The Worth of a Degree

Education is important. Nelson Mandela called it the most powerful weapon people can use to change the world, Abraham Lincoln said it was the most important task we could engage in as a people, and I say it’s the most important tool I’ve seen to improve the lives we all live.

Investing in education almost always pays off, for individuals and nations.

By the way, I use the term “education” broadly: some of the smartest people I know didn’t graduate from high school, and some of the dumbest have Ph.D degrees. If this sounds like a poetic exaggeration, I assure you I mean it literally. There are many ways to educate and improve yourself, with academic work being just one of them.

This month, after almost exactly four years of hard and consistent training. I earned my purple belt. I have a long way to go in my jiujitsu journey, but I’m so happy to have taken this step. The four-year mark is a nice coincidence, since it coincides with the amount of time it takes most people to complete something most people identify more clearly with education, an undergraduate college degree.

I have one of those, and believe me, I worked way harder to get the purple belt than I did to get my Bachelor of Arts. Sorry, professors, but it’s true.

oregon diploma

My mom always valued education, so she made sure I finished my undergrad degree. Later, I went on and got a Master’s, and earned an honor or two along the way. I don’t talk about that stuff a lot, and the only reason I’m doing so now is to put it into context.

This is the context: it’s no exaggeration to say that I’m as proud of this belt as any of that academic work. It took that much work and that much sacrifice.

It was a good day.

It was a good day.

In order to obtain an education in jiujitsu, I had to make several investments: a lot of time, a ton of sweat and pain, and of course some money.

When I graduated from college in 1998, in-state students attending public four-year colleges paid $3,243 on average in tuition and fees. It’s a lot more now (and frankly, I think college should be free, as it is in many other countries).

That investment has paid for itself many times over in life experiences, in jobs I couldn’t have gotten without the degree. As the great musical philosopher Tom Lehrer once said, “Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

I already told you that I had to work harder to get my purple belt than I did to get a college degree. Factoring in gym dues, seminars, privates, instructional materials and expenses from competing at tournaments, I’m fairly sure I spent more money along my path to purple belt, too.

(If anyone is really interested, I can break out those calculations. I frankly never even thought about it until now: when you’re doing something you love, you just kind of do it.)

Getting a black belt takes more than 10 years in most cases, time that’s roughly equivalent to getting a Ph.D. To me, the comparison between jiujitsu education and advanced degrees just illustrates the value of learning jiujitsu: the achievements we’re proudest of are the ones that are hardest to accomplish.

For students, we have to accept early on that getting where we want to go requires commitment. Why, then, do so many jiujitsu students shortchange themselves — and try to shortchange their instructors — on their martial arts education?

There are two parts to what I’m trying to say: the part that involves us as students of jiujitsu and the part that involves the way we relate to our instructors.

Primarily, what I want to say is this: as students, we should be maximizing our return on the investments we *do* make. If you’re paying dues to your school, why not take advantage of all the classes that are offered? It costs as much to train twice a week as it does five in most schools. Training as much as you can maximizes your return on investment.

Everyone has their own path to walk, and we all have different resources at our disposal. I’m not just talking about spending money here. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the disposable income to go to every seminar, buy every DVD set or take privates consistently.

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge that there are different types of investments. Can’t afford seminars, but have time to stay after class? Get extra drilling in. Time is the most important investment you can make. Don’t have access to the gym? Do a spreadsheet or a mind map of the techniques you know. Jiujitsu is a long journey, but the more time you’re able to put in, the quicker and more rewarding it is.

I like spreadsheets.

I like spreadsheets.

The second part of this involves our instructors. This is a little trickier, as it always is when art and commerce intersect.

If we value a college education enough that we’re willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on it, though, why wouldn’t we place a similar value on our continuing education in jiujitsu?

It’s tough to make a living running a jiujitsu school, and I’m always surprised when people do things like get out of paying gym dues. To a certain extent, I understand — everybody’s trying to get by, and since your instructor loves jiujitsu, he probably wants people to train.

Keep in mind that your instructor has to make a living, and your school has to stay open. If you like training, that’s a shared interest that’s well worth preserving.

Invest in your education, whatever path that takes. And invest in the people that help you keep learning. We all get better that way.


Toro Cup Preview

For the first time, I’m playing an unfamiliar role with a jiujitsu event: matchmaker.

While incredibly fun, it has definitely given me a new appreciation for the people in the jiujitsu and mixed martial arts community who do this all the time. Hence, let me start by saying “thank you” to the local folks who make great cards happen all the time.

As I write this, we’re two weeks out from the Toro Cup, and much of the hard work has been done. During this calm before the storm, I wanted to do a quick preview post explaining where the idea came from and previewing the matches. I’m not going to make predictions, but I would like to say something about why I’m interested in each match.

The idea for the event came during the last Metamoris card. I love watching high-level matches, but I also love gi jiujitsu — and it seemed like too few superfights were happening in the gi. So we at Toro BJJ decided to do a day focused on matches taking place in the kimono. My goal for the event was to make matches that would be exciting for people, would represent a wide array of schools, and would give folks that haven’t had a chance to compete against each other the opportunity to do so. At the core of this event are some huge jiujitsu fans (me and Boomer from Cageside MMA) wanting to see certain great matches happen.

I’m confident we’ve done so — and I hope everyone enjoys the day. 13 different schools are represented among the 11 matches! (Let me also say we got very close to making two black belt matches that would make people say “wow,” and we’ll hopefully do both of those for Toro Cup 2). If you’re interested in checking the event out live or online, here’s all you need to know.

Now, the fun part: the matches.

Unfortunately, one of the matches I was most excited about — Jason Jelen vs. Adam Jetton — isn’t happening. Both competitors unfortunately sustained injuries. I’ve been watching Adam since I was a white belt, and he’s a fierce and mentally tough competitor. Jason Jelen is a black belt instructor at Gracie Raleigh, and he’s tremendous: he’s got a great grasp of both old and new school technique, and I can’t wait to see him compete at black belt. Hopefully they have speedy and successful recoveries: I know I’m not not the only one who really wanted to see this match.

We kick off the event with this one:


Because we wanted to start the show with an exciting match, we’re offering this one. John Telford has been tearing up the competition circuit at purple belt — and with a style that’s entertaining to watch. Joseph Carroll earned his black belt in January, is a regular competitor and has a reputation for exciting matches as well. I acknowledge that it’s unconventional to have a match with this belt discrepancy, but both guys wanted to do it, and neither guy cared about weight. It should be a fun contest.

This is an interesting match in the gi between two brown belts with lots of cage experience. Matt “The Masher” Messer is one of the state’s most popular MMA fighters for good reason: his aggressive style and his ability to always push forward. Adam “Soul Horse” Song of Ring Lords Vale Tudo has been training MMA since 1999. But both of them also love gi technique. Messer just had a brown belt superfight in Charlotte that went to a draw: I know Song has been training hard for this, and I’m looking forward to it.

This is the only no-gi match on the card. I wanted to have a card full of entirely gi matches, but when the opportunity came to see these two compete, we had to make it happen. Both are prominent local instructors, Jake at Triangle Jiu-Jitsu in Goldsboro, Neal at TFTC Academy. Besides his accomplishments in gi and no-gi jiujitsu, Jake is also one of North Carolina’s most successful MMA fighters. These two have never competed against each other, and this is probably the match I get the most messages about from other fans of grappling. Don’t miss it.

A purple belt match, this contest has the makings of a good one. Brad Acosta is an active competitor who performed very well in a recent gi superfight at the Bull City Brawl: Brad McDonald has been a well-respected practitioner for a long time, but hasn’t competed recently. Both of these guys are fun to watch, so it’ll be interesting to see how they stack up against each other.

Coast to coast! Joseph Lee is coming out from Los Angeles for this one, and it should be great. Both Guy and Joseph have excellent transitions. I think there will be a lot of movement, a lot of flow between positions, and a lot of great technique. As someone roughly their size, I feel fortunate to have been able to roll with both of these guys: I’ve learned a lot from each of them, and this is one of the matches I’m anticipating most personally.

This is one of those matchups that worked out perfectly: two purple belts of similar size who have tons of competitive success in different tournament environments. I’ve trained quite a bit with Ashley McClelland, who has an excellent, well-rounded game, and competes regularly with US Grappling. Christy Cherrey does very well at NAGA tournaments and comes from a well-respected school at Team ROC Southern Pines, where she trains with Royce Gracie black belt Larry Hughes. Part of the reason for Toro Cup is to match up solid competitors who haven’t had the chance to compete against each other yet, and this is a good example. (I wanted to have half the card be composed of women’s matches, but it didn’t work out this time: there were some scheduling issues and some injury issues. But I’ve made a lot of contacts for next time, and I think it’s a reasonable goal.)

This purple belt match should be both technical and action-packed. Tim McNamara is a very active competitor and a judo black belt who has great technique. (He also has a blog that is way better than mine). Steven Thigpen is a beast at both gi and no-gi grappling, is tough on top and from guard, and has excellent takedowns to boot. (He’s also one of my favorite training partners, although I don’t get to train with him as much as I’d like and he always beats me).

Among the black belts I’ve talked to, this is a much-anticipated match. From Revolution BJJ in Richmond, Daniel Frank is one of the most dedicated practitioners and competitors out there. I love watching him compete and he was, actually, the very first person I approached to be on the card — so I’m glad we found him a tough and interesting match. Besides his considerable skills, Brian Miller has a unique style and unconventional approach that is somewhat reflected in the promo poster above. Oh, and I have a feeling you shouldn’t be late and miss the introductions.

Of all the matches on the card, this is right at the top of my list to watch. I’ve trained with both Travis and Jay a lot, and both are very good — but what a contrast in styles. That’s what makes this intriguing to me: Jay’s approach features a lot of movement and judicious transitions. Travis’ forte, though, is preventing you from doing what you want to do while he methodically advances his position, trapping you into his game. One of these guys is going to force the other guy into his world, or adapt to what the other guy does best if he’s the one who gets forced.

I’m also looking forward this contest between two very technical brown belts, one of whom (Jason Wingate from Gracie Raleigh) just got his fourth stripe. Since the Pendergrass Academy’s Sean Zorio got his brown belt last year, he’s competed quite a bit: it seemed fitting to match these two friends against each other for the Bumpkin Train’s return to competition.

CJ Murdock doesn’t have boring matches or fights. Roger Carroll doesn’t have boring matches or fights. This match will feature two tough competitors who love jiu-jitsu going at it to cap off the day, and I can’t think of a better way to end the first Toro Cup.

Why I Love My Blue Belt

Every belt has a different meaning. As I’ve said before, a jiu-jitsu belt is literally just a piece of cloth — but symbolically a whole lot more. The piece of cloth just keeps your gi closed. It’s the work you put in on your journey, the time you spend with your instructor and training partners, that really gives a belt its meaning.

For that reason, every belt has a story. Today I want to talk about my blue belt and why I love it.

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My blue belt is a Dom belt. One of my closest friends and training partners bought it as a surprise. He got the belt at the Mundials without me knowing it and gave it to my instructor to keep for when the time was right. That alone makes this belt special for me. My instructor, Seth Shamp, was a brown belt then, so he asked Billy Dowey — an excellent instructor at Forged Fitness — to come to our school for the promotion.


This is the belt I missed out on for a long while, the one I thought I’d I never get. I don’t have a natural aptitude for jiu-jitsu — it took me three classes to learn the basic hip movement we call shrimping. I just kept showing up to every class.

Every class, that is, except the one night that black belt Mazi Heydary visited us. I was picking up my girlfriend’s sister at the airport. It was the one class I missed for months.

Later, I found out I was supposed to get my blue belt that night. I probably don’t have to describe to you the feeling in my stomach after I discovered this.

But I did get it eventually, and with it, my ritual train. Yes, this is the belt I got my train in. It probably still has sweat and blood in it from 18 minutes of my best friends beating on me.


Don’t let the crazy smile fool you. Or do.


Because of its distinctive deep blue color, it’s a nice-looking belt. It’s thick and tough and fades into a really cool hue the more you train. That’s mostly good.

It’s also bad, because it has also gotten my ass kicked at two gyms I’ve visited. Some guys thought it was purple and they sent some killers after me to test the visiting “purple belt.”

This is the belt they disqualified at the Atlanta Open because it was too worn and faded. I had to run and borrow a belt from my friend Braxton. It was a little inconvenient, but I was also really proud. It was that faded because I had trained so much.

Note: not my belt.

Note: not my belt.

In this belt, I’ve rolled with Rafa Mendes, Gui Mendes, Murilo Santana, Vicente Junior, Samir Chantre, Osvaldo Quiexinho and a bunch of amazing black belts who did me the courtesy of showing me how much I have to learn. In this belt, I’ve taken classes and seminars from instructors like Murilo Bustamante, Dave Camarillo, Gui and Pedro Valente — and of course the legendary Royce Gracie.


Rickson Gracie has touched this blue belt.


I did all eight divisions at a US Grappling tournament in this belt. I sweated through 13 blue belt matches. I’ll never have another belt that I’ll do that in, because you can no longer do any more than four divisions at a US Grappling tournament. I’m truly sorry that I delayed those tournaments, but grateful for those experiences.

This is the belt I wore at the world championships (Mundials) last year. I lost in the first round. I hate losing. But I don’t regret anything: I trained and dieted and sweat and bled with my friends for weeks. I shocked myself with what I was capable of, and I never would have found that out without my friends pushing me until I collapsed. I made a mistake that cost me the match, but the work I put in taught me powerful things. I’ll always have that inside me. My belt is a reminder.


This is also the belt I took double gold in at the New York Open (for some reason, New York showed it more love than Atlanta). It had always been a goal of mine to win absolute at an IBJJF tournament, and I did it, and then I went out and ate everything in sight with some great people. I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life.

A belt is just a belt. But you could also say that a life is just a life. You get out of things what you put into them. I look down at my blue belt and I see a lot of great memories with great people. I see hard work and frustration and commitment and pain and fun and love.

Yeah, I said love. I’ll always love my blue belt.

That being said, I’m pretty fond of this new one too.

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That’s right, my white belt got a little dirtier tonight. I want to thank my instructor and all my training partners for helping me achieve this goal. If you’re reading this, though, you’re probably a friend who has contributed in some way to this as well, so thank you too.

I had my first roll in it with Seth, and then a bunch of rolls with some of my favorite folks. I can’t wait to put some more memories into it, starting with 6 a.m. class tomorrow.