I’ve always found it kind of funny that most of my best friends have choked me out. I try to surround myself with awesome, kind-hearted people, so you’d think that spending all my free time in a place where people are trained to hurt you would be counterintuitive. But then again, if you train in martial arts, maybe you wouldn’t think that.
Whether it’s a matter of correlation or causation, I’ve found that I encounter far fewer lousy people in martial arts academies than I do in just about any other place. Actually, it’s not just a lack of jerkiness that makes the people in these gyms stand out— it’s their generosity, their openness, their willingness to not only accept you into their space, but welcome you. Maybe I’ve just had bad luck meeting strangers outside of the gym, but I really feel like there’s something about the nature of martial arts that coincides with being a better overall human being.
I’ve experienced this just about every time I’ve trained at my own academy or visited a new one, but I was given an extra powerful reminder of it last week when I visited Nick Maez, one of the professors of Durango Martial Arts Academy; and Seth Daniels, the owner of Fight to Win Pro. I knew Nick only from a week-long BJJ camp and seminar he’d done this past summer, and I’d never met Seth in person at all; we’d only spoken over the phone for a couple of interviews. But both of these awesome guys invited me out to Colorado to stay in their homes so I could experience jiu-jitsu the way they do.
Even though I’ve been familiar with the kindness of people in the jiu-jitsu community for years now, it still blew me away that both of these black belts were so willing to let me stay with them after barely knowing me at all. But boy, am I grateful.
Both trips gave me an unbelievable experience that I will carry in my heart until my dying day. Still, the awesome techniques I learned at Durango Martial Arts and the jiu-jitsu lover’s dream that I lived at the Submit Cancer event still come second to what really stuck with me: the people that I got to know while I was there.
Jiu-jitsu (and the martial arts industry as a whole) is comprised of people from all different backgrounds. You might never meet a lot of these people going about your everyday routine, but you’ll meet them on the mats. And despite your differences— the very things that might turn you into enemies if you met on the street— you find common ground when you put your gis on. Your different socioeconomic statuses or lifestyles might not mesh so well outside of the gym, but once you both have jiu-jitsu, you have something that connects you and reminds you that at the end of the day, we’re all made of the same stuff. We all bleed red, we all get tired, we all hate getting stuck in someone’s closed guard.
The jiu-jitsu community is like a jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces are painted a different color: we may not look like we’d go well together, but we actually mesh quite nicely. There might be some pieces that are awkwardly shaped. They might make other people wonder how they’d ever fit in any puzzle, but they’re right at home here, working with all the others to form something truly beautiful.
Maybe it’s this sense of family that leads us to pass on the kindness to the other people we meet in martial arts. We know what it was like that first day we walked into the gym feeling out of place before meeting someone took us under their wing and made us feel at home, so we want to pass that on. Maybe it’s just being able to roll and choke and sweat all our frustrations out instead of having to bottle them up like other people do. Maybe our type of body-to-body violence helps us appreciate our fellow humans a bit more, making it easier to see why we should become friends instead of enemies.
Whatever the reason may be for all the people you meet who will armbar you and then hug you, I’m just happy to be a part of the same sport as them. Our roots may be crooked and tangled sometimes, but they all come together to form the same family tree. How lucky we are to be able to have such strong and beautiful branches.