I tried out a week of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at mixed martial arts gym, Fight Fit Militia and this is what I learned.
By now you may have noticed that every month we set a challenge based on the month’s theme. March was all about marching to the beat of your own drum so I decided to look for less conventional methods of working out.
Whether we notice it or not, our choices are largely defined by what we see around us, what the people in our circles are doing, what popular media promotes and what is deemed as “appropriate” for your gender, age or persona.
Despite my very parev* choice of workout activities (road running and gym sessions using the NTC app), I have always been drawn to being unconventional and not following a crowd. Although I live a non-conformist life, I began to wonder how it is that gymming and long distance running became my thing. I didn’t grow up wanting to run or run Comrades one day, let alone 3 times, what really propelled me to those choices? Was it me or those around me?
In a quest to try out something completely opposite to anything I have ever encountered, I began searching for male dominated workouts and when I happened onto Fight Fit Militia, what I found was far greater than any workout method.
For anyone even remotely familiar with MMA in South Africa, chances are you know that Fight Fit Militia exists (and has for years) and about the excellent reputation their gym and athletes hold. So if you are, please excuse my entire ignorance in this area. I can tell you how to finish Comrades in 12 hours (just run, don’t stop) but when I walked into Fight Fit Militia I couldn’t tell you what MMA was, what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was, who Chef aka. Norman Wessels was, or who Shana Power was.
“Fight Fit Militia is the best Mixed Martial Arts gym in the country, with some incredible coaches and athletes which I learn from on a daily basis.” Says Sascha Robinson, one of Fight Fit’s young female athletes.
From my very first email interaction with Fight Fit Militia, to every time I stepped foot into their gym (including the times after I tried Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and was hopelessly uncoordinated) I was welcomed with open arms.
Fight Fit Militia is a family style community that has no resemblance to any typically franchised gym. When Chef – who is the co-owner – enters the gym, he greets every person in his pathway (with fist bumps and a huge smile) which in my experience is something I’ve never seen.
That is not to say that walking in isn’t incredibly intimidating. Fight Fit Militia is what I’d call organised “chaos” to a newbie. There is no entry turnstile to swipe a card through, and no demarcated areas or ‘conductors’ telling you where you should go – but – everything has its place and it just works.
I chose Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as the less conventional workout method of choice based on Chef’s recommendation.
“Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a martial art and combat sport that teaches a smaller person how to defend himself against a larger adversary by using leverage and proper technique. The Gracie family, the founders of BJJ, modified judo and traditional Japanese jujutsu to create the art.” – Black Belt Mag
On day 1 I sat on the bench and observed a group of guys and only 2 girls, doing what appeared to be rolling around on the floor in pairs. I didn’t get it and was incredibly skeptical as to whether it was for me. I was, however, certain that I had found a male dominated sport.
On Day 2 and 3, I delved into the 5.30pm BJJ Fundamentals classes (which are very male dominated) and very quickly learned my observations from the day before were completely off the mark. One of the coaches very graciously and patiently dedicated a large portion of the one-hour classes showing me and Zissy “basic” moves. I was very grateful I had dragged her along with me so that we could be paired as beginners (and females).
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is really difficult because it’s very mental and tactical. Being strong or athletic is not going to win you any points but being a strategist, quick learner, and co-ordinated will. The best way I could describe it is chess with the human body and the best way I can describe me at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is similar to me at ballet class – desperately wanting to be a ballerina but unable to translate what I’m seeing and being told into me being able to follow suit.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is also so different from any other sport I have ever tried, being that you can’t do it alone and the intensity and your progression is dependent on who you train with.
After my first class, I felt an extreme drive to learn more and be able to master the moves and I wondered why this isn’t a sport that more females do. From a pure self-defence aspect, having the tools to be able to fight in an attack situation especially when you are small and attackers would be, as Black Belt Mag define; Larger Adversaries, is invaluable.
Shana Power, Fight Fit’s only female trainer and a professional MMA Fighter, recommends Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu over any other sport for any female. “If you’re very technical, you can use it no matter where you are and what situation you’re in. If you’re a 50kg women who tries to hit a 100kg guy, there is no chance that you are going to be able to get out of that scenario or situation but with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, because of the manipulations and joint manipulations, your chances in getting out of a negative situation go from 0 to about 70%”
Shana has been the only female in the Fight Fit environment for a very long time and says she doesn’t learn any differently from male athletes, but, she has always been the only female in a male dominated sport and industry so she was able to cope with it. She knows that a lot of females do feel quite intimidated.
“Feeling safe in an environment is important for females. What fight fit is trying to do is break the stigma and create a friendly environment for everyone to learn. We’re trying to build an environment that women don’t feel nervous to come into the gym and onto the mat. An environment where women feel safe so they can grow and progress as martial artists.”
What I found to be most interesting was how it was the male coaches specifically that created the safe and friendly environment that made me feel comfortable. Despite what you would expect from clearly intimidatingly talented MMA athletes, they were all incredibly gentle, knowledgeable and never made us feel even remotely uncomfortable – including when they were demonstrating moves on us. There is such a palpable respect for mixed martial arts at Fight Fit Militia.
Monique Krige, another one of their female athletes, who trains in their ladies boxing classes and IKFF Kettlebell classes in addition to BJJ recognises that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a very male dominated sport in South Africa, but sings Fight Fit’s praises as the place to train BJJ as a female. “It was natural to feel overwhelmed and doubtful but it really didn’t take too long to realize that this is a very respectful physical sport and the environment we practice in is structured with a system to learn. Yes women are smaller and not used to the physicality, but this just means we have to learn how to be comfortable here first before we can thrive. As a woman I always feel welcome, loved and accepted on the mats but just like men we have to work hard and pay our dues to succeed – there is not special treatment because of your gender and I believe this is exactly the way it should be.”
Sascha says she wasn’t intimidated by the males in the gym; but rather was more intimidated by the athletes/fighters at first – who are mainly men. “Initially it was because I grew up with my brother and father watching EFC, and so I knew about these guys… When I walked into the gym and saw them, I was intimidated by who they were and what they could do, but now I am really close with most of them, and am not intimidated at all. I also train with Shana Power which makes it easy for me to feel more comfortable.”
For the rest of the week I tried out the girls only Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes, led by Shana. The girl’s morning classes are much smaller than the male dominated evening classes, but the martial artists, like Sascha Robinson and Monique Krige, are just as fierce as any of the males.
What really struck me was the attitude that the athletes (both the girls and guys) had towards us. On day 1 when Chef showed us around the gym, explaining the vision that he and Richard Quan had when starting Fight Fit Militia, and the community aspect that they have crafted over the years, it was just words. But, those words came to life when I witnessed every coach and athlete taking a patient and intense interest in trying to relay the lessons and methodology, no matter how hopelessly bad at it we – make that I – was.
Monique describes what I was feeling from an inside perspective. “Everyone is dedicated to each other’s goals and there is absolutely no lack of passion in any area of training/sport in this gym. It all comes with hard work, commitment and effort but you will never be doing it alone. Within this gym, you will always have a sense of direction and feel like you are a part of something greater for yourself and your community other than the common money-related goals lifestyle.”
Fight Fit Militia also don’t just cater for male and female teens and adults, but for little kids too. From as young as 4 years old, Fight Fit Militia is instilling a powerful foundation of valuable skills in children. Not only did I witness the second half of one of these empowering little champs classes, but seeing chef’s 6-year-old daughter bounce around the gym, comfortable and confident in her surroundings is a testament to their ideals.
This is not a place that shoves children in a back room out of the way until the adults finish their activity, they embrace families and understand the value, self-control and confidence that mixed martial arts gives to children. As chef remarked, “I want my daughter growing up with these moves being second nature.”
At the end of the week despite knowing how much I wanted to take on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and send my imaginary kids to BJJ before any other extracurricular activity, I realised that this isn’t a sport that you can half-arse. You’re either in or you’re out and it takes time and dedication to learn and master before it could be a skill that is useful to use. Shana seconded this notion.
“Learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a lifetime commitment. I would think that you’d need at least 6 months to be able to carry things out and use it in a negative environment or situation. In terms of actually progressing to a level of being the best and getting a black belt, [it would take you] at least 10-15 years, depending on how dedicated you are. But, even black belts with third degree black belts are always learning and that’s the lovely thing about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, there is never an end, you are always striving for perfection and always striving to be better.”
Want to try Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for yourself? Fight Fit Militia is based in Sunninghill, Johannesburg and offers a free 7-day trial which you can use on any of their BJJ classes or other mixed martial arts disciplines.
Their BJJ classes run Mondays through to Thursdays and they also offer an Open Mat session on Saturday mornings at 10am. Open mat sessions are where members can practice/train at their own pace and intensity (i.e. not a coached session).
6.00am BJJ All levels
11.30am BJJ Advanced
16.30pm Little Champs(4-7 yrs) & Future Champs (8-12 yrs) and Sat 9am
17.30pm BJJ Fundamentals
18.30pm Wrestling & BJJ (Mon & Wed) and Judo & BJJ (Tues & Thurs).
7.00am Saturdays Ladies BJJ Fundamentals
9.00am Saturdays BJJ Startup (Introductory to BJJ Fundamentals)
Base modules at Fight Fit Militia cost R750 per month for 5 sessions weekly (one of which is the open mat session on sat mornings).R1000 per month gets you unrestricted all access to Fight Fit Militia Martial Arts Modules. And, if classes aren’t your thing, they offer private one on one sessions at R350 per session sold in 10 session packages.
*Parev is a Kosher Dietary term that describes food items/ingredients that are neither dairy or meat and therefore can be eaten in any meal setting. (Kosher diets do not mix milk and dairy products)