Steve Driben Wins NAGA Gold Medal

 In Branding

A Short Story about Determination, Persistence and The Path to Success

The date was August 4 and the event was the North American Grappling Association Grappling Championship (NAGA). I attended to support my best friend whom I helped train for this competition. This happened to be my first taste of a grappling-only fight (no striking allowed). I was immediately hooked on the excitement and competition and even watched my friend win the championship belt!

In the days that followed, I decided I wanted to “throw my hat in the ring” and test my skills. To do so, I would need to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). BJJ is a combat sport and self-defense martial art that emphasizes ground fighting, utilizing techniques and submissions involving joint locks and choking.

September 29 was the next NAGA competition in Philadelphia, PA. With just six weeks to learn BJJ, I enrolled at Summit Mixed Martial Arts to train under Kirby Farrales, Gracie BJJ expert and owner of Summit MMA. My goal was to learn BJJ and compete in the tournament that was just six weeks away.

Motivation and Determination

Typically, Kirby would not have encouraged a new BJJ student to compete in such a short period of time, but he saw my motivation. I shared my martial arts background – 28 years of Karate and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) experience and with a burning desire to test my skills and compete. Quickly , Kirby assessed my grappling skills and athleticism and realized my skills were geared for MMA. To be successful in the NAGA competition, I needed to learn BJJ fundamentals and with this goal in my sights training began.

Training was intense and the technical instruction was outstanding. For the next six weeks, Kirby kept me focused on techniques he believed I would need for the tournament. Concurrent with my training, I needed to lose 9 lbs. to compete in the Middleweight Division, so he incorporated strength & conditioning training helping me to lose the 13 lbs. needed to compete as a Middleweight.

The Unexpected

The day of the tournament I felt great, weighed a solid 175lbs and had the typical pre-competition jitters. Mentally and physically I was prepared for my first grappling-only tournament … or so I’d thought when the unexpected occurred. I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker, “Steve Driben, please come to the official table”. It was then I learned the only person with similar BJJ experience as me weighed 100lbs more than I did. The NAGA officials did not recommend I fight this person, instead suggesting I move up to a division where I could compete within my weight class. The caveat: my opponents would have greater experience than me. I was not mentally prepared for this, but with the help of my coach, I adjusted my mind-set and agreed to move to the higher division.

The competition began; I shook hands with my opponent and immediately locked up in a clinch. My fight strategy was not working with the more experienced competitor. However, my previous martial arts training enabled me to fight from a defensive position preventing my opponent from scoring a point or being able to take me down to the mat.

The match ended with an even score of 0-0. The fight went to overtime where my opponent capitalized on my mistake, scored two points and won the match. As I recovered, I heard my name called to fight again. Shocked, I stepped up to the mat, shook a new opponent’s hand and for the second time, immediately locked up in a clinch. Shortly afterward, the fight went to the ground with my opponent in my closed guard. He escaped positioning to a side mount. I was able to reverse my position eventually winding up in his guard.   Suddenly the bell signaled the end of the match. I had lost again. After the fight, my opponent asked me what BJJ School I was affiliated with and also if I’d like to train with him. Flattered, I shared my limited my BJJ experience. He responded that I was a tough opponent who prevented him from executing his normal strategy and that he could learn from me.

Feeling Great

Here I am, a guy who just lost his first two BJJ matches, but I was feeling great! I competed for the first time in a new martial art and realized that even though I may have lost the first two matches of my BJJ competitive career, my athleticism and conditioning helped me frustrate and challenge two fighters who were much more seasoned than me. I put up a two good fights!

After a few days of reflecting on this tournament, I wanted to try again. Believing in my ability, knew I could win. I continued my training regimen to prepare for the next NAGA Tournament on November 17 in Newark, NJ.

Déjà vu

Tournament day arrived and I was prepared. I no longer had the “first tournament jitters”. Suddenly, I hear a familiar announcement, “Steve Driben, please come to the officials’ table”. I was stunned, but this time I knew what was happening. Without a competitor in the same division and weight class (I still weighed 175lbs.), I was presented two options – move up in division level or stay within my division and fight an opponent who was a heavyweight. I opted for the heavy weight. 

Going for It

The match began and we shook hands. My opponent aggressively shoved me backward trying to intimidate me, but it did not faze me. I focused on advancing forward attempting to grab hold of him. I wanted to take the fight to the ground, but he was stronger and kept me at bay. Then, without warning, he grabbed my front leg and swept me to the ground. He quickly captured me in a guillotine choke. Many thoughts immediately flashed through my mind, but under no circumstance would I let my opponent force me to submit. I maintained composure, slowly slid my fingers between his arm and my throat and eventually escaped to my feet. I kept my movements fast, and my opponent seemed agitated that I was able to escape his powerful hold.

At last my opportunity came. His right leg was forward and without hesitation, I shot in, grabbed his leg and swept him to the ground. Quickly controlling my opponent from the side mount, I capitalized on this dominant position “taking my opponent’s back”, forcing him to “tap-out” (submission) via a rear naked choke! This win was (and still is) an amazing feeling!!!

Thank you to Kirby Farrales at Summit MMA. The combination of BJJ coaching and strength & conditioning training were the keys to my success. Thank you to Ross Segal for being my primary rolling/sparing partner. Your “endless gas-tank” pushed my limits. Thank you to Ronnie Weist of Delaware Combat Sports for providing pre-fight strategy and coaching me to my win and finally thank you to my wife, Debbie, for her unwavering support and belief in me.

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