It’s a warm night at Premier Martial arts in Canyon Country, where Michael Serrano is dripping with sweat and weak with fatigue as he finishes his last set of burpees and pushups.

As he collapses to the ground and lays flat on his back, staring at the ceiling lights, Serrano begins to imagine the payoff for all his hard work, having his hand once again raised in victory.

He envisioned throwing his opponent to the ground, wrapping his arm around his neck and squeezing tight, waiting for the satisfying feeling of a “tap-out,” a sign that his opponent had had enough.

Serrano trains in Jiu-Jitsu, an ancient ground-based submission fighting system originally from Japan that does not use strikes to attack but uses chokes and joint manipulations to overpower an opponent. Translated from Japanese, Jiu Jitsu means gentle art, as fights can end with an opponent can submit or “tap out” without any damage.

“He is one of the hardest working students ever to come through here,” said David Dunn, a Jiu-Jitsu black belt and owner of Premier Martial Arts. “He gets up at 5 a.m. doing his cardio, his weightlifting, prepping for the activity that he loves.”

This late-night training session is essential as he readies himself for his first national tournament, the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Fighting World Championship, also known as the ADCC. The submission grappling event is held annually in Las Vegas, where competitors from across the globe demonstrate their dominance in the fighting art.

“To be competitive was something I never was growing up, and once I decided to change my life for the better, that is something I wanted to do,” said Serrano.

Mike Serrano poses for a picture with his friend Esther Rosales after placing in a Jiu-Jitsu tournament. Picture Courtesy of Mike Serrano

The idea of change initially brought Serrano to Jiu-Jitsu and competition. Feeling helpless and having major self-esteem issues most of his life, he found strength in the fighting arts.

“As a kid, I was relentlessly bullied from kindergarten to fifth grade…and I realized bullying stopped when I fought back,” said Serrano. “Standing up for myself was a really big reason to train in martial arts.”

When a friend sent him some pictures of athletes “rolling around” nine years ago, Serrano doubted the practicality of the sport. But he decided to give it a try and became hooked.

Training five days a week, most times coming right after working shifts as a manager for campus security at a high school in the San Fernando Valley. Serrano quickly moved up the belt ranking system to the level of purple, the halfway point to the master level of black.

Feeling his confidence grow, Serrano wanted to test himself outside the cozy confines of his academy by entering Jiu-Jitsu tournaments, where athletes from other schools compete against each other in matches that are decided by points or submission.

After competing locally, where he found success winning 12 medals, including five gold, Serrano felt a call for a more significant challenge on the national stage.

“I think this is really going to test my actual Jiu-Jitsu, not just my toughness,” said Serrano. “It is going to test my knowledge of my game.”

Traveling to Las Vegas on the event day, Serrano looked to overpower the competition, but even with hard work and preparation, sometimes dreams get taken down.

As his match started, he was thrown down on his back after his opponent executed a single-leg takedown, where his opponent took hold of one of his legs. And that’s where the fight stayed, as Serrano could not perform counters or sweeps for the 10 minutes they fought.

In the end, his opponent got two points for the takedown, and his hand was raised in victory.

Serrano left Vegas in defeat but gained a more profound knowledge of himself through combat.

“I have won before and lost before, and all this being the same, you come back the next training session, and you work hard to the next one,” said Serrano. “Whether it’s in the game of Jiu-Jitsu or the game of life, you just have to keep trying.”

Even in defeat, he still sees a victory. He has tasted competition on a higher level and sees his future as getting back into the gym and improving his game for the next tournament.

Mike Serrano with his Jiu-Jitsu class after another hard day of training. Photo Courtesy of Mike Serrano.
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