Chapter 2: Men-hugs, Bikers Kimono, and Thumbs-Up
The BJJ dojo, sorry, the BJJ academy, was located on the second floor of a wide office building. We walked through the glass doors at the entrance, passing by a long banner. It bore a drawing of a triangle within a triangle with the word, ‘Axis’, pasted above.
“ Axis is the name of Rickson Gracie’s association,” Alon pointed out. “There are many BJJ organizations even within the Gracie family.”
“The biggest,” Alon smiled. “I was told you will need a whole neighborhood in order to host all the Gracies.”
“Shall we go up?”
“For sure, and let’s hope it’s already open. We’re a few minutes early and it’s the first lesson of the day.”
We climbed up the stairs and found the door to the academy open.
“Just in time,’” Alon said and led the way through the entrance. I found myself inside a wide hall that was divided in two by a wall composed of wood and large glass windows. The smaller section served as the reception room, while the other, a spacious training hall. The walls of the reception were painted in a calming cream color and decorated with a few pictures and trophies. The floor was covered with smooth light brown parquet, similar to the color of the wood that composed the divide between the two sections of the hall.
We stopped in front of a long curved counter that stood to the left of the entrance.
“Nice place,” I remarked. “Kind of like a modern gym.”
“That’s the idea. Now where are they?”
“The staff. I need to stamp my membership card and you need to pay for training.”
As we waited I continued to scan the place.
A couple of round tables and a few chairs were spread around the floor of the reception room. A fridge, composed of steel frame and glass walls, stood against the wall opposite the counter. It was loaded with water bottles and energy drinks. A television, attached to the wall by an iron bar, hung over the fridge. It softly played popular music videos.
“Why are there mats attached to the walls?” I asked while pointing at the training hall. There was a belt of sky-blue mats running around the entire circumference of the lower part of the walls, about one meter from the floor. They were the same kind of mats that covered the floor.
“When people fight they end up falling in unexpected directions,” Alon said. “A padded wall minimizes the chance of accidents.”
The Axis logo was painted on the wall across from the glass divide with a photograph of Rickson Gracie below. Strangely enough, there was no Kamidana above his picture. You can find in most Japanese dojo “Kamidana”, a small decorative model of a Shinto shrine.
All in all it looked a very western style training hall. In fact, the only reminder of Japanese influence was the long row of training suits, sorry, kimonos, that hung from the ceiling of the narrow balcony to the right of the hall.
Alon’s face brightened as the door behind the counter opened. A small skinny man with outrageously messed-up ears stepped out and gently closed the door behind him. He smiled shyly as he approached us. He wore a blue kimono that looked tailor-made and was covered with quite a few colorful patches. A kimono fit for a Formula-1 biker.
“Alon,” he cheered and they shook hands and man-hugged, grabbing each other with a pat on the back. They exchanged a few words in Japanese. The man spoke fluently but with a heavy Brazilian accent.
Gadi,” I said and shook the hand he extended towards me. I guessed man-hugs came later in the relationship.
“Joao Carlos,” he introduced himself, smiled and said a few more words, but I found it hard to follow him, my eyes captured by the sight of yet another man, the spitting image of Joao Carlos, coming out of the same door that Joao Carlos had just a second before. A chill ran down my spine as the man behind Joao smiled at me. He then opened another door and disappeared within. Same smile, same kimono, same bloody slippers.
A Steven Seagal movie?
What the hell was going on?
“My twin brother,” Joao Carlos said in broken English and his words, although soft as a whisper, cracked an opening in my seriously petrified state.
“Naturally,” I shyly said while paying, my face feeling strangely warm. Joao raised his thumb up when the transaction was complete. Alon returned the gesture and I quickly followed his example.
Alon laughed to himself as he led us to the changing rooms. We entered the training hall, turned sharply to the right and through a narrow opening. It was a small space, the wall composed of rows of lockers. I found a locker and got changed into a simple white Aikido suit, smiling at the blue suit Alon pulled out of his bag.
“Nice Kimono,” I complimented him and he went into a lengthy explanation about the regulations concerning the BJJ kimono.
“Take the sleeves, for example,” he said. “They shouldn’t be overly short or too tight. They need to allow your opponent the ability to grab them. The measurements are very specific.”
A few more students arrived as we got dressed. Most already knew Alon and they greeted each other with a man-hug. They didn’t seem too concerned with the fact he was only wearing underpants. They exchanged a few words and also concluded most conversations with a thumbs-up. Alon seemed to capture the smile that decorated my face.
“A thumbs-up is the equivalent of the ‘Osu’ in Yoshinkan,” he said.
“Not many people around.”
“And that’s the beauty of it,” Alon nodded. “The morning classes are, in a way, similar to the Kenshu class at the Yoshinkan Hombu dojo. Which means, fewer students than during the evening classes but far more attention to technical details. Most importantly, morning classes are the times when you are likely to train, sometimes even fight, with the instructors.”
We left the dressing room and sat on the mats in the training hall. We stretched while waiting for the class to commence. I watched the students as they came out of the dressing room, noting the many badges with logos and slogans that decorated their kimonos.
“Are we going to fight in this class?” I asked.
“We fight every class but we don’t call it fighting, we call it sparring.”
“Fighting, sparring, whatever, it’s going to be great.”
“You seem quite relaxed about it.”
“Should I be nervous?” I frowned as I scanned the hall. “There’s only one student with a blue belt and the rest are white belts like me. And no one here looks too big or scary. I think I’ll be alright.”
“I would recommend caution over nervousness. You don’t need to be big, scary or wear a black belt in order to kick ass in this game.”
“I think I’ll be fine,” I smiled, confident that my skill as a 5th black belt in Aikido, combined with the one choke I had learned from observing Royce at his first UFC appearance, would be enough to fend off most attacks.
While we waited, Alon explained that there were four instructors at the Academy, all Brazilians with Japanese ancestry.
“Taka Watanebe is the head instructor, Joao and his brothers, his seconds in command, and there is also this guy, Cristiano, who is a great fighter and a huge guy. However, Cristiano rarely takes the class as he is mainly preoccupied with competitions. Apparently, he’s got sponsors who pay for his stay. I guess they hold a lot of hopes for his future in BJJ and MMA.”
All the students, about ten in number, quickly sat in seiza as a man, dressed in a white kimono and brown belt, entered the hall and went to sit in front of the class.
“That’s Taka?” I frowned at Alon. I found it difficult to match the skinny, gentle looking Japanese man who faced us with the man from Alon’s formidable fighting tale.
“Taka in the flesh,” Alon whispered back.
We bowed and he started with warm-ups that resembled Yoga stretching exercises. He shifted slowly and harmoniously between the different positions, gently demonstrating each move and softly performing it on his body. There was next to zero strain on the skeletal muscles and on the cardio-vascular system during his warm-ups.
Taka described each move to its finest detail and he did so not only in Portuguese and Japanese but also in perfect English. He spoke politely, his voice soft, his eyes intelligent. His character and mannerism stood in sharp contrast to the image of the aggressive fighter I had in my mind.
When the warm-ups were over, Taka moved to perform the first drill of the day. It was an escape from a position he called “Half-Guard”. His explanations were extremely thorough. We practiced for a while and he walked around, further explaining and correcting mistakes, by way of words and demonstration. When he first came next to us he introduced himself and politely exchanged a few words on a personal note. Too nice to be a killer.
The mode of the training was very similar in a sense to Aikido practice. There was clear role-playing and everyone behaved accordingly, a perfect Uke and Shite relationship. I didn’t fit my expectations.
“You give zero resistance,” I complained to Alon at one point. “How can I know if I had you locked or if I performed properly when you go with everything I do?”
“And I will go with everything you do,” he said. “Each technique is a counter for a specific attack or defense move. As such, it represents one specific option of the game and there are millions of options.”
“Still, wouldn’t your technique improve if you’d be able to perform it despite the resistance, the way we practice in Aikido?”
“Undoubtedly it would improve the technique but overall, when Uke reacts differently, changes the direction of the move or resists, you simply perform another technique. Isn’t that the reason why there are so many techniques in Aikido rather than just one?”
“What do you mean?”
“Many techniques mean many options. Think about it, if each technique would always work you’d have no use for another, would you?”
Taka stopped the practice after few minutes and taught a few counters to the escape, each move explained to the finest detail, and as Alon said, each move related to a specific change in the moves of the Uke. The attention that he gave to each and every detail was astonishing. I could tell he did his best to keep it simple as there were many beginners in the room, but soon I was overwhelmed by everything. I felt disorientated and confused like someone who had just walked into a cinema in the middle of the movie.
After an hour of technical training, just when I felt numb from the overload of information, Taka called out a short recess.
“If you need a drink of water or to go to the toilet, do it now,” Alon said. “Sparring will start in a couple of minutes.”
“Finally,” I said and Alon laughed.
Taka called out to the students to get ready for sparring and they moved toward the center of the hall, each sitting in seiza and facing their sparring partner. I sat and expected Alon to face me but he shook his head.
“Don’t take it the wrong way but I’d rather fight someone else,” he said. “I don’t fight beginners – way too dangerous.”
“What the hell?”
“Later. And good luck with the Royce Gracie choke.”
He moved on to sit across from one of the students, leaving me to sit and sulk by myself. A second later another student came to face me. He was a skinny looking bloke, with pale skin, a curved back and small beady eyes that focused on the ground. He wore a loose white kimono and a white belt that held his scrawny body in a tight knot. He seemed too sheepish and too feeble to be fighting but it was also too late and too impolite to try and move to another partner. I tried to envision how I would drop him onto his back and choke him with the kimono. I was inflamed and ready for a kill, my eyes burning like the eyes of a zealous freak. He seemed undeterred by my mad expression, his eyes glued to the mats.
Taka gave the command to begin sparring and the man across from me extended his bony arm. I shook his hand, bemused by his soft grip. He had managed to drop onto his bottom as I charged forward, a bull fueled by the desire to fight. But a few seconds into the fight and I was already off-balance, out of breath and tapping, my eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets from the pressure of the choke he implemented on my neck. The Royce Gracie choke – what an insult!!!
I sat up, red eyed and panting. He smiled, shook my hand and off we went again with similar results after a minute into the sparring. On the third attempt my frustration got the best of me and I went berserk on the poor fellow, trying to implement aggression in a desperate effort to compensate for my lack of skill. But he remained calm and submitted me easily a few more times until Taka ordered the class to cease fighting and change partners.
I didn’t fare any better with the next two white belts that sparred with me. The only difference was the speed they submitted me. I was completely deflated by the end of the class, out of breath, beaten and as hopeless as a mouse that had just been toyed with by a group of wild cats.
“Did it work?” Alon asked as we headed to the showers, his arms imitating the only choke I knew.
“It worked quite well on my neck,” I sighed and he burst out laughing.