Not a whole lot of people do jiu-jitsu, but jiu-jitsu can be for anyone. All you have to do is stop making excuses, step on the mat, and refuse to quit.
A short while ago, I came across a video of Brian Freeman, a man paralyzed from the waist down, demonstrating a choke that he has made use of from bottom side control with Renzo Gracie. Freeman is a rare example of an individual with far more potential excuses than the average person who ignores those potential excuses, trains, and competes.
I had an opportunity to chat a bit with Brian about his training routine, history, and future. His story and the efforts he makes are truly inspirational.
Brian, a veteran of the US Navy, was injured by a piece of falling radar equipment, which herniated a disk. A car crash made it worse. He dealt with it for several years and finally needed surgery because the herniated material calcified into my spinal cord. He woke up from surgery paralyzed.
I was interested to learn a bit about how Brian found jiu jitsu.
“I’m old, I watched UFC 2 on VHS back in 93 or 94 and I’ve been hooked as a fan since. I got my daughter into classes when she was 7 and we played around at home a lot, so she decided I should try classes. I told her I didn’t think I could, but she told me I could at least try. So, I went to her coach and here I am over 3 1/2 years later. I started 5 years into being paralyzed, in July 2013. I did 5 months of privates several times a week before I started regular classes. My coach wanted to build a foundation of knowledge and techniques before I started training with everyone else. It was a good move. I transitioned very well.”
When someone like Brian finds jiu-jitsu, training can be very challenging. One needs to take the existing move set and modify it for the purpose of making it work for them. I was interested to learn about how precisely Brian went about accomplishing this.
“It’s been a lot of experimentation. Taking techniques and figuring out which parts I can do. Sometimes I can do enough to make it work. Other times there may be an important step I can’t do and I’ll have to find a different way to do that step or just leave the technique alone. Also, because of my limited mobility, I find common positions I’m in and then experiment with how I can move and what options are available in those movements. It can be a long process and other times things fall right into place. I usually have a considerable strength advantage over most people and my arms don’t fatigue like a normal athlete so I find techniques to exploit those extra abilities I have.”
Like anyone who starts Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Brian has found tremendous benefits in the “gentle art.”
“I love that it’s endless learning and improvement. In that for me comes the opportunity to test myself physically and mentally both in training and competition which leads to learning so much about myself as a person and enables amazing personal growth. I also like that I can take it off the mat and apply it to pretty much anything in my life and it makes it better and more efficient. The physical benefits have been extraordinary. I’m in shape now; I can move my paralyzed body in ways I would have never known. Most importantly I am a single parent that travels a lot with my daughter and I have tools to defend her and myself. It’s also given me an avenue to use my situation to motivate and inspire others to put aside their excuses and live the life they truly want to.”
Whenever I interview someone who is in a situation like Brian’s, I am curious about their mindset going into competition.
“I competed against mostly regular athletes for the first couple of years. But this year, I had more opportunities against other adaptive athletes. We are slowly growing. But I prefer to compete against both. I always keep street situations in mind, so I like testing myself against regular athletes. But honestly, it just feels like training. I’m not intimidated by able-bodied athletes. It’s rare that I get to train with someone who isn’t a regular athlete, so it’s normal and in a lot of ways very predictable. When I compete against other adaptive athletes, there is no predictability, and I have to be a lot more cautious because we have such unique games.
“I have been an active competitor since white belt. I did my first tournament a month and a half after starting regular classes. I’ve competed at anywhere from small local tournaments, to NAGAs, IBJJF Opens, and the Pans. I’ve competed in intermediate and expert divisions. And what I’ve learned is no one has dialed it down at all. Not one match or one opponent. If anything I feel like they really, really don’t want to lose to the guy in the wheelchair. Other guys in my situation have said the same thing. I used to tell my opponents and their coaches before the match started to not take it easy on me or they’ll have a bad day. I was worried people would take it easy on me, and I’m happy it’s been the other way around. I’ve been choked unconscious in competition. I like knowing I’m getting their best. I don’t say anything these days. I just go out like a normal competitor and fight my fight. If they go easy that’s on them. If I feel like they are I won’t be nice.”
The result of Brian’s hard-nosed mindset has been a lot of success.
“I won gold in gi at the first ever Grappler’s Heart tournament. I won a championship belt at a NAGA for no-gi expert. I won my PPV debut in February on a Projitsu event by wrist lock. I won gold this past July in my first international tournament. It was a 4-man blue belt bracket and I was the only American. I won my first match by kimura in 30 seconds. I won my other 3 without giving up and points and submission attempts in each match. Going back to always thinking street, I approach every competition as sub-only, so I still don’t know the points system. I don’t care to learn. After the one time I stood on my feet at the end of a match, the ref patted me on the back and knocked me down. Good video of it! Between February and March of 2016 I had 5 victories by kimura and a wristlock.”
Brian shows us that no matter what one’s physical situation is, if the mind and heart are in the right place, the body will follow. Brian’s results both in competition and in the gym show us that there’s no excuse more powerful than will and determination. He has one request for anyone reading this post:
“Help me get others like me on the mat. I think the only reason there aren’t more of us is because they just don’t know it’s an option. The more exposure the better so this helps tremendously!”
Brian has many shout-outs and thank yous
“Shout outs to my sponsors DeuS Fight Co (code Brian25 for 25% off.) Nutrishop Southern Pines. My Team Royce Gracie SP and Coach Roy Marsh, Master Renzo and Master Rilion Gracie, Renato Laranja. LAW MMA and Fènix Jiujitsu, Ray Longo, Chris Weidman, Andrew Smith and Dave Camarillo! Follow my social media Facebook, Instagram, twitter. And my blog Www.wheelchairjitsu.com”