Conquering the Northeast, Conquering Life
PROLOGUE: After an absolutely amazing year, a dream year only getting better and better, leaving me in a state of constant awe and amazement, I have been shown how much I have an impact on people. All I can say is my life is a series of very conscious decisions. I have a very specific path, a path forged of hard work and unwavering dedication to a vision; the pursuit of a passion: World Champion. Sacrifice is a daily concept for me. People I look up to, admire and respect have told me how much I inspire them, or how they vicariously live through me. This blows my mind, I’m a modest man, and I am humbled, grateful, and left searching for words to explain these unbelievable chapters of my life… this is my attempt…
I am the youngest with two older brothers. I hadn’t been outside the two states of Kansas and Missouri until I reached the age of 19. In wrestling growing up, I was always told I didn’t belong on the mat with certain opponents…I made a great amateur career upsetting those opponents. For fourteen years people told me I was stupid for aspiring to be a professional wrestler…I graduated fastest ever from the world famous Harley Race Wrestling Academy, captured the WLW tag-team titles and wrestled for WWE all in about two years time. Doctor’s told me to never wrestle again after rehabbing my surgically repaired shoulder for twelve months…that was seven years and who knows how many hundred matches ago. I heard I wouldn’t be a good personal trainer…I’ve successfully trained hundreds of clients and am one of the areas highest in demand. Naysayers and ex-girlfriends told me my business wasn’t what I thought it was, that it was going to fail…it’s grown bigger and better every month, going on four years now. I am the only one in my family to go to college, paid for almost entirely by myself and I graduated with a 3.6 GPA. I’m also the only one of my family to ever travel outside the country, and it was because of winning my spot on Team USA to fight at the FILA Grappling World Championships this year.
I’ve heard recently about my most recent travel “lucky” or “damn, maybe someday I can do that.” Thinking about it I almost become offended, and dislike the “luck” word more and more. Unless you are talking about four leaf clovers or the lottery, really the word has no meaning to me. I have worked my entire life to get to this point, and I’m a firm believer in that if you want something, just do it. Abraham Lincoln said it best: “You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose."
Nov. 3, 2011-Nov. 12 2011. Having never been to the Northeast, and with the cancelation of the Abu Dhabi Pro NY Trials the plan altered; have fun the only way I knew how, wandering and exploring on my own with no real objectives but to find good training. Now if you have followed any of my travels, you know that things just happen, “good and bad” when I go places. Although I’ve been referred to as a nomad and a savage, I have a way with people, I can be uniquely charming, and I somehow developed a knack for attracting quite the story along my journeys. With my depth of experience in my short time here on earth I could not foresee what a profound life experience this particular trip would be. The journey started in New York City. “The Big Apple” is a hopeful visit for many aspiring minds, mine no exception. Growing up as kid I always dreamed big, and what’s bigger than “The Center of the Universe”?
I’m the type of person that holds very strong to the ideal of doing what I say. Often times people will say stuff, best of intentions, but never follow through, whatever the reason may be. Similarly, others extend invites and offers with the expectation that that the person on the other end will not accept; it’s a courtesy, like a generous formality to offer. For example, “If you are ever in NY you have a place to stay.” Through twenty plus years of wrestling, training, and jiu-jitsu I have been fortunate to meet all kinds of people, all over the country and world, friends, acquaintances, and acquaintances turned friends. I believe, from just being a good person, Midwestern heart, I hear these types of offers all the time, and I am of the rare breed, one to actually take you up on such an offer! That’s exactly what I did in this case; I set up couch sleeping arrangements in cities all across the northeast.
I flew into LaGuardia at dusk, and let the stories begin. Immediately on the plane I struck up a great conversation, wide ranging, with a bright young man, only a few years younger than me, a NY native. That very first night even, I escaped the clutches of the homeless after taking a wrong turn into rough Harlem, unknowingly had my debit card frozen in the wake of trying to pay a cab driver, and finally settled in for the night with the help of a complete stranger, the neighbor of my NY hookup who was conveniently in Russia at the time. Get all that? Waking the next morning in a completely foreign setting, this closet-sized room, to the roar of the subway overhead I remember thinking to myself, “Well Self, you made it, let’s go see what New York is all about.” Armed only with one of those free, tiny, fold-out subway maps of Manhattan (I have no internet on my phone), I dominated day one: Times Square, Empire State Building, MSG. That evening I hit up arguably the best grappler/jiu-jitsu fighter ever, Marcelo Garcia’s (http://www.marcelogarciajj.com/nyc/). It’s a dream to be able to train with somebody of his likes, the Michael Jordan of jiu-jitsu, one of those athletes that comes along once in a generation that redefines the sport. As if the guy couldn’t get any more kickass, he starts off every Friday session warm-up with an intense all-in game of dodgeball! Following, of course, I learned some great techniques and rolled with his multitude of top students. I met with another old friend for grub following training, Jason, another native Yankee whom I hadn’t seen in about three years. Being a personal trainer too, we caught up on just about everything, all the way to sharing our stories of our own personal accounts of 9/11. Fantastic first day.
More of the same in day two; started with open mat at Marcelo’s and grappling with a crazy strong Russian guy who I out-techniqued. I walked up to Columbus Circle, saw Trump Tower and Central Park before hitting a much needed iron workout at one of Jason’s fancy training clubs. Whether it be stepping on the mats or clasping the steel in my hand at a foreign gym, I can always feel at home in that gym wherever that may be, a great feeling I thrive on. As dusk drew closer, I made my way to the Hudson to catch a tremendous sunset, and then onto Riverside Park to meet Jason and new friends who were ringing in daylight savings time by tossing light-up Frisbees! Such a child-like blast from the past with plenty of laughs, sprinting, and feats of athleticism to make my first ‘rave’ a success! Day three I trekked over to Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro’s (another revered 4x jiu-jitsu World Champion and top MMA lightweight) (http://bjjnewyorkcity.com/) with open mat to have some wars with some tough purple belts before settling in to some NFL viewing, NY style. Killing it for three days non-stop, I got my Ground Zero experience (http://www.ungd.tv/blogs/news/8384931-ground-zero) in early on Day Four, along with the Statue of Liberty before hitting night training at Marcelo’s one last time per his request. Unfortunately, I missed the once in a lifetime opportunity to roll with him as he had car trouble and was unable to make it. No worries, as I got more great technique and ass-whippin’ courtesy of Henrique Rezende, another black belt under Fabio Gurgel . With short time, only about an hour, miraculously, I was able to shower in the compact, over packed, Taiwanese-like lockeroom there, grab some water and quick snacks, haul my ass and all my luggage across 8 blocks of Manhattan streets to make my 10:30pm bus to Philly. Travel pro!
Day one in Philadelphia I emerged out of Suburban Station, the heart of downtown. Hungry, and feeling the effects of all the intense training and travel, I had to get my hands on a traditional cheese steak! As I hit up one of the cart vendors, a homeless guy approached me, pleading his story to me about how he had a job interview and needed to be cleaned up, he would not accept any cash or money. Apprehensive at first and irritable due to the aforementioned, I took him into the drug store, picked out essential deodorant, soap, toothpaste and brush and bought them all for him. Now I have mixed feeling about the homeless, not real sure what to think, and much like many other demographics and groups they get stereotyped, unfairly most times. I’ve been duped in the past, and I admit I wouldn’t give a penny to some of the pan-handling rats I see everywhere, scamming peoples generosity. I like to believe I have a good judge of character, however, and I saw the desperation on this man’s face, a despair that read like no other, one that was overlooked by so many passerbys as I waited for my sandwich. Who knows if he gets the job, but the fact that he might feel a little cleaner and better, if only for a short while is good enough for me.
I backpacked my way through the streets to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to run the Rocky Steps, a truly invigorating experience, a piece of American pop culture history. I continued on down the Schuylkill River, armed again with only a shitty little free map I grabbed from the train station. I eventually found my destination, tucked away in a discrete back alley, renowned Relson Gracie black belt Migliarese brothers’ Balance Studios. (http://balancestudios.net/) The place was packed with high-level talent, and great teaching from Phil himself. I rolled with him and other black belts, getting enjoyably worked over again. I talked with Phil afterwards, as he turned out to be a funny, insightful, and very likeable person who helped me with flexibility advice, as he is a yoga expert, practicing for as many years as his jiu-jitsu.
After another brief overnight sleep and a train ride into town, I hit up noon training at Balance again, and incredibly, even more packed than the previous night! Shoes to pavement again, gi on my back, and record setting seventy plus degree weather sun hitting my face I made my way across downtown to Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States of America! I felt pure freedom radiating from the Liberty Bell as I stood next to it, and I got chills walking into Washington Square and felt the heat from the Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I couldn’t believe the feelings that were being evoked, unlike I had ever felt before. Pride, motivation, sadness, happiness…life…
Another bus ride, another city, 9am Chinatown ride took me into Washington D.C., our great nation’s capital. Again I carted all my belongings down the D.C. streets, in need of replenishment I stopped in at a BBQ restaurant on 7th street which read, “You’re at the right place, cause there ain’t no place, like this place, anywhere near here.” Being from Kansas City, a “world capital of barbeque,” I wanted a taste of home and the Hill Country BBQ Market did not disappoint. From there I met up with a friend of a friend at the National Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for a personal tour, treatment, I was told, that was lent to only one other, Will Ferrell! A very enlightening tour, with just about every pertinent vessel or ship known to man throughout our modern history that involved outer space or the lower atmosphere was there. I rolled my luggage back up town, and with random security on various street corners and even snipers above on rooftops, I tried my best to not look like I was carting a giant bomb through the heart of D.C.! I stopped in at Ford’s Theatre were Lincoln was shot, and stood in his house across the street where he passed away 146 years ago! An idol of mine, and arguably the greatest American of all-time, an experience as this for me is beyond words. Again I was filled with so many emotions and thoughts, such a memorable experience. Eventually, around 4:30pm or so, I met up with Kevin, an old friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in almost ten years. We stopped by the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl for a halfsmoke as we caught up and talked like it had just been yesterday, easy, enjoyable conversation as I found Kevin to be very intelligent. For the first time along the trip, all the non-stop travel catching up to me, I didn’t get any training in that day, and instead rested up for what would be some of the hardest training of my life the following day.
This last day of the trip would prove to be one of the best, and a surreal ending to such an amazing journey. In another completely generous act, ones that continually restore my faith in humanity, Kevin just threw me his car keys so I could drive the 45 minutes over to Camp Springs to train at Lloyd Irvin’s at 11am. At first I wondered if I was in the right place, as a large group of kids were playing football on the mats, and in the back a small group was sparring in the ring and cage. I waited, stared and read all the countless team trophies displayed from Team Lloyd Irvin, one of the most successful and dominate teams out there, wondering if the lady I had talked to the night before on the phone had steered me wrong. Eventually Jimmy Harbison, one of the guys doing some striking came out and asked if I wanted to train, said he knew I was coming.
Turns out Jimmy was a badass black belt, along with everyone else that showed up eventually, including Lloyd Irvin himself. He gave great instruction and coaching, and then we did live situational “freeze” training followed by intense long rolling bouts; very, very tough, an extremely humbling experience. It would have been easy to skip out from going, the ride, situation, feeling beat down from the road, etc., but my better instinct kicked in, I went and learned valuable lessons, walked away with something irreplaceable, and so happy I did.
That night Kevin and I took the train to Arlington Cemetery, right as it was closing for the night. I was able to get a glimpse of its sheer size and magnitude before walking over the bridge and towards the monuments. As we reached the Lincoln Memorial, it grew dark and all the monuments came to life on this historic 11/11/11 Veteran's Day. I couldn’t believe my eyes, how big, powerful, historic, stunning… everything. Kevin and I circled all the monuments and memorials, stopping and paying homage, saluting or taking time at each one to ponder and discuss. Making our way around the Tidal Basin I continually looked up and around me all the time, taking in the gift of perfect November weather, the exhilarating night air, glassy water, fallen leaves…it was completely incredible. I couldn’t believe where I was, what I was doing. This was epic. So much history, so many lessons and messages written on the walls to be read and rediscovered over and over again. All the answers were right in front of me. I was in awe and shock, so many things were going through my head. I thought about how hard these great Americans, presidents and soldiers had worked, given their lives and efforts to make America, the world what it is today. I thought about our current state as a country and how so many others should do this same walk. I thought about my grandpa and all the soldiers I know as the Vietnam and WWII Memorials weighed heavy on my heart. I thought about being a better person, motivated to making such an impact on the world, one to the likes of these monumental forefathers…the stone and marble manifestations of these dead presidents spoke loudly to me, challenged my mind, body, and heart.
I couldn’t believe it all, the past nine days, everything I had done, to getting here, the training, people back home, growing up in Kansas, all the constant generosity I receive, this entire past year…it was overwhelming. With all the questions and deep thought provoking from the monuments at D.C., ironically, it all drew such clarity, and I was so happy. What a journey. What a finale, a swan song, to this incredible journey. Kevin said it best as he told me he attempted to describe me, simply, to his roommate: “He’s on a Quest.”
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