When he came here
he was a clumsy fuck.
And you know, some people are like that, not everyone gets into high school athletics, and that's OK. A lot of it is really just learning. People make excuses for a lot of things, "it's not in my genes," "I've always been clumsy," but people can learn to be athletic. Athleticism isn't just about being born fast, being born strong, a lot of it has to do with learned skills, it's a mind-body thing.
So he came here and sure, he lifted weights, I mean you couldn't tell but he said he did, he did a couple other things like that, I was like, OK, let's see what we can teach him.
I don't know how other places start new guys off, but we always teach them the escapes first, as far as grappling goes. How to get out of bad positions, if they've got your back, how to get the vines out and roll into them, into a neutral position. If they've got mount, how to shrimp out of it. When they learn the escapes, we'll show them a few submissions. And this kid picked it up OK. When we started teaching him submissions, arm-locks mainly, he picked those up OK. After two weeks, he trained maybe twelve hours in those two weeks, I sat down with him, told him to pull guard, and I gave him different set ups, different opportunities. I over-extended arm, kept an elbow in tight, posted myself on an arm. He responded with an arm-bar, triangle, omo plata. And you know, we're not like a formal school or anything, I mean no one's ever going to wear a gi in here, but like the kid really listened, he was a good learner.
But every time we put him on the mat and he rolled with someone, he got dominated.
"Aggressive," Bubba told him. He'd slid out from side-mount, and him and the other guy were scrambling for position; he's going for a single-leg takedown but the other guy's shifting his hips around. "Get aggressive! Don't let him pull guard. Don't let him pull guard. No. You gotta get aggressive when you scramble like that, it's who wants it more." He did not get position, the other guy pulled guard, then swept him into mount.
"Goddamn it," and he said this with that geeky smile, but the frustration was real.
With all of the technical stuff with jiu-jitsu, it's weird that, at this level of competition at least, the game can be decided by a scramble; a takedown or submission that gets stuffed, an escape that creates too much distance, when things like that happen, it's whoever can respond the fastest and establish a secure position. Whoever gets the under-hook or body-lock, whoever gets the single-leg takedown on the ground, that's the guy that gets the advantage. And this is one of the things that cannot be taught, the guy has to learn it. Every scramble is different, sometimes you can't go for the under-hook, sometimes you can't pull guard. It's just knowing where you are, where the other guy is, and being fast enough to do something and being aggressive enough to make it happen - athleticism.
The kid was the same way when it came to stand-up sparring. He knew some rudimentary boxing, which was basically all you really needed, the rest is just good habits and, like jiu-jitsu, rehearsing the same situations a thousand times until they're like reflexes. I mean he could kick a bag, he had good leg kicks, he could threw a decent hook for a little guy, but if you put him in the ring with anybody -
"Don't look down, keep your head up!" Bubba told him. "It's the punches you don't see comin that'll hurt you. Keep your head up, look at him."
The kid wasn't necessarily afraid, that wasn't the problem, he was never backed into a corner, he was always the one moving forward. But like I said, it was the athletic thing again, there is something that cannot be taught, that the guy has to learn on his own, he's got to learn how to move, and I'm not talking about, he's got to pivot on his left toe when he throws a left hook, there's a confidence that athletes have in their movement, you know, a sureness, like they're making something happen. He didn't have that. He could throw a hook, and he threw them in the ring, but if you looked at his face, you couldn't tell he was boxing, it looked like he was thinking.
I watched him, he doubled up the jab, then he threw the right hand, but it was too short, he's already thinking about the counter-punch that might stop him, and because he didn't even try to connect the counter-punch does stop him.
He had this funny line he used, whenever the whistle was blown for the round he would walk back to his corner and as he leaned forward against the ropes with his head between his shoulders he'd say, "I am fuckin up."
"Hey, it's OK, it's a lot of practice, a lot of learning," that's what we told him, but we all knew the number. He may never pick it up.
* * *
There's this 17 year old kid, Giovanni, been boxing since he was 13. He's scrawny, too, but he can swing. For some reason, Giovanni meets this kid, and I don't know, there's some tension between them. Like they roll a couple times, and they're a lot more competitive, they aren't tapping when they should be, I guess they just don't like each other at first.
Anyways one day it's just Bubba, Giovanni, and the kid up at the gym. Bubba is like 6'3" and 210lbs, so sparring was basically going to be between the two little guys. They glove-up, they warm-up and get loose for a few minutes, and then Bubba tells them to start making the shots count, make the kicks sting, and he blows the whistle.
Giovanni of course kicks the fucking shit out of the guy.
Now the problem with this kid, is he won't let his hands go, he's one of those nice kids that doesn't like making people feel bad1. But Gio didn't care, he was tagging the fuck out of him, he's got a killer right hand, and he knows exactly where to drill it. Bang, bang, bang, he's not fuckin around.
"Come on," Bubba says to him. "Hit him. He's hitting you, ain't he?"
You know, and for a while the kid still doesn't make a move. I mean he's throwing punches, but like I said he's thinking about doing it, and not doing it. And it's not until Gio starts mixing the low kicks in that he decides he needs to hit back.
Let me tell you about the muay thai low kick. In the mixed martial arts world, this is one of the little things that everyone has experience with, whether they are a kickboxer to begin with, a straight-up boxer, a grappler, everyone knows what a low kick can do to you. It's not something that knocks you out. It's not something that hurts a lot when you get hit with it. It's the accumulation of damage, over two minutes, over a round, over two rounds, that stops you. The guy using it keeps throwing it out there, on its own when he's got the distance and opportunity, or as part of a series of attacks. It hits you once, you feel that slap, that contact of bone against flesh, you can walk through it if you want to. It hits you three times, four times, you start to notice. The muscle tissue in your leg swells up with fluid, it feels swollen and stiff, and then it starts to hurt. Invincible men have been stopped by one too many low kicks. Mark Hunt took three high kicks to the head from Crocop in their Pride match-up (this is something that would kill a normal man); Hunt kept swinging. Jerome LeBanner mixed up low kicks while he outboxed Hunt; LeBanner has a 10-megaton right hook, but that's not what put Hunt on the ground, it was his leg exploding into a billion pieces of black and blue agony when LeBanner hit it that one last time, that one last kick he could not take.
So Gio starts throwing in the leg kicks, the short kid doesn't like it. He thinks, I'm gonna kick this asshole back.
He chains a very basic, bread-and-butter combination, jab, right hand, low kick. The jab hits leather, the right does not connect, but he steps into the kick and drives his shin bone into the soft meat of Giovanni's hamstring.
Gio for a second, not even that, he looks back at the kid. They both know exactly what had just happened. The kid had gotten angry and he'd thrown that kick with the intent to hurt. To Giovanni, it meant it was time to get even, like he took just that half-second to come back with that right hand again. I think the other kid, who had probably never tried to hurt anyone before in his life, regretted that kick the second he threw it.
And Bubba, watching from the ropes, was delighted, he was ecstatic. "Yes! - I love it."
Giovanni got his vengeance. When three minutes were up, he had turned the kid's leg into a black-and-blue mess. Every time the kid had tried to bull forward with his head down, Giovanni punished him with uppercuts, followed up with that wicked right hand he has, made him pay. Every time the kid hung out in front a little too long, Gio kicked his lead leg.
But for the first time in his life, the kid had made his presence known. Jab, right hand, low kick - bang, motherfucker, I'm here.
* * *
It starts out slow. The kid still has a problem with letting his hands go, getting comfortable throwing a real punch, but once he's warmed up a little, gotten hit a little bit himself, he relaxes.
It's like the first time you break a rule, or your first kiss. It's a shock at first, maybe, you're shocked at yourself for a while, you're still nervous about it the next couple of times, but before you know it, it's a habit, it's instinct, and then you feel like you were born to do it.
He still can't shoot a double-leg or a single-leg takedown for shit, we don't even bother trying to teach him inside or outside leg trips just yet, but the aggression is there. If he got stuffed on the way in, he didn't give up his back as easily, didn't resort to giving up position immediately.
He's always had to roll (roll is to grappling as spar is to kickboxing) with heavier guys, that's the price you pay for being a scrawny fuck, which in jiu-jitsu at least is a good thing, because you can't muscle something like an escape, you have to develop some technique to make space and move like you have to if the guy's got ten or twenty pounds on you. Anyways one day the kid rolls with a heavier guy, and he's on top, in guard.
Being on top is all about passing guard, getting past the guy's legs and taking a more "dominant position," away from the legs so he can't use them to upset your balance, keep your center of mass off him, etc. While you're doing that, the guy on bottom is using his legs to keep you in guard, and waiting for you to over-extend somehow, if you reach over too much, post yourself on an arm, lean to one side, he will try to use one of the many ways to hyper-extend a joint (break your arm) or choke you or sweep you (upset your balance, roll you onto your back, and take some dominant position).
Back to the kid; passing guard is probably one of the hardest things you're ever going to do in jiu-jitsu, and what this kid has learned to do, is to put pressure on (there is a generic passing technique, knee in the center, hands on hips, push back, back, back, until you break guard, then slide over) and more or less wait for the guy to go for a sub (many of which involve guard having to be open) and just react quickly enough to avoid it and hopefully at the same time capitalize on bad positioning by passing guard, which as far as strict rolling goes is OK. He almost gets caught in a guillotine choke, but this is not something you have to worry about if you protect your neck and tuck your chin.
Next the heavier kid tries for a triangle choke, opens his legs, and this is where the scrawny kid makes his move. He shoots his head to the ceiling as soon as he feels the attacking leg creeping over his shoulder, shrugs out of the triangle, and slides around the other guy's hips into side mount. And then from there it's like something clicked, he kicks his leg over the guy's head, tries to go for a kimura, but he hasn't secured his base, hasn't kept his weight on the guy. He can't keep him on his back, but he responds immediately, takes control of the head and shoulders.
The bigger kid shoots one shoulder to the ceiling, and sits-out - this is a wrestling maneuver meant to get someone controlling your back from the front off of you, and from here the idea is to scramble into a better position, ideally you want to swing around the guy's hips and take his back, or go for the single leg takedown off the ground and take side control. But it's a scramble, everything's up in the air, and somehow this short fucker slides around and takes the guy's back. He gets the seatbelt on the other guy, rolls and pulls the other guy with him while keeping his chest tight against the body he's pulling, and vines his legs in.
The round ends before he can get the rear naked choke2, but for someone who sucks at scrambling, the kid did good.
Things speed up. He still has a problem with blocking with his face but he's comfortable in the ring, he hits the guy in front of him and afterwards talks to them about whatever nerdy subject he's fixated on for the day.
On the mat, almost out of nowhere, the kid can scramble. If he stuffs an arm-bar, he's on the guy, gets that underhook and wrestles for side mount or swings around to take the back. Sometimes he gets it, sometimes he doesn't, but the important thing is he's grappling, he's not just avoiding submissions, avoiding bad positions, going for good positions. He's taking risks when given the opportunity, and because he's moving like he's already decided it's going to happen, he's making shit happen.
Of course there are some guys in the gym he still can't touch, and he still makes plenty of mistakes, but he's passed that first stage, from thinking about boxing or thinking about grappling, to just boxing and just grappling, applying what he knows instead of rehearsing what he knows, and the first step's always the hardest.
1 - You wouldn't believe it but half the guys that come out here are afraid of hitting someone else whenever we box, like they're afraid of hurting somebody's feelings or something. Bubba or one of the other experienced guys always has to tell them, "he won't get mad if you hit him, promise he won't." Some places, if someone gets punched in the face, they get told to stop. At any boxing gym, any place where guys pick up mixed martial arts, if someone keeps getting hit in the head it's their own damn fault because they are "blocking with their face."
2 - The write up for this sucks, "the hardest part is sneaking up behind the guy," no, in grappling, particularly Brazilian jiu-jitsu, position is the most important key to going for a submission. If someone makes a mistake, botches a submission, does not respond well to a sweep, a scramble, a good grappler can "take the back," secure his body against the other person's back, and vine his legs around the other person's legs to secure his position. This is the bread-and-butter prelude to the rear naked choke.