The maxim and command: ‘leave your ego at the door’ is doubtless familiar to anyone who has been through the door of a Jiu-Jitsu academy. It might be considered a sacred commandment of BJJ.
Ostensibly it’s very good advice, if somewhat trite, that we must free ourselves to err in order to make progress. The first time I saw the popular ego proverb it was the strapline on a website for a BJJ academy, accompanied by a montage of photographs of the instructors and competitors. Their portraits were dramatically lit, and arranged the characters in a Phalanx, looking down their noses, with arms crossed in the ‘make your biceps look bigger’ stance. The message was clear – Leave your ego at the door, because this venue is already at maximum occupancy. Just as with the ritual decalogue of Exodus, the BJJ commandments are for the most part understood as unworkable, at least unconsciously, and largely ignored in practice by their followers.
The fight game is surfeited with handy apothegms that summarise superficially obvious truths, but don’t stand up to much interrogation. ‘Ego at the door’ is one of the worst offenders. It’s a gross oversimplification of the adjustments that are required to the ego of a fighter.
It’s understood that when we describe someone as having an ego, we’re using the word in the synechdocal sense: an ego problem. Especially when we’re talking about fighters, there’s no shortage of overly inflated egos. The problems arising from an out of control ego are obvious, but imagine for a moment a fighter entirely unshackled from their ego? You’d have no fight in the man or woman at all. Volunteering yourself for a fist fight takes a degree of audacity that really wouldn’t be possible without a fairly muscular ego.
If a formidable ego is a critical driver for the combatant, then what’s required is balance, and what gives equilibrium to the rather grand ego required of the aspiring or established star of the fight game? Taking a good hiding publicly, and losing in actual bout puts hard to repair dents in the ego. Sometimes it leads to constructive progress, while other defeats may cause irreparable fault-lines. Getting bested in the gym is the way it’s normally best served. Good trainers know how to talk to their athlete, pair their guys up right in training, and set the correct parameters to bring their guy down a peg when required, and massage that ego at the timely moment. On the fighters own part, the qualities of humility, compassion, benevolence- your Bushido virtue of ‘Jin’, if you’re into that kind of thing, exercised habitually keep the ego in healthy check.
Early in 2010 I took another trip to Brazil. I was planning a move there in a last ditch attempt to make something of a floundering career in MMA fighting. An ill fated attempt to move to the U.S. ended in a short stay at ‘The Meck’-Mecklenburg County jail, North Carolina, and I was deported before I even got to the gym. Throwing my hat in with an established Brazilian gym looked like the only chance for success before I got too old. My old friend Pedro ‘Napao’ Galvao, who had been my benefactor in Petropolis years earlier had moved down to Rio proper. He was training Jiu-Jitsu at the Minotauro academy and got my foot in the door to train at the pro fighter sessions.
The Nogueira brothers gym was well appointed, but was nonetheless just an enormous concrete industrial unit with a corrugated iron roof. Under the midday sun it transformed into a gigantic sauna that even the Brazilians found unbearable. Unacclimatised as I was, the heat was sapping my energy and leaching all the water from my body. One particularly hot morning, the sparring session was transferred a little way down the road to X-gym, a comparatively swanky commercial gym with a combat sports area in the spacious, air conditioned basement. The promise of air conditioning was a little misleading.
With Andrei Galvao at X-Gym, Rio de Janeiro. 2010
The session was packed with pro fighters, from up and coming hopefuls to established, big name internationals. Andre Galvao was in the mix, as this was during his stint fighting MMA in Japan, Rafael ‘Feijao’ was there training for Strikeforce, but the star of the show was without doubt Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva.
At this point in time Anderson was at the Apex of his abilities and star power. He was training for Vitor Belfort, the first scheduled bout that was cancelled shortly after I was there. I was on the main floor, an expansive mat, and Anderson and Feijao were segregated from the main group, working in the ring and cage. While the main floor was remarkably well regulated for such a large number of participants, it was just the classic system of rotating bodies. You grab a new partner at random before the timer goes for the next round, and it’s pot luck who you end up standing next to. The coaches carefully selected partners to rotate in on the star athletes to give them what they need. Since I was a guest rather than a team member, I was a little surprised when the coach called my name. Next thing I knew, I’m standing across the octagon from Anderson Silva, the World champion that was riding an unprecedented winning streak in championship bouts.
Fighting types tend to get revisionist about the old dogs once the sheen has worn off, but if you weren’t around at the time, believe me, he was supernatural. ‘Sinistro’ in the argot of the Cariocas. The level of skill he brought to the game was a revelation. In 2010 he was a peerless virtuoso.
I assumed the handle ’The Spider’ was just a reference to his limbiness, but I found myself standing in front of an actualised Vitruvian man, trying to decipher the feints of additional arms and legs. The guys from Minotauro gym had been as friendly and welcoming as one could possibly hope, but in the fight game you learn early on that the Judas kiss is normally preceded by a smile. Were they watching me to see if I was competent enough to move around with the champ, or a knucklehead who would try to take a shot at him? Or was I thrown in here for a Dutch style confidence building, sparring knockout?
Silva dipped behind his lead shoulder and beckoned me on to throw a few punches, just to get my measure, get a little research before sparring began in earnest. I obliged, with what I deemed the appropriate level of respect. Then he started to move. He threw out his hands and lifted his knees, feeding all kinds of information on the periphery of my vision. If you’re into fighting, and you’re not au fait with Col. John Boyd and his OODA cycle, then you really must familiarise yourself. That’ll explain what was going on.
I’m not normally one to be star-struck. I rather pride myself on being anti-celebrity and realist. Mystique, and the air of invincibility is a very real thing though. I’m sure a lot of middleweights have watched Anderson pull too far over his centre and eat that punch from Weidmann in 2013, and imagined themselves delivering the same blow. In 2010 I was punching at thin air and Silva was untouchable. As Teddy Atlas might put it : “You couldn’t hit him in the ass with a handful of Buckshot”.
He held his hands up to his temples and tapped his lead foot in the familiar Thai rhythm, then switched to an interlude of a capoeira jinga before dancing off to my closed side with an Ali shuffle. As I pivoted to adjust he spun with perfect timing, slinging the unconventional upward elbow that dispatched Tony Fryklund, right up into my chin.
I froze, expecting to see black, and sink into the canvas. Some knockouts just put guys straight into the void, a short but immediate visit to perdition. They don’t know what hit them. I’ve only been switched off three times in my life. Once on the street, outnumbered at 15 years old, from multitudinous Nike air maxes to the temple, in a vatic moment of being stomped against a chicken wire fence. Then once in the gym, and once in an actual bout. I never actually went out completely. It never cut to black for me. When I went down I hit the floor and kept going down through it, not quite entirely divorced from my consciousness, but somewhere between worlds, walking with the shades. One foot trying to gain vantage back on earth, the other in Sheol. The body halts at the floor, and the spirit continues to tumble for a few rotations before looking to the disappearing sky, slipping down and down, the little sliver of light in the centre diminishing. I imagine it is how it feels to die by firing squad, and fall backward into the pit.
The elbow, launched at lighting speed, froze fractions of a millimetre beneath my jaw, barely brushing against the short, stubbly beard I wore. I held my breath for a moment, and realised that I was still upright, only thanks to his clemency. He looked me in the eye while he let it remain there suspended for a moment, waiting for me to acknowledge what had happened. On receipt he gave a grin and a genial wink, touched gloves, and played on.
I was getting eaten alive on the outside, so I tucked my chin down and bulled in, coming up outside his lead arm and fastened up the butchers grip on a standing kata-gatame, pressing his back against the wire mesh. I don’t know how he did it, but he swiped at me casually with his free arm, and I slipped down his body and landed on my butt. I was not giving much of an account of myself thus far, and it went from bad to worse. The oppressive heat had me sweating so much that my shirt and shorts were fully saturated, sending sweat streaming down my legs. Under my soaked feet the plastic vinyl became slick, and I was losing my footing on every other step. Silva held out his hands displaying his palms and waved in the manner that signals a pause in the action, a time-out. My heart sank. I thought he was about to turn to his coach and reprimand him for putting some bum that can’t even hold his feet in the ring with him. Instead he reached down and lifted my foot up, and on his own shirt he dried my soles tenderly. With a considerable effort to summon his rudimentary English he asked “You…good?” before recommencing. I’d been told before that Silva was a conceited character, and a diva when dealing with fight promoters. Here he was though, performing pedelavium for a stranger and subordinate. I’m guessing he’s read his John 13.
A couple of months after this, with the Belfort fight shelved, the documentary ‘like water’ captured Silva’s preparation for his first bout with Chael Sonnen. The last bout he had fought before I was there had been the curious showing against Demian Maia, which seemed like an anomoly at the time following a string of sensational knockout victories, but turned out to be augural of a series of baffling performances and strained confrontations with press and UFC management. “Like water” opens with footage of Bruce Lee giving his famous performance on the Pierre Berton show from 1971, as he recites the hammy philosophy from his breakthrough T.V. role, followed by footage of Anderson in the UFC, as Rogan and Mike Goldberg dub him a real life Bruce Lee. I suspect the filmmakers had a different expectation when they embarked on the project, but the tone changes rapidly and makes for quite a difficult watch, as Silva struggles with injury and is either unwilling or unable to relate to fans, management and media.
Much like the build up to, and the fight itself, the documentary has Chael Sonnen to thank for making something watchable. There’s a scene where his exasperated manager Ed Soares literally has his head in his hands as Anderson responds with a solitary “No” to every question he is asked by a journalist. It’s unclear whether he’s just a simple family man thrust into the limelight, that can’t come to terms with the promotional side of the fight game, or a hubristic martial arts genius that won’t lower himself to answer the same asinine and banal questions yet another time. The parallel with Bruce Lee seems to begin and end with the unresolved question of whether he’s an arrogant bastard or not. There’s certainly no performing and playing to the camera, and no regurgitated philosophy.
Far from being a portrait of a master performing his craft, it just looks like an ordinary guy struggling with the quotidian demands of working away from his family. The only philosophical hint that emerges is when his trainer tells the fable of the frozen bird, and the cow that takes a shit on him, and the laughs that ensue. There is one candid scene toward the end of the movie, showing Anderson lead his team in prayer. He explains to God that they are not there to do harm to anyone, only to do a job well, and asks the Lord to deliver them back safely to their families. It was the only moment in the film where he appeared to speak with an unguarded sincerity.
After the sparring, Anderson mustered our group into a large circle. Apparently this was the standard practice, that the lead figure in the training would give a post training pep-talk, offering up some germane advice to the ‘galera’. It started with a few admonitions, with a few present bowing their heads and looking awkwardly at their feet, unable to turn away thanks to the arrangement of overhooks, underhooks and headlocks that held the human annulus in place. He let the sentiment hang for a moment, then deftly rose the spirits of the group with some adroit inspirational oratory. Anyone who’s seen a few sports movies will have noticed that there’s really only a handful of themes for sports pep-talks. Delivering the hackneyed old scripts in a way that isn’t vapid really does take some skill as a performer. His speech came to a crescendo with the whole group following the lead of their pastor as he began to shout ecstatically, extolling the virtues of hard work, unity, loyalty and dedication, and our presupposed faith in God and divine right to victory.
Even as a committed cynic and agnostic, I was entirely swept up in the numinous spirit of the moment, woven into in wreath of bodies chanting in unison.
After this little closing ceremony, as everyone milled around, towelling off and shooting the breeze, I got to chat with Anderson. I apologised for not giving him good rounds, trying to make excuses about acclimatisation and waffling on that I was doing my roadwork last week in minus four degrees in a foot of snow. He cut me off in avuncular fashion, and reassured me that I gave him good sparring, although it was a kind fib. He took a little time to explain the mechanics of his Thai clinch, which had an extraordinary dimension that I’d never experienced, before posing for a photograph with me and wishing me success and safe travels. Andre Galvao was equally magnanimous when I asked him in Portuguese for a photograph. I introduced myself by name, as there isn’t really time to do that during sparring rounds. He responded in kind, in English – “My name is Andrei”. Of course I already knew that, and he surely knew too, yet had the good grace not to assume.
It’s not at all that we must leave our ego at the door. We need to properly manage our ego, sideline it or protect it at times, and at others exploit it to push ourselves toward competitive excellence. Humility and compassion must give counterweight to a confidence that borders on arrogance. The trick is knowing how and when to do each of these things, and understanding the delicate alchemy of balancing and mixing those requirements. Like all things in our game, it’s part science, part art.