Friday, March 31, 2017

The heart of a child

If children have the ability to ignore all odds and statistics, then maybe we can all learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope? We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up, or fight like hell. 
- Lance Armstrong

Give up, or fight like hell.

Do you remember your first day on a jiu-jitsu mat? I do. I was doing muay thai in this place out in California and was getting bored. Kick kick punch punch. All of a sudden Brazilian jiu-jitsu popped up on the schedule and I asked the gym owner about it. They said it was great for women, and I tried my first class. 

It wasn't exactly love at first sight.

I thought jiu-jitsu was the silliest sport ever invented. I blushed every time the instructor said the word "mount." Whatever moves he was trying to show me seemed pointless and I couldn't wait for the class to be over so I could do something worthwhile, like kick a heavy bag. 

Meanwhile, passersby (it was an old-fashioned warehouse gym with the garage doors open on the street) sauntered by laughing at us. This was 2005, just to give you the context. MMA still had not become popular and jiu-jitsu was virtually unknown, even in Northern California. When it was finally over the instructor said, "I want you to meet our instructor," which confused me because I thought he was the instructor.

But the actual instructor turned out to be this bald guy sitting on a bench staring into space. I said something noncommittal while edging towards the door and the bald guy got up and casually took off his shirt. For absolutely no reason. Which I later learned is part of the Brazilian mating ritual, but I didn't know that then. Long story short, I ended up doing the stereotypical dating the black belt thing. I thought I was the first white belt in the history of the martial arts who had ever dated the black belt. I'm just saying this to let you know that I was an idiot. 

But - and here's where I'm going with this - if I hadn't been a fool, I never would have started training jiu-jitsu. If we actually sat down at the beginning of our journeys, into life or jiu-jitsu, and counted up the injuries, and the heartbreaks, and the humiliations, and the money, and the frustrations and the roadblocks we would encounter on the way, would we ever start?

The wise thing would be to never leave home.
But then we would never get anywhere.

If I hadn't gotten involved with the black belt, would I have lasted beyond the first month of feeling like my body was being put through a trash compactor every night?  If the instructor - the purple belt, not the black belt - hadn't been a dick to me (my first introduction to jiu-jitsu jealousy, since I was getting all the black belt's attention) would I have persevered for the sole purpose of proving that I wasn't a cliche? Even though I was?

What I'm trying to say is, as far as how I felt about the actual sport, or art, I could take it or leave it, with the emphasis on leave. It was the emotional component that got me tangled up in jiu-jitsu.

In other words, I got into jiu-jitsu for the wrong reasons.

I still remember, I had been training for maybe a few weeks, when we all got in a circle and had to do wrestling-style shoots on the guy in the middle. And I a) had absolutely no clue what I was doing and b) I am a really shy person. I hate having to do things, even things I know, while people are watching. I don't even let my mom stay in the kitchen when I'm cooking, and I'm a red belt in cooking. And honestly, after over 8 years training jiu-jitsu, I would still feel uncomfortable doing that drill with everybody watching me.

And the instructor - the purple belt - said, in a nasty way, "It's sink or swim time, Deborah."

Which, in retrospect, almost makes me laugh if it didn't make me want to punch the guy. Your first month of white belt isn't sink or swim time. It's keep your head above water time and if you go under, there should be a whole mat full of lifeguards who will get you safely to shore.

Blue belt might be sink-or-swim time - which may explain why so many people leave jiu-jitsu at blue belt. They sink.

But the point is that I can still feel that feeling of having been punched in the stomach that you get - or at least I get - when someone does something really mean for no reason. In public. I think I kept smiling while trying not to cry, because waterproof mascara is a lie and I didn't want to end up looking like the face melt scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. (At that time I still owned mascara).

And I mean, the purple belt dick was right - I was there for the wrong reasons, "wrong" being that they had recruited me, hard, because they were a new team and they wanted my money, and I was flattered and bored with muay thai, and then I immediately got sucked into the dating your black belt vortex, so it would have been kind of awkward to quit and go do something fun like Kung Fu. I wasn't there because I was interested in jiu-jitsu, and I absolutely hated the UFC and still do. When they invited me to my first (and last) fight night at somebody's house, I kept my hands over my eyes the whole time and stayed close to the lasagna.

2005: The right jiu-jitsu and the wrong me

And lest you think I am just a total wimp, I got hit enough in my life, starting at a very young age and continuing into my 30's, that I don't need to see it, or experience it, ever again. And all the girls who think they want to do MMA, I wonder if they have ever gotten hit. Maybe they have and maybe they haven't. But in my experience, a little of that shit goes a long way.

But what I'm trying to say is that I got involved with jiu-jitsu for absolutely all the wrong reasons, and I came back to it in 2008 when recovering from a severe illness because it was the only martial art I could do lying down. So once again, the wrong reasons. The wrong path. The right you and the wrong me.

And yet, fast forward to 2017, 12 years after my first embarrassing introduction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and I can't imagine my life without it. Jiu-jitsu has given me my health back, jiu-jitsu has given me my self back. I didn't even know I was lost until jiu-jitsu found me.

I came to jiu-jitsu for all the wrong reasons, but if I had had to come to jiu-jitsu for the right reasons, I never would have come to jiu-jitsu. 

Robson Moura, when he describes his jiu-jitsu path, says he fell in love with it the first day. And I believe it. Not only is he a phenomenal athlete, he just has a special genius for Brazilian jiu-jitsu. While others are still trying to reinvent the wheel, Robson just beams up to whatever parallel universe he happens to be creating in that particular moment.

What a lot of jiu-jitsu looks like

What Robson Moura jiu-jitsu looks like

Our stories could not be more different. If anybody came to jiu-jitsu for the right reasons, it's Robson. With one fell swoop he managed to break out of an impossible living situation, isolated from society and from life itself on a cold, rainy hillside whose only natural resource seems to be mud, and also achieve personal fulfillment and success in the field God chose for him. You could almost go so far as to say that God invented Brazilian jiu-jitsu just to give Robson a nice toy to play with. And if that sounds crazy to you, I believe God does these things, and more.

I was a klutzy girlie girl, already teetering on the brink of middle age, more concerned with messing up her eye makeup than passing the guard. And in fact it took me months to figure out why anybody would even want to pass the guard, which seemed to me like a nice comfortable place to hang out for five minutes until the buzzer rang.

And the only thing Robson and I have in common, besides brown eyes, is the same thing that everybody who makes it past the first year in jiu-jitsu has in common, and that is a stubborn refusal to face facts.

The facts are, jiu-jitsu will break your body and your spirit. It will take your money and leave you with bad knees and a staple in your spine. The facts are, nobody makes it in jiu-jitsu and those that do don't make any money.

I mean, those are the statistics.

But do statistics matter? Are statistics even true?

Mark Twain said "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

And what I want to say is, statistics are a game too. Like jiu-jitsu but not fun. And unless you're a mathematician like my father, if you fight statistics, you're going to lose.

Statistically, Robson should have taken a bullet 30 years ago. And if you watch the video Life in the Favela, he talks about how he almost did. Robson wasn't supposed to become a legend. He was supposed to become a statistic.

Life in the Favela

Statistically, I should have given up on jiu-jitsu - and men - after that initial nightmare experience in California. And it was only sheer stubbornness - and a confused urge to somehow prove myself to the purple belt dick who told me I was the "worst training partner in the world" - that made me crawl onto a mat again, with all my health issues and my disillusionment and my black belt phobia.

Incredibly, I found a world where I didn't need to prove myself, where putting on a gi made me automatically one of the guys, where everybody made fun of everybody in a way that made you laugh and not cry. 

2010: Team

Statistically, I should never have earned a single stripe on my white belt. Instead, I made it all the way to purple belt.

I was talking to a friend of mine who competed in a big tourney recently and lost. And he apologized for letting me down.

And I seriously thought that he maybe accidentally messaged me when he was trying to message someone else (which can totally happen). Because if there's one thing that 2016 taught me it's that what matters, what changes you, what turns the human spirit from iron into steel, is trying - and by "trying" I mean trying really fucking hard - which is not always the same as succeeding.

I'm not dissing success. But if you think about it, you can stall for 7 minutes and then win by advantage and get a medal. Or you can go balls out, fight like a Viking, and lose to a staller who is playing to the rules. Who won and who lost?

We all define success differently, and that's fine. If what you want is a medal and stalling is the only way to get it - because maybe your opponent is an even bigger staller and as the saying goes, fight stalling with stalling - then do that and be proud.

But for me, what matters to me, what interests me, is growth, which is not the same as improvement. Improving means getting really, really good at flawed strategies to the point where you can make them work anyway. Growth means changing your strategies. 

And jiu-jitsu can help you grow - it can even help you grow up. But the number one thing you need to grow up - and this is going to sound like a contradiction - is the heart of a child.

The heart of a child doesn't know or care about statistics, or facts, or probabilities. The heart of a child has the unique ability to hope and persevere and most of all, try - really fucking hard - and because of that, the heart of a child is invincible.

The heart of a child is the strongest force in the world.

The heart of a child believes in the cake
(but keeps an eye on it just in case)

And I think that's why I wanted to put Robson's story into the form of a children's book. Because with all his phenomenal talent, the thing that took Robson from where he was to where he is now was, primarily, that: the heart of a child.

Available at

It was only when I started really thinking about that story and writing it down that I finally understood the Bible verse that says: Lest you become as a little child, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. - Matthew 18:3

It means believe and never doubt. It means that there will come a time - sometimes early in your path - when you have to choose between facts and statistics and belief. And when that time comes, the heart of a child chooses belief.

It's not about believing that everything you want will fall into your lap, but belief that you can do it. Everything you want to achieve, everything you want to do or to be, is within your grasp. But you have to try - really fucking hard - and never give up.

The heart of a child doesn't know it has no chance - so it creates its own chances. The heart of a child doesn't know how to spell failure - so it succeeds.

We all have the heart of a child, somewhere inside us. I believe that the heart of a child is what leads us to jiu-jitsu  - because jiu-jitsu is fun! - and I also believe that jiu-jitsu can, in turn, help us find the heart of a child that is playing hide-and-go-seek somewhere in our inner being.

And when we find our child's heart - the heart that is smarter than the brain because the brain understands statistics and the heart doesn't - we can do anything and everything we want to do.

The heart of a child is what makes dreams come true.

O mais importante é você acreditar. - Robson Moura

Monday, March 20, 2017

What jiu-jitsu isn't

Winning doesn't mean winning. Winning means not losing. 
- Saulo Ribeiro

I was thinking the other day about jiu-jitsu. Yes, really.

Specifically in the context that I haven't been feeling well lately. Actually, I haven't felt well in a long time. It started a year ago when Robson lost at Abu Dhabi and I almost died from kidney failure and hyponatremia. And then it just went on from there, with various physical problems punctuated by random people behaving unpleasantly for absolutely no reason.

And as far as the random people and their wackness, welcome to the human race. Pedro Sauer told me to "Stay away from the crazies," but that's about as easy, in our 1% world, as staying away from drunks at a frat party. But as far as my body goes, I think I just didn't give myself enough time to heal. And when you do that, you set yourself up for the next injury.

It's kind of like submissions, but in a bad way. If every submission is the gateway to every other submission - which, if you think about it, is absolutely true - then every unsolved challenge is the gateway to every other challenge.

Health challenges lead to financial challenges and psychological challenges, because if you're not training, you're losing your mind and wasting all your money on doctors and new gear you can't use because you're not training. You know that.

And psychological challenges lead to physical challenges. What happened last April is, I got very upset, not because Robson lost by one advantage point - because let's face it, losing by one advantage is exactly the same thing as winning by one advantage - but because Soca got him in side control. And side control, as we all know, is the Bottomless Abyss of Fear and Horror. And seeing Robson, who I thought had supernatural powers - and in fact there have been times, while talking to Jesus, that I have accidentally called Jesus "Robson" and I'm not even making that up - on the bottom like that, in the position I fear above all other positions, freaked me out.

"He moves better than a hypothetical Jesus."

And so I trained really hard that day, because I had had a shock, and I wasn't really feeling my body, and then bad things started to happen. All of which resulted in about 800 dollars worth of doctor bills because my family doctor, Dr. Dumpling, whose idea of exercise is waddling to the kitchen to get another package of Oreos, just thought I was making shit up and I didn't get a diagnosis until I saw an actual nephrologist. And I felt crappy for a long time.

And then, because I was feeling crappy, I wasn't really working out or training and when I came back on the mat, a guy put his knee on my rib, in SIDE CONTROL (in a drill), and boom! broken rib. Which is ironic, or something, because all those fears about what that guy might do to Robson came true in my own body. And then I tried to lift weights too soon after the broken rib and boom! - pinched nerve (agony). And so on until my present condition of recovering from a ruptured mystery organ.

And the bad news is, I just got the bill from ER, and there goes my trip to San Diego. By the way, I think that a diagnosis of "abdominal pain," when your complaint was "abdominal pain,"  is absolutely worth 2000 dollars. Not. And I can't even blame Obama, since I had shitty insurance before. 

But the good news is, I started to learn jiu-jitsu.

And that's what I was thinking about.

I've heard a lot of people say what jiu-jitsu isn't. It isn't this, it isn't that. It ain't a sport.

And I was thinking that I respectfully disagree.

I understand that the natural urge of humans is to cut a thing down to size so they can control it. If jiu-jitsu ain't a sport, you don't have to learn the berimbolo, and you can look down on all the people who are berimboloing you from the moral highground of a guy who just got beat but kept his principles intact.

And I do get that. Apparently saying "S/he beat me" is too hard. People have to make it so that the tap didn't realllllly count. The guy was playing sport jiu-jitsu, the girl is bigger and/or stronger and/or a bitch, whatever it takes to keep our fragile egos intact.

And the refrain is, That's not jiu-jitsu.

But I have news for you: Yes it is. It's all jiu-jitsu, and none of it's fair. 

Jiu-jitsu. It's not supposed to be fair.

I'm heavier, you're younger, nobody cares. Did you die? Then stop whining. And stop trying to say what jiu-jitsu isn't. First of all, it's not up to you, or me for that matter, but I'm not the one trying to define the undefinable. 

At the same time, just because I beat you, or you beat me, doesn't mean we can decide who's better based on that. If I beat you, that simply means that I beat you this time. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm better. Same thing goes if you beat me. It's not that big a deal.

Or we could just train.

When you beat me 100 times, and you also beat everybody else, then it's safe to say you're better, but at that point it should be so obvious that it doesn't need to be stated. Does anybody still doubt that Robson is better than them?

But what I'm saying is that that's not really the point. We don't need to come up with a hierarchy, who's better, who's worse. That's what the IBJJF is for. That's what God is for. All we need to worry about is this fight, this submission. We don't have to worry about what others are doing. We have to worry about what we're doing.

And the funny thing is that the more we try to make jiu-jitsu in our own image, the less jiu-jitsu cooperates. The more we try to submit it with definitions, the more jiu-jitsu escapes. The more we try to say what jiu-jitsu isn't, the more jiu-jitsu reveals what it is.

And it reminds me of an interview I did with my ex-husband for my capstone project when I was finishing up my master's. I wanted a physician's perspective on healing and various themes associated with healing.

And I asked him to define love. I asked everybody that. I wanted to know because I feel like love is one of those words that everybody uses and few really understand - especially me. Forgiveness is another one. And jiu-jitsu is another one. 

Anyway, Tommaso's response was as follows: 

Love is an absolute and, as such, it cannot be defined. Anyone who tries to define love wants to trap it in a definition, and love is not love when it is trapped. 
Love is free. 
Love is something you live but you can't define it in a concept, because defining it would mean limiting it. 
- Tommaso Capitano, M.D.

And first of all, now you know why I love my ex-husband. I love the way his mind works. We weren't meant to be, and now he has a beautiful family to prove it, but he's quite the guy.

Tommaso 1995 ca. I already had jiu-jitsu instincts :)

And secondly, you could swap out the word "love" and substitute "jiu-jitsu" and Tommaso's non-definition would be equally valid.

Jiu-jitsu is not jiu-jitsu when it is trapped. Jiu-jitsu is free.

But the path that I traveled on in my mind to arrive at that conclusion was when I was driving down the road, and thinking about how I don't feel well, and how that has changed my game. Because my priorities used to be: a) don't get injured and b) don't get tapped. And now my only priority is: don't throw up. But as challenging as that is, it occurred to me, as I was driving down the road, that this is jiu-jitsu.

This is where the rubber meets the road, at least for me. This is where the fears meet the will, where the heart meets the brain, where strength meets skill. 


This is where I prove myself to myself. And as much as it would be nice to have a little recognition sometimes from the outside world (but apparently that's asking way too much), the inside world is the one that matters to me. Do I meet my own standards? What are my standards?

Illnesses and injuries have sapped my strength. Random people's bullshit outbursts have eroded my will. Age isn't helping anything and neither are the doctor bills and, just on a side note, how many times can they bill you for the same fucking thing?

The passion I used to feel for this art is dead - or at least, I can't find a pulse. The rose-colored glasses through which I viewed my instructors have been smashed into smithereens. The crazies are everywhere and they're winning, because you can't fight crazy if you're not crazy and you can't fight gossip, period, because in the gossip wars, she who stabs the first back, wins. The honeymoon is over. Big time.

Honeymoon's over

So why do I still put on a gi?

Because the salmon swim upstream. That's why. Because, in the words of Valerie Worthington, "I can't not."

And the crazy thing is that I feel like, in a way, it's only now that I'm starting to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now that there's nothing left in my body, nothing left in my heart or my mind, now that there is only emptiness where all that passion used to be, now there is room for jiu-jitsu to come and work through me.

At the same time, I'm not saying that what I did before wasn't jiu-jitsu. I'm not saying that all the 20somethings duking it out at the Pans last weekend, with their steroids and their sponsors and their hair and their coaches (idea: why not have a "virtual" BJJ competition where the competitors don't even show up and the coaches just scream until the loudest coach wins?) aren't fighting jiu-jitsu.

It's just a different jiu-jitsu.

All I'm saying is that I think we get in the habit of thinking that is true jiu-jitsu, that the young, healthy, rockstar jiu-jitsu is where it's at, and, in one way, it is where it's at. I love that kind of jiu-jitsu too.

At the same time, I think the idea that jiu-jitsu comes from a place of strength is, at the very least, incomplete. As far as I know, jiu-jitsu was invented to trump strength. But yeah, Xande vs. Rodolfo is amazing jiu-jitsu. Terere and Saulo and Sperry and Shaolin and Glover. And did I mention Robson? And whatever the names of these kids today are, they're fighting incredible jiu-jitsu too.

But when you get hit by a bus - especially when the bus is called life - and you shrimp out of the way before the steamroller behind the bus can flatten you, that's amazing jiu-jitsu too. There's no oohing and ahing by the crowd, there's no glory, it's whimper-not-a-bang jitsu, but it's still jiu-jitsu, baby. There may come a time in your life when it's the only kind of jiu-jitsu you have left. And there may come a time in your life when you realize it's the only jiu-jitsu you really need.

Sometimes jiu-jitsu is about surviving

It's not the jiu-jitsu of winning. It's the jiu-jitsu of not losing.

It's a different layer, a different level.

Jiu-jitsu is like those matryoshka dolls from Russia, where you open one and find another inside, and you keep opening them and you keep finding more of them, and every time you think you've reached the end, you find another one. All the way to infinity.


Robson Moura says jiu-jitsu has no end. And I think when we think of infinity, we think of expansion, growth, we (at least I) think of wide horizons and big skies. But there's another kind of infinity, and that's the kind of infinity we have inside us.

It's the kind of infinity where every time you lose something - your strength, your passion, your health, your energy - you open that matryoschka doll of jiu-jitsu and you find another one inside. Every time you think it's over, it's not over. Every time you hit rock bottom, you find a diamond. 

Every time you think you have given everything you had to give, you realize that then, and only then, is when jiu-jitsu can start giving back to you.

Interestingly enough, that's what forgiveness means. I mean literally. Forgive comes from the German vergeben which originally meant "to give all." Ver + geben.

Maybe it's not until we can forgive - our bodies and our minds and our instructors and our training partners and the hotties and the haters and the doctors and our parents and gluten and beer - that jiu-jitsu can forgive us. Maybe it's not until we can stop trying to define love that we can find love. Maybe it's not until we give all that jiu-jitsu can start giving back to us. 

Maybe it's not until we stop trying to figure out what jiu-jitsu isn't that we can begin to understand what jiu-jitsu is.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

10 Things Ricardo Pires Taught Me

Josh Lasich, Master Ricardo, and son Victor Pires

It's easy to remember when I met Ricardo Pires. It was the first week in February 2010, the same week my father died. It was the usual bleak and blustery February day, Northeast Ohio's specialty. I attended the morning class.

At that time I was still a white belt. I found Ricardo Pires BJJ by accident while Googling for a seminar. 

Instead of a seminar, I found Ricardo. I didn't immediately recognize him, partly because the website pictures didn't show him with a February morning beard, partly because he spoke English without an accent. But mostly his attitude was all wrong. Wrong, I mean, for my expectations.

I was expecting "I am the Great Ricardo Pires" and I was more than a little terrified, since I am naturally shy and was at that time very conscious of my lowly white belt status. Instead, I met a guy in a simple white Fruit of the Loom t-shirt who greeted me pleasantly while straightening something on the wall.

He was tactful. When he had us line up by rank, I accidentally went to the wrong end because in my home academy, we didn't line up and I didn't know which side was the low side. Ricardo directed me to the correct end by saying, with a sunny smile that seemed devoid of mockery, "It's warmer down there."

Everybody called him Ricardo which seemed natural to me, because in my home academy we all called my instructor by his first name too. It wasn't until Ricardo's partner insisted on being called "Professor" that I even knew that was a thing, and I certainly never heard Ricardo correct anybody who called him by his first name.

Now that I've been in the game awhile, it bugs me to hear white belts yelling "Ricardo" or "Pedro" or "Robson" across the mat as if they were calling their dogs. But at the time, I did it too because I literally didn't know any better.

As Ricardo later told me:  "I don't want somebody to call me Professor, or Master or whatever, because I tell them to. If they call me that because they really feel it, then I like it. But I don't want people to feel like they have to call me that because of a sign on the wall."

And that's Ricardo Pires in a nutshell. But in a world where there are plenty of nuts in the nutshells, Ricardo is eminently sane, humble yet self-respecting, and usually cheerful.

When Pedro Sauer asked me years ago who I trained with, his face lit up with an almost incredulous smile.

"He's a good friend of mine," he said. "I knew him back in the day in Rio. He's a tough guy. And a funny guy."

I got the same enthusiastic reaction years later from Ricardo Liborio, who complimented me on my pronunciation of the name Ricardo. I thanked him without realizing until days later that of course, Ricardo was his name too. In my mind, there is only one Ricardo.

And I think it's the same for most of us Northeast Ohioans who had the chance to train with Ricardo for the all-too-brief time he spent in Cleveland. I am writing about my experience with Master Ricardo, not because I think it's unique, but because I think it's pretty typical. Typical, I mean, for Ricardo's students, not typical in the greater jiu-jitsusphere.

But I didn't know that back then. Since I was only a white belt when I met Ricardo, I felt like of course, all jiu-jitsu black belts must be smart, and funny, and humble, and really fucking good. I thought of Ricardo as the guardian of the portal to the real reality of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, where everyone and everything is awesome, and I thought that once you passed through that portal, there would be no going back.

Of course I was wrong. Not only was I sucked backwards through the magic portal the same day, the same hour that Ricardo gathered us all together to promote Mike Riedel and say goodbye, I've spent the better part of the past 8 years just trying to find that magic doorway again, let alone pass through it once more to that place in my jiu-jitsu journey where I was happy, and part of things, and where every day was a lesson in jiu-jitsu and an even greater lesson in life.

Back through the magic portal 😢💔

And if I can be a little personal - well, a lot personal - the tears are coming down as I write this, tears of pity for the person I was, who had yet to discover that not all black belts are like Ricardo. I thought that it was jiu-jitsu itself that gave him his mind and heart and I didn't understand that that's just Ricardo. There's one of him. Not two. We were blessed to have Ricardo with us for about the same amount of time it takes a comet to streak across the sky. 

And then we lost him. He went back to Brazil, and from there to Fort Lauderdale, and someone else is basking in his sunny smile. Lucky them.

And the pity I feel is not self-pity, it's pity for the person I was and who I no longer am, the person who had yet to embark on the sea of nutshells, the sometimes ugly realities of the jiu-jitsu journey where there are, let's face it, a lot of assholes in the nutshells ("A lot," said Robson Moura when I said the same thing to him.) It's the same pity I feel for the 10 year-old me who had yet to learn that not every man was handsome, and smart, and funny, and humble, and THERE, like my father and my stepfather, the me who still didn't know that women are mean and men are unreliable, and they disappear, out of your inbox and out of your life, for absolutely no good reason I have ever been able to ascertain.

Because let's face it, the jiu-jitsu journey is very much like the life journey, and the even more insidious love journey, and the same discoveries and heartbreaks you meet up with in your life, chances are you will find them on the mat. 

And if Ricardo's abrupt departure broke my heart along with a lot of other hearts, it feels, now, like a privilege to have had our collective heart broken by someone so unique who, among other things, gave all of us a very solid base in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Because yes, this is a touchy-feely kind of post, but I only get emotional about things that have value. Soppy Hallmark cards don't do it for me. I always look at the back and wish the person had just sent me a check for the 3.99 instead.

And that's why, with all his sunny smile and charm and humor, and all the fond memories I have of Ricardo, who accidentally started dancing when the Doobie Brothers came on the radio, and who moved with an entourage of family members and random Brazilians like a movie star, the main thing I remember about Ricardo is stored in my muscle memory, and not my all-too-fallible brain memory, and that's my jiu-jitsu. Because the core of my jiu-jitsu is the jiu-jitsu Master Ricardo taught me.

And it seems to be fairly effective. I'm not one of those people who think they're awesome. I think people think I do think that, just because I go everywhere and train everywhere, but it's the opposite. I'm just trying to get better. Even back in February 2010 when I met Ricardo, my motivation was that I sucked and I knew I sucked. I wasn't trying to not suck. Not sucking, at that point in my jiu-jitsu life, was too far out of my reach. I was trying to suck less.

And if I've succeeded at all in that endeavor, it's because of the jiu-jitsu that Ricardo helped me build. And if ever a black belt has earned his tuition money, it's Ricardo Pires when he was teaching jiu-jitsu challenged me the basics.

As my friend Gregg said, "He's going to end up paying you 135 bucks a month to stay home." When I told Ricardo that, he smiled and said, "Tell Gregg I'm thinking about it."

But if this is a touchy-feely kind of post, it's also true that Ricardo teaches a very touchy-feely kind of jiu-jitsu. It is quite simply a jiu-jitsu that you cannot see, you have to feel it.

Which doesn't mean it's the much-touted "invisible" jiu-jitsu, either, simply because Ricardo is not the kind of person to give his jiu-jitsu catchy nicknames. If you ask him if it's "invisible jiu-jitsu," I guarantee that he will look at you, smile with a smile that warms the room and takes away the sting, and say, "It's just jiu-jitsu." 

To Ricardo (at least, this is my impression), jiu-jitsu is not about visible vs. invisible, any more than music or love can be visible or invisible. Jiu-jitsu simply is, and all that which is, can be felt. That's his world. And if you can't feel it, and your opponent can't feel you, you're doing it wrong.

We needed Ricardo, I needed Ricardo, and not just to set the standard for what real jiu-jitsu is in Northeast Ohio, although of course that was part of it. Because yes, there was jiu-jitsu in Ohio, kind of, but Ricardo came here and showed everybody how it's done in the real world. Something as simple as how do you know you've passed the guard? You know you've passed the guard when you're chest to chest. Not when you're hovering in the air somewhere, not when you're in Starbucks sipping a latte, you've passed the guard when you're chest to chest and in the drills, if you didn't finish chest to chest, if you were a millimeter from the guy's chest, you lost and the other guy won. Period.

And you'd be surprised how many people don't know that.

We each needed Ricardo for our own reasons, I guess. I lost my father and gained a teacher, all in the same week. Thanks, God, you're a pal. And I think every one of Ricardo's students probably has a story to tell, and as I said, I'm telling my story not because I think I'm the exception, but because I'm the rule. With the catch being that when you've had the opportunity to train with Ricardo Pires, you become, automatically, the exception.

For those who have had the opportunity to train with Master Ricardo, this list should look familiar. For those who haven't yet had the opportunity, this list might give you a glimpse into the magic portal that some of us have had the good fortune to pass through.


1. DON'T GET THERE. "Ricardo, how do I get out of (whatever bad situation)?" Master Ricardo (big smile): Don't get there! This was Ricardo's leitmotiv during his time in Ohio and he himself always gave credit for it to his teacher, Carlson Gracie. The next step being, "But if I get there?" According to Master Ricardo, Master Carlson's answer to that was, "If you get there, pray. And when you pray, pray with faith!" In Northeast Ohio, "Don't get there" is a kind of secret code for initiates. If you say "Don't get there" on any mat in Northeast Ohio, you're almost guaranteed that someone will pop up and say, "Ricardo!" It's our version of "Open, Sesame!" to that magic portal that we seek.

2. KNOW YOUR WEAKNESS - AND BLOCK IT. Master Ricardo said this while talking about the takedown. He was saying, basically, that although the takedown is great if you can get it, if you're not great at takedowns, then maybe pulling guard isn't such a bad idea. This is typical of Master Ricardo's pragmatic approach and is one that is easy to apply to all areas of life, love, and BJJ. We all have weaknesses. That's the human condition. And we can choose to ignore them, and pretend they're not there (and then get tripped up by them at inconvenient times) or factor them into our game plan. The Oracle at Delphi famously said, "Know thyself." Master Ricardo would add, "And block thyself."

3. FIND A WAY AROUND. This is about how we approach obstacles. According to Master Ricardo, the American approach to obstacles is (tendentially) to try to knock them down. The Brazilian approach, on the other hand, which is arguably the Brazilian part of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is to find a way around the obstacle. "Why try to knock down the wall," said Ricardo, "when there's an open door a few feet away?" 

4. IF  YOU CONTROL YOURSELF, YOU CAN CONTROL THE SITUATION. Anybody who knows Master Ricardo even a little bit knows that control is his thing. When I asked him if he had ever been called a control freak, he got a little tense, said no, and then relaxed and said, "Actually my wife says that to me a lot." But Master Ricardo taught me about a kind of control that he calls "good control." In our society, in our relationships, in our world, it is normal to feel out of control, and part of that is we are led to believe that control is a bad thing. We respond by micromanaging piddly details that don't matter. We all have that friend who won't pick up the phone when you call them and who will wait 15 minutes and call you, just because of their secret control complex. Master Ricardo teaches an out-of-the-closet kind of control where you take control from the get-go and retain control until your goal is achieved. "For me," says Master Ricardo, "if I have a certain objective, it's just the easiest way to achieve it." But what happens if you can't control the situation? Surely some things will be out of your control? "If you control yourself," says Master Ricardo, "you can control the situation."

5. IN THE PASS AND IN YOUR LIFE, BEFORE YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING YOU NEED TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE COMING FROM. This statement is so profound that you just have to let it percolate. I carried it around with me for years before I really understood what Master Ricardo was talking about and I can't really explain it now except to say that where you are coming from is directly related to where you are going. They are two halves of the same whole. Specifically, Master Ricardo was referring to how he discovered when he was already in his 40's that he was the descendant of slaves, and of how proud he was to learn that. And it's interesting, to say the least, that having descended from people who had absolutely no control except the control they had over themselves, Master Ricardo has become a true master in the art of control, including but not limited to his phenomenal side control. And back to the pass, once again it's about seeing reality with your eyes open, not kidding yourself, and dealing with that reality with a certain goal in mind but also with realistic expectations.

6. IT'S IMPORTANT THAT EVERY INCH YOU GAIN, YOU KEEP. This is once again relating to the pass but also to real life and it came up because I asked Master Ricardo if his passing style had changed over the years and if he saw a parallel in his life. His response was "Absolutely" on both counts. Master Ricardo described how in his early days, his passing style was much more athletic, stand up, sit down, move around, because he knew he could. Whereas at the time we spoke, he already felt like when he was passing, he had a strong awareness that he was going to have one chance and he needed to make it count. He related that to his business life in the sense that although he is by nature a risk-taker, he is much more aware now of the risk-benefit ratio and less inclined to take "risky" risks.

7. RESPECT IS GIVING 100% EVERY TIME. Respect is one of those words that everybody uses, especially in the world of martial arts, but nobody ever defines. Master Ricardo's definition is indicative of how he trains and, I believe, how he lives. It's not about perfection - although Master Ricardo is an avowed perfectionist - it's about giving everything you have. His dojo was one of the few I've ever trained in where there was no "playing" jiu-jitsu vs. "fighting." There was just training. Hard. And although physically strenuous, I enjoyed the lack of ambiguity. Nobody went crying to the instructor to complain if you tapped them and if they did, they were probably greeted with a blank stare. When I told Master Ricardo years later that I had been reprimanded for not "helping" lower belts, he got a puzzled look on his face and said, "But tapping them is helping them."

8. THE FINISH IS ALWAYS THE SAME. HOW YOU GET THERE IS UP TO YOU. In a jiu-jitsu sense, this is fairly self-explanatory. I have to confess that this tends to come to my mind more in a real life kind of sense, and of course the first step, and maybe the last step, and certainly the hard step, is understanding what the finish is. When I asked Master Ricardo what the finish was in real life, he smiled and said, "Whatever you want it to be. Whatever your goal is." And then he asked me, because I had quoted this back to him some time after he said it, "Do you remember everything I say?"

9. THE ONLY TIME YOU REALLY FAIL IS WHEN YOU FAIL TO TRY. As obvious as this may seem, it took me years to finally internalize it and believe it. Because in my heart of hearts, I hate to lose. To the point that I'd rather not compete, I'd rather not try, and fortunately or unfortunately, there are always a lot of valid reasons to not try, whether we're talking about competition or jobs or dating or whatever. I can say in all modesty that alibis are my superpower. It took me 8 years to finally get up the nerve to compete in a tournament, and it was only then, when I got choked, in public, right off my takedown attempt, that I really understood what Master Ricardo meant. I lost, but I didn't fail. In fact, the courage it took, at 49, to compete in the adult division of an IBJJF event and to lose was the same courage it would have taken to fight and win, and possibly even more. It wasn't the kind of courage anyone is born with. It was quite simply the desperate last resort of a heart that had run out of alibis. And if you disagree, good for you, because I'm not living my life to meet your standards.

10. STAY IN THE GAME. I can't even remember in what context this came up originally, but I cited it recently in a Facebook post which I think does as good a job as any of illustrating the point.

Love is like the submission. You can't look for it because it will elude you. You can't take it by force because it will resist you. All you can do is train and live your life and be ready to recognize it when it does appear. And then let it give itself to you. 
And maybe the most important thing is what my teacher Master Ricardo Pires told me a long time ago:  Stay in the game, Deborah. Always stay in the game.

~ February 16, 2017. DM