The Trials & Tribulations Of Facing Off Against A BJJ Legend

Published on by Erin Herle

Photos By: Kinya Hashimoto

Ever since I started training jiu-jitsu I wanted to be a black belt competing at the highest level. And here I am, diving deep into the lightweight division and facing the top female voted best of the year at the first major of the tournament of the season. How does one prepare for that? It’s all mental, really.

The preparation for this Europeans was different than my previous routine because of the color of my belt that changed on Nov. 4, 2017 at the hands of Rubens Cobrinha Charles. I competed twice in Brazil and earned the points necessary in the IBJJF system to sign up for Europeans.

With just four of us in the division, I knew I was coming home with a medal and some ranking points regardless of the outcome but the result was entirely up to me. I was placed in the bracket across from Bia Mesquita, and my first goal became winning my first match so I could get to her in the final. And every roll I had in training had me picturing my opponent as Bia. I wanted to visualize what that would feel like and what type of intensity would come, should I stand across from her in the final.

Let me explain my approach to winning. I must be a champion of my own abilities… my biggest fan and my greatest critic—it is that simple and that complicated. If you can picture a person you admire and care for, you can imagine yourself rooting for them because you feel they deserve it. Picture yourself as another person, just like that. As if you, yourself, are standing next to you entering that match. And then root for yourself.

I have to be my biggest fan, someone that I genuinely love and admire. And that is where my ability to persevere stems from, as with all my obstacles in life. I often write down notes to myself in third person that offer words of encouragement as well as visualization so that when I read them back, it’s like someone else is saying it to me. For whatever reason, someone else’s opinions of us tend to hold more weight than our own ideas of self. Again, it’s that simple and yet that complicated.

After a long couple of days trying to relieve my jet lag and an intense night in the hospital, my mind was ready (my body… not so much) --- I had a mission.

My first match was one of the last matches before the finals started so there was some waiting around. But as soon as I stepped on the mat, I went straight into my game by pulling guard but my opponent pulled guard as well and came up for an advantage. I wasn’t worried about it because I wanted to play guard, and I forced her to come into my game.

I was able to secure closed guard and use the lapel to keep my opponent’s posture locked down. As I went for an armbar, she scrambled for a pass and got another advantage so I knew I had to start working. I tried for some sweeps via spider guard until one worked and I noodled my way through to side control. She reversed me, but I was up by 5 points and after one more sweep, and the ref giving her the points instead of me, I technically won by 7-0.

And then I ate a banana and waited for my final against Bia, just as I had imagined. Because I was a member of media for years, working alongside the mats and watching all of these black belt matches unfold, I already knew how it would all go down. My name was announced, and my last name was pronounced as hurl instead of “Hurley” and I shook all three refs’ hands. And then my mind just went blank apparently.

My goal was to pull with her as I expected she would pull guard as well. But instead, I just let her pull and she immediately snapped on an omoplata that I had to roll through to get out of. And then as I got to my guard, giving up two points, she was already working a pass. And as I slowed her down a tiny bit, I thought I’d be able to get my grips but she was spun to the back, and went for an armbar. I came up to stack and defend and ended up in her closed guard.

And then I watched as she wiped the bangs from her face, rubbed her eye, and I was there thinking we were taking a break. Like she was so comfortable in this match, in her best position, and she was as cool as a cucumber. It was a weird mixup in my head because I was both relieved to have time to breathe yet embarrassed at how little she was worried about me.

A sweep to mount, and a choke over my face sealed the deal and she was champion and I was in awe of what level I had just entered. It was like going in to beat the boss of a video game and I was unprepared—even though I had mentally prepared myself to see her across from me on the mats of Europeans. But yet when I pictured the match, I had no strategy besides “let me do my game?”. I don’t know if black belt means you have a plan for what will bring you victory or if you just have to wing it each time. But the pace was set and Bia’s game was so tight that because I flinched in the beginning, it was a downhill slide from there.

Immediately after I wanted to side with the critics, thinking that if I were in the stands right then and there, I would have first said, “Who is this girl? I’ve never heard of her.” And then in response to the dominating performance by Bia, I’d say, “She didn’t even belong in the final.”

But this is what I’ve learned from eight years of competing all over the world. I am what matters and whatever anyone wants to think of my matches has no bearing on how I feel about myself and my performances. They didn’t get the opportunity to fight in the final of the Europeans against someone who needs no introduction. I worked really hard to get there and just because I wasn’t as prepared as I needed to be, doesn’t mean I didn’t deserve to be there or that I won’t have many opportunities to shine in the future.

You can’t allow others’ ideas of success determine your worth. I’m already on to the next tournament, the next training session, simply because I choose to let the past be the past. I’m not embarrassed for my loss nor am I satisfied with how I fought. But am I healthy? Yes. Am I happy? Yes. Am I capable? Yes. And all of those questions are answered because of choices I made and/or am making currently.

Black belt is another world and obstacles are always going to come when you least expect them. But bruised egos and loneliness and loss are all temporary. On to the next.