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I have trained in a range of martial arts for a good 22 years. And I’m only 26. So basically, my entire life. My journey to Brazilian Jiu jitsu (BJJ) has been an interesting one. A long train of events, starting when I was 15, led me to it. Such a sequence that, if one of many events had not occurred, would have changed my whole trajectory. My father has always taught me in an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) style, shall we say. The three disciplines of striking, grappling, and submissions, have been the cornerstones of my life. But, as every aspiring Mixed Martial Artist and cage fighter knows, it’s important to take some time to study, and perfect specific styles from each discipline on their own first, as opposed to combining the whole lot together like some half-assed cake. The final, beautiful machine is the sum of its parts.
As I say, my journeys in specialism would eventually lead me to the BJJ family. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. That journey has always been peppered with the quest to challenge myself. Nothing makes you study harder than a test, right? Competitions and battles have marked my life like tattoos. Albeit the marks on my body were cuts and bruises. It took me a while, but eventually I accepted that this girl’s legs might always resemble a cheetah somewhat.
So, it all began with what many would consider the most practical discipline for self-defense; kickboxing. My ultimate weapon was the right roundhouse kick. I had flexibility, and a good angle on my hips. I could throw that kick like a whip, and was famous for it. I won competitions. I lost. I showed heart, and learned to find my courage. However, my timing wasn’t great overall. My reactions were slow, and based on feeling. As my brother and I were taken through the paces of Sambo wrestling, my father realized that take downs and grappling were my talent. I’ve always been a hugger, always loved the clinch. Judo, my father decided, could be my crowning glory.
Now as I went into, and fell in love with Judo, a crucial event occurred. An injury that would, in many ways, define the path of my life. Where did it happen you wonder? Some life and death battle for a championship title? A street altercation in the style of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris? No. I did not rip the chest hair from someone’s muscular pecs. It was in an incident that has taken down more than one fierce fighter, and no joke.
Trampolining. Yes, that’s right. You read that correctly, it was not a typo. I was in year ten so about 15 years old, or so. I was told to jump from one trampoline to another. Easy enough. I’d been doing decently the whole lesson. I loved trampolining, and my confidence was at an all-time high. I launched myself. My foot got caught in the padding on the side, before I made my majestic leap. It could only be described as a slingshot into a face plant. Everyone laughed. I would have done, but I couldn’t stop crying. I’d heard a terrible crack and something really wasn’t right. I couldn’t walk. Still, I continued to try to and convince myself I was fine. It was my prize foot after all.
So what had happened? I’d fractured (I.e. broken) my ankle... Yeah... that’s not what the doctor told me at the time. Apparently, I didn’t look like I was in enough pain. Nobody bothered to do an X-ray. I was told it was a sprain, and would heal up in a few weeks. Two months went by, and I still had some pain. My dad had thought I was just being a wuss. But eventually we realized something wasn’t right. We finally insisted on that X-ray. I got the X-ray and... it was a fracture, that was 80 percent healed, but nothing more could be done. It should have been in a cast or at least a brace when the incident first happened, if it wasn’t for the doctors, and perhaps my own poor judgement, the first-time round. This had put a halt on my regular judo training, and training in general started to drift backwards in terms of my priorities, as exams became my life. GCSEs followed by IB. I did well by the way, thanks for asking. I got into a good University, Durham. So that was that.
Off I went to study in the far North. I turned my back on Martial Arts somewhat. Seeking a new identity. Leaving the world of my upbringing behind. I still trained, but it did not dominate my life as it once had. Instead I became part of the competitive cheerleading squad, took up ballet and pole-dancing. But that’s another story.
However, as I returned home for the holidays my dad had opened up his MMA gym. I was drawn back as a moth to a flame. And was surprised that the skills I had, well, it really was like riding a bike. Of course, I was rusty. But the Lady Dragon, as my dad lovingly named my fighting alter ego, she was definitely still there. I did not magically become a beginner. The chains were rusty, but the bike still travelled. He urged me to consider that fighting MMA could be the way forward for me.
My love for Martial Arts, and feeling that perhaps my dad was really on to something re-emerged, as knowing what I wanted to do with my life diminished. My University studies were drawing to a close. I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, but carried on training leisurely in the holidays. One of the new styles I started to get my claws into at my dad’s new gym was something I hadn’t heard too much about, BJJ, in the Nogi style of course, meaning there was no ‘Gi’ or ‘Kimono’ worn. As hugging and wrestling were two of my favourite pass times, BJJ Nogi was something I had good feelings for, even if my technical knowledge was far from great. I had met the Judo Gi before, but it would still be a little while before I encountered the BJJ one (thinner, more light weight and less bulky for those of you wondering).
In deciding at the close of my Natural Sciences degree that I wanted to be an MMA cage fighter, Martial Arts became my focus once more, I was set on it, and I trained my a** off. I had laser eye surgery. I had my fights cancelled last minute, I cried my eyes out. None of this is important in terms of this particular story. One fateful kickboxing session, that trampolining incident from almost 6 years ago would finally decide to rear its ugly head. A front kick like any other, a block like any other. Snap. Not a day like any other.
I tried to go back to training, of course. I rested then worked my upper body. I hoped that a little rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE, some of you out there are almost too familiar with this acronym), would fix me up and I’d be good as new. It worked. Temporarily. One wrong kick to the pads, to the body. One wrong step, and I was back at square one.
My father’s stone-faced edict: “Get yourself fixed or get out of the cage.” My father wasn’t going to see me hurt or disabled, because of my own stubbornness and stupidity. He wasn’t going to see me get to the cage just to crumple as my ankle collapsed. I knew he was right. Even though I’d been raised to hate admitting weakness, and being unable to fix myself, I bit the bullet. I knew the GP wouldn’t help me. They’d given me RICE advice before, and that was the end of it. I knew there was something wrong here. I paid to see a consultant privately, and got an MRI done.
I sat tensely waiting for the results. Well what do you know? That trampolining accident had weakened that ankle and made it unstable. When the Kickboxing accident finally happened. Well there was a tendon attached to a piece of bone in my ankle, that piece of bone had snapped off, and my tendon was now dangling uselessly with the bone attached to it like a stranded bungee-jumper. No wonder this problem wasn’t going away! My ankle basically wasn’t being held together properly anymore. Naturally I was upset to hear I’d been damaged this way, and only 23 years old. But there was a solution. And it could be done on the NHS. An operation to remove the piece of bone, clear out the gunk, and reattach the tendon. Would it work? It had to.
In the mean time I knew that kicking, and work relying on my feet was out of the question. My brother had a suggestion. Why not come with me to Roger Gracie Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy?
Pretty much everything is done on the ground, and off your feet. There’s a great team there. You can give your ankle a rest and refine that skill. It was my weakest one at that time after all. So, I braved it. I remember being nervous. A little flush of adrenaline.
But that was because of new people, not the environment. Martial Arts gyms always have, and always will be, home. The smell of home. Of my childhood. The smell of sweat and camaraderie. The steam rising as if I was in some mountain range. The feel of mats beneath my feet, so similar to the Judo mats of years ago, so familiar. It was more exciting than intimidating. Male dominated environment? That hadn’t been a consideration at any point. My brother and I were trained the same. My childhood was full of memories of big men hitting bags or sparring, with smiling faces, holding their hands up as pads. Being entertained by my demonstrations. Big brothers and uncles. When I see a particular girl at the academy, daughter of one of the main instructors, toddling around, I’m reminded of exactly what that was like.
Entering that environment without my dad felt strange. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew no one was ever going to grill me or point out my faults like my dad. He was invested in me. No one here was invested, no one had any idea who I was. They didn’t care. That was liberating in a way. So this could be a chance to find a new way of doing things, to experiment with a new style, with no one expecting anything from me at all. One or two lads did get a delightful surprise. I took to it with the prior knowledge I had, and thus began my submission journey. I loved the closeness. Found it far gentler than any other martial arts I’d done. It was like play time to me, and the lessons zoomed past like a flash. Anyone could do it. No one was impeded by age or gender; everyone had a chance to progress. It could be both hard and gentle. Technique, not power was the aim. It was a skill for the masses not simply the talented. So it had a family feel. It was another jigsaw piece to add to the picture that had, and continues to define my life. Martial Arts. The fighter’s philosophy.
Fast forward a few years. Today I’m a purple belt. And I won’t stop until I’m black belt. And even then, the journey never ends.