The 2011 Pan Ams was my first big jiu jitsu tournament and it was one of the best days of my life. To make the experience more authentic my friends and I showed up to the event on Brazilian time, or late. Being a lightweight I was the first of our group to compete and when we got there the feather weights were already underway. The arena was filled with twelve rings of mats all filled with competitors. People shouting, celebrations, crying, the whole world of jiu jitsu was gathered at this spot today. As a blue belt, I had a division with over 120 competitors, meaning it was seven rounds to the finals. It was a huge challenge; this was the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Pan Am.
As soon I had hurriedly put on my gi the announcer was calling my bracket to the warm up area. Inside this fenced off pen gathered all of the guys in my division; mean mugging each other, aggressively doing burpies, and singing along to gangster rap as it blared from head phones. We were all here to send each other home but were first forced into a tiny area with almost no room to do our intended warm ups. After a rush of claustrophobia I sat on the floor, closed my eyes, and meditated on my affirmations. ‘Everyone else here thinks they’re the good guy, so I’ll be the bad guy. I’m like Darth Vader so I wear my black gi. I’m here to ruin someone’s day. I am the bad draw they didn’t want’. I waited so long I began considering that they must have forgotten to call me when I finally heard my name.
As I weighed in and got my gi checked, I realized that my opponent had a strange ID card from another country. He said a few words of his native tongue to his coach and I knew that ‘lispy, whinny Spanish’ meant I drew a Brazilian in the first round. He wouldn’t be here unless he was good. My heart started pumping. I was across the country in this huge tournament, I didn’t know where my friends were and my coach Comprido was away at the UFC in Las Vegas.
Standing there in the weight ins, I started to run through my mind all the excuses I could use after I lose this match, when in the corner of my eye I saw Andre Galvao, one of my biggest heroes. “Andre” I yelled, “I’m a big fan” he turned around, looked back at and grabbed me by the shoulder. “Yes” was all he said then walked away but it completely hit a reset button on my train of thought. I’m not here to lose this match, I’m here because I love jiu jitsu. They called us to the mat.
In every first match of every tournament I’ve ever done I get hit by what’s called the adrenaline dump. You lose sense of time, your IQ plummets, you have amnesia for much of the experience. All your training at the gym cannot prepare you for when your brain goes out the window and you rely on instinct. About half way through the match I got my bearings together and was no longer so vulnerable. ‘Slow down’ I told myself, ‘breathe, relax your grips’. Once I swept my opponent and got on top I felt him start to panic. This wasn’t supposed to happen to him, but then again he pulled the bad guy in the first round. I used a lot of energy holding him down as he kicked like a wild deer but I eventually passed his guard, winning the match on points. With the first one behind me I returned to the still crowded warm up area with a new comfort and focus. Now it was time to get in the zone.
Right away when the next match started I could feel my opponent nervously shaking. He probably got a buy and this was his first match of the day. As the bad guy, I had to use his jitters to my advantage. I kept my cool but pushed the paced on him, quickly sweeping to the top and passing straight in to an armbar, forcing him to tap.
During the third fight I lost points when I got swept and had to use my reserve flexibility to get out of more trouble. I realized that my opponent was one tough guy. While I hung in there, getting smashed on the bottom, I thought about how I tried hard and I won two fights. I could go home and Comprido wouldn’t be that disappointed, this being my first big tournament. Everyone would realize that guy was just better than me. I thought that till out of nowhere, I heard my friend Bruce from the stands ‘One minute left’. That made me move.
If only it had been two minutes I would have thought it was too long and quit, but I could push in this last minute and make something happen. The next time he tried to step around my legs, I followed him and rolled upside down. My legs landed right how they needed to be to step up triangle choke but it seemed like he didn’t realized or know the danger. I took a deep breath and unwound, cinching a deep triangle choke. Grabbing my ankle, I squeezed and got the submission from the trick move, narrowly avoiding defeat.
In the warm up pen my friends were waiting. They were all excited for how I was doing while I kept it inside. If I won one more match I would be farther in at a big tournament than any of the Americans on our team had gone. ‘One match at a time’ I told them, trying hard to stay cool. While I waited at the mat for my next fight, I saw my next opponent practice wrestling shots, so I started pretending to practice judo throws were he could see. As soon as the match started I showed my bluff and immediately pulled him into a deep half guard, a place a wrestler type like him would feel confused. After a sweep, I snuck to his back and cranked a bow and arrow choke. My friends cheered from their distant seats in the stands. I was now deep in the no-man’s land of the late tournament that was unknown to everyone I knew; that is everyone except for Comprido.
After about an hour break I fought this kid in the quarter finals that had a really similar game to mine. The entire match I felt like I had no control but it was still somehow close. I swept him, he swept me back, he nearly got a couple of submissions on me. My teammates were far from me in stands so there was no one to tell me the score but I knew time was running out. He rolled away as I went passed his guard but I jumped on his back right as the buzzer rang. As the ref lifted my hand I honestly had no idea what the score was. For the first time all day I was tired but there was no time for that as the semi final, and hence the meddling round, was next.
I focused on my affirmations. ‘You are meant to be here. You trained hard for this. You were already one of the best in the room before the day began. And you still are.’ I was already in third place no matter what, but no, I could do this.
The next guy came out strong, stacking me up on my head after I pulled guard. He had a scary look; a white dude with cornrows just seemed intimidating. He pushed me around on the mat for a bit as I scurried upside down in a ball looking for something with no success. As he tried to stack me up again I got the chance to grab his belt. Using my grip on his belt I closed a triangle around his neck without either of his own arms. He tried hard to posture up for a second but quickly tapped. Afterwards, my opponent asked me what that submission was and I told him I honestly did not know, I had never done it before. I had never done any of this before but I had faked my way this far. But I had to focus; I had a chance to take this whole thing. Luckily the submission was quick and I still had a lot of gas left.
In the other semi final that would decide my opponent, there was a Brazilian and a young American. After a little back and forth the American got a nasty armbar, the Brazilian flopped around but would not tap and his arm got bent back. I think I may have even yelled for him to tap before the ref stepped in and saved him from further damage. After the match the American’s coach cheered, it was none other the Saulo Ribiero, the former Michael Jordan of Jiu Jitsu. I had studied Saulo’s book on the plane out to California. So great, he has a hall of famer for a coach. But I knew I was always dangerous. Back to my affirmations before the finals ‘Everyone else here looks like a fool. They wear their gi like it’s a Halloween costume and pajamas. I was reborn on a beach in Brazil in this gi. My gi is still covered in blood, sweat, and amniotic fluid. I was born to wear this gi’. They called us to the mat.
It was one of the quicker fights of my career. Within ten seconds I was flipped in the air onto my back. Twenty seconds later he picked me up, rolled me, and jumped on my back. After staving off a lapel choke, mounted triangle, and an armbar for several breaths I had to tap to a combination of the above. The kid simply out classed me. If I would have faced him in the first round he would have beat me then too. When I realized he still had braces on his teeth, I asked him how old he was, 17. This was his day, and it turns out it was the first of many others for him. This second place was the best I ever got. I shook his hand and slunk off the mat.
I was sitting there on the ground in a daze when Saulo walked up to me. He told me that I fought well and that I had a lot of talent. He knew my name and gave me a lot of respect. He was so humble to even talk to me and I was honored to meet him.
Standing on the second step of the podium, one gets the distinct sense that you are almost literally a stepping stone to the champion. There were 120 people at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day there are 119 losers. They cannot all be stepping stones. They all needed to be here for the sake of the art. If no one but two people came to the World championship there would be a champion decided, but that would be a dull champion. We make sure that Jiu Jitsu stays sharp and that if anyone wants that title, I will make damn sure that they are sharper than me. I may not win every tournament I enter, I may never win a match again but I will keep going out there because I’m no stepping stone, I’m a whet stone.
– Jim Barrett