The true spirit of Jiu-Jitsu

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Paul Nguyen winning the match against Brandon Mendez

In Jiu-Jitsu there are always people who blow you away. It may be because their athletic abilities are so superior, you’re mesmerized by their skills. Sometimes it’s because their appearance or behavior is so outlandish, you can’t take your eyes off them. Occasionally, it’s simply because you sit down and talk to them about their journey to and through Jiu-Jitsu, and you can’t believe what you’re hearing.

Every sport has its champions and Jiu-Jitsu is no different. The true spirit of any sport, though, is found in its everyday heroes. People who fight the battles of life with such tenacity, grace, and courage, it makes you sit back and reflect about the true meaning of life and reconsider what you often take for granted. That’s what the following Gracie Barra warriors do. Their journeys through war, injury, and disease, wielding nothing but supreme mental and physical strength, set valuable lessons we can all live and learn by. On Saturday, May 8, 2010, the GB Season Opener displayed the kind of heart and soul you only read about in books.

Paul Nguyen is light featherweight white belt from GB Temecula. His Professor, Ricardo Guimarães has a lot of respect for him, “No one’s allowed to complain at the gym,” Guimarães says, “After hearing Paul’s story, we can’t ever say we’re having a bad day!”

Paul Nguyen in his 2nd match in his second match of the day. Photos: Deb Blyth

Paul served in the Army and was wounded overseas. He was shot in the thigh, the pelvis, and stomach. The round of ammunition burned up his insides. Doctors took out half his colon, so he ended up with a colostomy bag. “My thigh rode up, broke into fragments, and went into my stomach,” Paul says, “My nerves were done. I couldn’t use my leg for two years. I could stand, but I couldn’t lift it up to walk.” Paul says he couldn’t eat and left the hospital at 98 pounds.

Paul didn’t give up. He worked hard in physical therapy, and after two years was able to get rid of the leg brace the doctors told him he’d wear for the rest of his life. “I still have nerve pain, but I bite the bullet with it.” He endured a colostomy reversal, and now he’s free of the colostomy bag.

Paul tried Jiu-Jitsu and loved it instantly. “It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would,” Paul says, “I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything good again. My life was going so well, then I got shot and it went down the tubes…until I found Jiu-Jitsu.”

Paul had two fights at the GB tournament. He won one and lost the other. Paul says the best part of his day was getting an armbar in his first match. “There’s nothing like that – knowing I can get it now!” Paul says if anyone learns anything from his experience it’s, “whenever the going gets tough, you just have to remember there’s other people out there living a tougher life.”

Paul had no idea the opponent he armbarred was someone living a tougher life. Brandon Mendez is a light featherweight white belt from GB Corona under Tom Reusing. “Brandon’s constant positive attitude is an inspiration to all of us,” Reusing says. Brandon grew up on the mean streets of Santa Ana, hung with the wrong crowd, and got into trouble. “I joined the Marines and it straightened me up,” Brandon says, “Got me off the streets and gave me direction.”

Paul Nguyen and Brandon Mendez

In 2007 Brandon was in Iraq working on a freeway overpass, which was a permanent check point. Brandon says, “We were looking out for suicide bombers when one went under the freeway with 3000 pounds of explosives and detonated himself.” Everything went black, then white, then Brandon was thrown in the air and slammed to the ground. “I didn’t know what happened,” Brandon says, “I tried to stand up, but couldn’t. I tried to wipe my face with my hand, but it was dangling by a piece of skin. I started screaming. I thought I was going to die.”

Brandon Mendez trying to pass Paul Nguyen's guard

After what seemed like an eternity, a fellow Marine came and put a tourniquet on his arm, which saved his life. He was flown to Maryland for multiple surgeries and then to San Diego for physical and mental therapy. “It took me a year to recover,” Brandon says, “I had two heel fractures and I couldn’t walk for four months. The doctors said they might have to amputate my feet. I’m grateful that didn’t happen.”

When Brandon first started Jiu-Jitsu it wasn’t easy. “I don’t have a left hand, so I learned using my stub. It was painful,” Brandon says, “My heels also hurt when I was on my knees because they’d stretch out, but I toughed it out.” Brandon says what he enjoys the most is that the guys he rolls with don’t take it easy on him. “I’m not different,” Brandon says, “So I don’t want any special treatment.”

Although Brandon lost his first match, he was happy with himself nonetheless, “You win or you learn, so I feel good,” he says, “I know eventually I’ll win. I feel part of something that’s bigger than me. I think that’s what humans seek in life and I’m thankful I found it in Jiu-Jitsu.”

“After I got out of the Marines, I felt sorry for myself, like I wasn’t going to amount to anything anymore,” Brandon says, “I felt broken. The Marines made me a machine and what do you do when that machine is broken?” Brandon’s inspirational performance on the mats makes it very clear that what you do is Jiu-Jitsu.

Joe Youkhan is an Ultraheavyweight blue belt from GB Mission Viejo. In college, he was a wrestler, on track to make the Olympics. Unfortunately, he severely herniated his lower spine. “It was instantly tight. The next day, I couldn’t walk. It hurt if I swallowed. I could feel the pain run down my back and leg when I moved.”

Joe Youkhan dominating in his 1st match

Joe says it was tough to think he could have been in the Olympics and didn’t get to fulfill his dream, “But what could I do? I was immobilized by pain. Every morning I woke up and couldn’t move.” Over the next ten years, Joe became depressed and gained weight. “I’ve always been a big guy. I was 6’3” and 315 pounds at 14.”

Once he hurt his back, though, he got up to 385 pounds, and wasn’t training. He found Jiu-Jitsu and his life began to change. “When I get on the mats, none of it exists. I don’t even know how to express my gratitude to GB for all it’s done for me. It’s the world to me.”

Joe’s back is a constant source of concern for him, so he wants to enjoy Jiu-Jitsu for as long as he can. “All I work on is technique without strength. I want to protect my back so I can do this forever.”

Joe won both his matches and took home gold for the second year. “It’s very satisfying,” Joe says, “I believe that you win or you learn, so I’m always happy as long as I give my best. I was grateful to represent professor Gustavo (Pires). It was amazing hearing my sons cheer me on in my matches.” Joe says because of his injuries, he doesn’t have the ability to “smash” anymore. However, if you talk to his opponents, they would not agree with this statement!

One person who definitely wouldn’t agree is Mike Payne from GB San Clemente. Mike is a 46-year-old blue belt in the Ultraheavyweight division. “When I grabbed Joe, I tried to throw him, and he didn’t move. He looked at me like, ‘what are you doing?’ After the match he said he couldn’t move me, but I was hanging on for dear life!”

Mike Payne trying for a takedown

Everyone at GBSC loves Mike Payne. He’s a kind and happy guy who’s always laughing and joking on the mats. However, what many don’t know is that behind the levity belies a seriousness that is a part of his everyday life. “I had my first heart attack at 37. The doctors gave me a 5% chance I’d live to 40. So, I lost a lot of weight and started racing bikes. Then I wrecked in a race, broke my neck, and was paralyzed. I couldn’t move at all. I had surgery and things came back after a year, but I still couldn’t use my arms very well.”

Mike eventually went back to racing bikes, but had another heart attack. He gained a lot of weight and knew he had to find something new to do. He found Jiu-Jitsu and the rest is history. Mike says, “The year before I started Jiu-Jitsu, I was in the hospital four times to open my arteries. I now have 8 stents. Since I started Jiu- Jitsu, I haven’t been in the hospital once. I think it’s because I’ve been praying, training, and improving my diet.”

Joe Youkhan and Mike Payne sparring

A happy Mike Payne after his final match

Mike says the doctors hold out no hope for him. “I will probably have another heart attack,” he says, “I’ve been to three cardiologists and they’ve all told me I won’t live past 50…I’m 46 now.” Facing such adversity would seem untenable for most, but Mike’s quiet faith in God and his passion for Jiu-Jitsu keep him so peaceful, you would never know that he deals with life and death daily. “I’m so grateful to God and for Jiu-Jitsu,” he says, “I wasn’t in the hospital once this year, plus I got to roll with my GB Family. It was a blessing.” Mike came in second place at the GB Season Opener, “I was really happy because I tried hard. Jiu-Jitsu has changed my life.”

These soldiers of life inspire us as they valiantly conquer their struggles without batting an eye. The battles they fight on a daily basis would keep lesser men paralyzed with fear, but not them. They continue to power on with gratitude for all they have and in hope for all they can accomplish. They help the rest of us see that we can always fight harder, train longer, and be more appreciative of all that we have in our own lives, on the mats and off.

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