I’m walking past a Thai supermarket on a main road in Hammersmith, west London and the pungent odours of lemon grass and breadfruit immediately bring back memories of my honeymoon in Thailand seven years ago. Coincidentally, it was seven years ago - almost to the day - that I had my first ever Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu lesson. The place: Carlson Gracie in Royal Oak. I didn’t know it at the time, but that first lesson was to shape my entire life for the next seven years so it was fitting that I now return back to the team for a Meerkatsu dojo visit.
I must admit I was a little nervous about my visit. The Carlson Gracie Team always make a big entrance at every UK tournament. They fight hard and they cheer loud. They huddle in circles for team-building pep talks, they use megaphones to chant on their fighters - they are a very intimidating force, and I was to enter their head academy - yes little old me.
When you enter the front doors, the ground floor appears to be in the middle of refurbishment and the training area itself is downstairs in the basement. However I half imagine how cool it would be for the dojo to be on the ground floor itself, with passers by gazing through the glass windows at us training...okay maybe not. I was first greeted at reception by Vince. I’ve known Vince for a little while as he sometimes pops down to Mill Hill for a spar.
Once past reception I’m confronted by a man they call ‘The Professor’ who seems to have huge muscles carved out of granite. He is lifting huge weights. Then Wilson Junior, head instructor, appears. Wilson is a huge man with muscles carved out of granite. He smiles and shakes my hand then wanders off to lift huge weights.
Black belt instructors Simon Hayes and Dickie Martin took the class tonight. Simon ran through a series of judo set-ups and throws as the actual warm up. He was keen to stress that training judo as part of the warm-up was much more useful than just running around for 20 minutes. Immediately I was impressed with Simon’s very clear and precise explanation of the techniques. With me being a complete judo know-nothing, he made it seemed very easy to understand and perform the techniques. I liked the leg-trip fake into leg sweep thingy he showed us a he made it very applicable and relevant to the stand-up portion of tournament jiu-jitsu.
Midway through the warm-up Dickie appeared and the two instructors led the session, each one effortlessly following on from the another as if they were brothers. In fact both have been friends since childhood and the bond between them was clearly very strong. To us students, it was like getting two lessons for the price of one. Dickie was also very clear and detailed in his instruction, pointing out tiny details that would make or break the success of the application. Something that I found interesting was when Dickie explained that the best self defence to use in the ‘street’ was judo - sure you could add in some muay thai and boxing, but judo was gonna save your ass. I believed him.
The Carlson Pass
After judo warm ups, the main portion of the session began with a guard pass that Simon explained was an important fundamental pass that all Carlson Gracie students learn to perform. I got excited at this prospect - I was to learn an academy hallmark, a secret, openly shared with me, who was technically from a rival academy...brilliant!
Simon taught a standing guard pass and it was a nice variation from techniques I’ve been taught before. This is why I visit other clubs - exposure to new or variations of existing techniques. Every instructor has his own take on things and tonight was no different. My mind got ready to go into ‘sponge’ mode and absorb all the useful titbits. The thing is, all I can clearly remember is Simon detailing one tiny detail when he said: “at this point, your opponent should be in pain...PAIN!” Mmm I liked that a lot!
Simon and Dickie watched closely and corrected each student pair. We all spent a good deal of time drilling this and got a very good feel for how it worked.
Master of Puppets
Next up was submissions using your own gi lapels. I love this kind of stuff. Dickie and Simon both switched and swapped their instruction, both politely adding further tips one after the other like expert musicians at a jam session.
The key theme of the night was that all the submissions shown allowed you, the top guy, to work various submissions without giving up valuable position. Both taught submissions using the far side lapel and the near side lapel, and then a scenario where you could even hold both lapel sides - one in each hand like a puppeteer goading your opponent into making a mistake. It was a gi lapel choking masterclass!
This was great stuff, and very technical. More jacket lapel chokes were shown then one north-south choke, then it was onto sparring...
We lined up and I could hear Simon and Dickie discussing who would spar with me first. Gulp! My first rolling partner was Dickie. Now if I can explain, that Dickie is a big man with huge muscles carved out of granite. He probably lifts huge weights in his sleep - anyway you kind of get the picture. But when we rolled, he kept all his weight off and just moved moved moved. It was really cool. Of course he subbed me millions of times, most of them with the techniques he had only previously just shown but it took me by surprise how fast and lightly he moved. At one point he even let me attempt a sweep, which was quickly countered, but it was fun.
Next up was Simon. I expected more of the Dickie style movement thing, but oh no, Simon is a completely different kettle of sushi. If I can describe to you that Simon is a big man, with huge muscles...carved...granite...huge weights, ah you know what I mean. Anyway, he had a very different style. Fast, aggressive - no time to wait for me to make errors, just attack, fake, attack, submit, repeat. I told him I felt like a complete beginner. He sympathised and said I moved well. Then he subbed me a million times more - including his infamous choking guard pass. Oh and boy do I need to learn some footlock defenses, for Simon seemed to pop out a footlock on me almost at will.
After my educational pulping by the two black belts, I was paired up with Ahmed Amin - the teenage prodigy that his team mates like to call ‘Rolls’. Let me describe Ahmed, he is small, thin and what muscle he has are definitely not of the granite like hugeing persuasion. But OMG he rolls like an express train. After what seemed like an eternity before the timer buzzed, little ‘Rolls’ made me feel every bit the 41 year old wheezing wreck that I am, and then some. That kid is a phenom!
Finally, I had a quick sneeky roll with Vince - who is like a rubiks cube with no colours. I literally had no idea how to deal with his tricky tricks. But he was generous enough to share them with me after our roll.
After training, I sat down with Simon and Dickie for a quick chat - which I’ll post up on here in a few days. But I really enjoyed my session at Carlsons tonight. What I experienced tonight was a very technical class, with people who were super friendly and hugely passionate about the sport. The training was tough and competitive without being ego-driven.
The academy is a million miles ahead of that tiny dark basement room from seven years ago and it’s obvious a heck of a lot has changed with the way the Carlson Gracie academy go about things. I was made to feel ultra welcome and by the looks of things, the new location is a fantastic place to train and learn BJJ (and tons of other stuff too) and is set to be an even more amazing place when their expansion is complete. But for me, I’m looking at ways to carve some huge muscles out of granite - maybe that would serve me better the next time I visit!
Carlson Gracie West London, 302 King Street, London, W6 ORR
10 Sep 2010