So how does a guy from the heart of Amish country achieve a Gracie black belt while also picking up the teaching ability to create top notch black belts of his own? (On a shoestring budget!)
It started in May of 1995 with a trip to the video store to rent one of the first UFC fights. Like many people, Chet saw Royce Gracie defeat bigger, stronger opponents & said “Yes! I wanna do that!” He ordered the VHS training tapes from Gracie Academy the very next day & enlisted his cousin & his best friend as training partners. Flannel shirts sufficed as gis & the back yard was their mat. (until they later graduated to sheets of foam core held together with duct tape.) Rolling around on the lawn underscores all of the reasons why you don’t want to start trouble off the mat. For instance even a pebble/acorn/tree root is mighty uncomfortable if you slam your knee down when going for the mount. Likewise, if you allow someone to pick you up when they’re in your guard, getting slammed on the ground is going to do some damage. Building good training habits, paying attention to your surroundings & having good manners go a long way toward not having to put your skills to use. Or, as Rorion so aptly put it the best defense is “Just don’t get there.”
When Chet began his journey, Royce was still teaching at Gracie Torrance. After attending his first Royce seminar, Chet found himself completely hooked. He attended every seminar he could which was often a 4 hour drive one way. The seminars allowed him to correct the things he was doing wrong & he soaked up all the details he could to make the moves work more efficiently. At that time, belt promotions weren’t given at seminars, so Chet made a trip to California in July of 1996 (the first of many) to attend Rorion’s very first Gracie Camp where he earned his blue belt.
In February of 1997, Chet joined the academy’s training association & opened his first school. (We affectionately refer to it as the dungeon) It was located in the basement of an apartment building littered with spent shell casings (it was a former shooting range) & rent was cheap. A commercial building permit was not in his budget, so in his spare time, Chet put up the maximum square footage for walls that he could & still meet non-commercial building codes, sinking the bulk of his investment in the mat room & a good quality wrestling mat. Unfortunately, there was nothing left over for such luxuries as walls/doors for the bathroom or changing area so he made do with curtains. The winter time meat locker temps turned changing clothes into a race & heaven help you if you had to sit on the glacial toilet seat! Every couple months or so, the upstairs apartment would spring a water leak & we’d come in to light fixture covers or a ceiling tile laying in a puddle of water on the mat. What the school lacked in ambiance was more than made up for with the crop of amazing students that was cultivated there. Everyone helped everyone else learn, (they still do) egotistical hotheads weeded themselves out nicely. At the time, Chet worked a day job on his father’s construction crew. A hard day of roofing followed by teaching a class full of corn fed farm boys forced Chet to rely on technique rather than trying to match muscle or speed. Allowing his students to work their attacks & attain good position accelerated their skills while allowing Chet to hone his defense skills. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “Oh man, I rolled with _________ & he mopped the mat with me!” I always wonder what they learned from that instructor besides how to get frustrated & quit once the novelty of getting beat down wears off.) In the meantime, Chet kept his sword sharp with seminars & timed his trips to California to coincide with Helio Gracie being in town to get as much mat time with him as possible. He earned his purple belt in August of 2000 & in January of 2003, an amazing opportunity presented itself. The Gracie Academy in Torrance was having a tournament & the Grand Prize was a trip to Brazil to stay & train at Helio Gracie’s home. Chet had his heart set on going, he trained his butt off & won the trip of a lifetime. In November of 2003 he earned his brown belt & was promoted to level 1 instructor by Rorion Gracie.
In May of 2005, what could have been a disaster struck. Chet sustained a bad medial meniscus tear. Ordinarily, arthroscopic surgery can be done to shave off the part that’s bothersome since not a lot of blood gets to it that would promote healing. However, he had injured & rehabbed it enough times on his own that his bled enough to require a tourniquet during surgery. The doc decided to put the most stitches that he ever had into a meniscal tear & let it heal. A wide eyed nurse came into the waiting room & said “Uhhh, you should probably come to the recovery room now.” He was expecting to walk out of the clinic with maybe a bandage or leg brace. What he awoke to was a hip to ankle pressure cast that prevented his leg from bending, I’m pretty sure the torrent of profanity from a woozy from anesthesia Chet still echoes through the halls of that clinic! Not only he was relegated to keeping his unbendable leg in the back seat of the car while tolerating my little old lady driving, it also meant no mat time for a while. At that time, there was no one who could teach classes for him. He did what he always does though, he used it as a learning tool. Since he was unable to get on the mat & physically show students the moves, he sat on the sidelines & talked them through it. It was unbelievably frustrating for him, but it catapulted his ability to spot a problem at its root cause & articulate the fix verbally to a whole other level. In the 13 years I’ve been around, I’ve seen lots of people teach. Many people can parrot what the Gracie’s say, but being able to adapt & present information in another way that the student can absorb it is a somewhat rare gift & Chet has that. As a matter of fact, his seminars are often done on the fly based on people’s questions about where they’re getting stuck. He figures they’ll retain the information better if it’s something that’s relevant to where they are in their journey rather than just spewing out information on the latest spinning flying highlight reel move. I can say without vanity that the only people I’ve seen that are more effective at teaching are Gracie family members. There is zero wasted motion in their technique, they are a pleasure to watch.
Later that year, we had officially outgrown the dungeon & were able to pick up a foreclosure property at a reasonable price. My father who was a loan officer at the time financed it so we wouldn’t have to take out a commercial loan & Chet’s father’s construction crew was able to finagle the way around a commercial building permit & did the honors on remodeling it. He was kind enough to donate his own labor, so we only had to pay his crew & the subcontractors. We are very happy to have a good environment to put our amazing students in! Not to mention a washer & dryer, we do not miss hauling dirty gis to the laundromat! We’ve also opened a second (much larger) location in Ft Wayne, Indiana.
Shortly after the birth of our son in 2007, Chet got a call that he might want to make a trip to Torrance in December. He made the trip & was among the first Gracie Torrance students to earn a black belt. (And the only one that didn’t train there full time.) He has since had 3 students earn their black belts & there are a few more waiting in the wings to get theirs, at any other school, they would have been black belts some time ago. Our first black belt was Abram Bottles, who is stellar. Abram has been with us since our days in the dungeon, he doesn’t worry much about telegraphing his moves. You can see the submission he wants, he’s just so shrinkwrap tight there isn’t a damn thing you can do to stop it. The second was Warren Acker. Warren has a slight build compared to most of our students, he also suffers from asthma. He’s amazing & one of the best people for our new students to work with. His stand up self defense skills are impeccable, he has some of the best base in his standing guard pass I’ve seen. His sparring style is deceptively soft but he can hang very well with the younger, stronger, faster people. He’s also been with us since the dungeon days. The third was Aram Bottles (Abram’s “baby” brother) Aram is a beast, he’s a good athlete & a fast learner. He has the distinction of climbing the ranks the fastest & makes it look easy.
So to answer my question at the beginning of this, “How does a guy from the heart of Amish country achieve a Gracie black belt while also picking up the teaching ability to create top notch black belts of his own?” Hard work, dedication, a really big stubborn streak, a good supporting crew/training partners & lots of mat time. I can’t stress mat time enough, Chet has been on the mat nearly every day of the week for 20 years without breaks for illness or injury. The mat time becomes your social life. Your training partners become extended family. Unless they are also on the mat, it will probably make your family &/or your significant other angry at times. It can gobble up your financial resources. It will make you sore. In the end it’s worth it, you meet the nicest people & watching them evolve from novice to monster is priceless. It can change or even save your life. I shudder to think where I’d be without it but that’s a different story. Hats off to the Gracie’s for sharing their amazing art with the rest of us!
I know there’s a lot of controversy surrounding online/video based learning, but Chet is living proof that it can be done & it is most certainly *NOT* as easy as going up to a belt vending machine, plunking in your money & attaining rank. It is damn difficult.