One man’s TED talk experience—and his dream of bringing jiu jitsu to downtown Las Vegas
Six weeks is ample time to design a marvelous future where the ancient art of jiu jitsu—a closely guarded secret of monks, samurai and royalty for much of its history—empowers kids and teens who can’t afford the $100-a-month (or more) classes. Six weeks of late nights at a 24-hour Starbucks sifting through words and phrases in the pursuit of good writing. Six weeks of never-ending visualizations and believing that one speech delivered at the right time, in front of the right people, could instantly change my life, my 7-year-old son’s life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people I’ve never met.
Six of the most intense weeks of my life crescendoed at 10:10 a.m. on a Friday, when a man with a mic rousingly announced to an intimate crowd on the UNLV campus: “He’s a Las Vegas-based writer and jiu jitsu black belt whose passions collide daily at the intersection of geek, jock and Jedi. Please welcome to the stage Frank Anthony Curreri.”
With that introduction I walked toward a spotlighted red circle, roughly the size of a dinner table for four. I was a relatively inexperienced speaker whose performances as a singer-songwriter had been sabotaged by stage fright. But as I stood onstage, an electronic clock counting down before me, a deep-rooted conviction guided my words.
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If you believe in the law of attraction, you could say I manifested my TEDx talk. In two short months, in fact. The domino effect started in December with an invitation to speak to area high schoolers, followed by an impromptu offer from a friend to spend two weeks in Beijing teaching Brazilian jiu jitsu seminars to amateur fighters for a Chinese reality TV show. In late January I returned home and met with an old journalist friend eager to hear about my exploits overseas.
“What’s next for you?” he asked.
“Speaking,” I replied.
That’s what makes me want to wake up early and stay up late. That’s what makes me feel alive.
In the next breath my friend mentioned an upcoming opportunity at UNLV.
“They’re going to be hosting a TED talk,” he said. “I’ll email you the info.”
Immediately I researched TEDxUNLV, scheduled for April 8. Deadline for speaker nominations was Feb. 15. As suddenly as my excitement had surged it sank—I was conducting my research on Feb. 17. Bummer, since the event’s “Living in the Extreme!” theme perfectly melded with a topic I had in mind.
Despite missing the deadline, I remember feeling in my heart, “Somehow, someway, I’m meant to speak at this event.” I’m in the odds-defying biz, after all. You don’t endure 15 years of grueling Brazilian jiu jitsu practices, trips to emergency rooms and earn a black belt in the art by giving up easily. You don’t win a bronze medal at the IBJJF World Championships and overcome a titanium plate being surgically implanted in your neck and blood clots that could kill you by rolling over at the first sign of resistance and saying, “Maybe next year.”
My inner dialogue roared: “Fight for it. Pitch a great story. Find the right words.” I drove to my 267-square-foot studio apartment at the Gold Spike and emailed one of the TEDx organizers. The gist of my pitch: Vegas is a fight town. The fight town. The Spartan and skyrocketing underworld of mixed martial arts is an often overlooked part of Vegas’ unique identity and essence.
A day later, my phone rang. It was a TEDxUNLV official with a Southern accent and voice that projected humility and goodness: “Hi, Frank. I read your email and like your idea. You missed the deadline, so maybe apply for future events.”
We spoke for 15 minutes, then she said they might have time for me to do an exhibition on stage. She said she would get back to me.
Days later, on a Sunday afternoon, the official and one of her colleagues visited me for an audition in the Gold Spike’s backyard. As I greeted and shook hands with her colleague, he said, “I just want you to know I don’t watch fighting and I don’t like fighting.”
Ironically, from that point on, he and I bonded over philosophy and the challenges of teaching students. I framed jiu jitsu and MMA in universal terms: the values promoted, how fight sports are the last true meritocracy on Earth, how they shine a light on the character (there is no hiding who you are on the mat or in the cage) and illuminate everything you need to work on.
What was supposed to be a jiu jitsu exhibition morphed into a 30-minute philosophical conversation. I showed two minutes of jiu jitsu grappling moves with a partner, and both officials seemed impressed. A few days later, the TEDxUNLV brain trust confirmed my inclusion in the event, with one twist: Instead of a three-to-five-minute exhibition, they were giving me 11 minutes.
Over the next six weeks I prepared like a madman, writing and brainstorming every day well past 5 a.m. I needed a title for my presentation. Eventually, I settled on “Sculpting the Soul with Jiu Jitsu.”
My seminal epiphany was having UFC world champion Miesha Tate and high school freshman Analynn Molina perform the jiu jitsu choreography during my speech. Tate, whom I have known since my days working as a correspondent for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, represents what I call “The Golden Age of Girl Power.” Molina, as fast a learner as I’ve seen on a mat, represents a fast-evolving future that will make everyone rethink the physical prowess and mental toughness of women.
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The morning of my TEDx talk, I practiced my speech several times and while waiting in the wings I felt this incredible aliveness. I took the stage first, followed by Miesha and Analynn. There were no teleprompters. I felt comfortable on stage and scanned what appeared to be an interested audience.
I painted jiu jitsu as an artistic expression of our inner selves, an addictive and intellectually stimulating game of chess. It’s yoga, meditation, wrestling and Cirque du Soleil rolled into one. In addition to its obvious self-defense benefits, it invigorates, and alleviates fears, anxieties and short attention spans. As I spoke, my greatest concern was that Miesha would fall off the 8-foot-circumference stage and injure herself, forcing her to withdraw from UFC 200 and inciting the wrath of my old friend, UFC President Dana White.
Toward the end of my talk, I shared my “Idea Worth Spreading”: Jiu jitsu and UFC experts have seen the future. We know this art elevates the human spirit. We know it’s more about healing than hurting. Let’s share this lifestyle with low-income kids and teens around the world and, over the next decade, enable 250,000 or more of them to train for free.
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In the days after stepping off the stage, I have pondered the yin and yang of my TEDx adventure. I’m grateful, especially this early in my speaking career, to the UNLV officials who believed in me. However, the perfectionist in me wanted to deliver “The Speech of a Lifetime” and I missed the mark. Though friends have remarked how natural I appeared on stage, my TEDx talk was solid not stellar. I was not completely “in the moment.” TED curator Chris Anderson has advised organizers to run from high-energy, motivational-type speakers. Mindful of that, I toned down my energy too much. I also struggled with the tight, 11-minute time limit.
Big League experience, of course, is priceless. I learned to always have trusted friends review a speech before I hit the stage. I was also reminded of why I don’t like scripted speeches and prefer to use an outline, which enables me to speak from the heart.
Another key takeaway: I feel a heightened sense of responsibility. The idea to spread jiu jitsu to low-income kids has moved beyond imagination, beyond my handwritten TEDx notes, and now exists in the physical universe, holding me more accountable than ever to form alliances and execute the plan. It is no longer my idea, but an idea, our idea. The only way it will thrive is for thousands of people and coaches to invest in it. I’m especially excited to try and bring jiu jitsu to downtown Las Vegas and allow dozens, and eventually hundreds, of kids to train for free.
Frederick Douglass once said, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I’ve lived this for the past 15 years, I’ve seen it and I know jiu jitsu has the power to sculpt stronger children. Join me on the mat, and let’s make it happen.
Frank Anthony Curreri is a Las Vegas-based speaker, writer and Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt. He has worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Salt Lake Tribune, FOX5 News Las Vegas and the UFC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.