Category Archives: Jiu-Jitsu

Searching for Jiu-Jitsu in South America

Peru

Circumstances conspired against me to train any Jiu-Jitsu in Peru. Straight from the plane in Lima my first port of call was Renzo Gracie Lima. Unfortunately, my flight was delayed for two hours in Bogota, Colombia. This killed my plans, dead.

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Whilst waiting for a taxi I met a young dude who’d been on the same flight and going to the same hostel; sharing a cab, it came up that we also shared the same home town, Macclesfield, in what was a rather bizarre coincidence. Although any affection for the young gentlemen evaporated quickly. Whilst I was dozing off, he burst enthusiastically into the dorm room enquiring if he could use the bunk to sample old charley. Apparently the toilets and showers were already overcrowded with like-minded souls becoming acquainted with Peru’s infamous marching powder.

Things soured even further when I was violently pulled from my slumber after being hit from the bunk above with, what I discovered was a stinky-ass sock. To make matters worse, he was clearly engaging in a coke-addled act of penetration with, some hapless female. I resisted the immediate urge to pull him from the bed above and choke him into a sock-less slumber. I drifted back off, hoping he remained as flaccid as a marshmallow that had been left in the bath overnight.

I arrived in the city of Cusco for the culmination of a lifetime’s dream, visiting Machu Picchu.

On the Jiu-Jitsu front, I had sourced the one and only MMA academy in the city, but as luck would have it, they were in the process of moving locations and currently not open.

Upon reflection, I was actually saved some discomfort. Cusco sits at 3,400 metres above sea level; I literally had to suck in the air required to fill my lungs.

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The struggle for oxygen resulted in a couple of instances of my body failing me. The first occurred after leaving the shower; I felt incredibly light-headed, my legs gave in and I fell over. The floor wasn’t wet, my body had just decided it needed to be off its feet. Fortunately, there was no one around to revel in my embarrassment.

I was not afforded the same privacy for the second occasion. Just twenty minutes later I left the hostel. As I walked downhill, the same light headed sensation struck me, my legs buckled and I came a cropper. I bounced up with all the gusto I could muster before any concerned onlookers could offer me assistance or their pity and moved quickly to find pizza. My lungs really struggled to acquire enough oxygen to feed my brain, I have a feeling that a session of Jiu-Jitsu would have ended on the wrong side of Snooze City.

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The aim of the trip, visiting Machu Picchu, fell victim to my own inadequate planning. This did indeed suck. Whilst I’d booked the tickets for the (apparently) awe-inspiring Incan citadel, I had not booked train tickets to get there, which was seemingly essential. When I came to do this (the night before!) the only tickets that remained, necessitated me leaving the site before I set off to get there. I pondered it, and concluded that would be an issue.

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My final two days in Peru after a return to Lima happened to be national holidays, so no Jiu-Jitsu!

Colombia

The city of Cali, in Colombia proved to be somewhat more fruitful for getting my Jiu-Jitsu on. Whilst Jiu-Jitsu is still very much in its infancy there, I did find a number of clubs. I was initially looking to train during the day, but there were no spots offering day classes. But, in my quest, I had been in communication with a Cali based blue belt called Andreas, who trained at MMA academy, Striking Fitness. He kindly offered to open up the gym to train together.

The midday heat threatened to fry me into a patacon, thus I was more than happy at the suggestion of No-Gi. My new friend knew no English, I knew no Spanish, yet in-between rounds, we managed to discuss an array of subjects: Jiu-Jitsu, life in Colombia, his passion for dogs and women with long black hair. Andreas explained to me that the academy was run by a purple belt which was the highest rank in the city, you had to go all the way to Colombia’s capital, Bogota to find any brown and black belts.

After the session, he insisted on walking me home. He was convinced, that I would find myself at the mercy of the nefarious elements that are omnipresent in the city, who would look to exploit a lost and dopey looking gringo, he was probably right too!

Venturing out of the city, I took a visit to the town of San Cipriano, which was a small shanty-town, which attracts native Colombians and tourists alike for its crystal clear river than runs through the jungle. There was absolutely no Jiu-Jitsu, but like everywhere else I visited in Colombia, there was ample opportunity to get your salsa on.

Entrance to the town could not be made by road. The first step in reaching it was a Temple of Doom-esque footbridge, needless to say, I feared for my life, fortunately I was not met by a scary bald man screaming in Hindi. Looking down, there were no alligators awaiting my fall either, but there was certainly a great deal of pain from a lengthy drop through the plethora of missing planks.

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The second stage in this mission to get into town necessitated the use of interesting contraptions, called Brujitas. They were essentially a motorbike powered vehicle affixed to a sheet of plywood with some seats on it, which ran along a train track. I was rather concerned as this bad-boy picked up speed with me sat one cheek hanging off the edge. From this point, I held on for dear life, with visions of being thrown off and having my head ran over like Bryan Harvey.

I spent the afternoon exploring the river on an inner tube, drifting leisurely on the water watching the picturesque jungle scenery roll by. There were no Indy style waterfall drops, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. I came upon some rapids, albeit small ones, and was spun around backwards. Without the ability of being able to see what was ahead, it came as an unpleasant surprise when I hit the branches of a tree, and was thrown from the tube and pulled under. In my usual melodramatic fashion, I felt death via drowning was imminent, I flapped around uncontrollably for a second or two, prior to realising that I could actually stand! The real tragedy of the situation, I’d been wearing my Cons around my neck, they were soaked; I had to squelch around rocking wet kicks for the rest of day.

The next Jiu-Jitsu based stop was, Gracie Barra Cali, taking part in their weekly open-mat. During a week devoid of training, I had  eaten and drank with a reckless ill regard for the prospect of any serious athletic endeavor. Thus rolling 5×8 minute rounds was the ultimate test of inner fortitude. By the second round I was dying, by the third I was just working very diligently to suppress the vomit! The heat was incredibly oppressive, it had been eight months since I’d been to war in that kind of temperature. I spent the rest of the day walking around in a Jiu-Jitsu inflicted haze, happy yet a little confused.

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The immaculate academy I discovered had only been in existence for less than a month. Opened as a joint venture by friends and all round awesome dudes, Rafael Diazgranados and Richie Panchalo, blue and purple belts respectively, they had joined the Gracie Barra banner after their small independent team had dissolved. I was thoroughly honored shaking hands at the climax of the session to be asked to come back and teach a class the following Wednesday.

I have to admit, I never thought that I would find myself teaching at a Barra school, much less in South America. Nevertheless, I was privileged to find myself doing so. There was a much larger crowd than my first visit, a real hodgepodge of students, with varying degrees of experience, some Gi clad, others going No-Gi, older guys and athletic young competitors. In an effort accommodate all, I taught a passing system that I’d stole off my dude, Darragh O Conaill.

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I had to be translated; my aspiring Spanish had not quite reached the necessary level yet. I did a lot of smiling and shouting “Osssss” with extreme vigor, to get my point across successfully. Again, the rolling was tough, in particular a huge bear like blue belt whose base was so strong it felt akin to sweeping a tree. I had just spent the few days prior in the Colombian Andes at the beautiful coffee town of Salento, during my visit I’d practically lived off their next-level delicious peanut butter based produce. During the rolling, I found myself profusely sweating peanut oil, whilst attempting not to pass out in a herculean effort against the aforementioned blue belt.

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Spending time with Rafael and Richie, one could not help but be intoxicated by their love and enthusiasm for Jiu-Jitsu. They had sought to create an atmosphere where they could express, what they felt was the true BJJ lifestyle, one that was not dependent on athleticism or competition but one which was grounded in inclusion, the idea that Jiu-Jitsu is for absolutely everyone. Looking around at the academy that night, I would say they had already achieved it.

Live From Poland

Stereotype

A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”

There is a commonly held stereotype within the Jiu-Jitsu or wider MMA community that, should you encounter an individual of Polish descent, they will display a certain set of characteristics: they will go one hundred percent during training with little regard for your safety or indeed their own, they will be strong as an Ox, which may or may not be chemically aided and they will be sporting the quintessential shaved head. Whether this stereotype of the Polish fighter has any grounding in reality, is something I was to discover as I spent a week in Warsaw.

My journey began with the usual turmoil over travel arrangements, I was forced to take a train to the airport the night before I was scheduled to fly. Due to frugality driven by a genuine lack of funds, I spent three incredibly cold and uncomfortable hours sleeping on the floor at Birmingham International. I awoke and dived immediately in to a caffeine infused hole as I waited an hour and thirty minutes to get through security in what was by far the worst airport experience of my life; my body wanted sleep but my mind corrupted by espresso was compelling me to have a dance instead; I eventually settled on the verge of a panic attack. No sooner had I sat down on the plane, I was joined by the worst children to ever descend from the womb; I spent the entirety of the flight pondering why anyone would want to get involved in the reproductive process when these small humans are not only completely time-consuming but relentlessly irritating.

Alighting the plane to spread my optimism for life with the good people of Warsaw, I was met by my friend and owner of Academia Gorila, Marcin Polczyk; with no time to waste we headed straight for the mats. Seven minute rounds didn’t feel particularity conducive to my current state; I vividly recall looking at the timer during the second round, I was sweating with the ferocity of, Iguazu falls and seeing we were only two minutes in, the longevity of my existence became an immediate concern. The guys, I had been rolling with had been very technical, they all played the modern game of Jiu-Jitsu and did so in a light and flowing manner. Marcin had informed me that it had been only the ‘Jiu-Jitsu nerds’ that morning due to it being a bank holiday weekend. On the back of this, I rushed to a hasty conclusion, I assumed the stereotype was one without merit, I had been lured me into a false sense of security!

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This trip was also my first experience ‘coach-surfing’, although this came as a complete surprise to me. I was informed a few days prior to my arrival that I would not in fact be staying at Marcin’s apartment due to spacial constraints, but he had hooked me up with somewhere else. I assumed that this would be a dude from the academy, but it actually turned out to be a neighbour who kindly hosted complete strangers. Not being quite able to get my head around the concept of altruism, I pondered why, one would open up their abode to someone random, who could potentially be, at worst a complete maniac or at the very least, an idiot.

My first night was spent without actually meeting my mysterious host, Toni. I went to bed in a paranoid stupor, borne out of a consciousness clouded with greenery, I was seriously considering the possibility that I had been coaxed into being here, so I could be drugged and sold on the black market as a sex slave.

A short time later, I was violently pulled from an uneasy sleep, by the front buzzer being pushed repeatedly. My only thought was, I’d somehow locked it from the inside and it would be Toni, unable to get in. By the time I got my sleep-addled head to the door, I was greeted by a large, old and seemingly angry women shouting at me in Polish. My reaction left a lot to be desired, as I throw my hands in the air and declared, (in my best Eastern European accent) that I was English. It seemed like forever before she deduced that I was an imbecile, and resigned herself to the fact she would find no resolution to her problem, at which point she stormily, marched back down the stairs. I was left to contemplate whether this was the beginning of the psychological warfare, I was to endure before I was tortured and forced to wear my nut-sack as a face mask.

The next morning I met Toni, he was of course the nicest guy in existence!

Back on the mats, there is a serious passion for Jiu-Jitsu here in Warsaw, so much so, that there are five separate Gi classes that one could attend on a daily basis at Gorila. The standard is high, with a seemingly endless supply of hungry blue and purple belts, which ensured that I was pushed hard each and every session and forced to leave everything on the mats. There is a real variety of styles here, many of the younger guys are playing the most contemporary form of Jiu-Jitsu, many of these are the active competitors who are obviously studying the modern game. There is an abundance of X-Guard which is used effectively from the white belts and up. What really impressed me was the proficiency of everyone’s basics. I was constantly fending off and indeed caught via arm-bars from closed guard and the threat of being choked was imminent anytime a person got a sniff of a lapel from any position.

The level and intensity of rolling is very high, especially in the advanced classes which are led by one of Poland’s top black belts, Jędrek Loska. Loska is a multiple time Polish champion and spent two years living and teaching Jiu-Jitsu in Abu Dhabi. He is a soft spoken and humble dude, but has this aura of Jiu-Jitsu knowledge that surrounds him. His technique is incredibly fluid and appears effortless as he performs it, yet he is able to pick apart the multiple layers so it can be easily digested by students of varying levels. Although he appears not to be a day over fifteen, when it comes time to roll, he is an assassin of the highest order. Having the opportunity to roll with him was a real privilege. He played to my level, assessing my game, letting me have certain things before violently beheading me with chokes that would put an elephant to sleep. What makes it all the more impressive, the dude only weighs sixty-four kilos!

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After an amazing day of training, two sessions where I had fought for life and limb, I had given absolutely everything that I had to give. I walked, wearily through the city square and happened upon the Warsaw Opera, who were putting on an open air concert. As the sun lowered itself down behind the cityscape on what was a beautiful summer’s evening, the music resonated through my very being. I felt an incredible sense of awe, one that religious folk often associate with the existence of God. But far from confirming the existence of a divine creator, it proved how fucking awesome Jiu-Jitsu was. The pure euphoria attained from fighting to the death is comparable to nothing else.

Just like any chemical high, your body collects a receipt. This feeling of ecstasy was quickly followed by a crushing low. After my sixth day of training (it’s always important to provide an excuse!) it caught up with me. During the morning training I was submitted four times in a single round by a sixty-two kilo purple belt. To say that I was in dire straits would be an understatement. It is unfathomably difficult to smile and shake the man’s hand that has brought your self-esteem crumbling down and destroyed your perception of self. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and cry. I pondered all the hours, days, weeks and years I had given to learning this beautiful art, which all seemed for nothing when I in-fact sucked. Angry, defeated and truly despondent, I found my only solace in the wonders of the Polish breakfast.

My Polish excursion was able to provide me with one of the most exhilarating and terrifying training experiences of my life. Warsaw’s skyline is dominated by wonderfully dystopian, Brutalist architecture, a hangover from Poland’s communist days. We had matted out the roof of one such tenement building, which was about twenty five metres high (as a small caveat it is worth noting that I have an incredible fear of heights, I’m not comfortable up a ladder let alone being stood on a roof where the possibility of death is all too imminent). Nevertheless the sense of my own mortality went completely out of the window as we started to roll. My fear of a shortened life span and a painful death proved secondary to escaping X-Guard as I aggressively back-stepped in what was an ultimately futile effort to pass, only to have my back taken and choked in a highly picturesque manner! Doing Jiu-Jitsu high above street-level and then watching the sun set over the city of Warsaw is an experience that I would not be forgetting for a longtime. Although any lasting feelings of serenity were interrupted every thirty seconds when I would envision plummeting to the concrete below.

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So after sharing the mats with an exclusively Polish crowd for seven days, does the stereotype hold true? Well, yes there are some super-strong dudes that fight for everything and constantly go one-hundred percent. There are some dudes who have bald heads and I might have spotted a few dudes who were chemically enhanced. BUT I also saw all that was in-between, there are recreational dudes, who have come straight from the office and want to do a spot of Jiu-Jitsu; young dudes, old dudes, strong and weak. Interestingly and more-so than anywhere else that I have ever trained, there was an abundance of females. Each day the mats were heavily populated by women. There was no separation between the sexes, no women’s only classes, which according to Marcin had been introduced but had been discontinued due to little interest, the ladies did not want to be defined by their gender and wanted to mix it up with the men.

Overall there is a very high level in the academy, there is expert tuition and a culture of learning is fostered whereby personal progression is advocated above all things. The academy itself is huge but unlike other large scale gyms, I had visited in the past, it has maintained a firm sense of community. I feel completely justified in saying that Warsaw has been one of my absolute favourite places to visit and train Jiu-Jitsu.

Can’t Knock the Hustle

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We had one Gi that we used to rock around in”

To anyone that has considered going full-time with Jiu-Jitsu, brothers John and Patrick Sheridan are a shining example of the hustle that it entails. Together they have established their own academy in Satori BJJ, clothing company Sub Only, and the second largest competition in Ireland, the Dublin International Open.

I was in a bad spot at the time. I could see the way it was going; 40, fat, mid-life crisis and done”

John was working in the Irish financial services – working with figures, creating spreadsheets and moving around vast sums of money. Pat worked a government job on flexitime, which had been ideal for fitting multiple training sessions around his work hours. But unfortunately when the recession hit, his job disappeared. Both brothers were at a crossroads and made the decision to plough head first into the daily grind of making Jiu-Jitsu their livelihood by whatever means necessary.

Making money doing something you don’t want to do, to buy something you don’t really want”

The brothers made the initial step by becoming recipients of Ireland’s social welfare. Anyone who has visited Dublin can attest to the fact that it is an expensive city. When questioned on how they managed to survive, they explained by living frugally and completely stopping spending money. No more holidays or trips to hotels with girlfriends and remaining at home with their, thankfully understanding, parents.

This also meant not buying any new clothes for years. At this time John was training three times a day with only two kimonos. One only has to see the pictures from his first attempt at qualifying for Abu Dhabi World Pro at the trials in England – he picked up a double bronze in a extensively oversized pair of A3 Gi pants with an tight-fitted  A1 kimono top.

Going to a competition and not being able to walk up the stairs in your house the day before, because your whole central nervous system is so fucked…”

I first met the brothers when they were training with Darragh O Conaill at East Coast Jiu-Jitsu. At this point they were training between three and four times a day. This work ethic led to competitive success, particularly for John who became European champion at blue belt in No-Gi, and scored qualification to the Abu Dhabi World Pro by submitting all of his opponents at his weight and the open weight division.

But this overtraining resulted in a laundry list of injuries for both brothers. Reflecting on their mistakes, they explain they were constantly in and out of the car, which doubled as a bed between sessions, and not getting the correct nutrition. Perhaps most importantly, they were not getting enough time off the mats to recuperate; not resting properly before a competition and not taking any time off after they had fought.

I wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t tap and he broke my foot”

In hindsight this wasn’t one of John’s most intelligent decisions but it actually came as a blessing in disguise. When having his cast put on, the nurse noticed his back. As it turns out, the constant pain he had been in was a result of two herniated discs with another one bulging so that the nerve had become impinged. At this point the doctor exclaimed, “I don’t know how you’re able to stand up let alone compete.”

These injuries were coupled with the realisation that life as a competitor might not pay the bills. John recalls a trip to the Jiu-Jitsu World Championships in California. Being tight with money, he had just googled the cheapest place to stay close to the comp, which predictably ended up being the worst place on Earth. As he was reflecting on the fact that this was the sort of place where people get shot, ADCC absolute champion, Claudio Calassans, came out onto the balcony. “If that is the shit-hole that he is staying in, with his Gi drying out on the balcony, then something isn’t right here,” he reflected. “You can be unbelievable at Jiu-Jitsu and not have any money.”

One of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life”

Some important decisions had to be made when the social welfare began cracking down on those on long-term unemployment benefits. They came to the brothers with some options. One was to do a “shitty computer course for nine months” which John, with degrees in maths and history, would have no use for. Another was to train to become a maths teacher, and the final option was to become self employed. This was the genesis of Satori BJJ

Their goal wasn’t to own an academy, it was to train. Their dream was to become world champions. But now three years in they couldn’t be happier, both creatively and financially they are in a good place. Although it wasn’t a success from the offset; coming off the back of winning No-Gi Euros at blue belt and qualifying for Abu Dhabi, perhaps naively they imagined it would be an instant money earner. John explains they wrote up their projections and, “We might as well have wiped our arse with them!” The bubble was burst on the first night when they had six students turn up.

Students have to know your intentions”

Whilst the academy has become financially successful and the brothers no longer need to share one kimono between the two of them, they explain that the bulk of the profit goes directly back into the business itself. The brothers are well aware of the socio-economic make up of their catchment area having been born and bred there, and they know their students don’t have large sums of cash to throw around. While making enough money for themselves to live from Jiu-Jitsu is a necessity, their goal is to have Ireland’s most successful competition team. With this in mind, all seminars are provided to their students for free, as well as all gradings for children. This is coupled with paying for outside tuition from pro MMA fighter Chris Fields for those students who want to punch each other in the face, and a black belt Judo instructor to ensure an attitude of institutional butt-scooting isn’t fostered.

They are off to a good start in their goal of a dominant competitive team. This year two of their students scored silver medals at the European Championships.

In a lot of gyms the most experienced guy teaches the easiest classes; the black belt teaches the advanced class where most guys know where they are going. I believe that the best coach needs to be at the bottom where they need the most instruction”

Kids have been a key part of the financial success of the academy with over seventy children and teens attending classes. This is where Pat’s passion lies, he relishes the opportunity to plan and deliver his own program to children and teens. Having had eight years experience in this area, it is something he excels at.

When questioned on why he is so impassioned to work with the little guys who, in my own experience, are notoriously difficult due to having attention spans similar to a grape, he explains the satisfaction of seeing their immediate progression from session to session and week to week. This is unparalleled when compared to their adult counterparts. The success in this area is evident as a class of four year olds seamlessly drill through a De La Riva sequence with a level of finesse that puts my guard game to shame.

Running a clothing company is a full-time job in itself”

After opening the academy, John would stay up late night watching business webinars. He took on board advice about the necessity for multiple streams of income. Out of this the Sub Only brand was born. The brothers shy away from discussing how it was possible to initially start a Gi and clothing company from scratch, which isn’t surprising given the currently oversaturated nature of the market.

Establishing a kimono company in this climate has been far from easy and the brothers admit they made a plethora of initial mistakes. The idea that you spend an initial amount which you make back and then turn a profit simply does not happen. Reflecting on it, approaching every Irish athlete for sponsorship and sales deals was a mistake. They helped so many people out in the beginning with free Gis and sponsorship, and ended up down, thirteen thousand Euros.

Financially it hasn’t been a success yet, but they have produced nine Gis in their short three years of life. The kimono designs are some of the freshest on the market and include a Cystic fibrosis kimono; Pat’s friend tragically died of the disease. They took all the profit from its sale and donated it to the Cystic Fibrosis Centre. Pat explains,

This has been a learning process. We are heading in right direction, at the very least we can provide top quality Gis and affordable prices to all our students.”

Looking out across the academy at a packed mat for a (free) seminar with Polish European Champion, Jacob Zajkowski with every dude on the mat rocking Sub Only, this is completely true.

You would go to tournaments where you would have nothing to do with it, and you end up telling the guys how to run the clocks, and refereeing. What the fuck is happening here? I am running their tournament”

Not content with these two streams of Jiu-Jitsu cash, they dived head first into the competition scene. Competition was something both had a wealth of experience in, they had been attending karate competitions their whole lives. They reminisce about attending the Irish Open, where there would be 2000 athletes for sports karate tournaments in the national sports centre.

After growing up around this and then attending Jiu-Jitsu tournaments, they saw so many things that were blatantly wrong. They wanted to create a model for BJJ following what they had experienced in karate, with attractive medals, fair pay for employees and tightly run schedules; to this day they have ran seven tournaments without a single delay.

Whilst there goal of competitors isn’t quite in three figures yet, they do have the second biggest turnout in Ireland and have achieved a goal of having a higher standard of competitors. They have achieved this by flying in Swiss black belt, Thomas Oyarzun and Swedish European Champion, Max Lindblad, among others. This is something other profit-hungry tournaments simply don’t do.

Jiu-Jitsu changes the way you think about everything”

Spending time with these two brothers and seeing how far they have taken it in a few short years has been nothing short of inspirational. From joining them in their old stinky 1997 Volkswagen (which cost them three hundred Euros, only had one workable door, and an engine that would set on fire on the way to the gym), to watching them effortlessly deliver technique to their own packed class of students today in their own academy.

Pat credits John for the bulk of their success, he has created an ethical means of making money through Jiu-Jitsu, and his love for the sport and his inherent fairness is passed down to everyone. As brothers they have carved out a piece of Jiu-Jitsu for themselves, one which ensures the progression of those around them and indeed the sport as a whole in Ireland.