Jiu Jitsu

It could be said Rorion Gracie falls into the category of a modern-day soothsayer. His drive and enthusiasm for spreading the good news about Jiu Jitsu quite literally facilitated his own prediction that the Gracie family’s style of combat would soon dominate the world of martial arts. Never had I met a man with such a strong belief … in anything. Yes, he was my teacher.

I was one of Rorion’s original garage students. Meaning, these were the days before Jiu Jitsu academies – just a garage in Torrance, CA. The year was 1986 and after about 20 private classes with Rorion, I received my blue belt. He said it was the fastest he had ever rewarded a blue belt to a student. He commended my dedication and talent but, honestly, it was him. His brand of enthusiasm and belief was contagious and I caught what he was preaching!

I was there when Royce arrived from Brazil. He couldn’t speak a word of English. Rickson would visit and roll with the students. I don’t know if anybody had as light a touch when training as Rickson. His way of guiding the students into positions he knew were important for instruction happened seemingly without physical effort. And Rorion’s attention to the details of technique paralleled his emotional connection that was then relayed the student, or a listener, as a science/art blend. It was an innocent and magical time before the rest of the world found out what these brothers were up to.   

Skip forward to the early 90’s. Rorion had a bustling academy after brother Royce’s success in the first few Ultimate Fighting Championship pay per view events. Because the academy only allowed a maximum of 12 students per class, there was usually a waiting list to sign on. Once you had a spot, you’d better keep it, because if you let the spot go by not paying in advance, someone else would grab it and you’d find yourself back waiting on line.

Occasionally, there would be a vacant spot during the night classes and this is where I first met Dartanian Bagby. He would drive all the way from the San Fernando Valley down to Torrance with the hope there would be an opening. Luckily, there were openings on a few occasions right around this time and we became close friends. Dartanian started out slowly, cautiously, but it was soon obvious that he was particularly gifted at Jiu Jitsu. He came in wearing a blue belt awarded by the Gracie’ cousins, The Machados, but he had no trouble tapping out all of the blue belts at the Torrance Academy. He then moved to the purple belts and not one of them stood a chance.

One night, after a long session of free training, everyone had finished one by one until only a pair of guys continued their match. It was Dartanian and a highly respected brown belt named Lowell going at it. About 10 of us were sitting on the mat watching these two go back and forth for at least 20 minutes. The last half of the match was Dartanian on the attack against Lowell. He was standing and attempting to pass Lowell’s guard. It was close, a fierce battle, with Lowell bleeding from the nose and Dartanian’s shirt ripped to shreds. It was competitive but not contentious. Royce disappeared into his office for a moment and returned to throw Dartanian a purple belt. I don’t know how many classes Dartanian attended before that night (not many) but that’s how he received his purple belt! I was there.

Dartanian was and is very disciplined about training Jiu Jitsu and he is just as committed to honoring the tradition and upholding standards. One expression of this was, he refused to teach until he was a black belt. I know because I asked. We instead would train for hours, no teaching; he using me to work on specific techniques for his own development. If I happened to catch on, fine, and many times I did. I must say my own skill advanced a great deal during this period.

Finally, I got a phone call from D saying he was awarded his black belt by Ken Gabrielson. This would be of special significance later on because it would mark Dartanian Bagby as a member of the Dirty Dozen of Jiu Jitsu. This means he is one of the first twelve non-Brazilians to receive a black belt in Jiu Jitsu. The year was 1996 placing him securely within that distinct category.

It just so happened I had three sons by that time and they all became students of Dartanian Bagby. In fact, they were D’s first kid students. D relished in the opportunity because he was able to train them from the ground up with no pollution, only the Dartanian system of Jiu Jitsu! And it worked because we all formed a unique and important bond during the following 12 or so years.

All three boys did well but my eldest decided to leave JJ around age 13 and so he missed some of the more advanced training and tournaments. The two younger sons, known by us and to the tournament circuit as ‘The Twins’, had a remarkable career. In fact, The Twins only finished outside of the top three positions one time each in their entire tournament experience. They secured 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place every other time in 10 years of competition. This included participating in the Kid’s World Championships twice at the highest ranking (green belt) against international and sponsored athletes. They tied for 1st place (with each other) one year, and placed 2nd and 4th the following year.

It was at this time Dartanian had The Twins take a break from competition. They were 13 years old and, with the onset of puberty, Dartanian chose to restart their training from the beginning. The thinking on this was twofold. One, it would allow The Twins time to physically catch up with many of the junior/adult division competitors, some of whom were already sporting beards! Two, this was an opportunity to refine techniques, beginner to advanced, that perhaps were in need of new attention, at this growing level of personal development.

And so it happened, we no longer prepped and trained for tournaments (which usually amounted to 6 or more per year), The Twins continued going to class a minimum of 4 times a week where Dartanian slowed them way down to focus on step-by-step detail of technique. They, however, did participate in contests against the adults at their own academy like: takedowns, throws, pushing the opponent out of the square, etc. and of course many matches. It was a fairly common to have one or both of The Twins left standing at the end of these contests and matches; and this was against adults wearing purple belts.

The Twins were advanced to adult blue belt at ages 15, as was customary in that day, but Dartanian still wanted them to refrain from competition. This is was highly challenging for The Twins who were quite literally raised to compete, and so, I believe they began to question their involvement in Jiu Jitsu during this period. One of The Twins had enough and announced that he wanted to participate in an upcoming tournament. Located a few hours away, it was one of the larger contests at that time. Dartanian didn’t refuse the one Twin’s request but said he would not attend to coach. If he wanted to make this decision on his own, The Twin would have to handle it on his own.

We went to San Diego a few weeks later. It was a healthy bracket of juniors, ages 15-17, with maybe 10 or 12 competitors in the bracket. The Twin had 4 matches against 15-17 year old opponents, some wearing blue belts, some green. By then some of these teens were cross training for MMA and believed themselves to be high prospects. The Twin got the takedown or throw in each match and decided to play the top game in multiple positions to score as many points as he could without attempting a submission. The idea was flow and top control. He won every match without even one point being scored against him, with the final match score 10-0 in his favor. The Twin came home with the 1st place victory after two years of not competing. Apparently, that was enough. Together with his brother they both decided to retire from Jiu Jitsu. The legacy of The Twins turned out to be a story of kid’s Jiu Jitsu rather than a continuation into adulthood.

I’ll never know for sure why the one Twin entered the tournament instead of the other, or how come they both didn’t go. I do have some ideas but questions remain. I wonder if they had discussed this in advance? Was it a coin flip? The truth is either one of them could have accomplished the same task, so maybe only one needed to compete to know if what Dartanian had planned was working. Yes, in terms of preparing The Twins for junior and adult competition, it had worked. The Twin was clearly on a different level from his opponents. The other teens were tough and skilled but they had not been trained from the ground up by Dartanian Bagby.

One day, The Twins would have faced other practitioners who also had the right stuff in enough ways. It might have been at purple belt level. Perhaps it would have been delayed to the black belt division. Either way, it was coming and Dartanian prepped them mentally and physically for that challenge. But, alas, it wasn’t to be.

Maybe the break in competition gave them both the time and opportunity to question how they were spending so much time and devotion? Actually, the two said as much at the time. I listened and didn’t push back. Yes, I reminded them of their dedication and talent. I offered to make it all happen when they were ready – but this was their decision. They both had made it, unanimously, and that choice was respected by both father and coach. Could it be that such a strong emphasis on winning had been misplaced? There is always room for people to learn and to grow, especially fathers. Maybe coaches, too.

They are their own. The Twins couldn’t live for their father’s ideas or for their coach’s ideas about how to approach life. They had developed an individual sense of Self and no doubt the emersion in Jiu Jitsu for so many years assisted in that formation. It truly helped shape the people they had become and it would (and does) continue to influence who they are. The lessons of Jiu Jitsu apply to every aspect of life. The Twins carry that experience within and the truth of it will fortify them in every challenge that is encountered. I mean, how often does a person fully commit to something that really works? Jiu Jitsu works. It works because it is discovered and maintained by adhering to specific principles that are true. Find something that works, because it is true, and stick with it long enough for it to permeate into the fabric of your being. There it lies, ready at all times, for when you are ready.