By Kyle Finneron
There is an old saying: you either win or you learn. Recently, I learned a lot. A few weekends ago I competed in my first grappling competition. I decided that a great place to test my mettle was at the North American Grappling Association (NAGA) North East championships in Rhode Island. Go big or go home, as they say. I have been training sporadically for a few months now and I wanted to see where I stacked up against other beginners and white belt grapplers.
The competition was on a Saturday and a good friend said he would come with me and help however he could. We drove down that morning, since I had until noon to register and weigh in. As we walked up to the gymnasium there was a line out the door—almost to the street—for people waiting to check in. It turns out that there were over 800 competitors at this event and I wouldn’t be surprised if half of them were younger than 13. The nerves started to play with my stomach as I saw some of the other competitors. They looked troublingly calm and confident. My friend nudged me to remind me that they are probably not in my division, which helped me relax a little.
At these competitions, you compete in a very granular category. I was competing in Men’s Adult (19-29) Middle Weight (170-179 lbs.) Beginner No Gi (less than 6 months training, with no wrestling experience) and White Belt Gi. This structure is meant to keep the competition as fair and competitive as possible. Even with that breakdown, I was a part of two of the largest divisions at the event.
After I checked in and made weight I learn that my group wouldn’t compete for another three hours. The term “hurry up and wait” could be used a lot at these events. I will say that for having that number of competitors, the organizers did an amazing job getting everyone to the correct spot and kept the tournament running on time. After walking around and watching tiny kids grapple for a few hours, I felt a little restless. I was trying to scope out my competition, but it’s hard to judge people’s weight, and almost impossible to guess their experience level.
My division was finally called. As we walked over to bracketing, I sized up the competition. I was told that I would probably be one of the tallest for my division, but that wasn’t the case. Having long, lanky extremities is actually a plus in this sport. Everyone looked a bit nervous, some less than others. We were given our mat assignments and I made my way over. I figured I had another 15-30 minutes until my match would begin. I was wrong. I had barely put my bag down when they called me onto the mat. I frantically took off my shoes and scrambled to get everything I needed. I almost forgot my mouthguard.
I walked to the mat and the referee called us up. I looked over at my opponent, and my stomach hit the floor. He looked like he could be a character from “Street Fighter.” He looked leaner than me, which meant more muscle for a given weight, and looked very relaxed. Time to go to war.
The bell rang and we danced around the ring for a few seconds. In my training, I found that I can defend a wrestling takedown with modest success and I hoped I could bait him into “shooting.” I’ll be honest, what happened next, I don’t really remember. All I know is he went for a takedown, I tried to counter and he countered my counter and ended up on top of me. He had four points and I was not in a good position. I kept hearing the referee say, “You have to move” and I thought he was talking to me. I tried everything I could think of to get to a better position but nothing was working.
The round was only four minutes long and time was slipping away. Nothing I was trying seemed to work. Finally, I was able to get him off me and we were in his guard (legs around my torso with his feet hooked behind my back). I knew what I needed to do and I actually had a few ways to do it. I tried to break his guard to advance my position and get a few points on the board. As I broke his guard and went for a better position, he performed a sweep (he used my weight and momentum to roll me onto my back and put himself in a better position). With 20 seconds left in the round, he went for the kill—an armbar. I was able to defend it for those last few seconds and the round ended. I lost 10-0.
I have never been as tired as I was after that match. I couldn’t breath, my head was spinning, and I lost. I didn’t just lose, I was steamrolled. When you compete in a one-on-one competition, you can have what’s called an adrenaline dump. This is where your body pumps a bunch of adrenaline due to the fight or flight response. The aftermath is basically an adrenaline hangover. That’s not exactly a scientific term, but that’s how it felt.
I made my way over to a bench and sat down and tried to think about what just happened. He was fast—very fast. Like, Polly Lynn fast. He was also strong and well trained. I felt lost. I didn’t know how to feel. I was mad at myself and the thought crossed my mind, “just go home, you don’t belong here, if that was the No Gi Match you’re going to get crushed in your Gi Match.” The self doubt almost made me sick to my stomach. I had to walk around. Once I caught my breath, I went and spoke with Franscua, the man who just wiped the floor with me. He was incredibly nice and even offered a few pointers on how to defend some of the moves he was able to use. He went on to take second in our division.
I’m glad I had made a friend there. If he wasn’t there with me, it would have been harder for me to stay for my next match. Up next was my Gi match. The difference between a No Gi and a Gi is, you cannot grab any clothing in a No Gi match, but in a Gi match you can grab the other players or their gi to help your game.
We went through bracketing again and who happens to be in my division? Franscua. Come to find out, No Gi is new for him—he usually trains Gi. We joked that we would probably be paired against each other again, but that wasn’t the case. As I walked to my assigned mat, an incredible feeling of calm seemed to wash over me. I felt relaxed, confident, and not nearly as worried as before. It could have been that I didn’t expect as much out of myself since I rarely trained Gi grappling, or it could have been that I saw what was on the other side of losing and it wasn’t the end of the world. I could breath again.
I went on to win my first match and lose the second. No medals, no trophies, no belts or swords for Kyle, but I was able to walk out with a win, and a pile of experience. Looking back, I asked myself, “What did I learn?” I learned a few things: calm down; be ready early; train more than you think; what you don’t train for can—and will—hurt you; don’t take yourself too seriously; have fun; if someone gives you an opportunity to end the match, take it and fight like hell to win; you win or you learn.