They’re All About Duty

Note: This is a guest post I did for JiuJiteira, a new online community intended to promote events that feature female JiuJiteiras and encourage both men and women training together.

Jiujitsu has much in common with musical theater, specifically Gilbert & Sullivan.

No, really. Besides being subcultures that inspire completists to obsession, the themes in both essentially run parallel to each other.

If you want pop culture confirmation, consider this clip from the West Wing, where Ainsley Hayes corrects Lionel Tribbey on whether the song “He Is An Englishman” comes from “HMS Pinafore,” which it does. Tribbey insists that it is from Penzance, or Iolanthe, or “one of  the ones about duty.”

Ainsley responds, correctly: they’re all about duty.

If you’ve seen any Gilbert & Sullivan — and really, who hasn’t? — you can testify that this is accurate. In song and story, the Englishmen sailing the ocean blue struggle with what’s right to do. Michael Bisping might represent all that’s bad about the English aesthetic, but “Pinafore” represents all that’s good about it.

We hear a lot about duty in the martial arts. Qualities like loyalty and courage in the face of adversity are embedded in the Bushido code and what traditionalists refer to as jiujitsu philosophy.

But what’s duty? What do we owe other  people? The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was perhaps more concerned with moral duty than anyone else, and he came up what called the Categorical Imperative — a single rule more important than any other.

What is this rule, and what does this have to do with how we train? We’ll get to that in a second. If you don’t care about the echoes of German philosophy in martial arts, you might be interested in Sideshow Bob singing the score of Pinafore before trying, fruitlessly once again, to murder Bart Simpson:

The rule Kant came up with — that most important of imperatives — is: “Act only on those maxims (or rules of action) that you could at the same time will to be a universal law.” Or, put more simply, only do things that you’d be comfortable with anyone else doing, at any place and time.

That might sound familiar, like it’s a more detailed version of a rule common throughout the world’s religions and cultures. It also might sound like a good idea, and it is. The trouble isn’t the rule, the trouble is that people aren’t always attentive to it, or don’t apply it to their specific life circumstances.

Let’s apply it to our specific life circumstances. What do we owe to our training partners? What is our duty to them? I came up with three principles.

  1. The most important person in the room is your training partner.
    Your training partner – even if they’re the newest white belt – is doing you a favor. They’re putting their body on the line and using precious minutes of their finite life to help you get better at something you love.

    Let’s say we look at every training situation, in jiujitsu and out, this way: a mutual exchange where we’re investing time in helping each other. If you’re looking  at making universal rules for how people in that situation should treat each other, you’d probably say they should treat each other like gold. This is particularly true in something like jiujitsu, a niche activity where mistakes can have physical consequences.

    Sometimes I hear people complain about training with white belts. I love training with white belts, because making sure white belts have good experiences is the best way to grow jiujitsu. And I learn things every time: new people often react differently than experienced people, which improves my ability to respond in those situations. Even when there is a skill gap between training partners, we can still learn from each other.

    The person you’re drilling with and sparring with is the most important person in the room at that moment. Your responsibility – your duty – is to make sure they have a good experience and get something out of it.

  2. Everybody has a first day. It’s your job to make sure they have a second day, too.
    Duty means that we should always make choices that could be universalized – that is, we would be comfortable with everyone making the same choices we made.

    Imagine a new person comes in that rubs you the wrong way for whatever reason. Let’s say you act like a dismissive jerk: maybe you ignore them when it’s time to pair up and drill. Or worse, let’s say you encourage them to spar with you, and you smash their face for five minutes.

    If that choice is universalized – if everyone makes that choice – jiujitsu dies. Period.

    Jiujitsu is hard, and we shouldn’t shy away from making that clear. When I talk to the toughest of the toughest, oldest of old school folks, though, there’s a common undercurrent in what they tell me: training has to be fun sometimes, too. To help jiujitsu grow and survive, let’s not show new people the first part without the second.

  3. The  more vulnerable someone is, the more attentive you should be to your own actions around them. 
    Fundamentally, I believe in personal responsibility. We are a product of the choices we make.

    We often hear that jiujitsu is for smaller, weaker people. Helio Gracie said that larger, strong people already have nature’s jiujitsu. We all know people who have tremendous jiujitsu skills that would have developed those skills no matter what gym they ended up at — people who are naturally tough and physically adept.

    I am not one of these people.


    I lucked out by walking into a gym that is very thoughtful about how to build people up. If that hadn’t happened, I might not have the chance to even do jiujitsu, let alone have it as a central, rewarding part of my life.

    Since I am, by any reasonable metric, a very lucky person, I think a lot about what I owe. What I owe people, what I owe the world.  Since there were people that kept me coming back, I want to be one of those people for somebody else.

    When people come into the gym that might not feel welcome for any reason – maybe they aren’t natural athletes, maybe they’re women who are worried about training with men, or maybe they struggle with claustrophobia, or are physically disabled in some way — I feel like it’s incumbent on me to make sure they see the possibilities that jiujitsu can represent for them.

Some things are universal. We all want to be treated with dignity and respect. We all want to train in place with people who are true and attentive. We are, all of us who train, a part of the same story.

So, yes, this is something that jiujitsu and philosophy and musical theater share in common.

They’re all about duty. And if we’re decent, so are we.


Introducing Dirty White Belt Radio

For a little more than a year, I’ve been doing a podcast. We’ve made 58 shows. Learned a lot. Made more than 60 videos about technique, nutrition, live event coverage and funny things. Plus, the occasional webcomic.

It’s been an amazing year. Now it’s time to take it to the next level — which means a couple of big changes.

First, the name of the show is changing. The show was called the Cageside ConcussionCast, but we wanted a name that’s going to reflect our focus on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and more broadly the healthy lifestyle associated with jiu-jitsu. The new name of the show will be Dirty White Belt Radio — after this blog. dwbrtempfbcover

(You can also call us “The Artist Formerly Known as The Cageside ConcussionCast” if you want.)

Regular readers might know that the idea behind the “Dirty White Belt” name is this: as my belt gets darker, I always want to retain the white belt attitude of consistently learning. I want to learn forever, and this project is a way to stay on that journey with my fellow travelers.

But that’s not the only big change.

We’re creating a new website which will launch at that will house ALL the content we produce — podcasts, blog posts, video instructionals about jiu-jitsu, food and nutrition, webcomics, and a unified events calendar for seminars, tournaments, superfight events and MMA fights throughout the Southeast. We’ll also have ways you can support the charities we back, as well as ways to support other local North Carolina brands. Right now, that URL just points at this blog, but that’s going to change soon.


We want you to expect more from us. We’re still going to have the content you’ve come to expect — just more of it and a better version. We’ll always focus locally on jiujitsu and other fighting arts in the Carolinas and beyond, but now we’re going to be bringing in more big, national guests, especially guests with historical significance. (We already have some interviews recorded that I can’t wait to share with you). We’re also going to produce more regular bonus content to go along with the podcast — things like videos and comics.

All of this will be housed at the (currently under construction) We hope to launch the website on Jan. 1, to start next year. And we had so much fun at the ConcussionCast Carnival last year, we hope to do another live event in 2017!

In the meantime, we’re going to slowly transition everything under the Dirty White Belt label. We’re also going to be able to sell advertising, so … if you’re a jiujitsu brand that wants to reach a passionate, smart and good-looking audience, boy do we have that. (Thumbs up, cheap pop).

What does this mean for you, the listener and supporter? Not much, I don’t think. Now begins the process of transitioning to the new name on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, and our various social media channels. If you already subscribe to us in one or more of those places, you shouldn’t need to do anything else — and if you don’t subscribe already, please do. And be aware that when you see something from “Dirty White Belt,” that’s us.

Our goals remain the same: to shine a light on all the fantastic things happening in our local scene, and to talk to the great people making them happen; to bring you the best possible interviews with both local folks and legends of the fighting arts; and to spread the word about jiujitsu to everyone who needs to hear it. And everyone needs to hear it.

Thanks for listening, and for hanging with us through this exciting transition!

15 Quotes From Moby Dick That Are Actually About Jiujitsu

I first read Moby Dick at a young age, too many years ago to admit. I first realized that the book is actually about jiu-jitsu just this week.

Herman Melville’s opus chronicles a titanic struggle between an otherworldly whale and his human arch-nemesis. Although ultimately the whale teaches Ahab to laugh and love again through the healing power of sea chanties — sorry for the spoilers — the novel is really about obsession.

The most powerful passages from what is, to me, the most American of novels, hit on these themes: there is power in passion and commitment, but also danger; the beautiful corners of life can also be terrible, and that terror has substantial interplay with the beauty; and finally, we’re drawn as human beings to perilous pursuits, but there is peril in ignorance and comfort as well.

Moby Dick is about a subculture of diverse, intrepid people who share an extreme life experience that only a small fraction of human beings ever will. Their journeys take them spectacular places, far out of each individual’s comfort zone, and are marked by the knowledge that nothing really serves as a substitute. Like I said: it’s about jiu-jitsu.

If this makes sense to you, you’re probably a nerd. If this really makes sense to you, you’re a nerd who trains. Either way, you’re in the right place.

I could’ve easily picked the top 100 passages from Moby Dick that speak to the jiujitsu lifestyle. Upon the advice of my attorney and life coach (a 10-year-old hound dog named Penny), I’ve whittled it down to 15. Here goes:


1. “…the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open…”

The narrator of Moby Dick, who goes by the name Ishmael, speaks with awe and wonder of being at sea, using this phrase to describe his perception.

Remember the first time you hit a move cleanly on someone who was trying with all their might to stop you? Or: remember the moment when you first chained two or three moves together? For me, executing my first scissor sweep was like watching an angel came down from heaven and play the entirety of Led Zeppelin IV.

When you’re in the flow, the whole glorious world of possibility opens. This is what it’s like when Ishmael goes to sea, or when many of us hit the mats. We open the great floodgates of the wonder-world.


Learning shin on shin guard from Michelle Nicolini opens a lot of doors.


2. “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

The most rhetorically powerful speech of the book is also its most direct reference to grappling. These climactic epithets Ahab shrieks at Moby Dick always fire me up — and make me think of those gnarly death rolls in the final round of a tournament.

Ahab could really cut a promo, even on a marine mammal. I think more people would love Moby Dick if they produced a version that included just his venomous speeches. I mean, just read that passage again: it’s as if the Spartans at Thermopylae had a speechwriter that wrote for an academic version of Ric Flair. If they boiled down Moby Dick to these speeches, it’d be like Thomas Jefferson’s version of the Bible: lean and mean.


3. “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

The cannibal moral center of the novel, Queequeg, is a native of Rokovoko, “an island far away to the West and South.” But you can’t find it. Because it’s not on the map.

Speaking of jiujitsu is a journey is common — because it is. Your instructor might show you a move, or teach you a concept. It’s up to you to perfect that move for you, or internalize that concept. That takes time, and effort, and commitment.

It also takes faith. If your instructor could tell you “do these three things, and you’ll be an expert at guard passing,” it would make life a lot simpler. But no honest instructor would do that. You’ve got to pursue that yourself, trusting that walking the path the right way will ultimately lead you to the destination.

Jiujitsu is the truth. That’s why there’s no roadmap.


4. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

This is Ishmael describing in vivid detail how turbulent his life would get between trips to sea. In the book, the sea provided a release valve for all that pent-up aggression.

One of my friends used to get into a lot of street fights. He’s trained in several martial arts, fought, competed, and generally run the gamut of training options. Once he told me that jiujitsu in the gi is the only art that ever made him a better person.


Don’t walk around knocking hats off of people, or beloved mascots: train.

We all know people who can only simmer down their blood by training. If you’re reading this, you can probably name a dozen people who are sanest and calmest immediately after class.

Maybe you’re one of those people. I am.


5. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

Sometimes in class, you’re a step late to every move. Sometimes the people you usually submit get away, the people you usually dominate positionally give you hell, and the people who usually whoop up on you lay the smack down even worse than normal.

Sometimes a meme of you getting choked ends up everywhere on the Internet. Life is funny!

6. “I try all things, I achieve what I can.”

One of many “words to live by” lines in the book comes from the maybe-unreliable narrator, Ishmael. When he tries to describe the whale, he confesses it’s not his area of expertise, but he’ll give it a shot.

You have to do this in jiujitsu: you might know you can’t pass your instructor’s guard, but try. Fail. Fail again. Fail better. Try everything. Achieve what you can.


Sometimes, you can win the worlds. But on your way to achieving one thing, don’t forget to keep trying all things.


7. “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

Ishmael says this after he’s been staring into a fire, reaching a near hypnotic state.

The reality is this: sometimes, you should feel bad. Ego isn’t always the enemy, and disappointment is a natural fact of jiujitsu life. There is always someone better than you, and sometimes you have a tough day of competition or a night where everything you try gets shut down.

I’m not going to tell you not to feel bad when this happens. Disappointment is the source of strong motivation. There is wisdom in the woe that comes from a bad result.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael acknowledges that people with strong will — those with souls “in the mountains” — can profit from woe and gloom. This is the way we transcend the ordinary. Don’t let it drive you crazy, though, lest you end up on a boat with some nutjob, or in an emo band.


8. “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.


Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks.”


When you walk into a jiu-jitsu gym, you might think you know who the baddest people are just by looking at them. You’re often wrong.

Like the sea under the surface, jiu-jitsu is subtle, and the deadly creatures come in all shapes, sizes, genders and ages. Like the sharks in Moby Dick, the mat animals are treacherously hidden until it’s too late to avoid them.

9. “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

This is how Ishmael feels about bigotry: that lack of exposure to cultures like Queequegs leads people to make unfounded assumptions, resulting in anxiety — which perpetuates the lack of awareness that leads to fear in the first place.

This is how I feel about leglocks.


10. “Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me, and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.


Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally, as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”


Who doesn’t love a good head squeeze? We squeeze each other’s heads with our arms, we squeeze each other’s necks with our legs. Then, like the sailors on the Pequod, we squeeze hands afterward in a gesture of friendship and comity.

… and in that passage, Ishmael is talking about whalers breaking up the lumpy spermaceti that is found in the whale’s head and sold. What did you think he was talking about?

11. “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”

Life is a struggle between hardness and softness. You don’t want to be completely hard, because it stops you from enjoying existence. You don’t want to be completely soft, because you’re unprepared for what life throws at you.

Jiujitsu is fun. Jiujitsu is hard. Hard training necessitates discomfort, which prepares you for other forms of discomfort.


You’ll never stop being uncomfortable. You will learn to embrace the discomfort.


12. “For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught.”

The week Grandmaster Helio Gracie died, he was working on a new choke. Think about that. He’d constructed this art over his whole long life — and was still working on innovations at the end of it.

You’re never done doing jiujitsu. Ever. The power of the art is that you’ll never finish. There is — like the open sea — always more to explore.

This is the source of the blog’s name, too: training jiujitsu means you never stop learning.


13. “I am past scorching; not easily can’st thou scorch a scar.”

Stuff like this happens to you in jiujitsu. Are you really going to be scared of a conversation with your boss after this?


14. “All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.”

Ahab’s admission of his own lunacy rings true for me. I think meticulously and constantly about the best practices for improving at jiujitsu. I review scientific research about nutrition, body and brain health, and the process by which we learn complex tasks.

I do this so I can take part in things that strike the people who don’t train as, well, nuts.

Once, during a hard session preparing for a friend’s fight, we had five upper belts and one white belt taking part. It was summer in North Carolina and the temperature had cracked 100 degrees with the type of humidity associated with a steam room. The sweat was flowing like water and the action was non-stop. The wet air made it tough to breathe.

The white belt was young and in good shape: at least as good as any of us, and maybe better. But he was struggling, and after each drill or sparring round he’d look around at each of us in disbelief. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for — I was using all my mental resources to follow instructions and not fall apart, in that order — until about 20 minutes into the training.

He walked to the door, and opened it, letting in a fresh burst of air. Then he walked outside and shouted back at us:

“You guys are crazy!” It was clear he was leaving.

Without looking up, all five of us instinctually replied: “See ya.”

We kept training. He shook his head in disbelief and I don’t think I’ve seen him since.

If you want to improve, these are the things you do. It’s the correct means to a mad end. Here’s the thing: no one who doesn’t train has to understand.

15. “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”

This one is better left out of context. It’s just a good rule to live your life by.

We have no idea what our futures include. If they include jiujitsu and laughter, I think we’ll all be all right.


How A Critic Is Different From a Hater

In that moment, I was as mad as I can remember being.

I was at a major tournament with a bunch of people from my school. One of my good friends and teammates was about to compete (I won’t say names, so as to obscure the details, since the principle isn’t about this specific incident). He was competing against a highly-regarded competitor from a major competition school. The two competitors were ready to step on the mat, and I was preparing to coach and yell support.

What I wasn’t prepared for: a large upper belt from the other guy’s school starting to talk loudly about … well, let me just quote:

“Our guy is going to crush this guy,” he said. “I mean, LOOK at him.” He continued from there. It got progressively more disrespectful, and although this guy out-ranked me and out-weighed me by a fluffy 100 pounds, it started to feel like he was the Chester half of Chester and Spike.  He went on about how our guy looked compared to his guy. Eventually, I asked my roommate to stand between me and this guy so I wouldn’t say or do anything stupid.

The match started, and the fluffy brown belt kept talking — until it became apparent that this would be a tough match after all. At about two minutes in, he stopped talking altogether. The match was neck and neck the whole way. My teammate wound up losing, but it was a terrific performance, and I was proud, and the portly gentleman was both much relieved and much quieter. He exhaled, did a small celebration, but there was none of the mess-talking that had been so present before.

Then came the moment that solidified in my mind that I would one day tell this story. One of Fluffy Brown’s teammates asked about when they’d see him compete.

“Oh, I’m basically a hobbyist,” he said. “I train twice a week, and I don’t compete any more.”

After I heard that, I had to take a walk.


TR trained jiu-jitsu. He knows what's up.

TR trained jiu-jitsu. He knows what’s up.


You’ve no doubt seen this quotation from President Theodore Roosevelt before. That’s because it’s classic, and it expresses numerous important ideas. Foremost among them is that it’s better to come up short again and again that to simply point out “where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” If we want to build great things, we have to try, and we usually have to fail at first. As the playwright Samuel Beckett put it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I want to make a clear distinction here. Though Roosevelt uses the word “critic” here, I don’t think the guy I’m describing counts as a critic. I would use a different word, a word that is thrown around a lot, and is often overused and misapplied. That word is hater.

Critics, in fact, are valuable. No one is above criticism. In fact, we should welcome good-faith criticism. It’s how we learn and grow.

When your instructor tells you to stop taking top position against new people, that’s not hate: that’s identifying the next step in your evolution. When a visiting black belt takes the time to explain why you’re not finishing from the back, it can feel like a scolding, but it isn’t. It’s a learning opportunity. It’s criticism, not hating. A good critic is invaluable, because a critic identifies flaws in your approach — and flaws can be fixed.

A critic has the doer of deeds’ best interests at heart. A good critic tells you where you’re making mistakes in open guard positions so you can fix those mistakes. A hater doesn’t deal in good faith: they point out the weaknesses in your open guard (or career, or life) so they can feel better about their own.

A critic advances us towards becoming our best self. A hater tries to tear us down to their level. Your coach is a critic. Your supportive teammates are critics. The guy who makes fun of you for trying is a hater.

It’s important not to confuse the two. A good high-profile example of confusing the two came recently when Rener Gracie penned a note entitled “to the loyal haters.”



#Haters #Dang

Gracie University has come under a good deal of scrutiny over the past few years, first for online belt promotions. More recently, it’s been because of the rapid proliferation of schools with lower-belt instructors.

In Rener’s note, he refers to the folks scrutinizing the way Gracie University has developed as “haters.” That’s not accurate, in my view. Of course, there are some people on the Internet that will take any opportunity to take pot shots at anyone. Many of the people who were concerned about the online belt system, though, were respected black belts. And even people who think a Certified Training Center run by a blue belt might be a good solution for a rural area with no legitimate training for 100 miles — I count myself among these — think it’s a terrible idea to drop a blue belt who has studied mostly online right next to a school run by Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belts and pretend like there’s nothing wrong.

Notice what these have in common: each has a solution. People have legitimate concerns about online belts? You can modify or end that program. People think that a mostly-online blue belt shouldn’t be represented as equivalent to a 10-year black belt? There are structures that can be put in place to guard against that.

None of this is possible, though, without being open to critics — not haters, but critics.

Sometimes, folks like to think they have haters. If you’re being singled out for criticism, you’re special. You’re different. You’re important. And if you are these things, then any critique of your work is simply hating.

There are two problems with this. First, it doesn’t necessarily reflect humility. We all can make mistakes, and few of us are so important that people are going to sit around thinking of meritless criticisms.

And I think most people do operate in good faith. I think more people want to help you than want to hurt you. I think you’re not much different than anybody else, trying to get better at something you like doing, and the people criticizing you aren’t hating so much as trying to demonstrate they have something to offer. I think Morrissey was wrong.

What, then, is hating? Hating is when you’re not critiquing in good faith. It’s when you’re criticizing Rener Gracie just because of who he is, rather than the way he’s going about his project. It’s when someone tries something new and, instead of honestly interrogating the project to see if it’s worthwhile, you treat the project like Rick James treated Eddie Murphy’s couch.

If you’ve noticed, there’s a fine line to walk here. I don’t think that only people who compete have a right to criticize others (although if you don’t compete at all, you might shy away from criticizing other people’s teammates in front of them during a tournament); instead, I think that criticism should come from a constructive place. On the other side of things, I think people who create things need to be open to critical thoughts from observers.

Here’s the most important thing. If you take only one thing away from this post, I would have you remember this:

It’s easier to destroy than it is to create; tearing things down is also quicker than building them.

If we want to have good things in the jiu-jitsu community, we have to not be quick to tear down the people who try to build them. If we want to have great things in the jiu-jitsu community, the people who build things have to be open to hearing what might make their efforts better.


Making the Mind Empty in the Surf

Surfing and martial arts share much. Top-level practitioners, for one thing: a healthy percentage of the Brazilian black belts I met grew up surfing, and professional surfers like Joel Tudor have taken up the gi with great enthusiasm and success.

You can see why, since both arts require adaptability and grace in the face of powerful opposing forces. The ocean’s tougher than all of us.

Another point of commonality: the experience that surfers (and psychologists) call “flow,” that optimal experience of life. Jiu-jitsu people use the term “flow” sometimes, too, but it’s more typical in the circles I run in to hear it called “mushin,” a Japanese word that roughly means “empty mind.”

There’s really no experience like it. I got it when I was doing competitive debate during high school and college, and haven’t had it since — until jiujitsu.

Putting this type of experience into words is a weighty task. I won’t make too strenuous an attempt, because it seems contrary to the very notion of an empty, flexible mind. I’m merely going to describe how it seems to me during a perfect sparring or competition experience.

They come for you and grab you, hard. You off-balance them and then you’re on top and they don’t know what happened. Things are slow, slower than life ever is.  They try to grip you again, and you watch their hand come open as it reaches for you. It could take what seems like a second or what seems like a year, and you know where on your body it will land precisely.

But you’re not there any more. The hand’s efforts are useless. Then you let them grip you, just to show them they shouldn’t grab you there, and suddenly they’re tapping.

I don’t use the word sublime a lot, but not much else qualifies. The world is gone. Life is right here.


We often talk about martial arts as a practice, and other disciplines from sporting to religious to philosophical use that same terminology. The end results you’re aiming for with these disciplines differ widely. It’s the practice that brings focus, clarity, and the ability to experience what we call flow. It took me years to get there in both debate and jiu-jitsu, and I’m certainly not there every session. But, as with yoga or music or whatever your art of choice is, it’s the practice that matters.

Buddhism talks about emptying the mind in the context of meditation. This is a painting by the Chinese artist Gao Qipei:

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You’ll notice that a poem is inscribed at the top of the painting (about which there’s another fascinating story, involving Bertolt Brecht, but that’s for another time).

The poem is about using a quiet mind to tell the difference between good men and evil ones. Here’s a rough translation:

“The deep clarity of the empty mind
corresponds to the vast emptiness of the sky. 
All these malicious and evil men
can be seen in the stillness of contemplation.”

There is a difference between using mental clarity in evaluating someone’s personal ethics and in knowing intimately whether the kimura is available, but how you get there is the same: slow progress over time, culminating in the acuity to know instinctively what to do when the time is right.

Besides, every discipline has different aims, some of which exist beyond good and evil. To paraphrase Ash from the Evil Dead films: “Good, bad. I’m the guy with the heel hooks.”

The idea of mushin is divergent from daily life experience for most of us. We work day jobs that require constant attention. Whether you’re sitting in an office or waiting tables, your mind is active and thinking about minute details. If the world slows down in these spots, it’s not because of the flow, it’s because the quotidian is making you watch the clock.

What does this all mean? It means that the New Year is almost here, and with it, I’m thinking my annual thoughts about what to improve during the next trip around the sun.

I always play the Lawrence Arms song “100 Resolutions” at this time of the year, because the chorus is something to aspire to. You can see why it’d make me think of mushin:

This year I’ll try not to think too much.
This year I’ll try to stand up for myself.
This year I’ll live like I’ve never lived before.
This is my year, for sure.

This year I’ll practice more. Not just jiu-jitsu, but all the things that get me away from clock-watching and toward quiet. This year I’ll flow more and force things less, and I’m not talking about while rolling. The world will always make waves in my life, but I will learn to surf them better.

These are all things I wish for you, too. Happy New Year, everyone.


Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward All

Have you ever seen the spy comedy “Sneakers,” starring Robert Redford and a stellar ensemble cast?

I won’t entirely spoil it for you, but the good guys win, and as part of their victory, they are able to extract certain promises from an agent of the US government, played ably by James Earl Jones. Some ask for favors for themselves, small or large. One member of the protagonist team, the blind Whistler, asks for something different. He asks for “peace on Earth, and goodwill toward men.”

It’s a great phrase, despite its use of “men” as a generic for “people.” The phrase is drawn from the King James Version of the Bible, and is used in Christmas Carol. I’m a secular person, but it’s tough to deny the power of ritual and symbol, especially when it’s supposed be used to build togetherness. When the holidays work right, whatever your faith tradition, they make you happier than you were before, remind you of your connection to your fellow humans, and make you grateful for all you have in your life.

Yet the holidays can be a tough time for people, religious and secular alike. Not everyone has a family experience that resembles a heartwarming film. Not everyone has the capacity to celebrate. And while religious texts are supposed to be preaching unity, it seems like all we see in headlines is division. During these holy days, this seems wrong.

I have a charity project or two that I’m not quite ready to announce yet. But it’s Christmas Eve, and the project might be thematically related to this, so I want to say something about it. Also, I want to do my part in reminding you that while people are capable of doing great harm, we’re also capable of incredible acts of compassion, self-sacrifice, and love.

All I can say about the project at this time of year is this:  When I think about the world’s religions — and, in fact, the world’s people — here’s what I want to be thinking about.

These stories have a common thread: at enormous personal risk, human beings stood up to protect others who were ostensibly not like them. That’s powerful. Like I said, I’m an avowed secularist, but these examples weren’t hard to find, either. Human history is replete with stories like this, of those truly courageous souls who welcomed the stranger and chanced losing their lives — in many cases, to save someone they didn’t know.

Look in all the holy books, too. You’ll find it. Love your neighbor as yourself. Whoever kills an innocent will be regarded as a murderer of all humanity. What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow human.

That’s not about the specific religion, of course. It’s about the people, and the way we interpret text. If you’re looking for excuses to hurt people, you’ll find them. (Truth be told, I wish you wouldn’t). If you’re looking for reasons to see the better angels of our nature, I hope you find that, too — whatever your faith or lack thereof.

One of the things I love most about jiu-jitsu is that it, too, can be a unifying force. I believe that, or I wouldn’t be doing it. That’s a hint about the project, too. We should find more items of significance that unify us.

Everyone has difficulties that come into their lives, and this time of year can amplify those feelings in the same way that it can amplify good feelings. You might not be in a war zone at this time of year, and I hope you aren’t, but you don’t have to be in order to make a real difference in someone’s life. That same King James Bible, I recall, has some passages about giving gentle answers, turning the other cheek and loving those who might consider themselves your enemy.

My New Year’s Resolution is to respond to hard things by getting kinder, and by thinking about new ways to help the world. This is easy to say. Harder to do. Like most hard things, it’s worth doing. Jiu-jitsu is like life: it’s a constant struggle between what’s right and what’s easy.

I want peace on Earth and goodwill toward men. I want us to do that and I believe that we can.

Happy holidays, y’all.


The Woman God must be killed

I don’t know if you heard, but Ronda Rousey lost.

If you did hear, then you must have also heard from all the people who knew she would lose, who say she was overrated the whole time, and who believe that her lack of humility led to her fall from grace (as opposed to a well-prepared opponent who created matchup problems).

This shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. It’s the way humans think. The fact is, though, it did surprise me to see the narrative snap back so fast from “Ronda will just armbar her, obviously” to “I knew Ronda was overrated, and she got a big head from becoming a big star, and her moral failings led to her doom.”

There is a pithy modern reaction to this, which is: haters have a job, and that job is to hate.

There is also a deeper, less modern reaction, one that I think about often.

Continue reading

New Radio Show this Weekend

When I was a child, all I wanted was my own rap theme song. Like John Slade said, every hero needs some theme music.

Turns out all I had to do to realize this dream was host a community radio show. Starting this Sunday, I’ll be hosting the Cageside ConcussionCast on WHUP FM 104.7 in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

The name is a little tongue-in-cheek, but me and my co-host Trevor Hayes will be talking about jiujitsu, MMA and the martial arts in the Carolinas and beyond. You can check it out live on Sundays from 10 a.m.-11 a.m. Eastern time if you’re local, or you can listen to the livestream at The shows will automatically become podcasts an hour after airing, so you can download them for free. We’ll have them up on iTunes soon.

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Beyond any question, the ConcussionCast will the best combat sports show hosted by a vegan pajama wrestler. Come listen to us preview local tournaments and fights and interview the best martial arts personalities you’ll ever want to hear from. We’ll let these experts explain how North Carolina became a jiu-jitsu hotbed, what fights to watch and when, how to execute techniques and what walkout music you should pick for your fight. Occasionally we’ll talk to our expert guests about Dungeons & Dragons and heel hooks:



Some interviews we already have scheduled:

Andrew Smith
Caio Terra
D’Juan Owens
CJ Murdock, live from Brazil
Laurie Porsch from Grapplethon
Guy Pendergrass
Mark Hunt
.. and so, so many more. 

We also promise fun and vegan recipes with a minimum of blunt trauma, but a maximum of entertainment. Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Chat with us using the hashtag #CagesideWHUP or email us at cagesideWHUP at gmail dot com. And let me know who you want us to interview.

Oh, and about that theme music: how awesome is this track created for the show by Toon & The Real Laww?


How Metamoris Can Seize An Opportunity By Booking Dern And Garcia

The first thing I did when I got up this morning was watch Mackenzie Dern’s match against Gabi Garcia at ADCC. The second thing I did was send messages to several of my friends along the lines of “Wow, Dern beat Gabi?” with multiple interrobangs.

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, 80 percent of the jiujitsu people you know seem to be reacting roughly the same way.

This isn’t too surprising: as I’ve written before, every great match has a great story behind it.  “Much smaller person defeats imposing, seemingly unstoppable giant” has been a classic story since way before Hulk Hogan bodyslammed Andre. In fact, with all respect to the scriptural source of the name “Goliath,” this trope probably pre-dates the slingshot itself.

Plus, it was a fun match:

Many will say that the response to this match proves that Ralek Gracie has been wrong about saying Metamoris can’t afford to bring in women for matches, and those people will be right. But I want to take a different slant on that, partially because I try to look forward instead of backward, and partially because I do public relations for a living.

Practically everyone is talking about Gabi-Dern right now. With the world’s attention on this match, Metamoris has a serious opportunity to capitalize on that attention — and to earn back some goodwill from grappling fans.

If I were the Metamoris PR guy, I would tell Ralek that the world had given him a tremendous gift. I’d tell him to get on the phone with both Garcia and Dern right now and offer them a rematch at Metamoris in May.

For one thing, it would be a great match with a great story. Now that Gabi’s aura of invincibility has been punctured, people are more interested in her matches than ever; it’s extension of the great underdog story, where now the question becomes “can she do it again?”; they’re both in shape; Dern has nothing to lose, and Gabi probably wants redemption.

Finally, this gives Ralek Gracie himself a chance at a graceful withdrawal from his earlier comments. Ralek could give a statement that says “Wow, was I wrong: people are interested in women’s matches, and that’s why we’re bringing in these two great athletes.” Everybody wins. Remember when Dana White said women would never, ever fight in the UFC — and then he met Ronda Rousey? This could be that moment for Metamoris.

People are interested in matchups when they have great stories behind them. Right now, the world is thrilled because a dynamic underdog pulled on upset against a dominant force: imagine if we could see a repeat of that under submission-focused rules next month.

I’m interested in how the next chapter of the story ends: aren’t you?

My happiest BJJ moment

Who is more successful, the single guy who has a billion dollars or the married guy with three great kids who just scrapes by?

I sometimes use this analogy to get across a principle: what success looks like depends upon the criteria you use. If we define success as happiness, which I do, we don’t have enough information to answer the question. Maybe the rich bachelor has only ever really wanted to fall in love and have children; maybe the married guy’s financial stresses blind him to how wonderful his offspring are. Or maybe the single guy is thrilled to have no commitments and enough money to fly in Rickson Gracie for constant private lessons (which is what I would do) and maybe the family man has just what he’s always wanted.

Jiu-jitsu is like life: how you define success depends upon your goals. I think about my own goals a lot, and yet my happiest moment in jiu-jitsu came as a real surprise when I tried to figure out what it was.

If I had a billion dollars ...

If I had a billion dollars …

What was that happiest moment, and why was it a surprise? Well, I’ll get to that in a second. We all know jiu-jitsu can make you happier (and that post I just linked has great strategies for doing so). But the manner in which it does this varies from person to person.

Some highlights are common, obvious even. After I decided I was going to devote a lot of time to jiu-jitsu, competition became a priority for me. At white and blue belt, I entered a ton of tournaments, trying both to get wins and improve as fast as I could. I’ve lost a lot of jiu-jitsu matches, which means I’ve also won a fair amount of jiu-jitsu matches, and some of those wins tasted pretty sweet.

I’ve never been overly focused on belt promotion — I’m a huge believer in “keep your head down and train hard, and that stuff will take care of itself” — but when I got promoted to blue and especially purple, those were great days as well.

Those are common highlight-reel moments for just about everyone, I think. If you’re at the right gym, you probably also have some great memories of camaraderie on road trips or during post-training bonding sessions.

When I read Andrew Smith’s article about happiness in BJJ and thought about the singular moment that made me happiest, though, I didn’t think about any medal or even the day I got my purple belt. I flashed on an otherwise banal moment.

That morning, I’d been teaching the 6 a.m. fundamentals class. A white belt expressed to me that he’d never been able to hit the basic hip bump sweep I was showing, so I offered details on a setup that had helped me out.

During the night class, he showed up again. I was watching him roll with another white belt, and he saw the chance to use the setup. I swear his eyes got as big as dinner plates. The guy actually looked over and said my name as he set the technique up, like he was whispering “watch this!”

He hit for the first time and I have never seen a person smile so big. But that might only be true because there wasn’t a mirror in the room.

It was a super-basic technique and an inconsequential gym roll, but that moment stands out to me for some reason. I finally got some small version of what my instructor must feel regularly.

Why is this? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Some combination of the sheer joy on his face, the direct line between teaching the setup and seeing it work in a few short hours, perhaps. Also, I’ve achieved a lot of my competition goals, which means I generally compete for fun and view those tournaments as an extension of my training. The more I teach, the more I improve at it and the more fun I have.

I started training when I was 36, so long-term I always knew that teaching was a more sustainable path for me than competing full-time. Competition is still something I enjoy a lot, and I still train as hard for competition as I ever have.

Maybe this is part of a mental transition where other “wins” are becoming as important to me — or even more so. Roy Marsh once told me that, in his view, a purple belt absolutely should be able to teach. I’m finding that this is certainly part of the growth curve for me.

There’s something deeply gratifying to me about helping somebody else achieve their goals. Being useful to others in that way, I’m coming to understand, is a critical part of my own goals, too.

How about you? What are your happiest moments in jiu-jitsu?