First Class

Just a 15-minute drive from my office and I’m sitting in the Parking Lot of Phoenix Fitness and Martial Arts.  I’ve been here once before when I met the owners, Ethan and Renee Chandler, and took a tour of the facilities.  

Ethan is a high-energy, quick talking, former analyst turned gym owner.  Like many entrepreneurs, he left corporate life to chase his dream.  He brings the analyst mentality to his business, watching the numbers carefully.  However, he doesn’t treat people like numbers.  From the first time I met him, I liked him.   His wife Renee is the other part of the ownership dynamic duo.  She is friendly and thoughtful.  I think she probably keeps Ethan’s enthusiasm grounded.

My first thought when I visited was, “This place is immaculate.”  It’s not just clean, it sparkles.  From the weight area to the mats, to the gorgeous showers, everything is in its place.  I will see the same today.

My first class is no gi or no kimono (the jiu-jitsu uniform--more on that later) depending on which word you use.  No kimono/gi means regular workout clothes.  Next class, I’ll wear a kimono/gi.  Sounds funny just saying it. 

I thought I would be more nervous.  Then, I see a couple of young guys and my heart rate goes up a few beats.  Ethan had told me that the noon class was almost exclusively middle-aged guys.  Well, here are the “almosts”. 

Cue anxiety.  I’m not really sure why these younger guys bring it out, but there you have it.  I grab my bag and head to the door. 

The entry is well-lit, clean and welcoming.  Merch is on the right--shorts, gloves, pads, t-shirts, gis--nearly everything you might need for the practice of martial arts.  They also offer Muay Thai (Americans sometimes call it kickboxing.  I call it a martial art designed exclusively to inflict as much damage to your opponent as possible.  It’s a great workout, though.), self-defense for youth, personal and group training.  Ethan calls it a “training gym” because when you join, you join to train with a trainer, either in groups or alone.  Members can also come workout in the gym on their own during the off times. 

Renee greets me.  “You must be Joel.” 

I’ve already done the paperwork but now sign the release form.  Does anyone read these anymore?  Did I just sign my name to a document that says I would trust them with my body, my bones, my sinew?  Yes, Yes I did.  I’ve just given them permission to have other sweaty dudes try to choke me.  

She takes me to the dressing room.  There are two showers, toilets, sinks, lockers, and benches.  This is all pretty standard except for the fact of feeling like you’ve just walked into an upscale hotel.  Did I tell you this place was immaculate?  There are towels and toiletries available for use.  I head to a bench to change. 

Another guy comes in.  “Hey, I’m Da-veed (David).  I’m the jiu-jitsu instructor.”  He extends his hand, we shake and exchange greetings.  

“First time?” he asks.  

“Yes.”  

He goes on to ask if I have experience in other martial arts.  “I did Tae Kwon Do in high school.  Then a year of Muay Thai.”

He welcomes me with what I will discover is his characteristic big, full teeth, smile.  Then, he says, “Let’s have fun!”  (He’s a third-degree black belt with over 20 years of practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Later I find out it takes about 10 years or regular practice before you “might” become a black belt.  It’s all based on performance on the mat.  He’s also an MMA fighter.)

I follow him to the mats.  Clean.  Black.  At the far wall hang heavy bags.  Behind them are loaner gis, gloves, and pads for kickboxing.  Guys are lined up along one wall.  David is standing in front of them.  Ethan sees me and gives a wave.  Big smile.  I’m relaxing (a little). 

There are four other relative newbies today.  I’m the only one who has never practiced jiu-jitsu.  Oh goodie.  I said I wanted to be a beginner, and so I am. 

The guys range in size from David (the instructor) who might be 140 pounds and all lean muscle to a guy who is probably 6’4”+ and carrying a little bit of spare tire.  There are three BIG guys here, tall, strong and experienced.  And everything in between, white, black, brown, bald, balding, beard, clean-shaven, belly, rock hard abs, you name it, a real menagerie.

Thank God for the middle age crew. 

David calls us to attention.  We bow and start warm ups.  First, jogging around the mats, then sideways, skips, walking squats (my name for it--you jog and then touch the mat with one hand alternating sides keeping your chest up), skipping, then on to skill warm ups.  I’m already sweating.

This is where two of us get pulled aside.  We have no skill.  

Ethan leads us.  “This is how every class begins.”  

We learn to fall correctly forwards and backward. 

When was the last time I purposefully fell down?  Falling forward correctly, rolling and coming up feels awkward even when you know it’s coming.  My first instinct is to want to put my hands out.  This is why you have to be trained to fall.  Falling on the little bones in your hands and wrist with all of your body weight coming down is not a good idea.

It’s awkward, you take a step forward and then fall over the same side as the lead leg.  A somersault without using your hands.  Awkward, but better than breaking your hands or wrists. 

“If you learn anything in jiu-jitsu, learn how to fall.  It may save your life someday.”  Ethan advises.

We learn a move called breakdance.  (Yep, it looks like its name.  You start out on you stomach come up on one hand and the opposite foot, lift your hips and swing your other leg through until you are facing up with one leg held in the air.)

Ethan is a clear and patient teacher. “Don’t worry, you’ll forget some of this before next class, but we do them almost every time for warm up, so you will know them soon enough.”

I wrestled for three years in high school so the takedown and the sprawl look familiar.   Not that I can do either one very well.  

We do this over and over.  Then we get taught how to stand up correctly.  When we are on our butts, most of us want to lean forward and stand up coming forward.  This is a good way to let your opponent have his way with you.  Standing up correctly from a seated position means posting up one arm and the opposite leg and turning your hips and the other leg underneath you.  Why don’t they call this the backward breakdance?   

Mine looks like white boy dancing.   

We’re building the foundation.  If you want to have a good life, you have to have a solid foundation.  If you want to be good at any sport, fundamentals are the foundation.  Foundations are those core practices which will save your bacon when they become automatic.  Like trust, honesty, integrity, these have to be trained early and often to stick. 

Next, we are on to a hip thrust (lying on your back, feet on the floor, push your feet into the floor and lift your hips) which is a basic move to get an opponent off when you are on your back. 

I notice I’m fine when I’m rehearsing these by myself, but when we practice together, I get tentative.  My “don’t hurt anyone” instinct kicks in strong.  I shrink.  I hold back.  Maybe this is about conflict. 

I’ve grown in my ability to engage in verbal conflictual situations, but how often do you get into a physical conflict as an adult.  While I was in high school, I had a few altercations.  As soon the other guy pushed or grabbed me, my arms disconnected from my brain and my legs filled with concrete.  And conflict is what BJJ consists of.  Get your opponent on the ground and choke him or arm lock or just lock him up until he submits to you.  The resolution comes when one of you “taps out”.  

Tapping out is literally tapping your opponent and saying “tap, tap, tap”  until they let you up.  There is always a winner and always a tap-per.  Then you go again--in rounds.  On the mat, that’s how it works at least. 

The guys are “rolling” now.  I watch them and practice these new moves.  The class is over. We line up, bow, and shake hands with everyone. 

Ethan asks, “So how was it?”  “Good,” I say tentatively.


I’m still not sure what it’s going to feel like to get on the mat and roll with another student.  My heart rate goes up a bit just thinking about it.  

Rolling is when it gets real.

First Jiu-Jitsu Class:  David, our instructor, middle of first row. Ethan is the next guy to the right. 

First Jiu-Jitsu Class:  David, our instructor, middle of first row. Ethan is the next guy to the right.