“Yeah. These are disturbing,” says Chris, a BJJ purple belt and psychologist who works with male addicts in low-income areas.
He’s toggling through feeds of reader comments on several martial arts media accounts, including UFC, Bellator, BJJ World, and us, Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I hear comments that could chill your blood at work, but these are like standing too close to trash fire.”
The articles on his screen have two things in common: they feature women grapplers grappling, and very angry comments exclusively from men about those women grappling.
I ask how he feels reading them.
“Ha!” There’s a pause. “Like I never want to be a BJJ girl?” he finally replies, half serious. And then a moment later: “By the way, can you not use my last name in the article?”
“Jiu-Jitsu Is For…Everyone?”
On the rare occasion World Championship superstars like Bia Mesquita, Claudia do Val, and Ffion Davies—athletes who have been fighting for years to receive payouts equal to their male counterparts when they win—can even get press, some of the first comments to appear from readers are “who?” or the dismissive “she’s hot.” Celebrity practitioners like Demi Lovato and Kristen Stewart set off nuclear bombs of hate, with responses that start at “who cares?!,” move through “she’s hot/she’s not hot/she’s fat,” then hit the gutter with “jokes” about overdose and rape.
But when 9-year-old Apolonia Nuncio, mercifully too young to attract commentary on her looks, went viral this week for submitting two boys with precision competition armbars, thousands of adult men across multiple sites took to their keyboards to criticize how the child “only has one good move,” wasn’t as good as [insert name of male grappler here], and how her wins shouldn’t be celebrated because she went “too hard” when tapping out her opponents.
These were just a few of the winningest comments posted online by adult male grapplers/grappling fans in response to the 90 seconds of footage featuring Apolonia, now approaching 2 million views:
It’s not the first time a young girl winning has garnered rage and ridicule from viewers. In 2013, a girl identified as Sadie appeared to snap an arm during a Hawaiian tournament, and viewers went for the jugular again. They called for her to be banned from competition and referred to her as a “little criminal *****” even though the submission was a legal move in a legal tournament both competitors paid to participate in:
Similar videos of boys around the same age fighting do not earn the same reaction, however.
In this video, a 6-year-old boy chokes his fellow competitor to the point of gasping and distress, but no comments went up about him going “too hard.” Another similar post, this popular GracieBreakdown video which shows a schoolyard brawl turned into hyperextension via armbar, also failed to draw criticism. In fact, the boy who injures the other child is celebrated. “Beautiful! Just beautiful!” one viewer responds, and the next lauds his “perfect technique.” Another admits he was actually rooting to see the losing child’s arm broken:
So why the stark contrast in negative reactions between comments on the winning girl videos vs. the boys?
“As a clinician it would be unethical to blanket label anyone who posts in this way as mentally ill,” Chris begins. “But let’s be clear: Comments like these are NOT a sign of mental wellness, and are a sign of emotional unwellness. The guys are suffering.”
He goes on to explain some of the psychology behind criticizing a little girl for doing the same thing boys are celebrated for:
“Men of a negative mindset aren’t able to identify with a little girl winning at jiu-jitsu, because society says they’re not allowed to,” he explains. “They’ve never been a little girl. Most of them never hit an armbar in competition as an adult, let alone as a child. If they do try to imagine her experience, they’re likely to be called a ‘fag’ or a ‘pedophile.’ They don’t have a place in their brain or heart where she can be filed. So she becomes an ‘other,’ rather than a kid. The boys, however, could be them. They remember being bullied like the GracieBreakdown kid. Since we as people cast ourselves as the hero of our own story, Apolonia becomes a foreign enemy while the boys become little heroes. And in our culture heroes are celebrated.
Also some of them hate their mothers, so they hate all women, but that’s like… a whole other long thing.”
Tricky adult stuff for any competitor, let alone children, to navigate. But it doesn’t get any easier for jiujiteiras as they age.
Demi Lovato, a former child star with at least three years of training under her two-stripe blue belt, has been slammed in our JJT comments section numerous times as unfit to be an ambassador for jiu-jitsu because a) she dated two men in mixed martial arts, and b) her history of drug abuse disqualifies her as a “role model.”
Drug use could be considered a fair enough complaint if you’re a parent concerned about kids and addiction. The problem is that sobriety standards have never applied to anyone else in celebrity jiu-jitsu. Dearly departed blue belt Anthony Bourdain was a self-proclaimed prolific abuser of heroin and pretty much any other drug he could afford during his addict years, and was transparent about this until the day he died in 2018. Literal international jiu-jitsu ambassador and Hollywood star Tom Hardy once commented “I was lucky I didn’t get AIDS from drug use,” but it’s never been suggested he step down from his role with the REORG Jiu-Jitsu Foundation. Nor does judgment extend to actual BJJ coaches like, say, beloved industry figure and gym owner Kurt Osiander, who spent his pre-BJJ star years as a bonafide dealer of meth, among other substances.
In fact, so much of jiu-jistu in recent years has focused on its value as a tool for recovering addicts that the tag #jiujitsusavedmylife is now widely available on hats, tees, and rashguards, and is discussed throughout the popular documentary Jiu-Jitsu Vs. The World. So it seems a bit disingenuous to suggest jiu-jitsu’s issue with Lovato is her history of drug use.
NEVER Read The Comments
Anyone with half a brain in 2019 will tell you, “Never read the comments.” As someone who gets paid to read the comments and has for over a decade of web and print writing jobs, I’ve been seeing stuff like this since my very first gig in 2007:
And it’s far worse for the actual competitors. It usually only takes 5-6 minutes before a variation on this goes up under anything about women in UFC or Bellator:
If I had a dollar for every time I or a female colleague has been called a “*****,” “****,” “idiot,” “whore” or some variation on “******,” I wouldn’t have to write for a living. I’m also an adaptive grappler born with a not insignificant disability, so irrationally hostile commentary has been part of the landscape of my life for so long now it blends in like mildewed wallpaper.
But scrolling through the comments featured above this last week felt…different. A new level of cruel and exclusionary. Maybe it’s that the ruthless criticism of a 9-year-old girl—a joyful 10th Planet devotee who trains multiple times a day out of innocent love for the sport—and a young woman in recovery was even angrier than combat sports fans are used to, since I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“I read them and thought ‘if any one of these guys was a student of mine I’d green light him immediately,’” says Jason, a gym owner and competitive brown belt who, like Chris, wants his legal name withheld for fear his gym’s page will be clogged with enraged rants. “I’m ashamed for them. Jiu-jitsu is a privilege, and if you act like this toward people in your own community I feel you’ve disqualified yourself from getting to learn it.”
“I don’t understand it and I don’t accept it,” agrees Jeff Liwag, a brown belt under Vinicius Draculino. “But it sure does seem like women in combat sports upset and, worse, trigger some men.”
But why are some men so triggered by women and girls in combat sports? In an art form where character and conduct off the mats matters in theory, should we even care if our training partners are hateful trolls in their free time? We asked a practicing trauma specialist and martial arts fan what he thought.
When Manliness Gets Messy
Before we go any further lets get one thing crystal clear: The men featured in these hostile comments do not speak for the jiu-jitsu community, or mankind. Period. When I was dying of organ failure, grappling guys were a massive part of the support system which kept my family and me from becoming homeless, and many assisted in my post-hospital rehab. My “fight family,” almost entirely male, is family because they are good at being good human beings. So I feel anger when I hear women saying “men are trash,” because I know for a fact they’re wrong. And I feel equal rage when the hostile male commenters who taint the BJJ community get to speak for the multitude of good men who outnumber them. They are at best a motley minority armed with thumbs, nasty words, and not much else, but they are so loud, and therefore capable of ruining everyone’s perception and enjoyment of the art form.
Daniel Bryant, licensed professional counselor and certified clinical trauma professional, has years of experience interpreting why these minority members lash out the way they do.
“There are a couple of big themes at play here,” he says, before clarifying that it is impossible to pinpoint an exact “why” when we’re talking about strangers on the internet. The simplest is ‘operant conditioning,’ aka a reward-based system of shaping an individual’s behavior. Bryant points out the large number of likes, hearts, and laughs under some of the more egregious comments on the Apolonia Nuncio story.
“They’re a boost to the ego and a pop of dopamine in the brain. It activates the same reward circuits as sex, alcohol, or crack cocaine, so it’s simple negative conditioning at its worse,” he says. The more hearts or likes a commenter gets on a hateful or misogynist comment, the better he feels. And given how truly awful some men walk around feeling that little hit of dopamine, the happy drug released when we eat chocolate or have sex, can go a long way.
And here’s another thing to make crystal clear before we go further: Many men are genuinely suffering in some serious way, and the existence of “The Patriarchy” doesn’t mean their suffering isn’t real, isn’t valid, and shouldn’t be heard with compassion. Diminishing a man’s pain because he’s a man, or white, or rich, or because you personally have been have been harmed by a man is a useless tactic which ultimately heals nobody. We should want all people to heal. Because every time you see a sh*tty comment about how a 9-year-old girl deserves elbows to the face or how women suck in general, you’re watching a human being who is at risk for suicide, addiction, self-harm, or abuse identify themselves.
“We have a crisis today where men are incredibly depressed, increasingly addicted, have less stability, and have shorter lifespans. As all of that becomes the reality for us as guys we see other people doing well and say, ‘They are at fault for my suffering,’” Bryant says. “The general belief becomes that if someone else is succeeding, I am doing less well.”
This is, of course, not how success works. There isn’t a finite amount of success being rationed out of a keg somewhere; if a person gets a doubleshot of success, a man somewhere else doesn’t get none at all. But when you’re depressed, isolated, and antisocial, that delusional scenario can feel real. And men today, especially younger ones, are all three in record numbers.
“We’re seeing in these comments people lashing out at other people who are 100% NOT responsible for their suffering,” Bryant elaborates. “They’re displacing their aggression about not being able to win…then lying to themselves about what it means to do that. And trust me, we as men are really good at lying to ourselves. We can say something horrible about this poor 9-year-old girl and still say to ourselves, ‘I Love Women.'”
So what can be done about it?
How To Heal a Wounded Troll
“The key is in demonstrating clearly that we accept them as human beings while still rejecting their toxic behavior,” Bryant says. “If people feel they as humans are rejected all they do is move further away from us into more rejection, more resentment, more aggression.”
One way he suggests addressing the issue is for male coaches, teammates, and training partners to approach men who lash out with open, non-judgmental questions. Something like, “Hey man, I saw you posted ________ online. Can you walk me through what you were thinking when you wrote this?” Coaches or teammates can listen, then respond with neutral observations like, “Can you see that this woman/child/grappler has not done anything to you personally?” Or, “It sounds like something more serious is bothering you. Do you want to go grab some food and talk about it together?”
This opens the door for the community to use “operant conditioning” to our advantage.
“If these angry guys are firmly but very respectfully told, ‘I understand you’re struggling, but if you continue this behavior you’ll be asked to leave the gym/banned from participating in conversations, whatever the setting is, then there’s a counterbalance to the drug high they get when they say something unforgivable about women, kids, or each other,” Chris lays out. “And you draw them in closer when you do it — you say, ‘I like you so much, man. We love having you here. Please don’t do and say things that would mean we can’t all do this together.'”
Inviting teammates who seem antisocial, depressed, or angry to spend time among healthy and happy adult males can help diffuse the hopelessness which causes them to lash out to begin with.
“We as men are also victims of patriarchy and toxic masculinity because we literally don’t know what to do when we feel feelings. We have a limiting belief that we can only win by being aggressive, resentful, or violent,” says Bryant. “So if I’m working with someone who objectively is negative, abusive, critical, I start by modeling understanding and caring. Some men need to see it is possible for us to perform these roles, that we can offer help and caring.”
And if you’re someone capable of self-policing your own behavior, both therapists have suggestions for what to do when life has pushed you to the point where you’re about to type up hate on a child or a female grappler you’ve never met just to vent frustrations. Therapy, obviously, is one good and divinely masculine place to end up. (Plenty of major athletes already do it.)
But there’s an even cheaper starting point.
“If you recognize you’re engaging in that stuff and you don’t want to, first thing is to put the computer or phone down and walk away for a couple of days, weeks, or months,” suggests Bryant. “I say this as someone who had to delete Facebook off his own phone. We also know for sure that being in our bodies is great way to get out of the negative stuff that lies in our head. Exercise, training, yoga, all of that can be positive—just don’t do it aggressively.”
Bryant is also a big fan of Box Breathing (see the video below) as an antidote to reactive hostility, a technique also espoused by Jocko Willink, coach Steve Maxwell, and Wim “The Iceman” Hoff, among others.
If the idea really is that jiu-jitsu is for everyone, and that it really can change lives for the better through focus and discipline, then it may be time to consider applying some or all of these suggestions rather than turning a blind eye to the men among us who are crying out in the comments… and doing so by verbally abusing the women we train with and admire.
So, you know, before commenting angrily on this article, consider following this video first. And if at the end of it you still want to tell me what a stupid c*** I am, consider going after the person or obstacle that is actually the reason your life isn’t the way you want it to be.