“Ready — Move!”
Swoosh, Smack, Thud!
“Again!” I barked. “Ready — Move!”
The sounds of swoosh, smack, thud echoed repeatedly off of the old training barns. The muffled groans of weary warriors picking themselves up from the canvas collided with the sweat and humidity caused by the scorching July sun. The morning shadows cast by the historic barns of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame (BKBHOF) are long gone. Training in what had been Apollo Creed’s boxing ring in the Rocky II movie somehow pushes teammates to fight through another round of grueling drills. Even more so, training on that hallowed ground where William Muldoon had trained Bare Knuckle Boxing World Champion John L. Sullivan over 128 years prior, squeezes yet another five, ten or twelve rounds out of an exhausted body.
“We are Making History Here!” I exclaimed. It is our last day of training camp in Belfast, NY; the expectations and urgency are palpable in the air. As I juggle the need to push my team members with the challenges and intensity that forces a warrior to dig deeper than they knew was physically possible, I cautiously maintain a tenuous balancing act of faux displeasure with encouragement in an attempt to stretch their mental and emotional stability as well. All the while, I try to conceal my smile of pride as I witness the tremendous growth that these four competitors have made. From near zero competition experience, to National Champions, to now members of the US National Jujitisu Team in a mere three and a half years speaks volumes of their determination and training. Now with the fast approaching WCJJO World Jujitsu Championships in Queensland, Australia the pressure is being felt from all directions.
“Again!” Swoosh, smack, thud!
Is the title of World Champion even attainable from such a small town in rural Western New York State? I have envisioned it happening in my mind’s eye so many times that I can feel the weight of the Gold Medals and Championship Belt, but can I fully pass that vision on to these four young sport jujtisu fighters? Can they trust the training process enough to not only grasp the vision but to make it their own? They have clearly paid their dues. They have traveled the country competing in more Sport Jujitsu tournaments in the past three years than most martial artists compete in throughout their entire careers.
As we enter the old training barn at the end of a long evening, I hope that the stories told to me by the BKBHOF President Scott Burt are true. Boxing Champion Jimmy Holmes even attested to the apparent veracity of the tales after he trained in the same barns several years ago. The barns in which we are training and sleeping during our training camp, the very barns where John Sullivan trained and slept in preparation for the last World Championship Bare Knuckle Boxing fight in 1889, are haunted. As I lie in my bunk, I secretly wish I could somehow believe in such tales. Perhaps William Muldoon would come to me in my sleep offering words of wisdom, some guidance and direction on how to maintain the fervent pace of training without burning-out these eager combatants. As I wake before the morning sun, I realize that the revelation never came…at least not from William Muldoon anyway.
How can we maintain this momentum without injuries while preparing for the largest stage thus far of their martial arts careers? Can I truly deliver on the potential opportunities that I had promised? Can we pull this off and yet remain sane?
Four years ago at the very first team practice, I instructed the twenty-five members of Team AKT to get their passports. If they were going to compete as a member of the team they needed to be thinking globally. They needed to envision not only competing regionally and nationally, but also internationally. “You must put action to your thoughts and dreams, and that first step is getting your passport. You will be competing at the World Championships someday…soon! But you must trust the process.” My own words came ringing back in my ears. I had laid out a road map, an algorithm of options, a plan in which to turn an upstart sport jujtisu team into Champions. No time for self doubt now, self-reflection perhaps, but certainly no turning back.
Training to compete in sport jujitsu was different than the training that my team was used to. Sport Jujitsu bouts consist of two 2-minute rounds of fast paced continuous sparring where competitors earn points for strikes, kicks, throws, takedowns, and submissions by chokes and joint locks. AKT Combatives-Jujitsu is a modern, comprehensive reality-based personal combatives system that includes stand-up striking, ground fighting and grappling, so they certainly had the requisite skill set to compete in that format. But the focus of their previous training had always been purely from a self-defense personal protection perspective. The mindset and the required level of dedication to training was different for the high level of competition that I had envisioned for my students. Many of them had never competed in anything in the past, let alone know how to function as a team. I made it clear that no one on the team would compete as an individual. Every single member of Team AKT was to be an integral part in aiding other team members in not only competing and winning, but in growing as a martial artist. No one stands on the medals podium without the support of training partners in the dojo.
Swoosh, smack, thud! echoes again in the hot afternoon sun at the training barn. “Break!” I shouted, “Grab a drink and head inside to the grappling room”.
It’s hard to believe that only a year prior we were invited to Dublin, VA to attend the first in a series of team tryouts for the US National Jujitsu Team. The Goal: 2017 World Jujitsu Championships! The vision was now becoming clearer. In January it was becoming even more of a reality when the American Jujitsu League (AJL) Head Coach, Robert Stines and Grappling Coach, Shawn Chitwood invited us to attend a training camp and additional tryouts in Columbus, OH. Knowing that we were fielding a fairly inexperienced team, Coach Stines explained that “Athletes are selected based on their demonstrated abilities in previous competitions, as well as being coachable and their attitude”. With that criteria, I knew that we had a fighting chance.
When team members were announced in March it was time to have a very serious discussion with my students Mike Hanchett, Charlie Love, Desmond White and Bryana Baer who had been selected for the US team. “Are you prepared for the sacrifices that are needed to represent your country on the US National Jujitsu Team?” I asked them. Understanding the stakes, I was not willing to let their prior lack of competition experience be a hindrance to their performances while representing the USA. I knew that additional training time would assist in shortening the steep learning curve of competing on the world stage. Along with the other fifteen US National Jujitsu Team members, we would commit to attending monthly training camps and tournaments at various locations around the country. My four team members were already training on a daily basis while attending 3-5 classes per week and attending regular Team AKT-sport jujitsu practices. Yet, I added the requirement of an additional late evening training session each week to run drills with other training partners. But would that be enough?
With only three months remaining before the World Championships I felt that my Team AKT members of the US team needed to take a few days away from the rest of the world to get focused on the job at hand. What better place to do that than where William Muldoon transformed John L. Sullivan for his historic bout nearly 130 years ago. My plan was to “‘train old school’ where history was made so long ago. While boxing has always included punching, what many people do not realize is that historically it also included grappling techniques, throws, arm locks, and chokes as well as kicks. The barns that were built by Muldoon, now home of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame, has a wrestling room upstairs that was used by the now famous Greco-Roman Wrestling World Champion-turned trainer. The goal was to use the training barns the way Muldoon had fully intended. Not just to develop the competitors’ physical techniques, but to stretch them mentally and emotionally. In doing so we were the first team to grapple in Muldoon’s wrestling room in 130 years!
Hanchett, Love, White and Baer left that demanding and exhausting training camp with renewed resolve, a zeal and glimmer of the possibility of Gold. They’d been working on seamlessly integrating their stand-up striking game with their throws, takedowns and grappling. They mastered the drills as I drove them into the ground. They had been rising to the occasion of every task I laid before them. They were good soldiers… dynamic warriors. Yet I feared that with the demands that I presented, they may be at the tipping point. Either breakthrough or breakdown.
I felt confident. Then swoosh, smack, thud! I was hit with a request that landed like a kick to my chest. What had originally begun as a quest to compete in Sport Jujitsu evolved into also competing in the BJJ/grappling divisions at the World Championships; and now we were being asked to compete in the Demonstration Team division in Australia. How could I ask even more from my team members who were already stretched to their limits? There was still a massive amount of work being done in the background to raise funds for the team’s gear, travel and hotel expenses. They had participated in more than twenty fundraising events, multiple demonstrations, radio interviews and special proclamations by city officials and our state Senator, as well as in-person visits to several local businesses. In addition to full-time jobs, careers put on hold, nursing school, and personal family lives; now another request. As I posed the question, I already knew what their response would be. If I asked, they would oblige. Of course they would, in addition to being their coach, I’m their Grandmaster. I felt guilty for asking more of them. From day one of this journey, and countless times since, I have stressed that if they could make the US National Team, if they competed in the World Championships, if they could claim the title of World Champion as their own that their lives could be placed on a totally different trajectory. Not because of any perceived fame or notoriety, but because this epic journey becomes a specific benchmark in their lives. A goal achieved through severe sacrifice. The comradery and bond that is built with fellow team members around the country and with competitors from around the world gives a much larger worldview than what is usually seen from the local dojo. To succeed in the face of adversity and to learn even more from a hard-fought loss is an invaluable experience. How does one put a price on such valuable life lessons?
As we brainstormed on how we were going to be able to pull off a 5-6 minute world-class action-packed, technically proficient and entertaining demonstration in less than two month’s time (in addition to everything else), I became anxious. Have we now finally hit the tipping point? We were going to need some sort of superhuman or supernatural powers to pull this off! Superheros! That’s it! Rather than a dry traditional demonstration, we’ll execute our jujitsu techniques through an epic Superhero fight scene. We already had the classic characters: Charlie Love as the incredible Hulk; Mike Hanchett as the ever-stoic Batman; Desmond White as the quintessential Joker; Bryana Baer would kick butt as Supergirl; while I would represent Team USA swooping in to save the day! Now for the hard work; extra hours of practice and choreographing the story of our Herculean struggle to some empowering music.
It’s “The Final Countdown”…
Swoosh, smack, thud! Footwork drills. Quick submission drills. Transition drills. Work. Work. Work! Again! And so it went for eight more weeks…
As the New York autumn leaves fell in the crisp October air, it was springtime in Australia. Flying into Queensland, we viewed the lush green forests creeping towards the ocean beaches. It seemed an appropriate metaphor of new beginnings after an arduous year of training. A nearly four-year transformation of neophyte martial athletes now into World-Class competitors.
Finally, standing on the mat at the venue, I whisper to Mike between rounds, “This is it!” As I briskly wave the front of his opened gi top, attempting to push cooling air through his overheated torso, his six-pack reveals the 15 pound weight loss that he had chiseled from his already lean frame in an effort to make his dream a reality. “Final round of your last fight. Let’s go out in style!”
With the last remnants of energy from his depleted body, Mike executes a roundhouse kick to the head of the warrior from Great Britain. The usual crippling kick is deflected as the Brit drives Mike backwards. Too exhausted to even think, Mike is now functioning purely on reflex. Survival mode. There’s the opening! Hit it! Swoosh, smack, thud! Mike executes a Jumping Spinning Back Kick and immediately drops into a double leg takedown! The crowd’s roar shakes the building as the clock runs down and Mike fights to achieve the dominant position.
As a Men’s Gold Medal Sport Jujitsu Team member, Sensei Mike Hanchett reflected on his bouts and expressed that, “Without the constant drills at almost every practice, I would not have been able to pull off the stuff that I did. [Trusting the process and] working the drills almost everyday elevated my sparring to a new level”.
“When you reach double overtime in a Gold Medal match, you truly have to dig deep and pull out every bit of your heart when you step on that mat”, World Champion Charlie Love explained. “You can leave nothing to chance. We would not have been successful if everyone that helped us preparing for the World Championships didn’t pour their hearts into us. Ultimately, when you reach that point of exhaustion and it feels like the wells are dried up, you always have a lot more in you than you think. You realize it’s not about you anymore, it’s about everyone that helped you along the journey”. Love stressed that “Even more important than any medal or title, is representing your country with dignity, honor and respect”.
Bryana Baer, an Individual Silver Medalist in both Ladies Sport Jujitsu and BJJ/grappling, and a member of the Gold Medal Ladies Sport Jujitsu Team conveys that “This journey has taught me far more than just how to fight. Competing at the international level has helped me develop into a better, stronger women both physically and mentally. It was amazing to be competing with so many other talented women. My matches were tough, and some I had the great feat of winning by submission, but where I really learned and grew the most is from my losses. To go out, try your hardest, and put all your heart into something, and then lose….it’s hard. It’s a crushing feeling. But by having those experiences and learning to overcome those losses and failures is far more important than any win”.
Silver Medalist and member of the Gold Medal Men’s Sport Jujitsu Team, Sensei Desmond White echoed the sentiment, “While on this journey I have discovered more about myself than I thought I was going to. All of the training camps, sessions, and personal training days has shown me that I can accomplish anything once I put my mind to it. That I can overcome any obstacle that I choose to because of the discipline that I have developed”. Desmond goes on to stress that the “training this last year and a half has not just prepared me for martial arts and sport jujitsu, but for life. To keep pushing forward even though the road up ahead is rough and undiscovered”.
After three full days of competition at the World Championships, The AJL US National Jujitsu Team brought home 15 Gold Medal, 5 Silver Medals and 4 Bronze Medals in the Individual competitions. We also won the Silver Medal in the Demonstration Team Division and Gold Medals in both the Mens and Ladies Sport Jujitsu Team Divisions. World Champions! Certainly a dynamic feat! A great testament to the leadership, coaching and dedication of everyone involved with this journey. No superhuman external forces required! Just the internal drive, determination and fortitude to continue to press forward when weary bodies want to quit.
If it were not for the encouragement and mentoring of Sport Jujitsu pioneer and legend Professor Tony Maynard; former World Champions, coaches and friends such as Bob Stines, Shawn Chitwood, John DelVecchio and Mickey Heath; the dedication and loyalty of our teammates, families and students; and the support of our community and so many others, it would have not been possible to experience the transformation of Team AKT members into Superheros and World Champions.