|RJJA Midwest Black Belts at Promotion Day.|
Jiu Jitsu hurts! … So I learned to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, confront my fears, understand my limitations and control my emotions. Put another way – Jiu Jitsu is a good way to get know yourself.
Let’s start with what I am not. I am most definitely not a badass. I still get tapped by the colored belts on a regular basis. This does not bother me in the least. Jesus I am 48 years old and I am genuinely happy to be able to still play around on the mat like a little kid. Definitely not a badass attitude.
I am not physically gifted. I have been plagued for years now with some “minor” injury” or another and I just do the best I can. As of matter of fact the injuries usually result in my game improving as I can’t force whatever I was previously trying to force in whatever situation that caused my dumb ass to get hurt in the first place.
I am not the smartest guy in the room. At Toledo JJ we have – off the top of my head – one doctor and two folks in med school, one attorney and two folks in law school, one university professor, one ex-accountant, professionals, tradesmen, business owners, and college students. It’s actually humbling and a real pleasure to get to hang out with all these folks.
Well, if I am not a badass, I am injured regularly, I am not all that intelligent, and I am kind of old how did I get a black belt? Do I really deserve one?
Well, I suppose it is because I never quit. It is the biggest cliche in martial arts. A black belt is a white belt who never quit. So a lot of folks are meaner than me, more physically capable than me, and more intelligent than me but I will never, ever, ever quit.
A black belt also means that I have had great instruction and excellent mentorship. Chris Blanke has been the best instructor and one of the best friends I have ever had and I am proud to be his black belt. It also means I have made some great friends. Noone grapples alone and you don’t get through ten years of bjj without a mountain of help from your training partners. I must not be a complete asshole if Chris believes in me and so many others are willing to share the mat with me – although that could be just to beat up on me. Hey, maybe they don’t like me and I AM an asshole? Oh well, I suppose that can wait for another day.
For any attorneys out there the names and dates have been changed to protect the innocent. Book ’em Danno.
Dr. Michael Lee
As a 21-year-old college kid, I started learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu on a blue tarp in a sunny California backyard sprinkled with dog poop. I still remember these twice-weekly meetings taught by a blue belt. It seemed like magic to me. I wrestled in high school, so I was not a complete stranger to the mat, but I was mesmerized by how these pajama-wearing jiu-jitsu guys could effortlessly make me submit with a joint lock or choke hold literally within a few seconds of a sparring match.
Years later, I joined an actual BJJ academy when I was finally able to afford the tuition. I still couldn’t afford a car, so I took the bus an hour each way to continue learning this incredible art. When I started these classes, I thought I had the basics down from those backyard sessions, but I remember going against another white belt who made me tap out over and over again within our five-minute match. I realized at that point that I still didn’t know anything. It took me six months to finally execute my first submission against a resisting opponent in class, another year to win my first match in competition, and yet another year to finally earn my first belt promotion.
Now, as a 33-year-old, I was recently awarded my black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. For all intents and purposes, this is essentially the last belt in the progression and the longest belt rank held by a life-long practitioner. It is a symbol of my progression from humble beginnings in a journey that started nearly 13 years ago. It hasn’t always been easy. There were times when I didn’t think I could progress, when I questioned if all this effort was even worth it. There were many failures along the way, on and off the mat. Beyond physical techniques, this journey has taught me patience, persistence, and perseverance. Looking back now, I can say that it is absolutely worth it.
These days in class, I do tap people on a regular basis, and sometimes they make me tap, too. Some days I still feel like I don’t know anything. A black belt doesn’t make someone invincible. At the most basic level, my black belt is my instructors’ acknowledgment of the technical ability I have attained within the art. I am eternally grateful for Saulo and Xande Ribeiro for leaving their home in Brazil over a decade ago to come to the Midwest to spread their love for an art that has now touched thousands of people. Trust me, I know how hard it can be to leave home and travel far away to pursue a passion and dream. I am humbled and honored to be awarded my black belt by my instructor, mentor, and friend Chris Blanke, who has taught and encouraged me in jiu-jitsu classes and tournaments, and also supported me off the mats as I struggled with medical school, with my own self-doubts as a new physician, with dealing with my dying father. Even beyond all the cool submission techniques and tournament medals, perhaps the most important thing I’ve gained over the years while pursuing my black belt is the friendships I have made along the way. To every teammate with whom I share every roll, every drill, every transition and submission, you are the reason I keep coming back, and I have so much love and respect and appreciation for you that these clumsy words cannot even begin to convey, that this beating heart can barely contain. Thank you.
My goal as a black belt is continual improvement. I’m always looking to make my technique more efficient, more effective, more beautiful, more graceful and fluid. And as an ambassador and representative of the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, now is the time for me to give back, to encourage, to teach others, and to inspire, just as I was inspired as the 21-year-old kid on that blue tarp in the California backyard so many years ago.
(I don’t miss the dog poop, though.)
I have learned many lessons along the way. First Jiu-Jitsu is hard, there are not many sports in the world that test your ego, heart and body every time you train or compete. To succeed in Jiu-Jitsu you must be humble, and leave your ego at the door. Another lesson I have learned along the way is that Jiu-Jitsu is not about physical strength. It’s about technique, leverage, and patience. Jiu-Jitsu is designed for David to beat Goliath. Jiu Jitsu is a lifestyle and it has helped me deal with life’s ups and downs.
Reaching black belt to me means you have competed against yourself and came out on top. I test my ego, heart and body every time I step on the mat. Achieving Black Belt means I have finally won, I have passed the test. Saulo said it perfect at the black belt promotion when he said “Jiu-Jitsu is hard, it’s designed for you to quit”.
It’s an honor receiving my Black Belt from Saulo and Xande. They’re legends in the BJJ community and I can only wish to acquire a small percentage of the BJJ knowledge that they possess. I would like to thank my instructor Chris Blanke for always pointing me in the right direction. Your mentorship and friendship is truly humbling. To the Chitwood Brothers, thank you for your instruction, guidance and friendship throughout the years. To all of my training partners past and present, thank you for always being there to push my Jiu-Jitsu to the next level. To my Mom, thank you for starting me in the Martial Arts and for your countless sacrifices throughout the years. To my amazing wife Kelsey, thank you for understanding what Jiu-Jitsu truly means to me, and for always supporting everything I do.
Many people see a black belt as the end of a long journey. For me, receiving my back belt is only the beginning. I hope to be able to not only build on my current knowledge of Jiu-Jitsu, but also share that knowledge through teaching. I will always be on a mission to improve my Jiu-Jitsu, with the goal of making my Jiu-Jitsu as technical and effortless as possible. Jiu-Jitsu will always be part of life. I will continue to train and teach until my body will no longer let me. Live Arte Suave!
Jiu-Jitsu has always had an impact in my life. It has taught me humility, discipline, respect, perseverance, and mental toughness. Jiu-Jitsu also gives me challenges on a daily basis; my favorite of these include solving problems with techniques and learning the timing of when to execute them. Other challenges that are not necessary enjoyable but a part of the art include dealing with minor injuries and having to fight through intense fatigue.
The most intense fatigue I have ever had to fight through came in 2007. I was testing for purple belt aka the “Hell Test” as Saulo would call it. This test was a hybrid of Jiu-Jitsu fighting and Navy Seals training. Saulo would have us do sparring in different positions while only being able to defend. In between rounds of sparring, we were required to do intense bodyweight calisthenics followed by carrying one of our sparring partners. The only way you would fail is if you quit. If you stopped, Saulo would simply count to ten. If you didn’t get up at the end of ten, you failed the test. During such fatigue, the first voice in your head says to quit. This was the easiest option. The second voice was self-doubt. I remember doubting myself several times during the test. One of which was when I was carrying my partner, who out weighed me by fifty pounds. I was carrying him fireman style and all of a sudden, I collapsed due to fatigue. I remember clearly hearing Saulo count out loud, “one, two, three…” and it echoed over and over in my head. At that moment, I became so motivated and driven not to fail, that I was able to reach down deep inside and find the energy to stand back up. After that experience, I knew that I could face any challenge ahead of me on my black belt journey!
A year or so later I was at a tournament and I met a Kung Fu guy named Chris Blanke. Chris was there for a referee clinic and he was talked into competing. I watched Chris fight and realized what he was doing looked just like what Royce was doing in the UFC. I live in West Virginia so I would travel to northern Ohio to train with Chris as much as I could. I would watch Gracie VHS tapes, read books and get techniques from anywhere I could. I continued to compete in Sport Ju-Jitsu but my strategy had completely changed. I would use my kicks and punches to close the distance but all I cared about was taking them to the ground. Sport Ju-Jitsu gave me the opportunity to travel and train with some of the best people in the world but I got burned out. I went back to motocross but I would try to stay in touch with my martial arts friends I had made.
After years of racing, motocross had brought me back to martial arts. My body was destroyed from injury after injury and I figured Jiu-Jitsu would make a good rehab. I started to feel really good after about 6 months. The chronic aches, pains, stiffness and just general stress was fading so I started to train for competition again. What I was training though was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu not Sport Ju-Jitsu. I was using every opportunity to make my ground game better. Everything changed when I started to visit Chris Blanke again. Chris had moved through the ranks and was only doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with Saulo and Xande Ribeiro. I knew this is what I wanted to do to so I competed one more time in Sport Ju-Jitsu in Brazil but after it was over I gave all my gear away. I got with a few likeminded people and we started training Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu on our own. What happened next was one of the proudest moments of my life.
I started going to Ohio once or twice a month to train and I competed in one of the first RJJA tournaments. After winning the tournament Xande told me to come up front to get my medal. Xande was putting the medal around my neck and Saulo snuck up behind me and put a blue belt around my waist. To most people a blue belt doesn’t mean much but after all the travel and training it was starting to pay off. A few moments later, Chris received his black belt. Jiu-Jitsu is everywhere now but when we started there were only a few blue belts to search out and train with. Now 10 years later I finally earned my Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt and I know this is only the beginning. I would like to thank Warren Owsley for introducing me to martial arts, Teddie Malone for being a great training partner through the years and many more, and to Xande and Saulo for bringing the best Jiu-Jitsu in the world to Ohio. A special thank you to Chris Blanke for everything he does and for being a great friend inside and out of Jiu-Jitsu.