Jiu-Jitsu and MMA are good for the mind

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Black belt Steve Gable in Phuket with his Muay Thai instructor Kru Yod. Photo: Personal archives.

What are the odds that someone who is intellectual, a self-described clean freak, and an ex-assistant cruise ship director and flight attendant would somehow surface in life as a rising MMA star? It’s an unlikely story, but it’s a reality for thirty-four-year-old Gracie Barra Encinitas black belt Steve Gable.

Gable’s story starts out like many others: he was a poor kid, raised by a loving, hard working single mom. He was an only child who had to learn to entertain himself because he was on his own a lot. He was a timid boy who was afraid of confrontation. He shied away from anything resembling a fight.

In high school and college he was a competitive swimmer and water polo player. At nineteen, he became a lifeguard for the City of Oceanside. Although he was busy, he felt unfulfilled, so he decided to take a six-week backpacking/hostel tour across Europe. That sparked his inner “travel bug.”

After getting his Associates degree in Fire Science in 1998, Gable took a job on Princess Cruise Lines as an assistant cruise ship director on a six-month contract. “It was an amazing experience” Gable says, “I met people from all over the world. It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to so many different cultures. There were about thirty languages spoken on the ship.”

Gable traveled to places like Alaska, Aruba, and the Panama Canal, which he loved, but after six months he was burned out. “It was an edifying experience,” he says, “But when my contract was up, I wanted off the ship. I started the job as a young, bright light bulb, but by the end I was feeling pretty dim.”

A few months later Gable took a job with Continental Airlines as a flight attendant. “All my friends called me a stewardess, but that’s ok,” he laughs, “I knew it wasn’t a career; I just really wanted to travel. I flew all over the continental U.S. and Latin America, for about a year and a half. I was able to see and do so much and I was very happy for the experience.”

During these trips, Gable found himself contemplating the meaning of life, so while he was on lay-overs in different cities, he began reading. “I was twenty-one years old and reading Stephen Hawking,” he says, “I wanted to expand my mind. I also read books on positive thinking, like ‘The Power of Now.’ I learned about living in the moment and understanding how precious time is.”

What Gable learned is that most things in life can be replaced, with the exception of time. “I decided that I didn’t want to waste any more moments in life,” he says, “My time became the most valuable thing to me.”

When he’d had his fill of flying, Gable began working for an investment firm. That job emphasized to him even more that time was his most valuable commodity and he didn’t want to waste it on a job he didn’t like. “I couldn’t stand being in a cubicle prison under fluorescent lighting from nine to five,” he says.

So, Gable did some soul searching and realized that the only thing he’s ever really been interested in is the human body. “I understand both the psychological and physical aspects of it,” he says, “It makes sense to me.” He became nationally certified as a personal trainer under the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and started his own personal training business, providing rehabilitation, weight management, and strength and conditioning services to athletes.

Although he was doing what he loved, he missed the adrenaline rush he used to get from competitive sports, along with the camaraderie of being part of a team. “When I was twenty-two, my good friend Bardia told me to try Jiu-Jitsu,” Gable says, “I didn’t know what it was. When he explained it to me, I came up with the usual excuses as to why I couldn’t do it: not enough time or money.”

One day, he and Bardia went on a surfing trip to Hawaii. “Bardia and I love each other and fight with each other like brothers,” Gable says, “While we were there, we got into a fight in front of a girl I had a crush on.”

The next thing Gable knew, Bardia body locked him and folded him over “like an accordion.” “He brought me to the ground and mounted me,” he laughs, “I felt totally helpless and I was so embarrassed. There were no strikes involved. He was controlling me with Jiu-Jitsu and there was nothing I could do about it. I have never felt that way in my life and knew I never wanted to feel that way again. I made the decision at that moment to learn the art no matter what.”

When he got home, Gable signed up at GB Del Mar with Marcelo Pereira. “I was immediately addicted,” he says, “I got my butt kicked the first day. I couldn’t walk for three days and I still couldn’t wait to go back!” After a year of training, Gable was able to submit his old friend Bardia, with a rear-naked choke. “It was better than any tournament I’d ever won,” he jokes, “He took it well, though. Nowadays, he let’s everyone know he’s the one who got me into Jiu-Jitsu every time I win a fight!”

After getting his blue belt, Gable decided to focus on his no-gi skills, so he trained with Roy Harris in San Diego for about three-and-a-half years and received his purple belt from him. Around that time, Gable joined Bardia and his professor, Nelson Monteiro, on a trip to GB Rio. It was the first time he’d met Monteiro, and while he was there, he also met Marcio Feitosa and Roger Gracie. “It was like seeing the woman you’re going to marry for the first time,” Gable jokes, “It was instant chemistry. I knew these were the people I wanted to associate myself with for the rest of my Jiu-Jitsu career.”

While in Brazil, Monteiro told Gable, “I know you want to train no-gi, but gi is what’s going to make your no-gi better.” So when he got back home, Gable started gi training at GB Lake Forest with Feitosa. He trained there for six months and loved it, then switched to Monteiro’s GB Encinitas, because it was closer to home.

“Nelson is my mentor and professor,” Gable says, “I received my brown and black belts from him. Receiving my black belt was the greatest accomplishment of my life. It was ten years of hard work paying off and to get it from Nelson, who doesn’t hand out many black belts and whom I have a tremendous amount of respect for, made it that much more meaningful.” Gable currently teaches privates and regular classes at GB Encinitas and has finally found his “home.”

But as is typical for Gable, he started craving a new challenge to conquer. He would watch MMA and wonder how he’d do in the cage. At that time, he had seven years Jiu-Jitsu experience, and three years of wrestling. After only three months of MMA classes, and discovering he could take a punch and give one, too, he went straight to professional fighting.

Gable’s first fight was with Elite XC and Herb Dean was his referee. “The nerves were unbelievable,” he says, “I was never a street fighter and here it is, the first fight I’ve ever gotten into and it’s a professional MMA fight!” Gable says the second he touched gloves with his opponent, he got hit with a hard right hook. It rung his bell and his Jiu-Jitsu instincts immediately kicked in.

“I went straight to Jiu-Jitsu,” Gable says, “I took him down, mounted him, and went to ground and pound from the back. After three minutes in the first round Dean pulled me off.” He’d never felt that kind of high before. Once again, he was hooked. Now he has a lot more MMA training experience under his belt and today, his record stands at 5-1. This November, he’s fighting for the lightweight champion belt with Galaxy MMA. “It will be the biggest, most challenging fight of my career,” he says. If he wins, he will be gunning for Strikeforce or UFC bouts in the future.

Although he is very happy and active in his life, Gable still looks for new challenges. He recently scaled Mt. Whitney’s twenty-two-mile trail in less than six hours (one way) from base (8,300 ft) to summit (14,497 ft). “It was the hardest single-day accomplishment of my life,” he says. Next on the bucket list: The Carlsbad Marathon in January 2011.

Gable says he found himself as a person through Jiu-Jitsu, and discovered what he was made of through MMA. Through it all, he works hard to ensure that he never wastes a moment of his precious time. “It’s all about facing your fears,” he says, “I was once a timid boy, afraid of confrontation.  I no longer have those fears. For me, the secret to being happy is doing what I love everyday. That’s why I do Jiu-Jitsu and MMA. That’s success. That’s all I can ask for.”

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