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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

05 May 2013

04/05/2013 - Rape Crisis BJJ Charity GrappleThon

For a long time now, a major goal of mine has been to support women already in jiu jitsu and encourage others to give BJJ a try. I was therefore appalled earlier this year when I read that a woman had been raped by two of her team mates, which was followed by further disturbing revelations about what has been called a 'rape culture' at that team. I had not intended to run another GrappleThon until next year, but because I wanted to turn the strong feelings about that incident towards something positive, I decided to get something organised soone in aid of the important work undertaken by RapeCrisis to increase awareness about sexual violence, press for change and help survivors.

Last year was the first time I had run an event like this. It won't surprise anybody who knows me or reads this blog regularly that I took a lot of notes, with various spreadsheets proliferating during the planning process. That meant I had plenty of material to draw upon for the second GrappleThon this year, including a sort of 'action plan' based around the steps I took in 2012. First up was asking Geeza if he was happy for us to use his club again, to which he generously said yes. That was followed by checking Seymour was willing to do another design for the event, as he was absolutely key to the success of 2012. As Seymour is an awesome guy, he immediately said "no problem" and got to work. Tatami Fightwear were the third important element, who also quickly replied that they would be happy to print the t-shirts for 2013.

The big change this year was that I made an effort to reach out far more broadly than just Gracie Barra Bristol, the host academy. There were two reasons for that. Firstly, since going to Texas a few months ago, I have increasingly realised just how amazing BJJ is as a community, rather than simply a sport, hobby or martial art. I'm keen to push that aspect of BJJ, giving back through charitable work as well as providing an opportunity to expand the camaraderie that I've found to be such a notable aspect of BJJ. The GrappleThon is intended to raise lots of money for good causes, but I'm also hoping that it can bring academies and people together.

My friend John 'jnp' Palmer shared the event over on Bullshido, which was then highlighted again here. We also got lots of coverage on Facebook, such as the pages for Jiu Jitsu Style, British BJJ Brands, Mobile Black Belt and Tatami Fightwear. Plenty of blogs took up the story too, such as Just A Girl BJJ, Fighting at Forty and Mr Tickle BJJ and of course Meerkatsu, whose amazing Heavenly Footlock shirt had a connection to the event (the UK portion going to RapeCrisis, the US to RAINN). My friend Megan kindly featured us on GiFreak too, here and here.

In the weeks leading up to the GrappleThon, my girlfriend wrote a press release and sent it out to lots of newspapers and websites (naturally including RapeCrisis, who put it on their Facebook page). I'm not sure how many picked it up, but I do know that the BBC read it. That's because a few days before the event took place, I got an email from Sacha Bigwood at BBC Radio Bristol telling me to call her. That led to a live interview being arranged for Saturday 4th May at around 07:40. I was more nervous than I expected and thought I stumbled at the start, but it sounded much worse on the phone compared to the broadcast. That should be on the BBC iPlayer for a while, here (skip to 01:48:39), but when that disappears, you can also have a listen here.

An hour later, I was on my way to the GrappleThon, carrying a laptop, two gis, lots of cereal bars, some collection boxes and a banner. The latter two were again sorted out by my girlfriend, meaning that I could make sure RapeCrisis was featured prominently on the live stream. Perhaps most importantly for the fundraisers, I was also carrying a large box of t-shirts from Tatami Fightwear with Seymour's design. Carrying on the format from last year, these were for a special competition for fundraisers: I had a limited quantity in various sizes, which were given out in order of amount raised. That meant if there were only three shirts in your size but five people raising money who wanted one, you had to make sure you raised enough to rank in the top three. The cut-off point was 9am on Saturday: I double-checked everyone's total just before things got started.

That little element of competition brought out some impressive fundraising efforts. Jack McDonald was the champ, ending up with almost £1,000 on his page by the deadline (and passing it afterwards). I should note I wasn't counting the biggest single contributor, Seymour, who gave our total a huge boost when he added his t-shirt sales to his JustGiving page. Various others got well into three figures, some in a very short space of time: Paul only found out about the GrappleThon in training a few days before, but by the time Saturday rolled around, he had already managed over £200.

Another competition helped in a different way, as it did last year: the 'most time sparring' battle. Seymour brought down a print of his 'Heavenly Footlock' design, which I used as the prize, eventually earned by Christian with a ridiculous 95 rolls.

That's a total of at least five hundred and seventy minutes. I say 'at least' because the tracking was inherently vague, as I was relying on the timer beeping after each round: there is a gap of anything between 30 seconds to a minute and thirty seconds once it beeps. So, Christian was most likely sparring for over six hundred minutes! He was looking to break the 100 roll barrier, which he very almost managed, but ran out of time towards the end. I'm sure he'll be back to try and make that target next year. Considering his admin skills, I may also try and rope him into helping me run GrappleThon 2014 too... ;p

Christian was closely followed by two fantastic gentlemen from Dartford BJJ, Danny and Shane. Not only did they raise plenty of money, they were the first people rolling and the last to leave: Danny finished with 93 rolls while Shane had 91. They were ahead of Christian for most of the event, then after he passed them they made a powerful effort to try and reclaim the top spot, only missing out by two rolls.

If you want to learn how to pace yourself in jiu jitsu, then clearly you need to head to Dartford BJJ. Or indeed just learn from Marc Walder: another grappler from that same affiliation, Mike, managed a very respectable 63 rolls. The same affiliation also boasts an elite level blogger whose insightful writing has influenced me ever since she started up her site: Meg Smitley. It's a shame she couldn't be at the GrappleThon this year, but hopefully I'll finally get the chance to meet her at some point down the line.

I was looking forward to seeing some old friends, some of whom I had not seen since I was a white belt. The one who I hadn't seen for the longest time - though she is so active on social media that I still felt I was in touch - was Pippa, who arrived around 10am. She was literally the first person I ever met in BJJ, as she was behind the desk at RGA when I turned up for my intro lesson with Oli (the second person I ever met in BJJ) on the 26th October 2006. It was great to catch up with her and also with Howard, who was my regular training partner at RGA Bucks. He now calls Brighton home, based at Elements BJJ: two other members of the Elements team came with him to support the event. By the 6th May, the Brighton boys had raised over £1,000 for RapeCrisis.

Geeza appeared forty minutes or so later, in order to run a class he wanted to teach. At that point we split the mat in half, angling the live stream camera towards the near side while the class continued for roughly two hours. Conor, another old friend (this time from the Belfast Throwdown) arrived shortly after that class started. I was expecting a lot of people at 12:00, as most people had told me they would be there between 12:00 and 18:00: the mats were stuffed.

It was cool to see so many brown and purple belts on the mats, including Rob T and some of his students from Swansea, as well as Dónal's brother Paddy (I first met both of the Carmodys up at Gracie Barra Birmingham in 2010). The private lessons I've been taking from Dónal served me well today, as I was able to get in some practice on a number of the technical details we discussed. That also means I have lots of material to work on for my next set of private lessons with him. :D

Alison and birthday girl Paula from Gracie Barra Bath got there at about 12:30, bringing some delicious sweets. That was far from the only confectionery to grace the event: the front desk ended up looking like the dessert counter at a fancy cafe (a tradition I feel should be a part of every academy ;D). With so many people it started to get quite difficult to keep track of everybody on the spreadsheet, particularly once Geeza's whole class joined in with the sparring. I therefore apologise if I missed any of you, or just called you 'Big Guy 1' and 'Small Guy 2'. ;)

The mighty Meerkatsu himself walked through the doors around that time too, packing a brown belt, a camera and some nifty mat skills. At about 13:30, yet another blast from the past hit the mats: Chris Williams, who was among my favourite training partners in the early days of my training. We first rolled in February 2007, where I was intimidated by the enormous guns Chris had at the time. It turned out there was a lot of brain to go with that brawn, as every time I rolled with Chris I learned something new. He has the excellent habit of analysing rolls afterwards and offering constructive tips. Since 2007, he has lost about 20kg of brawn, but none of the brain. Fantastic training partner: as I'll discuss lower down, we had a good roll in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Looking at the timings spreadsheet (not everybody picked a particular time, but most of the fundraisers are on there), it was clear that to get a photo of as many fundraisers as possible, I would need to do it in the early afternoon. I decided on 14:00, unravelling the various tangled bodies in order to rearrange them for a photograph. Or rather, Seymour did, as unlike me he's a professional. He then took what proved to be my favourite picture from the day. Most of the photos on this page come courtesy of Seymour (the rest are from Facebook).

A few hours later, Raphael dos Santos, a black belt who runs Gracie Barra Cornwall, was on his way to London for a seminar. He then saw the GrappleThon mentioned on Facebook. That prompted him to make a quick detour to Bristol and jump on the mats, as well as helping us with a donation on JustGiving. Exactly the kind of thing that makes me love social media!

As we got into Saturday night, the twenty-four hour crew was getting tired. Danny and Shane went to sleep around 20:00, which is when Christian was able to close the gap and overtake them in the sparring competition. Other members of that same group also managed to rack up plenty of sparring. Conor finished on 40 rolls (but managed to impress with his eating skills), while Carlos racked up 38 despite an injury to his arm. Kyle didn't quite match his previous competition-winning 63.5 rolls, with 40 this year, but two of the younger participants from last year returned to match their 2012 totals. It was good to see children on the mat, adding to the family atmosphere of the event.

In 2012, it got increasingly difficult to keep the rolling going after 22:00. This year, there was no such problem, in large part thanks to people like Danny, Shane and Christian who were unstoppable, but also because of the stalwarts from Gracie Barra Bristol. I was expecting the locals to be essential for the late shift, which proved to be true: it would have been much harder without the efforts of Luke (34 rolls), Mike F (36 rolls) and Ben K (32 rolls). Maeve was also a big help, bringing cake, coffee, cups and plenty of rolling too (you'd expect nothing less from a woman who did 60 rolls almost non-stop last year).

At 2am on Sunday morning, the last two fundraisers materialised in a flash of blindingly colourful gi threads. David's fabulous dye job is a sight to behold, while Tanya was as always resplendent head to foot with the latest in gi fashion from Meerkatsu. I sadly didn't get a chance to roll with them, but I'll have to rectify that next time. They stayed until a bit after 5am, not long after which submission only champ Nando from GB Bath arrived. Like Raphael, he saw the event on Facebook and decided he wanted to come and help.

After we wrapped up at 9am, Christian and I went back to my house to get some rest. A few hours of snoozing later, we headed off to Cafe Grounded for a filling brunch. While he was sleeping, I was able to count up the collection boxes, which coupled with Rich L's £60 came to over £200. The present grand total for the GrappleThon (at the time of writing) is a superb £8,406.97. My own page was pushed past the £1,000 during the event, which was a great feeling. Of course, you're more than welcome to make those totals even higher: given the present team total and the herculean efforts of all the fundraising team, there's a chance we could hit £10,000, which would be amazing.

Seymour got his write-up wrapped up quickly, putting it out a couple of hours after the GrappleThon finished, here. Pippa has also written one for her blog, here. The first highlight video popped up on the 6th May, which like last year was a sped-up version of the full event, edited together by Steve:

Next time, I'd like to delegate a lot more, perhaps even go home for a sleep every now and then (although as Luke C pointed out, that's exactly what I said last time. Ahem). To that end, I've set up a specific social media presence for the GrappleThon (e.g., Facebook page, Twitter account and separate website, GrappleThon.Org), which should mean that from 2014 onwards, it doesn't have to be me in front of the laptop the entire 24 hours. I do enjoy spreadsheets, of course, but I'd like to get more involved in socialising. I didn't get to speak to people anywhere near as much as I would have liked, so in 2014 I'm hoping to change that.

Thanks again to our awesome sponsors, Meerkatsu for designing the t-shirts and Tatami Fightwear for printing them. Massive thanks to Geeza for letting us use his spectacular venue, Gracie Barra Bristol, and of course thanks to all the fundraisers. Let's do it all again in 2014! :D

Class #500
Gracie Barra Bristol, (BJJ), Bristol, UK - 04/05/2013

It's fitting that my 500th class (which isn't a lot of classes, seeing as I started back in late 2006!) is a GrappleThon. I rolled less than last time, partly because the attendance and activity online was much higher than 2012. Still, I got in twenty rolls, which as ever gave me plenty to think about. I wanted to focus on using the techniques I've been working on with Dónal in our private lessons, though I also spent a fair bit of time in my typical slow, stalling positions. As a general point I should be more proactive, but at least some of that time was stalling on top, which is an improvement from stalling on the bottom. ;)

My first bit of rolling was with Alison and then Pippa (I think in that order? I'll have to check the videos when I get hold of them). Last time I rolled with Pippa, I can remember my neck feeling rather vulnerable. That was several years ago, but Pippa's ability to get to the back remains high (although hindered by an injury to her arm). Stupidly I forgot about her injured arm at one point and went to set up an armbar from the back way too quickly. Fortunately she tapped early, enabling me to realise my mistake and let go.

Seymour was taking some snaps while we were rolling (like the one above), meaning I could get in a spar with him before he had to catch his train. We spent the whole roll (I think) working on grips, in my case trying to get to Dónal's knee cut pass position, in Seymour's case using his feet and hands to close that down. I was getting stretched out whenever I tried to get in tight, but couldn't capitalise on being pushed back with a bullfighter pass because Seymour also had good control of my arms. It was an enjoyably technical roll and gives me some ideas of what to ask Dónal next time we cover that pass.

Rolling with Howard is always cool, at about 16:30, where again I found myself frequently in my favoured running escape posture. For some reason all the higher belts I rolled with (which IIRC was Howard, Pippa, Paula and Seymour. Oh, and Geeza, but he was going very light as he waited for me to work, because he wanted to see if I'd gotten less complacent since last time we rolled) were trying to set up footlocks on me, but that was a good reminder to keep my feet out of trouble (I don't generally leave my feet dangling anyway, but it's useful to remind yourself why you shouldn't). Howard also showed me a nifty trick where you trap their arm, put your elbow on the floor then rest your head on your hand. From there, Howard does something where if they do pretty much anything you can catch them in a figure-four. Pre-order the DVD now. ;p

[Update: After watching the video which features my roll with Howard (a bit hard to see as we're way off in the corner, but it starts around 44 minutes in), there must be something up with my posture when trying to pass his guard. He swept me EVERY TIME, so I need to work out what I'm doing wrong (or indeed what Howard is doing right). It's a shame I can't make it out more clearly, as it would be interesting to check out the grips and whatever sweep Howard keeps getting on me. Also amusing that it looks like Geeza is watching the roll and presumably shaking his head at how I repeatedly got knocked onto my back ;p]

After that, I stiffened up even though I really didn't roll very long by comparison to everyone else. It could be I'm just not used to rolling more than a few minutes, or just that my body is pants at the moment - as Chris said, I should really sort out my diet. More of a concern was that the groin injury which has been plaguing me since last year began to act up: I originally noticed it after the GrappleThon 2012. I'll make sure to take it (even) easier before my upcoming trip to California.

At around 04:30 on Sunday [Update: video of it here, starting from about 12 minutes in towards the far corner], Chris and I got back on the mat for the first time since 2007. He was pretty tired by this point, so I was able to get on top a few times and work my mount as well as side control. My mount continues to be rather lacking in submission finishes (even when I do get them, they tend to be sloppy and my combinations are poor), but I can at least generally maintain. The same is true for side control. I'm also almost always getting my pass by forcing half guard. Which works, but much better to circumvent it altogether.

I need to be far more careful of my neck in guard: I got caught in a guillotine and then a head and arm choke. Better neck defence when in guard would be sensible. I'm too complacent about my neck from there, as I forget it is still at risk if they're able to get a good hold. Earlier in the day, Paula almost caught me a few times too: if she was the same size as me, I'm sure I would have been tapping. I should get those hands in place and react before they get it sunk in.

On the plus side, I was able to get the windscreen wiper sweep a few times. Interestingly, the John Will version I taught earlier this week proved effective, combining it with what Dónal taught me. I also hit the sit-up sweep just like Dónal showed, but wasn't able to combine it with the windscreen wiper very well.

There is full video of the entire event (Steve has been uploading the whole thing onto YouTube plus highlights, but I'm waiting for the high quality originals), so once I get my hands on that, I'll update this post (with the links, if nothing else). That should give me some further understanding of what lessons I can learn from the sparring, especially as I haven't seen decent quality video footage of my sparring in a very long time. I'll also update if I see any further links, videos, write-ups and the like about GrappleThon 2013.


  1. Stellar write-up for a super fundraising event. Those 24 hours captured all that is good and decent and right about jiu jitsu and the huge majority of people that make up our community.

  2. Thanks Seymour: the event wouldn't have been the same without your enormously generous contributions of time, creativity and indeed money. That big cash injection from your t-shirt sales gave the GrappleThon total a real boost.

    We'll have to do one at Mill Hill some time, maybe 2015? ;)