Tell Me How It Happened: The Ways People Find BJJ (or It Finds Them)

I asked some grapplers how and why they got started in BJJ, to continue to try to explain that elusive “X-factor.” Read on for the stories of some of my fellow disciples.

People from all walks of life train Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Some people make it their life’s calling; others fit it in around other obligations. But by God, they fit it in. Everyone who makes the decision to train on a regular basis ostensibly finds something in the practice that enhances their lives in some way – and gets cranky when they go for too long without training.

I asked some of the converted how and why they got started, to continue to try to explain that elusive “X-factor” that drives the typical grappler to do what s/he does. Read on for the stories of some of my fellow disciples.

My post college lifestyle was terrible. My days often consisted of waking up in the recliner (where I had fallen asleep the night before), going to work, picking up take-out, going home, eating in the aforementioned recliner, and falling asleep again.

It hadn’t always been so. In college, I was a competitive fencer who trained with the Israeli national team and rose to the rank of captain upon returning. I was a gym rat, lifting 4 times a week, and fencing just as much. I was a lean and powerful 175 pounds. But then I graduated in 2005, and life took over. By 2007, I was fast approaching 240 pounds, but now when I desperately needed physical activity, nothing motivated me.

Then in 2008, my friends and I were set upon by a crew of drunk undergrads. A melee ensued, and ultimately, my

role amounted to clutching a bag of hamburgers, pleading with everyone, “Don’t fight! Don’t fight!” I had gone from the embodiment of the New Hebrew Man – dark, handsome, fit, clutching a sword even – to fat sack of fat, protecting his late-night snack when his friends needed him most.

Around this time, my friends were discovering MMA, and I became aware of jiu jitsu. I thought, great! I can learn to defend myself off of my back? This martial art will suit me perfectly! When I went to my first class I learned two things. One, my initial assumptions of BJJ were a little off the mark, and two: I loved this.

I still love it. I dove in. I’ve set goals for myself, I’ve competed, and I’ve slimmed down to 185 pounds. I owe jiu jitsu my life.

Jonathan Lord, Washington, DC

Blue belt, 4 years training

Graduate student

I started jiu-jitsu due in the most part to peer pressure from my friend/instructor. As soon as he opened his own academy he asked me, almost every weekend for about 6 months, to come train. I finally went in and after about a month I was hooked and have trained almost every day since.

Mike Byrd, Richmond, VA
Purple belt, 7 years training
works for US Grappling

Years of watching Kung Fu Theater, particularly Enter the Dragon, as a kid started an obsession that led me to pursue and earn a black belt in both tae kwon do and hap ki do.

I continued for a few years after high school until a friend told me about Jeet Kune Do. As with the other martial arts I pursued, I was immediately hooked. JKD is also where I first started no-gi grappling. When my JKD instructor brought in Renzo Gracie to do a seminar, I was once again hooked, but this time it was different. Something about that seminar changed my life. BJJ was the most incredible art I had ever seen and I knew I had to learn.

I found martial arts at a time when I really needed it. My parents were going through a nightmare divorce, and my father was abusive. I had started to act out in school and get into trouble. Martial arts gave me a positive outlet; it wasn’t until years later that I realized how much of a positive impact it has had on me. I could have easily taken a different path, but training (and my first instructor) changed the direction of my life. I learned I could be a better person. BJJ was just a natural progression; I gravitated toward the grappling, and after that Renzo seminar, I knew BJJ was all I wanted to do.

Eric Marandino, Ludlow, CT

Brown belt with 2 stripes, 6 years training

Owner, dental laboratory

Like many grapplers, I started jiu-jitsu because my paradigm was shattered. I had wrestled in high school and was basically indoctrinated with the idea that strength was everything. Sometime in my sophomore year at college, I met a friend of a friend named John who had been studying ‘bee jay jay.’ Inevitably, as college boys often do, our friends organized a grappling match between the two of us to see who was tougher. John was anything but athletic so I figured it would be easy to prove my superiority. After easily taking him down, I spent a good 5 minutes in what I would later be told was his “guard” and ended up in a terribly executed “triangle choke.” Regardless, my eyes felt like they were about to jettison from my skull and I was helpless to muscle my way out of the situation. I tapped. After I regained feeling in my face, I had a hundred questions for John. A few years later, in 2009, I began my formal training, and the questions haven’t stopped.

Joshua Baek, Seattle, WA

Blue belt, over 3 years training

Aerospace engineer

I looked into martial arts my first year out of college. I had been going to the gym for years and it was so solitary and repetitive, without an actual goal in mind aside from being in shape. I joined Krav Maga in West LA and did that for 3 years. They don’t have it structured for competition other than the belt testing, though, so I felt I reached my personal ceiling there and started to focus on the one thing I was horrible at: the ground game. I felt so out of my element and confused when I was on the ground. I wound up meeting someone who would become a good friend/mentor of mine out in Hollywood one night. I said I was looking to expand my martial arts, and he recommended a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy. I signed up a week later. That was six years ago!

Rachel Dierks, Los Angeles, CA

Purple belt with 1 stripe, 6 years training

Publicist and bartender

Throughout my teenage years and my mid 20’s, I was passionate about playing volleyball. However, after playing for a decade, I decided that my lack of height and athleticism was prohibitive in me becoming a great player. I decided it was time for me to pick up a new activity- one that was not only fun and exciting, but one where I had no expectation of performing at a high level. Living in NYC, home of some of the best academies in the world, I eagerly chose Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as my new hobby.

After a decade I am once again learning that my lack of athleticism, and my love of fast food and reality TV may yet again hinder me from being a great BJJ player. However, being great at an activity no longer motivates me. What keeps me coming back on the mat is the experiences and friendships that BJJ has given me. (Then again, being a black belt Mundial champion would still be pretty sweet.)

Kon Ying, Gainesville, FL

Purple belt, 12 years training

Telecommunications manager

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