Incredible October: My Run at the Miami Open

The Miami International Open was only days ago and I am still on Cloud 9 about how everything went down. It has been another great year and this month has been especially memorable. This past Saturday at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Miami Open I earned the Silver in the Adult Purple Belt Medium-Heavyweight division and then came back in the Adult Purple Belt Absolute (open/any weight) division and took the Gold! The story doesn't begin there however, two weeks prior I received my hard-earned purple belt from the very respected Renato Tavares black belt, my friend and coach, Jason Bircher.  Now the purpose of this blog post is to set a backdrop for these events, and give some insight and history to create an understanding with you, the reader.

As a small town Kansas wrestler I never envisioned myself to ever be into belt rankings and martial arts, but let me tell you, although I am still young, I have been around and seen quite a bit, more than most see in an entire lifetime. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the most legit martial art or fighting system in the world, you don’t compare it with any other martial art, in my opinion.  So please don’t talk about so-and-so being a 42nd degree black belt in Woo-hoo-kwon-do-do or whatever else. Not to be too offensive, I am actually very open minded and welcoming to different martial arts, thinking, cultures, and methods, but my point is belt rank in BJJ is highly respected and taken so much more seriously than others. Some, many, try their whole lives to achieve belt rank in BJJ only to fail, not because they didn’t put in the time or effort, but because they were not or are not or never will be good enough to represent the rank

(On the right, Me pictured with a very influential friend, seasoned Steve Hanna purple belt Jesse Hernandez on 10/15/2010)

 Enough on that.  I was ecstatic to be promoted, it justifies all my hard-work, dedication, and patience.  It means so much to me not only as a BJJ fighter, but as a person and my growth as an individual.  I was also ecstatic for another reason:  I would then get to register the Miami Open as Purple, stepping up the competition level even further.  To some that’s scary, or intimidating to do so, but I welcomed it. 

I got into Ft. Lauderdale on Thursday before the tournament and drove up to Vero Beach that night for 7pm training with Renato, after having started traveling that morning at 3:20am (roughly 15 hours almost non-stop travel).  After all that time I was still geared to go, wanted to get a sweat going, get on the mats and do some training.  My weight was going to be very close, so I was reliant on some last minute key workouts.  Now with the IBJJF, unlike my previous amateur wrestling and other jiu-jitsu and grappling tournaments, it is not feasible to “cut” weight really at all.  Instead of weighing in the night before or the morning of and being able to eat and rehydrate if need be, the process, instead, is you weigh in right before your gi is checked and verified and then you walk right onto the mats and into your first fight!  You would be an idiot to cut water or food and still try and perform at your peak level.  So that Thursday night we did five minute positional walk-throughs, for exercising and quizzing the brain on techniques and form more than anything, staying mentally sharp. Then I did some light rolling, accomplishing my goals for the night.

I Crashed that night at Renato’s, soaking up the generosity and kindness of him and his wife Angela, once again.  Before morning 11am training I sat outside by the pool and tested and tried the little Portuguese language skills I had with Renato and another great black belt, Andre Raizama who in turn knew very minimal English. With my gi on and weighing right before training I was 1+lbs. overweight. “excesso de peso por” I learned in Portuguese. After knocking out some aggressive warm-up and technical drills for over an hour, stepping back on the scale I was dead on.  I would have to watch my intake the rest of the day and that night, but I knew my body and I was confident I would be right on.  In the back of my mind though this whole weigh-in process was all new to me, and I couldn’t help but think how embarrassing it would be to have gone through everything to that point and then not make weight by such a small margin. I’ve experienced that horrible feeling one time before in the past, and never want it to happen again. I hydrated a little, had a protein shake then some greens, herbs, and glutamine and then hit a quick and light, but intense high-rep 30-40 minute full-body workout to continue the sweat, calorie burn, and promote good blood flow throughout. I felt great.

Back in Ft. Lauderdale that night I was tired again from the driving, but wanted to get one last good meal in to furnish nutrients and calories in final preparation for the tournament the very next morning.  Zero Hour was approaching!  Two of my very good friends, a married couple from KC were traveling with me, and I couldn’t have had any two greater people with 

(Missy & Josh Stirling pictured here with me, showing support by sporting vintage T-Money shirts) 

me to help and support me throughout the entire trip.  Josh and I had wrestled together in high school, so we have a strong tie and bond, one that is only formed through fierce blood, sweat, and tears lost on the mat.  The three of us ventured out and ended up at the famous Old Florida Seafood House, singly owned since 1977.  Adjusting my diet that day, I was looking for only lean proteins and veggies for sustenance while keeping blood sugar and insulin levels in check. The Seafood House delivered, did it ever, giving me the absolute best, freshest seafood meal I’ve ever had; a platter filled with delicious broiled lobster, shrimp, scallops, and white fish with broccoli. I love food, and a dinning experience as such just makes me giddy, almost drunk, if you will.  A perfect last supper, a perfect feeling and an ease to the remainder of the night...a calm before the storm, as they say. 

October 23rd had arrived, I made the hour drive down south to the Dade College on an empty stomach, unsure and not able to check to see exactly where my weight was lying.  I felt good though, mentally and physically.  With my gi and a protein/oatmeal shake hand, stepping on the check scale I had about a pound leniency.  Perfect.  Slammed the shake and hydrated a little more and soon they called about four different purple belt divisions, including mine, to the warm-up area around 11:20am.  Little did I figure that would be my last real caloric consumption of any significance for the day until around 10:30pm later that night!  I got a good warm-up going...and then slowly cooled back down and waited...and waited...and waited.  Noon passed...then 1pm...then I found myself yawning and tired of being on my feet.  This was completely normal, the part of tournament competing that you just can’t prepare for.  I saw all kinds of other purple belts competing, and kept checking with the official to make sure I didn’t miss my name call by some chance, all the while standing right there where I should be.  By that time Ethan, my friend and coach had shown up and came over to talk with me.  I was glad, as he had horrible food poisoning just days 

(Ethan and I pictured, standing atop the Miami Open podium with our medals)

before and he was still unable to keep down any sort of food or liquid yet.  He was there though, scheduled to compete as his first time being a black belt, and it relieved me for him and myself, as he delivers excellent in-match coaching.  He has competed all over the world on big stages and it’s great to have him in your corner.  2pm passed and still I waited anxiously, calm and collected, but now...most definitely cold.  Frigid.  Now this wait time was nothing compared to other grappling and jiu-jitsu tournaments I had done in the past; it was way better, much more organized and planned out, I just believe my particular division just kept getting shafted coincidently.  This was the IBJJF, like the NFL is to football, the real deal.  Ethan reminded me to keep my mind right, I of course obliged, having no problem, and just moments after Ethan suggested I get off my feet to relax, re-stretch and then start to re-warm-up, he looks over at me and nods to the table, it was time. 

Time, finally, for the Miami Open.  Time to walk onto those mats after a two year long absence from competition and to prove that in that stretch, it wasn’t time off by any means.  It was hard training and exponential growth.  Time to prove to myself and everyone else that I was better than ever.  Time to prove once again that I belong.  It was time to turn some heads and perform, just like I have done so many times in the past.  My time.  I had reached Zero Hour.

My weight was good, within a half pound.  Gi checked, good.  The ring official walked me down and around the inside of the barrier to my mat.  I quickly did final warm-ups, got some words of wisdom from Ethan as Renato, Josh, and others were right there at the edge of the mat.  I bowed in respect at the foot of the mats, and then I walked out onto them...time seemingly froze just in those few seconds and steps onto the mat...this was it.  My opponent was very tall, a tough Rilion Gracie guy.  As the match started we immediately went into grip fighting, jocking for hand position.  He was getting the better of me, but I managed an arm-drag to a failed single-leg attempt, only knocking him back momentarily.  His grips were making me weary, so I worked into a 2-on-1 grip, he tried to trip me and I landed down in his half-guard.  As I tried to transition to side-control I was caught in his long legs and right away I was in trouble, he was threatening taking my back.  He starts to lock in a collar choke, but my instinctive choke defense is good.  My chin was tucked and my traps where shrugged high.  My own collar was brutally piercing my face and he turned me over and executed maximum pressure, cutting off blood flow to the top half of my head, turning it a dark purple, looking like a giant grape.  I was calm, I knew I needed to move and better my position, but I didn’t freak out.  I kept inching into him, slowly, and eventually I turned all the way into his open guard.  A split second moment of relief but instantly he sat up towards me, latched on to both shoulder sleeves and started to pull back with a cross-choke.  Again my automatic defense was in effect, but he held and squeezed, more, and tighter, digging across my face.  I held my ground and with strong posture I worked backwards out of it, to our feet.  I was already down big on points, and had submission advantages against me as well.  I had to dig out of the hole I was in.  We locked up and immediately I drug him by right into my half-guard in hopes to come up with the single-leg.  He defends initially, but I did come up and in a few short seconds lifted his leg overhead and taking two attempts, aggressively tree topped his lengthly frame from his feet for the takedown...but no points awarded.  Now I end up threatening his back while holding his lapel and maintaining control from the side.  As he scrambles I follow him and pop my hips up and finally secure side control!  Points!  I poor on the pressure, smashing him flat, he writhes, going nuts trying to escape.  With seconds left I hammer him down, slide my knee over his belly right into mount!  I hold it long enough...four more points!  The Rilion Gracie student furiously bucks and pops his incredibly long body and legs in a last effort, but my base is solid and superior...time expires, I had come from behind for a thrilling first round win! 

What a war!  Ethan and everybody yelled and cheered in excitement, it was a great fight, and a great feeling to get that first win, get that first one underway.  My adrenaline was at a high.  There was no time to celebrate however, the second round, my next match, would be within only minutes.  My hands were numb, a feeling I had never experienced but Ethan had warned me about.  Luckily Leanna was right there, a BJJ competitor, friend, and massage therapist, she worked my hands around, shook and massaged some feeling and blood back to my fingers, extensors and flexors.  My hands slowly seemed to return more to normal and I paced for the next match. 

At that moment, with my epinephrine levels still up, and the high from the match my mind began to drift.  I began to think of everything all at once; my training, my last match, all my sacrafices, my past with wrestling, my incredible journey, everything leading to this very moment in time; and all those thoughts seemed to come full circle in that very short moment.  I became almost overwhelmed with emotion.  I didn’t show it, it fact I haven’t even mentioned it to anyone until now.  I kept it inward and just thought to myself, “Wow.  This is why I’m here, I belong on those mats, I always have my entire life, one way or another.”  It was like my own personal homecoming in my head with all these thoughts and emotions streaming together, overlapping in a fusion, such an incredible feeling that I can only describe as “alive”.  I felt alive in those few short moments, a feeling I was familiar with, had felt many times in the past throughout my competitive career.  But each time it is different, intense in it’s own unique way, almost euphoric. That’s what keeps me compelled, keeps me doing what I do.  As a person, as a competitor, as a fighter.  I could barely contain my emotion I was so happy.  I was ready for the next match... 

It was against Nogueira Minotauro’s Eric Alequin.  I pressed early with takedown attempts, he avoided and wanting no part of any stand-up, he sits to open-guard.  I start working grips and passes aggressively.  He’s playing a solid spider-guard, but I was relentless, switching back and forth between different looks until finally as he tried an inverted roll away from me I clasped my hands around his waist and brought him over to his knees.  From there I latched on a 3/4 gable grip over his head, hoping to transition to a Darce choke.  Persistent with it, I foolishly left my leg exposed to a knee bar attempt and as his head slid out he rolled for it.  I defended for a few seconds, and as he unlocked my feet to fully engage it and pull back, I was ready to turn and push away from the submission attempt.  Before I could do so, the ref yells at us to stop, stands us up, and signals an “X” with his arms; knee bars are not allowed in the Purple Belt divisions.  He was disqualified.  I win. 

Not the way I wanted to get the victory, but a win nonetheless and advancement into the finals of the Medium-Heavyweight division.  I was set up to face Jarod Lawton from American Top Team.  Immediately he sits to closed-guard.  I posture and start working technical movement, inching back with my hands backwards away from his hips.  I try time and time again, even momentarily breaking his guard, but each time his hips are solid, and he squares back up each time.  After a few minutes of that route I abandon it and jump up quickly, trying to pop my hips forward and force his guard open from a standing position. It’s a technique I use successfully all the time, but he has a strong grip on my lapel which I didn’t notice and he raises with me, which causes me to fall forward with him back to the mat, hard. I don’t think twice, immediately I reach back and try to pry his knee down, force my posture and break away.  He tries to go high on my back to secure either guard or a submission but I was out.  I smash down on his legs to go for a pass, but I’m too low on his legs, and he secures grips on my sleeves to disable my movement.  This guy is tough, amazing guard.  He closes guard again, I break again, and he uses my lowered stance to snap on a high triangle.  I hip in and posture right away, keep my arm safe, but I’m in trouble.  He secures his leg over his ankle, keeps readjusting, cinching it down, and it’s tight...he pulls on the back on my head and squeezes tighter...I’m in a bad way but I don’t freak, I know I need to move, and move now, but I’m saving myself with good posture and defense for the moment. I feel my opportunity and with my arm I jam down on his hips and pop forward, shake up and down violently...broke the triangle.  I have worked that very defense thousands of times before, and it pulled through for me. It’s a great technique that I have taught several times and was proud to demonstrate it perfectly in high-level competition.  Match-wise though, I’m still struggling for points, I try to stack him and transition to a sit-through pass and for a split-second I had the opportunity to secure side-control...I fail.  He goes high again, switches his hips and squares up...again.  He tries to sweep and we end up in a scramble with him on top...hes desperately trying to secure side...I’m desperately fighting to maintain...back-and-forth we go...he spins to the opposite side and gets to my back with one hook in.  He flatens me out, eliminating my hip movement ability, a great technique I always use.  He works the chokes. I’m in a bad way, again...he secures the other hook...tries to choke...flatens me more and puts extreme pressure on my lower spine...this is bad...he locks in a body triangle and puts even more pressure on my mid-region, squeezing the life out of me with everything he has. I’m stuck, I’m just in survival mode thinking, “No way am I giving up, I am not tapping out to this guy.”  Time expires, I get the Silver. 

I wasn’t completely satisfied with my division performance, obviously.  Yes I was excited to get the Silver considering all the circumstances, but I wasn’t happy.  I wanted to lock out the division dominantly and overcome, regardless of what was or wasn’t expected of me.  I just thought afterwards how I needed to compete more.  These looks from these competitors were like nothing I had ever seen.  You can try to simulate a game-like scenario in practice, but the only way to fully do so is to compete regularly on the biggest of stages.  This was my thought process and attitude after taking that Silver, I wanted more, I was already planning my training and attack for the future.  Never satisfied. 

So leading into the Purple Belt Adult Absolute division I had intentions of getting a match or two to prepare for just that, future betterment.  I wanted to get even more looks and see how other Purple Belts were attacking and playing the game of jiu-jitsu.  Another long wait for the division to actually start; and with all that waiting, warm-up time and prior matches I had a small sandwich on top of that protein shake in the morning.  Not thinking about it until later, I was running on like 500 calories or less!  It finally got underway somewhere around 6pm, and I could actually see purple matches going on for a while as I waited for the ring coordinator to come grab me through the check-in.  My first opponent was smaller, and for the first two to three minutes he was all over me, attacking, threatening my back, attacking, attacking...I weathered the storm.  Eventually I seized the opportunity, passed his guard and laid down heavy side control, utilizing my excessive strength and pressure.  I could “feel” his exhaustion, morale, and will to win escape all at once.  That is a great feeling, a specialized skill I learned from years of wrestling where you “break” your opponent, mentally and physically in order to beat them. It’s an amazing thing, something not everyone possesses, you can’t teach it. It’s a battle of fortitude, resilience and courage.  Once I feel the “break” I pour it on even more, take it to another level to finish the fight.  I did just that, transitioned to north/south, locked up his arm in a Kimura lock, sprang to my feet and with all my might I did a full-body power squat with his arm attached to my chest, ripping it violently from his body and before I could turn it to take it home he very quickly, verbally tapped out.  Sweet.  Felt so good to get that first submission victory of the day.  Nothing quite like it.  The finish.  No points victory, a definitive triumph.

Second match was against “Incredible” as he is called, a 240lb. beast.  I had watched his previous match and noticed he went the distance, the full time, and was needing all the recovery time he could get.  I knew I could hang and that I’d have conditioning and the gas to go into the further minutes of the fight.  He was big though, and if I were to find myself on the bottom I could be in serious trouble.  Surprisingly, he jumps quickly to guard and I hip around looking to counter pass, he rolls over and snatches my leg tight. I’m on my butt so I try a guillotine attempt but hes weary of it, so I lose position for it and now hes on top in side control.  Exactly where I didn’t want the fight to go!  I stay true however, stabilize myself with my arms, creating space, and then use it to hip over, grabbing his shoulder in an inverted arm-bar attempt.  I have it, its a strong attempt but hes staying cool and managing the defense.  He pulls out, and I knew in that exchange it gassed him to defend heavily more than it did me to crank on it.  Sitting in open guard I come up and forward, he again sits trying for the single but this time I have a good sprawl and base, and end up smashing him flat to pass.  He rolls me over but I’m all over it, toss him back to the mat.  That was all he had.  That was the breaking point.  I felt it.  I poured it on, went for another Kimura finish, he countered well, but I was all over him, like a hunter stalking his prey.  I got his back, got a hook, locked my hands around his lapel and tap.  It was over, that quick.  Wow.  I was stoked.  I defeated the big man. 

The Absolute bracket had played out perfectly in my favor, the big guy upstairs was watching over me for sure. I witnessed some all-out wars and really tough competitors going through the absolute division.   I was lucky to be matched up as I was, and to sub my first two guys to send me to the finals.  In that final match, turns out I was facing, none other than...Jarod Lawton!  Again!  He had fought his way through the other side of the bracket, and now we would meet in the Absolute finals!  I watched his semi-finals match, going the distance he pulled out a close win.  I was getting my immediate rematch, a chance to avenge the loss and take the Absolute title!  What a scenario!  Incredible! 

I was completely confident and at ease before the match.  I had tremendous momentum going in, and I felt I had the upper hand even regarding the days previous loss to him.  Where most people would crack and breakdown mentally, I in turn, thrive on those high pressure situations.  I love it.  The situation couldn’t have presented itself any better, I felt fantastic.  So right from the start he of course tries to pull guard, but I was ready and started a split leg pass attempt. It’s close, and I could feel him struggle hard for several moments, but as I switch directions he squares and pulls me into full guard. I’m on it this time and I pop up hard to my feet, driving my hips forward and jamming down on his knees, forcing his legs open and freeing myself from his dreaded guard.  I’m anxious however, and he hits a nice sweep for I’m showcasing my guard. He’s desperately trying to pass, but I’m holding him off, and as I see an opening I swing my leg over and attempt an inverted arm bar just as I did against my last opponent.  He defends well, circling around and pulling up and out.  He then forges between my guard, trying to go through the center to pass.  Perfect.  I hip out and around, shucking him by and snatching up the single leg as I rise...all the way up...and down...right into side control!  Finally I passed his guard!  This was huge, I could feel his disappointment, I had him reeling.  I knew his breaking point was close.  He manages half-guard at one point, but my top game is relentless and I turn it into mount.  Points.  He manages half again, I pass again to side.  In a big effort he rolls and we end up scrambling to standing again...a momentary break in the action as we reset to center.  Bam, he goes for guard again and we are in another scramble, I end up on the bottom, but I’m fishing for his back. It’s close, we are both in a tough neutral spot. I’m pinned but I pop my hips around and again, I secure side control!  He was definitely breaking now, time was running out, I had this match.  Instead of traditional side control I stayed laid out with his head and arm, really pouring on my weight and strength, crushing his diaphragm and laying down extreme pressure.  He was in bad shape, wheezing.  I was sucking the fight out of him...I lock out his arm...grab his lapel...seconds remain...the buzzer sounds, times up.  I had won.  Incredible.

Although physically exhausted, I was completely exhilarated and managed to raise my arms in victory.  The ref then officially raised my hand:  I was the Purple Belt Absolute Champion!  The best purple belt of the day!  I let out a weak shout of excitement, all I could muster, but my emotions were running high.  I couldn’t believe what I had just accomplished. What a great feeling. Considering all the circumstances behind it all: traveling fifteen hours to a far away city to compete, making weight, my first tournament in two years, first gi tournament ever, receiving my purple belt only two weeks ago, entering into one of the toughest tournaments of the year, being from KC training BJJ once a day compared to these Florida competitors training 2-3x a day, all the while managing my own business...everything considered it was amazing.  I had overcome all adversity and exceeded any and all expectations winning with heart, above all else.  Just like I had done time and time again throughout my career I was a nobody, an underdog  and I showed tremendous tenacity.  Every fight from the beginning I was down on points  and came back and won five of six all-out battles!  It was learning on the job, or riding the fastest learning curve ever, each individual match.

I was very proud.  Proud of who I was and what I had done.  What I had proven.  I had proven my strong beliefs to be true; that my unmatched work ethic and dedication prevails.  To stay true to myself and to that belief through the adversity and deterrents, through everything.  To stay true to my plan and vision, knowing it would all turn out and be worth it... all along, in the end the satisfying feeling is just simply indescribable. Incredible.  All the sacrifices throughout the past two years and even beyond, incredible. What an Incredible October.  Not bad for a kid from small town Kansas.  Now time to train and prepare even harder for the Pan-Ams...

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