Guest contributor Paul Ahern is a writer currently living in the Boston area. A former college wrestler and high school coach, he has recently begun his study of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Paul blogs at Lessons of the Half Nelson.
When I was sixteen, after a night of "Quarters" with some friends in the beach town where I spent my school vacations, I found myself near the dunes with a pretty girl I'd been pining for all summer. After bearing with my fumbling for a half hour or so, she took control of the situation and pushed me to my back, smiling as she closed in.
"I, uh, can't do this..." I said.
"It's okay," she insisted, thinking that I was politely deferring to her honor.
"It's not that," I couldn't spell honor at that moment, "I just can never be on my back...I'm a wrestler."
True story. Sad story. A story that might raise suspicions in suspicious minds.
Besides the fact that this kinda thing didn't come my way often (and certainly the opportunity with this girl never presented itself again), I was not a top recruit for the University of Iowa or anything.
What the hell was I doing to my life?
I was comforted to learn that while he was at Penn State, future NFL running back Matt Suhey couldn't perform the bench press properly as he, also a wrestler, wouldn't keep his shoulders pressed to the bench.
"I don't sleep on my back. I don't make love on my back. I don't do anything on my back..." His teammate recalled Suhey saying.
And Suhey (to my knowledge) didn't wrestle much beyond high school.
Avoiding your back is one of the first things you learn, and becoming invulnerable or, at least, less vulnerable, requires an almost religious devotion as:
Your job is to put other people to their back...you work towards that every moment you're on the mat!
Putting someone on their back who wants desperately not to be there, and avoiding going to your back as someone who drills techniques that enable him to do so, tries desperately to put you on yours.
Simply: that's wrestling.
You build your body around the relentless defending of going to your back. Your body develops and adapts to the task: sloping shoulders and thickening necks.
That was fifteen years of competition and around 10-15 years of coaching and hacking around.
I have begun Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training. First class:
"Okay, from your closed guard..." The instructor said, and positioned me on my back...on a mat.
He's taught what wrestlers would call a reversal, but they call a "sweep:" Bottom man pull one of the top guy's sleeves across, reach around and grab his far pit, and a little this, a little that, come on top.
During the live-go's, or "specifics," I'm placed against a blue belt (couple years experience) and he's on top, I hit the sweep and we come back; now he's a bit more serious about my hips, he can feel that I wrestled and settles in. I disband with the technique and do as I would in wrestling, bridge and arch, and hip heist under him so my belly is down, now, I'm thinking "up and out"-- stand up and escape -- it's the most basic of wrestling moves and one I've done thousands and thousands of times.
But...it's exactly where he'd want me to go. Giving up your back and getting caught is the worst position you can be in: you are vulnerable to chokes of all sort, which eventually comes my way. He gives a pinch of a rear-naked choke. Yikes! And for the next few days, I go on to have emotional recall of post-tonsilectomy recovery.
"You don't want to do that." He tells me.
We go back and I have to work the technique...for three minutes...from my back...a position, that if I knew back then that I was going to one day have to deal with it, I would have certainly taken better advantage of its beach dune possibilities.
My turn on top, I can't help but smile: This guy ain't moving me. Sure, the man I'm fighting has his legs wrapped around me, but he's flat on his back. I can just stay here all day...
The goal from top is to "pass his guard:" cross over his legs to a side position; that's three points in competitive BJJ and it also puts you in striking range of some good top submissions...but more, it takes you out of harm's way.
But the muscle memory that over thirty years has conditioned me to maintain my hips as such, and keep him flat, misleads me and I couldn't care less about passing the guard -- "I got him flat, you see!"; I begin smiling, looking around to see who might be observing how well I'm doing and...he's doing these funny things with my sleeves...and a leg comes over my shoulder...
And, hold on: stars...
Break. We thank each other for the beating and get water leaning against a padded wall. "It'll come," he says.
Yes, I think, all I have to do is simply reverse thirty years of conditioning, and now with a body not quite as sharp to the task. That should be easy.
BJJ, as advertised, is a martial art that, if performed accurately, eliminates the advantages created by size, strength and athletic ability.
As well: aggression.
The attacked, especially the smaller and weaker, usually finds themselves on their back.
The proficient takedown man, that the wrestler walking into the BJJ academy usually is or should be, puts himself in the BJJ practitioner's wheelhouse: ninety percent of his BJJ training has him on his back, and the art that has been developed and fine-tuned over centuries and centuries favors that position and has bestowed it with dozens of fight-ending possibilities.
Like wrestling, competitive BJJ uses a point system where a takedown is worth two. Seasoned wrestlers can do quite well in the lower level BJJ tournaments by simply getting the takedown and, even if they can't pass the guard, staying out of his opponent's less-polished submissions.
Truth be told, and I'm a bit reticent about telling this out fear that karma will be pay me back with dozens of triangle chokes and arm-bars, but early on, I caught a purple belt instructor (six years training) with a takedown, fell into the half-guard and, with about twenty pound weight advantage, blanketed him for the rest of the fight.
In a competition, I won.
That approach, which embarrasses me today, gets you nowhere in BJJ. Sure, I guess I could defend myself and say that I was just avoiding getting choked or submitted. But that's no excuse, as that's the game.
I should've opened up and attempted to pass guard, exposed myself a bit; tried things. Avoiding the choke in that way, is not unlike the wrestler who stalls because he doesn't want to get pinned.
The only way to get better at BJJ, it's become apparent to me, is to put myself in the position for which the art was designed: taken down and on my back.
As a wrestler, I've got a pretty good chance of not given up a double or single leg to most BJJs, I have to do what they do versus me and concede the takedown position: Pull Guard, as it's called; grab his sleeves or lapels and pull him into your closed guard as you fall.
In doing so, a task which, by the way, is not as easy as you'd think, I am effectively doing what I could parallel to a quarterback handing off to a blitzing linebacker.
And while I have misgivings about passing guards, these guys do not; and while I have little game from top, these guys have more, enough, to make the next half hour or so pretty miserable for me.
Let's see: I've given up the one place I feel comfortable (on my feet), to take a position where I feel least comfortable (on my back), and where I will find myself getting beat up for a while.
Physicist Richard Feynman said that the first step to understanding quantum physics was to forfeit the rules that govern the rest of the world as you know it.
I find myself every bit as disoriented and incredulous as Feynman's students must have been initially.
Surely you must be joking, Professor Gracie?
As a coach, I espoused to my wrestlers that the sport was still a game like soccer or football:
"It's all about points and time. Points and time..."
I would say, yes, omitting the pin...if you're in the mix, you don't even think about giving up the pin.
Similarly, the Master at my school talks about "The game." What's your game? This is the game. What do you want to add to your game? This guy you might face on Saturday has this game...etc.
Looking at it as such, grounds the experience. In wrestling, you are going to encounter bigger, stronger, even tougher guys, but that hardly ends it -- it might for a fight or a debate in public opinion "who's the toughest guy in the neighborhood"-- but the game of wrestling, just as the game of basketball when it leaves the playground for more organized play, favors the guy who works within the demands of the rules.
I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I have seen a physically more powerful wrestler manhandle the other guy -- marching into him, snapping his head, for six minutes -- and walk off the loser, scratching his head as he stared at the scoreboard...
Yes, you threw me, but I spun behind and got the two. You got an "Aww, that was sick..." from the crowd. But I got two.
A wrestler likes to play the mat. When you shoot in on me to get my legs, I am inches away from the edge -- "out of bounds" the ref whistles; when I take my shot at you, the entire mat was at your back, and you drop to your butt in bounds: Two.
Within every game, there are specifics and strategies that are imperceptible, that only to those in-the-know mean much, but they are the difference in the game.
I smiled unknowingly in those first BJJ specifics not because I'm an asshole (I might be an asshole, but it's a moot point on this occasion), but because ingrained in me by years of wrestling is a value for maintaining top position that doesn't apply to the BJJ game.
In the 1986 NCAA Wrestling Finals, Jude Skove of Ohio State, rides out his opponent for the remaining thirty seconds, and holds onto a slim point advantage. I wore out that tape watching Skove maintain the top. That was something I worked towards emulating; I am still in awe of it.
That's the wrestling game.
I have read several blog posts and forum entries about how annoying wrestlers can be when they first get into BJJ: "blanketing," "smothering," and "bouncing up after getting a takedown."
I cringe thinking of that naive exuberance that I (and most wrestlers) have in our first BJJ days, and am more grateful for the patience of the experienced BJJ players than you could imagine.
But, in our defense...
We are taking on a new game, and occasionally fall into moments during the humbling experience where we hit something that would be good in our old game and we can't help but watch it sail over the fence.
My apologies. But it's nothing your armbar won't cure me of.
Yes, being on my back is the toughest adjustment. Not just me being there, but the concept: I have taken guys down and been on their back and instinctively shot a half, sending them to their back and me into their guard.
Great for wrestling. Horrible for BJJ.
The submissions are tough, too. You're rolling with a guy who is nothing but amiable and instructive, and rather than just sweep you for two, he grabs your collar and begins applying a choke. You tap.
For a moment, you think: That wasn't very nice. I thought this guy liked me.
It's like my father, a city kid, who never quite grasped the concept of wrestling. I would try to show him a move and he would feint like he was going to kick or punch me, "That's what I'd do if I were on the subway and you tried that."
There's a bit of that to being choked for the first time.
Also, so much of BJJ technique involves grabbing the Gi (the robe; uniform). In wrestling, grabbing the other guy's singlet is a penalty point. That might be a good instinct to grab clothes, but because it's not allowed in wrestling, and in practice we often wear layers of clothes for weight loss, wrestlers develop what could be called a "fingerless" or "mitten" grab; it's just one of those things you take for granted in wrestling room, until some football player walks past and wants to give it a try:
"Can't grab clothes!" Everyone blurts at the kid.
In BJJ class, I find myself for an instant wanting to stop action when I am immobilized by a tug on my pant leg.
BJJ restores the instinct that the football player rightfully employed and we were so offended by.
And tempo. Learning how fast or slow to play it is the jazz musician's ongoing conversation with himself. The BJJ player, too. Again: depends upon your game.
As a college wrestler, your opponent is awarded a "riding time" point for maintaining top control for a minute longer than you did. Consequently, when on bottom, you explode up, and if brought back down, you explode back up with that clock in your head running against you.
More, if not pressured by your internal watchdog, then the referee's "Improve position...action..." and stalling warning and then, penalty point does it.
And while there has been debate about incorporating more stalling penalties for BJJ, that being "motionless goes against the jiu jitsu philosophy" and others believe that conservation of energy and motion is the philosophy, BJJ clearly doesn't promote in its technique the explosion and constant motion that wrestling demands by the rules.
The wrestler who employs such tempo is commonly referred to in forums as a "White Belt Spaz", and finds himself, creating unnecessary exhaustion, walking into some rather nasty submissions by a fresher, calmer opponent.
All over YouTube are videos of wrestlers going against BJJ guys.
High school wrestler and his Blue Belt buddy. The Blue Belt gets the triangle choke.
Greco-Roman Olympic Alternate gets arm-barred by Purple Belt.
"Wrestling vs. BJJ" some of the videos read. A bit misleading, I'd say; as if, this a fair contest to decide the finer martial art.
BJJ is submission grappling. Wrestling is not. Wrestling avoids techniques; there is much uncomfortable to being dominated, but almost nothing that would require submission.
Those submissions have as little to do with wrestling as punching does to BJJ.
It's possible the high school wrestler could hit the takedown and throw a series of twenty punches that KO the kid.
That has happened.
And Olympic Gold Medalist wrestlers have been locked out by journeymen BJJ guys in less than twenty seconds.
That, too, has happened.
BJJ is designed specifically for self-defense; the street fight. Wrestling and the practice of it can be applied quite well to it, but does, as a self-defense, have some holes (some argue that all martial arts do).
However, anyone intent on being a serious competitor in MMA needs to come to terms with both sports and their practitioners.
I must say, either I am too old or the debate is, but I couldn't care less about "Who wins, wrestler or...?"
I just know that I would be a fool to waste my time, money and Advil without giving myself totally to the teachings of BJJ and putting aside wrestling enough to allow it.
Let Bert Sugar debate the imagined fight...
My main concerns are getting better at passing the guard, escaping my hips, not giving up my back and developing game.
I want my closed guard to be as beautiful as Jude Skove's winning ride.