I haven’t been a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for so long that it feels completely foreign to me now that I am one. Though I began martial arts in 1984, it wasn't until 1997 when I first grappled at an actual school, and it wasn’t until a year later that I’d put on my first BJJ uniform. Being a new Jiu-Jitsu student is such a raw feeling. Every technique you learn or movement you perform is utterly amazing. I really miss those days. Moving forward to the present, the BJJ brown belt I’ve been wearing over the last three and a half years has really grown on me. It’s been broken in and has become a part of my uniform, a part of me. So, to give it up, to hang it on a wall, almost seems like a betrayal. Funny how a piece of cloth wrapped around your waist can have such an effect on one’s personal psyche, on their ego.
When it comes to earning a black belt in the martial arts, this is actually my third iteration. The first was in Judo and it was bittersweet. Earning that rank took a vast amount of effort and dedication. It wasn’t easy, not in the least. Taking thousands of throws, where your body repeatedly slams off the mats, breaks a person down. It’s humbling. However, it also instills a toughness in you over time. Judo at its fundamental level isn’t a technically deep martial art. However, that’s its secret. Understanding the various throwing techniques and then trying to apply them against resisting opponents is what makes Judo so effective. However, over time you begin to find just a few techniques that you utilize against everyone. One or two become your Tokui Waza, or favorite techniques, and you become dangerous with them.
I trained at Atlas Xtreme Team, a Judo/Jujitsu club created by Chuck Clark, where many of the students were 15-20 years younger than me. Granted we had our more adult crew as well, but most were young folks. The dichotomy of different age groups lent itself to many physical battles within those four walls. Bodies became damaged, and in some cases, permanently disfigured. However, those training partners back then were just HARD individuals. So many stories can be told about the training, competing and camaraderie at that club. I will always treasure those days as they’ve helped shape my understanding about resilience.
Becoming a black belt in Judo implies a level of mastery where you and gravity become partners in a quest to remove a person from their feet only to hit them with the Earth. It’s an amazing superpower!
The next black belt I earned (more on this later) was in Shingitai Jujitsu, a martial art created by John Saylor. His credentials speak to his knowledge and experience, and I encourage any grappler or mma fighter to research Mr. Saylor and his methods.
The concept of Shingitai can be broken down into its individual parts:
· Shin = means “fighting heart” or can be the mental approach to combat. Looking deeper it implies that a person must embrace fighting to become successful at it. A student of grappling, or fighting, should actually enjoy the activity in order to continue training and improving in it.
· Gi = means “applied technical ability” or skill. This is where a student learns concepts, principles and techniques, then applies them over and over again through resistance training, to overcome force and brute strength. Attributes like speed, flexibility and strength are good, but when two equally athletic combatants square up, it often comes down to the more technical individual to come out on top.
· Tai = means “the body” or physical fitness. It is a huge misconception in the martial arts community to believe martial arts technique alone will suffice when it comes to prevailing over an attacker or surviving against a physically fit opponent. One must constantly condition their body to not only apply martial techniques against resisting adversaries, but to absorb just as much in return. Being an out-of-shape martial artist is an oxymoron.
(These descriptions were adapted from Steve Scott's excellent book, Drills for Grapplers: Training drills and games you can do on the mat for Jujitsu, Judo and Submission Grappling - Turtle Press - 2008. Mr. Scott is a very accomplished martial artist, combat sport athlete, coach and tournament organizer, and successful author of mulitiple martial arts related books. His credentials span decades and are most impressive.)
Shingitai Jujitsu at our newly formed club filled a much-needed void due to a lack of BJJ lineage. Because of Chuck's background he was promoted by Mr. Saylor to black belt in Shingitai Jujitsu at a time when our Jujitsu program was in its infancy. However, our athletes were experienced judoka, wrestlers, and mma fighters. We even had a few blue belt level BJJ students who shared technique as well. The atmosphere in our club was simply hard work equals hard competition, and the results showed. Our small club netted some impressive wins at various grappling competitions. We also produced some national level athletes, as well as an international level athlete Tom Lecuyer who went on to compete against folks like Ricky Lundell (Pedro Sauer black belt), Danny Prokopos (Eddie Bravo black belt) and Din Thomas (Ricardo Liborio black belt). Though I never rose to the competitive level of someone like Tom, I successfully competed in Judo, and in BJJ and NoGi competitions all the way up to the brown belt level. Basically, nobody could tell the difference between my Shingitai Jujitsu and that of BJJ. In fact, as a matter of reference, I competed against and defeated individuals who had since been promoted to BJJ black belt. I respect all those past competitors and I am humbled that I was able to compete against them.
Then came the day when my coach told me he was stepping down and wanted me, a student, competitor, and assistant coach, to take over the club. Though this opened another chapter in my martial arts journey, now I didn’t have an instructor any longer. From my perspective, survival of the club was paramount, so I went to work learning how to run a business and a martial arts school. Being the head instructor, I had to come up with class scheduling and agendas, tracking student progress and holding promotions, ordering gear and maintenance, marketing and working with new students, attending tournaments and coaching, and addressing parent issues by being a social worker per se. Interestingly, being a project manager by trade helped me organize things quickly. Once everything was up and running, I had some personal goals to accomplish.
Enter Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Again, I didn’t have an instructor any longer, and recognizing the need to transition over from a “judo club that does jiu-jitsu” to a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school, I began researching various BJJ black belts and organizations that had affiliations. After some exhaustive investigation I made the decision to reach out to Roy Dean. His extensive background and willingness to share video content from his academy’s training and belt testing resonated with me and several others from our club. I wrote Roy a letter explaining who I was, the situation which brought me to writing him, and my willingness to start over to earn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu rank through him. He agreed to meet, and I flew out to Bend, Oregon. This was in November 2014. After a private lesson and one on one rolling session Roy stated, “you are definitely at the purple belt level.” However, after attending a class that afternoon Roy awarded me my first BJJ rank of blue belt. If I have to be honest, I’ll say it was confusing at the time, but remembering what I wrote to him I humbly accepted the promotion and returned to my club a Roy Dean affiliate.
Over the next several months I began altering our club’s curriculum and changing the way we conducted classes. BJJ became our main subject matter with Judo being added in from time to time. This was difficult at first for several long-time students. Change is always hard. But the change also stoked other student interest in what we were doing. In short time almost everyone was on the same sheet of music.
In May 2015 we hosted our first Roy Dean seminar at the club. Our members were excited to meet Roy and learn from him. Many attendees had a chance to roll with him and the looks on their faces really said it all. The experience reconfirmed the decision I made to affiliate with him. Near the end of the seminar Roy asked to roll with me in front of the group. At the time I simply went along with the request thinking it was just a normal evolution of the overall event. However, after 10 minutes or so of just going at it he ended the roll and asked me to remove my blue belt. To my surprise he awarded my purple belt. Later Roy told me why he initially gave me the blue belt and how it was part of the vetting process. Believe me, I get it. We just met each other, and the relationship needed to develop before trust and proper rank could be established. Regardless, I was extremely proud of earning that rank. It helped put AXT on the BJJ map in a way.
As I mentioned previously, Shingitai Jujitsu was the system I studied, trained, and competed with up to the brown belt level. There was some unfinished business there I needed to address. After discussing it Chuck agreed to test me for black belt. At the time I was excited about it, but I quickly learned why preparation is important for things of this nature. Again, I’d been focused on operating and developing the club and its students. So, when he showed up one evening in February 2016 and began putting it to me, let’s just say it was unpleasant. Though I had a good performance (from what others told me) I ended up having an asthma attack during the test. However, I didn’t stop no matter what he threw at me, and he threw a lot at me. At the end of it he promoted me to Shingitai Jujitsu black belt. That night helped forge my philosophy on training. Remember that Tai in Shingitai means “the body”. We must continue to condition ourselves as martial artists or things break down and fail. This is paramount.
Over the next several years it was all about developing the club, it’s students and me. What I didn’t know, I didn’t know, and had to learn just like everyone else. The balance of being a Jiu-Jitsu instructor and perpetual student is an interesting paradigm. Learning systems of ground fighting only to turn around and teach them to others whose intentions are to immediately use them against you is a paradox. However, I’ve found over time that this constant learning and application has developed my skillsets in a way I can’t fully explain. It’s just something in the training, or this type of training, that expedites ability. When I figure it all out maybe I’ll write a book, or perhaps someone already did.
The BJJ Brown Belt Demo
Roy contacted me in the late summer of 2018 to inform me that I need to get ready for the next level. He wanted to see me move up to brown belt and to begin preparing. The target date was January 2019 at our affiliate retreat. I asked my friend/training partner/student Joe Perona to assist, which he accepted. We went to work first developing a flow between us through repetitive drilling which we did after every class. Then I began putting together technical sequences which we would perform during the beginning stage of the demo. This took months to create. So many revisions and corrections. All the while I had to condition myself for the rounds of fighting.
Everything was about being uncomfortable, so I did a 20-rep squat routine a couple times a week, increasing the weight at every session. There’s nothing like having all that weight on your shoulders during those last reps. Breathing is the key and knowing your own limitations is a must. Isometric holds were done to develop the ability to lock out or hold pulling positions. I did a bunch of drilling and sparring as well. Summing it all up like that doesn’t do the preparation justice because there were injuries mixed in that six months as well, and training around them is always interesting. Fortunately, everything came together.
Traveling to California always makes breathing difficult for me. The desert air in Coachella Valley especially is just different from what I’m accustomed to where I live. During the fighting rounds of my demo, I found myself yelling out loud as my lungs felt like they were on fire. Maybe it was my asthma, maybe not. Asthma attacks feel like there’s weight on your chest and you’re unable to take in enough oxygen. But breathing during the test felt like burning. When I watch the video, I’m surprised by my yelling because I don’t remember it. However, looking at it now I believe it was my way of pushing through the pain. In the end, when Roy presented that brown belt to me, I almost broke down. In my mind, I had competed in BJJ and NoGi up to the brown belt level, without being a BJJ brown belt. Call it emotions or whatever, but that thought slipped back into my mind at that exact moment. When Roy had me turn around to face everyone and he said “I want to introduce Chris Mikuta as a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” I immediately dropped my head because I thought I was going to tear up. It got me in the feels.
That was just over three and a half years ago. The club made it through the COVID pandemic and somehow came out better than before we went into it. I’ve made several course corrections since then as well. Our curriculum and training have improved immensely. We’ve created a new structure and added some classes where others are now teaching. The member headcount broke 100 and we’re seeing other experienced BJJ practitioners join the ranks. Being fortunate is an understatement.
Roy Dean messaged me one Sunday evening this summer and asked how I felt about the black belt level and if I was ready. I was not expecting it. As I wrote in my initial sentence, “I haven’t been a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for so long…” Getting this opportunity is incredibly special and in the martial arts community it’s looked at with reverence. Which means those wearing it must represent the rank. They must own it. Roy asked if I wanted to perform a demo, which I did of course. Since time was short, I requested a crucible instead, a test of skill and more importantly of heart. I had only seen Roy conduct this type of test one other time with Peter Hulce, and I was fortunate enough to be involved in it. However, Pete was around 20 years old when he did that and I’m 51. Regardless of what anyone says, age is a big factor. So, the stage was set. In two months, August 26th in Wisconsin, I’d once again put it on the line for a black belt.
Since this would be a “shark tank” type of test training had to be different. Roy was going have me start in dominated positions with fresh opponents one after another. Technique is important, but mindset and conditioning are a must. So, for 8 weeks I worked specifically on getting out of bad positions round after round. Yes, I lifted weights briefly, and worked on isometrics again. However, if it was going to be a sparring kind of test then it had to be sparring that I did. In all forms as well. I logged in over 220 rounds of sparring in those two months. This was in all ranges (i.e. kickboxing, clinch fighting, ground, Gi & NoGi).
At my age, constant hard sparring can really tear down the body and isn't recovered from well. Though I avoided serious injury I did have some minor issues crop up like a bout of plantar fasciitis in my right foot, a pulled left calf muscle, a strain in my lower to mid-back and tendinitis in both elbows. On top of that, and something not many people knew, was that I went through physical therapy for herniated discs in my cervical spine during this timeframe. My left arm has constant radicular pain shooting down through my hand. This type of issue makes training difficult at best and sparring can be downright miserable. But the show must go on and it did.
I drove to Wisconsin on Thursday to relax, get used to the place and rest up. On Friday I went to brunch with Roy Dean, Rick Ellis (RDA black belt), Levi Van Stappen and Alex Paredes (other affiliate instructors). Levi’s friend/student Luke joined us as well. We all chatted up different topics and enjoyed the morning. Afterwards Roy and Levi had a private lesson which they allowed us to sit and watch. They covered a ton of topics, and I was able to pick up on a few things, including something Roy would attempt to use on me later, as I found out.
After I returned to the hotel my crew began arriving. Several of us hung out in the lobby and talked. Eventually we went out to get a bite to eat, something lite. Sitting around the table the group was laughing and just enjoying the moment. It’s amazing that we all appeared calm when deep down I’m sure everyone was ready to burst. We all knew what was coming.
Later that evening, we gathered at Theory Jiu-Jitsu right at the end of a training session Roy was having with Levi’s students. Everyone began changing out and I was surprised to see some folks I didn’t expect to be there, including my buddy Jabonn Flurry, another RDA affiliate. It was great to see him there and actually helped me to relax a bit.
Eventually I made my way onto the mats and began warming up to signal to Roy the time had come. I tried to stay as jovial and chatty as I could with the others. However, once my son came over and began drilling with me, I knew the test was about to begin. My demeanor changed over immediately to hyper-focused and then the “shark tank” began.
Initially, Roy told me to start from the bottom of the Mounted position and his instructions were don't let him out. There were other situational escapes done as well, such as Side Control and the Headlock Position. At one point, one of the guys squeezed my head so hard I lost my hearing in my good ear. Then we moved to Guard Passing, which felt like it went on forever. My partners didn’t want to let me out of their Guards and squeezed for all they were worth. It was an extremely difficult segment for me, and I felt very weak during it. Then Roy had me doing a segment of sweep or submit from Guard. At this point it felt as if my legs were gone, and I had no strength left in my arms. These were some tough rounds and took a lot out of me.
Finally came the full sparring rounds. Interesting thing happened during this segment; I felt slightly more revived. Perhaps it was because I was standing and moving around, or a second wind, or perhaps all those carbs I ate, but I was glad for it. Of course, breathing was a chore, but it normally is due to my asthma. I recall my wife looking at me concerned and she asked if I needed my inhaler. I shook my head indicating no despite the fact my lungs were in duress. Seeing this thing through to completion without any aid was paramount for me.
At the end of one of my rounds I stood up and immediately felt a pain deep in my lower abdomen on the right side. As I walked to the corner of the mats, I drove my knuckle into the location of the pain until I felt something give way and then it was gone. At the same time Levi’s student Luke walked over and he told me to hold my head up because I looked defeated. Man, I needed that quick peptalk. It was the right thing to say at the right time because I turned around ready to go for the next round.
In the end, Roy and I had to meet for one final round: the Big Boss round! Initially the two of us went at it from standing. Roy has been really working on his stand up and wanted to showcase some of it. After a step-across Hiza Guruma (knee wheel) attempt and faux Single Leg set up (Roy likes to bait people with that) I attempted a couple of foot sweeps, but then I changed tactics and sat down in Guard. Bad strategy because I eventually ended up getting passed and Triangle choked hard. I remember standing back up and turned to engage Rick who was filming. Then I realized Roy was to my right and course corrected. I shook my head to clear the cobwebs and decided to go after him.
After some grip fighting, I ended up hitting a drop Seoi Nage (shoulder throw). That was my first time getting Roy with this throw. A short exchange ended up with me behind him in a body lock. He was either trying to escape or beginning to secure my arm for some type of counter. At that moment, I needed to send a message to him, and maybe myself, that I was still in that fight. I doubled down on the waist grip and attempted to lift Roy off his feet to slam him to the mats, yelling out when I did. It was very uncharacteristic of me. Roy managed to reverse my position and from top side control to mount began applying some devasting pressure compliments of his BJJ instructor Roy Harris. It was bad enough for me to verbally signal my disapproval (I yelled) until he squeezed my neck so hard it popped. Pay back.
Standing back up Roy wanted to go at it again. After he hit an ankle pick, we began a long series of exchanges. There were multiple Guards being played, transitional movements everywhere, Guard passes by both of us, plus so many positional and submission escapes. We continued until Roy had rolled into a Turtle position. I applied a back control technique that ended in rolling into the Truck position and eventually a calf slicer. It was finally over and everyone present was clapping and cheering. I was completely exhausted.
Rite of Passage
Roy and I once discussed his belt demonstrations. He mentioned that as we get older there aren't many opportunities to experience many rites of passage like this. It’s why this type of event is so special. I’m very happy that I did this, and that some of my students were there to participate in it. Having my family there to see it was the icing on the cake. So many years went into this one moment in time: close to two decades.
When I was asked to remove my brown belt, I didn’t want to let it go. It had become a part of me, of my Jiu-Jitsu, and it would be the last time I wore it. However, putting on that black belt was the epitome of success and an exclamation point on a long developmental journey. Despite it being my third black belt, I feel it’s meaning is more than just that. Earning a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt is a phenomenal feat unto itself. However, earning it in your 50's is an entirely different accomplishment.
I haven’t been a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for so long…and now I am.
Coach Chris Mikuta