Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Ukraine

I’d known about Kyiv’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) club since finding their website before my departure, but I didn’t know how to contact them until searches for “BJJ Ukraine” led me to this website, where one of their members listed her email address.

Back in September, on the Sunday prior to my first class with Gracie Barra Kiev, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu club in Kiev, I did a reconnaissance. It involved my first solo Metro ride and a very long walk. Here’s what it looked like passing beneath Peremogy Ave.

Peremogy underpass Peremogy underpass

(I’ve since learned to take the Marshutka, the little private buses from the subway station toward the gym — about fifteen cents a ride.)

The second-to-last road I walked down dwindled among fields and a semi-industrial area. I had expected to make the second right from it, but the road completely disintegrated and the way was blocked by bushes – various urban undergrowth. I decided to walk down the first right.

On one side, a rusted chain linked fence separated me from a field which contained the foundation of some long-ago ruined structure. On the other side was also a field in which four or five stray dogs rested. They seemed oblivious to me and the world. Beyond that field, stood a modern-looking apartment building, with some signs of life, and I proceeded, feeling reassured that I wasn’t quite leaving civilization behind.

The road ended in a parking lot before a Goliath structure which I couldn’t quite classify. It’s indifference to beauty made me think of a factory. The broad expanse of steps at its front were reminiscent of a university building, and the vast size made me think of a warehouse.

Sports Complex Kyiv

From the bottom of the stairs, I was heartened to see crudely painted pictures of wrestlers and martial artists painted on the large plastic windows beside the front door at the top of the steps.

An old woman, opened the front to let someone out, and walked up the steps smiling at her.

“Hello,” I said in Ukrainian.

She spoke to me in Russian, then switched to Ukrainian. I tried to ask her if her if they taught Brazilian Jiu Jistsu here, and she made the point that they were closed today, which wasn’t exactly my question.

I felt confident enough that I had found the right place, and began saying goodbye. She asked me where I was from, and seemed amazed that I was from the United States.

She asked me how long I’d been in Ukraine, and I misunderstood and told her I would be for about a year.

And already you’ve learned to speak Ukrainian so well? She said.

No, I told her. I just arrived a week ago. I learned Ukrainian in the United States.

I swear, she blinked backed tears.

I explained that my parents were born in Ukraine, but left as children, and that I attended a Ukrainian school on Saturdays when I was young. I told her I studied Russian as well for two years, but don’t remember it well. I say this a lot in an attempt to demonstrate my neutrality on the divisive issue of language. My views are simple and libertarian: don’t force anyone to learn (or not learn) a language & don’t let anyone force you.

When I told her I didn’t remember Russian, she smiled, showing me all her gold teeth. She was positively beaming. That’s when I became her best friend.

She gently gripped my arm and invited me inside the enormous foyer. She pointed to one end. Through the windows of the doors, I could see a corridor. The lady explained how I can go to a room and said something about people practicing there with swords. That didn’t quite sound like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to me. I politely declined. Throughout our lengthy goodbye, she kept smiling, showing me her gold teeth.

I returned Tuesday for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I’d been in touch with one of their students, Anna, whom I had contact over the internet. She met me at the Metro station (on my reconnaissance, I had gone to the wrong one, making my walk even longer). Anna showed me how to use the Marshutka.

They asked me to lead class on the first day, which caught me off guard, but I was happy to oblige. I have a lot of technical knowledge to share, though I’ve generally gotten beat up during sparring. They are mostly bigger than me, and don’t mind relying on strength. Perhaps no one wants to lose to the new American. Regardless, it’s been great fun.

I often felt reluctant to go — tired, lazy, busy — but forced myself, and returning feeling like a brand new man. Everyone was very gracious to me, and seemed happy to have me.

For some reason, the coach wears a white belt. He’s very skilled in BJJ, wrestling and other martial arts. He’s also very athletic and speaks flawless Russian, Ukrainian, English and other languages too, I think.

Here’s us, and one of his ninjas:
Me and coach.  Kyiv Gracie Barra BJJ

In October, there was a tournament run by another organization, Pankration, which does both grappling and striking. They invited the Gracie Barra club to participate in the grappling portion of their tournament.

Here’s the poster:
Pankration Tournament Poster

Here’s the tournament facility:
kyiv sports

Strangely, a game of American football was taking place in the field outside, complete with helmets and shoulder pads.

I went to cheer on the 5 or 6 BJJ guys who were competing. I’m unsure of the number b/c I didn’t recognize the few of them who were from Gracie Barra Kyiv’s satellite school.

Anyway, the BJJ guys were absolutely dominant. Triangle chokes, all day long.

triangle choke Kyiv

My friend Ilya won 8 of his 9 matches. The one he lost were b/c of Pankration’s ridiculous scoring rules, about which we were complete ignorant. Apparently, no points are given for guard passes or knee-on-belly.

Here are two of Ilya’s bouts:

Pay no attention to the color of the belts. There were guys from many disciplines there. I also saw the referee put a blue belt on a white belt to distinguish the competitors for scoring purposes.

To compete, people needed 100 UAH ($12), plus 50 UAH for each section — gi / no gi. They also needed proof of medical insurance and their passports for identification.

The day after the fights, a few of the guys finally took me out for the beer they’d been promising me since I ordered some athletic equipment to my mother’s address in the U.S. and asked her to send it to me.

I learned that Gracie Barra BJJ cannot run tournaments in Ukraine b/c they’re not registered with the government as a grappling association. Pankration registered as such, and the bureaucrats saw no reason for a second organization. Another person drinking with us said this may have simply been a move to get a bribe, and that the rejection probably wouldn’t withstand organized pressure. Such is life in Ukraine.

Not being registered increases liability risks, denies the possibility of government funds, which apparently approved organizations might get, and, denies an organization the right to hold sanctioned tournaments.

On my last day, the guys gave me this nifty rash guard:
Gracie Barra BJJ Kyiv rash guard

Also, by then the underpass beneath Peremogy Ave was re-painted:
Peremogy Ave underpass KyivPeremogy Ave underpass Kyiv

Anyway, I’m in L’viv now, and it’s unlikely I’ll be doing any more BJJ during my time in Ukraine. I know the guys back at Hawkeye BJJ are breathing a sign of relief, as I’ll be coming back out of practice. ;)

EDIT: This recollection of my BJJ experience in Ukraine would be incomplete without this photo:

laundry by hand, bjj gi

I didn’t have a washing machine in my Kyiv apartment, so I washed my laundry in the tub, including my gi two evenings a week after practice.