I’m in the finals of the 2011 Daegu Machado Jiu-Jitsu Gi tournament, heavyweight division. I toppled a redwood Canadian in the first round, and then was immediately put back on the mat to fight a tenacious Korean in round two. Now, my opponent with a bull’s chest and eyes rounded and wrinkled like the dawn from a lifetime of smiling is posing for pre-match pictures with me. My victory is all but assured.
“One more, funny,” he laughs, his voice rising at the end as he wraps his arms around my waist and squeezes lightly while I put him in a headlock.
“Sure,” I say. The ride to the technical high school was tense. Our master told us he had rented a bus for the ride, but in his fumbling English, he meant to say he had bought us all bus tickets on the same bus as all the other competitors in Daejeon. We rode with our possible opponents, everyone staring around the cabin on the hour long ride looking for who they’re going to fight first.
“Okay, Brian, you’ve got this,” James, a short, thin New Zealander who’s been my coach today, says patting me on the back. “You’re going to run through this guy.”
I move towards the mat and I tell myself, repeating it like a mantra that this is all for fun. The gymnasium has railed-off row of bleachers above the floor, making it feel as if we were gladiators in the Roman coliseum preparing for possible death. Also, being tucked behind a labyrinth of metal shops and open garages filled with drill presses, table saws, clamps, vices, and other devices that look like medieval tools of torture makes my heart and stomach twist inside my torso like two anacondas trying to swallow each other.
“You’re up,” a Korean woman sitting at the scorer’s table says in her staccato, chopping board English.
As we step onto the mat I fix my gi jacket and tighten my belt. The thick, coarse linen jacket feels like a metal vest, a wire brush coat that will push me on the ground. I try to breathe, I tell myself this all for fun, and no one takes it too seriously. Across the mat I look at my opponent and smile, but his eyes are locked on the floor. He begins to punch out breaths and flexes his arms like a pit-bull. He’s almost shouting as he breathes. His eyes look like crosshairs, he has the eyes of a soldier now as he steps forward to shake my hand. But I’m sure it’s all in good fun. The bell rings and he grabs my collar and thrusts his forehead into my lip. I can taste the copper of my blood as it trickles onto my tongue. His hands are as tight as the vice grips bolted to the tables in the adjacent building. My heart starts pounding, and I bite my lip and try to push my skull through his. He pulls at my jacket as if he was whipping a rope, and I shove him back. He’s strong, like your-father strong when you were a little kid. I grab him and push and remember that I’m strong too. We head butt and push and twist each other trying to throw the other one to the ground. He rifles a right palm into my chest and I rifle one back. We grip each other’s gis and go back to our bull horn twisting, grinding head butts. The ref blows his whistle and steps between us.
“No pushy,” he says punching his fists together, “fighting,” he says addressing only me.
“If we get any more aggressive this is going to be a fistfight,” I say shrugging.
“You’ve got to take him down,” James says from the corner. I snarl and tell myself this is no longer just for fun. I’m here to win. I jokingly told Sung, my master, if I didn’t win this tournament I was going to burn the building down. He didn’t laugh at first, he only stared at me out of the corner of his eye and told me all my competitors were going to be more experienced and prepared than I. He then suggested maybe I shouldn’t compete. I patted his shoulder and assured I knew I was probably over matched and I just wanted to try it. But now, after being head butted and thrown around like a child, I’m determined to win.
The ref waves his hand and I shoot before the large man can grab me. He sprawls and his crotch is pressed to my cheek. He snakes his arms across my trachea and tightens his guillotine hold. I wheeze but I keep my fingers dug into his thighs.
“No, no, no,” I say. I push forward, and he flexes. He flexes and I tell myself to keep pushing. I push and I pull, and I turn and I take him down. The ref says, “Two points.” I scream, “Yes.” He struggles, but I run around his guard and gain side control, and the ref raises three fingers. I press down on him and wait for the clock to run out, hoping he has nothing left. He wiggles and pushes and gasps and wheezes and the ref blows the whistle and we both collapse. He stands up and grunts out his disappointment. I keep watch him as we walk back to the center. The ref raises my hand, and as if we had just finished having lunch my opponent smiles, grabs my hands, and says, “Congratulations Brian, very fun, yay.” He then skips off and hugs his friend wrapping his large camera around his neck like an Asian tourist.