2002 – 2005 – White Belt
I was a 21 year old who had just begun a philosophy degree at university. The local video store had allowed me to see the first five UFC events and, inspired by the exploits of Royce Gracie, my friends and I began ‘training’ in a garage. A few months later, a customer at the shop I was working at alerted me to the existence of a Machado BJJ club in the area, and so I went to have a look. Keen to test my garage sharpened ‘skills’, it was in May of 2002 that I showed up to my first class in my grass stained, low budget judo gi ready to roll.
Needless to say, I was soundly handled by everyone during sparring that night, but the roll that really captured my attention and imagination was the one I had with the instructor. Michael was only a blue belt, and he was a little bigger and stronger than me, but the way he handled me was such that at no time did I feel like anything I did mattered. He could have been a ten year old girl and the result would have been exactly the same. The dude was water. This was what I wanted to do.
The main thing I learned at white belt was to relax. Most of the guys I trained with back then were much bigger than me, as they were mainly guys with professional martial arts or security backgrounds, and so I quickly learned that pushing, pulling, or grabbing harder never really helps, but it does always tire you out and sometimes leads to injury. Once you can get that super-chill breathing going with a super heavyweight sitting on your face, then you can focus your mind on positional maintenance and problem solving in any situation.
2005 – 2008 – Blue Belt
Still at uni. One of only a handful of blue belts in a sea of white belts.
Cocky. The move collector. The cutting edge, half guard/hooks guard phenom.
You know JJ Machado? I roll like him.
“Stupid purple belt instructor is living in the past, man. Saulo Ribeiro and Marcelo Garcia are changing the game and this dope has us doing closed guard sweeps? Bleh. I’m off to the corner to do my own stuff with the other cool blue belts.“ – Me ‘07
Anyway, I was pretty deluded as a blue belt. Don’t get me wrong, the stuff we were doing on the side was good stuff, but my attitude towards moves I ‘already knew’ was misled. At that time, I thought the key to the game was simply to know more moves than your opponent, and that knowing a move was a simple matter of getting to the point that you could demonstrate it.
However, as I got closer to purple belt I started to understand that the new school stuff I had been doing was only particularly effective for me because of how much work I had invested into learning how to use it. This reality check made me see all of the techniques I had previously learned in a different light, and I started to move my training focus away from the acquisition of new techniques, and towards the sharpening of existing ones.
2008 – 2011 – Purple Belt
Public Servant. Instructing the no gi Saturday class.
“To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” – Ric Flair
More than half the rolling I did as a purple belt was against one brown belt. He was about my weight and one of the best brown belts in the country, and so I had made it my mission to get to the level needed to credibly compete against him. I adopted Saulo Ribeiro as my surrogate instructor by watching his three instructionals to the point that I sounded like Saulo, and then used these teachings to sharpen my defensive postures and escapes to the point that I was eventually able to give ‘the man’ a run for his money through sheer defensive capability.
When ‘the man’ got his black belt from Anthony Perosh, he gave me my brown.
So what did I learn as a purple belt? Teaching is a good way to figure out that you don’t know shit about a move. White belts will ask perfectly valid questions about your favourite move and you will not have an answer, and begin to question whether you yourself actually do the move correctly. However, hopefully this will lead you to find the answers to these questions, which will then further your understanding of the move. At purple belt I learned that furthering your ability to teach a move is the final process of developing your own mastery of it.
2011 – 2016 – Brown Belt
Tried to be a real estate agent in 2012. No training for 18 months. Came back out of shape in 2014.
“Wtf just happened? The little kid is a beast.” Me ‘14
Before my 18 month hiatus, I had shared many rolls with one particular teenage blue belt, and had always had an easy time beating him. I once subbed him sixteen times in a minute during a grading roll. Anyway, while I was away, not only had he grown from a blue belt boy into a purple belt man, but he had also made two six week trips to AOJ in San Diego, where he had trained six days a week.
I came back, and the kid destroyed me. He took vengeance for that sixteen sub exhibition I had laid on him back in the day, and it wasn’t pretty. Not only that, but he was using techniques that I was largely ignorant of. As I previously noted, I had stopped collecting moves back when I was a purple belt, but as a result I had not kept up with the newer tactics as I had always thought that my ‘brown belt fundamentals’ would see me through. Convinced that it must be the new moves that were allowing an inferior grappler to defeat me, I scrambled to learn about every berimbolo, single X, curu curu, fifty fifty, whateverty doo-dah I could find, only to arrive at a far scarier realisation.
It wasn’t the moves. The kid had just been training way harder than me, and was now a better grappler than me.
The colour of my belt together with all my additional years of experience didn’t change the fact that I threw everything I had at this kid over and over and never came close to getting an attacking position. I had been resting on my laurels, and now the student had become the master.
So I started training harder, and seeking more knowledge with clearer goals in mind, and slowly I began to close the gap. The kid’s a freak so I don’t think I’ll ever have the edge on him again, but at 36 I’m happy just as long as I can give the top guys a good competitive match. It seems dumb to learn it so late, but at brown belt I really learned that goal-focussed mat time is what leads to improvement in BJJ, i.e. train as often as you can, know what you are there to work on, and work on it.
It was in 2015 as a brown belt that I accepted a coaching position at the new Atos club in Canberra.
2016 – Black Belt
I’m still coaching at Atos Canberra as the women’s instructor and assistant instructor to the main class. I am enjoying my BJJ training as much as ever, and I am looking forward to continuing my BJJ learning long into the future.
So, that’s my BJJ journey so far. Thanks for reading, and good luck with your training.
Here’s a video of me getting promoted to black belt by Professors JT Torres, Antonio Mota, and Ben Langford at Atos Canberra.