How do you win a world jiu-jitsu championship with a “popped” rib?
The answer, as North Vancouver’s Bill Jones recently found out, is with strategy, skill, and a bit of pain.
The 47-year-old member of North Vancouver’s Roll Jiu Jitsu Academy was feeling good coming into the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation World Masters 2018 championships held last month in Las Vegas, his confidence buoyed by a brown belt lightweight championship win in the 45-49 age group at the Pan American championships earlier this season, a tournament that’s the second toughest on the schedule for North American jiu-jitsu competitors. The toughest competition is worlds, and Jones felt ready to fight for the biggest title of his career until three days before he was set to leave for Las Vegas when, during a training sessions, one of his students caught him with an accidental elbow while Jones was demonstrating throws.
“Their elbow got pitted into my ribs, and my rib popped,” Jones said. The pain was debilitating, and that night Jones made the decision that he wasn’t going to Vegas to compete in the world championships. “I’ve been competing in things my whole life, and I just hate losing if I’m not at my peak. If I’m at my peak and I lose, then I’m OK with it. But you always wonder what would have happened if you’d been at your peak. My mentality before going to Vegas was ‘Why even try if I know I’m not going to win?’ I know it doesn’t sound good, but when you’re competing, you want the best performance possible.”
His wife, however, reminded him that he was supposed to be sharing a hotel room in Vegas with his Roll academy instructor, Filip Matos, and as the room was in Jones’ name, he needed to be there. Jones decided to make the trip to support his instructor. Before the tournament started, however, the two of them began crafting a game plan that might allow Jones to compete with his cracked rib.
“Ribs are funny,” he said. “You’re good up until you’re not good, and then you’re devastated. When you cross that line, it drops you to your knees. But until then, you’re pretty good. We figured out the areas I couldn’t get close to – pressure on my ribs, I couldn’t do any sit-ups so I couldn’t be on the ground.”
The strategy they came up with is that Jones, who is also proficient at throw-heavy judo, would do his best to stay on his feet and not get pulled down to the ground where most jiu-jitsu matches end up.
“The strategy was to control the match, stay on top. If somebody had gotten on top of me, I don’t think I would have been able to get out because any crunching movement just dropped me.”
The plan worked through the first three rounds, with Jones managing to throw all of his opponents on his way to scoring a place in the championship final. The road to the final had taken its toll, though.
“I was tired, my ribs hurt. It hurt to breathe,” he said. He asked Matos if he was guaranteed a silver medal in the tournament, and that’s when his normally jovial instructor grew quite serious.
“Bill, you are not going to lose,” Matos told Jones. “You stop saying that.”
The instructor’s prediction looked like it would come true when Jones started the final with a takedown to make it 3-0, but the game plan finally unravelled moments later when Jones got swept and found himself on the ground in a vulnerable position for the first time. The score was now 3-2, but with his rib throbbing and a tough opponent bearing down on him, it seemed like it could have all been over for Jones. Somehow, however, he managed to counter attack from his back and find a way back onto his feet.
“I was only on my back for about 10 seconds, then I re-swept him,” he said. “It was close, but I got out from underneath him without being too hurt. It was exciting.”
With the counter move scoring two more points for Jones, it was now 5-2, and that’s where it would stay for the rest of the match. Jones was a world champion.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said. “It was off the chart.”
“Bill is the best kind of student,” Matos said of his new world champion pupil. “He is able to clear his mind and focus and listens to his coach. … I knew he was going to win. He couldn’t lose. He was perfect.”
The world championship win was the biggest in the career for an athlete who fought jiu-jitsu for many years before veering down a completely different trail. Jones only just recently returned to jiu-jitsu following a five-year stint as an elite BMX racer, making it to the world championships in that sport as well. He was also instrumental in raising funds for the renovation of North Vancouver’s BMX track at Inter River Park.
The two sports are very different in the way that they hand out pain, said Jones.
“Jiu-jitsu, it’s grappling. It’s a grind on your bones,” he said about why he left the sport for BMX in the first place. “My bones were just hurting – fingers and ankles and everything. So I thought, you know what, I’ll try a different sport. And that’s when I jumped into BMX. Everything was awesome because it wasn’t a grind. The downside of BMX was, when you crash, it’s a dynamic impact which means bigger injuries.”
The daily grind versus the big crash. That was the choice Jones faced. He ultimately chose to come back to jiu-jitsu a year and a half ago, and now he is a world champion.
“To win the worlds is pretty crazy,” he said. “It was a weird, long, surprising journey.”