Ayanthi Gunawardana is Sri Lankan by way of New Jersey, with a degree in sociology from Emory and an eye to grad school. She's also competing at the Pro Jiu-Jitsu Trials in Flushing, looking for a free trip to grapple in front of a sheik in Abu Dhabi.
Ayanthi Gunawardana spends the time leading up to her match stretching, then sprinting, and once she’s got a sweat going, pacing. Her headphones are in her ears and her expression is serious. Like, “don’t fuck with me” serious. Around her in the gymnasium at Queens College, a few hundred men, women, and children strut about in various states of readiness, waiting for their turn to step onto one of three mats no less than 64 meters squared in size and tap the hell out of whoever stands before them. This is the Pro Jiu-Jitsu Trials in Flushing, where chokes and armbars are the order of the day, and the big winners get a few hundred bucks and an all-expenses paid trip to Abu Dhabi to compete before a sheik who really, really likes grappling. But not everyone expects to be among the lucky few to make that flight to the United Arab Emirates. The vast majority of the competitors on this Saturday morning—Gunawardana included—are just here for the ass-kicking, some to give and some to receive.
Gunawardana, known as “Honey Badger,” like the football player of similar diminutive stature and aggressive style, is Sri Lankan by way of New Jersey, holds a degree in sociology from Emory University, and is studying to go to grad school. But she finds time to train four to six times a week, rolling around at a place called the Grapplers Guide Academy in Red Bank. Prior to Royce Gracie’s grappling-centric success as a UFC fighter in the mid-90’s, you could maybe count on one hand the places in the States which taught Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Now, such academies are legion. And tournaments like this one, where kicking and punching is against the rules, but strangling someone is all good, are plentiful. It’s a subset of the mixed martial arts crowd, a subculture of a subculture that subsists on controlled violence and being able—no bullshit, really being able—to tap someone out who’s trying their hardest to do the same to you.
That’s where the appeal lies for Honey Badger, who dabbled in karate and kickboxing before settling on the South American grappling style in high school. You don’t have to be a knuckle-dragger to find a place in jiu-jitsu, although the sport certainly has that demographic covered. No, you can also be a demure 23-year-old female weighing 122 pounds. All that matters is that you put in the training time to acquire the requisite skills.
I ask her what she had for breakfast, curious as to what—if anything—someone would want to eat before a 10 AM jiu-jitsu match. “A bowl of oatmeal with a scoop of protein,” she says—a light meal that would’ve packed plenty of energy.
The announcer garbles instructions into a microphone and the words echo throughout the gymnasium, directions for some to head to the warmup area while others should get ready to nut up or shut up, ‘cause it’s about that time. Honey Badger walks over to the gated entrance to the mats.
Everyone wears a kimono, or “gi,” which is the traditional garb of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, as well as a belt denoting rank. Honey Badger’s gi is black; her belt is blue, which denotes her experience as solid. Around, there are white belts galore, as well as blues and purples, a smattering of browns, and even a few blacks. There are far too many Mohawk hairstyles—even some of the kids sport a few—and one scruffy-looking dude inexplicably has a pair of four-ounce MMA gloves dangling from his gym bag (there’s no punching allowed in jiu-jitsu matches, so WTF?). Registration at the Pro Jiu-Jitsu Trials comes at about a hundred clams, although Killer Bee, a gi company, has helped pay some of Honey Badger’s freight.
Ew at these guys.
She has her arms out, and an official measures the length and width of her sleeve to make sure it conforms to regulations. He gives her the OK. Elsewhere on the mat, a kid meets his opponent’s takedown attempt with a sprawl, thrusting his hips out and away and out of reach. On another mat, a dude slips his hands into his opponent’s collar, and with a choke attempt underway, he jumps up and tries to pull the action to the ground with his body weight. He succeeds only in crushing his own nuts. The bout is halted for a few minutes while he recovers.
Once, at another tournament, Honey Badger went in for a takedown and wound up choked unconscious. She usually does a lot better, and today she anticipates getting at least a few matches in. She just has to make it past her first opponent, a girl who she’s faced before.
The referee signals for the match to begin and her opponent, blonde and slightly bigger, pulls her down and wraps her legs around Honey Badger’s waist. Then she twists and squirms and bucks her hips, and soon Honey Badger is on the bottom. Repeat and rinse once more in the span of five minutes, and while there are no tapouts or sleepers or broken limbs, there’s a winner: for getting on top the way she did, her opponent scored points. The blonde raises her arms in victory.
It’s a single-elimination tournament, and the one loss means Honey Badger’s day is done.
She loves it for its intricacy—“the layers upon layers of techniques” she says, which makes for a martial art capable of holding her interest indefinitely. “And I love the accessibility of sport’s top athletes.” She points them out to me one by one, these rock stars of the grappling circuit. There’s Gianni Grippo, the stud on the rise with the brown belt and the shaggy haircut. There’s Marcelo Garcia, the black belt jiu-jitsu master who’ll choke you until you pass out and shit your pants. There’s Sergio the MMA fighter, who gives Honey Badger a fist bump as he walks by. According to her, it’s impossible for even the stars of the sport to make a living by just competing, so they’ll do other things, like fight or open up schools and teach.
“Jiu-jitsu will always be a niche sport,” she says, and from her tone it’s impossible to tell if she is digging that fact or lamenting it. “It will always be a niche sport,” she repeats. “It’ll never sell out Giants Stadium.”
But she freely admits that she’s hooked. There was supposed to be another tournament in Asbury Park, NJ, the next day, which she planned to attend until Hurricane Sandy put the kibosh on the idea. Instead, she’s set her sights on a tournament at the Javits Center in December. So it’s back to New Jersey, where she’ll keep up with her training and preparation. Jiu-jitsu is serious business, after all, and Honey Badger don’t play.