I am always game to try out new fitness activities, but I draw the line at contact sports. The idea of grappling, punching and wrestling with strangers has never appealed to me. But there is also a cool factor to combat sports, and you must admit that they do offer a challenge few other activities can. I decided it was time to step up and bite the bullet, never mind the risk of bruises or injuries. It’s a new decade, after all, and I was getting bored of jogging, yoga and even cardio boxing. After some research, I decided that Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) might be a good place to start.
From what I’ve read, the sport is focused on groundwork and incorporates wrestling and self-defence techniques. It seemed like a safe enough introduction to martial arts compared to Muay Thai or MMA. Also, a 2017 Sports Medicine – Open research concluded that regular BJJ practitioners typically have physiques that are low in body fat. New skills? Weight loss? Lean muscles? Sign me up, please.
BJJ is a fairly modern sport, but its origins stretch all the way back to ancient Japan. It started off as jiu-jitsu, a martial art practised by samurais. Should they find themselves unarmed – or disarmed in a battle – they could at least fight with techniques such as throws, locks and chokes.
Over time, various styles of the art developed. One watershed moment occurred in 1882, when Jigoro Kano developed judo by extracting the most efficient jiu-jitsu techniques from it.
Around 30 years after judo’s inception, one of Kano’s top students, Mitsuo Maedo, literally took the sport further. He travelled on a business trip to Brazil and befriended a local businessman named Gastão Gracie. There, he began teaching the art to Gracie’s sons Hélio and Carlos. Hélio became an exponent of the art, but as he was also small in physical stature, he began adapting the techniques for himself, while retaining the essence of the system. Thus BJJ was born.
Knowledge of the newly coined sport was then spread across the country but BJJ only became known globally when Hélio’s son, Royce Gracie, introduced it in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993. With this fighting system, Gracie took home multiple titles and the rest is history.
Having satisfied my curiosity about the origins of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I called to accept the invitation to some introductory classes from Evolve MMA, to try the sport out with Noah and Paul Lim. The brothers, of course, had recently snagged the gold and bronze medals respectively at the SEA Games, and were keen to share their enthusiasm for the sport.
And of course I roped my colleagues in, so I needn’t feel intimidated. Besides, it’d be fun to throw the ed on the mat. When we reached the Far East Square outlet, we changed into our gis before finally meeting our instructor for the day, Fabio Da Mata.
Da Mata had accumulated 15 years of experience, along with several prominent medals, including a bronze at the Mundials World Championship. You’d expect the Brazilian native to be stern and strict but he was quite the opposite. Perhaps he was swayed by our worried facial expressions. In any case, he walked us through the moves patiently and precisely.
In Evolve’s MMA cage, Da Mata started off by teaching us fundamental movements like rolling to break our falls, getting back onto our feet while remaining guarded, and shifting and positioning ourselves while we were on our backs. It sounds easy, but we knew it was more than just a warm up when it engaged our mental concentration and got our core muscles burning.
I remember watching several beginners’ guides to BJJ on YouTube prior to the lesson, so I was prepared to put it to practice. The movements looked fluid and easy to manage. It was, however, a whole different story when we physically did the mounts, side controls and both the closed and half guards.
Firstly, it was awkward being in vulnerable positions. Not only did we have our legs spread wide in mid air, we also had our faces buried in each others’ armpits and necks. However, this sense of self-consciousness dissipated when we got the hang of the moves.
Aside from core work, coordination also plays a huge role in getting the moves right. Eventually, we learnt how to put the moves together and spent the rest of the lesson practising drills with and against each other. Because we were driven by adrenaline, our moves were clumsy. But it was fun. Thankfully we had Da Mata to keep an eye on us during the session, and we left the class after an hour soaked in perspiration. Just one lesson wasn’t enough, so we waited for the next one with the Lim brothers.
Teco Shinzato led the hour-long class on the second day. The two-time black belt Mundials World Champion in BJJ trains both the Lim brothers, so I was expecting him to be harder on us.
I was right. He was warm and welcoming when introduced outside the cage, but once the Lim brothers and I were secured in the cage, Shinzato got down to business.
We began with warm-ups. Unlike Da Mata’s, however, we were already engaging in half guards. This just meant that I had to be sharper and more focused as Shinzato gave out instructions.
“This is considered quite advanced,” whispered Paul. “But don’t worry. Just relax and follow my lead.”
Admittedly, the pace was a lot faster this time and it didn’t help that the positions involved a lot more coordination work. They included back control, arm locks such as the Americana and kimura as well as the guillotine choke. It took several tries before I got each segment close to correct. Thankfully, both the brothers were patient and walked me through each step. Though they were slowing down for me, physical work such as grappling, rolling and flipping worked up a sweat for all of us. Besides keeping constant motions flowing, thinking on the spot and staying mentally engaged wore us down too.
I concluded that BJJ isn’t so much about brute strength as it is about coordination and quick thinking. It often involves planning your moves, whether to attack or to guard against one. I began to understand why BJJ is also a mental sport and why its practitioners typically have low body fat percentages – there’s cardio work too.
Beyond The Gi
After we wrapped up, I got a chance to speak with the brothers. Based on my experience, it would take a while before I would want to fully immerse myself in the sport, so I was curious to find out what got them started and how they stayed committed to it.
“I practised Muay Thai while I was growing up,” recalled Paul. “But my dad would prefer if I tried BJJ instead. I gave it a shot, and fell in love with it. It gave me a different kind of adrenaline rush.”
Quite naturally, Noah decided to find out what it is about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that had gripped his older brother.
“I was always around to witness Paul being top in classes and competitions. As brothers, we also play around a lot at home. I started learning from him before joining him at Evolve,” shared the 17-year-old.
“It actually helps that we’re doing the same sport in the same academy. I often get lazy, so Paul is an excellent motivator in so many ways,” Noah added.
Having given BJJ a shot – twice – I can say that it was both exhilarating and enriching. However, it was no secret that I had trouble getting the coordination right. I shared with the brothers that I wouldn’t mind embarrassing myself several times just to get better, but I couldn’t say the same for other beginners.
“I remember doing forward rolls in my very first BJJ class,” recalled Paul. “My instructor seemed impressed with how well I did it. But I can tell you that it felt very awkward at the time. Gradually I learnt other techniques that involved me being in uncomfortable positions as well as landing my full body weight on strangers. But that sense of discomfort I found was all in my mind,” he assured. “The fun really began when you accept that this is just the nature of the sport.”
It was comforting to know that even top national athletes shared similar reservations as I did initially.
More Than Just Physical Benefits
Aside from medals and consistent training, I also wanted to know how else BJJ helped to improve their lives. For Noah, stress relief is one benefit.
“I’m still in school, so the stress from school work, exams and projects often get to me. I’ve done other activities like playing chess and swimming to destress and take my mind off the intensity of school life, but it is BJJ that has put both the physical and mental aspects together seamlessly. It’s great that I forget all my issues when I’m training and competing. But even outside the cage, simple things like breathing exercises help to calm me down,” he shared. “So, I’ll suggest giving this a try to anyone with similar experiences” he added. And with that, Noah succeeded in convincing me to give BJJ another shot.
Visit evolve-mma.com for more information.
Photos: Gan; Photographic Assistance: Sam