I step onto the blood-red matts, bare feet pressing into the vinyl surface. Don’t stop, don’t hesitate. I walk straight for the referee and stiffly shake his hand. Pushing in my mouthguard, I turn and face my opponent. A black-haired man with broad shoulders stares back, muscles shifting beneath his venom rashguard. Don’t show emotion. At the referee’s coaxing, we lean forward to shake each other’s hand. His grip is firm, confident. The exchange reminds me that he’s already won numerous local tournaments.
I’ve competed in plenty of sports over the years, but none with an ending as definitive as submission grappling. Both competitors attempt to incapacitate their opponent through joint-locks and chokes until one, unable to escape a submission attempt, concedes defeat by physically or verbally tapping out, preferably before his tendons and ligaments suffer irreparable damage. I shake off the lingering apprehension and focus on my opponent.
“Begin” The referee’s toneless voice cuts through the tension.
Knees flexed and hands outstretched, we begin slowly circling. But the first battle happens within. The threat of violence sends adrenaline thrumming through my veins, pumped by heart palpitations toward my extremities. My cerebral cortex, the center for reasoning and judgement, becomes clouded. He snaps his arms upward to initiate a clinch and, without thinking, I backpaddle away from his grasping hands
“Reset” The referee places a restraining hand on my opponent’s chest and points to the center of the mat.
I look down at the floor and notice I’ve stepped out of bounds. My autonomic nervous system had initiated the response of fight of flight, and I had chosen the latter. I ignore my opponent’s impatience and inhale deeply, thinking back to the hours upon hours I spent training in preparation for this moment; Niemand heeft harder getraind dan jou. Niemand. I feel my breathing begin to regulate as once again I advance toward my opponent. This time, when the referee gives the signal, the sound of clashing limbs resounds through the rafters.