There’s no vagueness about losing, simply the finality of it and that horrid experience becoming fuel to make damn sure nobody’s going to do that to me again.
Last August 17, I competed in my second grappling tournament, within four years of having started martial arts. And I lost. Quite badly, too.
Within 20 seconds of the five-minutes allotted match time I had been rag-dolled and submitted. I tapped out to a mata leao, commonly known as a rear-naked choke, where your opponent slaps on his forearm under your chin with a strangle as he rides you from behind and his legs pin down your thighs. I called it quits before I completely blacked out.
To be quite honest about it, I don’t remember being dominated that succinctly besides the first two years I had been learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu and, later on, Brazilian luta livre.
I should clarify some things at this point, though. Bar none, grappling has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The physics of trying to submit a fully resisting opponent has fascinated me ever since I saw my first UFC show, back in the early 2000s. But I only started studying it seriously when I eventually covered mixed martial arts in 2011.
Fast forward to 2015 and I was finally on the mats at my first jiu-jitsu class, ostensibly to better experience and thus better explain the nuances of the ground fighting that was now essential to any MMA fight. How did it really feel to get an armbar slapped on you? Well, I sure found out plenty.
BE WATER, TRY NOT TO CHOKE
The truth of it is, there’s never a great time to start martial arts and though one of the general marketing thrusts is that you can “start it at any age,” there’s certainly much to be said about starting it in your late 30s, not being athletic previous to any of that (meaning, I had never set foot in a gym other than to interview athletes), and having no background in martial arts, at all.
The tombs of many men approaching middle age must be littered with the epitaphs of “He tried to take on too much, went too hard, too fast, too soon.” You can only question yourself so many times after gassing out and feeling like your heart’s about to burst after tapping out countless times. The lessons sink in, and you can execute techniques under the stress of battle.
That’s just the crux though. I’d rather be striving than giving way to the sulking, brooding laziness that is my default mode. I’ll tell you this: there is great spiritual value in the struggle to undertake something that is difficult and beyond your abilities. Certainly, grappling with my demons in the form of agile and strapping young men and women was beyond my comfort zone.
What I did know how to do was to endure and try again. Having been an activist, I was no stranger to fighting, so that was the well I drew from to be able to reset and show up, again and again, after I got my ass beat week in and week out.
THE BEAST FROM BORACAY
My first competition was October of 2018, at the Asia-Pacific Submission Only International Open. The format attracted me because it was less of a points system—where sometimes players would stall for time to be granted a better score—and it encouraged going for a finishing submission.
I competed in the division without a kimono, better known as no-gi, and won gold medal by default in my weight and belt class (76kg and white), at my age bracket (Masters 2, which is 36 to 40 years old), since nobody showed up. So I said, fuck that, I’m not going home without a fight.
I signed up for the Absolute division—a format where only belt color matters and the weight classes are thrown out the window in a Royal Rumble style arrangement. I was quickly matched with an amateur MMA fighter from Boracay who was in a lower weight class, but way fitter and easily more pneumatically built, big biceps bursting out of his rash guard. Around the middle mark of the 6-minutes regulation round I had brought him to the mats in what my submission wrestling coach would later tell me was a beautiful bodylock takedown. I was working for a submission but had left one of my arms at a weird angle and he easily capitalized on it.
The referee stopped it before I could tap, later telling me he didn’t want the buff MMA guy to break it. I was puzzled by this since I thought I was quite flexible, but looking back on it now that seems quite likely and I’m thankful to the ref for seeing that.
Though I had lost the gold at Absolute I didn’t feel like I had fought badly or that I had lost appallingly, especially since I had had quite a few good moments in that match. To people who I show that match to, the first thing they say when they see the obviously gym-carved, body-builder’s physique of my opponent is, “You fought that monster?!”
I took home a silver medal and he took the gold, and we were genuinely happy for each other as we embraced at the podium. Lose or learn is an oft-repeated maxim to competing martial artists, and certainly I’ve never let anyone catch me in that awful of a position again.
Which is in stark contrast to how I felt after losing in my second competition.
While I had promised myself that I would only compete if I had the time to prepare (around two to three months of a “fight camp”), and only in the format that interested me, I didn’t know both would come just a year later.
I was going to join the Brazilian Luta Livre Supremo Challenge. The competition was the culminating activity of a three-day seminar on luta livre, the catch wrestling discipline I had been studying for almost two years.
Usually this seminar and camp is held in Kota Kinabalu, where the headquarters of the Asia-Pacific Union of the Asian luta livre black belts is located. This was the first time it had been held abroad, with three visiting black belts in attendance, teaching not just the gamut of the techniques but also a short program for assistant trainers and a referee course on the APAC rules—notably divergent from the Brazilian competition rules since it declared slams and spinal submissions illegal.
Luta livre translates loosely to “free fighting” and it’s a style that used to be the rival school of jiu-jitsu. With their leglocks and pain submissions, the upper and middle class practitioners of jiu-jitsu scoffed at these “dirty” fighting tactics, even as the friction of their conflict spilled off the mats and onto the beaches and streets of Rio de Janeiro, in a martial war that included race, class, and neighborhood.
Now luta livre (BLL) and jiu-jitsu (BJJ) have made peace and are even on cross-training terms, but the gym raids with automatic weapons and vale tudo rumbles of decades past still flare up sometimes in modern cage matches.
In luta livre there are three beginners belts (white, yellow, and orange), two intermediate belts (blue and purple) and one advanced belt (brown) before getting to black belt—this is in contrast to the more popular jiu-jitsu ranks, which only has five belts including black. I hold an orange belt in this discipline and luta livre is fairly young in the Philippines, established only around 2014.
Previous to the BLL camp in Manila, if I had wanted to compete in this rule set that allowed most leglocks and pain holds (like calf and bicep crushes) even for orange belts like me, I would have needed to fly to Kota Kinbalu to attend the prestigious Copa De Borneo, where they routinely had both BJJ and BLL matches.
The opportunity to save air fare, accommodation, and competition fees in a rule set that I had already wanted to compete in, plus one that was being held in Manila—albeit at a grassroots, boutique level—felt like a call to embrace fate.
TRAINING CAMP BLUES
These conditions were too good to pass up. So, I buckled down and started to train, dividing my camp between BLL and BJJ to be as well-rounded as possible, supplementing it with striking for cardio and calisthenics at home.
About a month before the comp I got my warts and skin tags removed. Some of them were on the inside crook of my right elbow, and I decided I shouldn’t be inflicting my papilloma virus on my training partners (especially the teens) any longer than I should. I endured an afternoon of painful zaps, which meant the mats were off-limits for about a week and a half. Less training, of course, but I needed those small wounds to completely close before even thinking of sparring with another sweaty person.
Hence my camp was way more relaxed and less intense than last year’s, since I now had gotten over the fact that you needed to go hard at all times to get better. Even as I did more cardio and focused on a core set of techniques, I eschewed the fancy, artful stuff (that I loved doing) that I would likely forget under duress anyway. I tried hard to relax and focus on the mental game, something that had weighed heavily on me last year, drained from simply waiting for close to four hours before I could fight at Absolute.
About five days before the competition I got a weird bump on my head. Like many hazards in grappling and live sparring I had no idea how and when I had gotten it. After putting some ice on it, the next day, it had moved to the top of my right eyebrow. Somehow it became three hematomas of varying sizes, all in line, barely noticeable except if I put my finger on them and tapped. Ow. Yeah, they were tender. Still, injuries were normal and I made a deal with the guy who was going to corner me for the fight, after he was shocked at my hematoma (“Dude that is not a small bump!” he said): if the day before the fight, the swelling was still tender and visible, I would not compete.
The BLL Supremo Challenge was certainly a grassroots comp in quite a few ways. For one, it was a maximum of an eight-man tournament with only three weight divisions (-66kg, -77kg, and +77kg) and two rank levels (beginners and intermediate), as opposed to big tourneys that had nine weight divisions.
NO MATS FOR OLD MEN
Here was the clincher though: no option for age brackets.
See, when you compete in grappling if you’re past 30, you certainly have the option to enter some tournaments separate from the young ones (dubbed as “Adult”), in the Master divisions. Many BJJ tournaments have age divisions for the 30+ and over. Master 1 is for 30 to 35, Master 2 is for athletes aged 36 to 40, Master 3 is from 41 to 44 and up to Masters 6, which is the age bracket that Anthony Bourdain competed in, since he was 59.
A Masters division is important because fighting those in your own age group, with the same testosterone capacity, is just plain fair. But certainly no one would stop me from competing at Adult with the young monsters if I chose to.
I weighed in at 71.4kg (I had shed a good few kilos from my match last October) and should have competed in Master 2, since I’d just turned 41. There was none, though. I had prepared for the tourney for a bit over two months and I was going to be damned if I’d paid for all those training sessions and gone through all those hard rolls to simply not fight. Thankfully, a day before the competition I was free of hematomas.
On the day of the tourney a few of the competitors who had enlisted did not show, so our division got shaken up. After weigh-ins (which nobody bothered to check, and we all ended up simply writing our own weight on the registration books), I ended up facing a tall, twenty-something-year-old guy with “athlete” written all over his movements. My opponent was stretching with something very akin to splits as he was warming up, downing what I could only assume was a protein shake between his matches and before ours.
THE RAGDOLL, THE WALL, AND THE YOUNG GUN
The bell rang. We started with hand fighting, trying to establish grips that were more favorable to us while denying our opponent the same. Faster than I could defend, I was pulled into a standing arm drag, a basic maneuver to take the back. The momentum carried me almost to the bare, concrete wall and my first thought was: I am going to hit it.
Let’s pause for a bit there. A few days previous, I had taken the referee course that was part of the BLL camp and we had discussed, specifically, the danger of the bare walls of the new gym where the competition would be held. Usually, mats are placed on the wall because during live rolling people may accidentally not notice they’re near a wall and throw someone in a bad trajectory. And generally because shit just happens when your adrenaline is up, and the last thing on your mind when you’re trying to battle your way out of a sweaty beast choking the life out of you is the bare concrete wall beside you.
“We’ll ask them to put mats there,” said one of the trainers, and noted that if there were no mats to be had, whoever was reffing needed to interpose his body between the wall and the fighters prior to any impact.
On the day of the competition though, I was hyper aware of the damn wall, after getting arm dragged and seeing that my arc was going to smash my head against it. Rather than do a front roll that would likely slam both of us to the concrete, I sat down to do a backward shoulder roll. I escaped his clutches for a second, but with the speed of his youth and his damn springy legs he whipped himself to the other side of my body. Which put him in a perfect position to sink his hooks in, which basically means he put both his legs between my thighs as I lay supine facing up, my back against his belly. He had never let go of my left arm, had sunk in his forearm under my neck, tightening the choke to catastrophic proportions before I could mount any defense.
I tapped before I blacked out. It was all over in 20 seconds.
THE ART OF LOSING BADLY
After the referee raised his hand I limped back to my corner and realized I had forgotten my mouth guard. But that was secondary to the extreme sense of relief that flooded my system, sensing that it was all over. I’ve heard quite a few MMA fighters express this weird sensation over the years post-fight, part-adrenaline wearing off and part-mental loosening, that even if they’d lost that immense release uncoils your body.
My opponent would go on to win gold in our weight division, beating a pro-MMA fighter (who had somehow gotten lost and slotted in our beginners division), and a veteran jiu-jitsu competitor who weighed even less than I did standing around 5’ 5.” The pro fighter only got beat because he had tried to slam himself out of guard and was automatically disqualified. I wonder how he felt.
Watching the super short footage of it now, I see he spent most of his energy on defeating me. Even if there’s little glory in defeating an old man that should be in the Master 2 bracket, he had blown most of his gas in those 20 seconds, and that it carried over to his next match, with him being unable to get a submission and simply winning by points.
There’s no vagueness about losing, simply the finality of it and that horrid experience becoming fuel to make damn sure nobody’s going to do that to me again. In the following days, I gnashed my teeth at the loss, the embarrassment of it suffocating me better than my opponent ever did.
I declared that I would compete right away, for a quick turnaround, within a month maybe two, since there were a few BJJ tournaments forthcoming, even though I knew full well that my body likely couldn’t take another few months of hard training. So this is how all those fighters who had gotten KO’d or submitted felt? It fucking sucked. And they did nothing else but train, where as I felt triumphant that I had squeezed in three days of training in a week.
There’s an art to losing badly, it seems. I received more support and messages of encouragement for simply being brave enough to show up and compete in a tournament that was, in retrospect, quite haphazardly organized and with a hardcore Royal Rumble age bracket.
IWAS-JITSU AND THE TRUTH OF DIMINISHING RETURNS
I showed my jiu-jitsu coach the match video and he expressed shock at the height, athleticism, and aggressiveness of my opponent. “Nagwawala kalaban mo, dinaan sa lakas,” (He’s going apeshit.) he said in the DM he sent me.
“You trained hard and showed up. Others are guilty of doing neither, of ‘iwas-jitsu’—and I’ve been their victim a couple of time,” said one of our luta livre purple belts, a local wrestling pioneer.
It took a talk with my submission wrestling coach, an instructor who had trained pro-MMA fighters, to calm me down, cementing my decision to not compete again this year. In a conversation that illuminated how I could take ownership of a loss, he noted that you should think of each loss as a bad break-up. Each one will progressively teach you how to simply relax and not repeat your stupidity, or awful behavior, or unrealistic expectations. You simply don’t rush into another relationship after a break-up.
What I came away with, most important of all, is realizing that consistency in training, even in small percentages, trumps wholesale going savage in sporadic, irregular sessions. The guy who can show up regularly, even if he gives it just 30% each time, will still make better improvement than someone who goes 100% but only shows up every other week. The hard data supported it, I just needed to give myself more time.
Such a revelation showed me that I shouldn’t hurry to meet my next competition, and likely face another loss, but to take it easy on my 40+ year old body and let my mind absorb the sorrow, to make it part of my blood. One loss is not the journey, but rather just another step in finding out exactly how great is the spiritual value in struggle, in undertaking something of extreme difficulty.
And everyone travels at his own pace, to the dictates of his own spirit.
Karl R. De Mesa is a journalist and writer who co-hosts the fight culture podcast DSTRY.MNL and the dark arts and entertainment podcast Kill the Lights. His latest book is Radiant Void, a collection of essays and non-fiction available from Visprint Inc.