Do It Yourself: A Jiu Jitsu Story

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“The goats are on your car again,” my friend Troy laughed, and I looked out the glass doors of the ramshackle building.

Sure enough, the herd of semi-tamed goats that wandered the hillside that housed our “dojo,” had mounted up on the roof of my vehicle in order to reach some of the more choice roughage of the low hanging paw-paw trees.

The building was an old brick rectangle, a holdover from when the land had housed a rendering plant and administration buildings.

A friend had purchased the property, scrapped out the steel and brass from the plant to pay some of the tab, and allowed us use of some of the Mad Max wonderland that the area had become.

At the time, a small group of us had acquired some old, gnarly wrestling mats from a guy someone knew, and had turned the space into an area we could train kickboxing, and jiu jitsu- my first taste of the deceptively named “gentle art.”

No one really knew what they were doing, and we chose techniques to drill from a couple of beat up Eddie Bravo books- none of us owned a gi except my brother, who had done more training than any of us and so was our default coach. 

Those were pretty glorious times.

No power or water meant cleaning the mats by hand with towels at the beginning of each practice, and training until it was too dark to see a punch or a kimura coming at you.

The long easement that led down from our own property to this section made for the perfect end of practice soul-crusher, and we ran it after sessions like we’d seen real Muay Thai guys do it- running, hands up over the head, exhausted from a long practice but feeling the comradery only suffering together can bring.

The ever present herd of goats gave that place its official name, which we called the “Goat Gym,” and through the Virginia summer we sweated buckets in that place.

All good things come to an end, and we all did different things for a while, some guys continuing their training elsewhere, others falling prey to work or partying.

Eventually, many of us came back to training, and when I turned 30, I dove back into Jiu Jitsu with several friends at a local MMA place.

I learned a lot there, but the team spirit and crew mentality that the humble little dojo we’d had before was gone, combined with a certain amount of tension over local politics and media hit-pieces that facilitated our eventual decision to train elsewhere.

I struggled away, watched guys I crushed on the mats every week get belted up in a decidedly preferential style, and remained a white belt for somewhere close to 2 years.

A move to the forlorn and isolated Northwest coast took me out of training for some months, and when I came back east, I dove into training again, at this point feeling like I’d be a white belt forever.

At some point, a guy came into the school who was visiting the area for work, and his tattoos and Marduk shirt signaled to me that he wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the rest of the gym-goers- an extremely conservative religious crowd that I never really fit in with.

After getting to roll with him, alongside my brother, he asked the question: “Why the fuck are you guys wearing white belts?”

Hearing our story, he only had one more question: “Do you have somewhere else we can train?”

Good luck for us- he turned out to be a black belt under a legendary lineage, and he wanted to make every lesson a private lesson.

Re-enter the gnarly old wrestling mats.

We acquired a 10’x10’ section of mats, and threw them down on the floor of the Wolves’ longhall, and started training in earnest.

Every night of the week, and sometimes on weekends, we went through grueling sessions with our new coach, only occasionally still going to the school, but mostly just training with 2-4 people in our own spot.

Eventually, we were put through the wringer, and awarded our blue belts.

We never went back to the other spot, deciding instead to build our own gym.

This time no mean abandoned building in the woods, but a real space dedicated to grappling and strength training, with attention put into the aesthetic so that it would be a place you would want to come train.

We named it “Devotion,” and our small sessions continued on the floor there while we built the place.

We’ve had our temple running for a couple years now.

Matthias is now a purple belt who just won PanAms in his division, and there’s four stripes on my blue belt- still a beginner, after all this time, but as my coach always tells me, especially moving closer to 40, I’m in for a long marathon.

I teach white belt classes 5 nights a week in our space, and we are really blessed with excellent friends (many of which happen to be black belts these days) who come in on a regular schedule to assess progress, teach seminars, and see to the students advancement.

Jiu Jitsu has taught me a lot, and I know I’m still in the early phases of that journey.

One of the things I’ve learned from the way we’ve had to go about things- first too broke to train anywhere but our own floors, and now, needing to be self-sufficient and not subject to the whims of the ever moving goalposts of polite society, is to “do it yourself.”

Especially in the Age of Plagues, our ability to go train is not something we can take for granted.

Jiu Jitsu is like a black market commodity in many places right now, and for those of you in places like the UK or other harshly regulated areas- I feel for you.

But learn the lesson: you cannot rely on what others provide for you. This goes for everything in life- social media platforms, gyms, jobs, whatever- you have to always be working to “do it yourself,” or to not need whatever it is they’ve got. 

No gym?

If you have one or two friends, throw down $500 and get a 10’x10’ section of mats, and decide who is going to give up the garage, or yard, or living room, or office space, and just train. If it’s not important enough to you to use a little ingenuity, it’s not important enough to you.

I’ve seen photos of guys who have turned a tiny office into mat space, and put a standing desk in their kitchen, just so they’d have enough room to roll- no takedowns!

My brother has trained with some of the biggest names in Jiu Jitsu in their front yards in LA, with a couple mats chucked down on the lumpy dirt.

I’ve trained in the woods on a tarp stretched out and staked down, in cold weather in a hoodie and sweats.

It can be done- if there’s not a way, make the way.

No coach?

YouTube has countless hours of painstakingly curated techniques that you can watch and practice with friends, not to mention subscription sites and so on.

If we could learn our first submissions and sweeps from pictures in a book written by a guy who was probably on DMT at the time (bro- have you even thought about 9/11?…on Ayahuasca?), you’ll be fine with modern technology.

After all is said and done, and your gym re-opens, you might find that you’ve put together a group of killers- and if one of them is a high enough belt level…

You might never go back.

The point is: anything is possible.

Whatever you decide is important to you in this life, you can find a way to do it.

If it’s an obsession, you’ll make it happen- get out there and get after it. 

PS:

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-Paul