BY MATT RIHANI – Doing the European Open was one of the most random, memorable, and inspiring experiences of my life. It was random because I ‘m not really sure what made me do it. Julius asked me one day after practice if I wanted to compete in Europe and I just said sure as long as I can get it cleared through work. After getting approval, I quickly realized I had lots to do before I could even get on my way to Europe. First and foremost I needed to get my passport since I have never been overseas. Then I had to book tickets and take care of the hotel situation. Last but not least was continuing to grind it out in the classroom to get ready for some tough competition.
I remember thinking around New Years that Europe was so far away, but in the blink of an eye I was on my way to the airport with Shrum and Big Al. We met up with Timmy Spriggs at the airport, and while exchanging Dollars to Euros and Pounds Julius, John, Keith, and Jeff joined us. We were on our way to Europe finally!
Landing in London was when it really hit me; I am in another country with nothing but my teammates and my Gis (I checked everything else in my bags). We had another day before we competed but I was already getting anxious. We had about six hours to roam around before our flight to Lisbon. Seeing all the stores, shops, and restaurants list prices in another currency seemed so bizarre. When it came time to eat we chose a traditional looking English style pub. Unfortunately I was overweight and couldn’t really indulge in some good food, so it was a small salad for me at lunchtime.
After lunch we boarded the plane to Lisbon, our soon to be battlegrounds. Getting off the plane in Lisbon had me feeling lost. Everything was in a different language and all the employees had broken English. I just kept looking around while following the team out and to the taxi that took us to our hotel.
Once we got to the hotel there was no time to rest or relax. I had some weight to cut and the rest of the team wanted to get that last workout in. So we got ready me in a sweat suit and the guys in their gi tops, and we went down to the gym. When we got to the gym my jaw dropped. This was going to be the hardest cut ever because the gym was literally about 40 degrees and open to the outdoors. But an hour later of running and biking and I was finally on weight and ready for a night of rest before the tournament starts.
I tried to make the morning of competing as close as any other tournament back home and ignore the fact that I was in another country (hard to do when they’re speaking a different language). We get to the venue and it was easily one of the nicest BJJ setups I have ever seen. The eight mats down below the high stands were already packed and some matches were just starting. I weighed in and was 1 kilo under, 2 pounds, so I ate a little and rehydrated while watching Keith compete first.
When it was time for my division, Shrum and I, headed down to the bullpen and started to warm up. I was happy that Shrum was going at the same time so that I had someone to warm up with and grip fight while waiting to be called.
I competed first and man were they some tough matches. I won my first match by point but lost my second by an advantage in the guys guard. It was heartbreaking but I didn’t feel upset or disappointed in myself. I knew I left it out on the mat and that I went out fighting to the last second.
I spent the rest of the day watching my teammate Timmy Spriggs win match after match and end up taking first in his weight class and second in the Blue Belt Open. It was amazing to see someone I train with do so well and continue through the tournament.
That night I was able to eat a real meal and wow does Portugal know how to make some good food. I had a turkey dinner because for some reason they don’t serve chicken in Portugal. It was still delicious. We pretty much all passed out when we got back to the hotel, due to exhaustion and that Jon was fighting the next day so we had to be up early for him.
The next day Jon and the purple belts from Camp Springs were competing. Jon had some tough matches but as always grinded it out and ended up with a medal. Then it was the Camp Springs guys.
DJ Jackson, the middle weight purple belt, from Camp Springs put on one of the most inspiring performances I have ever witness since I started BJJ. He is relentless when competing and is constantly applying pressure and punishing his opponents. This is something that I try to constantly do in matches but watching an experienced fighter do it just made me want to get back in the gym and get ready for my next match so I could do the same. Little did I know that my next match would be the next day.
We got up on the third day of tournament to go watch Roberto and Jimmy compete at the brown belt level. When we got to the venue Julius informed us that we may be competing again that night in a Nation vs Nation BJJ Blue Belt five man team tournament. I was so syked. This was my chance to compete again and do what I wanted to do the first time. On top of that I was competing for my country, and best of all literally along side of my teammates.
Team USA consisted of Spriggs, Big Al, Shrum, a fighter named “Black Magic”, and me. We were ready for war and lucky for us we were up first. Our first matchup was against Germany. Tim, Big Al, and me were up first in the lineup and defeated won the first three matches. Since it was best three out of five, the ring coordinator ended it there and we moved on to the next round.
Next we had the Netherlands and we were down 2-1 when I was the fourth match. Getting to the waiting area I look over and see that my opponent was the guy I beat the day before and boy did he want revenge. But I stuck to my game plan and ended up winning again. Big Al also came through in the end and we came back to win against Team Netherlands.
Dutch was a quick round because they only had four fighters so after two wins and the automatic win from the missing guy, we moved on to fight Finland. Finland was without a doubt the biggest, strongest team in the tournament. I was the last to go and it was tied up 2-2. It was win or go home. My opponent was obviously much bigger than me and not in a fat way. But I had to win, not only for me but I wanted my team to continue on and my guys to get more fights. So I shot a double leg and drove him three rings down before stopping and getting back quickly waiting for him to go again. I could tell he was shocked and realized I was not going to be an easy match. The ref said fight and I shot again and took him down this time. The venue was pretty empty by this time so I was able to hear Julius and Jon pretty well as they yelled instructions for me and encouragement for things I was doing right. After about 3 minutes of fighting in his guard I was finally able to open it but he went for a quick omaplatta and then armbar. I was able to roll out of both and get to my over under position and then pass his guard. I felt his spirit break the moment the ref threw up my three points. It was an easy mount from there while I tried to finish with a submission until time ran out.
When the match was over the cheers were like nothing I have every experienced. Apparently a lot more people were watching my match then I realized. It was hands down the greatest victory I had and everyone let me feel it when the ref raised me hand.
But most importantly we moved on and got to fight Sweden in the finals. They were some tough guys and it ended with me the last match again. Unfortunately, I was unable to pull off the victory and we took second.
Standing on the stand with my teammates was awesome. It was the first time I ever stood on the stand with any teammate much less three of them. It was a great feeling. We all went back to the hotel feeling awesome that day.
The last day at the tournament we got to watch all the black belts fight. This was most technical, the fastest, and most physical jiu jitsu I have every seen. I was star struck by all the black belts and seeing them compete against each other. I tried to take in every moment of it that I could. I also took down a lot of their names so that I could youtube some of their other fights later.
That night we had to leave Portugal and head to London for some well deserved R&R.
London was something else. The architecture, the people, the cars, everything was different and I liked it. I felt better that they all spoke English too. It made it a lot easier to get around and communicate. The first night we just ate and explored the hotel.
The next day was much more sightseeing and exploring. We went to pinnacle circle, which is one of the most famous locations in London. It had every store I have every heard of and many more. We had so much fun just walking around and seeing so many things. I seriously loved London, and will definitely be visiting it again.
Finally I’m here on an airplane on my way back to Baltimore reflecting on so much. I am so happy that I was fortunate enough to have this experience. I feel that I learned more about my BJJ game and myself as fighter in one week than I have in ten months. I learned that not only can I do well and win, but also experience defeat and use it to get better. I learned I have holes in my game that I need to fill and other parts that I do well that could still be improved.
Most of all I bonded with my teammates in a way that could not have happened in any other scenario. We were no longer just fighting for ourselves but fighting for each other, so that we could all win and all move one. This is the way I plan on fighting every match from now on. Fighting for my teammates so we can all win. Now that my trip is done, I feel anxious again. This time its to get back in the room and start training with the rest of Crazy 88 and getting ready for the next tournament.