The Time 50,000 People Watched Me Get Choked Out
What a bronze medal and a viral video taught me about redemption and letting go of the past.
This article was supposed to go out yesterday… not sure what happened. Sorry in advance!
There are like, a lot of videos online of me getting beat up.
Now, granted, each beating is one that I signed up for and was a willing participant in, but still, there are a lot of videos.
However, the only video of me getting my ass kicked that matters to me is this one, from the semifinals of the 2018 IBJJF Pan Ams in Irvine, California. It’s been viewed over 40,000 times on FloGrappling’s (the largest media source in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) Instagram page, and thousands of more times on their Facebook page.
It’s been viewed at least 50,000 times.
That video lit a fire under my ass that completely changed my life, but not exactly in the way you might think.
Earlier that day, I walked into the tournament venue seeking a gold medal, glory, and perhaps even some internet fame of my own. Instead, I was carried out of the venue with a bronze medal around my neck, and this video went viral just several hours later.
It’s tough, but this is the nature of what I do: I put myself out there and risk having my body used as a tool for someone else’s highlight reel. My opponents do the same. We’re martial artists during the digital age, and this means there’s nowhere to hide.
But during the 12 months that followed the incident in California, hiding is exactly what I did. I spiraled into a mini existential crisis that involved severe depression, knee surgery, and what I honestly thought was going to be my retirement from competition at the ripe age of 20. I nearly quit everything.
Yet somehow, 18 months later, it was me being interviewed by FloGrappling to commemorate my first ever world championship.
This is what happened, and this is why it doesn’t matter that much.
There are two sides to every story.
What the video that I shared above doesn’t show is that I was competing in that tournament with a torn meniscus, and during the moments where I was flopping around to escape that choke, my knee was literally locked into place.
I didn’t know my knee was torn, my opponent didn’t know, and the media at the tournament certainly had no idea that I was essentially fighting on one leg. They saw the opportunity for a video and just hit record. I can’t blame them, they were doing their jobs.
In the 12 hours that followed the match, I was in excruciating pain and my right knee was locked into place and immobilized. We even went to Rite Aid and bought crutches so I could go for a “walk” on the beach with my friends.
That afternoon, when the video went viral, I realized something that horrified me: if I didn’t bounce back from this loss, I was forever going to be known as the guy who got choked out with a made-up move.
I was a loser.
I was humiliated and determined to heal up and bounce back.
All my friends said something along the lines of “you’ll get him next time!”.
If only it were that simple.
Saying I was going to heal and bounce back was one thing, and actually doing it was something else entirely.
A week later, when I got an MRI at the doctor a few weeks later, he said the worst thing I could have possibly imagined: “Nothing seems to be wrong with your knee.”
Considering that just a few weeks earlier I had been unable to walk, I was outraged. My body was failing me, and no one had any idea why.
It didn’t get better from there.
Over the next 6 months, my knee popped in and out of place countless times. At least 30 times, once even in my sleep. It was incredibly painful, and for a while, I was convinced that my athletic career was over. I was convinced my dream of becoming a Jiu-Jitsu world champion was going to die before I even turned 21.
That dream was my everything, and it was slipping away. I was depressed, heartbroken, and aimless. My dream was dying, and I thought that meant that I was supposed to die too.
This knee injury I believe played a significant role in triggering the episode of “derealization” that I wrote about on Quora a few months ago.
I was 19, and when you’re 19, everything matters so damn much. I thought my life was over.
You can read that story here, but that’s not what this article is about.
This article is about how I bounced back from my knee injury and started doing Jiu-Jitsu again.
What happened next…
One day in September (6 months after the Pan Ams-viral-video-incident), I injured my knee again — this time much worse than before. The doctors were finally able to locate my torn meniscus.
3 weeks later, I had surgery. 4 weeks after that, I was back on the mat like nothing had ever happened. It was ridiculous.
7 months of extreme pain, frequent “knee locks”, and an existential crisis were all compensated for in one 15-minute procedure.
The mental wounds took more time to heal, but I could finally admit it to myself: I was on the comeback train.
In February of 2019, now 11 months after the original injury, I was back competing, and I was happier than ever. I was doing the thing I loved most, and I was more than grateful for every second of it — I was ecstatic.
But unfortunately, I still had a lot to overcome to reach my full form.
“We did it.”
When I came back to competition, I was finishing up undergrad, training like a professional athlete, and beginning to teach Jiu-Jitsu on the side to make extra money. I was busy.
I was grateful to be back, but my workload had me incredibly burnt out and anxious for months on end. I was questioning if all of my hard work was ever going to pay off — if the journey was going to be worth the struggle.
In December of 2019, it finally was—at least for a little while.
I won 6 matches and won a No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu world title at my age and belt rank. It was a wild experience. Tears were shed. When the ref raised my hand after my final match, I went straight to my close friend Jack and gave him a hug.
“We did it,” I said. He’d been there for me since the beginning. He was the one who’d carried me out of the venue 18 months earlier.
The dream got more surreal after that.
The same media outlet that had recorded my ass-whooping 18 months earlier was now interviewing me of all people asking me about my performance, my plans for the future, and surprisingly to me, who the heck I was.
To them, I seemed like an overnight success. I was dumbfounded.
“How did they not remember who I was? I even had the same haircut!”
That was when I realized that no one remembered my loss from years earlier except for me.
No one cared that I’d gotten butt-kicked except for me. No one cared about my redemption quest from knee surgery and depression to world champ except for me.
The story I had told myself was for myself, not everyone else.
While I was lost in my personal legend, the world had kept on spinning.
No one cares as much about your goals as you do.
Once I achieved what was at the time the biggest goal of my life I had a huge realization:
Life goes on, with or without you.
For the first time ever, I understood what this actually meant. Even if you win a gold medal and got to kiss the prom queen one night, the next day comes and everyone else moves on with their lives no matter who you kissed the night before or what color your medal was. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that they don’t care as much as you.
This is easy to understand but complicated to actually implement into your life. I know so many people who are stuck in the past, constantly reliving their “glory days”, and saddest of all, are trapped in the same mindset that they had when they were younger. They’ve stopped growing because they’re living in the past, and it’s heartbreaking.
The truth is, your glory days are right now.
Nothing matters except right now. Whatever happened in the past, whatever happened in the last competition, whatever conditioned you to think the way that you think right now, it’s over. Living in the past is what stops us from beginning to live in the first place.
Once I achieved my goal of winning a world championship, my biggest fear wasn’t falling from grace, my biggest fear was becoming stuck in the past.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” — Marcus Aurelius
I realized that no matter how many titles I win, there will always be another one. There will always be another goal to throw my entire being into. If I’m not careful, I’ll do this over and over again until the day I die. I’ll never even begin to live because I’ll be constantly engrossing myself in the pursuit of external validation.
I can’t have that.
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own.” — Marcus Aurelius
I began my martial arts journey from a place of fear, anxiety, and ambition, but I stay on the journey because I love it. I’m free from my past successes and failures, and to me, that’s growing up.
They say that life is a marathon, not a sprint. But when you experience anxiety, everything seems like a marathon. Anxiety heightens the senses, and this neurological tidal wave leaves us anxious folks feeling drained, overwhelmed, and incredibly unprepared to handle the stress of life.
During my darkest periods with anxiety and depression, I felt as if I aged decades in just weeks.
But though anxiety is a very real mental illness and the symptoms of anxiety are very real, the fears and cognitive distortions created by our anxiety are not real. Anxiety is a real response to not real problems.
“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca
When I hurt my knee, had an existential crisis, and lost my way, I obsessed over how I was going to redeem myself and prove to everyone that I was tough, strong, and competent. I fixated on the past, obsessed over the future, and ignored the present. It made me miserable.
Becoming a world champion didn’t make me happy, being nicer to myself did.
My journey through the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has taught me a lot about life, but the most important lesson that I’ve learned is that no failure is final, and no success is, either. You have nothing to prove, and nothing to lose. You are here, and you are enough, as you are. When you accept that, you’ll be able to unlock your true potential.
Hopefully, you don’t need to get choked out on the internet to realize this.
I’ll be honest with you, the last few weeks have been a little crazy between competition, travel, and training for upcoming events, so my writing output has been a little less than normal.
However, I did write these 3 articles last week. Feel free to give them a read to support me :)
How I Structured My ADCC Trials Training Camp (Premium—a good one for all the people who ask me how I train :)
Sorry again for the delay on this one. Next week we will be back to our regularly scheduled programming.