Sunday, December 19, 2010

On Toughness

"I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived.  I see all this potential, and I see it squandered.  And entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars.  Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy stuff we don't need.  We're the middle children of history; no purpose or place.  We have no Great War, no Great Depression.  Our Great War is a spiritual war.  Our Great Depression is our lives.  We've all been raised by television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars.  But we won't; and we're slowly learning that fact.  And we're very, very pissed off."  --  FIGHT CLUB, by Chuck Palahniuk

Are we tougher because we do jiu jitsu?  Or is it the other way around?

My jiu jitsu confuses my friends, especially my law school colleagues.  I am not particularly imposing or menacing.  6'1" or so, 185 lbs, bearded (with noticeable no-grow zones), hairline routed like Napoleon.  And once people hear about my love of armbars and chokes, the difference between a choke and a strangle---their perception of me changes.  I get a lot of strange looks, as though I've joined a public FIGHT CLUB, where we go and beat the shit out of each other but are free to talk about it.  Of course, that isn't what happens.  We train techniques, we respect our training partners.  Our main goal is not merely to win; it is to improve, to become more efficient, more effective.

We still can't deny that this is a high-contact activity.  Every one of us has the elbowed-in-the-face stories.  "His arm came right over the top and I caught his forearm with my chin."  "We scrambled and his elbow hit me right below my eye."  "He was going for a pass and his knee dropped right on my sternum."  "His ankle clipped me just above his eye; I needed eight stitches."  Broken nose.  Tweaked knee.  Black eyes.  Fat lip.  Cuts on our faces and hands.  Misshapen fingers.  It took six months of consistent training, but I even got an x-ray to check my neck and back.

A friend of mine just popped his elbow, hyperextended it because he is pretty green and didn't want to tap to an armbar.  He's young and hungry, and he'll heal pretty quickly.  The best part, though, isn't that he'll heal and learn from the experience.  It happened on Monday--he went to the E.R. and they told him to take six weeks off.  Thursday, he was back in his gi and on the mat, clutching his collar to keep his arm from straightening.  He couldn't do half of the techniques we drilled, and he wasn't able to stay after and train because it just isn't practical.  But he was there, and he was working to learn.

A law professor of mine saw my resume (BJJ is one of my "Other Interests;" figured it would be a great conversation starter) and told me that he used to train MMA and had a purple belt in BJJ when he was working for a law firm in Madison.  I was more than a little surprised.  This is probably one of the nicest, least confrontational people I've met in law school.  He would come in with bruises and black eyes and tender joints.  But he went to work every day, wrote briefs and did document review, then trained at night.  Georgette does the same thing.  And everyone at work (I imagine the same is true with Georgette) would see Mark as the tough guy.

Is it the cosmetic damage that makes people see us as tough?  Is it the drive to train despite substantial injury?  I've known people to train through torn intercostal muscles, broken wrists (casted up, no less), sprains, torn meniscuses (menisci?), chronic back injuries, you name it.  I told my wife about how Klint injured his wrist early in his training, and for the next two months, he left his hand in his belt and developed his guard without the use of one of his hands.  He also was back training only a week after knee surgery, monitoring himself and limiting his movement so as not to aggravate his injury and still develop the rest of his game.  She said that these probably helped him improve faster and in a way that having full faculty of his hands and leg would not, but then promptly told me that I would never be allowed to do such a thing.

I admit that toughness helps in training.  It helps you get through tough positions, allows you to focus through physical distraction.  But I don't know whether toughness is a prerequisite for training jiu jitsu, or whether it is a results of training.


  1. I think it can be either way. Some people start training because they want to be tough...others are already tough, but they want to be technical. Others think they're tough and need to be humbled. I love that "tough" is one of the most difficult things to judge about a person. There are some very good BJJ guys around here that definitely do not look tough...and yet they could take apart 99% of the tough looking guys you throw at them.

    Regardless of how you come into it, I believe that dedication to jiu-jitsu will result in legitimate "toughness" (and hopefully a corresponding measure of humility) that will bleed over into other areas of life.

  2. Definitely not a prerequisite, and not necessarily a result of training: I wasn't tough before I started, and I still wouldn't call myself tough after four years of training (though admittedly, anything which has the slightest hint of aggression is something I tend to avoid).

    Also, I try to keep a certain amount of perspective on the connection between 'martial art' and 'tough'. Although BJJ is definitely one of the more demanding physical and mental challenges out there, you can tap at any time. That is a major part of its appeal for me: unless you're paired up with a total psycho, you're largely in control of your own safety.

    You could argue that is as distinct from something like muay thai, boxing, judo etc, as you can't tap midway through a punch or when you're flying through the air.

    Or to make another comparison to what I think of when somebody says "tough", martial arts have nothing on this.

  3. I think toughness has an elusive definition. My perspective is "tough" does not have to mean "badass." Certainly physical prowess is part of being tough. But I also take it as meaning that life can throw all kinds of crap at you, and even if you're left scarred, you'll come out on top...being able to weather the storm, so to speak. I think BJJ definitely can definitely help build that kind of toughness.

    But you are right. The story at the end of the link is tough as it gets.

  4. I try to abide by the first rule of fight club...Sometimes though my professional job compels me to explain my injury.

  5. Good post friend. Lots of good insights you brought up. I haven't been coming to class nearly as much as I'd like to lately because I've been scrambling to get my ducks in a row before I leave in a couple weeks. See you around class bro.

    -New Jon