Why I Compete
“Chris Gethard to mat nine.” The frazzled man shouts it into a microphone. He’s been doing it all day, so I know that hearing my name called over a loudspeaker means I’m about to be disqualified for no-showing my match. I’ve been waiting hours for this moment. There is no hesitation. There is no thought of bailing.
I sprint to mat nine. I had been zoned out on the other side of mat ten, stretching, wondering when my match would take place. It was scheduled for shortly after 3:00 PM. We are now well past five, but this is how these things go. There are ten mats, each of which feature two people trying to strangle one another — if they’re being nice about it. If they want to get a little meaner, they’re trying to rip apart each others’ joints.
It is for the best that I don’t have much warning that it’s time for me to go. It means I have no time to think. I get to mat nine and rip off my hoodie and sweatpants. Underneath them I’m wearing a pair of shorts that resemble a thicker and more durable bathing suit, as well as a spandex shirt. I have a bunch of these shirts at home. Today, I chose to wear one that looks like the X-Men’s uniform. It somehow seems most fitting.
I throw my glasses on the scorer’s table, pop my mouthpiece in, and step onto the mat. There are hundreds of people watching the matches in bleachers, and because I plugged this on Instagram, about twenty of these people have been sitting around for hours waiting to see me. I hear some of them yell my name, including my wife, who is standing in the bleachers wielding a giant foam finger with my name on it.
I shake the referee’s hand, both to show him respect and as a silent reminder to him that it is his job to keep me from getting injured too seriously in the next five minutes. And then, for the first time, I turn and see my opponent.
In the subsequent hours and days, I will come to learn a few things about this man. His name is Jorge. He is a thirty-one-year-old ex-Marine. He makes his money as a personal trainer. After our bout we followed each other on Instagram; later that week he posts a video of himself doing completely vertical push-ups from a handstand position.
To put this in perspective, I am a thirty-eight-year-old current comedian. I make most of my money via a podcast, with supplemental income earned in the months leading up to this match by going on the road to do shows that took me away from my jiu-jitsu training for weeks at a time. I have a congenital joint condition that has limited me from ever doing even a regular push up in my entire life, let alone a vertical one. On top of all that, my wife — cheering me on from the bleachers, loving any excuse to brandish her foam finger — is four months pregnant. I have a lot of distractions that prohibit me from making my physical strength my main focus. Not only is Jorge able to make that his main priority, he’s good enough at it that his job is to teach other people how to do so.
But I don’t know any of his side of that story in the moment I make eye contact with him on the mat. I only know that he seems to be in great shape, and that his job right now is to hurt me, and that if I want to be one hundred percent certain that doesn’t happen, my only real option is to hurt him first.
We slap hands and bump fists, the informal tradition that marks the beginning of any jiu-jitsu sparring match. I take a few steps back, shake out my muscles, then step towards him. He does the same.
Right away, I hear my coach Matt Kaplan yelling at me from the sidelines. “Get your elbows in! Elbows IN! What are you doing?”
One of the very first lessons you will learn in a jiu-jitsu school is that you should keep your elbows pinned to your body unless you are committing to an attack — which I am not. I have simply flared out my elbows because I am nervous and that is my instinct. Doing so exposes my body to any number of brutal judo throws, wrestling takedowns, or standing armlocks.
I tuck my elbows in and think to myself, “Oh no. It doesn’t matter how many classes I’ve taken. I have forgotten everything.”
My opponent and I tangle up a few times while standing on our feet. He attempts a takedown. I dodge it. I get a grip and reach for an arm drag, which would lead to me being behind him, a better position from which to take him down. He rips his arm away and we disengage. This vetting process repeats a few times.
“He’s stronger than me,” I think. “And I only know one real takedown — and he’s onto it.”
It seems like a smart idea for me to “pull guard”. There are a few ways to do this, but I’m going for “open guard”, which means I sit down in front of him and try to tangle his legs up with my feet so that I might dictate his movements. The guard is what allows you to submit opponents from a position underneath them, which logic would normally dictate is the weaker place to be. It’s arguably one of the central differences between Brazilian jiu-jitsu and any other grappling style.
The guard comes in a variety of forms — closed guard involves wrapping your legs around an opponent’s waist, butterfly guard places both your feet behind the area around where his knees and thighs meet. Half guard isolates one leg. These guards get really complex. X-guard, Single x-guard, rubber guard, De La Riva guard, reverse De La Riva guard, rubber guard, and the Williams guard, a lesser used cousin of the rubber guard that’s my favorite because it’s better for people who are not naturally flexible.
My butt hits the floor and I loop my feet behind Jorge’s knees. He uses his speed and strength to smash his knee through to the floor on one side — he is in the process of “passing the guard”, which as you can imagine, is not good.
I catch him in half guard.
“No!” Matt yells from the sidelines. “No fucking half guard!”
Matt has been warning me of the futility of half guard for months now. It’s a position that beginners wind up in a lot, because we get our guards passed quite often. But, as Matt has drilled into my head, it feels like a much safer position than it actually is. And if you can get to half guard, you can probably get to half butterfly guard, which he has told me a thousand times is a much superior and more versatile option.
It doesn’t matter. I am stuck in half guard. I try to lace my arm underneath Jorge’s armpit so I can reach to his far shoulder and grip him there. This is called an “underhook” and it would give me a semblance of control that might allow me to “sweep” Jorge, which refers to a whole subset of moves that would flip us over and lead me to be in the advantageous top position while switching Jorge to the top position. A successfully executed sweep would also give me two points.
It does not work. Once again, Jorge sniffs out what I’m up to. Before I can establish a strong underhook, he snakes his arm below mine, then comes around my neck and grips his own bicep on the other side. This places his forearm into the side of my neck in a way that applies a tremendous amount of pressure.
He has me in a D’Arce choke, a move developed in the 1990s. It’s named after Joe D’Arce, the black belt who first used it to blaze through a number of competitors who had no idea what he was up to at the time. Now everybody knows it. And now I’m caught in it.
“This happens every time I’m in half guard,” I think to myself. “Every fucking time.” Matt was right.
The move is painful — which in some ways, is a good thing. A properly applied choke applies some pain, but the larger priority is that it cuts off the blood supply to your brain, causing you to fall unconscious. (The large majority of chokes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu don’t actually aim to restrict your air supply — it’s all about aiming for the arteries.)
There is a lot of pain, but I feel no looming danger that I am about to pass out. This means the choke is actually more of a “crank”, a term we use to imply that a joint — usually with the phrase crank, it’s the neck — is being manhandled and bent into an unpleasant position that yes, causes a lot of pain.
But I don’t give a shit about pain. If I’m going to tap, it’s because you’re going to put me out. I can take pain. I will not tap unless the move is locked in correctly, or unless I’m reasonably sure you might pop one of my joints, tear one of tendons, or snap one of my ligaments.
And this is when I remember why I do this.
“He’s stronger than me. He’s faster than me. He’s younger than me. He’s better than me,” I think to myself.
But I know a secret about myself. Something I’ve learned through my real-life career, through how I handle adversity in my personal life, through being alive for a long thirty-eight years that have often been riddled with anxiety, depression, fear, and pain.
“But you have never in your life,” I think, “met someone more resilient than me.”
Jorge holds me in the D’Arce choke for close to three minutes of our five-minute long match.
For much of this time, he also focuses all of his weight into the point of his knee, which he has — unfortunately for me — driven into my ribs just below my right nipple. The combination of him pulling the choke and pushing his knee leaves deep bruises up and down my entire right side that spend the next two weeks exploring different colors of the rainbow.
Later in the day, one of my training partners pulls me aside.
“When he locked in that choke, you turned bright red almost immediately,” he says. “I saw veins popping out in your head. I don’t know how you didn’t tap. It was disturbing.”
I am proud of this.
In the moment, it does not feel good. But I know two things that Jorge can’t seem to figure out. First, my chin is just barely tucked under one of his massive biceps. If he were to adjust this, about an eighth of an inch, I would probably tap out or pass out. But he is not adjusting. And this gives me time to also drive my right thumb into his elbow, lifting his arm a little further, meaning as he moves I can get my chin tucked a little further each time.
I can barely breathe. His shoulder is driving into my face. His forearm is bending my neck at an angle my wife will later tell me made her very unhappy to see. His knee is pounding my rib cage.
I will not tap.
While I am spending words critiquing the slight slip-ups in Jorge’s technique, I want to make no allusions that I am in any way winning. I am getting decimated, and should he ever read this, I’m sure he knows that I’m not questioning his domination and he should be quite proud. Every now and then, Jorge removes his knee from my ribs and flattens himself, belly down, along my side. This is called “side control”, and it awards him three points every time he does it. He has shifted in and out of this position five times, meaning that he is leading fifteen points to my zero.
I feel Jorge’s arms slacken, mercifully, after three minutes. He lets out a long sigh, and I feel his chest move off of mine. This allows me to massively inhale.
I have frustrated him.
He tries a new attack. I swat his arms away. He moves into the “mount” position, which means he straddles my chest, which is the second worst position I can wind up in besides the very brutal to deal with “back take”. Before he can establish the mount for the necessary three seconds that will give him four points, I dive my arms underneath his legs, going for a “double underhook” escape. I basically position his asshole perilously close to my mouth, reach up and over the outside of his legs so I can grip his hip bones, and roll him off of me.
My teammates cheer from the sidelines — this move is a sneaky old man move I use often in training. Logic would dictate that I try to immediately stand, qualifying this as a sweep that will garner me two points. Since I’m down by fifteen, I figure I should try to drop into a leg lock position instead.
Leg locks have been the fad in jiu-jitsu the past few years. They’ve been around forever, but largely underutilized. The popular mythology of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is that it was developed by the Gracie family so that smaller and weaker people could utilize leverage to overcome stronger opponents — what they don’t tell you is that when you’ve both learned the same amount of shit, the stronger guy probably goes back to winning. Leg locks are the method that offer the smaller guy the most likelihood to make this myth true, however — it turns out that snapping someone else’s ACL doesn’t require all that much strength.
I’ve been practicing a transition out of my double unders escape where I grab the other guy’s ankle under my armpit, step over his leg, and fall into a position of control known as the reap. I grasp wildly for Jorge’s leg. It is all for naught. He scrambles away and basically does a push up that propels him away from me. (When I later see his vertical push up video, I will smile and understand a little bit more of what happened.)
He turns and is on top of me again. I manage to throw my leg over his into the “outside ashi garami” position, where it’s conceivable I can attack his legs. But he simply bull charges me with the momentum he already has, folding me up and trapping me. He tries to grip my arm so he can break it.
“Twenty seconds left!” I hear Matt yell.
I grab Jorge’s arm.
Survive, I think to myself.
Jorge breaks my grips. He’s trying to lock in a “kimura”, a very old school move that will easily break my shoulder due to his size and strength advantages. I grab his wrist and stiff arm.
“Five seconds!” Matt yells.
The bell rings.
I have a match later in the day, against a nice guy named Lionel. We’ve actually sparred each other before, at the Renzo Gracie Academy where I started my training and still sometimes stop by.
Lionel is thirty-four. His build is much more similar to mine than Jorge’s. I can’t say for certain what Lionel does for a living, but I get the sense he is probably not a physical trainer.
“It’s all love,” he tells me before we begin. The match is much more relaxed. I try some leg lock stuff, he does too. We wind up in a scramble. He locks in a toehold grip. I tap.
Matt explains to me there were some options I should have tried before tapping out. Next time I will, because every time I lose, I learn.
Two other competitors were supposed to be in my division. One of them did not make weight. The other bailed.
Hilariously, after two decisive losses, this means I receive a bronze medal at the end of the day.
When we meet at the winners’ podium, Lionel hugs me, Jorge hugs me, and they hug each other (having also fought one another). This is not simple respect. There is an actual feeling of euphoria.
It is silly. A random Saturday. We are all low-level practitioners, blue belts in the old man division. But we have now experienced something together. Something that allows these two men to know me in a way other people don’t.
They have both, frankly, beaten the shit out of me.
But I know myself more now.
And that is why I participate in this quasi-fighting idiocy. To know myself. Not to know myself through the context of my relationships with others. Not to know myself through the accomplishments of my career. Not to gauge my worth based on the number of likes a post gets.
Not to know myself in any way from the outside.
To truly know myself when the blood flow to my brain is being restricted. To know myself when another person is trying to rip my foot off. To know myself when trapped in a position where a referee whose name I don’t even know might be responsible for saving me should I choose not to tap.
And in that sense, honestly, to know myself in death. And as such, in life.
These two men know something about me that most people don’t know, and that I needed to make sure was still true.
Jorge knows it best and he is kind enough to tell me in a comment left on Instagram after we befriended one another.
“Good stuff out there,” he typed. “You are way stronger than you look.”