A young brown belt catches my gaze and tilts his chin up at me. "You wanna roll?" This kid is hungry. I recognise the arrogance of youth in his face. It's like seeing myself from ten years ago. It’s been a long week and the last match took almost all I had left. Everything hurts - neck, knees, ankles, wrists. My knuckles are raw and stinging. An old back injury has started to twinge. Do I want to roll? Fuck no. I want to go home and sleep for two days.
But I can't help myself. "Sure. Let's train." I look down to check my belt. It’s just a piece of black cloth but it’s the most valuable thing I have ever owned. Sacred. Earned. It’s loose, so my calloused fingers weave a pattern they’ve made ten thousand times, making a neat knot. We bump fists and before I have time to think he charges in and knocks me back. Instinct works faster than my mind and my guard closes around him. I expand my awareness to take in the situation, analysing grips, balance and a dozen other variables. I’ve done this for so long that I can tell almost instantly if a guy has game or not. And I know that this guy is going to be tough.
I try one of my strongest sweeps but the timing is off and he knee-slices through my guard like it's made of butter. Too slow old man. I know letting a guy like this get the side-mount means certain death, so I turn to my knees and turtle. But he's one step ahead and spins to my back. Goddamn he's fast. If he gets those hooks in it’s over.
He’s greedy and goes straight for a clock-choke. The grip sinks in but I still have my fingers between my collar and his wrist. 'Always protect your neck' - first thing I ever learned. Despite my defence the choke bites and tightens. The pressure in my skull is immense and everything starts going white. There are only a few seconds left. I reach into the corners of my mind, scrambling for a technique or movement that could save me. I'm going to pass out. A fragment of an escape I learned years ago bubbles up from my subconscious. I remember! It's like an old friend I haven't seen in years. I initiate the sequence, hoping. Muscle memory serves me well and the counter allows me to break free and pull him into my butterfly guard. There's no celebration. I’m still dizzy from the strangle and he presses forward again with a flashy new pass I’ve never seen before. This time he gets the side-mount he wanted so badly. This kid is relentless!… just like I was.
I bridge explosively to create some space and manage to claw back half-guard, but it’s cost me. I’m so tired that every breath feels like trying to lift a car. Why do I put myself through this?
I’m holding onto his ankle by a thread and I’m going to lose it at any moment. I know if he passes again that there’s no coming back from it. He has the youth and strength to push the pace and he does, intensifying the pressure. Because you want to grow. Focus on your breathing. I exhale, relaxing into the situation. And then I find it. The rhythm.
Finally! My mind and body synch and I feel my jiu-jitsu begin to flow. In his haste to smash through, he leaves his hips too high and I hit a clean, deep-half sweep. BAM. His back hits the mat and I get to the top for the first time in the match. Inside I smile. Thank you leverage-gods! I sense him slowing and notice his breathing has become ragged. The turning point. Seeing him tire energises me. He gets sloppy and leaves his leg exposed.
I wrap an arm around it and drop back into a foot-lock. His face shows a mixture of surprise and pain. I know the finish is close so I drive my hips into it. He doesn’t tap but his grimace tells me it’s only seconds away... “Time!” Someone shouts from the edge of the mat. I release his ankle, albeit reluctantly. We shake hands. Our eyes meet again. This time he looks down.
One day he’ll learn that it's not about how hard you can roll, it's about how you can roll when it's hard.