Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Takes Root in the Heartland: A Reflection on the Sense of It
by Maurice Stevens
Slap hands and bump fists
It’s been about a year and a half now. Three, sometimes four times each week, I spend an hour or two in a thick cotton gi (pronounced “gee”) cinched at the waist with a ritualistically tied belt, its color indicating my rank. Class hasn’t started yet, and I’m crouched on a mat edging toward my partner who has folded into a similar position just in front of me. Even before touching one another, we are strategic. We move our feet from this angle to that, we scoot forward, we keep our knees and shins placed for optimal defense, and we look for points of possible attack. We make plans for potential parries and establish postures of defense. Our strategy is bodily, our intelligence fleshy. We prepare to “roll.”
With a sense of casual relaxation that increases as our skill improves over the years, my partner and I slap hands and bump fists to indicate that we are ready to start. In feints and clutches we grasp folds of thick fabric at collar, or sleeve, or knee, or elbow. We feel along seams, finding the body’s built-in handles and the gi’s natural grip points, sensing for leverage, apprehending movement, pushing and pulling, seeking intimate and deadly contact with some of the body’s weak points – his spine, her joints, my neck. In smiles and grimaces, with sighs and deep inhalations we engage in self-defense and attacking techniques intended to bring our partner to submission by stopping the flow of blood to his brain, or stressing the ligaments of her joints to the point of acquiescence. It is at this point that we slap the mat or the body of our partner. We call this “tapping out,” and it is at once a gesture that signals one’s recognition of one’s own completely vulnerable and compromised position, and an indication that following through to breaking the arm, bringing on unconsciousness, exploding the knee, causing suffocation, dislocating the shoulder, fracturing the elbow, or introducing other painful conclusions is not required to bring temporary closure to our encounter.
More often than not, I am the one tapping out – hoping to do so soon enough to prevent injury, and late enough to offer sufficient resistance to improve my partner’s skill and, perhaps, provide myself an opportunity to escape the trap they have sprung while offering one of my own. I sit up, as we quietly debrief after our roll, there are ten or so other rolling duos, clumped here and there like biscuit batter on a blue cookie sheet. I listen to the breathing, the occasional explosions of movement as “sweeps” are made, positions reversed, backs taken, and mounts secured. One hears laughter from time to time as well, and feels the air thickening with the warm moisture of our bodies’ exertions. The tension that comes out in grunts, laughs, and bodily sensations belies the intensity of the scene of men and women locked in this most serious play that is neither unbridled eroticism nor brute violence. There’s a reason former and current military, law enforcement, athletes, professional dancers, martial artists, and self-defense enthusiasts are here. There’s something in our embodied curriculum that draws and feeds, something that satisfies and addicts.
Whether it is the rapid growth of the Ultimate Fighting Championships now syndicated and showing on cable television and “Pay Per View,” or the almost ubiquitous Mixed Martial Arts studios surfacing in cities and suburbs across America, it is ever more clear that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has arrived to the United States, and has set roots that have found their ways into and are satisfying some serious desires in the loam of American identity. All across the country, thousands of practitioners meet in matted basements, garage studios, and large academies to lay in choke-holds, to lock joints, and to engage in physical combat and self-defense strategies in joyful and often painful abandon. Virtual space, too, shows signs of the rapid sprouting of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. As I write this, I search YouTube for jiu jitsu videos and receive more than four million results! There are now more than one thousand “home grown” Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts in the United States (a remarkable feat given that in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu the average time it takes to earn a black belt is about ten years!), and for every black belt level practitioner we can estimate another thirty-five to forty “rollers” below them.
Since Royce Gracie began dominating Ultimate Fighting Championships in the early 1990’s, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has been gaining appeal in the United States and across the globe. Why? Because it works! In the early days of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) where opponents of any martial background would meet in battle with very limited rules, no time limits, in matches that would end only when a fighter, the fighter’s coaches, or the referee called the match, people were drawn by the ageless question: What fighting style is the most effective? Royce Gracie burst on the MMA scene showing that once a fight went to the ground (and in a context where clinching and take downs were entirely allowed, fights with jiu jitsu practitioners would inevitably go to the ground), no system was better on the ground than BJJ. Moreover, BJJ training allows one to provide and encounter 100% resistance when training without seriously injuring one’s training partner. This was important because practitioners of other martial arts, while able to perform well in the controlled setting of a dojo with partners who allowed them to perfect techniques without resistance or the bodily response to realistic threat, were finding that they could not reliably apply their knowledge in “real life” situations. BJJ, though, in regular class settings and in competition provides practitioners the opportunity to apply their knowledge in situations that simulate actual combat or ‘real life’ self-defense scenarios. In this way, I can see that this or that technique actually works. I recall rolling recently with a newer member of our academy who easily weighed eighty pounds more than I, who was much stronger, and who obviously had a college wrestling background. Nevertheless, he didn’t have jiu jitsu and his strength and technique were unable to protect his weaker joints and vulnerable neck! Anyone paying any attention to popular culture over the past decade would find it difficult to miss the seemingly inexorable growth in the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts and BJJ in the United States.
But what sense are we to make of this surge in popularity and how are we to understand the unprecedented cultural uptake of BJJ, a form that from its introduction was marked as “foreign,” in a national body famous for defining itself against the “other” – especially others racialized as non-white. It is safe to say that as a “newcomer” to the shores of the United States, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not following the traditional and much vaunted path of assimilation into American culture taken by other immigrating combat sports like Tae Kwon Do and Aikido. (Despite this difference, one nevertheless can sometimes feel the cringing of traditionalist upper belts and Gracie insiders at the occasional throwing around of the term “jitz” by up and coming American practitioners.)
There are features of the BJJ wave that are very American. Its form (the franchising, the struggles over trademark, the market share, intellectual property rights, and so on) is very much in line with American capitalism. One makes an “investment” in BJJ. It can cost $12,000 to earn a black belt in the decade of “mat time” one needs to put in for it. But the content doesn’t change. With the exception of No-gi competition that reflects a strong American wrestling influence and reinvention, the names for particular holds, techniques, positions, and arcane knowledge are still in use, even when spoken by people who don’t know Portuguese and have never been to Brazil. At least for now, making claims on authenticity by citing the lineage of one’s training and tracing one’s BJJ roots back to “the Gracies” is still the key to claiming cultural capital in the BJJ world.
BJJ and American exceptionalism
We are lined up in rank order against the padded wall after warms-ups, and wait for the instructor to start tonight’s “beginner’s” class. While half of us are white-belted beginners like me who have been practicing for less than two years, the other half of the class wear blue, purple, brown, and even black belts, demonstrating the claim that proficiency in Gracie jiu jitsu has more to do with perfecting the many basic techniques and combining them in infinite ways under greater and greater degrees of stress, than it has to do with learning increasingly intricate moves. BJJ is deeply practical. Standing there in belt order, looking around at who has shown up and feeling my heart rate decrease as I catch my breath from my warm-up roll and our group exercises, I wonder whether I, perhaps, have been possessed by a sentimentality not my own. Whether or to what degree I am caught up in the swirl and pull of Brazilian jiu jitsu’s mythologies – the tales of its origin – that hover around academies, books, and seminars. There you can see visions of the cage, of two warriors locked in battle like contemporary gladiators, where the fittest survive and where we cheer for the underdog to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And why shouldn’t this fantasy resonate in the context of the United States? After all, doesn’t this individually faced primal battle provide the thematic grist for virtually all fantasies of American manifest destiny and immigrant bootstrapping that are the story America tells itself to justify its place on the world stage? BJJ stories feature the great Gracie dynasty, fathers teaching sons, the from-the-ground-up building of a great family business dynasty that recalls the great and storied successes of America’s titans of industry and business enterprise: the Fords, Ralstons, Gettys, and Montoyas. The American exceptionalism of immigrant triumph having started with nothing infuses the Gracie story and constitutes an apparatus in its own right (the Gracie techniques, Gracie apparel and equipment, the Gracie diet, and so on).
No wonder, then, that I, like all American-raised “good-subjects” also imagine and claim American exceptionalism as mine? It doesn’t matter that my claim is shifted and passed through a looking glass, twisted, and returned to me in crude caricature. Indeed, in my version, America is exceptionally brutal, exceptionally callous, and exceptionally good at engaging in the necessary practice of denial and disavowal that Gunnar Myrdal called the “American dilemma.” How attractive, how appealing then, is the story of the modifications to the Japanese style of jiu jitsu Helio Gracie was forced to make, being the smallest and weakest of the many boys in his family, fighting for every morsel of sustenance their modest surroundings afforded. (This, at any rate, is the story being told; it is an important part of the lore, the mythology).
It’s a story I like hearing. Sounds like home, and rings with the same ambivalence that saturates the other stories I tell myself of who I am, how I live, and how I arrived at these particular compromises.
“Go for what you have, not for what you want!”
“The winner is the one who lasts the longest.”
“Rule number 1, don’t get hit.”
“Best defense? Don’t be there!”
This last instruction, when it emerges, is always said with a laugh and a nod to Mr. Miyagi of The Karate Kid, in ironic critique of other martial art training curricula, and is then followed up with something completely un-ironic like: “Seriously, though. If for some reason you’ve made the mistake of getting in this position, you might try responding with this. . . . Let’s give it a try.”
BJJ makes sense to me, it feels familiar, familial, and right somehow, because I have always felt myself the underdog, the weaker, smaller, less resourced struggler in American society. I am unexceptionally exceptional in this way. And haven’t I already incorporated so many of these lessons already? Haven’t you?
There is something in addition to the magic of exceptionalism to be found in the vortex of BJJ that draws so many of us inward. Part of me knows that something immediate and corporeal about this practice binds me to it, something about the body and about desire, and the sense of identity borne of my kinesthetic and sensate experience, even before I impose upon it always-already available notions of a particular body-ego, that composite image I have of my “body” as a discreet object. There is intimacy on the mat, an exchange of vulnerability. First me, now you. I trust you not to break it, as you trust your physical integrity and livelihood to me. What was, at first, simply my willingness to be vulnerable and learn from a position of submission, becomes a need to be pressed against the blade of that edge.
“Either you win, or you learn!”
Guess I’ve been learning a lot! At the same time, this willingness-turned-desire manifests in a pedagogical commitment to praxis over technique. You learn the technique and engage the practice, and gradually, as you reflect on the practice, in the moment of contact and afterward, the jiu jitsu begins to teach you. But you cannot do it until you can do it in a less-controlled setting, where the stakes feel high.
“It’s all about time on the mat!”
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect!”
Most newcomers to jiu jitsu who practice regularly will require some 180 hours of ‘mat time’ to achieve a proficiency that will move them out of the beginning rank of White Belt. Another 220 hours may be needed to move from blue to purple belt, and even longer to move beyond that. It takes a good decade to earn a black belt in jiu jitsu. Putting in equal time, you can earn a black belt in aikido or tae kwon do in less than one-third that time. In BJJ, advanced students are encouraged to pass knowledge on to less advanced students as quickly as possible, in order to increase the capacity of the larger learning community. We are all students, and we are all teachers who learn by simulating violent contact and then sharing our experience of the engagement with our fellow “rollers,” thereby coming to be intimately connected through our simultaneous trust and real precarity. And out of this tension comes the recognition that my capacity is only as expansive as yours can be. This is an ethics, and ontology even, that, I believe, resonates with the needs or our current cultural moment. Moreover, this way of being togethertogether constitutes tissues of connection born of our shared vulnerability, our mutual potential, and our co-productive learning.
I’m rolling again. We’re doing our “up, down, and out” drill that allows us to focus on the lesson of the day with increasing degrees of resistance. One person is down on the mat; another comes and establishes a position connected with the day’s lesson. We slap hands, bump fists and begin. Once a sweep or submission has been achieved, one person returns to the wall and another partner comes in. Three minutes rolling, one minute standing. We develop a rhythm of stimulation and relaxation over the next thirty minutes. I may roll with six to ten different partners during this exercise. My body, flowing with the rhythm of up, down, and out, meets bodies along lines of difference like sex, size, ability, gender, race, class, and occupation, and must calibrate to each, developing a set of physical questions while forming responses to those that each unique embodiment poses.
Now I’m at the wall waiting for another turn and I wonder what aspects of the appeal of jiu jitsu are neurological. There are adult men and women seeking out self-defense, as well as men and women whose careers have presented them with overwhelming or challenging events in which their lives have been at risk. No doubt, many of my fellow rollers have faced situations that have produced in them states of hyper-arousal in the autonomic nervous system. I wonder to what degree the up, down, and out rhythm of jiu jitsu training simulates the hyper-arousal/hypo-arousal cycle that past intense experiences have incited, thereby bringing more regulation to their jangled nervous system, or an ease to those that are in states of constant hyper-arousal, where over-traveled neural pathways offer little resistance to new stimulation, resulting in easily evoked and often overly extreme responses to everyday sensations like sound, touch, or feeling. Indeed, facts of my own history and the histories of people I’ve known, convince me that jiu jitsu, if well taught, can be deeply therapeutic for survivors of assault or abuse or simple calamity. Some rollers talk about how “defending your life (even virtually) makes other problems feel smaller… easier to deal with.”
Sitting against the matted wall of the academy, taking a breather and waiting for the last half-hour of class and our “open mat” to begin, I wonder if there isn’t more to whatever it is that makes BJJ’s appeal so powerful. What else can account for the deep appeal of this form of martial art that emerges out of the contexts of Brazil’s severe precariousness and widespread poverty during the years of BJJ’s development there (even if jiu jitsu in Brazil was at first practiced mainly by the relatively well off)? Is there an analogous precariousness in the United States having to do with middle- and working-class white masculinity that has increased over the past ten to fifteen years coinciding with BJJ’s growth in the heartland? Few other periods in American history have offered comparable challenges to white middle- and working-class masculinity than have the financial upheaval, postmodern uncertainty, multiculturalist demands, neoliberal decimation, political disenfranchisement, and dramatic shift in everyday social relations, both public and private. What better time for the rise of a practice that not only capitalizes on precarity, but teaches one to listen, from inside it, for moments of possibility, for moments of leverage? What better time for the ascendancy of a practice that says it is not the strong and the big that will prevail, but the wise, the frugal, and those who excel by sharing with community, instead of exploiting it. BJJ is a practice for today’s America, an America where our recognition of shared vulnerability, our increasing acceptance of our relationality along planes of social and cultural difference, and acknowledgment of our mutual entanglement, is beginning to surface as a necessary and desirable consciousness. My prosperity is only as sustainable as yours is tenable.
There is a deep sense of mutuality in the academy, a sense that some nuances of social inter-being are being recuperated. Men and women touch one another in ways that complicate fixed ideas of the erotic and the violent. Indeed, in the space of serious play that defines encounter in our BJJ academy, eroticism and violence (typically posed at opposite ends of a spectrum of physical intimacy and normative gender performance), are transformed into a sensual idiom for learning and growth. This transformative play allows us to transcend the roles and performances of subjectivity that have been so over-determined by society, so territorialized by the marketplace, and so fixed by the limits of the scripted public sphere. BJJ training invites the practitioner to leave some of the constraints on social relations at the door of the academy just long enough to encounter others and oneself outside the usual boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, and political preference. Of course these categories of social differentiation are present and operative, nonetheless, but the space invites a suspension of disbelief, and the invocation of creative imagining. We are brothers and sisters here. We reconfigure ourselves as part of a BJJ family where the possibility of who one can also be, shows itself on the mat.
If only for a roll. . . and then another.
I’m breathing heavily and sweating now, looking around the room watching my fellow rollers share with one another the power of Question, offered in folds of material and angles of limbs.
“Here, what do you do about this?”
“Oh, I saw that coming, is this a good counter?”
What? You have a counter to the counter?!?”
And so it goes, expressed in the language of torque, leverage, weight shifts, and timing. There are men and women here in whom I place degrees of trust I would never have imagined giving them. Police officers, fire fighters, ex-military, right-wingers, gun owners, and white- collar workers. These are the kinds of people that have threatened my life and well-being for more than four decades. They are people I have never trusted. In the duration we create together, somewhere beyond these socially constructed chasms called difference, there is a mat, a field of contact, where we call one another brother and sister, and occasionally talk politics and family and injuries. But above all, we talk about “the roll,” and the humans we’ve encountered there, and our love for it all, and there develops among us a tissue of relation and care that mends the past and offers a pathway for imagining the future anew.
*My thanks to Prof. Robin Gieseler, Dave Tobron, Holly Reusing, and Olivia Caldeira. They, along with many others, were partners in countless conversations that took place at the academy, on-line, and at competitions.