A couple of years ago I joined one of those clubs where they teach you how to knock the shit out of other people. The first lesson is how to get the shit knocked out of yourself. The first lesson is all there is. It lasts between eighty and a hundred years, depending on your initial shit content.
There is no diamond as precious as a tooth, so I shoved a boil-and-bite mouthpiece into my backpack with my cup and jockstrap before I headed for Allston to begin studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It was five a.m. on a January morning in 2008. The gym was under a laundromat and it smelled like a sweatsock. I looked around: octagonal cage with its door hanging open, boxing ring, four heavy bags, kettle bells, medicine balls, rowing machine, interlocking mats on the floor, and a sign in the bathroom that said hey genius—do not put paper towels in the toilet. I signed a standard waiver promising not to sue the management in the extremely probable event of my incurring an injury. I was thirty-three years old, five-ten, one-sixty. We ran laps and did five hundred sit-ups, a hundred of this, a hundred of that. Then Big Tony knocked me down and sat on my neck for two hours.
Tony had been fighting on the ground for three years, he said. He’d gone to college to be a high school social-studies teacher, but the job market was unforgiving and he’d adjusted his plan. He was now owner of a successful dog-walking business, not a bad way to spend your days, plenty of sunshine and fresh air. “Everyone I work with is always happy to see me,” he said. “How many people can say that?” Tony talked about walking dogs while he pinned me and strangled me until I tapped him to signal I’d had enough. Choke, tap, release, resume.
“Good grief,” I said, coughing and snorting.
“Three years,” he said.
My neck felt funny and I took a week off to recover. The next Tuesday morning, as I waited in the snow while he searched for his key to the front door, Cristiano said, “Where you been? You standing up today.” He threw me in the cage with Brian, who dragged me by my arm into a side headlock. I slipped his hold as I started to see the twinkling lights, and I cranked his bent arm up behind his back in what my friend Russ used to call a chicken wing. The cops call it a hammerlock. The Brazilians call it a kimura. “Nice one, man,” Brian said, surprised. Then he stomped on me for a little while.
Maybe the simplest way to explain Brazilian jiu-jitsu is this: you train to achieve the takedown, secure a dominant position, get a joint lock or stranglehold, and end the encounter—because without a referee to make you stand back up, and where is that guy when you need him, a fight ends on the ground.
Let me give you an example. Ten years ago, after we’d been shooting nine-ball and drinking all day, my old friend Jay insisted on getting into a scuffle with half a defensive line in an empty lot outside the bar where my grandmother used to work at Third and Gaulbert. This was in Louisville. “You’re all right,” one kid said to me, “but if your friend keeps asking for it, he’s going to get it.” We’d already made it to my car, safe. Then Jay opened his door and charged at them. He got knocked flat, and the big boy he was tangling with crawled on top of him into what the Brazilians call the mount: sitting on Jay’s chest with his knees up under Jay’s armpits, Donkey Konging on Jay’s face while his confreres egged him on.
All right, I thought, what kind of friend am I, anyway, and I pushed my way into their circle and grabbed the kid on top of Jay by one of his shoulders.
“That’s enough,” I said.
“Tell him to say uncle,” the kid said.
“Say uncle,” I told Jay, and Jay said, “Uncle?”
“Are we straight now?” I said to the kid.
“Yeah. OK,” he said, and he got up and lumbered back into the bar.
“Open your mouth,” I said to Jay. Two of his teeth were chipped. I put him back in the car and drove him to Maria’s. I never did know what her story was. I think she loved him and she wanted to marry a U.S. citizen, both of those things.
“Oh God. What you do?” Maria said, while I stood there propping her boyfriend up on her porch, his bloody face print on my shoulder and chest. “Give him to me. I take care of him.”
Jay called the next morning. “I don’t know what happened, and I don’t want to remember,” he said. “Just tell me one thing. Do you look like me?”
I had to admit that I didn’t. He hung up. I put the phone down and poured half a can of beer into half a glass of tomato juice as the back door opened. “There’s blood all over the inside of the Pontiac,” my wife said.
And it was more or less in this manner that my wife became, as the years passed, my ex-wife. She moved to Nigeria and took an Islamic name, Djamila. It means beautiful.