My newest black belt (3rd that I have promoted) wrote an awesome post about his journey at black belt over on reddit. It is a great read and I super proud of Neil!
I started BJJ in my mid-30s as a way to address my sedentary computer-geek life and expanding girth. Started a family late and I wanted to make sure I was there for my son when he needed me later on, but I was an uncoordinated couch potato who’d never done anything remotely athletic and I really didn’t know where to start. I tried to enjoy running for a year or so, but it didn’t sustain my interest. On a whim, I went to Amal Easton’s academy in nearby Boulder for an intro in 2004 and it took me two years to work up the courage to sign up in early 2006.
When I started training I couldn’t make it through the warm up. Mid-30s and out of shape, I was usually one of the older, rounder students in class. I think I could maybe do 5 pushups in a row. The first thing I learned was to suck it up and just keep showing up. I could see that I was probably going to suck at this for a really long time. Perspective wasn’t hard to come by at Easton’s; there was never any shortage of awe-inspiring instructors and world-class athletes hanging around. The MMA/UFC was really taking off in Colorado at the time and some of my instructors were moving that direction; some like Eliot Marshal went from teaching my evening classes to doing regional MMA bouts and eventually to starring on The Ultimate Fighter and fighting in the UFC right before my eyes. I loved seeing the big names come in and train with us. I rolled with guys like Duane Ludwig and Shane Carwin as a blue belt and met loads of famous Brazilians who came to do seminars. More importantly for me, I met friends back then that are still good friends today and I learned that you either win or you learn. Nobody ever really loses in jiu-jitsu class.
I met Professor Matt Jubera right after he moved to Colorado. He had this otherworldly passing and pressure that nobody at my area had really ever seen before and for a number of years he basically just took over the local BJJ competition scene. A long time student of Xande and Saulo Ribeiro, I really didn’t understand his game, but I knew the style really resonated with me and I wanted to learn it. When he told me he was starting his own academy near my house (I was a blue belt at the time), I told him I wanted to be his student before he’d even opened the doors and I have been ever since!
Setbacks, I’ve had a few. Tore my ACL on the mat as a blue belt and ended up being sidelined completely for about 7 months while I healed up. Tore my MCL badly and my -other- ACL as a purple belt. Turned out my second ACL injury wasn’t as bad as the first and didn’t end up requiring reconstruction, but the MCL took several months to heal before I could find that out. When I got back after my MCL injury, I realized I needed to make some changes and focus on prevention, so I started working on my diet and powerlifting (Stronglifts 5x5 stuff) on the side every other day. I started slow, spent a lot of time learning, and tracked my progress; in the first year I back squatted over a quarter-million pounds total volume. People started saying things like “you’re so strong”, which is certainly better than “you’re so fat”, but it gradually inspires a weird sort of ‘big guy angst’: you still understand your failures are a byproduct of needing better technique, but now you constantly wonder if your successes are only because you’re so strong. Still, I highly recommend working on strength for jiu-jitsu players. Especially those getting older like me. I know if you want to get better and jiu-jitsu, you should just do more jiu-jitsu, but that’s easier to say as a 25 year old than it is when you’re staring into the abyss of your 40s and wondering why you keep getting hurt. I really don’t worry about my knees any more at all and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. Deadlifts have done more to alleviate my finger pain than all the miles of athletic tape I’ve ever bought.
Today at 45, I’m the epitome of the hobbyist grinder jiu-jitsu guy. Somewhere along the way I earned me the nickname “Badger” and even today there are a ton of people I train with who I’m not 100% sure know my real name. I do comps from time to time, though it isn’t a major focus for me, and I’ve earned a couple of local medals to hang up. I’ve done Masters Worlds the last couple of years as brown (no medals there unfortunately, but loads of great experience). One of my favorite competition memories was a marathon 15 minute blue belt match at a local tournament where my opponent and I ended up exhausted with an even score at the end of the finals and ended up doing 5 different 2 minute resets after the match before I was able to hit a sweep and score for the gold.
What have I learned along the way? I think the most important realization for me was that anyone can be good at something if they put in the time. Growth mindset is at the core of what BJJ teaches people and how it changes lives. When you stop thinking of your failures as reflective of your intrinsic abilities and instead reframe them as learning opportunities, you learn a skill that is maybe the most powerful mental tool you can put in your toolbox. This lesson that jiu-jitsu teaches you every day cascades out to every corner of your life and it makes you a better husband, father, friend, and person. I love watching people discover this lesson; you can watch the transformation and it’s amazing. The other part of BJJ that is powerful for me is the family you make along the way; somehow constantly trying to choke each other senseless brings people together in a way you really can’t get anywhere else.
That’s the gist of my black belt journey. Last Wednesday after a guest seminar with Professor Lovato I just about fell over when my name was called out at the end of the class. I think "gobsmacked" is a good description. I was asked to say some words and I think I did, but to be honest it took about 3 days for the smoke to clear in my head.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.