The courtroom is the closest many attorneys ever come to forcing an opponent
into submission. But for Shimon Kafka, an Assistant Public Defender in Baltimore's
Eastern District Court, the opportunity to gain the physical upper hand is
just another night out.
Look, I get a
if I win, and
I risk breaking
my arm or my leg
or a serious
injury. I don’t
do it for money.
"It's not golf,"
chuckles Kafka, who for a little more than a year has spent several nights
a week practicing at Baltimore Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (www.baltimorebjj.com/),
a Parkville-based school specializing in a sport that went largely unnoticed
before its use in competitions like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (www.ufc.com/)
catapulted it onto the world stage in the 1990s. "People kind of give you
a strange look like, ‘Why are you doing this? You're not a kid, you're
not in high school.' But once you do it – to me, it's almost addictive."
A hybridization of Judo and traditional Japanese Jujutsu that traces its
roots to early 20th century Brazil, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu emphasizes self-defense. "It
started out so a smaller man could beat a larger man, using mostly joint-manipulation
and strangulation holds," notes Kafka.
"And these are real-life holds," he stresses. "When we practice, you try
to [force] the other person to submit."
But while other martial arts might incorporate more "stand-up" maneuvers
such as punching and kicking, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu focuses on ground-fighting
techniques – an aspect that Kafka finds particularly appealing.
"In Judo, if you take someone and throw them to their back – what's
called a clean throw – it's the end of the match, it's over," he explains. "In
Jiu Jitsu, it's just beginning; you throw them clean – now we're going
to the ground."
It was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's combination of contact sport and "competitive
edge" that drew Kafka, who had wrestled and played football while growing up
but found little to appease his love for contact sports in his post-high school
years. "I always enjoyed wrestling more than football because when I go out
there, [if] I win I win, [if] I lose I lose – what you're putting into
it you're getting out of it. Same with [being] a criminal defense attorney – I
still have my colleagues with me for advice, but when you go up to a trial
table, it's really you. When you go out there on the mat, your team's there
rooting you on and your coach is sitting there in the corner telling you what
to do, but at the end of the day it's you out there, win, lose or draw."
Because the sport is still so relatively fresh on the American martial arts
scene, it still lacks a national governing body; instead, schools like Baltimore
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (and its parent school, Maguilla's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Academy & Combat Club in Silver Spring) compete within themselves as well as
with each other in almost feudalistic fashion, while organizations like the
North American Grappling Association (www.nagafighter.com/)
and Grappler's Quest (www.grapplersquest.com/)
hold tournaments around the country.
"I think there is going to be a national organization within the next 10
years, because everybody wants standards, guidelines, so we know who's the
king of the hill," says Kafka, who has witnessed the sport's growth firsthand;
classes that might have only boasted two or three attendees a year or more
ago, he says, now number upward of 20 on any given night. Moreover, Kafka explains,
the sport is drawing men (and women) as varied as lawyers, doctors and mechanics,
as well as high school and college students. Even Johns Hopkins University
now hosts a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Club.
"It's a little shocking [at first], but you've got to step out of your safety
zone a little bit to really grow as a person," says the Reisterstown native. "Come
in, give it a chance. First lesson's free. It's an ego-free environment; there's
no one there trying to show anybody up or hurt anybody. We're all there working
together, just trying to get better as a team."
think you have to enjoy what you do, and I enjoy helping people
"A lot of these guys who come in are natural athletes," he adds. "I'm just
a regular guy. Everything I do is work. I really push it, try to get better
and better at it as I go. And, you know, you're losing weight while you're
doing it. Burning thousands of calories because it's such an intense workout.
And at the same time, you're having fun. It's not like being at the gym, [where]
you're on the treadmill, not talking to anybody."
And while Brazilian Jiu Jitsu may be all about self-defense, there is an
intangible yet irrefutable draw for Kafka that is underscored by the fact that
he has never once had to call upon his skills off the mat.
"I really like doing it," he admits. "Look, I get a dollar-medal if
I win, and I risk breaking my arm or my leg or a serious injury. I don't do
it for money. I didn't go into this, with the public defender, for the money.
If that's why you're going for it
– just pure money – I don't think you're going to excel at anything
in life. I think you have to enjoy what you do, and I enjoy helping people
"I've always had an interest in criminal law – growing up, getting
in trouble here and there, seeing some of your friends get into trouble. There
are a lot of problems with the criminal justice system, but I feel like the
public defender's office helps people. The young guys who come into Jiu Jitsu – I
try to help them out, give them some advice, the best advice I can, if they're
having some problems."