There’s a lot of written material out there covering the pioneers of our sport. Lots of interest in how Renzo, Marcelo and Shaolin established themselves in NYC and how Atos gained its foothold on the west coast. But what about a smaller regional scene?
I was born and brought up in a suburb of Cleveland Ohio and I currently train at a Brasa hub right here in town that has been established in one of the top MMA gyms in the country. Our region in this country is rich with different jiu jitsu schools and affiliations, and I have embarked upon what I think is a pretty interesting project. I have chosen a few different schools to profile for this project. These are each unique in their origin and the struggles their leaders faced when establishing them.
This region is fairly new to the Jiu Jitsu game, up until only a few years ago there were only small number of black belts, and most school/teams were run by lower belts. For this series I am profiling a handful of local academy leaders:
John Lawrence is the newest academy leader involved in this project. John founded his school, Hurricane Jiu Jitsu in Lakewood Ohio within the past year in a relatively saturated region. In his segment of this series we will explore what it was like to build a team in an region with a wealth of jiu jitsu academies and teams. In John’s words “The biggest mistake a BJJ school owner and instructor can make is developing a sense of entitlement. We worked so hard to make it to black belt, but few realize how much work there is yet to be done. Having a black belt and a working knowledge of BJJ is no longer rare, and subsequently, the market is much more competitive.” Unlike many on this list, John has the unique perspective of building a team in a town that already has many BJJ products available. “How many of us have met the instructor who is an outstanding competitor, yet is barely able to manage his business? Conversely, there are many examples of the school owner who does an outstanding job on the business side, but loses legitimacy as an effective fighter and competitor.”
Michael Rooney is on the very edge of the region that I have chosen to examine. His team, Underground BJJ is in Erie Pennsylvania, a town that hasn’t yet really built up a lot of BJJ academies. His team hosts some very strong competitors, though Rooney himself is more of a casual practitioner. His perspective is that of a sort of a pioneer. He founded a team in a region that is rich in Jiu Jitsu but a town that is not.
“My academy is small and made up of a great team. There really isn’t any other bjj school in Erie. Since the school is my part time job and really more of a hobby I’m not worried about competition. Guys either want what my team has or they don’t. I started out teaching karate at a local ymca. I was fighting mma and got more and more into bjj. I have been teaching bjj since I was a white belt since there was no one else in the area. Eventually I moved into my basement where I taught for a couple years. When our numbers grew I finally got a small commercial space about 2.5 years ago. As far as competitors we train hard every day. I believe there is no substitute for live rolling. Our warm up is live rolling then technique then more live rolling. So right before a tournament I just make sure they no specific rules and tweak a few areas of their individual game.”
Rooney will bring us the perspective of a team leader who built a team in the absence of other existing teams.
As part of this project I thought it would be interesting to interview the leaders two directly competing academies. Here’s where it gets interesting: in the world of BJJ when things are done right, even direct competition can be done collaboratively. Deon Thompson of Ohio Brasa and Chris Blanke of Ribeiro Jiu Jitsu Toledo both founded their teams in a relatively small city, Toledo.
Chris Blanke’s experience has been taking the existing Ribeiro academy that Saulo and Xande personally established in Toledo and growing it into one of the top teams in the region
“Establishing a BJJ Business in Toledo has been a great experience for me! We have been open for over 15 years now and I could not be happier. Having Saulo and Xande Ribeiro live with me for almost 6 years set me on a path to produce great people and competitors at the same time. With being open for so long and producing so many high ranks the natural progression is for some of them to leave and open their own schools. I believe this is a positive thing because people will go where they feel comfortable.”
Deon, on the other hand, established his key Brasa hub a bit more recently, and has been similarly successful.
“It’s not as easy as one may think, actually the main person that assisted me with great advice was Chris Blanke (who has the Ribeiro assoc) he respected the fact that I got under a credible blackbelt (Rodrigo Comprido Medeiros ) that mixed with the fact that I always competed in those early years so I had established relationships which made the transition a little easier. Our goal was to establish Jiu-Jitsu in our city as a viable option to other martial arts we knew that the city was big enough for both of us to be successful if we supported each other and it worked. But his school was the first and I wouldn’t be where I am without Chris bringing bjj to northwest Ohio”
A key to the Toledo Brasa story is how Deon was able to establish his school in a town that had very little competition, and was able to foster a friendly relationship with his main competition. Positivity is the name of Deon and Chris’s game, and as a result both of their schools have flourished and produced high level competitors and practitioners.
Like Michael Rooney, Chad Kuhn established his academy in an area that didn’t have many BJJ academies. The key difference is that Chad was working with an established martial arts academy, East Coast Martial Arts in Canton Ohio. His Jiu Jitsu team is currently affiliated with Bonsai Jiu Jitsu by way of New Breed Training Center. Chad’s team has grown some of the top competitors in the region.
Chad’s struggles were less with attracting new students as they were bringing their existing student based into the fold of BJJ
“At the beginning, I would say are biggest struggle was getting people to understand that training in the gi would be beneficial to them. We actually lost some of the old school mma/no gi guys. That with the fact the highest rank we had in bjj was a blue belt, I was a white belt when our gi program started. Mike Broome(blue belt then) and I did a lot of seminars and cross trained to broaden our knowledge.”
Chad did have some help from one of the pioneers of MMA/BJJ in Ohio, Steve Hindman,
“It wasn’t easy but not as bad as you might think, We were very fortunate that the owner of the gym and life long Martial artist Steve Hindman was very very open minded and knew jiu-jitsu was needed to be a well rounded school. He himself went out to California in the late 90’s to train with the Machado’s. He was also very involved in the local mma scene , we never had a lot of fighters but the ones we had won and that also holds true today. We started doing various local bjj tournaments and started doing pretty well, word of mouth helped get more students . Social media wasn’t what it is today. I would say around 2008 we started attracting some high school wrestlers mainly from hoover high school that wanted to start training. Currently I would say we have between 30-40 active bjj students and average about 20 per class . We offer 3 classes per week and open mat on Sundays .”
I also had a chance to get some thoughts from my coach, Pablo Angel Castro III of Strong Style Brasa, . Pablo established a Jiu Jitsu team while still a purple belt. He established one of the strongest teams in the region in an already thriving MMA gym. Pablo not only faced competition throughout the region, but also faced the difficulty of earning the respect of people who were already talented grapplers, and he has accomplished all of that, and more.
“It wasn’t too difficult to start up a program that had already been in place with grappling. With the support of Marcus Marinelli (the owner/head coach of Strong Style), it was not too difficult to start up a formal Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Program as well. However as a result of various jiu jitsu politics and experiences, it wasn’t until a sudden chance meeting of 7 time world champion, Rodrigo “Comprido” Medeiros through a great friend of mine, Deon Thompson, that I was able to build a traditional Brazilian Jiu Jitsu program. The BJJ program is separate and distinct from the MMA program. All are welcome to do both, and many do; but many stay comfortable within their own distinguished program. The philosophy of Jiu Jitsu instilled at Strong Style Brasa is synonymous with safety, respect, hard work and discipline, although not limited to those. The BJJ team is a family in every sense of the meaning of that word.”
One key that Pablo, and others, have stressed when describing their keys to success are their student base and their affiliations.
At the end of this series of profiles, I will feature some of the founding fathers of Ohio Jiu Jitsu. Guys didn’t have to deal with competition, but rather the complete absence of understanding of what jiu jitsu is and its potential value to the individual in this region.
This first part gives you some snippets of what it has been like for these individuals to start their teams. With them I will explore the various struggles they have encountered, their secrets of success and their insights into the future of BJJ in this region. Stay tuned…