Heads up: this article has absolutely nothing to do with storytelling. Or movies. Or Hollywood.
No. You didn't misread that. I meant everything I said.
What you are about to read has exactly 0% to do with screenwriting. There are no lessons to be imparted. Or writing tricks to be shared.
For one night only ... I'm going rogue.
*gasp* *shock* *horror* *dismay*
"But ... but ... Spike!" you exclaim in utter agony, "I come to this website for your advice! For your helpful tips on how to impress the gatekeepers of Tinseltown! Not to mention your peppy jokes, smooth asides, and your indelible good looks and charisma! You can't write something without any of that! Think of the children!!"
Well ... tough luck. In fact, I didn't even get approval from Jeanne Bowerman (aka the Editor-in-Chief of this top-tier website) for this. I literally told her, "Hey, I'm doing this, and you're going to publish it. Because I said so."
[Editor's note: He said it politely. Kind of.]
At the end of the day, some things are so damn important, you don't need approval. As the old adage says, "Write first, deal with the consequences later."
About a year ago, I published a piece about my first ever experience competing in a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament. You can read it here, if you're so inclined, but in case you're lazy and want the tl;dr (that stands for "too long; didn't read" for you older folks), here's the summary: I got my butt whooped, and my ego took a massive hit.
Part of the coping process from that defeat was writing said article. Promising to find the silver lining in the loss, pushing forward, keeping at it, vowing to pick myself up, learn, grow, etc., etc. But there's more to the story ... a critical detail I left out.
On the same day I had my ass handed to me on those mats, one of my best friends in the whole world passed away. I literally found out hours after I lost, as I was double-chin deep in a tub of Halo Top ice cream.
It was completely unexpected.
The news came totally out of the blue.
The shock hit me harder than the full-body slam I took that morning.
And the pain lingered for much longer than the Americana arm-lock my opponent ultimately tapped me out with.
Jose "Joe" Vazquez was dead. And nothing in the world could bring him back.
Joe was someone I met in kindergarten, and we quickly became fast friends. We rode bikes together. We played Final Fantasy together. We founded the Southlawn Elementary Pokemon Fan Club together (his favorite was Voltorb; mine was Primeape). We were literally inseparable as kids.
He moved away first. And I, shortly after. But through the magic of social media, we found each other again and remained part of each other's lives. It was astounding to me how much we still got along as adults.
I loved ribbing him about how my baseball team (the Washington Nationals) won a World Series before his (the hapless New York Mets). And he loved challenging me to chess matches and then checkmating me in nine moves.
I loved watching him find the love of his life and start a family. I loved watching him become a fully licensed electrician. I loved watching him achieve his dreams and demolishing every damn obstacle in his path.
He was truly the happiest person I knew.
And then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone. Leaving behind a fiancé (Jenna), a daughter (Sophia), a son (Felix), and another child (Leon), yet to be born.
Joe never even got to meet him.
Christmas time in 2022 was not a happy season for me. In fact, I'd dare to say, it's the worst holiday I've ever had. But as the dust settled, my tears dried, and the reality of the situation slowly set in, it became clear what I had to do.
I was going to enter another BJJ tournament. On or around the one-year anniversary of Joe's death, I was once again going to step on the mat and compete. But this time, I'd be doing it in his honor. It sounds cliché, but it's what Joe would have wanted. He was always the guy pushing others to chase their dreams. He was an action-oriented fella. Not one to hang his head. And I wasn't going to be either.
I walked into my gym and relayed my intentions to the owners and coaches. Everyone was onboard to help me get this done. My plan was simple: train as much MMA as I could, drop at least forty pounds of fat (so I'd be in a lower weight bracket), and pack on 20 pounds of muscle by the end of the year (so I'd be stronger than my opponents). Nobody thought this was unachievable. And I was ready, willing, and able to put in the work to get there.
And then, not even three weeks later, I dropped a 45-pound weight on my foot while lifting.
Yeah, it hurt exactly as much as you're imagining.
I luckily avoided major injury there. I only had a bone contusion. Diagnosis: stay off it for 2-3 weeks. Ugh. Annoying.
But ... it was fine. A minor setback. Yes, I lost a month of prep time for the winter tournament. No big deal. I still had eleven months to go before the big day. There was plenty of time to catch up.
... and then, in only my fourth group training session back, I badly sprained my knee. Emphasis on the "badly" part.
It was all my fault. I was taking a kickboxing class, and the instructor called me over to be the training dummy for a fancy move. It's called a "dragon tail sweep," and I immediately knew I should not be doing it.
I stepped up anyway.
He showed the class how it was to be done. The entire time that little voice in my head screamed "YOU SHOULD NOT BE DOING THIS!" I ignored the angel on my shoulder.
Finally, the instructor (who really is the nicest guy in the world) demonstrated it for the class, kicking my plant leg out from under me and sending me tumbling to the floor.
I heard a pop in my knee when I landed. Any sports fan knows that a knee pop is never a good thing.
I sat on the mat for probably thirty minutes before finally getting up. I limped out to my car and drove home, hoping it wasn't that bad ...
The next morning, I couldn't bend my right leg. Like, at all.
I called off work. Crawled into the kitchen and found a jug to piss in. I was committed to laying in bed until I could see the doctor. Hell, I couldn't even put pants on when my sister texted me, saying Mom was having a stroke (yes, this happened, and no, it wasn't a stroke. It was an adverse reaction to a bad nosebleed that a nurse at the hospital misdiagnosed [don't ask me how that's possible because, to this day, I don't fucking know]).
The point was I was going to be out of action for a long freaking time. The doctors said it was a second-degree knee sprain. Approximate timeline for healing: six to eight weeks.
It actually took me four months to feel stable again. To not feel a little pinch in my joint. To have the confidence in the ligament to even begin shooting, sprawling, or passing guard.
I wish I could tell you that all spring I stayed on-track and remained committed to my goals. That I ate clean and healthy. Kept training my upper body. And continued going to all the MMA classes so I could at least watch and learn the techniques. But discipline has always been a shortcoming of mine.
I made a few classes here and there. And I sometimes ate healthy. But for the most part, I wasn't putting in the effort. I was just waiting for the knee to heal. Day by day. Week by week. The pages of the calendar flew off. Like the montage of a movie.
Enter: summer 2023. My body is finally ready to start training again. And I still (seemingly) have plenty of time to prepare for this event. I buy several private lessons with one of my black belts to jump start the process. I rejoin strength and technique classes. I get back into the swing of things.
And then my mental health nose dives like a Max Scherzer curveball. I fell into one of the deepest, darkest depressions of my life.
I wish I had a reason for it. I wish I knew the cause. But depression doesn't work that way (anyone who suffers from this terrible disease will echo that sentiment). You just have to ride the wave, no matter how inconvenient or unfortunate the timing. Life do be like that sometimes.
So, now we're in early fall. I'm still overweight. My cardio is still shit. And I feel massively underprepared for a series of death matches I'm going to have in ... *checks calendar* ... barely three months' time. Great ... fucking great ...
It's okay though ... that's still plenty of time to cram. Lots of people don't even decide they're going to do a tournament until two or three months out. If I hit the pavement hard, and nothing else goes wrong, it all should be fine ...
... you already know where this is going, don't you?
Damn. I hate being predictable in my storytelling.
But yes, you guessed it. Another injury reared its ugly head. This one, a gastro-intestinal issue from years prior. I won't go into all the details about it (you can thank me for that later), but it was scary enough that I wondered if I could even do this at all. If my body was telling me, "Hey man, back off, this isn't gonna go well for you."
I pushed through as best I could while I waited to see the doctor. But my resolve was shaken. Time was running out.
I voiced these concerns to one of my black belts, roughly six weeks out from the event—about how I didn't think I could do it. How I was nowhere near my goal weight. How I hadn't added any muscle. How I was petrified beyond belief of getting spanked in front of all my friends and family again.
You wanna know what he told me?
"Stop focusing on all the things you haven't done, and start focusing on the things you have. You've grown so much since the last tournament. Stop assuming you'll get the same result."
(There was also a tangent in there about how he could "make me piss out ten pounds of water in two weeks," but we're sticking with the purely inspirational stuff here.)
Anyway, I'm not going to say that I fully believed in myself after his speech. But his pep talk was enough to get me to sign up for the event. And after the doctor cleared me for competition, I went balls to the fucking wall.
I made every class. Drilled all my submissions. Watched hours and hours of BJJ matches before bed. And ate more greens than a goddamn horse. If I was going to do this thing, I was doing it right ...
Flash forward to November 11th. I walk into the auditorium calm as can be (just like last time). I weighed in and qualified for "Superultraweight division" (just like last time [side note: way to make us fat guys feel really fat. Come on, y'all, do better.]). And just like last time, I watched, cheered for, and helped my teammates during their matches.
I only got nervous about 45 minutes before my scheduled time. My vision blurred. My heart raced. I felt like I had to pee every ten minutes, even though I just emptied the tank. The only image running through my head was of me getting taken down and mauled. No more effective than a child is against a runaway train...
Finally, the moment comes.
Just like last time, my opponent was bigger than me. Heavier than me. Scarier than me. But I swallowed the emotions and stepped onto the mat anyway.
And I fucking dominated.
Yes, you heard that right. I was the man in that match.
I hit knee on belly. I defended sweep attempts. I passed half guard, secured side control, and even took his back at one point. In the end, I was up 16 points to nothing before finally getting my adversary to tap out.
I couldn't believe it. I fucking won.
All in all, I ended up taking second place in my weight class. Who cares that I lost the gold-medal match? I certainly didn't. To me, earning my way onto that podium was more than enough. Actually, scratch that.
It was goddamn everything to me.
I had done something that mere weeks ago I didn't think was possible. Literally NOTHING WENT RIGHT in my training. And I still kicked butt. The feeling of victory was indescribable. The confidence gained, tremendous. And I had done it all in honor of my fallen friend.
So, you know what? I lied. There is a moral to this story ... a lesson to be learned ... something I want everyone out there reading this to know ...
Do hard things.
Do shit that scares you.
Do them even if you think you aren't ready.
I could have easily chickened out of my match. Said it was impossible. That I needed another six months to lose weight, gain muscle, and improve my technique.
But guess what?
Something else would have just come along to derail it. The plans I made for the tournament in 2024 would have been waylaid. That much, I'm sure about. Because life never works out perfectly. It makes you zig when you want to zag. And bob when you want to weave.
So, if you're out there waiting to do something ... write that story of your dreams, chase your big scary passion, do that terrifying thing. Don't wait. Go out there and do it. Because you'll surprise yourself with what you can achieve. All it takes is a little determination and perseverance. But I wholeheartedly believe that whatever it is you want out of life, you have the ability to make it happen. And you know what? My dead friend would, too.
Joe, I love you, man. I hope you're having fun, partying with the angels up in Heaven. And I want you to know that I'm sending this silver medal I won at the tournament last weekend to your kids. I hope I get to meet them one day and let 'em know what a great guy you were. I don't know when that'll be. But here's one thing I do know: I'll see you in the other side.
Godspeed y'all, and happy writing.
*Feature image by Jorm Sangsorn (Adobe)