The World Warrior

| patrick

Fasten the headgear, tighten the handwraps, bite the mouthpiece, check and double-check and triple-check the gloves, step in the ring, exhale, look at the ref, nod your head, and…go.

The guy standing across the ring from me is a stocky Asian guy fromFresno. Shaved head, probably in his early 20s, coached by what looks like an older Thai guy who was sizing me up after the weigh-ins. Didn’t hear what his coach was telling him before the round started. Didn’t really need to–I had a good ten-inch height advantage on him. He was going to kick my legs. They always kick my legs.

No time to think about that. No time to ask myself why I’m getting punched in the face in front of a few dozen badder dudes than I. Besides, I already knew why–it was because I played too much Street Fighter.

Some people play a fighting game with their friends. They’ll buy Mortal Kombat 9, slap it in their Xbox 360, reminisce about the first time they saw someone pull off a Fatality on the original Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet in the Pizza Hut, and forever play Scorpion vs. Sub-Zero matches with their childhood buddies. They probably won’t block. Eventually they’ll learn a combo or two, their friends will call them cheap, so they’ll play a different character just to keep things interesting. Then the next Call of Duty or whatever comes out, or maybe they’ve neglected their WoW guild, and eventually Mortal Kombat 9 falls to the bottom of the pile.

Other people just make friends with people who play fighting games. They did their time pumping quarters into the various Pizza Huts of the world. They lost a lot. Then they started to win. Then no one else would play with them, so they’d beat on the CPU until they went home. If they were lucky, they’d get bored, eventually go play something else, grow up, meet a girl, take up rock-climbing and never touch a fighting game ever. If they were unlucky, they’d find someone unfamiliar sitting at the arcade cabinet–hey, that’s my game!–who would deliver the most graceful beatdown they had ever witnessed. If they were really unlucky, that savage stranger would tell them where they could find the really good players. Game over.

That’s why, as cliched as it sounds, every competitive gamer can relate to Ryu. We all had our moments where we realized that this game was far, far bigger than we had ever realized–and packed up our arcade stick into a dirty duffel bag to find the better people to play with. That’s what I did, anyway. I practiced my combos, I went to Evo, and I played my heart out hoping to make it onto the yearly highlight DVD. Never did. Kept playing, though. And then one day, I stumbled across a Shotokan Karate class I could get PE credit for–wasn’t that what Ryu and Ken did?–gave it a shot, decided I liked it until a black belt came back and said he really got his lumps in at a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, tried that out and liked it more, and before you know it, I’m standing in a ring with Stocky Asian Guy From Fresno.

It sounds strange, to type it out. When I tell people I got into combat sports by playing fighting games, they think it’s funny. I don’t. Really, it feels like just another fighting game, albeit with better graphics and a much smaller life bar.

Learning the Moves

I’m standing in the middle of a gigantic gymnasium in Hamamatsu, Japan. There are a dozen more Jiu Jitsu players fighting their hearts out around me on the other mats, and a few hundred spectators sitting in the stands, and I’m not paying attention to anyone but the guy standing across from me and the referee. The referee yells something in Portuguese, the other guy goes, I go, and the rest is a blur until I wrap my legs around his head and shoulder, grab his arm, tighten my thighs around his neck and squeeze. I know it’s coming because I’ve done this before. I’ve done this a thousand times. It’ll be here any second–

tap tap tap

–And there it is. I exhale, relax, and try to catch my breath in time for the next match.

The triangle choke.

My triangle choke.

The triangle choke is quite possibly one of the most perfect moves in Jiu Jitsu.

As with everything else in BJJ, there are hundreds of possible setups and permutations from different positions, each developed by people who have found different ways to integrate the triangle into their game, but the most basic instructions are: From full guard (that is, on your back, with your legs wrapped around your opponent’s waist), control both of your opponent’s wrists. Push one wrist towards their chest, pull the other away from their body, open your legs, and close them around their neck. At first, it’ll look like you just have them in a different kind of full guard–except this time, one arm is inside your guard, and the other is outside. From here, carefully adjust your legs so that your foot is tucked under your other knee–it’s called a triangle choke because your two thighs and your calf make the shape of a triangle. Pull their arm across their neck, so their shoulder is pressing into their own neck, and wait for the tap. If they don’t tap, wait for them to start snoring.

I find the triangle choke to be the most elegant of the Jiu Jitsu submissions. Unlike the armbar or “kimura” shoulder locks, the triangle doesn’t risk damaging your opponent–they just go to sleep. Unlike other chokes, the triangle doesn’t rely on highly trained grip strength, like a guillotine choke, nor does it rely on your opponent wearing a gi with sturdy lapels that might as well say Choke Me Here. It is a move that is as close to pure technique and leverage that you can get.

How long did it take you to learn Ryu’s moveset? Some people have a hard time remembering those joystick motions. It’s easy, once you get the hang of it. Roll the stick from down to toward, press Punch, and you have the fireball. Do it the other way and press Kick, and you have a hurricane kick. Hold toward, then do a fireball, and you’ll get a Dragon Punch. Simple.

It’s safe to say I spent the first four years of my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu career learning my character’s moves. That isn’t to say I’ve learned them all, or even a significant fraction of them by now–I haven’t. Between the near-endless amount of variations and subtle tweaks one can apply to a single move, and the constant flow of new positions, submissions, sweeps and throws being invented by armies of BJJ technicians out there, it doesn’t really make sense to think of BJJ as finite. However, you start by learning the moves that work best for you given your mindset, body type, and physical limitations.

In my case, I’m tall (6’4”), lanky, and not particularly athletic. I preferred video games to sports for most of my youth, so I came into BJJ at something of a disadvantage compared to many of my peers, who had been regularly weightlifting and playing sports for a while. And make no mistake–while BJJ and other martial arts are thought of as The Great Equalizer in a fight, the reality is that while technique beats strength, strength and technique beat pure technique any day. Given equal ability, the stronger guy wins. In other words, I was playing from behind.

That was nothing new to me, though. See, I used to play Chipp in Guilty Gear XX. If you can stay competitive with Chipp, you can do just about anything.

Guilty Gear is a lot like Jiu Jitsu. Each of its characters are practically a unique fighting game by themselves. Jam can parry like it’s Street Fighter III: Third Strike all over again, Venom is like a good slow game of billiards, Eddie/Zato-1 is actually two characters in one.  Unlike most Street Fighter games, there is very little you can take from one GGXX character and apply to another because they’re simply too different.

Playing HD Remix at the Street Fighter Club event (2008).Chipp is a ninja. He is perhaps the most accurate depiction of a ninja in any fighting game, because he’s great at running in and out and turning invisible and teleporting all over the place, but when you touch him, he dies very, very fast. Since Chipp’s damage output isn’t particularly high, playing Chipp is an exercise in patience more than anything else–a process of slowly, surgically whittling down your opponent with safe, low-risk pressure until they make a mistake and you capitalize on it just enough to take the lead because if you make one wrong step you’re getting countered and you eat a Volcanic Viper into a free 70% damage combo. Play your cards right, and you can get right in your opponent’s head and frustrate the hell out of them, but make one tiny mistake and you lose.

Back to the tournament in Japan. Right as the referee signals for the next match to start, my opponent–a skinny-looking Brazilian guy about my age, perhaps a little older–grabs onto my jacket and cleanly sends me towards the floor with a nice Judo throw. I’m able to return to the guard position before he can further advance into side-mount or mount, but he scores two points for the takedown, which leaves me with an uphill battle, since he can wait out the clock and play defense to win, while I cannot. He scores a few points, I score a few points, he scores a few more, and with two minutes left on the clock I wrap my legs around his head and shoulder, tighten up, and–tap tap tap. Well, that did it. Now I’m in the finals.

I’m convinced that Chipp players are a special lot. We’re few and far between, certainly. And all the other dedicated Chipp players I’ve met have shared the same love-hate relationship with the character. That is to say, we can’t quit him. We try, on occasion–I’ve tried learning how to play Axl, Eddie, Sol, Ky, and even Millia, all in the hopes that I could find someone to use that simply didn’t die in two hits. But for whatever reason, the magic isn’t there. I played Chipp because I could only win with Chipp. It’s the Curse of the Chipp Player, I think. “I don’t play Guilty Gear, I used to tell people, “I just play Chipp.”

So it was for Jiu Jitsu. I spent my formative training years in many different academies, with many different instructors–The Ultimate Fighter veterans in Southern California, hard-ass Brazilians in Northern California, MMA titleholders and champions in Japan–but while I could have been learning Jiu Jitsu, everything always came back to the triangle choke for me. I thought I didn’t have the wrestling or Judo experience to get the takedown from a standing position, which makes it easier to win tournaments with points and attacks from the top, nor did I have the explosive strength or endurance required to sweep my opponent from my guard and win a battle of attrition. Instead, I thought, I’d develop my submissions, starting with the triangle. After all, if I won my matches quicker by submissions, I’d have more time to rest than most of my opponents in a tournament, which just might compensate for the lack of physical power and endurance most of my opponents had.

And it worked reasonably well. It got me to the finals of the Blue Belt Middleweight division in the Rickson Gracie Cup, anyway. The referee starts the final match, and I go straight to my guard (so as not to give up the two points for the takedown, like I did in the previous round), pull him close, wrap my legs around his neck and shoulder, and…

…nothing. His base is too good, and I don’t have the choke. He proceeds to take a more dominant position, scores points, and my body is burning from the effort. The choke he applies toward the end of the match is almost a formality, since I’m far too tired to do much more than hang on. Second place. Second place because I’m learning the triangle choke, not learning Jiu Jitsu. Chipp never wins tournaments.

Fundamentals and Footsies

I’m drilling moves at a BJJ gym in Oakland, which is home once again after my stint in Japan is over. Grab the sleeves, push my foot out onto their bicep, block their knee, kick my legs over, bam–got the sweep. Grab the sleeves, push my foot out–

“Patreeck. Moddahfucka. You got to block da owside of da knee an keeck the leg.”

I nod my head. Grab the sleeves, push my foot out, block the outside of the knee, and keeck the leg–

“Patreeck! Porra. Everybody line up against da wall. 20 pushups.”

I do 20 pushups.

I felt pretty good about myself while leaving Japan–after all, I had an entire year to practice with some of Japan’s best at Alive Academy, and I got pretty close to winning a solid tournament. All of that was promptly destroyed in my first week training with Eduardo at Rocha Jiu Jitsu. Five years into my BJJ career, and I had never, ever trained with players as fundamentally solid–or competitively successful–as I had here. And for a guy who had made it in five years with a few neat sweeps and an above-average triangle choke, that was the place to be.

Eduardo is not a nice guy. This is understandable–I imagine he’s seen some shit between growing up in Brazil and using BJJ to get him into the US. But that’s fine. I’ve learned plenty from not-nice guys. I need his expertise.

Jiu Jitsu is a game of inches. The right grip is often only an inch away from the wrong grip. The difference between a successful choke and a waste of energy can be something as simple as holding my elbows a little bit closer to my chest. And as Eduardo is pointing out, the spider-guard sweep I’m working on won’t work against a fully-resisting opponent unless I keep my foot on the outside of his knee instead of the front. So I do my 20 pushups and get back to drilling this sweep.

This isn’t about learning the moves so much as learning the fundamentals–a process any fighting game player can relate to. You know how to do Ryu’s special moves, of course. Do you use his overhead? Which normal move is his safest poke? What’s your best option for putting pressure on a downed opponent?

I cut my competitive teeth on Capcom vs. SNK 2, which is quite possibly one of the most technically demanding fighting games out there. We’re talking about a game where any character can cancel their “roll” move into a special move to make that special move completely invincible–if they’re capable of consistently canceling out of the first 1-2 frames of the roll into the special move. We’re talking about a game where certain characters have access to custom combos that can do 90% damage from midscreen, sometimes even if you’re blocking–if they’re capable of consistently executing the combo without a single mistake.

I mostly played Team Scrub in CVS2 (K-groove Cammy, Blanka, and Sagat). This team exists to destroy you with high-powered normal moves that will keep you in my comfort zone. If you manage to get in and land your combo of choice, you’ve filled their K-groove “rage meter,” which grants them a tremendous damage boost and a very, very powerful level 3 super. However, they don’t have access to the crushing custom combos or roll-cancel shenanigans mentioned above. In order for this team to work, you need to be very, very good at the fundamentals of Street Fighter–specifically, “footsies.”

Playing SF x Tekken at the Sony Press Conference afterparty during E3 2011. Way cooler than Jane's Addiction.

The first lesson you learn in Street Fighter is: Don’t jump. Everyone jumps too much at first, because you want to get closer, and do damage, and start whatever easy combos you’ve been practicing. However, a good player will hit you every single time you jump at them because every character in every Street Fighter game ever has a move or two specifically designed to take out jumping opponents. That’s what the Dragon Punch is for.

Footsies are the answer to the question “Well, how do I get in and do damage if I can’t jump at him?” Well, you can walk towards your opponent and try and hit them, and they will try to hit you. If your move hits them, you win. If they attack you while you’re walking forward, they win. If either player whiffs a move they thought was going to hit, the other player can punish it with a move of their own. And either player can whiff a light move, hope that fakes out the opponent into thinking they whiffed a slower, heavier move instead, and when that opponent punishes the “whiffed” move, that punish will whiff, and then they’ll get hit. It’s like high-speed Rock-Paper-Scissors. Once you master that, you can beat most newbies. Master comboing those connected moves into a super only when you know they’re going to hit (a “hit confirm”) and you’re a pretty damn good player.

This is why most people stop playing almost any incarnation of Street Fighter 2. Either they don’t understand why the guy at the arcade seems to magically know exactly when to poke, Dragon Punch, or otherwise punish their predictable newbie attacks, and they quit, or they discover what he’s doing, think “this is too much work”, and quit. (Or pick Blanka–zing!)

Likewise, blue belt is where many seemingly-dedicated Jiu Jitsu players stop. In the first few years, you can beat your peers simply by knowing more moves–sweeps, submissions, takedowns, guard passes, escapes, and so on. If you have more options in any given position than your opponent does, you’re probably in pretty good shape, since if they don’t know what you’re doing, they probably won’t be able to stop it.

Level up, however, and you’ll be dealing with people with a set of solid, fundamental core moves that they can simply execute better than you can, and you will lose. A dozen submissions you’ve practiced a few times because you saw them on an instructional DVD isn’t worth a single, well-trained sweep.

So you do what you have to do to figure out each and every variation of each position, the grips and the timing and sometimes you want to put your foot here but sometimes you want it here because if they’re going for the other side their weight is just a little bit off and you’ll be able to pull here and push here and they’ll just kind of fall over like it’s magic. And no matter how many times you drill the move, no matter how big or small your training partner is, there’s a little sense of wonder when you’re going over, like you’re getting a fleeting glimpse into the rules behind the ways our bodies want to move. So you practice and practice and practice until one day you hit it on someone and you see that little sense of wonder glimmer in their eyes right as their head hits the mats and you grapple your way on top of their body in triumph. It feels just like that perfectly-predicted anti-air Dragon Punch.

Then you take those moves and turn them into your game, where each move sets up something else. Ryu has a fast projectile, an invincible anti-air move, and a good set of medium-range normals that can cancel into his projectile. These all come together beautifully in the first game plan most Street Fighter players know–the Fireball/DP trap. Knock your opponent down, and time your jab fireball so they stand up right into it. Immediately throw a fierce fireball as soon as you can. If your distance is right, they’ll have to block that one, too–if they try to jump over it, it’ll hit them before they leave the ground. So you’ve made them block two fireballs (free chip damage!) and now they really want to jump because they think you’re going to throw a third fireball. Which is too bad, because you see them jump and hit them out of the air with your Dragon Punch, knocking them down, and you start it all over again. Except this time they’re too smart for you, so they eat those two blocked fireballs and they don’t jump at you, but that’s okay because you knew they were going to do that so you just threw a third fireball. And so on.

And maybe you have to deal with a strict instructor who isn’t above ridiculing you over and over in front of the whole class to get the point about the foot on the knee to stick in. Maybe he yells “You’re not in Japan any more, that isn’t how we do Jiu Jitsu” at you while you’re trying your best, dammit. Maybe you’re glad that he’s yelling at you during a tournament, because you know if you fuck up too badly during a match he’ll just leave, and you’ll only hear your teammates’ well-intentioned (but ultimately fruitless) advice over the throng of the crowd. And some days you’ll sit there on the mats seething with rage, wondering why you’re putting up with this shit as a grown-ass man, simply counting down the days until you’re out of there.

And then you win the match and win the tournament and get a new stripe on your belt and take a deep breath and think this is worth it.

The match itself will be a blur–it always is–but you’ll know that putting your foot outside the knee and kicking the leg is why you won it. So you take a day off, perhaps two, and then you’re back on the mat before you know it.

Don’t Drop the Combo

You’re not really playing a fighting game until you’re thinking about your character as a collection of combos.

East Oakland Boxing Association.

The fine young men of the East Oakland Boxing Association.

This isn’t to say that obsessively building longer, stronger combos is the key to success, mind you–part of the art is learning where to strike the balance between the Best Combos and the Combos You Will Fuck Up The Least. Rather, it’s that you start to think about your character’s moves as different components of a chain that can lead you into different places. Move X has a fast startup and links into Move Y, which leaves me in a good place to throw, after which I can cross up or work a high-low mixup, and so on.

So I practiced the moves until they became muscle memory. Jab, straight, left hook, straight: 1-2-3-4. Double jab. Jab, left hook, straight. Left hook, right uppercut, left hook. And then came the high-low mixups: Jab, jab, right straight to the body.

I was never fantastic at boxing, nor was I that great at taking a punch, but I wanted to spar, so after my first month at King’s Boxing Gym, in East Oakland, California (home of Olympic Gold Medalist Andre Ward), my trainer threw me in as a warmup for a 40-year-old black guy nicknamed “Bear” who sparred ten rounds for his daily workout. I got a bloody nose in two rounds and was told to hang it up for the day. Kept doing that for a few weeks, until one day Bear didn’t show up because he was probably in jail.

So I kept picking up a little bit of striking experience–a Muay Thai class here, a boxing class there–until one day, I’m back from Japan after a year of doing nothing but training, and shit, I need a job. So I’m perusing the Craigslist listings and I stumble across a listing for an Assistant Boxing Coach at a non-profit boxing gym in East Oakland, just a mile or three away from King’s.

Outside the EOBA.

And before I know it, I’m holding pads for a bunch of young kids who are doing their damnedest to finish high school without getting shot, stabbed, imprisoned, impregnated, or any other unfortunate events. They’re throwing the jab, straight, hook, straight 1-2-3-4 with the (possibly misplaced) faith that I know what I’m doing, that my teaching will keep their hands up when they’re getting hit in the ring, that I will protect them from brain damage and broken bones and all the other bad things that happen with two people and two pairs of boxing gloves and a ring to watch them fight.

How do you learn to compete? How do you learn to walk into that ring where your opponent waits, knowing full well he’s willing to take your head off with a clean left hook just so the ref will raise his hand at the end? It’s a long walk to that ring–you could turn back at any time. And once you’re in there–how could you possibly compress every single lesson you’ve been learning in your months and months of practice into three two-minute rounds?

I wish I could say that my Street Fighter experience had prepared me for this. No doubt, I had come a long way between my first tournament (two and out in Castro Valley Golfland’s weekly CVS2 matches) and my later competitions. I’m no Street Fighter master, myself, though I’ve put together a decent amount of impressive losses to top players like Ricky Ortiz, Alex Valle, “Dan from Japan,” Daigo, Mago, and so on. My palms still sweat when I’m holding a joystick and there’s something on the line, but I can usually hit my combos reasonably well.

Honestly, though, Street Fighter isn’t shit compared to this.

The rule of thumb for combat sport competitions is one half–that is, your cardio ability, strength, and overall brain functions will be 50% what you’re used to in training, because the thrill and anxiety of competition overloads your brain. I believe that “thrill and anxiety” is also known as the “fight or flight response.” They say that the only way to make competitions less mentally trying is to do more of them. That’s not quite true. I found another way, but I can’t say I’d recommend it.

See, I was teaching before I had started competing myself–in boxing, anyway. I had a handful of BJJ tournaments under my belt, but you don’t get into a ring and get punched in the face for those. So I’d show up every day for work and push the hell out of those kids to prepare them for the ring, not because I knew what it took but because I didn’t. I had plenty of practice with the fundamentals and I had sparred with a few pretty good guys, but I hadn’t ever put my skills–or my face–on the line. Those kids took my workouts that would push a seasoned boxer and powered through them. And I was working and sparring right alongside them (something few boxing coaches do) because I wanted them to feel confident that their coach was right there in the ring with them when the bell rang.

And then I got to watch one of them compete in his first amateur match. I felt like a fraud while he walked out to the ring. I wanted to pull him aside and tell him that he should spend more time working with the coaches with more ring experience and less fondness for strength and conditioning manuals he torrented over the weekend. He shouldn’t be getting in there before I do.

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, I watched him put on a damn good show.

A week or so later in the gym, he thanked me for putting him through a hard workout. I told him it wasn’t a big deal, because he officially had more ring experience than I did. He shook his head, took a drink from his water bottle, and said it didn’t matter. Then he asked me to hold pads for him again.

At any given moment in a competition, my opponent is looking to hurt me. I can deal with that. Getting hit just doesn’t hurt that much. You get the impression that your life meter is declining, you’re losing points, and maybe a really good shot can scare you for a second. In the end, though, it feels like a game. Like Street Fighter. But when you’re the reason a bright, hard-working young man decides to put his health and well-being on the line, you feel every single hit like it’s a 1-2-3-4 straight to your pretty face.

I still get nervous before a competition. That’s pretty much unavoidable. But now, there’s always a moment when I’m lying on my back fighting for a triangle choke, or catching my breath during the rest period in-between rounds, where I look up at the lights and smile to no one in particular. Because I’m so glad that I’m the one inside the ring.

A New Challenger

Stocky Asian Guy put up a good fight. It was a bit of a blur–they always are–but I remember him being very strong. He kicked my legs a lot, and I generally didn’t give a shit, preferring to take the kick and punch him in the face a few times for his trouble. He pushed me around the ring a bit, but his punches were light. I gave him a bloody nose.

I actually hadn’t planned on doing a Muay Thai fight. I got the flyer from a buddy of mine on Facebook advertising MMA and Muay Thai matches, and figured I’d try my hand at MMA–I hadn’t worked at the boxing gym for a year and a half by that point, but I was still actively training Jiu Jitsu, and I had helped out one of my old friends prepare for his amateur MMA matches on a few occasions. When I showed up to register, they weighed me in, took my money, and…told me it was Muay Thai only that day.

Muay Thai is second only to Wrestling at Combat Sports I Suck At. Boxing experience helps, but it’s kind of like going from Super Street Fighter II Turbo to Street Fighter III: Third Strike–there’s a lot of catching-up to do. I hesitated for a second. Then I signed the waiver. I had come this far without ever getting into a competition where I might be punched in the face, and I owed it to all the kids at the boxing gym to give it a shot just like they did.

And when I got home, bruised and sore and slightly drunk, I turned on the Xbox, picked up my custom-modded Virtua Stick, and started kicking around some Adon combos in Super Street Fighter IV’s Training Mode. Stocky Asian Guy hit me with a few knees from the clinch that he set up with a low kick that made me think of some tick throw setups. My left leg might be beaten up, but that doesn’t mean I can’t practice a little bit.

patrick miller will never back down