Interview With Tammi Willis: Building The First BJJ Club in Myanmar

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I have been traveling through Southeast Asia to see the sights, eat the food, experience the cultures, and train BJJ at each of my stops. After three weeks in Thailand, I hopped on a plane to Yangon, Myanmar to catch ONE Championship: Union of Warriors in Yangon, Myanmar.  During my week in the city, I learned of its history, politics, and culture. One of the most beautiful takeaways was the quote “We may not be rich in money, but we are rich in many other ways.”  It was a beautiful experience walking around the city, seeing the temples, and training BJJ.

Before I got to Myanmar, I researched BJJ schools in Yangon and found the Yangon BJJ House, which was founded by British ex-pat Tammi Willis. After relocating to Yangon several years ago, Willis couldn’t find a BJJ club, so she started her own out of her apartment, which caught the attention of VICE’s Fightland. I was fortunate enough to spend the week with her club, which now shares a space with the Yangon Yoga House.

The beautiful part of training in BJJ is the community and the Yangon BJJ House definitely has a warm and friendly, tight-knit group made of both locals and ex-pats. I had fun learning about both BJJ and the members who make up the club through classes and post-class meals. Since it was fight week, the club was visited by four fighters featured on the ONE Championship card including Myanmar born fighter Aung La N Sang, who won his main event fight and trains out of the Crazy 88 Gym in Baltimore, MD.

I had the chance to speak with Tammi about how she started her BJJ club in a market that previously didn’t have BJJ, finding coaches, growing her program, and how being part of the BJJ Globetrotters community has helped her program grow.

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JJT: How did you get started training in BJJ?

Tammi Willis: I started at Carlson Gracie London with Wilson Junior but after about a year of on/off training due to two major hip operations (nothing to do with BJJ), I found myself in South East Asia,travelling around while rehabbing from op no.2.

JJT: What brought you to Yangon, Myanmar?

Tammi Willis: I was helping my Dad with a sailing event, the SEA Games on Myanmar’s west coast. A friend of my Dad, who was to shortly become my boss, insisted we spend a couple of nights in Yangon before we returned to Malaysia. I met lots of cool people, both Myanmar and other expats, all entrepreneurial and full of ideas for new projects and businesses. It felt like a fun and exciting place to be.

JJT: What was the Myanmar BJJ scene like when you first moved to Yangon?

Tammi Willis: The BJJ “scene” was a small but enthusiastic group of mainly white belts, with the odd blue belt, exchanging techniques and knowledge picked up from other countries. They were training on the hard studio floor of a local fitness gym.

JJT: What compelled you to go to the extreme of starting your own BJJ club out of your apartment?

Tammi Willis: It didn’t feel extreme, it felt necessary! I did not want to stop learning BJJ and I thought I had moved to a country with an established MMA club, where BJJ was being taught. When I discovered that wasn’t true I had two options. Move country again, or bring BJJ coaching to me.

JJT: How did you find members and why did you choose to do it in your apartment?

Tammi Willis: I’m lazy so training from my apartment seemed like a brilliant idea. I had the space to train and host coaches, so I shipped over all my stuff from the UK and included a bunch of mats. Finally we had decent mats to train on and we were able to get coaches to come over from anywhere in the world in return for hospitality and a chance to experience Myanmar. The original 6 or so guys who I trained with at the fitness gym, each introduced some friends and they in turn bought more friends and so on. This is how any gym grows best, word of mouth.

JJT: After being asked by management and neighbors to move your training elsewhere, how did you find your current location at the Yangon Yoga House?

Tammi Willis: I met an amazing couple, Jojo and Jerome, who I’m proud to say are now very close friends as well as business partners. They were moving from London to Yangon on a whim just like me, and we shared the container to halve costs and stress! We hit it off immediately and have plotted and planned various business ideas together ever since. Jojo is a yoga teacher and wanted to open a studio, as soon as she found a suitable space and renovated it, we moved the mats in and our BJJ classes have operated alongside yoga, pilates and fitness classes, ever since.

JJT: How do you current market your club and BJJ in Myanmar?

Tammi Willis: Because we have no full time paid coach, but rely on the availability and goodwill of our three resident or part resident coaches, it is difficult to push the club up into the commercial realm. But we have a website www.bjjmyanmar.com and a facebook page www.facebook.com/BurmaBJJ and we’re affiliated with BJJ Globetrotters, who were intergral in our initial search for visiting coaches. Our visiting coach program landed us some great press with Vice Fightland and generally stirred up good word of mouth.

But the recent training with Myanmar MMA legend Aung La Nsang and his Crazy 88 teammate Jeff Mueller is likely to be the best marketing we will ever get. When Aung La returned to Myanmar to fight last week, he attracted so much press attention and he was so great at ensuring our club was mentioned, even wearing his BJJ Myanmar t-shirt to train in while photos and footage were taken, which probably annoyed One Championship! We have had constant enquiries to train since he fought on Friday night so we expect the club to grow much more in the weeks and months to come.

JJT: How did you find your current coaches Jens Peterson, Chris Kelly and Tauquil Atkinson?

Tammi Willis: Tauquil (Tauqo) was coaching the guys here before I even arrived in the country, he is a businessman with one foot in Myanmar, one in Thailand, so travels back and forth a lot. He has been my main coach for the last two years and I owe him a great deal. He has helped the club financially as well as with his time and knowledge.

Tauqo and I met Jens at a tournament in Bangkok last year, Copa de Bangkok. He mentioned he was about to move to Yangon for work and had helped to start the BJJ club in Cambodia. We couldn’t believe we were going to have a resident brown belt at our club and tried not to scare him off with our over excitement. Unfortunately Jens has a very demanding job so has not been as available as we would like, and has also spent the last few months out of action with a serious knee injury. But he will be back on our mats soon and able to coach more classes again.

Chris turned up to train quite recently, perhaps not expecting to immediately be coaching a ready made team of students! He is rising to the challenge admirably and it’s so great to have him on the team.

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JJT: You and your club are members of BJJ Globetrotters. How has that helped you promote your club and also helped you find schools to train at when you are travelling?

Tammi Willis: I think Christian Graugart and the BJJ Globetrotters movement he created are the best thing since sliced bread! I initially emailed Christian to ask if he would drop by to coach next time he was travelling through SEA. He replied quickly, saying he had just had a baby so would be doing less travelling for a while, certainly long haul. But he put me in contact with a friend he had in Taiwan (Dan “Imal” Reid, our second visiting coach) and then helped our Facebook appeal for high level travelling coaches, go viral. We were inundated with requests from people all over the world and managing the admin in the 48 hours after that appeal was posted was pretty tricky!

JJT: You are always looking for visiting coaches to come visit your club. How can prospective coaches and students visiting the region get in contact with you to visit your club?

Tammi Willis: Now we have resident coaches and I no longer have a big apartment to host guests, we are not actively seeking visiting coaches. But if anyone who trains BJJ, student or coach, wants to come and train with us, we will always do our best to help them with arrangements and welcome them to our club. They can reach us via our FB page or website.

JJT: What are the key challenges to growing BJJ in Myanmar?

Tammi Willis: Finding suitable space at a reasonable price. Providing suitable training apparel and equipment in a country with very strict import laws. Convincing people of the benefits of rolling around of the floor sweating… a lot!

JJT: There was just a ONE Championship card in Myanmar. How closely tied is the growth in popularity of ONE in Myanmar to the growth of BJJ in the country?

Tammi Willis: That remains to be seen but I suspect they will be closely linked. After the fight on Friday night I have already received several inquiries from potential new students.

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