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Las Vegas- July 2013

I was just hunting through my drafts for the blog when I discovered this, written in Pearson Airport, Toronto, last July. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it before, but anyway here it is now.

“America’s playground”

I’m just sitting in Toronto airport waiting on a distant connecting flight to Dublin after spending a week at Drysdale Jiu Jitsu HQ with my students Rowan and Shafty, so what better time to blog about the experience. It was a great week of Jiu Jitsu, MMA, lying by the pool, shooting guns and generally having a ball. But mostly Jiu Jitsu.

Have gi will travel was the catchphrase, and we arrived after 2 long haul flights on Sunday night. There was no hope of making the 9am session Monday morning so we gave ourselves a good chance of getting over the early effects of jetlag and lay in for a while before checking out the crazy Las Vegas Boulevard (the famous Strip) for breakfast. We got lucky with our blind guess at which hotel to stay in with the Vdara, a massive new construction in the Bellagio complex. It’s a non-casino hotel which meant it was a little more sedate than most of the other strip hotels- it’s billed as a spa- but still had a cool pool area, hydrotherapy pool and a nice large room for us on the 49th floor. It meant we could relax during the daytime either by the pool or in the room between sessions, and the room was large enough to accommodate 3 sweaty, farty men and their smelly training gear in some comfort. Once we’d settled in, we took a trip to the gym to find our way for training later. We rented a car since the gym is in a more commercial neighbourhood of Vegas. Let me tell ya, if you want to know why US car companies are losing out to their Japanese and Korean rivals, look no further than the Dodge Avenger. But it did get us there and back in one piece for the week, so thank you Dodge, but you may want to look into the steering and the transmission on this model. Just some friendly customer feedback for you.

After finding our way to the gym (every block looks the same in the commercial district, so this was easier said than done), we went in to say hi to Robert who had just finished sparring as he is getting ready for his UFC debut in August. A familiar figure was standing observing the mats. None other than Leo Viera. I’ve met Leo before but I doubt he remembers everyone who shakes his hand, but it was nice to see such a legendary grappler again. He’s a regular in the gym and even took some of Roberts classes for him when he was on holiday a while back. Once Robert was done in his ice bath, it was off for some of his favourite Sushi, which I am assured is among the greatest Sushi in the world. I don’t doubt it after eating it, but further investigation of many other Sushi spots is warranted. After a brief stint at the pool, spent by myself and Rowan laughing at the furtive darting from shaded area to shaded area of our ginger companion (it was 37C and he finshed with a final fourish- wearing his tee shirt into the pool), it was off to Drysdale Jiu Jitsu for real this time and training session 1.

One of my main regrets is that I didn’t bring my camera to the gym, or when I did I didn’t have any opportunity to take any photos. There were about 45 people on the mats on Monday- from striped white belts to black belts. I partnered up with a nice guy in a very bleached and worn black belt named Dave. He was a big dude, about 90kgs and worth every cm of the black belt too. We started out drilling takedowns and sweeps as a warm up, a drill I’ll be adopting for the lower intensity classes I teach. We then moved on to the technique- Butt flop passing from the De la Riva guard. Robert pointed out several common mistakes that occur when people butt flop pass. Namely these were not controlling the opponent’s far leg properly, not controlling your own descent, and not placing enough pressure on your opponent once you do flop. Robert then emphasised clearing the trapped knee in this reverse half guard position, and pointed out a unique method of clearing your foot by grabbing your own heel and crowbarring your opponent’s legs open. We finished with a very nice lapel choke from the same position. Then it was on to training. This was done in groups of 3, and started from specific positions and worked from there. I was lucky enough to be with my previous partner, Black belt Dave, and Robert himself. Basically a high level black belt and an elite level black belt. This was a really difficult night as I found myself in extremely bad positions for the night against more experienced opponents. Literally every mistake I made was punished by sweep or submission, so in other words it was the best training imaginable.

Session 2 was Tuesday morning with Sonny Nohara. Now we seemed to constantly screw up our times with the morning classes. So when we arrived at 10am, everyone had been drilling since 9. It was okay though because class proper kicked off once we arrived. Sonny’s classes were more intense physically from an early stage, but then more focused on the fundamentals when it came to technique. In this session we drilled some mount and S mount finishes including a very simple movement I hadn’t seen before from when your opponent defends the armbar. With a few less guys on the mat in the morning (about 25) there was room for regular rolling, 7 minute rounds and 4 in all. I got a mix of partners to contrast with the very intense training of the night before, some blue and purple belts and a good brown belt. An after-training lunch, a swim in the pool and a dip in the hydrotherapy pool and we were back for the evening session. With Robert’s upcoming UFC commitment, he has delegated some of his teaching hours to one of his black belts, Frank. Frank has a nice, detailed teaching style and at the age of 41 moves faster than most 21 year olds. He thought front headlock position for the week, and on Tuesday he emphasised 3 submissions from the front headlock position- guillotine, loop choke, and a brabo choke. After drilling, we trained as we had on Monday night- in groups of 3 with isolated positions. I was grouped with black belt Ranson and a really high level blue belt named Tory. Again a very good training session with high skills and intensity, even if at the end we felt the jetlag and heat were catching up with us. A word on the heat. This is desert heat. Dry and very hot even in the evening. What this means is that humidity is low, and this means breathing is relatively easy as compared to more humid (but marginally cooler) climates you may have trained in. So all you really have to contend with is the heat and associated fluid loss. It’s still hard to go from Ireland to Vegas, but what I’m saying is, well, it could be worse and it’s not as bad as you might think. Ranson also happened to be manager of a fairly exclusive nightclub in the Bellagio, so having previously promised ourselves a night out on one of the weekdays (c’mon, we were in Vegas), we got ourselves comped into the club with free drinks for the evening thanks to our new friend. Shafty who is fighting in 3 weeks had some waters and then left myself and Rowan to it at about 2am, and the less said about the Blackjack tables after this point, the better. Were it not for the sight of the sunrise in the lobby of the Bellagio, we might still be there.

This meant a break for myself and Rowan for the Wednesday morning session, but Shafty went along to MMA training with the pro team. On an interesting note, these guys were among the best pros in the world, but were working… wait for it… guillotine defence. As I watched them train, I thought to myself that in lesser gyms around the world are curently working mounted gogoplatas and superman punching, but these guys know that the fundamentals come first and were working the high percentage moves. Some great guys on the mat including Drysdale of course, but also Bristol Marunde, Sean Spangler, and Brad Tavares, After some shopping, lunch, and the obligatory poolside recovery session, we were back at 6.30pm for more BJJ. Drysdale was back teaching and it was again on the butt flop, this time focusing on how to correctly butt flop from the half guard position and on how to create tremendous pressure on your opponent before passing his guard. This time I was grouped with 2 other brown belts and once again sparring was positional. This was probably the night I felt I had acclimatised to the heat, even with the late night/morning I’d had on Tuesday. Great fun, and at the end of it Robert gave me the first stripe on my brown belt.

On Thursday morning we were back with Sonny, and this time we had a killer 30 minute warm up worthy of any wrestling session, before drilling an excellent “wrong side” kimura finish for when your opponent grips their pants or holds on to  kimura. Rolling was fun again though at this stage a tendinitis issue I’ve been having in my right arm was really starting to bug me. I basically rolled with no right arm grip which I told myself was good practice, but which in actuality just hurt. On Thursday afternoon, we went shooting automatic weapons, which is something of a Vegas tradition. Man do they love their guns, and as a liberal I find myself on the one hand abhorring violence, but also seeing why someone may feel their liberty is impinged by not being allowed to own a firearm. It strikes me that it’s pretty easy to debate gun control from the comfort of a Dublin internet cafe, but an altogether different prospect to debate it in a state that prides itself on small government and civil liberties. Politics aside, shooting is great fun, and they even have a bit of a sense of humour in the gun range where you had a choice of Zombie Osama, Zombie Terrorists, or a plain old target. Guess which ones we went for.

Come Thursday evening, my right arm was beginning to feel like pretty powerless. Frank was teaching again and we worked some more from front headlock position. This was a class on attacking the neck from either the front headlock or the hip to hip position. We worked a very interesting guillotine variation with the opponent in an almost head/arm position, a crucifix back take, and a traditional clock choke. Great material and then on to 7 minute rounds. I got some good rolls with a couple of good guys but then disaster struck and a very tough and aggressive brown belt put on a kimura very quickly and yanked my shoulder a bit. I had to stop at this stage and regrettably it also put me out of Sonny’s class the next day too. It probably would have been grand but for it being on the same arm as the tendinitis, however with the help of some animal grade Ibuprofen I got at a chemist I was able to get back on the mat for Drysdale’s class on Friday night. It was well worth it too. We worked another variation of the butt flop, this time in nogi and from your opponent’s sitting guard. The principle here was once again to clear your foot using the heel grab, get your knee to the mat and then finally, when either your opponent tries to turn to their knees, to jump explosively to their back using what Drysdale terms the neck drag. A pretty cool technique with some great rolling to follow. I’d say I was at maybe 60% unfortunately, but it was definitely better than doing nothing.

And that was that. We packed Shafty off to bed that night and went to the bar for a couple of drinks. By this stage 300,000 Jersey Shore lookalikes were in town for a festival called EDC, and to be honest, we were pretty happy to sit in the hotel’s outside bar and relax away from them. All that was left was to go to the gym one last time yesterday morning to say goodbye, have one last meal, pack and then go to the airport. I’ll miss Vegas of course, but like any time you learn something new, you can’t wait to get home to show everyone and try out the hints and tips you got along the way.

So Vegas, you’ve been amazing. Maybe we’ll catch up again next year.

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