BJJ Perseverance Series: James Hazel

7 min read
After being hit by 3 cars, losing his right leg, and countless surgeries, how one man changed his life and health with Jiu-Jitsu

James Hazel in BJJ competition

BJJ Perseverance Series: James Hazel

After being hit by 3 cars, losing his right leg, and countless surgeries, how one man changed his life and health with Jiu-Jitsu

Location: New England U.S.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Photo by: amputee_bjj

James Hazel caught my eye on social media a while back the way most people do, through jiu-jitsu competition photos on my Instagram feed. James is a jiu-jitsu athlete who competes regularly, despite having only one leg. I reached out to him because I had a feeling his story was one that should be told. The tough look he wears on his face and figure, along with his accent, is something right out of Peaky Blinders. His conversation, however, is sweet and unbelievably uplifting.  He taught me a different way to see him and the myriad advantages he possesses in this sport. His own words sum up his story and his life… in my inner me, there’s just fight. 

The Accident

In September 2013, James was in a motorbike accident just five minutes from his house in a town called Greenhithe in Kent, just outside of London. He hit a tractor and then got hit by a truck, a car, and a van, breaking just about every bone in his body. Confused, he fought those who tried to help him, even with everything broken and dislocated, and had to be strapped down. Throughout his time at the hospital, he had to be resuscitated three times, and his family was told to come say goodbye. Eventually, he was put into an induced coma so they could perform multiple surgeries, adding rods and pins all through his body to piece him back together, and finally deciding to amputate his left leg.

He often thinks about how his family must have felt during this time. They were told throughout the process that things were not going well. He wasn’t absorbing the food they provided because his body was shutting down; normally that is a sign that a person will not survive. 

While he slept, they suffered

Then, upon waking, James found himself stuck inside a horrifying delusion. Convinced that he had been captured, and was being harvested for his organs, he began to fight again. Unable to move any part of his body below the neck, he gave himself a bald spot from rubbing the back of his head against the pillow. It was a constant and obsessive attempt to relieve himself of the oxygen mask he believed his captors were using to sedate him.  The culmination of the trauma, the drugs, and the entire experience at large had taken its toll. 

But what would have killed most people merely changed James… and for the better. For years prior to his accident, he had struggled with mental health issues. About a year and a half earlier he had even attempted suicide. And yet, only three weeks after colliding with four vehicles and having a leg amputated, he discharged himself from the hospital and went home a new man. 

His sister, who happens to be a nurse, took time off from work to care for him during his recovery. So, despite the hospital’s protestations, he decided to stay within the comforts of home. For a long time, he was unable to bear weight because his good leg was very severely damaged, and crutches were not possible for a while because of the damage to his arm. His recovery was quite gradual, step by step by step. And yet, he explained to me that he found this process to be rejuvenating. “Every day I could do something a little bit more. At the time I had long hair, and I couldn’t tie my hair in a band and then eventually, I was able to put it up. So there were lots of little achievements.

I asked, then, if he enjoyed all of the little victories in getting his life back, to which he replied, Absolutely. He explained that the situation did not really hit him until about half a year later. He had felt fine at the hospital and during recovery, never feeling down or upset. 

When I asked if, perhaps, his good nature helped him recover from an experience that would have killed most people, he agreed. I think some people are able to look for the light and keep moving and I think it consumes some other people. I’ve just been fortunate that I have the right mindset. And I’ve realized something about myself… in the inner me there’s just fight. I had felt it in me before, but I really felt it at the lowest point in my life. It gave me more clarity of my character. 

The Jiu Jitsu Journey 

Prior to the accident, James had been quite a good skier. And while he could still ski with one leg, he found himself constantly comparing what he was able to do now with what he could do before. Eventually, James joined a wheelchair rugby league and absolutely loved it. He played internationally for five or six years. But he found that he didn’t enjoy the training aspect; only the actual games. And so, when the world cup was postponed for a year because of Covid, he imagined an entire year of only training and did not believe he would enjoy it. And so he began thinking about trying something new. 

One day, at the gym, a couple of guys put down mats and started doing jiu-jitsu. He asked if he could join, and they rolled with him. I just started rolling with them really badly but I was instantly hooked. I reached out to a couple of clubs to see if they were interested in having me and fortunately my coach was the first one to respond because he’s absolutely brilliant. He knows how to adapt everything for me and he finds alternatives. I’ll be in competition and he’ll yell “James get the stump in!” He really knows how to get the most out of me.

I asked him if he uses his stump, then, actively as a weapon. Oh, they absolutely hate it!” he explained. I use it mostly for chokies and get some really funky ones. I was at open mat the other day and was rolling with some higher-level belts who I had never rolled with before and they just don’t expect it to come. For example, passing full guard you just step back and dig the stump in the legs and so full guard is never a problem for me. Or, if I get someone’s back, more in a competition than in the gym, I will just dig it in to the spine or the neck and arch them back. It’s quite a handy tool to be honest. 

Competing with able-bodied athletes

James explained that not many sports have a level playing field with able-bodied people. Most sports involve legs somehow. At the start, he thought jiu-jitsu would be much more challenging or require more adaptations. But unlike skiing, he began jiu-jitsu with one leg, so he has nothing to compare it to… his training began with a blank slate. And now, not only can he compete with people at his own level, but he can beat them. He has something that most people do not have… a whole arsenal of things that I can use that people don’t know or expect. It’s exciting and fun! 

I asked him if he thinks people underestimate him and he explained that he can feel the moment in people. If they underestimate me even for a second, I can finish it pretty quick, especially in competition or an open mat. I like high-intensity rolls. I always tell people before so I’m not being nasty. When I get the chance to roll with a higher-level belt, I want to feel that intensity. Every time you tap that’s your biggest learning tool. I consider it like having a hand in the toaster. That’s the quickest way to learn. You make a mistake and then get choked or reach a point where you need to tap. So I just go for it, like a bat out of hell. 

Looking ahead

When James created his Instagram page, he began receiving lots of messages from amputees or those with various disabilities, or even just people who are able-bodied but feel something is off and are making an excuse. Many people tell him that he has inspired them to start jiu-jitsu or carry on with something they really love. He is hoping his presence will be of benefit to anyone who is looking into jiu-jitsu. 

James Hazel trains at Keddles and Bruce gym under Jack Shackleton. 
You can follow James on Instagram @amputee_bjj 

Also check out “The Healing Strength of Jiu Jitsu” HERE for more insight on the healing aspects of Jiu-Jitsu.

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