Inverted Gear Blog / Travelog
My friend Reilly Bodycomb won the Sambo US Nationals a few weeks ago. One of the perks for winning was securing a spot on the US team at the Panamerican and World tournaments.
The Panamerican was held in Paraguay this year. Since Reilly doesn't speak much Spanish besides asking for a cold Coca-cola, he asked me to come along to be his translator and guide. I've always been intrigued by the idea of going to a large sambo tournament, and I had never visited Paraguay, so after some planning, I booked two flights out of JFK and we were off in an adventure.
After nearly missing our flight (since we were too busy playing Magic: The Gathering to hear that our gate had change), we made it to Sao Paulo for a short layover, then we were on our way to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.
Asuncion was an interesting place. Their currency is the guarani, and it took a bit to get used to local prices because $1 USD equals 5580 guarani. Thankfully, most places accept dollars, but the locals are strangely obsessed with any imperfections on the bills. Any rips, stamps, or writing on the bills were deemed unacceptable. This made the line for arrival visas pretty long as custom agents shared this same dollar bill obsession.
After clearing customs, we met representatives from the Chilean and Mexican sambo federations at the airport. We shared a bus that had been arranged by FIAS and made our way to the hotel, where we were greeted by a giant sambo banner in the hotel lobby.
After checking in, we did a bit of exploring around town. We quickly learned that Paraguayan drivers don't slow down for anything, so crossing the street became an exercise in survival.
One of the first things we noticed was the popularity of terere, the herbal drink (not the BJJ black belt.) Downtown had a vendor at just about every corner who would prepare the mate tea with some extra local herbs.
Bundles of medicinals herbs, or yuyos as the locals called them, are added to cold water and put in thermos to cool, then this ice cold concoction is poured into a container with mate tea with a straw that's used to sift the solids. It seemed that 3 out of 5 people were drinking this at any time of day.
As the rest of the US team arrived, something became clear: I was the only Spanish speaker traveling with them. Since most hotel staff do not speak English, Spanish became my superpower and my burden as I became the unofficial team translator.
Friday night I was able to escape from my translating duties and sneak out to Checkmat Paraguay. Profe Guillermo Hansen has an awesome set up on top of a lifting gym. On Fridays the various Checkmat affiliates in the area get together for an open mat. I was greeted by a mixed group, and was surprised by the high level of the room. A few of the lower belts and many of the upper belts had an impressive understanding of the bearimbolo/crab ride game. After defending my back for about an hour, we took a picture and I was given a ride back to my hotel by a local purple belt, but not before enjoying some post-training terere.
The sambo tournament began on Saturday morning. Team USA had some hard fought wins and few team members made it to the finals. For some strange reason, the finals weren't until after the opening ceremonies, which were held in the middle of the tournament. During the ceremonies you got to see the 22 countries that sent delegations to the tournament, which was very impressive. Reilly and the rest of the athletes weighed in around this time, then we headed home for the day.
On Sunday, Reilly competed and put on an impressive display of groundwork, winning with three submissions in three matches: armbar, ankle lock, and armbar. It was great to see my friend fulfill one of his goals. It was also amazing meeting the rest of the team and cheering them on as they won their respective divisions. Team USA won the team title for the men and took third in the female divisions. There were some amazing matches, and I highly recommend you check out the feed from FIAS once it becomes available. Reilly is working on a Team USA highlight as well.
After the tournament ended, we walked to beautiful steak house to celebrate. Since none of the waiters spoke English, my superpower was called upon yet again as I was tasked with ordering for 20 people. I was able to manage it and many a steak were had.
Monday morning we traveled home. On the plane ride I got to thinking about how amazing it would be to see a similar set up for a jiu-jitsu tournament: all the Panamerican countries represented by one athlete in each division, at a tournament held in a different country each year. This would be great for the development of BJJ in South America. Contrary to common belief, BJJ in South America is still in its infancy outside of Brazil. Most countries only have a handful of black belts, and many academies are run by lower belts. Maybe one day we will see a tournament set up this way. I'll be the first one on the plane to it if we do.
I have been riding a bike everywhere in Copenhagen. I grew up riding a bike, rode around some in college, but I have probably ridden a bike twice in the last 6 years. When I jumped on my bike at the rental store, it was a bit rough at the beginning—figuring out my balance, where to put my weight, finding the exact right spot to sit on that weird seat. After a few minutes, though, I was cruising.
Copenhagen bike infrastructure is amazing. They have wide bike lanes and even dedicated street lights and turning lanes solely to bikers. Being back on the pedals got me thinking about bike riding and that classic analogy: X is like riding a bike.
Haven’t played your guitar in a while? Don’t worry. It’s like riding a bike.
Haven’t entered a Magic: The Gathering tournament in a while? Don’t worry. It’s like riding a bike.
Everything is like riding a bike, apparently, and I’ve heard people say the same about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
I have never taken a training lay off longer than two weeks—knock on wood—so I can’t speak to the part of the analogy about coming back to BJJ after being away for a while, but I think the idea of training wheels in jiu-jitsu could be a powerful training framework.
Training wheels simplify the balancing act of riding a bicycle so that you can work on other important tasks like generating forward momentum and steering. In jiu-jitsu, placing an emphasis on beginner’s learning closed guard is like handing them a set of training wheels. Your opponent mostly stays in place, you probably won’t get submitted, and you get to learn basic attacks that won’t get you completely destroyed (necessarily) if you fail.
Opening guard becomes that movie-magic milestone where you take the training wheels off and start coasting down the hill all by yourself. You might fall a few times, and it will take a lot of practice before you have the awareness to zip around town or hit a jump or mountain bike up a rocky trail, but the training wheels are off either way.
We build in restrictions in other aspects of jiu-jitsu for the sake of safety and learning. Under the traditional ruleset, the justification behind limiting leg attacks and other submissions is very much in line with installing training wheels. Even despite the growth in popularity of leg locks and new formats where leg locks are allowed for all levels, many schools to still frown on them. It's hard to disagree with the fact that leg locks add another layer of complexity to the ground game, but some would argue that just as we have “helicopter parents”—get your helmet, your knee pads, and your wrist guards, and don’t leave the driveway!—perhaps we have helicopter instructors that are doing more harm than good with this particular set of training wheels.
Takedowns, like leg locks, are often restricted with the thinking that it’s better for the student’s safety if they learn them later. So we avoid them by teaching students to simply sit down, and years later, some purple belts still avoid training takedowns because of how dangerous they can be, sometimes going as far as to suggest that pulling guard is a tactical decision on their part.
Well, of course your guard is stronger than your takedowns at that point.
Yes, takedowns add another layer of complexity to the game. You could learn Judo throws, Greco takedowns, or freestyle takedowns. That’s a lot to pick from.
We may be at a point in our sport where we rethink training wheels. Closed guard as a form of training wheels still means that you’re in guard, and your guard will eventually open regardless. You might not be pedaling down the street entirely on your own, but you’re still learning. Completely eliminating leg locks and takedowns doesn’t align with that philosophy. That, to me, is like learning to ride a bike by not touching the pedals. You’ll never make any progress because you aren’t actually doing anything.
Training wheels are useful tools, but we’ll never get to a fully evolved grappling infrastructure if our training wheels are so restrictive that less people end up riding bikes.
I found myself this week, on our way to a BJJ Globetrotters camp in Sardinia.
We flew into Rome using a Portuguese airline with a layover in Lisbon, which allowed me to practice my Portuguese… Frango. Vinho tinto. Obrigrado. Chicken. Red wine. Thank you. You know, the essentials.
The original plan was to spend a night in our room and head to Sardinia the next morning, but Hillary in her usual wise manner told me that we would need an extra day to explore. She was right.
We arrived at the Leonardo da Vinci Airport, which is south of the city, and made our way to our hotel by shuttle. Once we settled in we walked around grabbed lunch. This might sound odd, but I love deli meats. So while most people might seek out the pasta or pizza in Italy, I had been looking forward to prosciutto for literally weeks. I would be in the middle of working and one word would float into my mind, halting everything: “Prosciutto.”
I found it. I ate it. It was amazing.
The next day, we visited the Colosseum, satisfying my childhood infatuation with gladiators. Yes, we love Ben Hur in Chile too. We also hit the Roman Forum, which was more impressive than the Colosseum in my mind. The magnitude of the ruins was astounding, and the weight of history towering in front of you has a strange way of shifting your perspective on greatness and your place in humanity.
And then a selfie stick almost pokes you in the eye and ruins everything.
With warrior history all around us, we wanted to train. I had several friends tell me that if I was in Rome I had to go visit Frederico Tisi’s school. They were right. I contacted Frederico through WhatsApp and he gave me the address and schedule for the day. We took an Uber 15 minutes outside of the touristy area of Rome and Frederico gave us a quick tour. Tribe Jiu-Jitsu—Frederico’s gym—shares a space with another gym, and the jiu-jitsu area is on the highest floor. As we climbed the stairs, Frederico said he liked being on the top floor because it felt like being in a Bruce Lee movie every time they trained.
He was right. It was awesome.
After a quick warm up, Frederico showed some technique. I was blown away by the amount of details he packed into the class. He showed a drop seoi nage, but the details he showed for the set up and finish were intricate and unique. I have been playing around with that throw for 10 years, and I had been missing these points. We continued by linking the throw into a proper pinning position that would lead into a Kimura and a choke if the Kimura was defended. Again I was familiar with both techniques, but Frederico had all these small details that I was missing.
The reputation that inspired my friends to recommend training with Frederico in the first place was well founded. Here, tucked away from one of the biggest historical attractions in the world, is a jiu-jitsu treasure.
Founded in 1999, Tribe Jiu-Jitsu was the first BJJ school in Italy and one of the first in Europe. In its own way, Frederico’s work is a part of history as well.
While I know that not all of my readers will have the chance to travel to Rome to Frederico, definitely drop into his school if you’re in the area. On a larger note, however, you should remember that gems like Tribe Jiu-Jitsu are all over the world. There are so many great instructors and great gyms out there that it’s worth dropping into a school whenever you are away from home. You never know what you’ll find.
As I type this, I am sitting on a plane on my way to Greenland for a BJJ Globetrotter camp. Since there are no direct flights from the U.S., Hillary and I flew into Reykjavik, Iceland yesterday and had a little over 24 hours to kill during a layover. We had been talking about traveling to Reykjavik for a while now, so when Christian Graugart messaged me about coming to Greenland to train I was super excited. I had just renewed my passport and was itching to get new stamps on it, and I saw an excuse to stop off in Iceland along the way.
We arrived at our hotel around 8 am and ate some amazing hotel breakfast. I love Scandinavian countries and their obsession with smoked fish. We opted to do the usually touristy stuff and started walking around the city to see the sights, but the mat was calling us. We got in touch with a friend that trains at Mjolnir (Gunnar Nelson’s home base), and committed to hitting the 5pm no-gi class.
Mjolnir is one of the biggest gyms I’ve visited. It has 3 different rooms for classes, big locker rooms, and a beautiful lobby with couches and a TV with boxing, MMA, and grappling on at all times. We paid our mat fee, got changed, and went upstairs to see where class would be held: a huge matted room with a cage in the far back. After a quick warm up, Thrainn instructed us on single leg defense, and eventually we moved into sparring.
Sparring was interesting because we did specific training from the single leg position. One person would start the round in on the single leg. If you got the takedown, you would restart from a neutral position and work again for the takedown. If you escaped the single leg, you would keep wrestling until the takedown, then reset on neutral and work for takedown again. Once you did your two “rounds,” whoever started the round with his leg on the single would rotate out and line up. I wrestled in high school, and have been training BJJ for a long time, and this was the first time I had ever done specific sparring from this position.
I really liked it, and added it to mental bag of tricks for teaching takedowns. I see a lot of BJJ programs putting a lot of emphasis on single leg entries, but not enough on the actual control and finish, which are in my opinion the most important part.
I remember my friend Andrew, who is a very accomplished wrestler and BJJ black belt, hammering this in my head as I kept asking him to help me improve my shot. He told me that my problem wasn’t my shot. I was getting to the leg OK, but my position and finishes were terrible. It took me a long time to fix this things, and drills like the one we did at Mjolnir help you get hours on the parts of the battle that can be hard to isolate in a live roll, forcing you to really figure out your positioning for control and for troubleshooting counters. On the other end of that same drill, getting reps defending singles once your leg is up is a very important skill to have as well, and one that really frustrates your opponents.
After doing takedowns for about 20 minutes we did some regular sparring, I got two awesome rolls in, took some pictures, and headed back to our hotel.
If you ever get a chance to visit Reykjavik please do. It is one of the coolest cities I have ever visited, and you are guaranteed to get some good training at Mjolnir. Everyone was super welcoming, and the school is a short walk from the city center, so it is super convenient for tourists.
The bigger takeaway, though, is how much easier it has become to find really good training. Iceland by most measurements is not a large country, and while they are ramping up their emphasis on tourism, it is not nearly as busy as other hotspots around the world. But jiu-jitsu is there, and it’s good jiu-jitsu. Thanks to grapplers like Gunnar Nelson and the team of instructors he has surrounded himself with, a new hotbed of jiu-jitsu is growing in what might have once been considered an unlikely place.
And we’re seeing this sort of growth all over the world. It used to be that you had to go to Rio or to L.A. to get truly exceptional training. It’s not like that anymore, so if you are planning a jiu-jitsu road trip, expand your horizons and visit one of these new jiu-jitsu hotbeds. You’ll experience something unique and special every time.