Hand in hand with toughness, goes it’s close relation – ‘bottle’ . Here in the North-East, that’s what we call courage. The intestinal fortitude to see the job through.

There are a whole load of Jiu-Jitsu slang words and expressions attributed to Carlson Gracie senior, the trainer of my teacher Crezio de Souza. One of the most well known is ‘Casca Grossa’, literally meaning ‘hard shell, or skin’. The tough guy. To be called Casca Grossa was the highest accolade it seemed, as I toured around gyms in Rio with Crezio, visiting his old confreres from the Carlson golden era of the 80’s and early 90’s. He would introduce all the people we met, and some but not all, he would indicate once they turned away so as not to flatter them to their face, he considered ‘Casca Grossa’. Not necessarily the most prolific champions or technical innovators, though sometimes they were both; but the label Casca Grossa carried a special reverence when he said the words out loud, reserved for the guys who had true grit.

Another Carlson slang was the antithetical ‘Mutuca’. The coward. Mutuca seemed to cover the whole gamut of pusillanimity from the common or garden yellow, right across the spectrum of cowardice. The ‘leaos de treino’- the gym monster – those that had were ferocious within the confines of the academia, but buckled under the pressure of a real contest.
The front runners – the ones that excel when they’re in the driving seat but fall apart when things don’t go their way. Mighty when the hammer, but fragile when the nail.
Then there’s the recreants that like a stacked deck- the ones that swerve real opponents and elect to fight fall guys, fixes and sure things.

I had an appalling run in competition when I moved to Brazil. My brand new blue belt held up just fine in the U.K. of the early 2000’s, but I was green as grass in the big wide world, and got routinely curled up in the hands of the Brazilians. I was eliminated from the mundials in the very first round. I choked, and got choked.

The next one in a string of back to back first match defeats was to Draculino black belt Edson ‘Sururu’. It was Submission wrestling, so belt classes were eliminated. He hit me with a smooth arm drag and I ballsed up the ensuing scramble a treat, ending up underneath side control caught in a chicken wing. I’ll never forget what a good sport he was. Feeling that I was hopelessly overmatched he talked to the referee, and looked over to Crezio too. I think he said something to the effect of “I don’t want to break the kids shoulder, let’s stop the match”. I can’t remember if I gave up or he just let me go, but the one sided drubbing left me sorely deflated.

After that, I blew it in the first round of the Copa do Brasil. After getting blasted with a series of headbutts I finally got my takedown, but was sent off to see the medic. The arena was loud, and the ref was just a little too far to hear the medic speak. They told me to shower off and go home, so I just smiled and stuck my thumbs up as though they had told me I was free to continue. Straight away the opponent browed me on the bridge of the nose as I took a shot on his legs. The kid went down and started attacking a triangle. I was seeing stars and my nose and face poured pints of claret over me and my opponent until it looked like we’d been rolling round in an abattoir. I fought off the triangle, but the ref disqualified me for bleeding too much. I returned empty handed, and with an impossible laundry task. Getting blood out of a white kimono by hand is harder than calculus.

The next tournament was a few weeks later, as I had to wait for the nose to settle down. I didn’t cut too bad, but the inside was all mulched up for a month or so. We were all supposed to meet at 8am to take a minibus from Petropolis over to the neighbouring city of Tereosopolis. I didn’t sleep well, I was ill. The alarm went off at 6.30 and I stayed in the bed. The clock read 7 and I told myself I’d just lie down for 10 more minutes until my head felt better, until my stomach felt better. I lay there at 8, imagining all the guys from the team boarding the bus. I stayed in the bed till 11.
I told myself I didn’t feel well enough to compete that day. I knew full well I could have just pulled my pants up and gone and done it, but I just lay there, kidding myself I was far more sick than I really was.

So I missed the bus. I didn’t have to worry about losing again today. The problem was it didn’t feel any better. It was in fact far worse than being beaten again to sit contemplating my apostasy throughout that long day, knowing I had lied to myself and shirked the responsibility to get my feet on the mat. Add to that the dread of having to go back to the gym and look the guys in the eye and explain why I didn’t show up to get on the bus. The shame of having bottled it was 100 times worse than the disappointment of losing.

I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror, and when I said I was too ill to compete, I knew they all knew it was an excuse. Once you put your name down, you have to go through with it.

Just like toughness, having it in the moment alone is no good. Bottle is something that has to be sustained over the weeks, months and and years of being a competitor throughout the troughs as well as the peaks. It’s not precisely the same as the often synonymous quality of gameness. Some are game because they’re naive, stupid, or just plain nuts. It’s easy for some to have gameness when they’re on a roll. If you’ve never been laid out on the canvas, it’s easy to trust that it will never happen. To be considered casca grossa, in my opinion, you must know defeat and bounce back. Having real bottle means being able to put it on the line over and again. It’s often observed that champions hate to lose, but never fear to lose.
There have been days when I pissed blood on the morning, or had to bite the tape off my gloves and run the toilet in the dressing room, or limped in to the ring, but went and fought, and went to hospital afterwards sometimes. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost, but at least I could look in the mirror without shame. When I think of the guys that pull out for some spurious reason, or don’t show up when they’re slated to fight, or even grab their bag and slink out of the dressing room before their bout comes up, yeah, I’m disgusted like everyone else. I pity them more though, for the alienation they will suffer, knowing the punishment of being Mutuca, and the desperate loneliness of the craven.