4 years, 3 academies, 2 bulged discs, 1 belt

I’ve worked four years for this very moment.

Promoted to Blue Belt by the living legend, Nino "Elvis" Schembri.

Promoted to Blue Belt by the living legend, Nino “Elvis” Schembri.

I started training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in November of 2010 at Paragon Jiu Jitsu in Santa Barbara. My girlfriend at the time, Marissa, bought me a month free pass to the academy because she knew I trained traditional martial arts as a kid and would always talk about going to Paragon to train — even though I never did. I am sad to say it but truthfully I was one of those people who thought I “got” jiu jitsu because I had trained Tang Soo Do since I was six years old. I found out very quickly that I didn’t.

The gym is run by Ricardo “Franjinha” Miller, though I rarely saw him there and don’t think I even attended a class where he taught. That’s not a reflection of him so much as it was my spotty attendance. The individual who taught the majority of classes I attended was Sean Apperson. I also had the pleasure of training very briefly with Jeff Glover. I remember I did that first month and went in pretty regularly. I waltzed into the Advanced Class thinking I was hot shit because I believed my traditional martial arts background would transfer over. The first move I was taught was a jump triangle — which in retrospect just shows how inappropriate it was for me to be in that class. I managed to drill the move successfully cause I was nimble and driven, but when it came time to roll the reality of my inexperience sunk in. To say I was manhandled is an understatement. I recall Sean motioning me to come over and roll with him. He was annoyed that I had not listened when he told me to come to the beginners class. He put me in a d’arce choke so tight that I still remember the excruciating pain of his arms around my neck to this very day. After class he gave me a glib, “good job, come back to the beginners class next time.”

But after the initial blow to my ego as well as the realization of how much it would cost to continue training after my free month ran out, mixed with my studies at school, and my social life I didn’t go back until later in 2011. All throughout 2011 I can say I maybe trained four or five months — each time with a few weeks or months break in between. I was not an avid student by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoyed brazilian jiu jitsu but didn’t have the drive or the true passion for it yet. It was only in late 2012 as I got closer to graduating from UCSB that I started getting back in the gym regularly and actually putting in time on the mats. All in all I probably trained at Paragon for roughly 6 or 7 months. There was a promotion ceremony before I left, and I remember Sean telling me to attend. I thought at this very early moment in my jiu jitsu career that I was ready to be awarded my blue belt. I was so wrong. My name did not get called, and I remember the feeling of dejection as I left the academy after watching some of my friends get their new belts. I so badly wanted to be one of them. But I wasn’t ready.

I moved back home to my parents house in Los Angeles after college. I started training at the closest gym to my house which was taught by Professor Raphael “Rafa” Carrao, a Jean Jacques Machado Black belt. I walked in off the street with the only gi I had, a Paragon jiu jitsu gi, and asked if I could train. I had no concept of the etiquette surrounding jiu jitsu and didn’t realize it was in bad taste to wear the emblem of another academy at a different school. Rafa graciously accepted me into his academy and just asked that I turn my gi inside out while rolling. I did this for a few months before the gym was taken over by none other than the superman of brazilian jiu jitsu himself, Jean Jacques Machado. It was at this point that I committed to buying new gi’s after it was explained to me that it was disrespectful to sport the gi from another school. Jay Zeballos and Jean Jac began teaching most of the classes while Rafa eventually left to open his own school in Eagle Rock.

Superman of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Jean Jacques Machado --- you'll notice I still have my Paragon gi on. This was just prior to when Machado took over the academy that was run by Rafa.

Superman of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Jean Jacques Machado — you’ll notice I still have my Paragon gi on. This was just prior to when Machado took over the academy that was run by Rafa.

I trained at this gym avidly for nearly a year while I was doing internships and trying to figure out my life/career path. I spent a solid amount of time on the mats and this gym is where I truly fell in love with the art of brazilian jiu jitsu. I made long lasting friendships and learned the basics that now make up the cornerstone of my offensive arsenal. I competed in my first competition while training at this school. I didn’t know anything about weight classes though and went in the Lightweight division because I didn’t think to cut two or three pounds and be on the heavier side of a lower division. I was dominated in my first match, both technically and physically. I then competed in the absolute division and realized it wasn’t always about strength or size. I was matched up with a much larger competitor, he probably had 50 pounds on me. I remember he picked me up like a rag doll and slammed me hard into the mats. Luckily for me the way in which he picked me up left him vulnerable to the triangle, my most powerful attack. I managed to lock up my legs in the position while he struggled to power out. He ultimately was forced to submit or face unconsciousness. His entire team was dumfounded, they shook my hand and gave me respectful compliments about my technique. It was a great feeling after having been dominated so thoroughly in the match beforehand. I ended up facing the exact same competitor that I had rolled with initially in my next absolute match and he dominated me again, though not as definitively the second time around.

It was at this point in my life that I knew the gentle art would be something I stuck with for some time. Yet as is the nature of my jiu jitsu career, I had to say goodbye to this gym more times than I care to admit. It became somewhat of a running joke at the academy. “How many times are you going to leave?!?!”

At first it was because I was headed to Thailand. I couldn’t find any job prospects and wanted to travel. Then when I returned it was because I was busy with my burgeoning political career which had brought me back to the states. I bowed out one final time when I moved to a new location after getting a different job. I left a few weeks before belt promotion and when I dropped in again shortly thereafter I saw one of my good friends and someone who I had mentored from the day he walked in, David, had been promoted to blue belt while I was still a white belt without a gym to call home. I will admit that at the time I felt bitter, I had been training much longer than he had and felt as though I deserved the belt then. I was wrong. In my last session before I left for my new job that would force me to relocate I attempted a move that we had been taught in class that day. I hit it twice before in various rolls so I was feeling confident. The move was a diving loop choke. I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I don’t know why but I’ve always enjoyed executing flashy techniques. In diving I landed directly on my C4 and C5 and I immediately felt a shooting and excruciating pain in my neck. I tried to finish the roll but I realized I could not and had to stop and sit out by the side. I left the class early, saying goodbye to everyone at the academy for what I promised would actually be my last time. I had never experienced pain like this. I couldn’t move my neck at all and even lying down brought me to tears. My girlfriend at the time, Rachael, had never seen me in so much pain. I could tell she was worried.

I had to take 9 months off jiu jitsu. I went to the doctor, got an MRI, had to do physical therapy and all that jazz. They were two and three millimeter bulges respectively. Not enough to require surgery, but just enough to fuck up your life.

The entire time I was out I was salivating for the moment I could get back on the mats. Rachael and I had moved in together in an apartment in Torrance because it was closer to my job in Manhattan Beach. I started looking for new academies to train at the second my doctor/physical therapist told me I could train. At first I tried a Carlson Gracie gym in Torrance. The gym was new and the students were mostly white belts. The instructor spent far too much time lecturing (without ever really saying anything of importance) for my liking and there was very little rolling. I decided to try another gym.

I walked into the gym where I currently train, Nino Schembri’s Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu gym. I thought that because of the time I had spent on the mats I would immediately impress and be awarded my blue belt upon entry. Again, I was wrong. I did impress, and was often questioned about my status as a white belt, I continued to regularly attend classes starting in the later months of 2013. But I soon recognized that Professor Nino Schembri does not simply give away belts. Promotions had to be earned. I competed a few times with varied success. I won matches and lost a few as well. My strength and conditioning never seemed to be up to par with that of the other competitors, and in fairness, I didn’t do much to rectify that problem.

As my professional life began to pick up steam I could no longer attend jiu jitsu as frequently as I had in late 2013 to early 2014. My attendance again dropped down to one or two times a week. Sometimes with a week or two in between classes. I noticed others in the gym surpassing my skill level but I just keep showing up and working on my own game. I haven’t competed since February of 2014 and I don’t have any plans to do so in the immediate future, but nonetheless I am a regular in the gym as much as I can be. I now train anywhere from 2 times a week at the least to 5 times a week at the most.

My game has changed with time and the injury. I still occassionally attempt flashy moves, but I’m much more about the basics than I was as a young white belt. I’m still a heavy guard player but I’m trying to develop my top game always keeping pressure in mind. My triangle is still my go to move but I’ve learned to set it up with fakes and feints as opposed to simply trying to slap it on. My mindset is different as well. I view jiu jitsu as a hobby, a passion, and something I will likely be a part of my entire life but I have no illusions of grandeur about winning Pan Ams or getting sponsored. I may compete again (though my injury is a constant worry when I do) but I’ll do so on my own terms, simply to test my skills against that of people from other academies. The glory of jiu jitsu is not so much in the medaling (though in all honesty I wouldn’t know) as it is embracing the daily grind. Walking through the doors even on days when I’d rather be at home relaxing, getting up every time I get thrown down, and restarting once I’ve been tapped out. It’s the ability to remain calm and collected in uncomfortable positions and execute techniques without attempting to overpower my training partners. To me now, the glory is in the struggle.

In my time doing jiu jitsu I’ve graduated from college, gone through three long-term romantic relationships, traveled the world, held various positions in a number of fields, got someone elected to city council, lost family members, gained new ones, found new and exciting passions, and learned more about myself than I ever thought possible.

On November 22nd 2014, a full four years after I cockily waltzed into my first academy, I was awarded the right to wear a blue belt by the living legend, Nino “Elvis” Schembri. It was a truly humbling experience. Now I can confidently say I have finally earned this belt.

White belt and Blue Belt comparison

White belt and Blue Belt comparison

I thought that getting my blue belt would impart upon me some mystical wisdom. Now that I have the blue strap around my waist I’ve come to the conclusion that my journey has really just begun. I know some of the basics of brazilian jiu jitsu but I still have so much to learn. It’s only with dedication, perseverance, and the blood, sweat, and tears that come exclusively from time spent on the mats that I can even begin to call myself a practitioner of brazilian jiu jitsu.

I want to thank everyone who supported me throughout my endeavors, and all the people that made it possible for me to be where I am today. I love and respect you all. I will continue to try and be the best person I can be and live up to the expectations of a blue belt, both on and off the mats.

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