photo credit: Helen Cho

SWEEP THE LEG, JOHNNY!

I am 59 years old and a Brazilian jiu jitsu addict.
I used to hang around cold stairwells first thing in the morning waiting for dope. Now I hang around cold stairwells waiting for Jiu jitsu.

Every day I’m home in New York…..every day, I head down to the cellar locker room of the Renzo Gracie Academy and put on my gi. Then, barefoot and ready to meet my fate, I head out onto the mats. Usually, I take an hour long private lesson with my principal instructor, Igor Gracie, followed by an hour long class with the general population of mixed belts taught by John Danaher. About half an hour of techniques and drilling, then, the last half hour of class is spent sparring. Four five minute rounds with 60 seconds in between.

Invariably I do not “win” these rounds, meaning, I do not “tap” anybody. As much as I might like to, I do not compress anybody’s neck in such a way as to restrict oxygenated blood flow to the brain (thereby causing them to submit or pass out). I am almost always unsuccessful when attempting to bend an arm, shoulder or extremity in ways that God did not intend. Instead, I fight as hard as I can to delay the inevitable — to fend off my training partners — younger, often larger chested and more heavily muscled — almost always more skilled — from passing my guard, crushing my rib cage in side control, getting an arm under my head and pressing their shoulder into my jaw. Every second, every minute I can prevent that from happening is a victory to me.

When I’m not in New York, when I’m on the road shooting PARTS UNKNOWN, I go to whatever local gym, yoga studio, garage, cellar claims to teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu — places where the term “parts unknown” can really apply. Until I walk in the door, I have no idea what I’m going to face; what the local custom is concerning techniques like face-cranks, heel hooks, can openers, knee-on-neck, what the acceptable level of aggression is, whether my training partners will be amiable blue belts, giant Slav white belts with 10 years of wrestling experience, or huge, heavily tattooed Pacific islanders — none of whom even remember having a neck. Will the “facility” be an austere, Japanese style dojo, a freezing garage, an airless, 110 degree closet, a military base, a boxing ring? I have trained in all these places: Glasgow, Maui, Istanbul, Beirut, Budapest, Kuching, Kuala Lumpur, Okinawa, Marseille — and all over the US.

As I say at the top of this episode, as I tape my fingers (in the forlorn hope that it might mitigate the osteoarthritis and Heberden’s nodes associated with grip fighting), I will never be a black belt. I will never successfully compete against similarly ranked opponents half my age, I will never be great at Brazilian jiu jitsu. There is an urgency to my training because I’m sure as shit not getting any younger, or more flexible. I’m certainly not getting any faster. And as I head down the highway on my jiu jitsu journey, the likelihood of the wheels coming off the car grows stronger every day.

But I am determined to suck less at this jiu jitsu thing every day if I can.

It was to this end that I chose to do a San Francisco show.

Yeah, I know: The San Francisco bay area is awesome. It’s a restaurant mecca. But this is not a “Best of San Francisco” episode. Over the years, I’ve done many hours of television on the Bay Area and hope to do many more. This episode is more about what San Francisco is in danger of losing, what some people are doing about it, what’s hanging on, what’s disappearing and what might be next. Right now, there’s a struggle for the soul of the city going on as battalions of techies, engorged with tech bucks invade, driving rents up and infusing perfectly good coffee with pumpkin flavor. It’s a pattern we see nearly every place where the food is good, the views uniquely beautiful: people from elsewhere replacing the people who made the place desirable and awesome in the first place. Whether that is a natural, inevitable and irresistible process or something to be fought tooth and nail remains to be seen. Personally, I’m pessimistic. Time, and change — as I feel, literally, in my bones every day after training — are like the ocean, they wash over you, eventually washing you away entirely.

I want to stipulate up front, however, that this episode in particular is a selfish enterprise. It’s all about me, me, me — and I’m running out of time.

I wanted to train at San Francisco’s Ralph Gracie Academy with their legendary black belt, Kurt Osiander — and I built this whole damn episode around that ambition.

It wasn’t a casual decision. Ralph Gracie (Renzo’s brother) is notorious for his grueling warm-ups. Back in New York it had taken me six months to get up to speed enough physically to be able to keep up with the pre-instruction calisthenics in white belt classes. But Ralph’s, everybody I spoke to told me, was worse. Black belts at Renzo’s would smile pityingly when I told them I’d be going out to train there for a week.

“You are not going to enjoy the warm ups,” they’d say, describing a near half hour regime of jumping jacks, squats, burpees, sprawls, push-ups, crunches, sprints, fireman carries, forward and backward rolls, monkey and bear crawls, leg lifts, and other fiendish strategies to thoroughly exhaust the human body — before live training involving six 6 minute rounds — with 30 second breaks in between. (Ralph, armed with a kendo practice sword, has been known during these short breaks to demand “Give me twenty!” of his students, requiring a quick 20 push-ups before continued sparring).

While this whole episode was a cynical means to fulfill my jiu jitsu dreams, I would, necessarily have to appear on camera, and I did not want to look like that guy, gassed out and sitting against the wall while the rest of the class do hip escapes across the room.

So, a month prior to the show, I took to vomit inducing strength and endurance training back in New York — just so I could make it past the warm ups at Ralph’s. (As it turned out, they were not, during the daytime classes anyway, as bad as I’d been told).

Most of you reading this will have little to no idea what Brazilian jiu jitsu is. I understand. Until a couple of years ago, the idea of rolling around on the floor in a slick of human sweat was about as foreign a notion as anything could be. When I tell people I train, they often do a little chopping motion with their hands that every practitioner has had to endure silently without correcting (there is no striking, much less chopping, in jiu jitsu). So, at the top of the episode, my professor Igor Gracie, and his brother Rolles demonstrate the basic principles. Hopefully this will help you avoid embarrassment — and as importantly, will prevent you from joining the meatheads in booing next time a UFC fight goes to the ground.

Jiu Jitsu makes me very happy — regardless of how good or bad I am at it — and how dim my prospects of ever excelling at it. It’s become a family tradition: my wife does it pretty much as a profession, seeking to tear knees and ankles off people — or occasionally, helping to teach others how to do same. My daughter does it because it’s fun — and because every young girl, if possible, should be free of ever being physically intimidated by a boy (I pity the first little boy who shoves my daughter to the ground).

left photo credit: Ottavia Bourdain, right photo credit: Jeff Chu

I do it because it’s hard. Because it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And because it never ends. Every day presents me with a series of problems that I spend the rest of the day thinking about how I might solve — or at least chip away at. Next day same. And the day after that.

It’s like being the newest, worst cook in the kitchen all over again, looking up that impossibly steep learning curve to the broiler station. I liked that feeling then. I like it now.

The first day, all those years ago, when my chef addressed me by name at the end of the shift, was a golden moment.

When I recently got my blue belt, after over two years of training, it was, other than the birth of my daughter, pretty much the greatest day of my life. That belt doesn’t mean I’m any good at jiu jitsu, by the way. It just means that I worked really, really hard at something. And that presumably, I suck at it just a tiny bit less.