Congratulations to Evan Smith who won the North American Grappling Association (NAGA) Teen Expert Middleweight Championship!
NAGA runs the world’s largest submission grappling tournaments. This NAGA event, held on May 1st at the Hampshire Dome in Nashua hosted about 250 competitors. Each year NAGA holds regular events across the United States, but due to COVID, there were only two held in New England this year.
I asked Evan Smith and his father and instructor Shawn Smith to describe grappling for those who have never seen it. Evan explained, “A lot of people think what I do is like karate, but I tell them it’s more like wrestling.” Shawn added “I tell them it’s like wrestling but you can choke them and bend their arms and legs in very ‘hurty’ ways.”
Well, I don’t know about you, but that definitely painted a picture in my mind, and I think I will remember the difference now.
Shawn continued, “Our style of martial art is called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It was developed in the early 1900’s in Brazil and was popularized in the U.S. in 1993 when Royce Gracie used his family’s relatively unknown style to dominate the early Ultimate Fighting Championships. Weighing only 170lbs., Royce defeated much larger, stronger opponents in no-rules combat and went 11-0 at the first 4 events. Today every professional MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter trains in the art due to its proven effectiveness.
Shawn explained the NAGA competition process to me. “Competitors are assigned to a division based on age, experience and weight; these usually range in size from 4-8 for beginners to 2-3 for “experts”. Teen matches are 4 minutes long and are won by either points or submission. It takes a lot of courage to do what we do. Your opponent’s goal is literally to throw you to the mat, smother you and make you ‘tap out’. Four minutes can seem like an eternity. It can be a rough sport, and I sometimes remind the kids I teach, ‘we’re not baking cupcakes,’ but the risk of injury is mitigated by trained referees and coaches. And nothing worthwhile in life comes easy.”
Three times a charm: 3 Attempts, 3 Matches, 3 Minutes!
Evan paid his dues and even came within 1 point of winning the New England title in Hanover Massachusetts a few months ago. This was his third attempt overall. In order for Evan to compete in an “Expert” division and fight for a belt, he needed to have at least 5 years of training. Shawn, “Only the most dedicated students last this long, so the Expert divisions are usually small, but feature the very best.”
Evan had 3 matches total and won the Teen Expert Middleweight Championship belt in 3 minutes by armbar submission. Shawn explained the term “submission” for me. “The technique involves using your hold body against their one arm to force either a “tap out” (kind of like saying “uncle”) or the referee to stop the match before the arm is broken. Students learn how to apply the technique in a controlled manner to avoid injury, and in all my years of teaching kids, I’ve never had a serious injury.”
Evan explained what it took to get to this point. “I usually train Jiu Jitsu 2-3 times a week when I have a tournament coming up. I also get to the gym as much as I can to work my cardio because your techniques go out the window when you’re tired. This time I didn’t train quite as much Jiu Jitsu because I’ve been working at Sarge’s a lot. But my dad invited me down to coach the kids I used to help him teach and I thought why not just do it for fun? Maybe being more relaxed helped me win.”
It also helps to have a great instructor. Shawn has a lot of experience, and you can tell when he speaks on the topic that he is devoted to say the least. “I’ve been teaching Kids Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for about 12 years. My philosophy for kids is to teach real, effective techniques through the use of fun games and drills. I teach only the control positions at first and wait until they are mature and experienced enough to learn the more dangerous submission holds. I try to teach not only techniques but also respect, focus, learn spirit, confidence, and mental toughness. I have seen Brazilian Jiu Jitsu change the lives of many students, adults and kids, including my own.”
“In addition to Evan, I had one other Rangeley student compete: Ruthie Gusier was undefeated and took home 2 Gold medals. And I also coached 3 of my kids from Foundry Farmington; 2 of them won gold and the other silver. My son Parker, who has trained about 8 years, helps me with the kids classes and accompanied us to help coach”.
So how did it feel to see Evan win? “It was a blast of pure pride and joy to see Evan win his 1st belt. He has stuck with it so long, trained so hard and had so many battles since he was 6 years’ old- probably almost 100. Times when he fought his heart out and sometimes won, sometimes lost. There have literally been 10 years of blood, sweat and tears. I have been competing in New England grappling circuit for about 12 years, and I’ve seen the kids in these Expert divisions. They are absolute killers. Many come from academies in the Boston area, train several times a week and have a wide variety of training partners, so I am extremely proud our little school in Rangeley is able to compete at such a high level.”
Evan was fully appreciative of his win as well. “I was both thrilled and relieved because the belt was something I had wanted for a long time. I would like to thank my training partners and coaches at The Foundry in Farmington; they have really encouraged me and helped me grow.”
So, what are Evan’s goals for the future? “My main goal in the martial arts is just to keep training consistently. There are no shortcuts, that’s how you get better. I train because it’s a great workout, it works every muscle in your body and makes you push harder than sometimes you would on the treadmill. And it’s something I can do with my dad.”