Chapter 1: The Trap
The BJJ instructor stood and conversed with the translator on the mats. At long last the translator turned to face the students, to deliver the final words to conclude the class. I rolled my eyes, knowing all too well what would probably come out of his mouth.
“The master says that BJJ is like chess,” the translator said and I shook my head in response.
“Bet you a hundred pounds he has never played chess in his life,” I whispered to Estella, a Portuguese friend who came to observe me in BJJ practice. Estella, an Aikido instructor herself, brushed aside the thick locks of her dark, long hair, revealing a mischievous smile that spread from ear to ear. She looked like she was about to burst out laughing.
“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” she chuckled. “Man, if only you could speak Portuguese.”
The conversation took place during a special BJJ course at the ‘Seymour Place Leisure Center’ in London, England. The year was 2003 and I was hooked on BJJ. I was training three days a week at the leisure center under the supervision of Roger Brooking.
Roger, a BJJ black belt who won a bronze medal at the lucrative BJJ Mondial, was a registered instructor of the Alliance Academy of Master Romero ‘Jacare’ Cavalcanti.
“So what did the teacher say?” I whispered as a free sparring session began on the mats.
“He asked the translator: ‘So what is the name of that game?’
‘Game?’ replied the translator.
‘The one with the black and white horses.’
‘Ah, it’s called Chess.’
‘Yes, Chess.’; the Master nodded happily. ‘Go on, tell them it’s like Chess.’
We chuckled like two naughty kids and then the joy was interrupted by a loud cry.
“Where is ‘The Doctor’?” It echoed through the walls of the small club.
I raised my arm and stepped forward, my eyes searching for the injured party on the mats. I’m not a doctor by profession but a paramedic. However this kind of tiny detail never seemed to carry much weight at our academy. Here I had been nicknamed ‘The Doctor’ either by Roger, or by one of his Brazilian assistants, and that name, as all their other nicknames, stuck like super glue.
‘The Doctor’ came about on my second session at the club, when a student broke his nose and started to bleed profusely on mats. I helped him out and stopped the flow of blood with some tissue paper. I then accompanied him to the office at the entrance of the leisure center where I got some ice and attached it to his face. He left with another student to the nearest A&E and I went back to training.
“Is everything OK Doctor?” Roger asked when I walked in and that was that. I was ‘The Doctor’ from that day forward. Never argue with a nickname given by Brazilians, especially not when you gained one that was as positive as ‘The Doctor.’ I knew quite a few unfortunate souls who ended up with far worse nicknames.
Take poor Toby as an example, who flew all the way to Brazil in order to further advance his BJJ skills. He came back with the nickname ‘Chihuahua’ because, so Roger claimed, they thought Toby was as bold and as ugly as the Chihuahua breed. Ziad, a student whose family was originally from Iran, faired far worse when he went to train in one of the notorious Favelas of Rio.
“The first person to greet me at the academy,” Ziad told Roger on his return, “heard my name, took one glance at my beard, and then loudly declared: “We’ve got Bin Laden here.”
Needless to say, the name stuck all through his stay.
“You must take these nicknames with a light heart,” Roger explained over drinks at my house. “Take my nickname for example, which is a blend of the words donkey and bull. It’s because, so they said at my old Academy, that I’m as strong as a bull but as stupid as a donkey. I could choose to be insulted but to be honest with you, I find it quite funny.”
Taking all this into consideration, it is of no wonder why I was more than pleased with my ‘Doctor’.
I had my first taste of BJJ in November 2001, at the age of 34, roughly eight years to the day Royce Gracie delivered to the world of martial arts the shocking revelations of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I, as many other colleagues, watched in awe as he elegantly choked a number of brutal opponents from a variety of disciplines, winning the first tournament of the Ultimate Fighting Championship – the UFC.
Naturally, I was more than anxious to study BJJ after watching Royce in action but at the time, there was a serious shortage of clubs outside Brazil. I wanted to make the trip but didn’t have the time nor the finances to reach Brazil. Reluctantly, I had to wait nearly a decade before my desires could finally be fulfilled.
Salvation came in the form of Alon Cohen, an aikido instructor from the Yoshinkan Aikido Honbu Dojo and a good friend. Alon, as it turned out, had been secretly training for a year at one of Rickson Gracie’s satellite academies that had recently opened in Tokyo. Alon disclosed his secret when I met him on a trip to Tokyo in 2001. He had a lot of explaining to do.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were training Gracie Jiujitsu?”
“It’s called BJJ, not Gracie Jiu-jitsu,” Alon corrected me. “There are many styles of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.”
“OK, whatever. Still, why keep it a secret?”
“You know how funny they get at the Honbu when you train in other places.”
“I would have kept your secret.”
“ Sorry, but when I keep quiet I keep it to myself.”
I looked at him as he took a sip from the large coffee mug. We were sitting at a small Café outside Meidaimae train station.
“ So what’s the deal?” I continued the questioning. “When did you learn about this dojo?”
“Academy, not dojo,” he corrected me yet again. “And I learned about this academy from an Australian friend who happened to train there.”
“Academy?” I twisted my face. “Do they teach academic subjects in their curriculum? Do you get a University degree upon graduation?”
“No, nothing like that,” Alon laughed. “It’s just the way they call it.”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s a Brazilian thing, some strange desire to be academic, I really can’t tell you. What I’m certain of, though, is that BJJ is a very clever and sophisticated martial art. It has a rich system of attacks and a variety of complex counters. My teacher, Taka, says it’s very similar to chess in that respect.”
“I’ve heard of Chess Academies,” I pointed out.
“Who cares?” Alon exhaled loudly. “It’s not relevant.”
“And how is this teacher of yours?”
“Taka is amazing,” Alon said and the deep tone of his voice, accompanied by the deep frown on his forehead, revealed his sincere appreciation.
“What level black-belt does he have?”
“Taka is a brown belt.”
(Rickson Gracie and Taka)
“Really? Is that enough to teach BJJ?”
“Oh yeah,” Alon chuckled. “It’s a different system all together from Aikido. Reaching a brown belt in BJJ can take as long as reaching Yondan in Aikido.”
“I wonder how the Japanese feel about him,” I said. “Coming from Brazil and teaching Jiujitsu. A bit like selling ice to Eskimos, isn’t it?”
“I think that overall, most Japanese martial artists appreciate or at least recognize the Brazilian contribution to Jiujitsu.”
“I guess so.”
“And Taka, specifically, has another advantage. He looks Japanese and speaks Japanese because his parents are actually Japanese immigrants to Brazil. Having said that, however,” Alon continued after taking another sip of coffee, “does not imply that Taka had it easy when he first opened his academy in Japan.”
I smiled with delight as Alon moved on to tell me how Taka was lured into a fight with a judo instructor upon his arrival in Tokyo.
“That judo instructor invited Taka for dinner,” Alon said, “under the pretense that he wanted to present Taka with some business proposition over food and drinks. They agreed to meet at the judo instructor’s dojo.”
“Sounds like a good beginning for a Bruce Lee movie,” I said and leaned forward, eager to hear the rest of the tale.
“Taka arrived on time and entered the dojo, dressed in his best suit. Inside he found the instructor, and many of his students, sitting on the mats in seiza. Taka noticed there were also spectators sitting in a row of chairs on the side of the mats. Innocently, Taka took his seat beside them and waited, thinking he had caught the instructor at the end of his class. Then the instructor came to face him.
“’We want you to demonstrate your BJJ abilities.’ he said.
‘Show us how you spar in BJJ. How you beat my judo with your Jiujitsu.’
Alon said that the trap had been masterfully planned and that before Taka could protest, a student ran to his side and offered him a clean kimono.
“How insulting?” I stopped the flow of his speech. “Why would he give him kimono? Does Taka look like a sumo wrestler?”
“No,” Alon laughed. “And he doesn’t look like a Geisha either. Kimono is what the Brazilians call their training suit.”
“Why not dogi?”
“I don’t know. Please stop interrupting.”
“Sorry. Go on.”
“Now you can imagine that by this point,” Alon continued. “Taka felt like a cornered animal.”
“But he tried to keep calm and collected as he ran his eyes over the eager faces of the students and the aggressive expression of the instructor. Taka, despite being hurt by the disrespectful attitude, decided not to satisfy the desire of the brut.”
“He was about to turn and leave when the instructor said, loud enough for all to hear – ‘You don’t have to fight if you’re afraid.’
“With that patronizing remark he finally managed to enrage Taka. Taka quickly changed his clothes and came to face the rude challenger.”
“A showdown,” I smiled in anticipation but Alon paused to take a bite from his egg sandwich. He slowly chewed on it, deliberately maintaining the suspense.
“They circled each other for a few seconds,” he continued, “hands trying to get a good grip on the fabric of the opponents’ kimono. Then the judo instructor charged in and took Taka down with a perfectly timed throw. They landed on the mats with a loud thud, the instructor on top, his students cheering in jubilation. But soon enough they became silent when they realized that their teacher had fallen right inside the guard of Taka, right inside the trap of the jiujitsu teacher who had already tightened a choking grip on their instructor. The judo instructor tried to fight him off but was helpless against the Taka’s perfect technique.
“He tapped his submission and Taka let go and jumped to his feet. He bowed at him, dropped the borrowed kimono onto the mats, changed his clothes and left the place, never to return.”
“Holly shit,” I cried out. “It really was a scene from a Bruce Lee movie. Although, if you don’t mind me saying, it would have been so much better if Taka went into the dojo with a big sign that read – ‘I correct bad Jiujitsu.’”
“But he was a judo instructor.”
“But what went on after he had…”
“Later,” Alon cut me short as he stood up and pointed at his wristwatch. “We need to get going. Training starts in half an hour.”