case beckoning you to look at how good the gym and its fighters are. But these trophies are kind of out of the way as if to say, we are GREAT but do not need to brag.
The inner sanctum is a set of nondescript couches and a coffee table for observers or the exhausted to utilize for short periods of time. There is a smattering of T-Shirts with the same monster men looking back at you as well as an assortment of boxing gloves, hand wraps and Gis (pajamas). Its not much of an athletic shop but you are not here to shop are you? You are here to face your demons, face your fears or just smash someone.
Past the inner sanctum is the gym itself, just past a small white door leading to your days sweat and effort. As you open the door the world opens up to you, revealing the same monster men training MMA by throwing each other around, some even hitting each other in the face. There are lines of men and women in boxing gloves punching imaginary foes and sweating like its the 4th of July in Haiti. Then there are the pajamad guys and gals rolling around on the floor in a weird dance that likely is banned in many foreign countries and a few conservative southern states. I really cannot tell what anyone is doing, just a lot of folks dry humping each other with intermittent tapping of hands on the mat. Some of it seems vaguely familiar from years of watching the UFC, but most is like Japanese to me.
Why am I here? What am I thinking? Each and everyone of these men AND women can destroy me in the blink of an eye. My couch and kitchen are much more welcoming and cozy. Maybe I should come back at another time when I am more motivated or in better shape. Would my mother let me do this if I was a kid? Ill likely get a serious injury and even possibly killed twice. You should see some of these monsters .most appearing to be in their early 20s and able to bench press 450 pounds, with the will and determination to dismantle and destroy anyone in their path. Am I crazy to even try this??
I asked a goateed, bald headed guy with tattoos from head to toe where we were supposed to change into our Gi. He grunts and gestures to a small door off to the side that is halfway ajar. I thank him profusely in case he is the one I have to fight in a few minutes. Maybe decorum and manners will buy me some good will? The changing room/bathroom has an even more concentrated smell than the entrance. It is as if they were collecting all of the sweat and BO from the attendees and sprinkling it into the air filter system. The room itself is strewn with underwear, flip flops and assorted pajama tops, bottoms and other parts I cannot identify. There are a few men in here dressing or undressing quietly as I enter, looking for a small square of space that I can do my changing while trying to stay out of everyones way. I find a spot in the corner near the toilet and begin my transformation from “guy on the street” to “ultimate fighter ninja warrior. That transformation, mind you, is just putting on the white pajamas (not sure if I put them on the right way), the rest is attitude, of which I have next to zero at this point. The transformation being complete, I look up to see an empty changing room and for a few fleeting seconds I think I am Billy Badass this wont be so bad! After all Ive seen every UFC event from 1 to 160. Some of that has surely ebbed and flowed its way into my subconscious.
I exit the changing room to be suddenly brought straight back down to earth as I bumped into a ridiculously giant of a man who is twice my height and likely even outweighs my tremendous girth, except his is ALL muscle. Damn!! He is also wearing a set of pajamas. Is this another fighter that is going to clean my clock?? Again, what in the HELL am I doing. I must be insane!! I effusively apologize for being anywhere near the giant man and promise to give him my 3rd born as recompense for my misfortune of being in his way. He just nodded and moved on. Another disaster avoided. He for sure will only partially rip off my arm and only partially feed it to me later.
I return to the cavernous gym, which is 3 degrees cooler than the 9th level of Hell. The place has cleared out a bit as there are new classes about to start. A few men and women are milling around the periphery conversing in hushed tones as if we were in a holy temple. A few pajama clad folks are on the mat stretching in bazaar poses and flopping around on the ground with there limbs going every which way. No one really acknowledges me outside of a nod or grunt. But I am careful to not make direct eye contact for more than a few seconds myself. I sit on the ground a do a few stretching exercises that I once saw on a Pilates video on YouTube. Surely they will see I am not green or wet behind the ears. New folks are dead meat right?? Newbies are interlopers and the old timers are supposed to make sure you know your place and are quick to let you know whos boss? You hear rumors about broken legs and arms and dislocated shoulders. Thats why these guys are here, right? To kill, maim and destroy people and enjoy themselves while they are doing it? Again what have I gotten myself into??
More and more people stream into the gym in anticipation of sweat and hard work. Many look determined and a few are relaxing and chatting with fellow devotees. There is a kickboxing class to run concurrent with our Jiu Jitsu class. They have a lions share of the mats while the pajama clad crew fits into a rectangle about the size of half a tennis court. There are now 12 to 15 men and women ready to partake of another hour of BJJ training. There are mainly white pajamas with a few black and blue ones scattered amongst the faithful. Hey, there is even a pink one ..on a dude! He must REALLY be great or just a doesn’t give a damn kind of guy. In addition there are a lot of different belts colors .white, purple, black, brown and blue. The only rank I know is the white belt, which is what I have been given. I would surmise this is the bottom dweller, dont know crap belt. The black belt likely signifies a diety which I know from watching 3000 hours of Kung Fu cinema as a kid on Sundays after church on that new Fox channel. The in-between colors are foreign to me. A good rule of thumb for me is to stay near the other white belts. In fact, Ill go stand near that white belt girl. I should easily be able to beat her at Oooooopps! She just did a crazy flip and really squashed this guy. Maybe Ill go near that elderly guy, already looking out of breath, surely I can really .Nope!! He just Judod some guy onto his head and then did the fastest choke-thing I have ever seen. I am in REAL trouble here ..maybe I can go to the other side of the mats where the Spider Monkeys kids class is doing their thing ..Not so fast, even they look like they can really crush me into talcum powder. What am I going to do? Maybe hide behind this column and suck in my gut?
Too late, the instructor sees me and says for everyone to hear .Look everyone, its the Doc!! Everyone welcome him to class. We have high hopes for him!!. Noooooooooooooooooooo!!! Now I am definitely a target. Everyone of the class goers is likely eyeing me up and down thinking to themselves Fresh Meat. Now I am in real, real trouble.
There is little preamble as we get started. The class instructor, or professor, is Roli, a tall, thin guy that one may classify as Wirey. He is bearded, pajamad and clad in a black belt. His demeanor is quiet confidence. He moves with a sleek fluidity as if he were doing Tai Chi on ice. He leads us through some basic warm-ups where we roll out our heads, and shoulders and legs with the class attendees dutifully following along. Its very subdued and the instructor is actually smiling and speaking in hushed, kind tones. He makes subtle changes to various stances and arm positions with no loss of presence or calmness. For the first time I am actually heartened, this may not be the nightmarish hell I had anticipated and prayed against. In fact most of the students are smiling and seem genuinely glad to be there. No looks of fear or anger are seen. No twinges of rage lying underneath the surface. Might these just be normal everyday people?
The warmups completed, the professor calls a blue belt to the center of the mat and begins to instruct about a single position and how to escape from that position. At first its just elbows and hands and legs twisting up like a pretzel with the final florish of a flip where the professor ended up on top of his opponent. How in the hell am I supposed to do that? I couldnt see anything that happened. Roli then completed the move a second time more slowly, going step by step, instructing on head, hand, arm and leg placement. He then repeated the instruction a third and fourth time. Ah ..I see, the leg goes underneath the thigh. That makes some sense .and actually works. A small light is lit in my conscious and subconscious.
Next we are instructed to partner up and try it for ourselves. Flashes of Junior High kickball come back to me as partnerships are quickly made leaving the small, awkward, unathletic and bespectacled kids to fend for themselves on the bench. I guess I will just sit over here until the class is done? NOPE! There is a rather imposing looking guy approaching me and looking me in the eye is it time to feign an injury and fall into a heap on the floor? Is it too late to sign up for the Little Rock Quiddich League? Too late! He reaches out and with a big smile shakes my hand and says You are new? Welcome, my name is Keith. Lets start making you into a fighter!! The rest of the class was pure joy. Keith was very patient and went as slowly as I needed. He was very encouraging and kind, never belittling my skills only praising when I did something right. I know he was only using about 10% of his strength and skill (which are considerable, I have subsequently discovered). He didnt crush me, smash me or maim me. Just the opposite he was kind and patient and a GREAT teacher. And he was not the only one. Every student in that class was the same, taking time to teach the newer students while themselves learning form the more advanced students.
When the professor indicated that the class was over I was shocked. Had it been an hour already? I am still alive in fact I AM alive. I had an incredible time learning from these great people. A seed had been planted and it was now to quickly grow. We all kneeled in a circle, with the newest person on the right (me) and listened as Roli praised our work and attitude. He thanked US for being there and how he was humbled by his students and proud of each and everyone of us. He bowed and all of the students followed suit. We then stood and in the line greeted and embraced everyone in class in turn.
What had I just lived through? Was it a bunch of folks smashing each other and laughing as they did? Not one shoulder was dislocated! Not one arm snapped in two! It was every day, ordinary people like me and you just learning Jiu Jitsu and enjoying camaraderie with new and old friends.
In fact that is how Jiu Jitsu works EVERYONE is both student and teacher, even the professor. We learn from every encounter and come back a better fighter. We learn from our victories and learn a lot more from our defeats. We check our egos at the door knowing that with each defeat we are that much closer to being the best Jiu Jitsu practitioner we can be. What other sport do you seek out or welcome defeat? Because with each defeat we learn what to do differently next time. Victory is great but can only show us what we are good at. Defeat unlocks the secrets to what we are not.
That was me, 18 months ago ..! Funny how those initial thoughts, feelings and smells are so different for me now. The intimidating warehouse is a Palace and the monster men are my friends .nay, FAMILY now. The smell is still there, but its like an old jacket or blanket ..a WELCOME smell. A calming smell. This foreign place is now my HOME. I LOVE every inch of it and its mats. I love everyone who trains there and would do about anything for them. The common denominators for the people who workout there is hard work and confidence. Everyone of them is a good person .not just a good person but the deep down GOOD person that makes this life a joy. I couldnt pick a better crew to go to battle with and to share my life with, good and bad.
Whats the point of all of this, you may ask? Why did I spend 10 minutes of my time reading this treatise about one dude and a gym? I want to share a passion of mine in hopes that you will come out and give Jiu Jitsu a chance. There are a lot of perceptions of the sport that keep people from trying it or even from observing what we do. My story is a VERY common one. The folks who do Jiu Jitsu LOVE it. It becomes part of their fabric and a precious part of who they are. Please, do yourself a favor and come to one class. You dont need to fight or wrestle, just come watch and see what we do. More than likely you will be intrigued and want to give it a try. Just come out and see what you are missing. I am sure you will find your Keith. Most places have a set of (clean) white pajamas for you to borrow and a white belt too. You’d be surprised that a lot of folks love Jiu Jitsu so much that they would even come and pick you up and take you to the gym. Now, there are NO excuses now!! Its all right there for you, you just need to reach out and take it.
A Black Belt in Jiu Jitsu is a White Belt that never quit!