While BJJ itself is still in its infancy in many countries, the art of grappling is virtually as old as recorded human history. But although most people are familiar with the significance of traditional martial arts in Asian history and wrestling in Greco-Roman history, far fewer are aware of how grappling has shaped the past and present of New Zealand’s Māori.
The Māori are New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian people, known for their reputation as some of the best voyagers in human history. Hundreds of years after European colonization, their culture, history, and people have persevered, and so has their love for grappling.
One of the cities in which Māori culture is most celebrated is Rotorua, which is a literal hotspot known for its geothermal activity and tourism appeal. It’s there that you’ll find HT Strength & Fitness: a second-floor gym with busy martial arts, cardio, and powerlifting programs. The gym is led by head instructor and BJJ purple belt Paki-Tu Wirihana, who won No-Gi Worlds as a blue belt in 2018 and PanPacs in 2017. Following in his footsteps is his son, Hakaraia Wilson, who’s already an accomplished purple belt with a silver at SJJF Worlds among his many achievements.
Paki and his family, like the vast majority of their gym members, are Māori — and like many Māori, they’ve worked hard to keep their people’s culture, language, and traditions alive. While many people even outside of New Zealand are aware of the traditional haka, far fewer are aware of the cultural significance of another prominent activity throughout Māori history: grappling.
“Prior to European colonization,” says Paki, “we had our own form of grappling, which had three names to describe the same art: Mamau (to hold), Whatoto (to reach out and grab your hand), and Nonoke (to be like a worm). We were a culture that, for a long time, had no guns. We had long weapons, like throwing spears, or short-handed, thrusting weapons. Our combat was hand-to-hand, and we used grappling to unarm or unbalance our opponents.”
The Māori prioritized combat training, and that meant that everyone — male and female alike — started grappling as young as three or four years old. “We had games to bring a child up and train them and get them flexible with hand-eye coordination and prepare them for adulthood,” says Paki.
Women’s grappling abilities were also highly valued. “Traditionally, men and women were viewed as equals,” says Paki. “We celebrated our differences, but we treated each other as equals. They had different skills that made them great grapplers — and we can see those same skills being used in jiu-jitsu today. A big part of being successful is having strategy for different opponents and games. Females will take a breath and strategize, while men are more like a bull in a china shop. Stories have been passed down, and we learned that good women could compete against two men at the same time. Women were people we consulted in times of war — they were known for coming up with plans.”
As time passed and the Māori traveled back and forth from New Zealand, their culture started to deviate from their Polynesian roots and become “more uniquely Māori.” Paki, a carver and tattoo artist himself, points to art as an indicator of the people’s cultural evolution. “Before we came to New Zealand and became truly Māori, our art was more linear — a lot of lines, triangles, and fish. Māori art is more curvo-linear. For example, we have six different spirals that we carve and tattoo.”
The move to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands also prompted changes in Māori weaponry and lifestyle. They had come from a tropical paradise and had to adapt to a more temperate, mountainous environment. As the years passed and treaties were signed between the Māori and European lawmakers, the need for the Māori to constantly be prepared for battle started to fade away, and thus, so did their grappling arts.
The passage of time hasn’t completely erased grappling from Māori culture, though. New Zealand is one of many countries with a relatively small, but growing jiu-jitsu community, and the nation’s Māori population is helping the sport thrive. “I’d say 70 to 80 percent of New Zealand’s top grapplers are Māori,” says Paki. “Probably 90 percent of the martial arts students at [HT Strength & Fitness] are Māori, and 95 percent of the power lifters are Māori.”
The strong Māori presence in the gym isn’t only evident in the abilities and athleticism of the students. Paki makes a point to ensure that the cultural values that have been passed on for generations help make the academy a home and not just a business. The academy itself has a designated bedroom for guests who need a place to stay, plus a full kitchen. “If you want to bring your baby, we have toys — the whole club will look after your baby. We want to get the whole family training and healthy. It’s a safe environment, too. During kids’ class, we make sure we have food here. In winter, we noticed the kids had bad concentration and hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so I’d have the kids come early and to eat something, and we’d make sure they’d have something to take home.”
This isn’t just a feel-good tactic to boost kids’ class numbers — it’s a deeply personal and cultural cause for Paki. “No matter where you go, indigenous populations are highest in bad statistics. In the end, it’s up to us to become healthy and be educated, but in the way we need to be, not the way everyone else tells us to be. Jiu-jitsu is something that can do that. Everyone talks about finding your community and discipline — we use the gym culturally to target our poor families and Māori families and show them they can succeed and achieve.”
Paki’s references to “bad statistics” are backed up by years of New Zealand census reports — in 2013, Māori had lower home ownership rates and lower life expectancy rates than non-Māori New Zealanders; in 2017, they accounted for over 50 percent of the country’s incarcerated population, and Māori youth were reported to be twice as likely to experience poverty than non-Māori New Zealand children. Many of these problems (like the issues of native populations around the world) are systemic and cyclical, and they’ve affected Paki’s own life in a tragic way.
Hanging up in the gym is a photograph of Paki’s nephew, Trevor. At the end of every class, Paki and the attending students bow towards the photograph the same way that some instructors have their students bow toward a photograph of a jiu-jitsu master. It’s a gesture of respect and remembrance for Trevor, who committed suicide in October of 2015. Paki speaks highly of his late nephew, who he says was an accomplished jiu-jitsu competitor until he took a wrong turn in life.
“He would’ve been first person from [New Zealand] to make it into the UFC. He never lost a match, never had points scored on him. In his last regional competition, he went up a few weight classes and won. Through life and depression, he got into drugs, went to prison, and then committed suicide. New Zealand has the highest rates in the developed world for youth suicide and male Māori suicide. There’s a lot of mental illness and depression that goes undiagnosed and untreated.”
The effects of exercise and social interaction on mental illness motivate Paki further to make a gym membership accessible for his students. He and the HT Strength & Fitness team are doing what they can to provide everyone with an affordable, achievable way to improve their own lives.
“We charge $10 a week for membership, which gives you classes all throughout the week and access to the gym equipment. We identify cost and money as a barrier for our people participating. We have a kid who’s been training since age six and is now twelve, and he’s won multiple championships. This wouldn’t have happened if his parents couldn’t afford for him to train. The gym pretty much breaks even. I carve, teach, and tattoo to afford everything else. The payoff of seeing kids and families train,” he says.
Beyond simply creating a healthy, welcoming environment for both kids and adults, Paki embraces the concept of discipline as a display of love as well. He pushes his students to be successful both within and outside of the academy’s walls, and sometimes, he utilizes a bit of tough love to push them in the right direction.
“I ‘growl’ at my students, but the reason I growl is because I want you to do your best,” he says. “I also growl at the parents. It takes a village to raise a kid, but you have to have the parents on board too. In the past, I’ve growled at parents, ‘Why are you spoiling your child? Why aren’t you making them work?’ That’s a big part of Māori culture. By that child and those parents, I’ve tried to make them not just the best BJJ player, but the best person in general. Half of the job today is teaching work ethic — teaching the kid that to get it, you have to work.”
Paki’s approach to martial arts is one that utilizes love in all its forms — tough, soft, smart, and practical — to help his students reach the potential he knows exists within them. It’s a reflection of his investment in both his students and his academy, sure, but it’s more than that: it’s simply the Māori way.