There is a cardboard cutout of Darth Vader, crimson-red light saber and all, lurking in the shadows at Neutral Ground Combat Sports Academy, maybe to remind its occupants of the forcefully aggressive violence they are trying to overcome. Maybe they just think it’s funny. Either way, the two-dimensional Sith Lord makes even the most unintelligent of observers come to a profound realization: Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners, like those at Neutral Ground, may in fact be real-life Jedi.
Jiu-jitsu is a martial art based on principles of balance, leverage and momentum. Like the fictional Jedi, jiu-jitsu artists employ a decidedly passive approach to defeating opponents, utilizing grappling and masterful submissions to win battles. This of course goes against more blood-thirsty systems like karate or taekwondo, which emphasize chopping people in half like a pine tree.
That doesn’t mean the jiu-jitsu trainees at Neutral Ground are soft. Any one of them could snap your limbs off if they were so inclined, but keeping with the ageless Yoda mantra, their main aim is to disable and disarm, not destroy.
There is an old advertisement for a mixed martial arts event at the Neutral Ground Combat Sports Academy featuring two men engaged in the beautiful struggle. The one man is face down in the canvas, praying to the heavens he doesn’t get turned into Swiss cheese. The other, mounted on his opponent and reigning down vicious blows, is Jon “White Trash” Friedland, owner and sensei of Neutral Ground.
Friedland is sort of a dinosaur in the MMA world. As he put it, he’s “been around since before it was cool.”
“I joined the army out of high school, and in the beginning there was nothing going on, no girls or partying, so to pass time we just beat each other up,” Friedland said. “I was getting beat up a lot. I ordered these garbage jiu-jitsu tapes that were really overpriced and terrible, but I learned enough so I wouldn’t lose anymore. After awhile I started challenging everyone.”
Like most of MMA’s first wave of followers, Friedland, a Milwaukee native, was inspired by the Ultimate Fighting Championships’ first winner, Royce Gracie. Back when the UFC was in its Neanderthal stages, there were no weight limits or rules. Gracie, dressed like Bruce Lee in his white gi, weighed less than a sack of potatoes, yet was beating monsters like Ken Shamrock and Kimo Leopoldo.
It wasn’t Gracie winning those fights. It was jiu-jitsu.
There is a poster of Jon Friedland at the Neutral Ground Combat Sports Academy. He’s wearing his Gracie-inspired gi and next to him are words promoting his jiu-jitsu instructional video. This is his life now.
“I’m out there preaching jiu-jitsu like it’s my religion,” Friedland said. “I just want to pass it on to as many people as possible.”
Once upon a time — well actually, as recently as last year — Friedland was a professional MMA fighter. He had a 19-4 record, 14 of the wins coming by submission. MMA was sort of a detour for him. He was forced into it because there simply weren’t enough fight opportunities in jiu-jitsu.
“In just jiu-jitsu, once you get to a certain belt you have to fly halfway around the world to find someone to compete with,” Friedland said. “But in MMA, there’s always some tough a-hole from the country who wants to beat you up.”
About 20 young men and one brave woman are learning basic techniques from Friedland at Neutral Ground. Some come to the dojo for the love of the sport, some come to lose weight or gain muscle, some for self-defense. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or where you’re going, Neutral Ground can help you.
The art of jiu-jitsu doesn’t care about age or race or reason, just the beauty of combat.
“Jiu-jitsu is a chess match and your bodies are the pieces,” Friedland said. “It’s all about me as fighter versus you as a fighter.”
There is something special happening at the Neutral Ground Combat Sports Academy. Friedland is introducing a new generation to an art known as the “way of yielding.” But with jiu-jitsu’s elegance and precision, they might as well just call it the “way of the Jedi.”