I recently stepped out of my comfort zone yet again, and entered a pankration tournament in Boston. The organizers describe it as “MMA-Lite” because there is no striking or kicking to the head, and you aren’t supposed to be doing any damage. In other words, it is like MMA sparring for points.
From my first day of martial arts training, I have not wanted to be hit in the head. I respect the guys who go out and put their noggins on the line, but at 42, that’s just not where I really want to be, no matter how viscerally appealing it may be. Pankration appeared to be the perfect way to get my MMA kicks, without the kicks to the head.
I went into the tournament explicitly without MMA training. I did some standup striking practice with some of the MMA guys just to get a feel for timing my strikes as much as I could, and to evaluate how hard it would be to take someone down, but overall I entered the tournament knowing that my straight jiu-jitsu would be put to the test.
As with all recent competitions, I went in without being stressed or worried about the outcome. I hoped to compete in the expert division, which would allow striking on the ground, but I am under the 5+ years of experience. I suspected it would be a small tournament, so I also didn’t expect to see very many people my age competing.
This all added up to a lot of uncertainty about what would happen. But I was never nervous. When I went to the bracketing table, I pointed out my lonely card and asked if there was anyone for me to fight. The bracketer asked if I was willing to fight a younger less skilled opponent, and I replied, “I’ll fight anybody.”
It wasn’t what I was hoping for, but after I left the table, I was a little surprised at how quick I said I would fight anybody, and how much I meant it. I watched the first fights start, and these guys did not look like they were going for points. The takedowns were hard, the kicks were hard, and the punches were solid. I sat there trying to break in my brand new MMA gloves, and thought about my readiness. In the grand scheme of things, it could easily be argued that I was woefully under-prepared for this, but even with that objectively in my head, I still felt confident and was ready.
By the time my division was coming up, my opponent had already fought once and had apparently injured himself, so I was left without a matchup. The matchmaker then asked me if I wanted to fight a 20ish year old West Point guy. Again, I said “I’ll fight anybody.”
Within minutes, I was squared up against a guy about my size, but clearly strong. He asked me if I wanted to compete under the expert rules, and I readily agreed. The fight started, we traded some combos, then I took him down to the ground and took his back and choked him out with a rear naked choke. Because of the ruleset, we weren’t done, so again we started on our feet, I took him down and then established side control. I had 19 points out of 20 to finish the fight, so I leaned towards his head and gave him a tap to the stomach to get one last point for the win.
Then it turned out that there was one more fight for me to make it a three man division. Again it was one of the West Point guys. We started our fight and I got in a number of combos and racked up some points before he finally found his rhythm. He discovered that I was a little weak at defending kicks to my ribs, and he started racking up points. I tried to take him down, but he would just escape and go back to standing. At one point he was in my guard and as I transitioned to an open guard to try to sweep him, he started to stand up, paused, and drilled me hard right in the solar plexus. It felt like he was trying to punch the floor. My first thought was “ouch,” followed quickly by “I thought this was points striking.” It took a second for me to recover and make sure I wasn’t injured, but that gave him his opportunity to stand back up and force me back to standing.
The fight ended standing with me taking kicks to the ribs. Although I didn’t get the win, I was happy with my overall performance. I finished a fight with striking instead of relying just on submissions, and I engaged an opponent who clearly figured out my weak spot. I am old enough to be these guys father, but I traded my jiu-jitsu with them and did well.
On my drive home, I thought about the day and how I did. I didn’t follow the clinch/takedown game that I planned with the second fighter, but I had successfully performed it with the first fighter. I got more points from striking than submissions, and I stepped up to fight anybody in the room, regardless of the age or skill level.
Jiu-jitsu has been a gift to me. If you put me in a room five years ago and said I had to fight a 20 year old kid that had been training to fight, I would have politely excused myself and become invisible. Now I don’t think twice about it. The confidence I have now doesn’t get built overnight. It comes from years of training and becoming mentally comfortable with being physically uncomfortable. When a new untrained guy walks in to the academy, I am never worried about them being able to control me. It’s just another bag of muscles that needs controlling and submission.
I’m realistic and know that in a street fight anything could happen, but it’s not something to be feared. I know that if I end up on the ground with someone in a fight, the chances of me coming out on the losing side are slim. Their best bet is to get a lucky punch in; otherwise my training and competition experience will kick in, and it will just be another fight to finish, and I will dictate how it gets finished. It will be done by my calculation, and they will be disabled to the degree that they are potentially able to harm me.
I just don’t get into street fights. But as I told my students tonight, if you are responsible for others, you owe it to them to be able to protect yourself and them from harm. My odds of getting into that kind of situation are close to zero, yet I still train, and I still take that possibility seriously. Even though I don’t expect to get into a fight, this skill set I’m building can be passed on to others that are more at risk of needing to defend themselves. My confidence can be conveyed to others, and that is one of the most thrilling aspects of teaching. I don’t want any of my students to be in danger of physical harm from someone else. If they have no choice but to stand their ground, I hope that the things I teach them will kick in and just be an automatic part of their reaction. I want them to be able to say “I’ll fight anybody,” even if they hope to never fight a single attacker.
I still have so much to learn. Every day I get closer to a jiu-jitsu black belt, and I’m working towards a Judo black belt as well. I study self defense techniques and mix them into my classes. Although I don’t feel like a complete martial arts package yet, I’m working towards it. In the meantime, I can rely on my confidence, mental calculation, and proven grappling skills if I need them. I want my students to feel the same empowerment. Then I want them to pass that on to their loved ones and anybody they come in contact with. The world would be a more polite place if everybody knew proper self defense.
Can you honestly say “I’ll fight anybody”? If you can’t, maybe you should think about your ability to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Maybe you should consider training (more) jiu-jitsu. The best case scenario is that you’ll have the confidence that I have, you’ll never get in a fight, and you will discover a martial art that provides a literal lifetime of enjoyment with physical and mental benefits. The worst case scenario is that you’ll have to use what you learn for defense, but your risks will be vastly reduced. Choose confidence. Enable yourself to say “I’ll fight anybody.”