Bullies liked to put a pounding on Nick Tsai. He was always the sole Asian boy in his class — the odd one out, the scrawny kid.
He grew up in the heart of New Orleans with a Taiwanese father and an American mother. In summary, as far as the merciless ethos of a segregated elementary school playground, he had been born with a target on his back.
“I took karate classes, but it didn’t work,” recalled Tsai, who is currently studying Japanese at Cornell as part of an intensive year-long language program. “I still got beat up.”
In his teens, Tsai turned his back on martial arts and took up skateboarding, but that would not be the end of the saga. In college, he started dabbling in boxing and other striking forms. Back in New Orleans for summers, Tsai learned the ropes at Ancona’s Gym & City Bar — a joint that had a legit martial arts space upstairs and dingy pub in the basement. Almost every weekend, they put on “smokers,” an old-school boxing term for amateur bouts held for private groups.
When one fight left Tsai’s right hand broken and mangled, it seemed that his training would be forced into another hiatus. However, he turned to a different art-form at Ancona’s — submission grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. His first instructor happened to be UFC veteran MMA fighter Rich Clementi.
“I was hooked right away,” said Tsai. “I loved it and knew it was something I had to do.”
You Will Submit — In the Dojo or the Courtroom
Skip ahead a decade. Nick Tsai has earned his law degree from the University of Austin, and — after countless blood-and-sweat hours on the mat — he also received his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under three-time BJJ world champion Eric Williams at Elite MMA in Houston, where Tsai’s family moved after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.
“To earn your black belt, you have to be obsessive,” said Tsai, who is now 30 years old. “But you never finish learning. It’s about the journey, and it has become such an integral part of my life and who I am that I simply cannot do without it. Jiu-jitsu helps me in everything I do.”
Practicing law with a firm in Houston, Tsai exhibited a special ability for negotiating international contracts. For him, the art of negotiating tied in directly to the art of grappling a foe into an inescapable submission hold. He noted several concepts that cross over, from using your opponents’ energy against him to the techniques that must be executed with a sharpshooter’s precision in games where subtle positioning and leverage count for everything.
For Tsai, the outlook and confidence he received from jiu-jitsu also allowed him to pursue his dreams. With seemingly everything going for him, the Louisiana native decided to give it all up. He had married a woman from Japan and said he realized the time had come for him to move to the Land of the Rising Sun. So, he quit his legal gig in Houston, and applied to Cornell’s Full-Year Asian Language Concentration (FALCON) program.
“My co-workers were shocked, and my family, especially on the Taiwanese side, thought I had gone completely crazy,” Tsai said.
In truth, compounded with economic hard times, most recent law school graduates are more likely to sell used cars these days than land with an established legal firm. Tsai resigned from his position after only receiving floating interest from Japanese companies.
Furthermore, recruiters informed Tsai that learning Japanese was completely unnecessary. After all, English is the standard language used in business dealings between Japanese and Chinese corporations and most multinational organizations. But, when Nick Tsai sets out to make a move, he wants to do it right and wants to do it his way.
The risk paid off. Mitsubishi offered Tsai a job in Tokyo, promising to wait until he finished his program at Cornell. Tokyo also will offer him more than a few worthy dojos.
“BJJ showed me that you do not have to be stuck on the same path in life,” Tsai said. “There are always options and possibilities.”
Still skinny, but now humbling bullies … and everybody else
Some people might find paradox in a lawyer who specializes in amicably negotiating contracts while also being a badass black belt. But, they are the unenlightened.
While the ancient origins of jiu-jitsu fall into enigmatic shadows, the art came of age in Japan more than 500 years ago. In the early 1900s, Japanese masters brought jiu-jitsu to Brazil, where it underwent dramatic innovation and adaptation under the leadership of the famed Gracie family. As they have done with many cultural expressions, from soccer to Carnival, the Brazilians took jiu-jitsu and transformed it into their own.
It developed into Brazil’s second most popular sport, and it eventually inspired the founding of mixed martial arts in both Brazil and the US. Disciples of the art can endlessly wax poetic about its history and philosophy. Just take note that in its purist form, BJJ stresses the use of leverage, energy and balance to subdue opponents through grappling and submission holds, and, in theory, a 110-pound fighter can always defeat a heavyweight bruiser with the right technique.
Tsai embodies the way of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu master. Approximately six feet tall and just a notch above 160 pounds, Tsai appears about as menacing and intimidating as Gandhi. But, he regularly dominates guys 50 or even 60 pounds heavier than him and makes it look effortless. He often trains with professional fighters from Team Bombsquad at Ultimate Athletics.
At Cornell, Tsai offers his expert instruction for the Cornell University Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (CUBJJ) club, which holds evening classes three times a week at the Friedman Wrestling Center. He will teach a Brazilian jiu-jitsu seminar this coming weekend, April 20-21. For more information, please contact CUBJJ at firstname.lastname@example.org. All challengers welcome.
And what about those old bullies? Now they matter about as much as gnats in the wind.
“If you even have a remote interest in martial arts, you should come and try BJJ,” said Tsai. “For me, it changed my life. It can do the same for you.”