Fight, Write, Love
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Fight, Write, Love

This is an email from Fight, Write, Love, a newsletter by Fight, Write, Love.

The (Wo)man in the Arena

Here’s a glimpse into the morning of my latest competition.

The burly Brazilians gather in the lobby, talking in hushed bellows in a huddle, eating just enough breakfast to make weight in the hours to come. They look at me in passing, likely not thinking that I, too, am fueling up for a long day of fights ahead.

I don’t look the part yet anyway. I’m still in the dress I’ve worn as a nightgown the entire trip and have yet to don my “armor” for the day: a quality Hyperfly or Lululemon sports bra, a tight-fitting tanktop and spandex shorts. These three articles of clothing suck and compress me in, keeping me from crumbling or exploding —they’re all that’s standing in the way to prevent the heavily-pumping blood and adrenaline from causing me to burst or ooze out at the seams.

The competitors leave the hotel, hauling heavy army-style packs on their backs for a day of civilized, rule-contained ‘warfare.’ In my own kit, I’ve got one gi and competition belt, a no gi outfit, one liter of water, four bottles of Powerade Zero (blue and purple), two bananas, three RX Bars, nuts, and chocolate, along with a change of clothes to change into when it’s all over. I’ve also got tape, ibuprofen, a nail clipper, a lacrosse ball, and a spare pair of contact lenses in case my eyes get knocked out — this happens more often than you might think, or just as often as you might think. This is my 12-hour day’s worth of clothing, food, water, and other supplies to bring out my absolute best — and my best for absolute (the open weight class section of the tournament that I am eligible to enter if I make it to the podium in my weight division).

After checking in, claiming my tournament T-shirt, and finding a hideaway to put my belonging and center myself, I check my mat numbers and times for my first matches (Gi: Mat 1, 9:30AM; No Gi: Mat 8 12:30PM, more if I make it to the absolute division). Then I take in the sight of the arena and that familiar feeling it hits me: “Oh fuck. You can’t back out now. ”

14 mats, clean, quiet, and ready to go in Texas’ NYTEX Sports Centre in North Richland Hills, Texas

An hour before I’m supposed to go on, I check my weight and — assuming I’m under, treat myself to some food and start the music while pulling on my gi pants and jacket. The first song on my competition playlist comes on: Childish Gambino’s ‘Bonfire.’ Then it shuffles to JAY-Z’s ‘Takeover.’ Then onward to Michael Buble’s rendition of ‘Feeling Good and Franz Ferdinand’s cover of Blondie’s ‘Call Me.The list of songs continues, songs that have led to positive outcomes on the mat, either in training rooms or in tournaments. As I tie my belt, I’m still oscillating between extreme states: in one moment, I’m a teeth-chattering anxious wreck — in the next, I’m a teeth-clenched, amped-up, aspiring wrecker of women in between 141.5–152.5 pounds (with a gi on), between the ages of 18–30 (or willing to compete with people between the ages of 18–30), and with roughly 1–4 years of jiu-jitsu experience.

By the time I reach my last song, I aim to be even keeled, loose, but mellow, striving for Margot’s goal of relaxed concentration: “Hanging in the bullpen should start to feel like you’re lounging on a sofa,” she pep talked playfully the night before.

For anyone who hasn’t been in a bullpen before — I wouldn’t say anyone would liken the experience to that of lounging on a sofa. Making the bullpen in your living room is something to aspire to — not its natural state.

The energy of the bullpen is electric, teeming with competitors who are sprawling, squatting, stretching, or just sitting quietly, taking it all in. They are almost always listening to music in enormous over-ear headphones or sleek AirPods, waiting to be wrangled by a Mat Coordinator and delivered to their assigned mat for their first or next match. I try to blend in — music on, breathing deeply, moving around in a wrestling stance for kicks. I avoid others’ gazes, wanting to save every bit of the fear-striking and focus in my eyes for the moment of truth: the start of the match.

All the while, I do my best to avoid psyching myself out at the sights of the affiliations of my fellow competitors — CheckMat, Gracie Barra, GF Team, Atos, and more — with gym logos loudly claiming their athletes on every available square inch of their uniformed bodies. Some competitors have their names, social media handles, or their own hashtags emblazoned on their backs and legs and lapels. One Texan in my division, true to a Southern pageantry stereotype, even has her gi customized in silver-rainbow glitter up all over the back. My own gi is simple, blue and blank save for a small Carlson Gracie patch on the tricep. It’s fitting for my preferred vibe as an underdog — I’d rather come off as a boring, unpretentious, even casual competitor than come off as someone who is serious enough about jiu-jitsu to have a hashtag but isn’t necessarily good enough to merit it.

After doing something like twenty-five grappling tournaments in the last three years, you might think I would no longer get nervous. I still do. Gym mates don’t come at you as hard in a training room as opponents will in a tournament setting. As I write this, my neck is still sore from one opponent trying to make like The Red Queen in ‘’Alice in Wonderland’, pictured below.

How I imagine my opponent feels when attempting a guillotine choke, brought to you by Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland.’

I spend the weeks, days, hours, and minutes up until my first match wondering why I continue to (aggressively) put myself through the experience of competing that reliably frays my nerves, turns my stomach inside out, tests my sanity, and threatens physical injury. Since I turned 30, I wonder this why I do this even more so — the opponents only get nimbler and stronger and younger, and my loss column only grows taller with entry into bigger tournaments with stiffer competition.

And then I look at the pictures — and I see the person I want to be in all aspects of my life, on and off the mat.

Someone strong, smart, tough, and tireless, who walks the talk and pushes herself and is willing to put it all on the line.

My gi match —I’m searching to move from half-guard to mount or transition to a head and arm choke

Someone who may be tired, terrified, daunted, and defeated, and still finds a way.

My open class no-gi match: looking to regain my closed guard and (successfully) prevent my opponent’s passing game

Someone calm, collected, commanding, and confident. Someone who feels the fear and does it anyway.

“Black Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Adapted from ‘Friday Night Lights’ on a Sunday morning in TX.

Someone who lives like ‘The Man in the Arena’ from Churchill’s ‘Citizenship in a Republic.’

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Someone who looks, thinks, and acts like the very best version of me and reminds me of what I’m capable of.

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A personal capsule newsletter from Erica Zendell

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Erica Zendell

Erica Zendell

Quitter of the corporate grind in favor of the open road, a writing career, and a whole lot of jiu-jitsu. Currently writing from San Diego.

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