The Last Camp - My Journey to Black Belt
Iím worried. Itís July 2010, winter in Brazil and 75 degrees. ďThis is itĒ, I thought as I laid with my head against the brick wall. Only 30 minutes until they start calling my bracket to compete. Rodrigo is in front of me standing guard with his back to me as if to shield any person or thought from reaching me. Birds are flying overhead because we are in an open air stadium in Brazil. Itís covered, but there are no windows, just slits in the concrete about 4 inches wide. Itís over. Nothing else to worry about. I would either win it or I wonít.
Iíd flown to Brazil to compete in the World Championships. Nobody wants to travel that far and not win at least 1 match. I know if I win the whole tournament, Rodrigo is certain to give me my black belt. If I lose, it could be years. No pressure.
Iíd been with Rodrigo since 1998. Iíd done everything I could do to prepare for this. Iím 38 now and better than Iíd ever been at Jiu Jitsu, but my body gets injured more. Iíve competed in grappling competitions for 26 years and Iíve had a laundry list of injuries; a complete knee reconstruction in 1991 while wrestling in college, 4 titanium plates installed in my face in 2003, more broken fingers than I could count, hundreds of stitches, broken teeth, a nasty cauliflower ear, and multiple concussions. Iíve probably made weight 300 times. Iíve been there...
In the last 8 weeks, Iíd suffered 2 critical injuries. With 8 weeks left in camp, I popped out a rib trying to sweep Rodrigo. I should have known better. That injury took 6 weeks to heal. I couldnít step on the mats until 2 weeks prior to the tournament. That gave me a few days of sparring before leaving for South America. But on the day we flew into Rio, Rodrigo says, ďletís go train! I want to show everyone at Humaita (Rodrigoís old school) what we can doĒ. Sure enough, we beat everyone we come across in the room. Rolling with one of the black belts and trying to pass guard, I push off the mats and my knee buckles sideways. I know right away itís a serious sprain. Thatís 6-8 weeks of healing time. I have 3 days.
I had always dreamed of quitting my job and only training Jiu Jitsu. Who wouldnít love to make their hobby into their job? The way to do that was to have my own school. The path wasnít direct. I started in 1998 and after 3 years of training with Rodrigo I had a purple belt. Iíd taken 2nd at the Pan Ams as a blue belt and was undefeated in 8 MMA fights. But on top of 5 hours a day of training, I had a 40 hour a week job as an engineer. I was burned out.
Realizing it would be another 5-8 years of continuous burnout training to receive my black belt and having a frank discussion with myself about my chances of becoming the UFC champion, I quit training to get my Masters in Business. The MBA had been a goal of mine since graduating from engineering school in 1996. After starting up my own engineering firm in 2004, I began personal training on the side to make money as the firm grew. Manufacturing in St. Louis was declining since the 1970Ďs and starting a manufacturerís rep firm was an uphill battle. I needed income and personal training was fun. By 2005, I was in phenomenal shape because I lived and worked in the gym. I wanted to come out of retirement and do 1 more Jiu Jitsu tournament, The Relson Gracie Nationals at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic in Columbus, OH. After winning all 7 matches and not being scored on, I was invited by Relson Gracie to his pro tournament in early 2006. Relson came up to me as I sat next to Rodrigo and said, ďyou are awesomeĒ. I couldnít believe what an amazing compliment Iíd just received from a God of Jiu Jitsu. These words inspired me to finish my training and get my black belt.
In order to become a black belt under Rodrigo Vaghi, you must be one of the best in the world. Rodrigo is a black belt under Rickson Gracie, champion of the family. Achieving black belt would require complete dedication and this is why I started North Broadway Jiu Jitsu. Once I built up clientele, I would have all the time to dedicate to the training to get the coveted black belt.
The first year, 2006, was dedicated to my students. As with any new business, you get out what you put in. One year after opening, I produced 2 novice division world champions.
After this step, it was time to get back to work on getting the black belt. In the fall of 2007, I took 2nd at the no-gi world championships as a purple belt, losing to Kayron Gracie, 6-4 in the finals. After this, I received my brown belt.
In 2008, my personal Jiu Jitsu accomplishments would have to be put on hold as I dedicated this year to my first MMA production, The Battle on Broadway. Before I put my gym above Shady Jackís bar in downtown St. Louis, Shady Jack Larrison was campaigning for me to put MMA fights at his venue. I explained to him that if I put a show together, my guys would have to be trained in all 3 disciplines, Jiu Jitsu, kickboxing and wrestling. This would take a couple years to put together the team. So by 2008, we had a group of guys that we thought were up to the challenge. In September of that year, we put on the event and all 9 of our guys won their fights and the fight was profitable. Back to my training...
2009 was going to be my year! The gym had built up and I could take time for myself to train. I was going to dedicate my life to training, win the worlds at brown belt and get my black belt.
Fate had other plans. I was approached by my former boss and entrepreneur, Chad Remley, about a project. He saw how well I organized the Battle on Broadway and had plans for an MMA fitness training system. As the saying goes, ďno good deed goes unpunishedĒ.
He would fund the project and I would direct the video. How could I say no? The payoff could be huge. I accepted his challenge and put together a phenomenal workout video and website, Fight Fit TV. Our website had members from 25 countries actively working out with us at the peak. We were the first to market. After we produced our video, others followed; Tapout, Georges St. Pierre, UFC, Bas Rutten, Century, Matt Hughes, Randy Couture and many others got into the market with MMA fitness systems and videos. All after us! We made our release around Christmas in 2009 and still sell DVDs on amazon.
2010 is mine to train. No more interruptions. I have so much knowledge about Jiu Jitsu, Judo, wrestling, fitness, strategy, and gamesmanship and itís time to put it to work. I have 6 months until the worlds in July and all the time to train that I need. I have all the right training partners. Rodrigo is training again and wants to go win the worlds at black belt. All the stars are aligned, itís time to go and get it. In addition to Rodrigo, I have Mike Rogers, Todd Fox, Jon Menke, Jon Thomas, Lance Benoist and Ryan Luna as well as all the guys at Team Vaghi and North Broadway Jiu Jitsu.
My camp started slow as it should but by 3 months I was hitting on 8 cylinders and my game was sharper than ever. I was as lean as Iíd ever been, my knowledge level was high, my diet perfect and my gas tank full all the time. With 8 weeks to go, I popped my rib out trying to sweep Rodrigo. I should have known better. I screamed when it happened and knew right away it was out. I laid my back flat and and with an intense pain it popped back in. Soft tissue takes 6-8 weeks to heal. The world championships was 8 weeks away. At least I knew if I wasnít sparring I couldnít hurt anything else, or so I thought.
I looked at the bright side. Since I couldnít step on the mats until 2 weeks out, I would double up on the cardio. My runs were insane! I was hitting better times then I did when I wrestled in college. I was still planning on winning.
I came back to sparring with a week to go and rolled with some guys. I felt like I never have. I was ready. Itís time to go...
As soon as we flew into Brazil, Rodrigo wanted to go to his old school, Gracie Humaita, and train. Personally, I would rather just break a sweat and not roll because whenever I roll with new people, I go hard because I donít want to look bad. And then it happened. Rolling with a black belt at Humaita and holding my own, I pushed off my knee and it buckled. The mats at Humaita were older and very smooth. Pushing off the side of my foot I usually get some traction but I had none and when my foot slipped all the pressure went on my knee sideways and it buckled. I crawled over to Rodrigo and said, ďI hurt my knee badĒ. I sat out and sadly watched the rest of the practice. I donít remember thinking anything. I think I was in shock or denial and felt really stupid for sparring when I knew to rest.
Iíve hurt my knee enough over the years to know when itís not good. I had 3 knee surgeries while wrestling in college. Over the years Iíd gotten really good at understanding the healing times for soft tissue. This was a serious sprain. 6-8 weeks just like the rib. I had 3 days.
I called home and could hardly say what happened. I was so upset. I didnít know if I would be able to compete. If the competition were today, I would say no.
Rodrigo and I practiced taping my knee a couple times with kinesio-tape. We would tape it, I would walk around and see how it felt. That was all we had. When I walked down the streets of Rio and turned a corner, my foot wouldnít move with my hip and knee. I had to physically hold my knee joint and turn my leg slowly to avoid leaving my foot behind.
After 2 days it was still bad but my only choice is the kinesio-tape. Iím not going home without competing. Iím already here. We will see how good I really am.
I keep having conversations with myself. My opponent does this and I do that and so on. My thoughts are about how to protect my knee. I think that if Iím ahead on points in all the matches, I can slow the match down and avoid scrambles to protect the knee from buckling.
Itís game day. Iím sitting with my back against the wall in the open air stadium with Rodrigo standing guard over me. The birds are flying back and forth. I have 30 minutes. In the rush to get to the stadium on time, Rodrigo and I forget to wrap my knee. I donít realize this until after the tournament. All I can think about is to win and get this done so I donít have to do this again.
I have the long draw in the tournament. This means if I win my first match, I go against an opponent who hasnít yet competed. Oh well, nobody can say I didnít earn the championship. I donít care. My focus is on the first opponent. If I canít get past him, I wonít have a chance at the second guy. Iíve already developed my strategy and it is diversity. Competing as a younger man, I would stick with one major game plan and hit only that move or series of moves at each tournament. The downside to this strategy is that as you go through the tournament, your next opponent is always watching you. Today, I will be diverse and alternate strategies in each match. This strategy requires you to be equally good at everything, which I am. Rodrigo forced me to be good at everything as he promoted me. My game could be complete in 9 out of 10 ways but Rodrigo would wait 2 years for that last part of my game to develop before promoting me to the next belt. Some call it sandbagging. We call it excellence and we donít apologize for it.
If you win with only one technique, your opponent will assume this is your strategy and work to nullify it. If you work from guard in each match, you are a guard fighter. They will pull guard and try to stop your game. If you win each match from top and start with takedown, they will work against that. My plan was to switch every match from plan A to plan B. First match, I pull guard. Next match, I get the takedown and play top. Match 3 like match 1 and match 4 like match 2. Keep them guessing...
I executed the plan perfectly. I pulled guard and won 12-0 in my first match. The second match was my closest because I went against a fresh opponent and my knee buckled once. I won 3-0 with a guard pass. In the semi-finals I defeated the Brazilian national champion 6-2 and in the finals I went down 0-2 and came back to win 9-2 and had my opponent in a deep choke when the bell rang. I am the World Champion.
When I was a kid I would watch olympic wrestling. On the awards stands, sometimes the champion wouldnít smile. I couldnít imagine this because this was a dream of mine to stand on top of that podium. After reaching the pinnacle of my sport, I was thrilled and all smiles. By the next day I was drained and I didnít feel like smiling. I was tired mentally and physically. This picture of Rodrigo and I sums it up best.
I received my black belt 2 months later. It had been the most rewarding and emotional tournament and training camp in my life. It was my last.
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