Grappling with Success

Photo by Jeremy Burgard

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The wrestling mats are laid out, swept off, bleached and taped down at Greenfield High School. Tables are set at each mat with the typical red versus blue scorecards and the ubiquitous stopwatch you might see hanging from your gym teacher’s neck.

Competitors line up to weigh in and pick a spot for their team on the bleachers. Adam Stevenson walks in with a Chicago Blackhawks hat covering his brown hair; his eyes look determined and his confident step makes him look taller than 5-feet-9-inches. Stevenson finds his team and sits down, joining in the gossip about the well-known competitors and the toughest match-ups.

“I knew this was a big tournament but I didn’t expect so many spectators,” said Stevenson. “Yeah, I felt a little more nervous but I was mostly anxious to compete.”

But Stevenson, a 22-year-old UW-Milwaukee graduate, wasn’t about to compete in a high school wrestling tournament. The competition was the Combat Corner Grappling Championship, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament in which participants aim to submit, or “tap out” their opponent using chokeholds, joint-locks and other techniques.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or BJJ, is a martial art founded on the belief that a smaller person can defend himself against a bigger opponent by using techniques and leverage rather than strength. As a sport, BJJ is more closely related to Greco-Roman wrestling than stereotypical martial arts such as kung-fu or karate. Strikes are illegal, matches begin with opponents standing, and points are awarded for takedowns and advancing position. Where the goal in wrestling is to pin the opponent, competitors in BJJ aim to force their opponent to quit by threatening to break a limb or choke them unconscious.

The description of BJJ makes it sound brutal, but the athletes couldn’t appear more compassionate and jovial with their opponents. Jake Klipp has been training in BJJ for over four years. He said his experience at his first tournament is the reason he stuck with the sport after years of wrestling.

“There was a controversial call and a match ended by one point,” said Klipp. “I don’t remember who won, but I remember both the guys smiling and hugging each other at the end of the match and I thought, this is what I want to do.”

In addition to the attitude of the athletes, the sport itself features an intriguing disconnect between the objective and the path to that objective. Sparring and competing in BJJ is referred to as “rolling,” because when competitors face off, they will often end up in a scramble where they will tumble and twist and turn in a beautiful tangle of arms and legs. But the end result of this brilliant chaos is often one competitor squeezing the life out of the other until he admits defeat.

A key concept in BJJ is that it is effective for people of all sizes. A larger opponent may be stronger, but if the smaller competitor use technique to isolate one arm, and wrap his arms and legs around that arm to create pressure on the elbow joint, no amount of strength can stop his arm from breaking.

A competitive industry

Combat Corner and other competitions perpetuate this belief that size doesn’t matter in their tournaments. While there are over 40 divisions for varying weight classes and skill levels, Combat Corner also hosts two “absolute” brackets, one for competitors under 170 pounds, and one for competitors over 170 pounds.

The Combat Corner Grappling Championship is an example of the rapid growth of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in America. Milwaukee in particular has become a hotbed for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and its sister combat sport, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

The Combat Corner Grappling Championship has seen major growth since its first tournament in 2008. In just four years, the tournament has grown from over 40 competitors to over 150, and the number of spectators has increased as well. Combat Corner had to change its venue in 2010 and again in 2012 to accommodate the growing number of spectators.

And Combat Corner is only a local tournament for local competitors. According to the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF), the IBJJF World Championship has seen more than 1600 athletes compete in front of a live crowd of over 12 thousand. The IBJJF Pan-American Championship is held in the United States, and has grown from 250 athletes competing in 1995 to 17 hundred in 2012.

Along with the growth of competitions, an industry has grown up along with the popularity of BJJ. Combat Corner is actually a sport retailer and wholesaler, selling equipment and merchandise for BJJ as well as boxing and MMA.

Combat Corner is owned and operated by Dan LaSavage, a professional fighter and promoter. LaSavage said his experience in combat sports such as BJJ helps him know what to look for in merchandise, as well as what athletes look for. Combat Corner not only sponsors tournaments, but has a professional line of equipment for sponsoring professional MMA fighters.

BJJ has also seen growth where it is most important—at the various gyms where the athletes train. The largest BJJ franchise is the Gracie Academy which has grown to over 60 training centers nationwide. The Gracie Academy is operated by the Gracie family, descendants of Helio and Carlos Gracie, the founders of BJJ.

In addition to the Gracie Academy’s training centers, the Gracie family also started Gracie University, an online curriculum for students to find other local athletes and train together. Victor Camacho is the Director of Operations for the Instructor Certification Program at Gracie University.

“Since Gracie University started in 2008, over 72,000 students have enrolled in 196 countries. Thousands of students join Gracie University each semester,” said Camacho.

Milwaukee has seen similar growth in enrollment. Eric “Red” Schafer, former Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter, opened his gym in 2010 in Milwaukee. Schafer said his gym, Red Schafer MMA, has more than 80 students enrolled in less than two years of operation.

Jake Klipp operates Pura Vida BJJ which also opened in 2010 in Walker’s Point. Pura Vida BJJ is also the location for the BJJ Sports and Recreation class offered at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“We started with 19 students,” said Klipp. This semester, if you include the UWM students that train here, we’ll have over 150 people every month training in the gym.”

Road to the tournament

Adam Stevenson, who now trains with Klipp at Pura Vida, got his start from another program at UWM.

“My first experience with BJJ was going to the UWM Grappling Club. My friend saw an ad at the Klotsche Center and we got a group together and checked it out. After going to the Grappling Club for a few months, we decided to take the UWM sports and rec class at Pura Vida,” said Stevenson.

Keerin Pinch, now an officer of the UWM Grappling Club, joined Stevenson on his first training session.

“We lived in the dorms and walked over to check it out. There weren’t that many people there, but that only meant there was more room for us to practice with. We got addicted pretty fast, almost every weekend we would be grappling in the dorm lobby for fun waiting for the next class to start,” said Pinch.

Stevenson is one of many grapplers who transitioned from a fan of MMA to a competitor in BJJ. He watched MMA with his friends, but Stevenson had no desire to train in the often brutal sport. Instead, Stevenson’s enthusiasm for MMA drew him towards BJJ, a more casual sport.

“I’ve been a fan of MMA for years, I love the sport, the action, the knockouts. But I was interested in the technical side too, I’d watch guys go for a submission and think—I could do that,” said Stevenson.

Stevenson describes BJJ as MMA without the striking. MMA is very technical to begin with, but when you take away the punches and kicks, technique becomes even more vital. BJJ fighters cannot win because they have a strong punch or long reach, so they have to think about what to do, execute strategies and never put themselves in a bad position.

Stevenson has been training for two years. He says he trains because it keeps him in shape, it is fun and relaxing, and it boosts his confidence. Going into his match at the tournament, Stevenson is drawing from that confidence.

“This is my first competition actually. But I’ve been training for awhile and I know what I have to do so I’m ready,” he said.

For the love of the sport

Klipp was there to coach Stevenson and his other students at Combat Corner. He walked in carrying a Pura Vida gym bag containing a Pura Vida rash guard and gi, the BJJ uniform, and wearing a Pura Vida track jacket.

Standing at six feet with his head shaved and carrying his personalized gear, Klipp’s gathered his students around him. Klipp has his purple belt, a sign that he has been training for more than four years with thousands of hours spent on the mat.

“I’ve competed in Ohio, several times in Illinois, I went out to Colorado recently. I’ve placed at every out of state tournament that I’ve gone to, I’ve won a few of them. But lest my ego get too big, I got squashed in Colorado by this guy,” said Klipp.

Competition is what attracted Klipp to BJJ in the first place. As a long time wrestler and football player, he was a self-described tough guy.

“I thought I was going to walk in here and be surrounded by tough guys. Everybody was going to size me up and decided whether they could kick my butt or not,” said Klipp. “What I expected and what I got were totally different things.”

Klipp said that while competition is what piqued his interest, the culture is what made him stay.

“My first day I walk in and everyone is smiling and happy, just genuinely happy to be there,” said Klipp. “And then they start choking me. And they’ve still got these smiles on their faces, they’re not even being rude about it. In the happiest, friendliest manner possible, they are choking me and trying to put me to sleep.”

Klipp inherited the gym from his instructor, Henry Matamoros. Matamoros, a legendary figure in Milwaukee BJJ, not only established the UWM class that Klipp inherited, but also the culture that Klipp fell in love with.

Klipp makes it clear that he wants to continue to set forth the environment that drew him in. At the beginning of each new semester, Klipp goes over the gyms rules. Rule number one: no talking about sex, religion, or politics in the dojo.

“We’re friendly and happy with each other, we enjoy each other’s success,” said Klipp. “There’s no stress or drama here in the gym. It’s what hooked me on Henry’s place, and it’s the only way I can imagine running a gym.”

Career development

With his eponymous red hair, cauliflower ears, and 6-foot-3, 200 pound frame, Eric “Red” Schafer is hard to miss. It is easy to assume that he can fight, but hard to imagine that the 35-year-old has spent over half his life training in martial arts.

Schafer is one of the first BJJ practitioners in Wisconsin to receive his black belt. In BJJ, belt promotions are granted based on how many years the student has been training as well as how many hours they have put on the mat. Schafer has been training for a long time.

He got his start in 1996 straight out of high school at Salas Martial Arts, the same place where Matamoros had been training.

“I had just graduated and was looking to keep competing in sports,” said Schafer. “There were a dozen or so guys in the classes, including some Wisconsin BJJ future legends. We were all white belts back then and learning as much as we could from tapes and books.”

Of course, Schafer was training with a goal in mind: he said MMA is the reason he got into BJJ. His goal eventually led to a successful professional MMA career including nine fights in the UFC, the premier MMA organization.

This success is evident in the skill level of his students. While Pura Vida may have more students due to the UWM class, many of those students are white belts—beginners. Red Schafer MMA has four brown belts, eight purple belts, dozens of blue belts and is owned by a black belt.

Schafer would argue that MMA is the driving force behind the growth of BJJ.

“MMA is the reason I got into BJJ, and it definitely is what fuels the interest in Jiu-Jitsu,” he said. “After every big UFC, we get a bunch of new students interesting in learning. BJJ allows for the average person to learn and apply great functional martial arts without the danger or injuries you get in MMA.”

In addition to those interested in MMA, Schafer said there are many health related benefits to training in BJJ. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the nature of BJJ actually causes less injury to joints than other sports such as boxing, or even running. While participants are often put in positions that can cause a broken arm, or dislocated shoulder, they will submit before any real damage is done. And because BJJ consists mainly of ground fighting, and grappling takes place on soft mats, there is far less impact on the joints compared to running on a track or hitting some pads.

It is this relative safety coupled with the wide-ranging effectiveness of BJJ that allows the sport to continue to grow.

“I’m a big fan of other martial arts like boxing, Muay Thai, and wrestling, but training at a high level in those sports often results in many more injuries,” said Schafer. “This is one of the many reasons that BJJ is popular. It is a great sport no matter what your goal: MMA, self-defense, or just getting a fun workout.”

The father of Wisconsin BJJ

No matter where somebody trains in BJJ in Wisconsin, they will undoubtedly have a link to Henry Matamoros. Matamoros, a Costa Rica native who moved to Wisconsin, became the state’s first black belt in 2006.

“I guess that was like, the coolest thing ever,” said Matamoros. “Nobody before me was a black belt here. About a year later, Jon Friedland got his, a year later Red [Schafer], and now there’s 10-15 black belts in Wisconsin. Back in the day there was only me, in my school in Milwaukee.”

Now, any gym you go to in southeast Wisconsin is likely run by somebody who trained under Matamoros.

“Henry was the original father of BJJ in Wisconsin in my opinion,” said Schafer. “Not only was he leading the way technically, but he also put it on the line in fights and grappling tournaments, which inspired us younger guys.”

Matamoros has seen first-hand the growth of BJJ both in Wisconsin and worldwide. He said he started training with a handful of guys in a gym, sometimes training in his own living room when there was nowhere else to go. Now Matamoros will hold a seminars with dozens of students attending.

“Jiu-jitsu is going through the whole world, from the UFC spreading everywhere, people are picking up BJJ,” said Matamoros. “It’s spreading through the media nowadays and YouTube—when I started YouTube didn’t exist. The UFC was banned for years and nobody knew anything about BJJ. I’ve been to many different countries to train, BJJ is going to become a really strong sport.”

Like many BJJ experts, Matamoros oozes nonchalance. He is completely comfortable with who he is and what he believes. He is as calm and controlled in person as he is on the mat. Matamoros said that this is not an attitude that BJJ players adopt, but rather it is ingrained into anyone who stays with the sport.

“I think we all have the idea of being superior and beating people up and being at the top,” said Matamoros. “BJJ changes that mentality and makes you humble. No matter how big you are, there is always somebody that can beat you up. It kills that tough guy mentality.”

To Matamoros, the appeal of BJJ is simple.

“It’s like swimming. You get thrown in the pool and you either like it, or you think it’s too cold or scary,” said Matamoros. “But if you go for two or three months, you can already notice that you can beat people. People get attracted to that, you learn something so lethal and feared. You start to desire that knowledge and suddenly you caught Jiu-Jitsu like a disease.”

Where is it going

Matamoros said he has seen BJJ grow worldwide. He said you can’t deny that it will grow into a mainstream sport. Some, like Stevenson and Pinch, want to see BJJ become an Olympic sport.

Klipp has a different notion of what will determine the success of BJJ.

“If I walked out of the dojo wearing my gi, and I walked down the street, and some kid at the gas station asked his mom, ‘What is that guy right there?’ his mom would say, ‘That’s a karate guy.’ No, I want someone to walk by in a gi and some kid to ask his mom, ‘What is that guy right there?’ and his mom would say ‘Oh that’s a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guy,’” said Klipp.

BJJ has a way to go before it will attract a mainstream audience. But local events such as the Combat Corner tournament, increasing interest in the UFC, and training offered through gyms and university classes have shown the potential growth of the sport.

Improving through failure

At the Combat Corner tournament, Adam Stevenson competed in two different brackets. He lost in the first match of both brackets. Out of the 20 students that competed from Pura Vida, only five made it to the podium.

While Klipp’s team didn’t perform as well as they wanted to, the students still learned what to work on back in the dojo. Their takedowns were sloppy and they weren’t able to advance position as well as they practiced. Stevenson said he made no specific mistakes, he just wasn’t at his best that day. The whole team was humbled by the tournament. Klipp and Matamoros agree that experiencing loss is what keeps people interested in BJJ and builds improvement.

“There’s no ego here, you can’t have an ego here. As soon as you start developing an ego here, somebody is going to kick your butt,” said Klipp. “If you have an ego you’re going to feel ashamed and you’re going to quit. So you need to be humble, that is how you will improve.”