Tag Archives: balance

Brown Belt Promotion

2014-07-01_03-lex-fridman-brown-belt-promotionYesterday, I was promoted to brown belt in BJJ. I’d like to thank Phil Migliarese, Ricardo Migliarese, and all my training partners and friends at Balance and everywhere else in the jiu jitsu world. In some ways it’s just a belt, just a color, but I think it’s a great time to reflect on what I learned from jiu jitsu so far and how grateful I am to be a part of this community.

I’ve grown a lot as a person in the years that I’ve spent on the mat. Jiu jitsu forced me to be honest with myself. It revealed to me my weaknesses and illusions. It made me realize that there are no shortcuts to success: hard work is always required and those who work the hardest tend to achieve the most (in whatever pursuit they take on).


It also taught me the paradoxical fact of human nature, perhaps best stated by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus:

“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.” – Camus

Happiness is found in the struggle, in the challenge, in the climb. I learned to set difficult goals, but not to dwell too much on them. Life happens in the moment, not in the future. So while “struggle” usually requires long-term goals, happiness is found in the “now”. That all leads to the two things I look for on the mat:

  1. Challenge.
  2. Fun.

My personal goals for brown belt are two-fold: (1) compete, compete, compete and (2) become a better teacher. I don’t think I’ll ever be an instructor, but I do enjoy discussing techniques and principles with people. What I would like to learn is how to better explain what’s on my mind clearly, concisely, with philosophical depth, and a slight tinge of Russian flavor.

I’ve come to a tough spot in my career that requires a lot of dedication and sacrifice. Jiu jitsu for me is a hobby. My life, work, and passion are in my academic pursuits. That is where I believe I can contribute the most to the world, and more importantly, that is what I love doing the most. Still, jiu jitsu is a grounding force, a place I return to time and again to get humbled and to reflect on my place in the world. The challenge is to find a balance: not a lazy balance, but a productive balance.

I will wrap this post up with another excerpt from The Myth of Sisyphus. In this essay, Camus uses the example of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology, who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. This (in a nutshell) is the struggle. It may be meaningless, but still there is fulfillment in it. There is real happiness in it. The essay concludes:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain… This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  – Camus

Congrats to everyone else getting promoted on July 12. I wish I could be there to celebrate, but I will certainly be there to be break in the new belts.


My Experience at the Hellfish International No-Gi Championship

medal-hellfish-no-gi-championships-lex-fridmanLast weekend, I competed at the second installment of the famed international Hellfish tournament hosted by the equally famed Tim Carpenter. Check out his jiu jitsu school and blog.

The tournament was awesome. My experience competing was sweet and yet bitter like the not-quite-yet-ripe bananas that were sold at the concession stand.

I had 5 tough matches, losing in the finals to end up with 2nd place and a medal that makes the IBJJF Worlds medal look like a McDonald’s happy meal toy.

This was an open-weight division with 5 purple belts and 2 brown belts. I was right in the middle, weight-wise, at 183 lbs. The heaviest was Tim Williams (1st place) at  210-220ish, and lightest was Dan Pacific (3rd place) at somewhere around 110-180 lbs. Every one of these guys was very good. Below is the picture where it looks like we are standing on a podium… but we are not. Also, it’s hard to tell, but crucially important to mention, that the 1st place medal is black (not gold) and has skulls on its ribbon. And rightfully, the ribbons for 2nd and 3rd place are flimsy and flowery to bring those who wear them shame.


Lesson Learned #1: Russians

A Russian coaching a Russian. This lesson is yours to be learned, reader.

“You know the easiest thing about fighting Russians? Nothing.” – Anton

Lesson Learned #2: Losing

Last person to submit me was Garry Tonon over a year ago, and now: Tim Williams. Both were no-gi matches and both had incredibly strong squeeze on their chokes. I made mistakes in both cases, and worked to fix them right away in training after.

I try to strike a balance between hating losing and taking everything in life (good or bad) with a chill smile. Losing leaves a sting for days that’s good for the ego. I soak in it for a bit, and then let it go. I come out on the other end of that feeling a better grappler and a better human being.

Lesson Learned #3: Refereeing is Hard

I got an opportunity (first time) to ref a bunch of matches and came to the obvious realization that the job of a good ref is damn hard. For people that know me, I’m a student of the rules. When I play a game (and it’s all a game), I like to learn the rules, before I let go of them and just compete.

But “knowing” the rules is different than being able to apply them on the fly in the heat of a match. Here are some things that I learned. It’s a lot of text, so you can stop reading now, and go train!

Pay attention: After a while, it’s not so easy to be completely focused for every second of every match. I only had to ref for about an hour or two, but if I had to ref from 9am to 8pm, it’s possible that I would make some bad calls. Like anything else this takes dedication and practice.

White belt scrambles: I saw some crazy white belt scrambles that lasted for 30 seconds and involved 5+ major position changes, and in the end I would give one score, and would actually struggle to remember who was on top and who was on bottom when the scramble started.

Subjective advantages: The biggest thing I realized is there are a lot of subjective decisions left to the referee, especially when giving advantages. So, basically the important thing there is to be consistent. Here are some things the IBJJF clarifies about advantages that was useful for me at this tournament:

  • Escape submission without holding position: Rule #3.3.1 When one athlete comes to point-scoring positions but only gets out of the submission in hold without staying in these positions, he/she will not receive any advantage for that positions.
  • No advantage for a takedown if it started as a defense to a sweep: Rule #3.4 Athletes who, in defending a sweep, return their opponent back-down or sideways on the ground shall not be awarded the takedown-related two points or advantage point.
  • Assessing “danger”: 5.2 An advantage is counted when the move to a point-scoring pass position is incomplete. The referee should assess whether the opponent was in any real danger and if the athlete clearly came close to reaching the point-scoring pass position.
  • Assessing “danger” again: 5.3 The athlete shall be awarded an advantage-point when he/she attempts a submission hold where the opponent is in real danger of submitting. Again, it is the referee’s duty to assess how close the submission hold came to fruition.

Never forget: I’m expected to remember (sometimes for over a minute) how the positions progressed so that when a new position is finally stabilized, I can give points or advantages. See the “zoning out” problem above. (Rule #5.4: The referee may only award an advantage point once there is no longer a chance of the athlete reaching a point-scoring position.)

Half guard: Why, why, why are we still supposed to give an advantage for reaching half guard? I don’t care if your opponent’s back is flat on the ground. I don’t care if you have an underhook and he is weeping from the shoulder pressure. Get past his legs! This one was a very annoying rule, because it forced me to pay attention to the incredible amount of half guard hugging that was going on. (Rule #5.7 Examples of Advantage Points: When the top athlete achieves half-guard position, with exception to reverse half-guard.)

Other Highlights

Marco Perazzo, of NJMA fame, and an interviewee on the Take It Uneasy podcast, was working the scoreboard. He brought his alter ego this time: a kind gentle soul who showered me with praise and polite small talk. His previous Hellfish appearance was slightly less reserved:

There was a black belt superfight between two technical, athletic dudes Anton Berzin and Derek Leyer. Just good jiu jitsu. The fans won:

Alright, that wraps up my professional coverage of this once-in-a-lifetime event. Champions were made. Wills were broken. Fun was had by all. I highly recommend that everyone, EVERYONE compete in the next one.

My Experience at 2013 No Gi Pans

lex-fridman-no-gi-pans-2013-ibjjfI competed at the 2013 No Gi Pans this past weekend in the adult purple belt medium-heavy division (175 to 188 lbs). The tournament was in NYC at the usual place: City College of New York. I’ve competed at this venue so often that I remember all the little details of the layout: the bathrooms, bullpen, testing scale, locker rooms, water fountains, and even the quiet places you can go to gather thoughts before “battle”.

There’s a moment at a tournament when I first arrive and walk into the hall/gym where the tournament is going on that I feel like I just came back to see a girl that I haven’t seen in a long time, but have loved all along. (Long thoughtful pause as I take a sip of my whiskey and look out the window for a few minutes). I can’t help but smile. That’s how I know I love competing. I might be full of nerves, and thoughts about crap I have to do for work, but the tournament venue feels like home to me.

Second Match

My division had 15 guys, which is actually pretty light for purple belt adult, but everyone was super tough, and many of the guys could win the division on any given day. That fact was reflected in the matches themselves. It was a low scoring division for the most part. Lots of matches were decided on advantages with no points scored. I lost my second match just in this way, 0-0 with the my 1 advantage to his 3 advantages. Losing is a bitch no matter what happens. There are a lot of lessons to be drawn from that match, but either way a score of 0-0 is a loss for me whether I win or lose.

First Match

My first match I won by a few points against a very good guy who won many big tournaments in Europe, and was making his way to America to test out the competition. I usually don’t like talking to my opponents before the match, but he started a conversation with me and his British accent and genuineness as a human being was disarming. Listen, at the end of the day I don’t care about any of the competing crap. I do jiu jitsu because I like the people that do jiu jitsu, and this guy was a good example. I think I can be close friends with a guy before a match and try to kill him during (not literally). I do this all the time in training. I train at 110% with a bunch of good friends every day. Anyway, the more I compete, the less inclined I am to be a cold douchebag before the match. I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness, at least not for me, and not in jiu jitsu.

Here’s the video that first match:

It turns out that his name is Lee Ambler and he is a recent YouTube celebrity of sorts, even making his way onto ESPN2 with the following video:

I think stepping in to control a situation like that is something that the majority of people in this world would not do. For that I give him much respect.

Competition Team Training

I think that competing is one of the best ways to improve your game, as Josh Vogel and I talked about a couple of weeks ago on the Take It Uneasy podcast. Check it out: Episode 5: Competing as a Black Belt, Antifragile Cats, and Megaton. But, obviously, the hardest part is not the actual tournament but the hard training in the weeks and months leading up to it. That’s the stuff that brings people together, competitor or not. I’m not much of a “rah, rah, go team” guy. I’m far too cautious of what that produces in the real world outside the realms of sport in the times of war. But I do believe that a team working hard together to prepare for a competition is a good way to solidify friendships and in so doing help motivate each other to work harder. Funny how kicking each other’s ass brings people closer together. I have made some very close friends in jiu jitsu, and have learned from some incredible mentors, and a lot of that happens during hard training sessions like the following Balance competition training session one week out from the No Gi Pans:

It doesn’t show much except a crowded mat, since I was too focused on training to dedicate much thought to filming it well. But you get the idea. Good coaches, good training partners, good technique.

Losing Occasionally is Good for You, or So I Tell Myself

Overall, as always, it was a good experience, and I got a chance to watch a lot of my friends compete as well. In the last 3 tournaments I did, it so happened that I haven’t lost a match, so losing here was good for me in a way. It made for a long bus ride home and several days of thinking about what I did wrong and how I can fix it. I’m still thinking about it today.

I have several tournaments coming up this month including US Grappling Diamond State Games and the Abu Dhabi World Pro Trials in NYC. There’s a nice mix of gi and no-gi in there, and the level of competition will be incredibly high at the trials. I will not win gold without having to go through a few wars. I’m both dreading it and looking forward to it. The usual.

Balance Studios Belt Promotions (June 2013)

Last weekend we had belt promotions at Balance Studios in Philadelphia. Steve Plyler, Aldo Sehibi, Ronnie Wuest, and James Chiariello received their black belts. Here’s a video of three of them showing some techniques, a few rolls, and a humble (yet epic) speech by Aldo.

It was a little surreal watching these guys demo the techniques that they’ve caught me with hundreds of times. They’re artists who’ve achieved a high level of mastery and yet are still at the very beginning of their journey. I look forward to many more hard training sessions with them in the coming months and years.

Lots of other regulars got promoted as well (full list here). Darren Lugiano, John Baram, Dave Billeter, Earl Small got their brown belts. A ton of new purple belts and even more new blue belts followed.

Three Years of Jiu Jitsu

three-years-birthday-cupcakesI’ve been doing jiu jitsu for three years now. It’s humbling to think that tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are out there that have been doing it much longer than me. I am following along together and behind the crowd of a very interesting community of people. Introspection, aggression, and weird humor is all around me every time I step on the mat.

Positive Cult

I remember Joe Rogan called jiu jitsu a “positive cult”. And I think he’s onto something. It’s good to be part of a cult or two. I’m currently a member of a couple: a  local book club and a jiu jitsu / judo club. Those are two damn good choices for a cult. It helps me stay healthy, humble (relative to my usual asshole-self), and thoughtful.

Competition Goals for This Year

There’s winning and then there’s winning: I’ve been told by coaches and fellow competitors that “winning is winning”. For some reason my personality is such that the only time I remember feeling truly shitty after competing is when I won matches against tough opponents and didn’t go for submissions because I was concerned of losing. Win or lose, I want to leave every tournament this year knowing that I never “held on” to the lead, and always worked aggressively towards a submission. That’s what makes me proudest: not “winning” a jiu jitsu match, but giving everything for a submission. Too often I fail to drop my fear of failure, and pursue that sometimes-exhausting fight.

Judo: I want to put in a good full year of competition in judo. I’ve taken a few months off from regular judo training and competing, focusing exclusively on jiu jitsu and its wrestling-style stand-up game. But I love judo, both for it as a martial art and the friends I have in the judo community, so mixing it in with jiu jitsu is something that I want to do this year, and for the rest of my life,

Place of Martial Arts in My Life

As my work life grows in the breadth and number of exciting projects, I’m realizing that while jiu jitsu and judo can be a big part of my life, it will never be the main thing in my life. I enjoying my work too much to be one of the people that can’t wait to get in the gym as an escape from work. I’m lucky in that way, but also that means that I have to wrestle with the balance between work and training. I would like to find a better balance with it than last year, that I found to be too stressful too often.

Jiu Jitsu Fundamentals: An Argument for Berimbolo and X Guard

Aesopian wrote an interesting blog post about where Berimbolo fits in with the “basics”, and it reminded me of something that I’ve been thinking about and evolving on for quite some time.

I have long heard instructors and top-level competitors teach the value of focusing on the “fundamentals” of jiu jitsu. When I first started training, I took that to mean doing a set of basic techniques of the kind Saulo Ribeiro teaches in his awesome book Jiu-Jitsu University. But it wasn’t the techniques that made that kind of jiu jitsu “fundamental”. It was having a complete cohesive set of underlying principles…

Some Basic Principles of Jiu Jitsu

  • Posture: Similar to judo, wrestling, and even olympic weightlifting, jiu jitsu has its own posture rules that have to do both with resisting off-balancing and applying maximum pressure with your hips through leverage. Posture includes the lower back, shoulders, neck, and hips, but every part of your body contributes (including toes, hands, eyes, quads, etc.)
  • Base and balance: Maintain balance throughout the entirety of a movement when you’re on top and work to off-balance your opponent when you’re on bottom.
  • Grip control: Use grips (gi or no-gi) on wrists, elbows, ankles, lapels, pants, belt, neck, etc. to control the opponent.
  • Use their force against them: Move around the force applied by your opponent not against it. When he pushes, don’t simply push back, push and pull and use the moment of defenselessness to transition into a more dominant position or to submit.
  • Protect your limbs. Elbows in. Heels in. No floating wrists and feet.

The above is just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many more and the list is always growing. The above has a lot of exceptions, but the point is you can win 99% of your matches without knowing those exceptions. That’s what makes these principles fundamental.

Evolution of Principles

Just as new techniques rise into popular use in competition, new principles are also uncovered and clarified in our collective jiu jitsu mind. The community learns and shares new ways of generating leverage, of applying pressure, or utilizing grips for control.

In fact, I believe that ANY system of techniques based on consistent application of the above principles (and more) is what I would refer to as fundamental jiu jitsu. So in that sense, the x-guard is a fundamental technique because with the help of people like Marcelo Garcia, Fredson Alves, and a thousand other black belts, the x-guard system has evolved a set of rules to a point where you can have a complete game within just the butterfly guard and x guard positions. You very rarely have to venture outside that if you don’t want to. You can win with it at white, blue, purple, brown, and black.

The Future of Berimbolo

berimboloI believe the same is or eventually will be the case for the Berimbolo. This de la riva guard sweep system has evolved in the last few years from a set of technique to a complete system of principles. I believe you can limit your game to just the de la riva, reverse de la riva, and inverted guard and not have to venture outside of that 99% of the time. That’s fundamental jiu jitsu.

I think people freely (and I believe incorrectly) interchange the concept of “old school jiu jitsu” with “fundamental jiu jitsu”. I’m guilty of this as well. Probably because my favorite game to play and to watch is the takedown, smash pass, mount, x-choke game a la Xande or Roger. It’s tempting to assume that this game is somehow the closest to the underlying principles of what makes jiu jitsu work. But that’s, of course, not the case. The principles are simple physics. But like all laws of physics, it only seem simple once you discover it, and there is always more to be discovered…

MovNat for Jiu Jitsu

I was introduced to an interesting approach to fitness called MovNat by Josh who had an weekend experience with it recently. As a former addict of heavy weight training, I have chosen (over the last several months) to hop onto the Marcelo Garcia path of no strength training or cardio outside of jiu jitsu. This has worked well for me, but I do think there is value in mixing things up with fun bodyweight circuits of any kind. MovNat provides exactly that. It emphasizes natural movements of the kind you would use if you were just a monkey moving about in a jungle or a little kid moving around the playground.

Like many fitness programs that my former meathead self would surely make fun of, this one sounds like it would not be challenging at all. But, of course, it can be. You are focusing not on the present fact that your muscles are burning but on achieving specific tasks like climbing across a tree branch without falling, jumping from rock to rock, etc.

I only did two sessions with Josh, but I can already see that the part of MovNat most applicable to jiu jitsu is the improvisation I’m required to do using natural movements to deal with particular tasks. There are a LOT of ways to move when I’m passing guard, for example, and the idea of constant effortless movement is essential for keeping the opponent on defense for long periods of time. MovNat has the same structure. I’m faced with a new challenge every 1-5 seconds and have to transition into it while constantly moving with good posture, awareness, balance, etc.

Sumo Wrestling: Little Guys Have Good Base Too

I know very little about the sport of sumo wrestling, but noticed a couple of highlights popping up on YouTube and started watching it. Like most sports, the more you know about the art of it, the rules, and the athletes involved, the more exciting it becomes to watch. I know very little about any of it, but for me, sumo is exciting (in small doses) because but of the amazing base and balance these guys have.

At first glance, sumo might look like it’s less about skill and more about size, but it seems to me that just like in jiu jitsu and judo, the battle is lost and won in the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) off-balancing and misdirection of your opponent that requires an exceptional amount of athleticism, power, and trickery. Here’s an example of one of the greatest sumo wrestlers of all time, Asashoryu Akinori, who at 330 lbs is one of the lighter legends in the sport.

But even more impressive is Takanoyama Shuntaro, the little Czech guy, who at 220 lbs is  one the top sumo wrestlers currently competing and one of the only Europeans to ever reach the top of the sport. The “fight” starts at 2:20.

Watching some of Takanoyama’s matches, gives me confidence that with leverage and technique anyone can gain a dominant position on anyone else in a grappling match. Size matters, but it can be overcome.