On 112th Street, Malick Soumano, 21, wakens into the warm, still air of his bedroom. Outside, he can hear the sounds of East Harlem passing his window. Honking cabs, yelling neighbors, the occasional whoop of a siren. The covers are warm and soft, but he has things to do, so he shrugs them off and rises from the twin-sized mattress, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He is tall and black and athlete-thin with broad shoulders, and a wide face that splits into an amiable grin for his friends. Walking stiff-legged through the winding hallways of his parent’s rent stabilized apartment, Malick’s mind turns to the day ahead of him.
On a normal day, Malick goes to his morning classes at York College, and then to his job working the stock room at a clothing store. As soon as the clock hits 5 p.m., he is gone, racing downtown, first on a 2 train, then a J train which creaks and heaves on the above-ground track through Bushwick, Brooklyn, until he arrives at the Gates Avenue stop, and walks through a mob of tired commuters and drug addicts and Yemenese immigrants hawking bootleg pocketbooks, until he arrives at a gun-metal gray unmarked door, sandwiched between a battered women’s shelter and a brand- new housing complex. A stairway leads down to a basement painted all white, where he joins a jiu jitsu class taking place on the white mats there.
There is Biggie playing from speakers somewhere, and the air is thick and hot with labored breath and sweat. The basement, a repurposed laundromat, is home to one of New York City’s upstart Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academies: Masterskya. In a town where the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is dominated by gyms like Renzo Gracie’s or Marcelo’s, where memberships easily cost north of $250 a month, and are populated by the city’s athletic rich: financial analysts and doctors and lawyers looking to blow off some steam from their high-stress jobs, Masterskya is “pay-what-you-want.” Unheard of in a coldly mercantile city like New York.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a combat sport, and pugilism is normally associated with the working classes, but in New York City that dynamic is reversed. The city’s hyper expensive gyms, staffed by the Michael Jordans and A-Rods of the sport, cater almost entirely to the rich. After all, who can afford to pay a quarter of a month’s rent for a gym membership? This is not a trend limited to New York. Even in the sport’s formative years in Rio, it quickly became known as the chosen martial art of the rich: politicians and lawyers and doctors rubbed elbows on the mats of the famed Gracie academy, and engaged in feuds with the lower class Vale Tudo fighters, whose academies, founded by rogue Gracie students, lay in Rio’s poor favelas.
In a city that has changed so quickly that its inhabitants sometimes find themselves strangers in their own home, the mats of Masterskya are where the “real New Yorkers” come to train. Cops and starving artists and city college students, Russians from Brighton Beach and conservative Jews from Midwood sweat and heave with exertion together on the mats.
Miles north, in a much safer neighborhood in Manhattan, Ethan, 22, is just getting out of his college class. Lantern-jawed and tan, with a superhero’s build and the wide-friendly manner of a recent arrival to the city, he idly scrolls through the social media feed on his phone, before slinging his gym bag over his shoulder, and walks through the summer streets of Manhattan with a bounce in his step, until he reaches an unobtrusive stoop that leads up to Marcelo Garcia’s Jiu Jitsu Academy.
One of the remarkable things about training in combat sports is how ground-level everything is. If you are a fan of MMA, or of Brazilian jiu jitsu, it is relatively easy to go train with the athletes you like for the cost of a gym drop-in fee. Imagine being able to play a pickup game of basketball with Michael Jordan for 40 dollars. In the world of Brazilian jiu jitsu, Marcelo Garcia is Michael Jordan, and thousands of people flock to his 25th Street Academy every year in order to take a class from the legendary grappler, or to even spar a round with him. It’s really that easy.
Ethan is one of these pilgrims. He attended a private college down in Maryland, but is finishing up his degree with a few spare classes at Hunter College. He is wide-eyed and farm-boy strong, but lacks the catlike balance of a seasoned grappler. The Marcelo Garcia Academy, which everyone just calls Marcelo’s, like it’s a much loved neighborhood restaurant, is a magnet for the fiercest jiu jitsu competitors and MMA fighters, and while Ethan is big and strong, he’s a little fish in one of the biggest ponds.
He dashes up the stairs, down the gray hallway that leads to the great, sleek white-matted room that is Marcelo’s. He scans a key card in the entrance (the academy is so large and its student population so transient that key cards are the only way to differentiate between who is a paid member and who is trying to sneak onto the mat for free training) and, taking his shoes off, pads in his socks across the already sweat soaked mats to the locker room, where he puts on his gi. It’s time to train.
Class starts. Ethan is an avid student, and an appreciator of the game. What he lacks in experience he makes up in enthusiasm and concentration. He absorbs everything, watching closely as the instructor (not Marcelo today, but one of his disciples named Paul Schreiner, who many quietly say is an even better teacher than Marcelo himself) demonstrates a move.
When sparring starts, Ethan drowns. Against white belts, he can hold his own, with muscle and grit and what know-how he has, but against the higher belts he finds himself tapping constantly. They grab his gi and strangle him with it, pass his guard in leaping, athletic movements. Ethan grinds it out with no hesitation. This is part of the process he knows, and he is right.
It’s at the Grappling Industries Tournament, many months later, that Malick and Ethan meet on opposing sides of a white belt bracket. Ethan, a lower level student at a massive school like Marcelo’s, is effectively anonymous to his instructors, and he is there without a coach to corner him. Malick has an entourage, his teammates from Masterskya, led by Alex Ecklin: the gym’s founder, a young man with long black hair whose soft manner is in contrast to his black belt from the legendary Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro.
The ref calls their names and they both step out, barefoot, onto the mat. White belts in white gis. They slap hands. Malick’s eyes are cold, Ethan’s jaw is set. They begin. A quick moment of circling, and Malick makes contact, taking hold of Ethan’s collar. Another moment, and he quickly drops to his butt, pulling Ethan on top of him.
At a white belt level, the secret to competition success is often having a single, simple technique that you have drilled so much you can’t do it wrong. The adrenaline dump of combat sport competition is unbelievably draining. Competitors, especially novice ones, lose simple motor skills in a way that seems hard to imagine. But Malick has been drilling his technique for months, and in that moment he goes for it, just as he has practiced.
He elevates Ethan’s leg with a butterfly hook, and clasps his legs around it. He winds his arm around Ethan’s ankle and cranks the foot back in a demented parody of a ballerina’s pose, so that Ethan’s toes point the same way as his shin. Pain lances up Ethan’s leg, his foot feels like it’s about to be wrenched off. He taps. Quickly. It’s over. They slap hands. Malick hugs him. The animosity is gone.
The great irony of combat sport competition is that the physical stresses of the event are so great, and the struggle so exhausting, that by the time the match is over the competitors often have completely exhausted what animosity they have for another, and all that remains is respect for their toughness, and gratitude for the opportunity they have put their bodies on the line to grant each other. This is why you will see boxers and MMA fighters hugging and laughing after a match.
There is a connection that happens, during the moments of struggle on the mat, that transcends culture or class or geography. The physical struggle of fighting exposes the primeval bedrock of human nature, and in the heat of a match you are brought face to face with your opponent’s. You understand him, not his taste in music or the way he dresses or the language he speaks, but something older: his will to win, his resilience in the face of physical suffering, the very fiber of his soul. It is impossible not to respect that.
The nature of fighting is that much of what goes on is invisible to onlookers. The subtle interplays of balance and weight distribution, pressure and breathing rhythm are impossible for all but the most practiced eyes to pick out. The only two people who truly understand what is transpiring are the two men fighting, and when it is all over, the only other person who truly understands what you just went through is your opponent. Because he was the one inflicting it on you, hearing the pain in your breathing when he hurts you, feeling the labored heaving of your chest as he pushes you towards deathly exhaustion.
Afterwards, Ethan and Malick will become Facebook friends. When the video of the match is posted on Malick’s Facebook, Ethan will comment “lol.”
Malick, who earned his blue belt in 2017 and continues to compete under the Masterskya banner can be found at @leek.jtsu on instagram. Alex Ecklin continues to run the now-growing Masterskya affiliation, along with fellow Shaolin black belt Van Allen Flores. They can be found at @alexmasterskya and @vandamann respectively.