St. Louis is okay by me
Great day to wake up in Paducah; the overnight temperature measured a record 57 degrees Fahrenheit, one degree colder than the last record set in 1983. In your face, global warming! Plus, donuts were available at the free breakfast supplied by the hotel. Being a card-carrying member of Team Donuts*, I had to show my support.
I “overslept” a little. Overslept is in quotes because I have to keep reminding myself that I really don’t have to be anywhere unless I want to be, and while I did want to get to Rodrigo Vaghi’s school in St. Louis in time for the 11am no-gi class, I was also exhausted from 3 or 4 days of training, driving, and staying up late blogging. So I got on the road a little later than I expected, driving through KY and IL about 220 miles on I24, I57, I64, and I44. On I57, I had the option of heading toward Chicago. I didn’t.
I encountered a little backup of traffic once I arrived in St. Louis, which didn’t help me get to class on time. I did see the famous arch, and was also thinking that St. Louis is where White Palace, that movie with Susan Sarandon and James Spader, takes place. Is it wrong that that’s the only thing about St. Louis that came to mind? Okay, how about the Cardinals, Mark McGwire, birthplace of Samuel Clemens? (Work with me; I think he was born somewhere in MO.)
Vaghi’s school is the first one I went to where I felt intimidated. It’s always a little uncomfortable to walk into a different school, but this was the first school where I felt like maybe I didn’t belong. And not because the people weren’t nice—they were—but because the people were HUGE. They grow ‘em big in St. Louis. So here I am, this 135 lb chick in her 30s getting on the mat with enormo-dudes probably fresh out of high school and college in muscle tees with lots of tattoos (or “ink,” as the cool kids say). For some reason, no-gi classes tend to attract more large guys than gi classes. This is true at Carlson’s school in Chicago as well as other places I have trained. Plus, there weren’t any women, not even one or two like there usually are. Check out the picture of Jon, the guy I repped technique with, and imagine a mat full of guys that size. Then imagine being my size and wanting to play with the big boys.
I could see Rodrigo doing a private gi lesson with a student so I eventually caught the eye of the person who seemed to be his second in command; this was Jon. I talked to Rodrigo too and he was very friendly; at first he asked me if I was there to watch but seemed pleasantly surprised when I said I was there to train. He taught two variations of a choke called an anaconda, which is when you use your arms to trap the opponent’s arm and head. The set-up for this series of chokes can be from side control of the turtle position (when the opponent is on all fours and you are kneeling next to him/her).
After the no-gi class there was about 90 minutes of free gi sparring. This raised an interesting issue for me about visiting student etiquette. I have 4 gis with me. Two of them are completely plain, but two of them have Carlson Gracie team patches on them. My two plain gis were dirty, so I checked with Rodrigo before I wore one with patches. He didn’t mind, but there are two interesting things: first, some instructors DO mind if you wear the patch of your own school, and second, wearing a patch or otherwise indicating that you are not from the school makes you stand out. I don’t think in this case it was a bullseye, but I can see how it would be at some academies. I haven’t figured out what the proper etiquette is, but it’s just an interesting political question. There are lots of BJJ players who are trying to be apolitical; they don’t care where you train or anything as long as you are there to learn. But there are old school politics and secretive natures among some of the older players, so you have to tread lightly sometimes.
Unfortunately, Rodrigo left before I could snap a picture with him, but you can go to his website to see what he looks like. I did get pics with Jon and Tracy; Jon is on the left below. I also have pics of just me and Jon and just me and Tracy, but of course they are not cooperating. So they'll go up later.
And now I need to write about Tracy, both because he is a great guy and also because my encounter with him is indicative of how cool the BJJ connection can be. I had posted on the forum that I was going to Vaghi’s school and wondered if anyone could tell me anything about it. Well, someone named Brian posted that I should look for a guy named Tracy. So here I am chatting with this really nice guy and his girlfriend, and all of a sudden he says he’s good friends with Brian. I narrow my eyes and ask, “Are you Tracy?” He looks surprised and says yes, and then bingo, we have a connection. He was plenty friendly before then, but after I mentioned Brian, he was downright familial. I mentioned that I was scouting out a place to watch the UFC, and he said I should watch with him and the rest of Vaghi’s team.
I hemmed and hawed, out of shyness rather than not wanting to watch with them, and said I needed to check my itinerary. And I love that he said, “Itinerary schmitinerary. You set your own schedule.” He was right. So I decided to stay in St. Louis rather than driving to Columbia, and I watched the fights with him and the rest of the Vaghi crew. And it was really fun. We watched at the St. Louis Sports Zone. It was a zoo. I was afraid it was going to be really smoky, but it wasn’t, and I got two beers for less than 5 bucks. And after we stood for a little bit, it looked like Tracy pulled some strings or something and got us a good table. So it was a great way to watch. Some of the fights were boring, some were bloodbaths, some were anticlimactic, but it was nice to have like-minded people to watch them with.
So that’s the BJJ connection. Immediately, you have a shared interest, a common passion, and it hooks you into lots of opportunities; before class, I had been alone and not sure where to watch the UFC, and then after class I had a place to watch and people to watch with. Other examples of the connection: I stayed with Darin and Linh for the better part of a week, Soneca was prepared to let me stay with him and his wife and baby daughter even though he doesn’t know me all that well, and at Nashville MMA, more than one person wanted to know how long I was staying in town and was disappointed that I was leaving so soon.
When I said I was going to do laundry today, Tracy offered to let me do it at his place. I didn’t take him up on it because I didn’t want to put him out, but I don’t know any other “hobby” where you make connections so quickly. When I was leaving, he made sure I had his number and told me to call if I needed anything. So the point is, BJJ is just cool for the instant connection you have. I’m not saying everyone is best friends, but it really is a family in the truest sense of the word; you have a bond to others who train, and it puts you in a special fraternity (or sorority J).
Another thing that’s interesting about BJJers is how multifaceted they are. I’m sure this is true of lots of people who don’t do BJJ, that they have multiple and far-ranging interests. But maybe because martial arts conjure up the image of a particular kind of person, it’s always fascinating to me to get behind the BJJ/MMA persona and see what else is there. For instance, Tracy and Jon have their own businesses, Tracy a sports clothing company called Blunt Force Trauma, and Jon a promotion business (he puts on professional events). Tracy is also a model.
And that’s what I mean about the discrepancy between what you would expect from a mixed martial artist and what you get. Tracy’s teammates give him a lot of crap for being a model, though of course it’s all in fun. Likewise, a guy that I trained with in Chicago, Hercules, is a huge, muscular, tattooed guy who grapples, is a personal trainer, AND…drum roll please…colors hair. He works in the Gold Coast, one of the tonier sections of Chicago, and does highlights and lowlights for wealthy clients at a high end salon. When I asked how he would color my hair, he surprised me with his response, which is that he’d have me go much darker with maybe some auburn thrown in to draw attention to my cheekbones. (I thought everyone was steered toward blonde, just as a general rule.) I mentioned to him that he had an eclectic set of interests, and his response made so much sense: "Well, all the things I do professionally help people feel good about themselves."
What a cool response. I'm glad there are people like Hercules in the world.
There’s also Rich Franklin, a UFC champion who has a master’s degree in education and used to be a high school teacher. Natasha said that Jeff Monson, also a UFC fighter, and a thickset, shaved-head, tattooed, anarchic slab of a person, has a master’s degree in psychology. (She also joked about how he got the degree by just bodily taking a diploma from someone else, crossing out that person’s name with a Sharpie and printing his own name in its place, and then punching the guy in the throat when he protested, but that’s another story.) I just like that yet another thing BJJ gives me is opportunity after opportunity to shatter my own preconceived notions about people and look behind their outward appearances to the person inside.
Okay, I’m babbling a little. Must be sleepy.
*Team Donuts is a group of people who train BJJ sometimes and who eat donuts more than sometimes. I have a TD patch on the seat of one pair of gi pants; I put it there because I figured that’s where donuts generally end up. A few years back, a member of Team Donuts named Karl and I actually had a donut exchange. I FedExed him apple cider donuts from an orchard in downstate IL near where my sister lives with her family, and he FedExed me donuts from Stan’s, a famous place in LA that sells flavors like peanut butter and banana along with the usual jelly and glazed. If you have never had an apple cider donut or a Stan’s donut, you need to do everything in your power to rectify the situation.