You enter the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan by walking down the fire stairs in the back of a commercial building on 30th Street. The first thing you notice is a thick, humid wave of dank air — the end product of many people, overwhelmingly men, grappling in close contact, exerting themselves on the sweat-slicked floors of two large, matted rooms. It smells of balls, sodden rash guards, moldering clothes, and ass crack.
I began kickboxing on the Upper East Side shortly after the birth of my daughter nine years ago. The gyms and locker rooms there smelled of fresh blowouts and nail polish. Like me, most of the other women were there to "get their body back" after pregnancy or to learn self-defense. But even after I had "gotten my body back" and finished the self-defense classes, I found myself wanting more. I was hooked. When I decide I like something, I go in all the way. And what I really liked was hitting my instructors. So when they told me I should train in jujitsu, I took note.
I began kickboxing on the Upper East Side shortly after the birth of my daughter nine years ago.
I'd seen mixed martial arts fights before. I was a fan of Gina Carano, the actress and former MMA fighter; I thought she redefined what a woman could and should be in a way I wanted to emulate, although MMA didn't initially appeal to me. The fighters on the ground are trying to apply sophisticated joint locks or other moves, but to my untrained eye, and to the majority of meatheads in the audience booing when the fight goes to the mats, it's just two sweaty, slippery bodies grinding away at each other. It didn't look either fun or useful.
I will, however, try anything once. So I signed up, despite the potential grinding.
That first day, walking down those stairs, as the stench grew stronger and the heat intensified, I knew, in a primordial way, that I was in another animal's territory. I sat patiently outside an empty office, waiting for someone to notice me. Men — and the occasional woman — walked by wearing jeans and T-shirts, suits and ties; young and old, all carrying gym bags, headed for the locker rooms.
Eventually, a young man asked me if I needed anything. I told him I was there for the introductory class, and he disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a kimono (or a "gi," as everyone calls it in jujitsu). He suggested I change quickly, as class started in five minutes. The damned thing was two sizes too big, stiff, and heavy.
Barefoot, all jewelry removed, I entered the smaller of two matted rooms and asked if this was the "introductory class." There was, it turned out, no "introductory class." I was advised by my pitying fellow students to follow the instructor's directions and try not to get hurt. Nobody was going to hold my hand in there. Looking around at the odd collection of white belts around me, most of whom were used to being mauled by more experienced students, I could see they were sizing me up like a doggie chew toy — or a fresh pork chop.
Nobody was going to hold my hand in there.
I followed the people around me during the warm-ups, desperately trying to keep up and make sense of random commands, many of them in terms I didn't understand. I bungled every technique, my body completely unfamiliar with even the most basic movements.
And then, as class was nearing its end, it was time for "live training." In the last 30 minutes of class, you fight your fellow students — four five-minute rounds, with 60 seconds in between each one to rest. It was the first time since grammar school where "live," totally focused human strength and intentional movements were aimed at my body as an object. The moves in jujitsu are called "submissions" because they are aimed at getting your opponent to submit, which you signal by tapping. I tapped a lot.
A scruffy, hairy, sweaty dude would wedge his head next to mine, trapping my arm and using shoulder pressure against my carotid artery to shut off the oxygenated blood flow to my brain. I would tap. Then: a few seconds of breathable air as the wall of human meat moved away ... until, suddenly, the motherfucker would have my arm hyperextended, the rest of my body completely immobilized — and I'd have to tap with my free hand, hoping it would be noticed before the other arm snapped like a chicken wing.
Every part of the body, I painfully learned, was a potential target.
Arms, shoulders, ankles are isolated and attacked. Joint locks lead to escalating degrees of pain. When it becomes too excruciating, you tap. Strangulations are a special type of submission. The feeling of a squeeze around your neck when the rest of your body is powerless to do anything about it is its own circle of hell. The first time I experienced it, the pressure on the trachea alone was enough to make me tap immediately.
The first time I experienced it, the pressure on the trachea alone was enough to make me tap immediately.
I developed a training pattern: confused movement, followed by a desperate scramble of limbs, and many accidental knees and elbows to the face as my fellow white belts and I flailed at each other in a sea of human sweat. And every time, someone would isolate one of my limbs, or get their damned arm around my neck, and I would have to tap.
All that first month, and for months and years that followed, when I walked down those stairs and onto those mats, I was determined to be the one to make people tap. I got my ass kicked every day for a long time. I'd go home with aching limbs, smashed fingers, bruises all over my arms and legs, my neck. Every day before class, I'd get butterflies in my stomach as I sat there, pretending to stretch but actually mentally preparing myself for what I knew came next.
It's five years later now, and when I walk down those stairs to Renzo Gracie Academy every day at 7 a.m., the smell of sweat, balls, and ass crack is familiar, even welcoming. Before I step on the mat, there's always a short standing bow, an acknowledgment that no one is above or below anyone else.
In a room full of people with a wide span of experience and skill level — wrestlers, grapplers, professional MMA fighters, blue belts, purple, brown, black belts — I feel no butterflies in my stomach. I scan the room with clinical detachment, sizing up potential opponents of both sexes.
I scan the room with clinical detachment, sizing up potential opponents of both sexes.
I no longer panic or become unhappy when pinned underneath a larger opponent. I do not think about the discomfort. I think about my plan to counter.
My mind drives my body to a purpose — to instinctively attack my opponent first. I test their ability to maneuver against the same crushing pins and pressures that were once my greatest fear.
I know now, with certainty, that in this art, anyone can be overcome. That physical strength is just another obstacle to be outwitted, outflanked, out-strategized.
It's the last half-hour of class, time for "live training."
I look around to select a partner. Across the room, I see a new guy with a classic bodybuilder's frame. I nod and he walks over to me. We slap hands to signal the start. We approach each other standing. I fake pulling on his head and slide quickly into his legs. He is confused — as I'd intended for him to be.
I use his hesitation to quickly bring him down to the ground and pass his leg into the move we were just working on in class — the inverted heel hook. This move stretches your opponent's weak and vulnerable knee ligaments by locking their foot and hips in place and using the force of your entire body to arch into their knee — giving your opponent a stark choice between submission or crippling injury.
He realizes he's being trapped and begins to violently kick and turn, but it's already too late. I train several hours a day, seven days a week. I've been here hundreds of times, and I am fully prepared for these reactions. I breathe calmly and evenly. The bodybuilder gasps and uses all the energy he can gather for one last attempt at escape — realizing, with mad panic, that he is in imminent danger of being submitted in a room full of dudes by a woman he outweighs by 50 pounds.
I patiently continue to control his leg and tightly set it in my heel hook. He resists a bit longer — a macho thing, because there's no point; he knows it and I know it. I gently — and, frankly, charitably — apply pressure, and he yells, "TAP!!"
The sequence took seconds and seemed like magic to the unpleasantly surprised newcomer. But it's not easy. It took hours and hours of work and repetition to learn these attacks. And still, errors are made and corrected on a daily basis. But I take this shit seriously.
The sequence took seconds and seemed like magic to the unpleasantly surprised newcomer. But it's not easy.
It has been a transformation. My body has changed, dramatically. I have changed. My husband half-jokes that he married Sophia Loren but ended up with Jean-Claude Van Damme. But there's something to that. I'm not the same person. I'm hard now, physically and mentally. The confidence I gained is something I'm proud to share with my daughter, who, like me, has been training jujitsu for some time.
In my view, no male should ever be able to intimidate or impose his will over my daughter — or any woman, for that matter. In an ideal world, women who care to should have the confidence, self-esteem, strength, and physical skills to back up that attitude. To that end, I hope someday soon to be able to teach them the things I have learned. Jujitsu has become my life.
Ottavia Busia Bourdain is a martial artist and the mother of a nine-year-old girl.