Monday, April 18, 2016

Kicking RA's Ass Part 1:Enter A Martial Arts Junkie

Today's post is part 1 of a 3 part series by guest poster Mike Mahaffey - about his journey as a BJJ competitor struggling with a chronic and sometimes debilitating disease, rheumatoid arthritis.

My headlights swept over the asphalt, bathing the empty parking lot in their halogen glow. The windows of the empty gym reflected their harsh glare back at me as I pulled the car into a parking spot, making me squint. I put the car into park and took a moment to take another swig of my coffee, grimacing at the dashboard clock as it’s display mocked my fatigue: 5:45AM.

My joints ached, my hands and feet were swollen, and my right knee (the one that has had two surgeries) didn’t want to fully bend or straighten. Why the hell did I agree to train so darn early?

I chastised myself. I sat in the car, letting the hot air blowing from the vents warm my cold fingers. I didn’t want to step out into the mid-March Michigan cold.

But the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Spring Chicago Open was only two and a half weeks away, and I needed all the mat time I could get before the competition. 

And I had training partners counting on me to open up the gym so we could get our training in before work. And I had parts of my game I needed to tighten up before competing, for the first time in over five years. And, to be honest, I love this stuff. So, with a grunt as I straightened my bum knee, I got out of the car, dug the gym keys out of my pocket, and limped toward the door and the mats beyond…

Hi, my name is Mike Mahaffey, I am 43 years old, and I am a martial arts junkie. 

Mike in the middle, wisely picking up a stick like all good people eventually do. - the Stick Chick

I am a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and have black belts in other traditional martial arts. I also have Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that can cause pain, joint damage, disability, and even death.

I’m often fatigued, usually in pain, sometimes walk with a cane, and many days don’t know how the hell I keep moving.   But, we’ll get to that in a minute.

I started training martial arts at the age of 14, in a Korean striking art called TaeKwonDo Chung Do Kwan.  I was not terribly athletic prior to this, and like many young men, found my way to the martial arts as an antidote to bullies in my life (my eight years as a tap dancer didn’t help matters in the bullying department).

Martial arts taught me that physical skills could be learned, if one persevered (versus something you had to be born with). That idea was enticing and empowering to me. It changed my perception of myself from that of hopelessly vulnerable victim to that of a confident athlete.

I received my TaeKwonDo black belt at the age of 18. After high school I attended Michigan State University, and started training under the late Bruce Henderson at the MSU Karate Club, in another Korean striking style named Pukang Tang Soo Do.

I continued to teach, train, and compete in karate tournaments with the MSU Karate Club until my early 30s. Then, just over nine years ago, I attended a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) class in southern California (while visiting my wife’s family) taught by Professor Craig Husband. Craig is a black belt in BJJ under Rickson Gracie – one of the most famous practitioners of the art, and generally considered one of the best.

After my chance-meeting of Craig Husband, and training with him, I decided it was time to find a school back in Michigan and start training BJJ when we got home.  I found a small school in north Lansing, MI run by a then-purple belt (and my best choice at the time for training in Central Michigan). Here I met a bunch of great people and training partners, including my good friend (and now coach) Matt Linsemier. Eventually Matt opened up our current school, Magic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (, and became the first black belt in the Lansing area.

Like many practitioners of BJJ, my journey was full of ups and downs. I got injured some, as most do in any combat sport, but it never quashed my passion for continuing to learn and train. I did a couple of BJJ competitions early on in my career as a blue belt, and although tournaments were never my main focus, I had definitely planned on doing more.

In September, 2011, I had competed in the Michigan Open, a local BJJ tournament that drew competitors from all over the state. It was only my second BJJ tournament, and the first one I had medaled in.

I took third place, cementing my spot on the podium by submitting my opponent with a cross-collar choke (a technique where you choke your opponent with the lapels of their gi, or training uniform). I was 39 years old, and finally starting to feel like this BJJ stuff was making sense. My recent tournament performance had reawakened the competitor in me.

But I had a problem. The day after the tournament my fingers were swollen and painful, the knuckles puffed up and difficult to bend. I attributed it to the effort of competition – there is a lot of gripping in BJJ, after all. As time went on I had other symptoms as well – I ached in the morning, often until well after noon, as if I had been beaten up in my sleep. My sleep was interrupted by all sorts of aches and pains, and I was often fatigued throughout the day

My wife, Teresa, encouraged me to go to the doctor, but being a typical male, I brushed it off. I was almost 40, and very active. I figured this was just how middle-aged martial artists felt.

Mike's diagnosis - and the ramifications - in part 2.

Mike Mahaffey is a 43 year old married father of two from Lansing, MI. He has been training martial arts since he was a teenager, and holds a first degree black belt in TaeKwonDo ChungDoKwan, a 6th degree black belt in Pukang Tang Soo Do, and a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He currently trains and teaches at Magic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Martial Arts Center in East Lansing, MI.