Let’s roll: Pair of Summit County jiujitsu athletes podium at Pan-American Championships in California
If you ask Asti Alexandria what she remembers from a Brazilian jiujitsu grappling match, unfortunately for you, it’s not much.
“I blackout during most of my matches,” she said.
What her memory pulls up from competitions, such as last month’s Pan-American Jiu-Jitsu Championships in Irvine, California, first comes down to slapping her opponents hands before the match. Then, maybe a few flashes of her opponent’s garment colors before the experience of her hand being raised.
With that, the better question for Alexandria might actually be what kind of mindset she brings into matches like those at the March 20-24 Pan Ams. That’s where she won four matches en route to the blue belt, middleweight women’s tournament title for adults between the ages of 35 and 39.
“I went out there and I was there to win it,” Alexandria said. “Before I get on the mat, there’s a square you have, and it’s your section. And I look at it as, ‘That’s my hunting area, and I’m the hunter. I’m the wildcat, and they are the prey. And I’m winning. They are mine.’
“And that’s it.”
Three weeks ago in Irvine, Alexandria and the owner of Summit County Jiu-Jitsu in Frisco, Douglas Cuomo, each podiumed in their specific 35-to-39-year-old weight classes and belt levels at the Pan Ams, which is the largest Brazilian jiujitsu tournament held in North America annually.
Brazilian jiujitsu is a martial art that has skyrocketed in popularity in the United States and across the globe in recent years, primarily due to its prevalence in mixed martial arts promotions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC. Since the launch of the UFC in 1993, Brazilian jiujitsu and its focus on no-strike grappling — with an emphasis on ground fighting — has been the most important martial art within major MMA competitions.
But back in 2008 when Cuomo, quite literally, stumbled across the sport commonly referred to as “BJJ,” he had little knowledge of the UFC. When Cuomo — a tall, light and gangly man living in Fargo, North Dakota — peered into a corner store window and saw BJJ being practiced inside, he wasn’t sure what it was. It looked like wrestling to him. And he knew wrestling was a sport that demanded fitness from its athletes. With that desire to get in better shape, Cuomo gave the sport a try.
Little did he know this weird-looking version of wrestling is a sport predicated on leverage and length, two attributes the tall and long Cuomo naturally possessed.
A few BJJ sessions later, Cuomo — who at the time was a firefighter while attending paramedics school — was hooked on the sport and the chess-like elements of strategy that came with it.
“When I started, I realized this is probably the most in-depth puzzle I’ve ever come across,” Cumo said. “And I really like puzzles. So I just kept getting farther and farther into it.”
About a decade later, Cuomo now finds himself coaching at his own BJJ gym in Frisco, where he imparts knowledge on athletes like Alexandria. For Alexandria, it was her own realization of how BJJ is kind of a version of “human chess” that led to her love for the sport.
“By the time the hour was up,” Alexandria said of her first time trying BJJ, “I realized I hadn’t thought about any of the stresses in my life. I went to a different zone in my brain that I had never really tapped into. It kind of feels like physical chess, trying to stay one step ahead of your opponent. But it’s hard to stay one step ahead of your opponent, because your opponent dictates what you do.”
That game of staying one step ahead of your opponent was on full display for both Cuomo and Alexandria at last month’s Pan Ams. Their second time together at the competition, Cuomo had previously finished in second place in his age, weight and belt division at the Pan Ams in 2018, and was hoping for a repeat performance. For Alexandria, the 2019 Pan Ams was about proving to herself and the assembled BJJ community that she had improved her open-guard skills enough to advance through the tournament. In BJJ, a guard is when a grappler is on their back on the mat and “open guard” means legs are not fully engaged with an opponent.
In advance of the Pan Ams, Cuomo consistently told Alexandria that he thought she would win her division. To the coach, she had shown Cuomo enough skills at recent competitions in the Denver area against higher level BJJ athletes, both men and women, that he felt she should be one of the strongest grapplers in her specific tournament at the Pan Ams. Alexandria quickly proved that, advancing through her four blue belt, middleweight matches to claim tournament victory. Throughout those matches she was also dominant in the guard position, not allowing a single opponent to break, or “pass,” her guard a single time.
“I just jumped up and down on the mat,” Alexandria said of the moment she realized she won the tournament. “I ran over to Doug. Doug ran over to me. I was crying. And I thought, ‘Tears of joy are a real thing. I thought that was just fake.’ It was probably the coolest feeling I ever had.”
The tournament championship then advanced Alexandria to what is referred to as the “Absolute” tournament. At Pan Ams, the Absolute competition — or “Absolutes” — pits podium placers from each weight-class tournament against each other in what is effectively a super tournament.
In the end, Alexandria advanced to the semifinal round of her Absolutes tournament before she lost on points. That said, Alexandria had improved her skills so much so in the open-guard position over the previous year that she actually had her semifinal opponent in an arm bar at the end of that match. Alexandria’s opponent gutted it out, withstanding the pain and not tapping out.
For all intents and purposes, though, Alexandria won the actual fight.
“She spent the last ten seconds of the match arm-baring the girl, breaking the girls arm,” Cuomo said. “Even though she lost the match, her conceptual attack was flawless.”
As for Cuomo, he grappled well out of his preferred open-guard position throughout his early matches before he lost by a narrow margin, ending up in second place in his specific 35-39, middleweight, purple belt tournament. In the Absolutes, Cuomo lost in the semifinal round to a grappler he said presented him with a technique he wasn’t prepared for.
But that’s Brazilian jiujitsu. That’s the game. That’s the life. To Cuomo, it’s about figuring out just what kind of human-chess move that opponent did to him and preparing to counter it the next time they meet, whenever that will be.
“I have to figure out how to adjust my game to one thing,” he said. “He did something to me no one has done before. So I have to fix that.”
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