A lot of people ask me how I came to be involved in jiu-jitsu. This is my journey into martial arts as best as I can remember it.
Like father, like son
I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. My dad, who has a black belt in Karate, used to teach a few classes a month as a hobby. Like other kids, I worshiped my father and used to think he was invincible.
One night, when I was about 5, there was a disturbance outside our apartment. A woman who lived in our block was having an argument with an ex-boyfriend which had become physical. I remember my father going outside in an attempt to diffuse the situation. I wanted to go with him but my mom wouldn’t let me, saying it was too dangerous, so I peered over the edge of our balcony and watched the scene unfold in the parking lot below.
My dad approached the ex-boyfriend and asked him to calm down This only incited the guy further to the point that he pulled out a knife, before waving it threateningly. My old man took a karate stance in preparation for a fight, fortunately that was all it took to deter the guy and he cleared off. I was so proud of my father and drawing from this inspiration, realized then and there that I would one day become a martial artist.
Martial arts nerd
From that point on my obsession with the martial arts began. I remember watching ‘American Ninja’, ‘Kickboxer’, ‘The Karate Kid’ and ‘Enter the Dragon’ and countless other 80’s martial arts films over and over again. I could recite every line of dialogue of Jean-Claude van Damme’s ‘Bloodsport’ from memory. Hell, I probably still can. My bedroom walls were covered with posters of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.
I was also forever trying to fashion lethal weapons from stuff I found in our kitchen and garage. An unusually successful example of these was a pair of nunchucks made from a broomstick, two nails and an old piece of bicycle chain. Although I didn’t attend any formal classes, I was always practising moves I had seen in films and magazines and pestering my dad to show me some karate.
The judo years
At the age of seven I began attending Judo lessons at my school. The classes were run by an old Dutchman named Mr Sukel. Although I wasn’t the most athletic or coordinated kid, I fell in love with the sport instantly. Some of my best childhood memories are of walking to judo class, excitedly anticipating the new throws or pins I would learn that evening.
After training for a couple of years, I earned the orange belt, however I was a pretty average student, not great but not terrible either. On occasion, the classes ended with the students being split into two teams for an inter-club competition.
One evening, to my dismay, I was paired up with a kid called Chris. He was the bigger, older brother of a friend of mine. I had never sparred against him, but in all the other class drills and activities he had always kicked my ass. We were the last two in line to fight and I was absolutely dreading it. When the time came and the match began I was utterly terrified.
The first couple of minutes were spent with me defending his attacks, trying only to survive. After a short while of this I had become totally exhausted and knew that sooner or later he would throw me. Everything about the situation indicated that I would lose, but a tiny voice in my mind said to me ‘don’t give up’.
In spite of my fatigue I began attempting some tentative attacks. He easily defended these and began to display overconfidence. Although his defence was strong, I saw a small window of opportunity and in a last-ditch effort tried my favourite technique, the ‘o-goshi’ (hip throw).
By some twist of fate, everything came together and I threw him perfectly. The sound of sensei Sukel’s voice shouting “IPPON” is still as clear in my mind as if it happened only moments ago. It was in this moment that I understood the true power of the martial arts: a smaller, weaker individual could overcome a larger, more powerful aggressor using technique and willpower.
I continued with Judo for the next few years. My parents had a terrible marriage which meant that my home life was pretty unhappy, so by the time I was 11 or 12 I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder. This, coupled with an unkempt, blond ‘afro’ and an unusual European surname meant that I got into a lot of fights, especially later on in high school. I like to think that I won more than I lost, although in truth I probably had an even record. One feature of most of my victorious encounters was that I usually fell back on my Judo, throwing my opponent to the floor and squeezing him in a headlock until he gave up.
Enter submission grappling
I stopped attending regular Judo classes during my mid-teens. I had my mind on more ‘important’ things like girls and Super Nintendo. I began to work out a lot at the gym but only made it to a few Judo training sessions over the next several years. When I was about 19 my younger brother mentioned a ‘new’ and relatively obscure martial art called ‘grappling’ which he wanted to check out.
We went off to one of the classes which was being taught by a guy named Ludwig Strydom. He introduced us to the basic concepts and then put us to spar with some of his more advanced students. I remember beating them quite easily and thinking to myself ‘wow, I could be good at this’. My brother seemed to enjoy it too, so we signed up and began to train a few times per week.
South Africa was very isolated at the time, and it was an incredible stroke of luck finding a coach as progressive as Ludwig. He had spent some time training with Rickson Gracie out in California and was one of the most intelligent, creative people I had ever met. Although he didn’t have much technical knowledge, he based his system around solid principles of movement and breath control. I spent the next couple of years training with Ludwig until I began college, when I started my own academy called ‘The Grappling Factory’.
Return to the source
When I graduated from university I decided that I needed to leave South Africa if I was going to progress as person and a martial artist. I packed my bags and headed off to London, which was and still is the centre of the world.
A buddy of mine from Ludwig’s gym who had moved there a few years previously was training at the Roger Gracie Academy and recommended that I check it out.
It was a typical cold and gloomy winter afternoon in London when I made my way over to the address in Notting Hill. I knocked on the front door and after a short wait a tall, pale guy with wide shoulders opened it. He looked about 17 years old, but in reality he was closer to 22.
“I’m looking for Roger Gracie,” I said to him
“That’s me,” he replied in the long, smooth Brazilian drawl that I would later come to know so well.
What struck me instantly about Roger was how calm he was. He was so relaxed and friendly; there was no conforming to the stereotypes of the typical martial artist I had come into contact with up to that point. I remember thinking to myself ‘he doesn’t look so tough’. And then I sparred with him.
At that time, I had become one of the best grapplers in South Africa. There were only a few guys who could give me a hard time in sparring, and even fewer that could beat me. So it came as a huge shock when Roger literally crushed me. I had never been so completely and utterly dominated by another martial artist. It was like I was a complete beginner again. There and then, I dedicated myself as his student and spent the next several years training, teaching and competing out of his academy.
Over the years, as Roger became recognized as the best grappler on the planet, winning everything in sight, it dawned on me just how fortunate I was to have stumbled upon him as an instructor. I guess it was kind of like looking for a basketball teacher and finding Michael Jordan.
For the next four years, I was fortunate enough to fight and train all over the world, learning a lot about about myself, my jiu-jitsu and making many new friends in the process. In August 2008 Roger awarded me the black belt, which was one of the proudest moments of my life.
The Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood
A few years ago, I began a blog about my experiences in jiu-jitsu. It started with a single post entitled ‘Jiu-Jitsu is Meditation’. That one article generated so much feedback that I decided to put more of my thoughts and experiences regarding the art, online.
Soon I was receiving many emails per week, and I realized that some people enjoyed the way I wrote about jiu-jitsu. I kept getting requests to write a book on jiu-jitsu, but as I was training and competing I didn’t have the time or energy to devote to the project. Now that I finally have some extra time on my hands, I’ve begun work on the book, which will be published in 2011.
It’s been a long, wild ride. I’m interested to see where else this journey into martial arts takes me.
I’d love to hear your stories.
If you enjoyed this video check out Nic’s Podcast, Digital Communion.