Inverted Gear Blog / Nelson Puentes
Talk about memories. Wow.
Just about 6 years ago—in 2009—I had my one and only MMA fight, a pro rules amateur bout. I won by toehold of all things.
I have been an MMA fan for a long time, and I was a fan before I even started training. I always had a goal of doing one fight at some point, check it off my athletic bucket list so to speak. A few of my training partners were fighting on the same card, and somehow they convinced me to join them. Six weeks before the fight, I realized I had never been taught how throw a punch.
Seriously. Beyond some uncle-to-nephew bonding when I was six, I had not even the slightest bit of striking training, and I was a few weeks out from my first fight. If you’re seeing some red flags, you are better off than I was. I charged right past them and into my first MMA experience. If any BJJ players out there are considering MMA, you might learn something from my story.
I was a fresh purple belt at the time. I was confident in my mat work, but my stand-up was awkward. I favored having my right foot forward, and I really wanted to keep that approach, but my coach was not having it. I spent a few weeks awkwardly shuffling with my left forward in a traditional stance. It felt… okay.
“We don’t have time,” my coach said in his Brazilian accent. “It’s okay. Just One. Two. Shoot. It will be fine.”
So I shuffled. One. Two. Shoot. Back up. Shuffle shuffle. One. Two. Shoot. That was the extent of my stand-up.
As foreign as striking felt, MMA grappling was the most jarring. Many of my training partners who I usually submitted during BJJ class were now kicking my ass. I frequently left my head exposed from guard. I gave up dominant positions to rush a submission instead of holding them to deliver strikes. And the gloves—I was not used to the gloves. Suddenly spots where I could easily get underhooks, or sneak my hands into a choke, were suddenly not available. The gloves were bulky and strange, getting stuck and snagged in unusual places.
As bad as I was at MMA, I wasn’t completely new to fighting. I grew up in Chile and attended an all-boys school. I had my fair share of scuffles growing up, and I even had a few after I moved to the US, so the whole getting punched in the face thing was not a big barrier for me. Punching people that I liked—my friends—was the strange part, which put on an odd wrinkle in my sparring. To be clear, I was fine choking them unconscious, but punching them in the face didn’t feel right.
I did my best to push through that. And I shuffled. Shuffled. One. Two. Shoot. With each shuffle shuffle I missed the gi more and more. I’d catch glimpses of jiu-jitsu classes in session and found myself wishing I was in those classes instead of “working on my stand-up.” I realized then that this would be my first and last fight.
I shuffled my way all the way to fight time. Wearing my gi and purple belt, I walked out to “What I Got” by Sublime. As I neared the cage, I felt strangely calm, more calm than I ever felt leading up to a BJJ competition (even today). The cage door locked, and I had a flash of disbelief.
“How is this actually happening?”
The first round went according to plan. I one-twoed my way into a takedown and maintained dominant position. I worked some strikes and got close to finishing a choke. In the second round, my opponent caught on to the complexity of my shuffle shuffle technique. I went in for the one two and he planted a stiff right hand into my jaw. I fell to my back, not sure what was happening.
“Oh yeah, this guy is punching me in the face.”
My jiu-jitsu instincts, seeing that my cognitive awareness had called it quits, kicked in. I threw my legs up, locked a single leg X guard, and forced the sweep. Through the fog of being rocked, I groped for a heel hook. He spun and kicked free. As he wiggled away, I caught a toe hold. His foot crunched as I torqued it. He tapped.
The referee raised my hand. I cleaned the blood off of my face. And we went home. On the way, we stopped in Connecticut for gas.
I walked into the gas station, and the attendant said, “Oh my God! You were mugged! Don’t worry. I’ll call the police.”
I did a double take and realized he was talking to me. My face was swelling and nose was a Rudolph red. It took five minutes to talk him out of the 911 call. He had never heard of MMA, and he was quite surprised that someone would do it for free.
As I look, back I am glad I had that experience, but I would not recommend anyone following in my exact footsteps. MMA is much more regulated now, and amateur rules are much stricter. If you are a BJJ student, with no striking background, here is what I recommend before you venture into MMA:
Get to a purple belt level in BJJ. If you can’t go into an advanced division at your local tournament and hold your own, you have no business stepping in the cage. I have seen too many terrible amateur fights, where one guy hits the ground and was completely lost and takes unnecessary damage that would have been avoided if he knew how to work his hips. I would rather have my students become proficient on the ground before we need to start worrying about strikes.
Learn striking. Take your time and really put some work into your hands. I did not spend nearly enough time in this area, and if it wasn’t for my thick head, I would have lost the fight because of it.
Make sure you can get the fight to the ground whether you work on takedowns or dynamic entries into submissions. Your opponent will work to come back to his feet, so your training needs to account for that as well. This is something that many BJJ guys completely ignore as they are not used to grappling in a striking context.
Put it all together. Remember this is going to be a fight, not a grappling match or a boxing match. This may sound silly, but I have seen many MMA guys with awesome striking and ground work but for whatever reason cannot put them together. Make sure you put work into your transitions from striking to takedowns (shuffle shuffle) and vice versa. Learn how to set up your submissions with strikes, and be ready when your opponent defends your submissions with strikes.
Have fun. This is a very unique experience, and I feel it is a definitely a badge of honor, as Rocky Balboa would say "there is nothing wrong standing toe to toe and saying I am."
These are my two cents. I am by no means an expert on MMA. I had one amateur fight a long time ago, and I have cornered 10 other fights since then. While I think BJJ is for everyone, I really do think MMA is not. Make sure you are really committed to it before you decide to walk into the cage.
Photos credits: Shawn Alan Photography. If you know Shawn, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can get in touch with him.
I started Inverted Gear in 2012. I never thought in my wildest dreams Inverted Gear would be as successful as it is today. I am still amazed that I can travel to remote places and find people wearing our gis or scroll to my Facebook feed and spot pandas in the background during technique videos filmed as far away as Japan. I still remember working on the website, hosted on BigCartel back then, and having a presale of our first batch of gis—50 blue and 50 white. I remember how nervous I was.
I thought, “Did I just throw all my savings down the drain?” and “How many people are going to want to wear gis with a silly upside down panda on them?”
My life has changed tremendously since those days, but let’s start at the beginning.
For starters, I had no business background. I took exactly one business class in college before I dropped out, 20 credits away from an exercise science degree. As you can imagine my parents were thrilled by this decision. I was 24. I was a purple belt in BJJ, was working a part-time job during the day and teaching BJJ at night. I still lived at my parents’ home when I started the company, and their basement is still referred to as our old “warehouse.”
I read a ton of business books in that time. I dreamed of what life would be like when I earned my black belt and could have my own Jiu-Jitsu School. The students of the school I currently taught at wanted a patch for their gis and some shirts with “Nelson Puentes Jiu Jitsu” on it. One of my students, Steve Pachon, offered to help out with a logo. Steve and I started throwing ideas around and the idea of a BJJ panda stuck. I had recently spent about a week teaching what I called Panda guard, and we were all obsessed with it.
It all started with that logo.
A local print shop made the t-shirts, and we started rocking them at local tournaments. Then something funny happened—people that I had never met before kept coming up to me and asking me to buy one of the shirts! I would ask them “Are you sure? It has my name on it?”
The logo struck a chord in the community. At that time, in 2012, the BJJ gear scene was drastically different from where it is now. Other than Shoyoroll, the general direction of the industry was to take the MMA-tough-guy route. I recognized this and thought, “Maybe we can start a brand for non-tough guys!”
There was a clear disconnect between where the market was going and what BJJ guys were about. Most of us looked like accountants. If you saw us on the street (other than the cauliflower ear), you would have no idea we trained martial arts. Sure, we trained, but then we went home and read books and played card games or got sucked into video games. So I asked Steve to redraw the logo and came up with the name Inverted Gear. Bearimbolo Brand was a close second, and thank God we didn’t go with that one!
After we drew up the initial gi design, I contacted 10 factories. Five of them didn’t bother getting back to me since my order of 100 gis was too small for them. Of the five that did reply, only four agreed to produce samples. After many weeks of late night back and forth emails—it felt like I lived on Pakistan time—and after many trips to Western Union, my first gi samples were on the way. Some of them were terrible.
One factory “corrected” our design, “Hey guys here is the sample. You had put the panda upside down but we fixed it for you!” Another factory took “artistic liberties” and added artwork that wasn’t there before. Two factories stood out though, and I ended up deciding on the one we still use today because the cut and quality was better. I emptied my life savings and used it to make my first order.
The first shipment was a nerve-wracking experience. The estimated deadline approached quickly, and we had issues with customs. I didn’t file all of the proper paperwork, so it took some extra doing to get the shipment cleared. When it finally did, I borrowed the Puentes family minivan and drove from New Jersey to a New York airport warehouse to pick up the first ten boxes of Inverted Gear product. The feeling was electric. I already had preorders to fill, and the very first order was going to New Zealand (which meant having to figure out international shipping; something I didn’t expect).
I recruited a few friends to help ship orders and paid them in gis. By the time it was all said and done, we shipped 80 gis. Soon after I shipped the 20 remaining gis. I could not believe I had pulled this off. I remember my first company expense was buying a laptop for Steve who had been helping me with the design work so he could work on some shirts for Inverted Gear as well. Quickly the second shipment followed, then a third, and then on the fourth we outgrew my parents’ basement.
Our last shipment was 2100 gis—large enough to warrant our own container. Thank you, all of you, that have supported the brand over the last few years, especially those of you that have been here since the beginning. I could not have done it without you. It’s been an amazing journey, and we are glad you are a part of it. The community behind this sport is incredible, and I hope that other creators take the plunge to bring their unique vision to the world.
Becoming a black belt world champion may be the loftiest goal one can shoot for in our sport. However, this goal is not for everyone. If this is your current goal, I don’t want to shoot down your dream. This article is not for you. If you are busy with work and can only train a few nights a week, are a BJJ hobbyist, busy mom that loves training, or like me, a mat rat (or panda) that has no interest in becoming a world champion this article is for you.
My BJJ instructor/role model/life coach Kevin Sheridan used to sit us down once a year, usually in January after Sunday class, and we would spend an hour on goal setting. We did this every year, I can honestly say this was one of the best things Kevin ever did for me and his other students. Over the course of the years, everyone that put the time into our little meetings achieved much more than the ones that opted out. Let me share some of the most popular ones in no particular order:
I will go to BJJ practice X number of times a week. This is one of the most powerful goals you can set, especially if you struggle with consistency. I find that three times a week is the magic number for improvement. Although it seems easy, you would be surprised how many people I saw choose this goal and struggle to meet it.
I will lose X number of pounds. Weight loss is a pretty common goal. I had many students lose upwards of 50 pounds in about a year. Many times weight loss goals were tied to competition weight classes, so someone walking around 195 would set a goal to make middleweight or 180 with the gi on. Many times this goals had a specific deadline like a tournament. If you choose this goal, don’t cheat yourself. Make the weight a week before the tournament through dieting. Don’t go full UFC weight cut on us and make the weight through a sauna suit and water manipulation.
I will not close my guard for a year. This was my goal in 2009. I had just gotten my purple belt and wanted to improve my open guard that Kevin kept smashing. At this point, closed guard was strongest part of my game, and I completely abandoned it for a year. I forced myself to play open guard. Unless we did specific drills or sparring from closed guard, I did not play closed guard for a year. The first few weeks were rough as guys that I usually handled were suddenly getting around my guard, but I slowly improved. By the end of the year, open guard was one of the strongest parts of my game. You can apply this concept to anything, I had training partners start every roll from side control for a year for example
I will go for an armbar every roll. My friend Andrew did this and it sounds easy, but after a week or two when your training partners catch on to what you are doing you, it becomes much more challenging. They will become hyper-aware of their appendages and you will have to become more crafty with your armbar attemtps, setting them up different ways, looking for them in different positions. I am currently working on a similar goal, and I have been going for a cross-body ankle lock on every roll for the last 3 months.
Talking about goals in terms of years might sound like an unmanageably long stretch of time. In jiu-jitsu hours, it ends up going by quickly. At the same time, having a year-long goal does not mean that you stop learning everything else, but it does give your training a consistent direction that will drive your overall progress much more effectively than working on one concept for a month and leaving it behind.
What goals are you working on? How is it going?
Have you heard about open source software? Its core promise is that its source code is freely available to anyone to use or modify. Let’s think about Brazilian jiu-jitsu as software. As I write this article, there is an amazing wealth of information at my finger tips. I can go on Google and chances are I can find an instructional for any sub, sweep or pass I can think off. This was not always the case! Before Youtube soared to popularity and the advent of paid membership BJJ websites, our access to this kind of information was very limited. For the early American pioneers of BJJ, the only access they had was going to Torrance, CA and learning from the Gracies. Can you imagine being an East Coast white belt during those days?
Access to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu knowledge is amazing now. There are academies everywhere, great books on the subject, a plethora of monthly magazines, and more technique videos that you can possibly watch in one sitting. Whatever you are on the market for is covered. Self defense? Check. Basic closed guard? Check. Escaping side control? You got it. It's very possible for a group of guys without access to an instructor to get together to train and learn jiu-jitsu. Is this optimal? Of course not, since it will take much longer for them to improve and get to a blue belt level than if they had formal training at an academy, but it’s possible and that is amazing.
Now, the most interesting part to me is the second part of the open source promise: the ability to change the source code. Whenever innovation happens in jiu-jitsu, that is precisely what’s happening -- we are changing the source code.
As jiu-jitsu progresses more and more, its source code is altered. We change how we do things, even basic things like where we put our hands during back control. The over-under seat belt control was not always the norm. For a long time, double unders was used as it gave better control because you could grab both lapels. Marcelo popularized the seatbelt during his early ADCC runs. Something we now take for granted was once considered revolutionary. Looking back at the history of BJJ, you can find many examples of this, such as the darce/brabo choke, half guard, open guard, and even the basic triangle choke.
No-gi becoming popular has changed things as well. Eddie Bravo has his own grappling software, and guys like Reilly Bodycomb, Ryan Hall, and Garry Tonon have changed the way we look at leglocks. In the gi, things like the berimbolo are a staple of competition jiu-jitsu, whereas five years ago very few people knew what it was.
I remember training and competing 8 years ago when x-guard and deep half guard were the new things. Before Marcelo popularized it, many people have never seen this position before. Fast forward to 2015, I can pull up any of the thousands of videos on Youtube and get a pretty good idea what I need to do. If I want to go a step further, I can sign up for www.mginaction.com and learn from the man himself.
Most new students take this for granted. I remember seeing Wilson Reis pulling off some trickery from deep half guard in a local Grappers Quest back in the day. I was fascinated and wanted to learn it. I asked my instructor with no luck. I asked my friend that trained at different academy, but no luck. There were no instructionals available on it at the time. So I went to Youtube in all of its grainy low def glory and watched all the matches I could find of Wilson Reis, Jeff Glover, and anyone else that played half guard. It took a while, but with the help of my instructors and training partners, I got a pretty good idea and started to hit sweeps from there. I look at old matches now and I see I made a bunch of mistakes that I have cleaned up since then. But that’s how it used to be! Now you can ask most blue belts and purple belts and they have a pretty good idea how to get into deep half guard and sweep a few different ways.
The forward progress of jiu-jitsu is incredible in the digital age. We're past the days of making fun of "Youtube jiu-jitsu." You can watch a live stream of the top competitors in the world competing, and see a breakdown of their gameplans by the end of the same day. The explosion of high quality online instruction and the open exchange of techniques puts the source code of BJJ at your finger tips. You just need to get on the mats and use it!
It has been eight years since the time I took my first Brazilian jiu-jitsu class. Deciding to train Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and sticking to it, has been one of the most fascinating and life-changing experiences of my life. My life would be radically different now if I never tied that white belt around my waist. Not only would I be lacking super sweet ninja moves, and not only would my circle of friends and career path be different, but I would never have met my wife. Eight years later I cannot imagine what my life would look like if I didn’t train.
I wasn’t much into sports growing up. I grew up in Chile and during my childhood the only sport that seemed available was soccer. I didn’t have much interest in soccer - my sister being picked before me during our neighborhood games may of have something to do with this. My family moved to the United States in 2001, opening a world of possibilities. During high school I was part of the football, wrestling and track teams. Once I graduated high school and decided not to pursue college wrestling, something was missing. I tried rugby, got into Olympic lifting, but nothing filled the gap that wrestling left. One day surfing the net I stumbled on footage of ADCC 2007, which had taken place in Trenton, New Jersey, about an hour from where I lived at the time. I was fascinated. I showed my friend Dave, one of my old wrestling teammates, and started talking about maybe trying that grappling thing out.
A few weeks went by and one Friday night I get a call from Dave at 1 AM. He was getting out of work, and someone at work told him about a grappling tournament in NJ in about a month. He gave me the website and the next day we signed up for Grapplers Quest. This was before ever taking a BJJ class. After visiting a few schools we started training with Dave Ellis who taught BJJ out of the Cranford Judo club. We would train BJJ in the morning then supplement with a few judo classes at night. After about 4 weeks of training we competed. Dave won his division and I took third.
After that first tournament I was hooked. Other than injury lay offs I have trained just about every day, sometimes twice a day, for the last eight years. I am truly thankful for what BJJ has given me, and I am looking forward to more training, tournaments, camps and meeting more amazing people through the sport.