Familiar Fear in a Foreign Land
Learning MMA in Romania
Photo : Wiki Commons / parhessiastes
It was raining the Friday I was in Bucharest, and as I jogged out of Old Town and onto Splaiul Independentei, I began to feel that old, dusty sense of raw fear that had gripped me the first time I’d tried something like this back in Kansas.
I had about an two hours to kill after I left the Little Bucharest Hostel in Old Town for the gym, so I skidded through the rain-soaked cobblestone, and onto the smoother cement along Splaiul Independentei, dodging the crowds as I went. My route took me past Bucharest’s Unirea Shopping Center, an impressive structure screaming with large billboards and lit-up signs for clothing stores. I nipped inside, killing the time I had by wandering through the narrow halls of the mall at a quickened pace, always carrying the sense of dread with me, of the impending doom that I could not shake, trying to prepare myself for whatever pain or injury was almost sure to happen to me.
As the clock caught up with me, I walked outside and sat on a ledge I found close to the mall, and nervously watched the crowd go by until it was really time for me to go. I made my way, jogging, onto Splaiul Unirii, and ultimately to the White Tiger Gym, where I had been earlier that day to schedule a time to attend a Mixed Martial Arts class so I could write this article. This was it, the last ballsy thing I was to do on my trip to Romania before heading home the next day, so I entered the doors to the gym and asked the attendant if he spoke English.
He didn’t, but I was immediately pointed to a guy about my age in the room, who I struck up a brief conversation with. I presented him with my request, hoping to exchange a free MMA class for an article, and was told I could attend a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu course that was being offered that night at 8 p.m. after he phoned the instructor. It was around 7 then, so I spent the hour trying to calm myself and look around the room. I had never engaged myself in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu before.
A bit before 8, the instructor arrived and I introduced myself. He looked at me warily, but consented to my request in person, and then we migrated into the dojo, where a group of guys was already practicing what seemed to by MMA drills: kicking and punching hand-held bags with a partner. As the group finished up I stood in a corner off the mat, observing the class I was about to attend gathering in a corner of the room, on the mat. Almost all were wearing martial arts costumes.
Once the other class cleared the floor, the Brazilian group got to their feet and lined up in a single row on one side of the room. Unable to speak Romanian myself, I did what I could to follow the suite of the group, who began with a few basic stretches and swings, meant to loosen the muscles. After this, we were instructed to run in a small circle around the room, following the person in front of us. It was at this time my fears began to dissipate, and this old hardening feeling came over me. I’d felt it before, it’s not exactly pleasant, more of an acceptance of something to come, a realization of acceptance of pain or hardship, a sort of adrenaline that kicks in after a certain point of engaging in activities like this.
As it turns out, this subconscious preparation was not needed, as I was never punched, kicked, knocked, sprained or twisted. Nor did I come even close to being hospitalized or breaking a bone.
We were paired off for technique drills soon after the warm-ups, which were particularly interesting for a non-Romanian speaker, as very technical aspects of various Jiu-Jitsu holds and moves were detailed. I didn’t have the slightest clue what was said. I was paired with a Romanian man, about my age, also a beginner. The two of us had some interesting times trying to squirm into the right positions, and ended up in a couple of overly intimate moves that I certainly wouldn’t make a hobby of. All in all, we did what we could until the group was instructed to do some manipulated sparring, sparring that was performed under certain limitations. I believe we were put in a certain hold and then instructed to escape.
After this, we were allowed to free spar. I stayed with the same partner, who turned out to be almost evenly matched with me. He was good about hanging on and not tapping too early, a virtue I myself had learned back in Kansas. It’s all about enduring a painful position for as long as you can, holding out until you can find a way out or counter the move in some way. He was good about this, and ultimately the two of us fared well despite our mutual lack of extensive experience.
After this I was offered to spar by the instructor himself, a thin man, who was of course highly skilled in the art. The thing about Jiu-Jitsu is you don’t have to be strong, you have to be smart. He taught me one move that involves crushing the ribs of an opponent between your legs, simply by straddling their midsection and clasping your hands together behind their back, then pushing your feet toward the sky.
Brain-deadened and pumping with testosterone, I got up and thanked the instructor after a brief interview, none of the results of which ended up in this article. After my goodbyes with my partner, I turned back and jogged toward Old Town.