It may seem strange to start a story about my encounter with Anthony Bourdain with an anecdote about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but if it weren’t for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – BJJ for short – I don’t think I’d ever have appreciated him in the way I do. Because of BJJ I met the man first, then discovered his art, and really the only way to make sense of this is to start from the beginning.
In late 2014 I joined a BJJ gym in Los Angeles under the Renzo Gracie banner. It was opened a few years earlier by one of Renzo Gracie’s first American black belts, Shawn Williams. I had dabbled in martial arts all my life, doing some karate as a kid, aikido, kung fu, boxing and old school jiu jitsu, and I was fully cognizant of my lack of skill, having never completed anything beyond orange belt. Years ago, like in 2000, I attended a BJJ school in Queens for about five months with some of the toughest dudes I can remember. I’d only gone on a whim since a roommate of mine was also going. Having always had an affinity for martial arts, and a totally delusional sense of my own fighting prowess, I thought I’d be able to handle myself with ease. Until I got my ass handed to me by some genuine baddasses. In a class comprised of cops, construction workers, a former gang banger and various other characters from the hard walks of life, I was the lightweight. The middle-class kid whose biggest obstacles in life had been of the existential kind. The arty-farty Sartre kind. For five months straight I was smothered and strangled by some strong motherfuckers who also harbored a supreme and mysterious technique.
I didn’t even know what BJJ was at the time. I never watched the UFC, and never wrestled in high school, and had such a schizophrenic relationship with the martial arts, that the name Gracie meant nothing to me like it does now. The Gracie lineage, for those of you unfamiliar with modern jiu jitsu, is responsible for the art we have today. Hailing from Brazil, it has transformed the martial art and is largely responsible for revolutionizing the sport of mixed martial arts. Just look at the very first UFC event, when a skinny Brazilian guy named Royce Gracie dominated all-comers in a one-night tournament, using his jiu jitsu technique.
When I moved to LA about fifteen years after that five-month stint in the Queens academy, top of my mind was to find a BJJ school to train at, since in the last few years I had been learning about mixed martial arts and I knew that LA was considered a mecca of BJJ. By sheer luck, I happened to move next to one of the top schools. From the moment I started rolling (basically “grappling” but in BJJ jargon) I felt like a helpless baby being manipulated by people of all shapes and sizes. Some bigger, some smaller, some older, almost all of them younger. If they had a blue belt or above, they always dominated me. They had tapped into something I just knew I had to learn more of. It was a lifestyle perfectly suited to my addictive personality. I was hooked. I am hooked.
Due to work and family, my schedule is limited, and normally I can only attend classes during obscure hours – either super early or super late in the day. Since day one I’ve been a regular in the 7am classes, with a fairly consistent group of practitioners. Many of them have grown with me from white belt to blue. There’s a bond you form with likeminded individuals in any environment, but I would say it’s particularly pronounced with those who commit to meeting 2-3 times a week at 7am in the morning to practice the art of strangling, sweeping, throwing and footlocking each other. It looks cult-like to the casual observer, because it is. You have to do it to understand it. Because admittedly it looks crazy to anybody objectively looking at it.
BJJ feels very much like an international community, in the sense that when you travel you can easily drop in on BJJ academies wherever you are. I’ve done it several times in Miami and Barcelona, and even if there’s a language barrier, you share the same language of the art. You can go in and train with random people from any echelon of society, in cities across the world. Once you enter the gym and hit the mats, you’re on equal footing. You check your ego at the door.
We also get drop-ins at our gym from time to time. Even in the 7am classes. Many travelers come through and I’ll see them once or twice, and it’s always a pleasure to talk to them about their training, where they’re from, without the ego and pretension that comes with most social interactions. Especially in places like NY, Paris and LA, all places I’ve lived, all with their share of egomaniacs and opportunists looking for transactional value to gauge the worth of the person they’re talking to. None of that nonsense on the mats.
One time this tall, lanky older guy came in to one of these morning classes, and I didn’t really give it much thought. I spent my hour and fifteen minutes in class before dashing home to get ready for work, and didn’t really think about him, because you always have random people show up. He did stand out because he was older. I guessed he was late fifties at the time. I thought, “good for him.” I want to keep grinding for as long as I can, and found it inspiring. I’m also one of the oldest people at the gym, having started training at forty years old. If he can do it, showing up like a lunatic at 7am to roll around with a group of sweaty misfits, so can I.
About six months later the tall, lanky older guy showed up again to one of our 7am classes. We warmed up for about fifteen minutes and drilled techniques for about thirty minutes, before sparring each other, which is the freeform phase of the class where you pair off with different people and basically try all your techniques in live situations. After going through a couple of my classmates, I paired up with the tall, lanky guy, who was a blue belt. At the time, I was a white belt who knew enough to be a pain in the ass to blues, but not enough to save myself from the tall, lanky guy’s leg locks. I asked him about it later, and he told me he trained at Renzo Gracie’s in NY, which is a school particularly notorious for producing some of the best leg lockers in the game.
As we’re sweating and leaning against the wall after the end of our round, he tells me how he’s recently started smoking again, and how it’s affecting his cardio. He’s breathing heavily after what felt like a light, technical round to me. It’s then I notice the sun-damaged tattoos on his forearms and the deep furrows in his face. I’ve been around, and I can tell when I’m in the presence of someone who has lived. I can tell this guy had probably seen his share of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I ask him a little bit about his school, and make some other small talk about how long he’s going to be out here, before I get up to leave. I introduce myself. He shakes my hand and says, “I’m Tony.”
It hits me immediately that the reason he seemed familiar was because he was, of course, Anthony Bourdain, who I’d seen on television and heard on the radio. I felt a pang of embarrassment upon realizing who I had been obliviously talking to. In my defense, I’ve always had an issue with face blindness, and I had been living abroad for the last fourteen years. I’d only seen clips of his show, and heard him on podcasts. Nevertheless, he had always struck me as a kindred spirit, and an excellent raconteur. I just never expected to see him show up to one of my 7am jiu jitsu classes. I didn’t even know he trained. I only said, “Dude, I know you!” I wasn’t star struck, I didn’t ask for a picture. I only said I hoped to see him soon and told him jokingly to watch the smoking. He was totally one of us. Not a shred of ego or self-importance. He no doubt appreciated the fact that we all treated him as an equal on the mats.
That was the last time I saw him in class. Since then, I have followed his television shows and read Kitchen Confidential, and have secretly waited for the day he would walk into our gym again. I fantasized about casually talking to him about his writing. His confessional style resonated with me, and made me realize how much in common I shared with him. My angst as a teenager, my issues with substance abuse, my itinerant job history, including a few restaurants, my European heritage, and, of course, my struggles as a writer. He’s one of those rare people I’ve met in life who I would call a fellow traveler. I liken it to crossing paths with someone in the middle of the desert. You’re wandering, alone in a barren landscape, and suddenly there’s this fellow traveler who can commiserate with you, who shares your burden. I felt he could understand my frustrations and loneliness as a writer and misfit. And I just wanted to riff with him about it.
Sadly, I’ll never get to roll with him again, or fulfill my fantasy of chatting with him over beers in a Koreatown dive bar. News of his death this morning was like a body blow to me, as I’m sure it was for many people in many communities around the world. He was a celebrity, but he was also one of us. I said he checked his ego at the door to my gym, but, by all accounts, from everything I’ve read about him, he was a solid dude, 24/7, no matter what company he kept. Rest in peace big guy. Thanks for baring your soul for all of us. Thanks for the great art.