I remember the first time I saw martial artists fight on the ground. A friend bought UFC 6 and we watched it live on TV. He was excited because he had seen it before. I had no idea what was coming. The year was 1995. Another two years passed before I stepped foot on the mat.
I lived in Durango, Colorado. There were no jiu jitsu schools.
My only option was an Arnis class, a Filipino martial art that involved stick fighting and knife work, at the Durango Sports Club. Students practiced in a basketball/yoga room. While I was working out, I’d see the martial artists walking down the hall to class, carrying sticks, knives, staffs and sais, a sort of lethal three-pronged pitchfork.
I thought to myself, “What the hell is this?”
There was a wrestling mat but I never saw anyone roll it out.
For the longest time, I used to watch the class from a viewing area. I just couldn’t get up the interest to join.
One day, I forced myself to try it out.
Nearly eighteen years later, I look on that as one of the smartest decisions I ever made.
Every class I came to I’d bug the instructor, “let’s do jiu jitsu; let’s do jiu jitsu.”
So we rolled the mat out. After class, we’d roll it back so there was room for the yoga students.
I don’t remember much technique. We just sparred. And got beat up. You learned by necessity. One tough, aggressive student used to neck crank me every chance he got. Pass the guard, bam, neck crank! I must have gotten my neck cracked a hundred times.
At that time, I think the closest back belt was either in Salt Lake, Phoenix, or Denver, at least eight hours away.
The highest ranked jiu jitsu guy was a blue belt in Farmington, New Mexico.
He had a tough white-belt student.
We used to drive back-and-forth, an hour each way, to train. Amazingly, those guys went on to fight in King of the Cage, Pride, Strikeforce and the UFC. The blue belt was Floyd Sword; the white belt was Joey Villasenor.
The fist time I met or trained with a black belt was when Rafael Lovato Sr. came to Farmington for a seminar. He brought his blue-belt son, Rafael Jr., with him. I remember thinking during a demonstration with father and son, “This kid is good.”
Lovato Jr. has gone on to be one of the greatest American jiu jitsu fighters of all time.
I trained off and on with that group for two years. Back then the only was to see jiu jitsu was by buying a VHS tape. There was nothing on the internet. No YouTube. No nothing.
You saw jiu jitsu on UFC pay-per-view or bought instructional tapes. All the major events were held in Brazil. Rorion and Royce and Rickson were in California; Renzo was in New York; Carlos Machado was in Dallas. That was pretty much it.
Floyd flew to California to train with Rickson and got his blue belt. I met him shortly after.
Then I moved to Dallas.
I starting training at an Alliance school under black belt Allen Mohler. Then jiu jitsu started to explode in popularity. Now, everyone knows about it.
Looking back on it, those times in the sports club with the roll-out mat were some of the best times I’ve had in jiu jitsu.
John David Emmett is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with an interest in movement and the Feldenkrais method. He teaches at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore.