My childhood leisure time was a montage of Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy 7, Ultima Online, Halo (16 dudes crammed in a basement playing capture the flag), Pokemon Blue, Pokemon cards, late night Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, and hours upon hours of television, movies and books.
I was happiest grinding my way toward a Golden Chocobo or grabbing the rocket launcher on Blood Gulch. All of the other stuff about being a kid—homework, chores, running from bullies—didn’t much matter to me. My hobbies made more sense to me than the “real” world ever did. I could figure out how these fantasy worlds worked, and with a bit of effort, I could become a real force within them. I just had to be smart, pay attention, and put in the time to level-up. There was a lot of comfort in that for a kid like me.
15 years later, I’m doing my best to be an adult. You know the dance: health insurance, mortgage, car payment, some semblance of a career. I still love my childhood pastimes, but sitting down to play a video game is more and more difficult, and all of the people I used to game with have all gone their own way, each doing their own dance somewhere else in the country.
A few years ago, however, I discovered that my interest in jiu-jitsu had embedded me in a community of super nerds.
I was a blue belt when I first had the realization that jiu-jitsu might be a nerd oasis. Jimmy, one of our resident brown belts, had just thrashed me, and myself and a few other students were joking about how badly he beats all of us.
Then one person said, “Yeah, he’s like Clark Kent by day, blue belt destroyer by night.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jimmy has a PhD in engineering. He does mathematical models of helicopter flights or some s***.”
Since then, I’ve come to realize that many of my training partners were like me. They grew up reading Nintendo Power and comic books. Somewhere along their fascination with Tekken fueled a curiosity in martial arts, bringing them on to the mat to learn jiu-jitsu as adults. From there, the information obsessed nature of jiu-jitsu culture feels like home. Strategy guides are in great supply, so are highlight videos and technical breakdowns. And you even get to level up with a new stripe and eventually a new belt! It’s character customization at its finest inside of an environment that feels structured, with defined rules and defined goals.
These days, it’s not so difficult to unmask the nerds hiding in gis around me. All I have to do is bungle a Star Wars or X-Men reference and wait for the correction to step forward.
Here are some of my jiu-jitsu nerd highlights:
A chef with a collection of Transformerss and Gundam action figures that rival the value of most people’s 401ks.
A professor whose research on lie detectors played in a role in their being removed from admissible court evidence.
A sambo grappler that cosplays and loves Magic the Gathering.
A comic book fan that is perhaps more excited about finally having a place to show off his super hero patches than actually training (he still loves training, but you know, Green Lantern!).
The young woman who reads Dostoyevsky between classes.
And the list goes on.
Every time I discover nerd on the mat, it feels even more like home. I like to think that we are training jiu-jitsu, in part, because we never actually grew out of the things we loved as kids. We’ve just found a new way to express and feed those passions.