What Warriors Are Made Of
By: Emily Kwok
2011 – IBJJF No Gi Worlds. Emily Kwok vs. Rachel Demara
The score was 9-0 with 30 seconds left on the clock. I was clinging to my opponent, both of us on our backs, with the seatbelt grip and one hook in, trying to sink in a choke before the buzzer sounded. I was up on points and 30 seconds away from my second No Gi World title. The seconds ticked by in slow motion as if I were underwater and I heard my corner yell out, “Hold on Emily! Only ten seconds! Just hold on!” Respecting my corner, I held. And I held. Then Rachel’s corner yelled for her to go for something. “Try to get a knee bar! Sit up and dive!”
My corner once again yelled to hold. So I held.
She dove in for the knee and initially it was a little loose, so I thought I could hold for the remaining seconds. But the seconds were long and then the knee bar tightened. I tapped with five seconds remaining.
I was devastated.
How did it go wrong? How could I have lost that match? I dominated the entire fight…
Within minutes I received a phone call on the sidelines from my dear friend and training partner Josh. I was sobbing as I listened to his heartfelt words of support, then I heard him say something that struck my core that day and has stuck with me since: “The moment you are closest to winning is the moment that you are closest to losing. The person who drives the pressure and tension maintains the edge, but if they let their guard down for a second, the dynamic can shift to the other person’s advantage.”
By holding and stalling the position, I took away the pressure. I lost my edge and my opponent was able to capitalize on my inaction.
I told myself I’d never make that mistake again. Playing it safe never got me anywhere worth going in battle and in life.
I remember when I struggled most as an athlete, I didn’t believe in myself. I had some early success, then found it most difficult to play in the aftermath — like a musician with an incredible breakout record, who then suffers from lack of creativity in their follow up.
Watching a lot of semi-final through final matches during the IBJJF 2019 World Championships this past weekend was occasionally thrilling but generally disappointing. It certainly is no easy feat to compete and succeed on an elite level, but it seemed that there was an incredible amount of stalling and unwillingness to fight. And when I say fight, I mean open up your game, trust what you’re capable of, and be dynamic. There were double guard pulls that resulted in people playing a heavy lapel game or 50/50, then a refusal to open up to really attack. Equally frustrating were those who insisted on playing guard, using it to prevent a pass rather than actually attack. Opponents battled to break grips and pass while the person playing guard simply held on.
This type of behavior is not what I think of when I visualize the best in class.
On a world stage, that is what you choose to bring to the table?
Alternately, you had extremely exciting and dynamic matches like Alys vs. Meregali, and my favorite, Duarte vs. Lo — athletes that showed up with conviction, heart, and the will to win. In the Duarte vs. Lo match you had two exemplary warriors on the mat, a changing of the guard, a beautiful display of skill and respect for the other fighter as both men showed up to fight.
When you think of how much time it takes to develop your skill set at a high level, don’t you question what a waste of training and effort it is to just coil up and hold guard? To spend thousands of hours on the mat, sacrificing your body and neglecting other areas of your life to become a complete and confident fighter, only to show up on the big day and limit yourself to a sliver of what you’re capable of?
I only say this because I’ve been there before and I know what it is to feel like you have to hold onto your edge. I know what it’s like to want to claim a title and to feel like it’s so close that you have to do everything in your power to keep it within reach. But if there is anything I’ve learned from 19 years in the sport, it’s that those who really thrive are the ones who aren’t afraid to open up and trust their love of the game. To explore all aspects, to not fear loss, to progressively modify and build out their repertoire, to not be conservative or recycled versions of themselves. They are dynamic, evolving, imperfect, and gritty. To fight without fear and restraint unleashes an athlete’s truest potential and allows the audience to fully appreciate their brilliance.
It was also impressive to see how classical BJJ played an important role in many of the wins we saw. A healthy respect for advancement of the position vs. a stubborn and relentless obsession with taking the back. If your back attack isn’t working, can’t you just get up and pass the damn guard? I think the best fighters are the ones who are most thorough and maintain a solid foundational understanding of classical BJJ while using the most efficient elements of some of the new school styles. Something I see as a teacher is that often intermediate level students walk in who are able to do a beautiful berimbolo, but have zero stability or understanding of the value of top positions. If left to their own devices, they become one-dimensional fighters — which is now being seen at higher levels.
I remember when I struggled most as an athlete, I didn’t believe in myself. I had some early success, then found it most difficult to play in the aftermath — like a musician with an incredible breakout record, who then suffers from lack of creativity in their follow up. I think that so many of us who taste greatness or are within reach of it end up trying to control our approach to the summit in the last few steps. This is in contrast to amplifying and embracing our unique prowess in our ascent. We personally inhibit our true expression out of fear and many of us get stuck in the barbs of this mechanism and never get to experience our true inner power.
Reflecting on what I thought was the most heartfelt match of the black belt finals, Kaynan Duarte vs. Leandro Lo, a powerful, dominant up-and-comer vs. a beloved, masterful icon of BJJ, I don’t think so much about Leandro losing as much as I think about their will to fight. It was a riveting match and it was thrilling to watch not just their bodies, but their spirits claw for the title. I don’t even remember the majority of the fights as many were lackluster and the winners squeaked by in clinging to an advantage that was barely there. Some of the standouts in my mind this year, Bea Mesquita, Buchecha, Leandro Lo, Kaynan Duarte and Nicholas Meregali. These fighters showed up with their armor on, ready to do whatever the situation called for. Regardless of the win, these masters of the sport already knew they were champions.
Victorious warriors win first then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first then seek to win. — Sun Tzu