The Inner Circle - A Capoeirista’s Guide to MMA

A Capoeirista’s Guide to MMA

Over the past few months I took some time to travel a bit, visiting family and exploring new parts of the country.  As the leaves darkened and then dropped I shifted from place to place, rarely staying anywhere for long.  My bohemian lifestyle, freewheeling as it was, meant a de facto hiatus from capoeira.  After a week on the road, feeling my low back muscles congealing into crunchy peanut butter, I started sniffing around for other ways to stay active.  I needed something I could count on finding in basically any town in America.  Yoga was the obvious choice, but I happen to be deeply allergic to the word “namaste” so that was out.  MMA, given its ubiquity, was next on the list.  Most of the time I was staying in small blue-collar cities where you can’t swing a cat for fear of it getting armbar-ed.  So I bought a mouthguard, pulled on some shorts, left my abadas in my suitcase, and embraced the world of amateur hand-to-hand combat.  After two months of mat burn and bruised knuckles, I came away with a few tips fit for consumption by any capoeirista interested in seeing the harder side of life.  Here’s my handy-dandy guide to mixed martial arts (obviously, two months is barely any time so I’m not claiming any kind of expertise whatsoever---take these tips seriously at your own risk).


Martial arts breeds community

My home base, if I could be said to have one, was an anonymous town in upstate New York where my grandmother lives.  I wandered around New England a lot but always regrouped in NY so I got to know the local MMA academy there pretty well.  From my first day on, the atmosphere was persistently friendly.  Given MMA’s rough reputation, I was worried that I’d be joining a gang of ex-felons with testosterone oozing from their cauliflowered ears.  Instead, I found a diverse demographic---high schoolers and middle-agers, thick and thin, men and women.  It had solid adult classes and a booming kids program (watching twenty kids in gis trying to strangle one another is both funny and alarming, like some comedic reenactment of Lord of the Flies).  The instructors were cheerful if bad with names, and the students were quick with the handshakes.  It was an auspicious start.  

Fortunately, this one academy proved to be the rule, not the exception.  No matter where I went I felt welcome.  There’s something to be said for exercise as a bonding activity, that strange meditative synchronicity that sets in when you’re all moving together, all working towards the same goal.  Even the most withdrawn of hermits would have difficulty resisting the camaraderie that comes from training en masse.  

MMA, despite its undeniable popularity, still feels niche.  Standing in class, all of us wearing special gear (gloves, mouthguard, shin pads), you can’t help but feel special, separate from regular society.  The academy is its own specialized universe where normal behavioral rules are suspended; rather than considering others you try to harm them.  Strangely, as you hit and crank and choke and bar, allowing the same to be done to you, you find yourself having fun.  Getting hurt is still, well, painful, but now it’s in service to a larger purpose.  The movements feel oddly cleansing, like you’re shedding all that extraneous nonsense associated with daily interaction---no small talk, no pretense, no reflex smile, no manners even.  But instead of driving people apart, it pulls them in.  A counterintuitive way of making friends, but a very effective one.

One evening in South Carolina, at the end of a jiu-jitsu class where I was slumped against the wall gulping water and trying not move my neck, my partner sat down next to me.  He’d barely said a word over the hour we worked together except for a few terse corrections.  Young guy, army haircut, camouflage t-shirt, intense blue eyes, hit the bag like it owed him money.  As I went to stand up, he looked over hopefully and said, “You coming back tomorrow?”  



Do more situps

There was plenty of new stuff for me to learn and I struggled with a lot of it.  As a longtime capoeirista, asking me to kick means yes indeed, how spicy would sir prefer the kick, jalapeno or habanero? but asking me to punch is just going to provoke a discouraged look at these wet noodles attached to my shoulders.  Ducking and slipping punches was similarly hopeless and it took me a long time to stop sitting down whenever my partner so much as made eye contact.  I could’ve picked any one of these sorts of things for this list, but nothing left an impression quite like the situps.

Capoeira’s fond of large, knees-to-chest movements like queda de rins, macaco, and mortal.  It did nothing to prepare me for the blitzkrieg of situps in any kickboxing or jiu-jitsu class.  Every three minutes, it seemed, another command of “‘ups!” came and I found myself on the mat, levering back and forth, trying to be philosophical about damage I was undoubtedly inflicting on my digestive system.  To make matters worse, both taking and throwing punches required quick, shutter-snap contractions of the abs.  Alone, this was uncomfortable; paired with the ‘ups it became debilitating.  I gained a new appreciation for the idea that generating power---whether for an au or a jab---comes from the core.  By and large, my punches had the sort of force you’d use to pet a kitten.  And taking hits to the body (never hard ones, my partners universally coddled me like the newbie I was) rearranged my internal organs inch by inch.  After the first week I felt like I’d been sawn in half along my eighth rib and put back together.    

Great teachers can be found anywhere

I admit that, compared to teachers in other fields, I’m biased towards the ones in capoeira.  This sport is so varied and so deep that teaching it well is a big ask.  Plus, because it lives in the gray area between violence and non-, its entry barriers aren’t as scary as MMA’s and so all manner of people walk in the door.  However, the moves are as hard and complicated as anything bjj or muay thai have to offer, which means tailoring sequences to each person’s idiosyncrasies, catering to many different body types so that everyone can succeed.  Great capoeira teachers tend to be, in my experience, adaptable, charismatic, and motivating.   

But maybe I’ve been narrow-minded.  Most of the MMA coaches were great, as competent and canny as any contra-mestre.  The first guy I took class from was Jason, a friendly kickboxer with the limp handshake I came to associate with truly dangerous individuals.  He looked like a miniature Evander Holyfield (the heavyweight notable for losing an ear tip to Mike Tyson): same guileless expression and soft eyes, same pugilistic nose, same tall, unforested dome.  His shoulders were great round orbs, monuments to past punches thrown.  In class he bounced around like an over-caffeinated rabbit, thin calves flexing and straining while he ran us through jab-straight-jab combos and (obviously) situps.  Working with him was exhausting---he knew how to push students just up to the point of collapse, chattering away rapidfire the whole time, “One one onetwo!  Good.  Move! Onetwo onetwo!  I’mma move the pad c’mon c’mon.  Give me the bill, don’t wait for the check!  Move!  Knock on the door knock on the door, don’t wait getonyourbike move.  Knock on the door now break it down!  Jabjab, jabjab!  Good.”

Just as that academy set the tone for others, Jason set the tone for my subsequent coaches.  Although they differed in approach, each one was happy in his work.  Nothing kills my motivation faster than an indifferent teacher, and luckily I never found such a creature.  All the MMA coaches gave off an unmistakable air of enjoyment.  Their enthusiasm was a wellspring---class was fun because they were having fun themselves.  

Interestingly, all the instructors I met were male (although the students were usually split about 60-40 men to women) but each instructor was remarkably equitable to his students.  In my stereotyping mind, I’d expected a small but potent misogyny from these men who spend so much time practicing violence, whether it’s wrapped as self-defense or not.  But, at least in the classes I took, they repeatedly proved me wrong.  The coaches shared a predilection for teasing their students, but it never had a sexist flavor.  At one point, training takedowns with a woman, I flubbed the sweep and the coach, a giant of a man with blotchy, permanently-puffy eyes and biceps larger than my thighs, smiled and yelled at me, “C’mon man, you gotta take her out!”  Then he immediately turned and told my partner, “If he messes that up again put him on the ground, kick him while he’s down!”  When it came to inflicting harm, parity reigned.

Capoeira is easier than MMA

I think the mark of accomplishment in any art, what separates the alunos from the professors, is the ability to see and use subtlety.  As a beginner,  only the big, obvious signals register; there’s too much to learn to worry about the fine details.  Gradually, you chunk information into manageable gulps and eventually whole exchanges become their own “thing,” like letters becoming words becoming sentences.  Meaning is registered on larger and larger scales.  In the same way that chess has many standard openings, most martial exchanges are rote to any veteran.  Gaining that practiced, memorized knowledge, I would argue, defines competency---you’re competent because you use the standard set of moves and countermoves. But to be excellent, to be inspiring, requires a deeper understanding, a depth of thought and movement that lets you warp the established dialogue and move into new, unexpected territory.  It’s this warping, this manipulation of the world, that we call subtlety.

This is old news in capoeira.  Malícia is the whole point (cue uneasy muttering from the gallery, but let’s just agree to hold that discussion for now and accept that if it’s not exactly the whole point then it’s sine qua non for the real kickass capoeira).  What makes capoeira easier than MMA is that since it’s (occasionally) cooperative, there’s a little more breathing room, a little more opportunity for nuance.  We’ve all had the experience of being totally shut down, stifled, which leads to an awfully one-sided, airless roda.  And but so when the game’s between contemporaries who can riff off one another and really build something, then it opens up and transforms into something unique and beautiful and even fleeting, gone in a minute and not seen in that form ever again.  When the players have space to bring all their cunning and guile and ingenuity to bear, that’s when subtlety blossoms.

Capoeira, practiced at a high level, fosters malícia.  Its design encourages subtlety.  MMA, however, is much more zero-sum.  The language makes that clear: playing is to capoeira what sparring is to MMA.  As I said, while training kickboxing or bjj or whathaveyou, there’s a huge sense of camaraderie---we’re doing this together.  Cooperative combat.  In an actual match, by contrast, your loss is my gain.  There’s less room to be subtle because we’re much more concerned about winning.  And because the nature of winning in MMA is to submit your opponent (by whatever means), bigger beats smaller when all’s equal.  No subtlety at all, just a greater force overcoming a weaker one---hence the need for weight classes.  Crushing, dominating force isn’t really inspiring, it’s more awe-some: a pinch of admirable, a dash of frightening.

(This is not to say that there’s no delicacy or shrewdness in fighting.  Indeed great or beautiful fighters often have a certain flair, a certain manipulation of spacetime that leaves viewers’ jaws footloose, e.g. Muhammed Ali, George St-Pierre, Marcelo Garcia, etc.)

Capoeira, in its peculiar ambiguity, rarely employs divisions by weight or any other criteria.  It’s a place where a child facing down a grown man makes sense.  In the roda, the result matters, but there’s also the question of style.  You scored a takedown but how was it, exactly?  Bullish and hardheaded?  Or smooth and surprising and liquid?  Capoeira prioritizes style; MMA will take it if it can get it.  And in that sense, it’s easier to be inspiring as a capoeirista.  

Capoeira is harder than MMA

Even though I’m (and will probably remain) a beginner in kickboxing and jiu-jitsu, I managed to pick up a few skills once I acclimated to the situps.  In kickboxing, throwing a punch remained alien, but the footwork and the kicks were coming along.  In jiu-jitsu my offense sucked but my defense was decent.  When it came to sparring and rolling I was a serial floor-mopper, but I at least earned some insight into how exactly I lost every time---I wasn’t getting blindsided.  On the great pyramid rising up towards mastery, I’d gained a handhold in only a couple months.

Part of the reason capoeira is harder than MMA is a simple technicality: there’s more you have to learn.  Just to be a beginner means sampling a ridiculously wide spectrum of movements (and the relationships between them), none of which are intuitive.  No one comes to capoeira having somehow practiced esquiva lateral in their daily life.  Ignoring the question of music and language and culture (a whole beast in and of itself), fitting things together in the roda, on the fly, is just stupendously complex and intricate.

And yes, sparring in MMA is also Gordian, but the dataset you’re drawing from is smaller and thus easier to consume.  Strikes, takedowns, grappling, movement, and defense is an enormous number of skills to learn, and takes years to master, but capoeira’s move-set is at least as large and that’s without the music.  When teaching a frustrated student, I often find myself trying to strike the balance between realistic encouragement: (“break it down in small bites, it takes a long time for everyone”) and soul-crushing truth (“it’ll be three years before you can even chew your food on your own”).

The other, more important, reason capoeira is harder than MMA is its lack of resolution.  As I’ve said ad nauseam in this blog and to my students and other teachers and the guy asking for change on the corner, capoeira is fundamentally ambiguous.  Even picking a word to sum it up is hard: “sport” implies quantifiability, “fight” leaves out too much, “art” is too vague, “dance” ditto fight, “game” is fair but unsatisfying.  We have to waffle around with phrases like “cultural expression,” (what the heck does that even mean anyway?) or we beg the question and call it a “dance-fight-game.”  Capoeira’s fun because resists characterization.  

Moreover, MMA has a clear goal: submission.  As newbie, adrift in an unfamiliar landscape, you can always orient by that landmark.  Strategies make sense according to how well they move you towards submitting your opponent.  In capoeira country, however, there’s no such beacon.  Navigating the “rules” is a learning process all its own.  Just try explaining when exactly a volta ao mundo should be called in your next beginner class and you’ll see what I mean.  Capoeira’s bylaws are like obscenity: you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.  Finding resolution in an MMA match is a one-sentence affair: whoever submits the other is the winner.  In capoeira, you need a manifesto.    

And so here we are, finding ourselves at the same conclusion as always---capoeira is difficult, and difficult to define, and that’s what makes it great.

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