I walked into SeaTown Sambo three years ago. Like most men who have spent too much time watching too many movies, I was confident in my ability to hold my own in an altercation if the situation called for it. Say someone jumped me in some alleyway off Pioneer Square, or held me and a date up while walking along the waterfront: There was little doubt in my mind that I would, through some extraordinary means, be able to protect myself from that person with animal instinct and imagination. I decided to test this untapped fighting potential firsthand. A quick Google quiz on "What Martial Art Is Best for You" later, I was standing outside a dingy white building in Maple Leaf, ready for a fight.

The first thing I noticed about the gym were the windows. In the winter chill, they appeared to be sweating. Condensation reached six feet up the glass and wrapped halfway around the building. The air was thick inside. The Beastie Boys screamed from a boom box in the corner, only to be washed out by the sadistic laughter of the grapplers themselves.

The group was a mixed bunch: nurses, firefighters, computer programmers, pharmacists, paralegals. All sizes and shapes, too. You name it. "Except meatheads," said longtime club member Jeremy King. Meatheads don't usually make it past the first week.

I was about to find out why.

The first time I did jujitsu was the first time I learned what it meant to be uncomfortable. Sure, I'd struggled in school as a kid and gritted my teeth while working my shitty job at a movie theater, but that was amateur discomfort compared to what I was about to experience.

After lacing up a three-sizes-too-big loaner jacket and learning how to take a fall (the key: duck the chin and commit fully to the direction of the throw), head coach Aaron Fields sent me in on an intensive crash course in leverage and body mechanics. My opponent: a 145-pound computer programmer from India named Nath. Japanese jujitsu is split into two categories: ground fighting and stand-up fighting. In order to avoid injury to newcomers, you start out on the ground, on your knees and facing each other. It took Nath, in his dull-red kurta jacket, all of five seconds to pin my 205-pound stocky frame and apply the full force of his 145 pounds atop my ribs. This move, which is called the scarf hold—or as it's referred to in Japanese jujitsu, kesa gatame—is one of the club's signatures.

A well-placed scarf hold will make you feel like you are gasping for breath in a vacuum. You breathe and breathe and breathe, and still nothing happens. To pin a person in a scarf hold involves curling them (me in this case) the way a roly-poly bug curls. My arms, chest, and lungs were all curled up into themselves in a way that in mere seconds caused me to squeal in misery. The pin, coupled with the already heavy breathing and exhaustion, results in what is commonly referred to as hypoxia. Or in technical terms: I'm fucking suffocating! Help me! Of all the moves in jujitsu today, kesa gatame is among the most underutilized and underappreciated techniques.

Officially founded by Fields back in 1998, on the south end of Seattle's Rainier Valley, SeaTown Sambo, now known as SeaTown Grappling, is an anomaly in the city's growing martial-arts community. To start, its bare-bones interior is run more like a Soviet-era cooperative than anything resembling a business. Which makes sense, considering Fields's time spent training with the Mongolian national team in the former Eastern Bloc back in the mid 1990s. Everything is utilitarian—from the deflated tire tubes laced to the walls for practicing judo throws to the softballs used for rolling out knots in muscles. No one at SeaTown makes a profit off membership dues, all proceeds go to covering rent and supplies, and each instructor volunteers their time and expertise for nothing more than the love of the sport.

Aaron Fields is also a firefighter, a father, and a former kid from the wrong side of the tracks.
Aaron Fields is also a firefighter, a father, and a former kid from the wrong side of the tracks.

Second, in a martial-arts world that thrives on order, promotion, and observable progress, SeaTown Grappling retains its use of the classical three-belt system: white, brown, and—eventually, for the truly addicted—black. All three belts, however, are taken as little more than something to hold one's jacket closed while grappling about. The result, while frustrating for anyone looking for promotion in the form of color schemes, is a consistently talented pool of grapplers, all of whom progress within the pupil-like state of mind a white belt demands.

Lastly, of the few rules the club has, nowhere does it forbid members from enjoying a cold Rainier together after a hard night's workout. There's actually a fridge in the back for just this sort of thing. I've spent countless hours beaten up on those olive-green mats, and listening to all sorts of people talk on topics ranging from Israeli military tactics to what it takes to be a good father. For the record, there is no better-tasting beer than a near-frozen Rainier after two hours of fighting for your life.

After making its way from an aerobics studio on the grounds of Western Washington University to a basement in which the air would become so muggy with sweat that it wasn't uncommon for a member to be forced to leave the room, SeaTown Grappling found its home in a nondescript white building on the corner of Lake City Way and 16th Avenue Northeast. While the building might appear dingy and run-down while you're looking at it from a stool inside Cooper's Alehouse across the street, inside is a grappler's refuge. "The mats are like a dance floor," Fields once told me after watching someone come down on them hard: They are sprung and full of open space and won't leave you with a concussion if you come down on them without a spotter.

On any night of the week, one can find members of SeaTown Grappling drilling techniques from Russian sambo to Japanese jujitsu to all variations of grappling and wrestling alike. This multicultural approach is what makes the gym unique for members of the club. "The truth of the matter is that it doesn't matter who throws you down or what they are wearing," Fields says. "A hip throw is a hip throw."

Fields himself is the type of man I quickly came to respect both on and off the mat. His gray eyes seem to say, "You don't have to remind me I'm one of the lucky ones." He's 44 and a father of two, and he has been with the Seattle Fire Department for nine years. When he's not spending time with his family on Bainbridge or traveling from coast to coast giving seminars on firefighting techniques, he volunteers his humor and knowledge of all things grappling to those at the club. He's been doing this for the better part of 22 years. And even at times when low enrollment and rent hikes have required him to use his own money to keep the doors of the gym open, he says he has never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do. He just did it and kept moving.

For Fields, "most gyms are ridiculous in regards to price. Their monthly dues are so much that a working-class family couldn't afford it if they wanted to. As a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, I couldn't in good standing charge that much." So while other gyms are asking $100 to $160 a month with a six-month sign-up contract, SeaTown Grappling keeps low monthly dues of $85. This includes an almost daily amount of open mat times and four or five instructional courses a week.

"Everyone says, 'At our gym, we're like a family.' No you're not. You're like a gym. But what I will say is that at our gym, we are like a community."

>Much like jujitsu itself, Fields knows there are different routes that will lead to the same end: Be it a choke, a shoulder throw, or a scarf hold. The key, Fields stresses to members new and old alike, is to understand the principles behind each technique and work from there.

It took me a year of training, three to four times a week, to even begin to see the fruits of my labor on the mat. This isn't uncommon. Ask anyone who's done jujitsu for any significant period of time, and they will tell you that for the first year or more, you will spend the entirety of your time getting beat up, day in and day out, by people often smaller and weaker than you.

In that year's time, you are sure to feel humiliated, frustrated, and filled with anger at your own inadequacy. That's not even mentioning the physical aspects: the bruises, the aches, the chipped teeth, the bitten tongues, the poked eyes. These are all part of the process of learning.

If you stick with it, though, one day a new guy will walk through the door at the gym. He might be bigger or he might be smaller than you. It doesn't matter—you've been losing for so long, you would take a win against a middle-school bully at this point. In my case, he was six foot four, a former college wrestler just out of the police academy with brand-new kneepads and a muscular build.

"Hey, Trevor," Fields said from across the room, "go roll with the new guy." And I did. And I won. Again and again. But I didn't only win—I won with sound technique and style.

For the first time on the mat, I was the one who looked like he knew what he was doing out there. Sweeping this oaf of a guy left to right, I brought heavy pressure down onto his chest and, sure enough, sank in a scarf hold as tight as the one Nath caught me with just a year prior.

God it felt right.

"Grappling teaches you a lot of different things. And most of them aren't about grappling," Fields says. Perhaps the most rewarding thing grapplers come away with is a willingness "to be uncomfortable and still go home healthy." Being uncomfortable allows for you to recognize your points of exhaustion and will. When we identify these points and then move beyond them, we mature.

This is the main difference between grappling and other combat sports. Sports like boxing require you to get hurt. There is not another way to learn. And not just bumps and bruises—actually hurt. If you get in a boxing ring, you're going to get punched in the face and you're going to break your nose. Put on all the headgear and padding you want, if you stick with boxing long enough, you're going to get injured. And it's going to hurt like a motherfucker.

Grappling is different. With judo or jujitsu or sambo, you can literally train as hard as you like (assuming you have good training partners and not assholes) and still go to work the next day. Add in the feeling you get when you successfully employ a technique on someone who is actively trying to see to it that you don't, and there is little else like it in the world.

"My first coach used to tell me that throwing somebody was the second-best feeling in the world," said club manager Lana Ramirez.

"What's the first?" I asked her.

"An orgasm," she said, laughing. recommended

Seatown Grappling is currently in the process of moving. It will reopen again soon at 7754 15th Ave NE.