NOVICIUS: One Man’s Fight Quest into the Cage
Chapter 4 – Enter, The Combatente
Friday Evening…Coach Jay Regalbuto stood, with my peers and I at attention to him, while wrapping up class for the day at South Jersey Brazlian Jiu Jitsu. When Jay speaks, there is never an iota of placation in his voice. With that level of sincerity it’s always hard to NOT hang on to every word. On this day, however, Coach Jay began to talk about a Grappling Tournament called The Good Fight. It was to be taking place in a month and he encouraged the higher belts that had live sparring experience to represent the school and compete. “Boy!” I thought. “How I would love my first taste of competition!” I envisioned a tournament medal, glistening on my office wall, after what could only be described as a reboot of Vision Quest with myself in the lead role, grappling to victory, in my head. But, alas, I was still a stripe away from being able to BEGIN training for such an event…no less, to vye for victory at an Open Tournament. I was so lost in the fantasy of real competition that I almost did not notice Coach jay speaking to me. Very quickly, I snapped out of my daydream and realized Coach Jay was calling me forward in front of the class. “Congratulations on your promotion, tonight!” he said. “Now you can start attending Randori, our live sparring class, & Tournament Training class! In fact…why don’t you stay for Randori, tonight?” With a handshake and a hug, I accepted my stripe and agreed to make my debut in live training.
Lost in a sea of jumbled thoughts, trying to apply theory into application while rolling with multiple sparring partners, I found myself tapping out more than I was grappling, But, no matter. I got home and all I could think about was The Good Fight Jiu Jitsu Tournament coming to town. I looked at my calendar and began to build a schedule, like a crazed scientist, that would give me as much time at South Jersey Brazlian Jiu Jitsu as possible. I was determined to compete, win lose or draw. But I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to embarrass myself or my school. So, maximizing my training time was the only way to ensure some esemblance of preparedness.
The next three weeks were an absolute blur. I was training at South Jersey Brazlian Jiu Jitsu, seemingly every day. My late nights, after the kids went to sleep, were comprised of studying Tournament Videos and Gracie Jiu Jitsu Films on Youtube. I even began customizing my gym-time towards strengthening key areas with squats for explosive motions, bear crawls & kettle bells for arm, wrist & core strength and running six miles every other day for controlled breathing and stamina. With every five-minute round in live sparring class, I could feel myself exuding more confidence and with my newly buzzed haircut to avoid losing a chunk of hair while grappling, I even began feeling that a true competitor was looking back at me in the mirror.
Those dedicated to the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are not hard to spot…the triangle is the most basic symbol of the art. It is a key component of any studio’s logo or competition apparel. Those who live and breathe Brazilian Jiu Jitsu proudly display a variation of the triangle on the inside of their bicep. One night, after an exhuberant amount of training, I decided to solidify my dedication and to brand my commitment for all time. I walked in to Khaotic Designs Tattoos in Berlin, New Jersey and met with Khaos, owner, head artist and all around cool guy. We talked,at length, about his Local Chapter President position with Bikers Against Child Abuse as well as stories of him coming up in the world of tattooing in Queens, NY….a neighborhood I’m all too familiar with! After a strong rapport-building, I felt comfortable enough to sit down with Khaos and design my own triangle variation. I wanted to represent the journey I’ve been on to get to a point of combat competition; Shrinking out of the old XXL Superman T-Shirt I started working out in, in what seemed like a lifetime ago, as well as going from a smoker to a Charity Competition Runner and, finally, my entrance to Jiu Jitsu. So, Khaos whipped up a triangle with the same royal blue background in my school’s logo…the difference? A bolt of lightning formed the “S” of Superman in the center! It was a perfect artisitic rendering of my path of wellness that I walked to begin my fight quest…a quest that was coming to fruition, now, before my very eyes. With that, I climbed into the parlor chair and Khaos did what he does best…marked my passion on me for life!
The night before the tournament, I trained one last time at South Jersey Brazlian Jiu Jitsu, then headed directly to the local gym’s sauna. There, I sat, while sweating away that last bit of water weight to keep me in a relatively safe weight class, and reflected on the two months of training I fit in within a three week time frame. I reflected on where I was a year ago…290 Lbs, in a husky-sized Superman tee-shirt joking around with others that if I ever dropped weight and got in shape I’d would train to be a fighter. As the beads of sweat fell off of me and began collecting on the steaming wooden floor beneath me, it dawned on me that striving to be a fighter was no longer a tongue-in-cheek quip as to make myself the comediac sacrificial lamb. On the eve of my first tournament, my head wrapped hung between my knees and wrapped in a damp towel, sitting on piping hot wooden bench in a man-sized convection oven, I spoke aloud, “I’m no longer trying to be a fighter,one day…I fight tomorrow.”
Saturday Morning, the drive to the host of the The Good Fight Tournament, Rowan University, found me surprisingly calm. I weighed in upon arrival, drank my protein shake slowly with some fruit and dry cereal and I commisserated with my fellow “Brothers-on-the-Mat.” There, before me was Coach Jay, Professor Bongiorno and others from my school either warming up to compete or getting ready to cheer us…the combatants..on, to victory. I hit the mats and began warming up, myself. I could see my friends and family in the stands beaming with nervousness and pride, all at once, and it made me smile. I knew that, as worried as they were for my well-being, they were just as proud to be there as I was and that made me want to be that much better…for them. We gathered to the far right corner of the auditorium and, before I knew it I was being called to get ready. I was the first match of my weight class in my division! My peers and family lined up against the barrier gates outlining the mats while I gnawed on my mouthpiece..watching this tall bearded man with a medium build walk over to my corner. This was the guy I was to face. His name was Jose and he hailed from Aldo Batista’s Jiu Jitsu Academy. As we went to meet face-to-face, I showed no emotion. Sizing him up like I knew he took my wallet, this man needed to know that I was dead serious. Jose and I met in the center of the mat and shook hands and with that the bell went off and echoed in the the beginning of my first tournament bout!
Confidently, I circled him, looking for an opening and staying loose on my feet in the event that Jose so much as flinched. Then? It happened…I heard Jose’s Coach yelling strategy to him in portugese from the other side of the rail. In my head I rationalized, at internet speed, that “Jose must be from Brazil. Therefore, Jose must be infinitely more experienced at Brazlilian Jiu Jitsu…he may as well be UFC legend Anderson Silva or Royce Gracie. I am no match for him.” With that, I sprawled back and lept into a shoot for Jose’s legs, sporadically and recklessly, trying to take him tot he ground first. My opponent was able to gain control of the top of my head on the way down, so upon hitting the ground, he fell into the advantageous position. I could hear my son cheering me on and for that I became a rabid dog, grappling for my very life with Jose. But anger, fear of failure and impromptu explosive motions are not receipes for success in a physical chess-game. After two of the five minutes, I was uncerimoniously choked out by textbook applied Ezekiel Choke, clamping my kneck on either side, and crushing my windpipes to epic failure. He and his coach came over and shook my hand, after and I was told to rest for the next bout…That was an easy request. I lost the ability swallow and between the mental and physical beating, sitting and regrouping seemed like the ONLY thing to do if I were to keep going.
I sat and talked with a fellow student from my school named George who was also recuperating . We laughed about the huge difference between sparring with your peers and competing with “it all on the line.” And with that the Judges called my name. I shook George’s hand and thanked him for the proverbial “pick-me-up” and I headed back to the mats. Waiting for my next opponent, I could see this massive man walking up to the mats and, to my surprise, it was none other than George! We looked at each other and, without saying a word to each other, made this commitment to try and have as much fun as possible. We smiled and shook hands like it was just another live sparring session at school. With that, the bell rang and launched us into the thick of it, having a blast from the first second we locked up. George was like a mechanical bull set at the highest speed and keeping up with him, breaking his powerfully locked guards and trying to gain the upperhand was a true test of endurance and conviction. And, when I could not shoot him from his legs, I jumped in the air using his gi for leverage and administed a flying triangle lock into guard on the ground! It is safe to say that we left everything we had on those mats and when that bell rang to mark the round over, we both rose from the ground, unsubmitted, exhausted…and high-fiving each other. In the end, George got me by two points and took the 3rd Place spot in our weight division…the best part? I was happy for him and thankful that I was given the best damn roll of my time studying Jiu Jitsu, yet.
That was really the lesson of the whole experience. I thought that competing meant going in like a shaved-head sadist, showing no mercy until a medal is tied around your neck. That, in itself, is the antithesis of what these tournaments are about. This was a chance for us to broaden our horizons and really learn from people outside our normal circle and even learn a great deal about ourselves, along the way…hence the name, THE GOOD FIGHT.
With that revelation, I exhaled, learned how to swallow solids and liquids, and decided to attend the Monday Class at South Jersey Brazlian Jiu Jitsu to work on being calm, breathing through uncomofrtable situations on the mat and strategizing – get right back on the horse. The way I saw it, I put a lot of time in and made some drastic changes. “Maybe I’ll drop it into 3rd Gear for a little while and regroup.” There I stood at the end of class, with my peers at attention to Professor Bongiono. It is rare that I get a class with Professor as my instructor and I love hearing his final words of wisdom…so I perked my ears up and began to hang on every word. “Congrats to everyone that competed this weekend…” He said. “Just so you know, the next event I’m going to be at is the North American Grappling Assiciation’s Battle at the Beach in Wildwood next month. If you want to come and represent your school, that’s great! Get your training in!’
Here we go, again…Maybe we’ll keep the hair short, for just a little while longer!
Thanks to everyone that sparred with me, coached me, tolerated my intense scheduling, cheered me on and helped in ANY way to get me to this point. All the late nights at the gym, the special plates for me at holiday dinners because of my dieting or even just the support of my crazy dream of combat-sports competition, in my 30′s, post morbid-obesity,,,none of it has been overlooked and ALL has been appreciated.
Until next time, True Believers…Remember, you have to earn every bit of your honor!