US Grappling Women’s Pro divison

Last weekend I was given the opportunity to compete as part of a four-woman pro bracket. There were three purple belts (Hillary Williams, Shavonne Guthrie, Jennie Radovsky) and me. I did okay, I suppose: I lost my first match on an advantage to Hillary, and I lost the third-place match 3-0 against Shavonne. I was supposed to be in California this weekend at the world championships, but I decided not to go. I’m not feeling good about my jiu-jitsu.

Given that Hillary is a phenom (I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up being the Abu Dhabi world champion) and Shavonne has been a purple belt longer than I have been training, I can’t really be upset with my performance. I had a great time and came away with lots of stuff to work on. But of course that doesn’t mean I can’t feel disappointment.

For those readers without experience in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, let me explain how things work. There are only five belts: white, blue, purple, brown and black. The criteria for promotion varies widely based on your instructor. Traditionally, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has privileged performance in competition and live sparring over things like the number of techniques you know, so instructors who do testing for belts are much less common than instructors who give belts when they think their students are ready: for example, if you beat most white belts and are starting to tap blue belts, you’ll get a blue belt. I was given my blue belt in May 2008 by my hero/coach/friend Felicia Oh, herself a phenom in women’s grappling.

There are some conventions beyond performance, though. A blue belt is normally a marker that you have a basic knowledge of the art. Generally, you’re good at one or two things, but you don’t have a complete game. As a purple belt, you should feel good from every position, and have a deep knowledge of the game of jiu-jitsu. The biggest step in jiu-jitsu is the one between blue and purple.

I am not a purple belt. In fact, I am nowhere near purple belt level. The place that I am in right now is that, due to my competition performance and a few lucky breaks, I am competing against girls who are purple belts… and brown belts, and black belts. I can survive against them, but I can’t be competitive, because I do not have the experience or the skill to put up a real fight.

I think there are a couple of reasons for my success in competition, but one of them is that I have a very aggressive attacking style. I am constantly trying, calmly and methodically, to improve my position and set up a submission, so my opponent has to spend most of the match defending my attacks and never gets a chance to attack herself. This makes jiu-jitsu fun, because attacking is fun. Attacking is the flashy, cool stuff like armbars and chokes – it’s not the escape-and-get-to-a-good-position bread and butter of jiu-jitsu, but boy is it cool.

At the level I am fighting at now, I can no longer attack constantly, because the women I am fighting are much, much more skilled than I am. I end up being in a defensive mode the whole time, trying to escape bad positions, halt their progress and and defend their submission attempts. I’m not getting beaten because I am being sloppy or making mistakes (though I am doing both): I’m getting beaten because my opponents are better. Everything I do, they have an answer for – they see things coming before I do, and they know how to react to stop me.

This has led me to a crisis in my competitive career. Competition is no longer as fun for me, because I am trying desperately to survive, rather than participating in setting the pace. I can’t go back to fighting beginners who have been training as long as I have because… well, how would you feel if you were in the beginner division and you found out that some girl who registered for your division has fought in two pro tournaments? It’s not fair to them.

Right now I am trying to decide whether to keep competing or to take some time off and improve my skill and experience before competing again. I don’t think it’s going to be a quick decision. The next tournament is on October 18th, which gives me more than two months to think and prepare. Do I want to do this tournament or not? I guess I’ll see.