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BOURDAIN’S LOST STORIES: BJJ, ADDICTION, LIFE & DEATH

 

I have never enjoyed pain. I don’t care if it’s Gisele Bunchen coming at me in thigh boots wielding a riding crop, I’m not interested. Yet I insist on getting squashed on the mats every day and feel bereft if I can’t. – NooYawkCity (Anthony Bourdain), July 9th, 2014

Words: Alexander Darwin @combatcodes

“After 45 minutes of sprawls and burpies, it’s time for live rolling. Someone puts on Rupert Holmes’ “Piña Colada Song” and right away the 270 lb former wrestler who just got dumped by his girlfriend, angrily passes my guard, slaps me into side control and sinks his weight into my jaw. He’s wearing a new but filthy Atama gi. It feels like a cheese grater against my cheek as he grinds away at me. I can hear my teeth making terrible sounds and am pretty sure my crowns are going to explode any second. Jabba The Wrestler has been eating at Subway. I can smell rancid, sour, pre-sliced onions on his breath, which, sadly does little to mask the horrifying miasma of swamp ass rising from his sweaty thighs. As my teeth give way, the music changes to Don Mclean’s “American Pie”. I pray for death but I’m already dead.” – NooYawkCity, April 22nd, 2015

In June of 2014, Anthony Bourdain created an anonymous profile on reddit.com – his username NooYawkCity – and started posting regularly on the brazilian jiu jitsu subreddit. The profile has since been confirmed to be Bourdain by his ex-wife Ottavia, who introduced him to BJJ.

Over four years, Bourdain posted on r/bjj 80 times. He was unfiltered in his writing, as one would expect, however this was an exceptional sort of candor.  NooYawkCity’s prose was not going through an editor, directed toward a book or TV audience. This was the truest Anthony Bourdain, writing simply for the sake of it, unburdened by his reputation. He’d previously chronicled his passion for food and travel, and now, he needed an outlet to write about his new love – brazilian jiu jitsu.

Before diving into his writing, it’s important to ask: how did Anthony Bourdain end up posting anonymously on some seemingly random corner of the internet in the first place?

Bourdain was always extraordinary in his ability to connect with all sorts of people. He squatted for lunch with a US president at a Hanoi eatery, stopped to chat with a fruit seller in a Senegalese open-air market, laughed alongside a leather-clad biker on the side of a Beirut highway. This was the Anthony Bourdain way.

Even his fans felt like they knew him: upstart chefs who kept copies of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ by their bedside, or travel-hungry foodies who religiously tuned into ‘No Reservations.’

However, there was one group privileged to a unique bond with Bourdain during the last several years of his life: brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners. Bourdain’s love affair with BJJ was well documented through his TV shows and magazine exposes (“Anthony Bourdain Tells Us How He Got Those Insane Abs!”) but those who sweat alongside him on the mats really got to know the man in a personal way.

Bourdain was not the type of celebrity who limited himself to well-packaged, private BJJ lessons, designed to keep faces unblemished and egos unbruised. That was not him. Just as he immersed himself in cultures by getting down and dirty with real people and foods, Bourdain sought the unfiltered BJJ experience: ‘gen-pop’ classes. He wanted to be strangled by a thick fingered bricklayer in Dublin, arm locked by a mangy-haired hipster in San Francisco, hip tossed by a tree-trunk-thick judoka in Okinawa. And that’s what he did.

Matt Walsh, a long-time friend and colleague of Bourdains’ who produced much of his Asian television programming, commented on the change he saw:

“We shot an episode of The Layover in Taipei in 2012 – pre jiu jitsu for Tony. At the time, I had slimmed down a lot from my usual corpulence and Tony was sporting a bit of a pot belly. I think we joked about it. But, the next time I saw him, a few years later, he was a lean, mean athlete, thanks to jiu jitsu.”

 

Though it would seem strange that a 57-year-old, ex-addict, celebrity chef and tv personality would take to grappling with random men and women across the globe, it made perfect sense. This is who Bourdain was: a man that didn’t want to be apart, or elevated, or distinct from the rest of us. He wanted to be one of us.

He was a man who wanted to blend in and take part in what was real. He even put his BJJ training to the true test in 2016, competing at the New York Open under the Renzo Gracie banner, and winning gold.

So, it was only natural that Bourdain would venture to a place where stories from the mats were shared from all corners of the globe – r/bjj. This is a place where black belts relayed decades of experience and white belts professed their newfound love (and frustration) with the art. This is a place where tragedies of loss were told alongside uplifting tales of lives reinvented. Bourdain promptly made himself comfortable there, telling his own brand of stories:

Chicken Fried Steak

“58 years old and getting so gassed during warm ups, that when we start to roll, I end up sticking my own head into an obvious guillotine –just to take a break. An utterly humiliating class yesterday, yet showed up for a private today with 250 lbs of muscle and bone so I could get pounded like a chicken fried steak . Why am I doing this? I don’t know. I’m like a dope fiend at this point. If I can’t train I start going into withdrawal. Wander around, twitching, restless and pissed off. At least with dope, you feel GOOD afterwards. After training, I feel like a rented and unloved mule . All the other (much, much younger) white belts all seem to be coming back from long breaks because of injury. Strangely enough, so far so good for me. I may feel like a fragile box of stale breadsticks but I’ve managed to avoid injury (if not discomfort). I have never enjoyed pain. I don’t care if it’s Gisele Bunchen coming at me in thigh boots wielding a riding crop, I’m not interested. Yet I insist on getting squashed on the mats every day and feel bereft if I can’t. This is not normal. When I talk about BJJ , Old friends look at me like I have an arm growing out of my forehead. But I Won’t stop. Can’t stop.” – NooYawkCity, July 9th, 2014

Bourdain was clearly writing because he was passionate about BJJ, but he also seemed to be there to help others along their journey. When a user asked if it was too late to start practicing at 32, Bourdain responded in trademark fashion:

“58 years old. And often feel like I’ll be shitting bone fragments after a hard day’s rolling. One 22 year old college wrestler Killdozer after another crushing my rib cage like a box of stale Triscuits. But wouldn’t miss it for the world.” – NooYawkCity, January 14th, 2015

He even chimed in when a user asked about BJJ in relation to addiction:

“For over 40 years, my life pretty much revolved around drugs. . Booze and cigarettes almost the background music to my drugs of choice ( heroin and cocaine). Drug free but a drinker until I started BJJ–at which point the inevitability of getting smashed every day made alcohol a much less attractive option and cigarettes out of the question. Frankly, BJJ as an addiction has in many ways replaced my previous ones. If I’m away from my home academy, I find myself looking for someplace anyplace to train like a dope fiend looking for a methadone clinic. My emotional state when deprived of training would , in different circumstances, be called “drug seeking behavior.” – NooYawkCity, December 12th, 2014

Outside of r/bjj, Bourdain ventured to some other forums on reddit, replying about his favorite movies on Vietnam, mentioning his go-to sunglasses brand, and a few times, using his honed verbal skills to submit unscrupulous trolls.

At first, Bourdain made no reference to who he really was. Only the savvy redditor, putting together NooYawkCity’s age, writing style and travel destinations, would guess this anonymous profile was actually the real Anthony Bourdain. A few years in though, NooYawkCity began to allude to his identity.

In 2016, he responded to a meme with his picture: “Woh, I recognize that asshole!”

And a few month later, Bourdain responded to an Instagram picture posted of his newly mangled cauliflower ear:

“It was big, it was filled with fluid that kept refilling after draining by syringe..it was painful as fuck and an impediment to rolling….and prone to infection. Question is: will this interfere with training. If the answer is “probably”, It’s time to get that shit dealt with.” – NooYawkCity, April 15th, 2016

A year and half out from his death, Bourdain stopped posting. His final post on r/bjj was January 5th, 2017. On his instagram account, his final reference to BJJ, a solemn picture of himself clad in the Gi, was only two days later.

Of course, we don’t know the exact circumstances for this change; perhaps he couldn’t train as often or maybe he simply decided to stop posting about it. We do know that Bourdain saw BJJ as an uplifting practice, despite the physical toll, it was his reason to stop drinking and smoking. The art is by no means a cure-all, but for Anthony Bourdain, it was certainly a north star.

“To me, he seemed a bit obsessive about it, but that’s how he was. Bourdain never did anything halfway. If he was in, he was all in. I think it was good for him to have the discipline and focus on fitness, given the excesses of his past,” said his colleague Walsh.

Just as Bourdain’s death sent shockwaves through the culinary world and beyond, the brazilian jiu jitsu community also mourned for their lost compatriot and ambassador. On r/bjj, multiple threads popped up filled with mourning practitioners sharing their personal stories of Bourdain on the mats:

“He wasn’t a celebrity on our mats, he was Tony the blue belt who had a pretty mean ankle lock game that we had him show us.” – omgliam

“I got to meet Tony when he visited the Philippines a few years back. it was an early morning class and he was already sitting on the mats when i walked into the gym. i remember how nice and genuine he seemed despite being a little quiet.” – franzvondoom

“He was always incredibly laid-back and a great training partner. We had started around the same time and have a very similar build/size, and for being thirty years older than me, he was a beast.” – armbarmitzvah

This was the Anthony Bourdain way. He first sought to experience unfiltered cultures through foods, and towards the end of his life, he found a new path to understanding what makes some people (including himself) happy: jiu jitsu.

 “I love all of it. The soreness, the carrot fingers, mat burn, the ego-destroying ass kickings, just when you think you’re getting somewhere. I’m hooked. I know I will never be young again. I am well aware that I’m only getting slower, more fragile over time. That I will probably never live to see black belt or win any competitions. But I’m pretty sure I will suck a little bit less every month. That while I will never master this skill, will at least, hopefully, get better and better at it. And every once in a great while, I will sweep some young upper belt, or maybe even catch one in a triangle. And that makes me happy.”  – NooYawkCity, October 24th, 2014

 

There are quite a few conspiracy theories out there on what “really” happened to Anthony Bourdain. One of the more outlandish ones is that he isn’t dead at all. Bourdain is off living anonymously in some remote corner of the world, his beard grown tangled and white, sipping negronis as the tropical sun tans his weathered skin. Perhaps this is a conspiracy that Bourdain himself would have chuckled at, nodding in approval at the romantic notion of an escape to the unknown. Because in this place, he’s unfettered by fame, not apart, but one of us.

Wherever Anthony Bourdain is, let’s hope they’ve got some mats.

About the Author:  Alexander Darwin is a @BostonBJJ black belt and author of ‘The Combat Codes’.

Jiu Jitsu Style

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