x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

It's the thoughts that count in this physical sport

It may not appear so at first glance, but jiu-jitsu has much more in common with chess than one may think.

Action from Day 2 of the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Abu Dhabi moved from the children's division the previous day to the adult weights and belts.
Action from Day 2 of the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Abu Dhabi moved from the children's division the previous day to the adult weights and belts.

From the outside nothing about Brazilian jiu-jitsu can be equated to chess.

It does not strike the uninitiated as the most obvious reference point and not only because so many things in life can be compared to chess.

But visually there can be more obvious pursuits to draw from.

Rock-climbing is one, specifically in its considered flow of movements; the grapple with a boulder can look similar to that with an opponent and problem-solving is a key concept in both.

In one documentary on jiu-jitsu, it was even compared to jazz, a duel building steadily from riff to riff. If you stare hard enough at the mats at the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship, that description can make sense.

But chess is the most fashionable analogy.

There is even Joshua Waitzkin, famous as a child chess prodigy (and on whom the film Searching for Bobby Fischer was based) but who switched to being a renowned jiu-jitsu fighter.

And if Renzo Gracie says it, then it must be valid.

Gracie is a multiple former world champion, from the family that invented the sport and a bona fide legend.

He is a big presence at the event, a rush of precise energy, chewing gum as if it were a mission, high-fiving and shoulder-bumping his way through students of his and awestruck fans (both categories include champions).

"It is just like chess, like a human version of chess," he said on the second day.

"You have to plan ahead of your opponent, you have to be a few moves ahead of him to be able to beat him. The brain is the most important thing."

Like chess, it is not an easy sport to follow if you are not au fait with its rhythms (though the crowds are loud and knowledgeable).

There is a kind of pretzel-ian appeal to the entangled bodies, arms turning into knees into legs and heads.

For long periods, there can be a motionless kind of motion between the combatants, like an anchored ship on choppy water.

Slight changes in position, subtle shifts in leverage and grip eventually compound into something bigger, a choke, a submission hold, or even a takedown.

In the move hidden behind a move, wrapped within another one, there is chess.

"It is very technical and very subtle," Gracie tried to explain.

"When you don't know, it's difficult to identify what's happening. At this level they are so well-trained it becomes even more like chess, a real mind game. And if you don't know, it is very complex, especially at the level of fighting here. The champions, the black belts, any little move makes a huge difference."

The referees are an engaging sight because some, standing impassively with hands behind their backs, circling around the fighters, look like very curious onlookers. It is not a job for the untrained eye, says Alex Pass, a hulk of man, a referee and a former world champion now settled in Abu Dhabi as a trainer.

"Very complicated. First time you see it, very complicated," he said, reeling off a dozen different ways of scoring points.

"You put your leg here, then wait, then wait for the guy to move there, then you move, you put his head in a lock, he moves, you give choke." He then searched for the right word, motioning the movement of pieces on a board.

"Chess?" came the suggestion.

"Yes, exactly," he said. "Chess."

But all the technicality should not let jiu-jitsu be mistaken for some goofy, nerdy pursuit.

A great hipster credibility is attached to the participants, evident in a stroll through a warm-up area heavy with camaraderie.

Toned, muscled athletes languidly skip ropes and stretch; some are skipping like boxers, some jogging lightly, sleek headphones on. There are more mohawks here than in the English Premier League. It is, in a sporting way, a stylish field.

And it is not adrenalised. These could be hippy, travelling types - rock climbers, even - and there must be a few vegans here, given how deeply clean living is associated with the sport. Rodolfo Vieira, a defending champion, admits he got into it "because I was chubby and wanted to lose weight and then I got hooked".

Even if the deep layers of it are difficult to sift through, it is not hard to understand how you can get hooked.

Gracie's been in it since he was five and he now has six training schools.

"One thing I always say is be careful when you begin training because it is addictive. You won't be able to stop for the rest of your life. If you do what you love, you don't have to work one day in your life, so I'm a bum. I've never worked in my life."

 

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

 

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