Sunday, February 22, 2015

Growing the Community: BJJ Globetrotters

Bill Gates once said, “The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” In this virtual town square, any individual can share an idea and find like-minded individuals to create a community. Individuals like Christian Graugart, who founded Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Globetrotters- a group of traveling shogun badasses looking to train jiu jitsu with other badasses regardless of affiliation, belt color, race, religion, or gender.

Grugart’s goal is to “create a team against teams. An alternative Jiu Jitsu affiliation, that [pokes] the traditional notion of our tribalised culture.” The idea being that the BJJ community can transcend all the bullshit that keeps people separated. Let’s move past all the petty rivalries and just move the game forward. We are all in this sport together, we all share a passion, and we can all relate to each other’s experience. So why not train together and get friendly?

BJJ Globetrotters injects its members into an online network of academies and training partners from all around the world. Membership for both academies and individuals is free. An affiliate gym will allow visiting members to train for one week free. With over 150 gyms affiliated, members can find a place to train almost anywhere, and the global network opens up gym doors to guests with an unfamiliar style of BJJ, thereby growing each other’s game. BJJ Globetrotters even started “a completely free, couchsurfing style service that matches BJJ travelers and hosts from around the world.” They call this service “matsurfing” and it essentially means members are willing to house travelers as they pass through town. All they ask is you not be a serial killer and that you follow/promote the team values:

We don’t pay each other any affiliation fees
We wear any patches we like on our gis
We are free to represent any (or no) team in competition
We encourage training with anyone regardless of affiliation
We are willing to promote anyone who deserves it—members or not
We arrange camps, seminars and visit each other for training and fun
We believe everyone is equal both on and off the mats

We strive to enjoy life, people and the world through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu


BJJ Globetrotters puts the opportunity to enrich the global jiu jitsu community at your fingertips. Whether it’s the Arab Spring or the founding of “A community of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners of all levels from around the world,” the internet has proven to be more than just a channel to access pornography and cat videos. Christian Graugart’s movement to create this global network of BJJ hobos is a step towards creating a real community among jiu jitsu practitioners. In my travels I’ve found that a good roll makes a fantastic ice-breaker; even when my partner and I don’t speak the same language, we both speak Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. So please sign up at their site, tell your friends, your instructors, and give back to this awesome fucking sport we all love.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Sun Tzu's Art of War: Rousey vs Zingano

The popularity of Woman’s Mixed Martial Arts continues to grow at an exponential rate. The UFC crowned its first ever Female Strawweight Champion following a successful all-female season of TUF. Along with the growing exposure, the talent pool is also blowing up, forcing veteran fighters to adapt or be left behind. This capricious nature of WMMA makes it very difficult to envisage how fights will go. Nonetheless, here is a closer look for the upcoming Bantamweight title fight between Champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey and challenger Cat “Alpha” Zingano.

1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the moral law? (Who is harder to finish?)
  • If Cat Zingano is anything, it’s tough. In both her UFC fights she weathered submission attempts and brutal Ground-N-Pound to get a TKO finish in the 3rd. Ronda Rousey fought off a nasty Rear Naked Choke attempt from Liz Carmouche and against Sara McMann she ate flush right hands and looked unfazed. Both ladies have showcased their heart in past fights and have demonstrated an indomitable spirit. If there is a finish in this fight, rest assured it will be hard earned. EVEN
2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (Who has the better camp?)
  • Boxing coach Edmond Tarverdyan runs the Glendale Fighting Club. The gym is home to current champ Ronda Rousey. Under Edmond’s tutelage Rousey’s striking is rapidly improving (evident in her annihilation of Alexis Davis at UFC 175). Cat Zingano belongs to Elevation Fight Team, the brainchild of Leister Bowling. EFT runs out of the Muscle Pharm Training Center in Denver where Bowling focuses on preparing elite MMA fighters with the best coaching and equipment possible. Without a gym to run, Bowling is solely dedicated to ensuring victory for his athletes, and it is my opinion that this is the camp format of the future. Advantage: Zingano
3) With whom lie the advantages derived from heaven and earth? (What advantages surround the fight?)
  • At a time when the UFC is struggling to replace the stars of yesteryear, Ronda Rousey’s stock continues to grow in the form of endorsements and movie roles. Rousey understands that her success rides on her ability to beat trained killers inside a locked cage. Despite this pressure, Ronda always looks at home in the Octagon. How well Zingano handles the lights of the main event is yet to be seen. Furthermore, this will be her first time in a 5 round fight. Furthermore, Rousey is a popular champion fighting in Las Vegas; to snag a decision against her will be very difficult. Advantage: Rousey
4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (Who's in better shape?)
  • Rousey saw the 3rd round once in her career when she finished Miesha Tate after a high paced 2 rounds. But Cat Zingano has far more experience gutting out prolonged wars. While the championship rounds are uncharted territory for both ladies, Zingano proved time and again that she can push through fatigue late in a fight. Advantage: Zingano
5) Which army is stronger? (Who's stronger?)
  • Judging by their history, Cat Zingano looks to be more physically imposing than Rousey. Off her back, Zingano likes to check her opponent’s balance and explode to roll them over. In the clinch she will drive through girls to drag them down, and once on top Zingano puts tremendous pressure to wear down opponents and eventually break them. Rousey showed her strength when she bullied Sara McMann up against the cage and ket her there. However, Zingano is much happier to utilize her horsepower to out muscle opponents. Advantage: Zingano
6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (Who's more well- rounded?)
  • Both competitors excel in the clinch and on the ground, and whoever can get the dominant position will likely walk away with the belt. But if neither is able to establish dominance in the clinch, look for them to break away and strike. Once in striking range Rousey’s boxing is much more fluid, but she lacks head movement and tends to bull rush when hit. Zingano, though slower, throws powerful punches to back opponents up, but leaves her head on the center line while throwing. The most blaring discrepancy in technique is how the two handle being on the bottom. Zingano tends to use her strength and explosiveness to roll opponents, but her hips are generally flat as she waits for openings. Ronda on the other hand will use her hip escape to create space to either get up or attack submissions and sweeps from awkward angles. Advantage: Rousey
7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment? (Who can finish the fight?)
  • Both ladies are proven finishers. When Zingano gets the top position she unleashes a flurry of GNP that makes girls wilt. However, Rousey can finish fights from any position she gets in. Few people have Rousey's killer instinct and it’s what makes her one of the most dominant champions in UFC history. Advantage: Rousey
HOW ZINGANO WINS: The fight will be a war with both momentum shifting from one side to the other. Look for Cat to get the better of the power punches which will cause Rousey to over-commit trying to establish a clinch. From there Zingano will lateral drop the champ and start raining down elbows and punches. Zingano will find herself in bad spots along the way, but top control and damage will earn her a hard fought Split Decision.
HOW ROUSEY WINS: Look for Rousey to force the clinch and mix in her strikes to confuse Zingano. She’s going to eat some hard shots, but she’ll generally win the striking exchanges forcing Zingano to back up. Once against the cage Rousey will catch Zingano standing tall and trip her to the mat. Rousey advances position and Zingano will look to reverse the position and expose her arm. Rousey brutally collects another arm in round 2.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sun Tzu's Art of War: Jones vs Cormier

This weekend UFC fans will get a late Christmas present in the Light Heavyweight Title clash between Champion Jon "Bones" Jones and Daniel Cormier. Using Sun Tzu’s masterpiece, “The Art of War,” to break down the fight, I can predict with 100% certainty that one of these fighters will walk away with the belt or your money back.

1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the moral law? (Who is harder to finish?)
  • Neither guy has ever been finished in their professional MMA career. Jones showed he can withstand heavy fire in his fight with Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165. Furthermore, at UFC 152, Jones also showed his submission defense when he escaped a nasty armbar at the hands of Vitor Belfort. Cormier has never really been in serious trouble, at least not the kind of trouble Jones weathered. What’s kept Cormier out of danger is his technical ability. However, Jones is also notoriously hard to hit, and he’s shown to be able to get through hardships in fights. Advantage: Jones
2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (Who has the better camp?)
  • The challenger comes out of the renowned American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California. A strong history of championship level talent has been cultivated on these mats including: 1 UFC champion and 3 Strikeforce Champions. Meanwhile, the champ trains under the tutelage of Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jones and Jackson have a special relationship where both guys delve into the breakdown of a fight to come up with a gameplan suited to mentally and physically break opponents. Advantage: Jones
3) With whom lie the advantages derived from heaven and earth? (What advantages surround the fight?)
  • Jones has settled into his role as the king of 205. He is no stranger to the pressure of a big fight, and he has gone 5 hard rounds before. Furthermore, the UFC kinda promoted this fight with Jones as the villain, a persona Jones used to avoid. Perhaps this new role will rid Jones of his marketing burden, and free him up to feel more comfortable as the bad guy. It’s hard to gauge how much that will be a factor, but anything that makes Jon Jones more comfortable makes him more dangerous. Cormier on the other hand will be going into his first UFC title fight, and this will be his first 5 round fight at 205lbs. Advantage: Jones
4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (Who's in better shape?)
  • We’ve only seen Cormier go 5 rounds once, and he did not disappoint. In his 3 rounders he’s dominated his opposition and looked ready for more every time. However, some would say his noted history of struggling with weight could play a factor in his conditioning. No one knows for sure how hard it is for Cormier to make 205, but from what we’ve seen from DC it’s doubtful he will wilt in the later rounds. As for Jones, 5 rounds is nothing new to him, the Gustafsson fight proved he can still throw heat in the later rounds. DRAW
5) Which army is stronger? (Who's stronger?)
  • Cheal Sonnen said he was surprised with how strong Jon Jones was in the clinch. This is the same guy who trained regularly with Randy Couture and Dan Henderson, so it’s hard to dismiss his observation. That being said, Daniel Cormier launches grown men in the air like he’s playing with a toddler. Advantage: Cormier
6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (Who's more well rounded?)
  • Cormier’s striking first came up when he out classed Jeff Monson without using his wrestling. Since then his striking only got better. He can find a home for his right hand, he has excellent timing, and can flurry opponents into cage to set up his world class takedowns. On the ground, I’ve never seen anyone, not even Fedor, control Dan Henderson the way Cormier did. On the other hand, Jones’ record speaks for himself. He can strike, he can wrestle, and he has solid submissions. However, for the first time in his career, Jones may not have the ability to dictate where the fight goes. He has never faced a wrestler the caliber of Daniel Cormier, who can strike and fight on the ground. Advantage: Cormier
7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment? (Who can finish the fight?)
  • Jones is a clear finisher. On the feet, Cormier has knock out power, but Jones’ striking can also stop opponents with strikes. On the ground, Cormier has fantastic control for his ground-and-pound and will take a choke if available, but Jones will actively look for submissions while simultaneously dropping the best G-n-P at 205. Advantage: Jones
HOW CORMIER WINS: The challenger will strike his way in on Jones and bully him into the cage. From there he has to be wary of the infighting ability of the champ, but he can mix up takedowns and flurries to keep the champ confused. After a long grueling clinch war, a mix of flurries and takedowns will guide DC to a Unanimous Decision.
HOW JONES WINS: The champ will fluster his opponent with his range and cause Cormier to come in head on and over aggressive. From there look for Jones to land a solid right uppercut while Cormier ducks his head to get inside. The wobbled challenger will stagger back and Jones will swarm. Finishing the fight by TKO.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

The Layoff: Returning from a Jiu Jitsu Hiatus

For the last 8 years, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has been a big part of my self-identity.  For a little clarity as to how long that is, consider that “Laffi Taffi” was a number one song when I first started BJJ, and I still used mapquest to get to tournaments. Living rent-free and studying at the community college freed me up to spend what little cash I had on booze, pot, CD’s (yeah CD’s), and to take up a new hobby in BJJ.

At first being a white belt felt goddamned awful. The more experienced white belts knew enough to use me as a glorified practice dummy, and the colored belts used me as a walking laboratory where they could try out crazy experiments. Eventually, I caught up to those white belts, and the colored belts even started to exert some real effort to beat my ass.

Improving as a white belt feels like being a toddler finger painting. Anything you do well is received with praise and reinforcement, and anything you do poorly is discarded as “Who gives a fuck? You’re a white belt! Just be happy you didn’t pee yourself.” Everyday practice was a win-win situation for me. It was exciting and fun. I remember learning things like: don’t leave your arms out too far, don’t reach back to open the guard, and never ever wear mesh shorts to practice. I started to gauge myself against the higher belts, and started feeling personal pride when I did well against them. Eventually, my progress took me far enough to earn a blue belt, and I even saw myself doing well at comps.

After over a year and a half of training 7-9 times a week my BJJ life took a big hit. I moved away to live in Long Beach, and though I had training available for me, I became engulfed in a sea of school work. Suddenly I didn’t have the time to train, and when I did train my regression was painfully obvious. I could no longer dominate white belts, and suddenly other blue belts were dominating me again. Being dominated is a shitty feeling. I didn’t want to go to practice because I knew failure waited for me on those mats. It was difficult to find the time to train, but really, I was happy to find excuses.

Eventually I realized how much of a bitch I was being and committed myself to sharpening my jiu jitsu. I moved away from the sun and fun of Long Beach to train with my old teacher in Rancho Cucamonga. My first night back I noticed that one of my old training partners had surpassed me. While I genuinely felt very happy for him, a part of me felt jealous. I didn’t like the fact that now I was that colored belt that newer guys/gals were gauging themselves on. I struggled to properly execute techniques against beginners, and losing against them hurt the ego I had built up before the break. I hated being the “beatable” colored belt, but I had to accept it because jiu jitsu is honest even if we’re not.

When jiu jitsu exposes a weakness, we have to acknowledge it. We can decide not to, but the weakness will always be there laughing at us, mocking us, and visible for all to see. Those who don’t want to admit their short falls, fall behind. They quit trying to patch up their holes, and their frustration eventually beats out their will to keep training. I think anyone coming back from a layoff has to make the decision to either admit vulnerabilities or give up trying to get better.

A layoff brings us back to the shitty days of being a brand new white belt. We suck again, we have peers who toy with us, we have trouble with newcomers, and we are face to face with our own impotence every day. But unlike the old days as a beginner, we can’t dismiss failure as, “meh, you’re a white belt” and at the same time, we don’t get praise for executing basic techniques. The only praise we get is from ourselves. We have to be the judge of our own progress.

When I first came back from the layoff, the toughest battle was admitting to myself I wasn’t what I used to be. After accepting that heavy truth, I realized that the person I should be trying to beat is not my training partner, but myself from yesterday.

Here is where the ego must be discarded. The ego causes us to compare ourselves to others, our training partners, our peers, our friends. The ego feeds our personal pride, and in the immortal words of Mr. Marcellous Wallace, “Fuck pride! Pride only hurts. It never helps.” Hubris is a sin for a reason; it is something that builds as we progress, but we fear to lose. When we fear to lose that pride, we make excuses. Excuses are lame… excuses are the language of the weak, they're what we tell ourselves when we don’t want to take responsibility. Furthermore, it really sucks to train with people who have such a big ego they can’t give you any credit. I remember, after coming back from another layoff as a purple belt, being swept by a white belt and telling myself, “well I just wanted to let him work.” Go fuck yourself, you douche.

I’ve been swept, submitted, and mounted by lower belts plenty of times, and I used to think of a reason why I didn’t perform, but the reality was that they simply did a good job. I hated to admit it but fuck, they got the better of me. And you know what? Good for them. After I reflected on it, I realized I should be happy for them, not upset at myself.

It all goes back to the honesty of BJJ. Over the last few years I’ve had to take more breaks from BJJ, each time I’ve tried to keep my ego in check. As a white belt my shortcomings were excusable, and my ego was allowed to grow. Later in my BJJ career those shortcomings weren’t as easily dismissed, and I was forced to accept them and mature. This is what makes BJJ such an amazing sport. In few places is pure honesty as evident as it is in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. When I tap my opponent to let him/her know I accept my defeat, there is no lying there… I am acknowledging I lost. It may hurt, both emotionally and physically, but by accepting my lickings I learn. And that’s the whole point… to learn and grow.

Though the layoffs sucks, they are an opportunity to reinvent yourself. A chance to build an even better you from scratch. It takes honesty, it takes commitment, and it blossoms maturity. As we mature we find that our goal should not be to beat up our training partners, but to be better when we leave the gym than when we entered.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Sun Tzu's Art of War: Pettis vs Melendez

Saturday night’s (Sunday morning in the land of didgeridoos) matchup between Champion Anthony “Showtime” Pettis and Challenger Gilbert “Niño” Melendez promises to be pure fucking excitement from start to finish. Using Sun Tzu’s masterpiece, “The Art of War,” to break down the fight, we can lay down our life savings on a sure winner.

1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the moral law? (Who is harder to finish?)
  • Neither guy has ever been finished in their professional MMA career. Not for lack of opportunity though, as both fighters have had to fight out of gnarly situations before. Melendez survived a shoryuken uppercut when he fought Diego Sanchez, and Pettis escaped a fully sunk Rear-Naked-Choke in his first fight with Benson Henderson. DRAW
2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (Who has the better camp?)
·         For all the controversy surrounding Duke Roufus and the tragic death of his student Dennis Munson Jr, the fact remains that the guy knows how to build great fighters. His coaching practices may be up to debate, and time will tell how much Munson’s training regimen contributed, if at all, to his untimely passing. However, what is known is that under the tutelage of Roufus, Pettis became one of the most dynamic and exciting fighters to ever compete in Mixed Martial Arts. On the other hand, Gilbert fights out of the famous Gracie Fighter network that produced such beasts as Nate Diaz, Nick Diaz, Jake Shields, and David Terrell, all of whom competed for a UFC title at some point in their careers. Both guys come from proven camps with proven instruction, but the relationship between Roufus and Pettis is special. Advantage: PETTIS
3) With whom lie the advantages derived from heaven and earth? (What advantages surround the fight?)
  • This will be the 17th title fight in Gil’s career. He has a wealth of experience competing at the highest levels all around the world. He was a Shooto Champ, WEC Champ, Strikeforce Champ, and competed in Pride FC during the promotion’s prime. As a 12 year veteran of the sport, Melendez has seen everything the fight game has to offer. In addition Vegas is also closer to San Francisco (his adopted home) and Santa Ana (his hometown) than Milwaukee (Pettis’ hometown). Finally, Pettis’ long layoff since winning the title also works against him. Advantage: MELENDEZ
4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (Who's in better shape?)
  • At 155lbs if you gas out you don’t fight for titles. Both guys have had drawn out 5 round wars. DRAW
5) Which army is stronger? (Who's stronger?)
  • Neither guy is a real “horsepower” kind of fighter. Both utilize technique, timing, and speed to win their fights. It’s hard to say who’s physically stronger. DRAW
6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (Who's more well rounded?)
  • At 155lbs if you’re not well rounded you don’t fight for titles, but these two are well rounded in different ways. Arguably the best striker in MMA, the champ excels at knocking people unconscious, but has some slick submissions that need to be respected. His wrestling is also on point and was even able to take down Ben Henderson in their first fight. Gilbert Melendez on the other hand has fantastic boxing and top level wrestling. He out-struck Jorge Masvidal in their Strikeforce title fight, and dominated Shinya Aoki on the ground with his defensive grappling. That being said, Pettis is more offensive from every position and that counts for a lot. Advantage: PETTIS
7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment? (Who can finish the fight?)
  • Pettis has a finishing rate of 82% split evenly between submissions (7) and knockouts (7). In comparison, Meledez, an aggressive fighter himself, has a finishing rate of 55%. Though Melendez’s finishing rate may pale in comparison to Pettis, it should be noted that he’s been fighting top level guys for a lot longer. However, despite being a talented grappler, Meledez only recorded one submission as an MMA fighter. Although known for his cool samurai kicks, Pettis will actively hunt for a finish wherever the fight goes. His flashy strikes on the feet are fun to look at, but his proficient use of jiu jitsu should also be appreciated. Watch Ben Henderson’s first fight with “Cowboy” Cerrone, and watch him escape every submission attempt thrown at him. Then watch Pettis catch him in a simple armbar from the guard, a move white belts learn their first day but only black belts master. Advantage: PETTIS
HOW MELENDEZ WINS: After an exciting back-and-forward battle the fight goes to the judges’ decision. Consistent pressure, strong right hands in transition, and relentless takedowns will guide Melendez to a hard earned Unanimous Decision.
HOW PETTIS WINS: After a grueling 2 rounds Pettis begins to find his range and starts keeping Melendez at bay. He drops Melendez in a wild exchange, and catches the challenger with a guillotine late in the 3rd.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Saved Life: My Compadre Hyungsu Kim

The moon glow engulfed us in a blue hue staining the ground around us. Our friends Ovi and Faithna had already gone to bed, leaving Hyungsu and I to finish the Soju and beer. It was a daunting task but we were up for it; after all we were the ones who decided to buy all this shit. It was a few weeks before my friend Ovi and I left Korea, so we decided to take a big trip down to Namhae Island. Hyungsu offered to drive his car down for the exhausting 8 hour trip. After we arrived we spent the day eating fresh meat from the market: samgyeop sal, galmegi, and what Hyungsu called “sea snake.” All of that was gone, the only thing left was some rice and his mom’s homemade kimchi (which was amazing). A few embers lingered in the grimy old grill we used to cook our food, and the table was littered with the empty bottles of soju, beer, and Fanta.

“Are you going to fight?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. “You’re really good man, you can do it all. I bet you can fuck up all the guys in your weight class,” I told him trying to build his confidence. Hyungsu tentatively smiled. At that time, I could tell that that he was unsure about being a fighter, but in reality, he already was one.

At 13 years old Hyungsu already impressed the top wrestling recruiters in the country. He was a national champion in both Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling. Scholarships from the best programs were dangled in front of him ripe for the picking. Tragically, this was the year he was diagnosed with Aplastic Anemia; a disease which required him to undergo a bone marrow transplant. At a young age Hyungsu saw his ambitions as a wrestler fall apart. The doctors told him having this procedure likely meant he’d never wrestle again; thus his life as a sportsman would come to a crashing halt. He remembered how upon hearing that, he “got up and stood by the window, and I got into my wrestling stance.” With his IV still attached he stared out the window lost in his thoughts. “I thought ‘fuck them.’ I don’t know why I did that… It felt right.”

Recalling the days of the procedure stirred up a lot of emotions in Hyungsu. We continued drinking and in his broken English he explained his fears going into the operation. “I’m not afraid of wrestling and MMA and Jiu Jitsu, but this, I hate [sic]. But I said, ‘just go.’ [I hated the idea of a transplant] because [another person’s marrow was] not I [sic].”  I asked, if at the time he still believed he could compete. To which he answered, “I wanted to, [even if it meant on one leg]… just go! I live, I don’t die. I felt: I don’t die [sic].” He chuckles as if to dismiss the gravity of his words. Most people aren’t strong enough to endure seeing a promising future be ripped down in front of them, and have to stare at a meek reality filled with treatment and medication. “I’m crazy,” he explained. “My mom, my father is very careful. I’m so sorry [for] my mom and my father and my brother, [but] I’m crazy [sic].” I saw the conflict on his face as he relived those days, and I admired him. He held on to his dream to continue competing despite the hardships before him. “My family thought, ‘No way, Hyungsu, no way. We do long and [hard road],” but fuck it, he fought.

Suddenly a black figure swooped right over us and nearly hit Hyungsu. “FUCK! AHHH SHIT!” I yell! The tension was suddenly broken after a bat flew over us and then jetted away. “That went right over your head!” We laugh it off and get back on topic. He explained to me that his bravery paid off. To his good fortune, the procedure went off without a hitch, and his body accepted the new bone marrow. Through rehab and regular check-ups he began to rebuild his health, but unfortunately, the world around him began to crumble.

For almost 7 years Hyungsu dealt with the weight of being afflicted with Aplastic Anemia. He was bedridden, tired, weak, and away from the wrestling mat. At times he felt alone and forgotten. Not only did he have to deal with the physical costs of this affliction, but also the emotional and even social costs that came with it. The procedure left him weak, and was prescribed a medication to aid his recovery. Sadly, this medication was deemed as performing enhancing and the wrestling body barred him from the sport. To make matters worse, his girlfriend at the time was forced by her parents to break up with him. When her parents found out he was kicked out of wrestling for using “steroids”, they decided it would bring shame to the family if their daughter continued seeing Hyungsu. In a tragic turn of events, the world Hyungsu lived in was gone. In Korea, young kids choose a path early and stick to it. Hyungsu’s path was wrestling, it’s all he ever knew, and then it was gone. But it was in this dark place where Hyungsu found a new passion: the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.

Even after reaching his nadir, Hyungsu found the silver lining. He decided to become a physical therapist; something he picked up during his recovery. Which put him in touch with Deahwan Kim. Deahwan is the Korean commentator for the UFC and Road FC, and at the time he was opening his own gym. “I was suffering from neck [problems]… He started to visit me several times a week and I got so much better. At the same time he started to teach me wrestling… So I offered him [a job as] a coach at my gym and he accepted.” Hyungsu found a way to wrestle outside the reach of the governing body.

When I first met my friend Hyungsu, he was still very green in terms of fighting ability. His wrestling was on point, but he was still developing his jiu jitsu and striking. Unsurprisingly, this development didn’t take long. That same fire that brought him to the heights of wrestling as a youth, that pushed him through his disease as a teen, brought him to the highest levels of Mixed Martial Arts. After only 2 years in MMA Hyungsu developed the skills to be invited on the inaugural season of XTM 주먹이운다 (“Crying First”). “Crying First” is a reality TV show where fighters compete and train together much like the UFC’s “Ultimate Fighter.” After sharing his life story, and being introduced to the nation, Hyungsu became a beloved member of the cast. He was so popular that the producers asked him to stay on the show as a wrestling coach. His career as a fighter has also blown up as he’s been offered fights in South Korea and Japan.

Despite his fame, despite his success, and despite his glory, Hyungsu still stays loyal to his roots. He has the words “SAVED LIFE” tattooed across his chest, and “wrestling saved my life” written just underneath that. These words carry a deep meaning to Hyungsu, a meaning most people will never truly understand.

But Hyungsu’s fighting spirit didn’t stop with his recovery; he continued to volunteer in the children’s Leukemia ward. I asked why and he poured more soju in my glass, and then into his and looked at me to cheers. “During [my] experience,” he explained after we force down the last drop of that terrible bottle, “many children gone too… [in] my bed, next to [me on the left] and next to [me on the right] I wake up and the kids [were not] there.” He chuckled dismissively to shelter himself from the sad memories. “Where? What? Where?” he symbolically asked. “[The] nurse said, ‘he’s gone to home [sic].’ But always I knew, he’s gone to the sky… after I finished [my treatment] I had many soju and many beer [sic]. I [thought of the children] in [the] hospital… fighting with the sickness.” He struggled as he got out the words. He continued, “I give [them] the power… I say… ‘You can do it! Look at me! Look at me! You can do it!’ I said [you are] the same [as] me. I fight. Look at me.” He smiled, “I hope.”

A few years later, after I already left Korea, I found this news article about Hyungsu stopping a pervert from sexually harassing a gal on the bus. After finishing volunteering with the kids, he was on his way to his own birthday celebration and saw a man inappropriately rubbing himself against a young girl. So he called him out and held him in place while the police came. I remember reading this and thinking, “Jesus Hyungsu, stop making us all look bad.”

Whether in athletics, in selflessness, and in social responsibility, the guy proves to be standard we should all try and meet. That night in Namhae, after we finished the booze and the embers in the grill had finally burned out he told me, “after I [started] wrestling, jiu jitsu, and striking… I don’t die. I live.” The guy is a fighter; long before he ever laced up 4oz gloves, he was fighting. No fight in a cage will ever compare to the battles he’s already waged, no punch or kick will ever compare to the pains he’s already withstood, and if Aplastic Anemia couldn’t do it, then no man will ever break his spirit.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Fight Moment: American-Iranian Tensions During the '96 Olympics

Sporting events often find themselves at the center of political conflict. At times, the environment surrounding the event itself exceeds the mere spectacle of competition. This was the case in 1996 when American Kurt Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi reached the Olympic finals in the men’s 100kg weight class. By 1996, United States settled into its role as the world’s sole super power. The Soviet Union, America’s former nemesis, collapsed five years earlier. Without communism as an ideological enemy, the US shifted its focus to the rise of radical Islam and the anti-western governments in the Middle East; specifically Iran. Meanwhile, the historically anti-imperialist nation of Iran was under the control of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and that guy fucking hated the west. This animosity between the two nations played out in 1996, but instead of on a battlefield, the tensions boiled over on a wrestling mat. The two competitors entered the match with the weight of national pride resting firmly on their shoulders; moreover, the match itself went on to exemplify the global narratives held at the time by the United States and Iran.

For many Americans, Iran easily filled the antagonistic void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two nations already had a history of disliking each other. One of the first major hostilities between the US and Iran began when 66 Americans were taken hostage while working in the American embassy in Tehran. Additionally, Iran also backed Hezbollah, a terrorist group responsible for airliner hijackings, kidnappings, and attacks on the US and its allies. Furthermore, the rise of jihadist groups in the region only fueled American bitterness for the Middle East as a whole. On television, the Iron Sheik, with his Iranian flag in hand, was the most hated heel in the World Wrestling Federation. Also, in the box office hit “True Lies,” Arnold Schwarzenegger shot Islamic nationalists at helicopters to blow them up. American cynicism of the Middle East peaked during the Iraq War in 1991, and resurged after the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Though Iran was not involved in either the Iraq War or the WTC bombing, by the mid 90’s Americans began seeing the whole Middle East region as the new “Evil Empire.”

On the other hand, Iranian animosity towards the US began in 1953 when a CIA backed coup overthrew the democratically elected Mohhammed Mosaddeq; to reinstate the more western friendly yet highly disliked Shah. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came into power riding a wave of resentment towards the United States. The resentment grew stronger when the US gave Saddam Hussein weapons and cash during the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, hatred of the US reach an all-time high in 1988 when the United States shot down a passenger airliner flying out of Iran. Needless to say, this act only further infuriated the Iranian people. In fact, the Persians were so pissed that they even ran a postage stamp depicting the American carrier shooting down Iran Air Flight 655. Even when the US invaded Iraq (Iran’s regional rival) during the Gulf War, Iran’s disdain for the US led them to offer humanitarian aid to the Iraqis.

Thus, going into the 1996 Olympics finals, both Kurt Angle and Abbas Jadidi must have been aware of the political tension between their respective nations. How much that pressure served to motivate each man is arguable. After all, who is to say either man would have wrestled any easier if they had been facing a Japanese wrestler, or an Italian, or any other opponent without the added political enmity. What is undeniable is the atmosphere in that arena. The American and Iranian fans in the stands felt the heat of political rivalry. The energy in the crowd is evident when watching the walk-ins. Angle entered first, eagerly he ran towards the mats and leapt onto the platform ready to go. Then from the other side of the arena, Jadidi calmly approached the mat amidst chants of, “USA, USA, USA,” seemingly dismissing the crowd.

The match started and Angle came out aggressive, but it was Jadidi who scored the first point with a picturesque leg lace. Once back on their feet, Jadidi looked to widen his lead with a takedown only to be reversed by Angle thereby bringing the match to a tie. As time ran down, Jadidi become the aggressor and nearly scored a throw to win the match. Jadidi’s aggression was rewarded and Angle was put down. Jadidi went right to work for a chance to score using his trusty leg lace. Unfortunately for him, Angle’s will proved too strong and despite the best attempts from Jadidi, Angle survived the onslaught. Suddenly, with only 30 seconds left, Angle shot a low single and put Jadidi on his butt. Driving with every ounce of strength he had left after 7½ grueling minutes, Angle tried to score, but Jadidi refused to wilt. In the end, the match ended in a tie, and the outcome was left in the hands of the judges.

As the referees deliberated, the American anxiously waited, hopeful that his hard work was enough to sway the judges; while Jadidi hovered over the referees vigilant of a system he did not trust. Finally, the announcement was made and Kurt Angle got the gold leaving Jadidi in disbelief. Suddenly the theme from Rocky started playing, barely audible over the roaring Atlanta crowd. Angle ran laps around the arena with the Stars and Stripes draped across his back, while Jadidi was left dumbfounded. Futilely trying to change the minds of the officials.

In the end, the match only served to reaffirm already existing narratives in each country. For Jadidi, the ’96 Olympics only reaffirmed the already existing belief that playing by western rules was pointless. The system was rigged. After the games he said, “I'm upset because they took what was mine.” Jadidi continued, “I am respectfully asking the press of the United States and the wrestling federation to hear my protest and give me what is truly mine.'' For Angle, the win confirmed the American adage that hard work pays off, and the American spirit, despite all odds (Angle had a broken neck and had his coach murdered before his Olympic run), can persevere past anything.

The competitors personified the national pride of their respective countries and played out the political tensions that existed between the US and Iran. But as spectators, we will never know just how much Angle and Jadidi saw this match as a chance to represent their country against its political enemy. Angle eventually seized the magic surrounding that match to start a successful career as a professional wrestler. As for Jadidi, even after disputing the decision, he made it a point to assure everyone his ire lied with the officials and not the American people. Regardless of whether or not the two men bought into the narrative surrounding their match, it was a moment where history and martial arts collided to create an almost palpable tension in the arena. Whether they knew the significance of that match or not does not matter. It was more than just an Olympic final; to the fans it was a culmination of the political, historical, and cultural tensions between two rival nations, but though the fans projected this tension onto the wrestlers, Angle and Jadidi just wrestled.