I was honored this weekend to receive my black belt from my coach Matt Thornton. It’s a surreal thing really. My BJJ journey started back with UFC 1 like quite a lot of people. I watched it with my friends Howard and Virginia Wilcox at their apartment in Auburn Alabama with a bunch of folks from our TKD club. I was the head instructor back then and a black belt. I couldn’t believe that they’d let these guys fight with no rules. I’d always been told how deadly martial arts were and was convinced of the “one shot/ one kill” idea. I thought that guys would be falling over dead from awesome reverse punches. Turns out that this skinny kid from Brazil beat everyone without even hitting anyone.
Very shortly after this everyone wanted to learn Gracie Jiu Jitsu. I don’t remember the exact timeline but around this time I started training JKD with a student of Francis Fong. I trained JKD and TKD simultaneously. The contrast was good and I learned quite a lot about what was lacking in TKD from my JKD training. I also trained Judo for a while with a Judo club at the university. I liked the live aspect of Judo. With Judo you got to spar a lot. There wasn’t much time wasted with kata or compliant partner drills. Unfortunately the instructor wasn’t very good and I never got past green belt I think.
I managed to get a bootleg copy of the first set of Gracie tapes. Those things were like gold to me. I was amazed that I could review the techniques on video and they’d actually work when I tested them on the ground. I was really hooked. Unfortunately there was no place to learn to grapple in Auburn. It wasn’t until I moved to Portland in 96 that I was able to find some grappling. I trained TKD for a year or so when I first moved to Portland. I was reluctant to give up my 3rd degree black belt and all that came with it. I was starting to decide that TKD wasn’t exactly for me at this point but it wasn’t until I tore my ACL apart doing a jump kick over my bicycle in the park that I made a change.
I had to take 6 months or so off with a sore knee. No insurance so I just sucked it up. I found Sifu Chris Clark in town. He’s a JKD guy under Dan Innosanto. I trained at his academy until it closed. Probably a year or so. Chris didn’t train much grappling but he did bring in a couple of guys who did and I was exposed to a bit of it through them. When Chris closed his academy I found Jeff Patterson who was running Northwest Fighting Arts out of his garage. I trained with Jeff there for around 4 years. This was my first real organized training in grappling. Jeff also taught JKD and boxing. I was in love with the grappling from the start. I knew that I had finally found my art. After about 3 years with Jeff I was teaching classes in no gi grappling. I was top dog at the school and could easily tap out anybody else there.
My daughter was born around that time and i was getting burned out on teaching at the school so I decided to take some time off. I was off for a year. This was my longest layoff from martial arts training since I started in 86. When my daughter was 1 I decided to get back on the mat. I went over to SBG. I was astonished when I walked in and saw the intensity of what was going on there. I thought I knew something about grappling based on my experience at NWFA. I quickly realized though that I had quite a lot to learn…
9 years later and I’m at this important milestone. It’s been quite a journey. When I started I thought that black belts were somewhere near gods in terms of their skill, knowledge, and technique. I was sure they were invincible. I’m quite astonished now to see how much Jiu Jitsu I don’t know. Tip of the iceberg is an apt metaphor I guess. Frankly I thought I’d be more skillful and knowledgeable than I am now. It’s not a disappointment though. It’s just not what I thought it’d be. I feel much like a newborn baby again. Like a white belt again. The more I learn the bigger Jiu Jitsu gets. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I will never feel invincible or like an expert.
Not sure how long it takes to feel like a black belt? I get tapped out all the time by these young athletic purple belts and the black belts at the gym just crush me. I was really only just starting to feel comfortable as a brown belt. Truth is though I’m the last person to be able to judge my own skill level. That’s the way it always is. I can look at my game and find my strengths and weaknesses. I can see areas where I need improvement and other areas where I shine. But, to decide that my game is black belt level is not something I can do. For that I have to have some trust in my instructor. I have to look at all the other guys that he’s promoted to black belt and see that ALL of them are solid black belts. No questions about any of them. They’d all be black belts in anybody’s organization. I have to do that and realize that there is nothing special about me that’d somehow make my coach cut me slack and give me this honor if I didn’t deserve it.
So, I’ll tie it on and step on the mat and do my best to keep plugging away at this art that I love. I know I’ll grow into it in time. I also know to have fun and not take myself too seriously. After all it’s just guys rolling around in pajamas. I’ll continue to throw my hat into the ring and take and give ass whippings. As long as this black belt doesn’t change my love for the game I’ll accept it with humility.
Every belt received by a member of a school is owned in part by everyone else at the school. BJJ really is a team sport. I earned my black belt, but I also got lifted to it by the other members of my team. For that I’m eternally grateful. That’s why we all celebrate so much when someone moves up. It’s an indication that the tribe is working together to lift everyone up. It’s an indication of the tribe’s health.
Finally, I’d like to thank all my coaches and training partners. Especially my coach Matt Thornton. I’m constantly amazed at Matt’s attentiveness to fundamentals. I’ve never seen Matt show anything fancy. Hardly anything at all that wasn’t a simple fundamental. Even with that I am constantly learning new things and improving my fundamentals from Matt. He has taught me quite a lot about how to learn the art of Jiu Jitsu. He’s also been my main inspiration in how to teach it. It’s no exaggeration to say that the lessons I’ve learned about life from Matt and this art have saved my life. It’s brought incredible richness, good friends, and a wealth of personal insight. Thank you Matt for your investment of time, energy, guidance, and care.
Off to the gym to throw my hat into the ring….