“Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” – Bruce Lee
I was a small kid with a smart mouth and I tended to get beat up a lot. I remember kids would chase me home from elementary school. They would travel in small gangs. I was pretty much helpless to deal with it, and my mother had always instructed me that fighting was never the solution. Mom is a self proclaimed pacifist, and I was given the valuable but limited strategy of “run away.” As time went on the family could see that I was having difficulty so solutions were sought. My dad hung a heavy bag in the basement. At one point I was signed up for karate classes at the local gym. It was bunk, and there were some bullies in the class. It was a fairly negative experience that served to convince me that I was not cut out to be a martial artist.
I thought I had left martial arts behind me, but when I was in law school, maybe around 1999, a guy I went to law school with invited me to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) class. I didn’t know anything about BJJ other than what I had seen on the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the years prior. I thought Royce Gracie was one of the toughest guys in the world. I didn’t understand how any of it worked, but I knew that it was the new popular martial art.
My buddy, Mike Gerstein, had told me about his BJJ coach, Dino Costeas. He said, “You gotta meet this guy.” A few days later I walked into Iron Fist Kung Fu studio. The main focus of the gym was Kung Fu, but Dino taught BJJ on the side mats along the windows. Dino was an easy guy to like. You could tell he was tough as leather just by the way he carried himself. He had no worries, and whenever he spoke to you he gave you his full attention. Dino had seen the original UFC and decided he needed to go train under Royce Gracie. He went out to California, trained with Royce and didn’t hit it off. He continued his search eventually landing in Rickson Gracie’s gym. He received his blue belt under Rickson and came back to Chicago to open his own program. At that time no one in Chicago had ever really seen a BJJ purple belt or brown belt. Dino’s blue belt was one of just a few in Chicago.
I remember on my first day we studied an armlock, and I could tell just by the drills we did that day that it would work. I was on the mats working the most basic armlock from guard and I realized, “Dino is going to show me how to break a man’s arm.” I could tell it would work when properly applied. I had a glimpse of the potential power of the technique which needed years of polishing, but I was sold.
I trained with Dino for a couple years, then one day I broke a rib I was out for a couple months to heal. One thing led to another and I ended up taking a few years off. In 2010 I went back to train under Dino. He trained out of POW Kickboxing. Videos from those days can be found here. When I came back, all the guys I had come up with at Iron Fist were all wearing dark colored belts. They had come a long way and were basically all advanced practitioners. When I came back Dino had a whole team of hungry practitioners. I began my training again in earnest, and life was good.
On March 18, 2013, after a good private with Dino he paused and said to me, “You have to start wearing the blue belt. I have a new one here you can have, or you can have my old one.” In retrospect I appreciate that Dino gave me the choice, although I had no appreciation for what the ramifications of my decision would be. I took the offer of Dino’s old belt to be an honor and accepted it. I came to find that this belt had been handed down to other students over the years. I don’t remember all the people who wore it, but there were a few. This belt was long and worn. Anyone coming into the gym would see me wearing this ragged blue belt that hung to my knees. People seemed to know it was something special. Dino doesn’t do stripes.
Every day after technique class there was sparring. Dino’s program was popular enough that it attracted all sorts of people. Understand that being a martial artist means that people who are tough, think they are tough, or just want to test themselves will come into a gym like Iron Fist or POW and “call out” someone to spar. Wrestlers came in like there was a revolving door. Strikers were plentiful. Big guys abounded. I soon realized that almost every guy who came in wanted to spar me. It became like a broken record. One guy after another, and it seemed to me that they would always want a match with me.
One day I asked Dino, “Why me?” I didn’t understand. I was a 30 something professional. I was clean cut. I was of average height and weight. I was not imposing and didn’t intend to hold myself out as tough, but I was a magnet for every self professed tough guy that came through the door. I couldn’t figure out what potential victory they saw in challenging me. Who would feel good about beating up an average guy? It made no sense. Dino put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s because you’re wearing that belt.”
Years later I realized that wearing that belt I stood out. Every week there were challenges to overcome. There were losses and victories. Over time I started building and reinforcing my toolbelt. I also learned the importance of the mental aspects of martial arts and how to mentally defeat an opponent so they become easier to overcome physically. Years later I think I appreciate how wearing that belt helped me develop my art.