Updated: Mar 23, 2019
Every martial artist has his or her origin story. Here is mine.
As long as I can remember, I loved the martial arts. I began my journey with karate at five years old. I didn't stick with karate; it just didn't feel right. At 14, I found judo, and I loved it. I loved it so much that I spent all my savings working my first job on judo lessons. After one year, I stopped classes because I ran out of money.
Although money has been an issue over the years, I always found ways to train even if it wasn't a martial art. I did a lot of weightlifting and athletic conditioning to stay in shape. I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so I either used the one at my high school, or I trained outside a lot in the woods.
I was always fighting with my older brothers growing up. They were always physically bigger, but that never stopped me. I used to spar friends as well, just to get any practice I could.
Upon graduating high school, I was accepted to Johnson & Wales University for Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management. I was unsure about my career choice. So I decided not to go and took classes at a local community college.
To my surprise the community college offered karate. I thought it would be fun – I wanted to get back into martial arts but didn't know what style to study (I knew it wasn't karate). While taking the course, I looked into several different martial arts but still wasn't sure which one was right for me.
I knew that martial arts was my calling but didn't know how to go about it or what style to practice. At one point, I almost joined the military with one of my best friends, Kalle. I wanted both the physical as well as the technical training hoping it would get me focused on a potential career. I just wasn't sure what direction to take my life.
Little did I know that at 18 years old, my life was about to change. One day I went home to find my stepbrother and his friend, Kevin Meyers, an avid martial artist, discussing martial arts. Naturally, I sat down and joined the conversation. This conversation was the first time I heard of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It sounded amazing; to think that a smaller guy than me – not that I'm that big – around 148 pounds – could easily beat guys three times my size.
Kevin invited me to try a free class. As you can imagine, I was anxious and excited to try Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Eventually, Kevin Meyers became one of my best friends and business partner.
I went to my first Brazilian jiu-jitsu class with my friend Kalle. Zak Maxwell, a purple belt at the time, taught the class. Zak is now a black belt and Pan Am Champion, who fought on Metamoris twice. Being exposed to jiu-jitsu was awesome and unlike anything I had ever seen.
The first technique I learned was an Armbar from closed guard. At first, the movements were foreign and tricky, and I could barely even make the move. I barely understood what I was doing, but I was intrigued to know more. Looking back during my entire white belt career, I rarely had success with the Armbar. But now it is one of my favorite and most used submission.
The jiu-jitsu ranking system is very different than karate. It takes about two to five years to earn your karate black belt. But in jiu-jitsu, the journey from white belt to black belt takes an average of 10-15 years. Some styles of karate never spar just practice moves with what is called Kata (forms). Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an art and is dependent on practical application and demonstration of your understanding of the art in actual sparring/rolling/combat. Because jiu-jitsu is so intricate, it takes a longer time to get to a black belt's skill level than in karate.
There are five adult belt ranks – white, blue, purple, brown and black. The black belt has several levels, but only a few practitioners earn that title (red & black belt, and red belt). Most students in my first class were blue belts except Kevin and Zak, who were purple belts.
When it came time to spar or roll, as we call it in jiu-jitsu, I was very excited and eager. The main thing that I remember from my first roll with Zak Maxwell is that I felt like a puppet. I couldn't do a thing – I went in every direction – every instinct I had was wrong. If I moved, I just made everything worse. I was utterly useless. I couldn't believe that this guy just beat me up using no effort. His facial expression was blank – his thoughts seemed to be somewhere else as I struggled to do anything.
Jiu-jitsu blew my mind away. After class I thought, "That was awesome, to be beaten up so bad without actually getting hurt with minimal effort from my opponent. I wanted to learn the art. I wanted to get to do this thing they call Brazilian jiu-jitsu." I was addicted.
The next day I told the military recruiter that I changed my mind. Instead, I signed up for jiu-jitsu. I have been training five to six days a week ever since. I love it – it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The decision caused everything around me to change. So many good things happened because I practice jiu-jitsu, from the people I meet, to the experiences I have. It all goes back to starting jiu-jitsu. For instance, I had more opportunities to travel because I compete in jiu-jitsu, from New York to California. I even joined the Army Combatives fight team in Kansas for a week. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I wasn’t a skilled jiu-jitsu practitioner.
I love jiu-jitsu, and I see all the positive benefits it has brought me, and the people around me. Since training jiu-jitsu, I eat healthier, take care of myself better, think sharper and remain calm in stressful situations. I can strategize on the fly, and I'm more confident when facing new challenges and new situations. I've developed quick reactions (which has saved me from many car accidents), I’m not afraid to fail, and can fall without getting hurt.
If I could go back in time, and do it all over again, there's only one thing I would change – my jiu-jitsu training would've started as soon as I was able.
My life's mission is to spread the spirit of jiu-jitsu to you and allow you to reach beyond your potential – to become a better you, just as I have.
My Jiu Jitsu Lineage
I started my training at a branch school in Bryn Mawr called High Level Fitness from Regis Lebre's primary school in Philadelphia Maxercise. My first instructor was Zak Maxwell for about four months until the branch school shut down. I then trained at the primary school under Regis Lebre (head instructor), Zak Maxwell, Brian Rago, Tim Sylvester, and John DiSimone.
One and half years later, the school split again. Regis Lebre – head instructor – Zak Maxwell, Brian Rago, and Tim Sylvester left Maxercise and started Gracie Humaita Philadelphia.
Regis Lebre moved to California and became the Head Instructor of Gracie Humaita Headquarters.
Brian Rago took over the school as the new head instructor. Gracie Humaita is the school that Helio Gracie started and his son Royler Gracie took over. I earned my blue belt under Regis Lebre. And I received my purple belt, brown belt, and black belt under Brian Rago.