BY JOE KILLO – My Journey to Blue Belt is a long story. It was an 8 year journey. Most of my journey to Blue Belt was not spent on a jiu jitsu mat. The majority of that time was spent waiting for the “perfect time” to return to the sport. Unfortunately for me, it took a very long time to realize that the stars would never align to provide a perfect training situation. There would always be 60 hour work weeks, a wife, kids and family to spend time with. I came to the realization that it would take sacrifice to get back to a sport that is ingrained into who I am. This is my Journey:
In 2005, I had just returned from my first deployment to Iraq. I had been gone for 15 months. At the time I was living in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. Needless to say, there wasn’t much to do in this town. There was 1 weight lifting gym that just happened to have a room with a wrestling mat. I was very interested in MMA which was gaining mass popularity at the time and decided I wanted to give it a shot. Coming from a competitive wrestling background, I was immediately attracted to the style of fighting that wrestling brought to the UFC. It wasn’t long before I realized that the only athletes that could neutralize a wrestler’s intensity while also being an effective fighter were those that studied Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I immediately went in search of a Jiu Jitsu gym in my area. I soon discovered that the closest one to where I lived was an hour and a half away. Not one to be deterred, I recruited an ex-wrestler friend and an Army Combative instructor to meet me in the local gym wrestling mat at 6am three days a week. I began studying Jiu Jitsu online and attempting to teach myself. It quickly became clear that I would never be able to accomplish my goals under these circumstances.
When I got back to my apartment after training one day I googled Jiu Jitsu schools in the area of Columbia, Maryland where I was raised. The first school that popped up was Crazy 88 Jiu Jitsu. I quickly noticed that the school allowed you to come train for free for a short time to see how you liked it. That was all it took. That weekend I made the drive back to Columbia and attended my first class at Crazy 88. Ten Minutes into my first class I was hooked. This was exactly what I was looking for. I knew this was an atmosphere that I would thrive in. This was when I met a purple belt named Julius Park. I knew his immense knowledge of the sport would be invaluable to me at this time.
After attending 2 classes, I moved back to Pennsylvania for a short period of time. Once the semester was over I joined the Maryland Army National Guard and moved back home.
Step #1: signing up at Crazy 88 to train. At this time classes were only running 2 days a week. We trained in a small room that was attached to a weight room (Body Factory Gym). Eventually classes went to 3 days a week and I was attending every class offered as well as boxing, kickboxing and wrestling. I had set a goal for myself at this time to become a professional MMA fighter and I was doing all the things that at that time I felt necessary to accomplish that goal.
During this time, I was very competitive in Jiu Jitsu and Submission grappling tournaments. If there was a tournament on the east coast I was going. I traveled from NY to GA to compete and did decent in competition. Not great, but not bad. I always sought to compete at the highest level Julius would allow me to compete. Six months into training I was competing in the Advanced No-Gi brackets and white belt Gi brackets. I would always place high in Gi competition but would never win the tournament. I relied heavily on my wrestling ability to take me to those final matches. Once I got to the finals, I would match up with an individual that had a better jiu jitsu game than me and they would take the edge.
Once I realized this I began to focus my energy on jiu jitsu fundamentals. I reached out to a fellow white belt by the Name of Malcolm (Who is now a Black Belt) who was bigger than me and had a very strong sense of balance. Working with Malcolm forced me to rethink my game and really understand my strengths and weaknesses. Everyday that we would come in to train there were a series of intense drills we would do. These drills included the mounted armbar drill, kimura drills, hip positioning, grip fighting, etc. After developing a good sense of the basics I decided I wanted to branch out and learn a new series. At this time, a competitor by the name of Seph Smith came into the school to teach a footlock series. I sparred with Seph and was quickly submitted each time with a heel hook, toe hold, foot lock or knee bar. I quickly realized that I needed to learn this or how to defend it. Julius gave me a VHS box set of footlock series to study. I studied the series for a 2 week period before the next competition in Virginia. At this competition I got leg locked and tore the Outer Collateral Ligament in my knee! I felt that at this point in my training I was very close to getting my Blue Belt. Malcolm had received his blue belt a few months prior to my injury. My other training partner, Wayne, had just received his blue belt.
Being stuck with this injury and not able to train for months had no effect on my goals or whether or not I would return to the sport. I knew I would return and that this was just a bump in the road. Not long after returning to training I received orders from the military that I would be deploying to Iraq for a second time. My orders said that I could be deployed for a period of a year and a half. This was news that I did not want to hear. I felt that all the time and energy I had invested would go to waste. Eighteen months is a long time to be away from anything. The kicker was that I was supposed to leave in sixty days. There was so much going on I couldn’t focus on anything. In that 60 days I had to prepare my mind for what I knew was in store. During those sixty days, I proposed and married my wife Nikki. I felt as though I was literally a ticking time bomb with all of the things I was dealing with during that time.
June of 2007 I deployed to Iraq again. Luckily the deployment ended up being shorter than anticipated and I returned home after a year. After I came home it took me a bit of time to adjust to “normal life” again. I spent more time eating and boozing than anything else. In the back of my mind I knew that I would have to start training in order to feel like myself again. By the time I came home the Crazy 88 Gym had relocated to a much larger facility. Julius was a Brown Belt, Wayne and Malcolm were purple belts. There were guys I had never seen before that were blue and purple belts! It was embarrassing for me to be back in the gym as out of shape as I was at that time. I got slaughtered by white belts, blue belts, purple belts… if it wasn’t your first day you were going to crush me. I remember walking off the mat so angry for letting myself get to that point.
Before I even got a chance to redeem myself I got a call from my current employer with a job offer. This job would take me out of training for another 8 months due to job training. I took the job and left Crazy 88 with the intention of returning once training for my job was over. Right around the time I completed the job training my wife became pregnant with our first child. A year and a half later we had our second child. My mindset became that of a father, working to provide and make enough money to allow my wife to stay home with our children. Raising a family of 4 in Columbia Maryland on a blue collar income is a tough task. I was working 80 hour weeks for 3 years to make this possible. In the meantime I thought about jiu jitsu and knew that I would return to compete in once more. It became an issue of how I would be able to find the time to provide for my family, spend time with my family, get done what needs to get done on a daily basis and do jiu jitsu. In my mind, I kept telling myself “next year the kids will be a bit older, Ill be making more money, time will free up…”. I continued to convince myself that there would be the perfect time to return.
One day in mid 2013 I ran into Dave Zwanetz at work. He gave me the number of who to contact to reenroll at the gym. I became optimistic that I was finally going to return to training! That optimism quickly faded when I was injured at work. That injury led to two surgeries.
August 2014 I finally felt that my injuries were rehabbed, and I became motivated to return to training. I re-enrolled at Crazy 88 Mixed Martial Arts where Julius and Malcolm were now Black Belts. Guys that I went to high school with (Tye Murphy) were Brown Belts and World champions! This was unbelievable to me. The gym that had started off renting a space in the corner of the Body Factory Gym was now a world-class facility producing champions at the highest level. As motivated as I was to get back into it again, the motivation quicly disappeared as the reality of being out of the gym for 6 years hit me hard. I was once again embarrassed at how out of shape I was and how rusty my skills were. Two weeks after coming back I sprained my ankle pretty bad and it took me out for another month or so. It was unbelievable. If I had a penny for every time someone told me “youre getting to old for this” or “its time to move on” I’d be a very rich man.
Following the sprain I returned and began training consistently. I work on my cardio and strength training outside of Crazy 88. I train at Crazy 88 when I’m at home and when I am in southern Maryland for work I train at Lloyd Irvin’s MMA Gym in Camp Springs. Since implementing this new training regiment I can feel the progression taking place. I am far from where I want to be but I am far from where I was.
I finally received my Blue Belt on December 11, 2014. I have set 4 goals for myself in regards to Jiu Jitsu in 2015. Obtaining my blue belt was the first of these goals.
For me, all of the seemingly insignificant details of my journey are actually the most important. Over the past 6 years there wasn’t a day that went by that returning to Jiu Jitsu didn’t cross my mind. I continued to wait for the perfect time to come back. It took me 6 years to realize there would never be a perfect time and that I just need to make the most out of the time I have. I truly feel that this is a new beginning for me and that I am on my way to accomplishing each competitive goal that I have set for myself in 2015.