Seven years ago, in late March, I was preparing to fight in the first amateur MMA event in New York State since its initial ban. I was a blue belt at the time, living in Buffalo, New York, and I loved training at Victory MMA. It was a real fight gym for fighters, and the leadership churned out champions. It was exactly where I needed to be. I began my career as a fighter in Honolulu, Hawaii, and I was excited to fight in my hometown for the first time. It would have been my fourth time fighting in the cage. I was preparing diligently, training hard and coming to tough, competition-focused classes nearly every day.
We were all excited to be at the vanguard of a budding MMA legalization movement in New York, and we pushed each other in practice. “Iron sharpens iron” was our approach, and we honed our skills and pushed our limits.
Saturdays were for sparring. Round after round in that worn-out, well-loved cage, our coaches and teammates shouting advice and encouragement from the side, we paid the toll in sweat and blood for the skills we sought.
It was like every other Saturday, but the rainy highway made me a bit late to practice. My teammates were already in the cage sparring! I had to make up for lost time, so I skimped on my warmup, and quickly joined them.
I was locked in the cage, and the bell rang its three distinctive, mechanical dings. I squared up and began to bounce around on the old, blue wrestling mats, exchanging jabs and low kicks. I threw a shitty kick, my sparring partner caught it—and then, an explosion of pain from my standing leg; I fell to the ground. It felt just like I had my leg kicked out from beneath me, but that wasn’t the case. My knee gave out beneath me, and the kneecap dislocated and tore the patella tendon.
I kept trying to train on it, only to have it continually give out on me. At 23, I thought I was invincible. I couldn’t accept that my body would betray me. Three weeks before the fight, I took my coaches’ advice to give it up. I supported my teammates from the sidelines. The surgery was scheduled for that summer. No more fights for Val for the entire rest of the year.
That could be the end of the story. An opportunity lost, an injury acquired, the official end of my youth begun. Boo hoo.
But I’m a badass, so when one door closed, I decided to kick down another one just for fun.
I’ve always been artistic, so when I began my jiujitsu journey, I would keep sketchbooks instead of notebooks for BJJ. With my injury, I could still draw from the sidelines. It was a useful way to study while I couldn’t train. I started to share my drawings, and got an overwhelmingly positive response from the community.
My friend Josh Ketry (currently a black belt) reached out to me about collaborating on a project for Fight Family. Together, we designed the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Hierarchy of Positions Art Scroll, an elaborate chart that depicts common positions and their variations. All of the positions were carefully and thoughtfully drawn, and we had to figure out how to manufacture our vision of a beautiful, hanging art scroll. There’s something old-school-martial-arts-mystical about hanging an elaborate scroll up in your academy or home that we wanted to make come to life. It involved a lot of R&D, a lot of sketches, a lot of paper and markers, wood and varnish, canvas and ink.. The project took the better part of a year to complete. In the end, we made a beautiful product that I am proud of to this day.
When my knee finally healed and I came back to the mat, I didn’t miss a beat. I was back in the cage by March 2013, and fighting a bit smarter, too. Getting injured doesn’t have to be a setback for your fighting career, although it might steer it in a different direction. Everybody’s journey is different, and what seems like bad luck could be a unique moment of opportunity for you.
Rough draft of the Hierarchy of Positions, Summer/2012 in East Aurora, NY