University of Pittsburgh

good sport


It's crunch time at Trees Hall

Written by Cara J. Hayden


This is not a fight club. Even though the smell of sweat blankets the gym, and a dozen men are power-locked in pairs—one club member is wringing his arm around the neck of another—they’re not really fighting. Oh they’re scuffling to be sure, but this mat room in Trees Hall is a place for friendship, where Pitt students are building a brotherhood. How? They’re grappling on the ground, yanking each other into choke holds and joint locks.

In the middle of this brother-bonding action, a pinned man’s face turns redder and redder, because he’s stuck in a choke hold. It’s no big deal. In the history of the club, no one has ever lost consciousness or had a bone snapped. Finally, the red-faced man smacks his hand on the mat, a signal of submission, a lesson in humility. His buddy releases the choke. The defeated man, Pitt senior Pat Daley, just lost a battle with himself. Yes, he says, himself. If he’d been thinking faster, if he’d learned more moves, if he’d built up his technique, then maybe he would have won.

Daley is president of the Panther Grappling Club, a Pitt organization that’s one of the many hybrid martial-arts-and-wrestling clubs that have become popular nationwide. Grappling is a combination of Brazilian jujitsu and submission wrestling—the sort of wrestling that allows throws, choke holds, gripping, and joint locks, not just timed pins.

Daley rests on the mat, crossing his arms over his tucked knees. It’s not surprising that he lost. After all, he was up against “a little pit bull, tell you what,” he says. He was grappling with the founder of the club, Jimmy Cerra, a friend at a higher martial-arts belt level whose skill he deeply respects. Still, Daley thinks about what he did wrong. If he had squirmed left instead of right, or pushed his leg this way instead of that, maybe he would have escaped the move that choked him up. He’ll need to figure it out before upcoming tournaments with other college grapplers in Pennsylvania and bordering states.

Before this practice, Daley was perched in the cool office of an engineering company, participating in an academic internship as a Pitt civil engineering major. He says he chose the discipline because building is what drives him in life. At Pitt, he joined the grappling club when he was a freshman seeking new friends and new ways to build his own character. Although he had no experience with martial arts or wrestling, he discovered that he had some natural talent. Today, he has worked his way up to club president and knows more than 200 grappling moves.

On the mat, Daley doesn’t muse for long about why he lost to the “pit bull.” He knows he just needs to improve. Minutes later, he’s grappling with another friend, challenging his mind and his body in a physical art that’s perfect for those who like to build—new skills, new moves, new ways to win.