The Rockaway Irregular
When I was a boy, judo was the rage and, being small of frame and light of weight, that’s what I took up. Judo’s a wrestling art which uses grappling, throws, takedowns and locks (based on leverage) to overcome an opponent. In the 1880s a Japanese educator named Jigoro Kano standardized and unified the different jujitsu techniques of old Japan to create judo, removing many of the most dangerous moves to focus on competition. But judo and jujitsu faded from view in the late 1960s as the Asian striking arts (karate, taekwondo, kungfu), often more exciting to watch for their “breaking” prowess, prospered. So when I decided to do a series on martial arts, I was surprised to learn jujitsu was back – and very much alive – in Rockaway!
Its comeback’s due, in large part, to the appearance and popularity of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) where almost anything goes and most if not all fights rapidly go to the clinch and the takedown, leading to a finish on the ground. Indeed, there’s a form of jujitsu that specializes in groundwork: Brazilian Jujitsu, a hybrid system based on an early form of judo (with elements of free-style wrestling and Russian Sambo thrown in). It’s currently taught at the Rock-Jitsu Renzo Gracie Brazilian Jujitsu Academy on Old Rockaway Beach Boulevard, just west of Beach 108 Street.
Run by Professor Stewart Carroll (BJJ practitioners prefer “professor” to the more traditional “sensei”), an accomplished black belt, and his wife, Laurel, the school offers classes in grappling and groundwork. According to Professor Carroll it takes between nine and twelve years to reach black belt level in BJJ. Despite his past experience with western boxing and Muay Thai (a form of kickboxing), Carroll explains that he ultimately gravitated to BJJ because of his belief in its practical and spiritual merits. “It’s more than a sport,” he explains. “It keeps you fit, improves health and can extend your life. People sometimes look at what we do and worry about getting hurt if they try it, but that’s not what BJJ’s about.”
What is it about then, I ask? He smiles. “BJJ fully engages body and mind. It’s one of the most complete forms of exercise available and a proven system of real-world self-defense. In fact, we’ve just started a women’s class devoted to applying BJJ techniques for personal defense. But it’s also about serious workouts that stretch and expand your capacities.”
The women’s self-defense class is taught by Laurel, a bluebelt in BJJ (a mid-level rank but no insignificant accomplishment in this system) whose background includes Wu Mei Pai kungfu, Aikido (another self-defense system developed from jujitsu) and the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi Ch’uan – often practiced for its health benefits. She and husband Stewart are both licensed acupuncturists as well (they met as students of this ancient Chinese healing method!) and Laurel has an active practice in Manhattan specializing in women’s health issues. She’s also a certified personal trainer.
Professor Carroll explains that BJJ was developed in Brazil, based on the teachings of a Japanese jujitsu champion who settled in that country in the early part of the last century. Known by the stage name of Count Coma (because of his penchant for sleeper holds!), Mitsuyo Maeda studied judo under Jigoro Kano when that art placed more emphasis on groundwork (wrestling to submission) than it does today. Although judo became more sports-oriented after Maeda went overseas (with increased emphasis on standing throws and sweeps), Maeda brought his preference for groundwork to Brazil, ultimately teaching a boy named Carlos Gracie who created his own martial arts dynasty – one that ultimately made a name for itself with the rise of MMA. “Students who train at Rock Jitsu,” Carroll explains, “have a direct connection to the Gracie lineage and are a part of Team Renzo Gracie.”
“Not really,” Carroll says. “Most are here for the chance to gain the skills – and the great workout. I don’t really encourage competition because it can be a distraction from the real benefits of BJJ. We emphasize safety here because the best environment for learning is one with teammates you can trust. Our focus is on effective grappling technique that can be used in real situations.”
As I get ready to go, Carroll again stresses that, despite appearances, his art can be one of the safest around because students can quickly “tap out” if they feel at risk. On the other hand, how do you tap out against an incoming punch or kick? As a former karate guy, with memories of multiple bruises, black eyes and assorted other injuries, I have to admit he’s got a point.
Leaving Rock-Jitsu, I drive east to Beach 92 Street where retired WKA North American Muay Thai champ Chris Romulo teaches Thai kickboxing, which gained popularity in the wake of the karate craze and has proven to be among the most exciting combat sports around. Romulo runs CROM Martial Training and is assisted at the gym by wife Sarah, also a practicing Thai kickboxer. I wanted his take on Professor Carroll’s views.
On the evening I showed up there were students in two areas; one a roped-off professional looking ring, the other an open space replete with mirrors, heavy bags and other training equipment. Pairs of sweating students in tee shirts and shorts go at it, kicking and punching for all they’re worth. Romulo’s a strongly built guy, as you’d expect of a one-time pro, but there’s a twinkle in his eye as he moves around the two rings, giving pointers, demonstrating techniques and timing rounds. Afterwards he and I sit down while Sarah leads a women’s group on the floor for a class in Muay Thai selfdefense. “I actually started with taekwondo,” Chris notes. “My father was a third degree black belt and wanted me to learn but I got into a street fight at one point and found the high kicking, jumps and spins weren’t enough. I knew I needed something more realistic so I got a video tape of Navy Seals’ hand-to-hand combat methods and saw Muay Thai for the first time.”
How does Muay Thai differ from other arts, I wonder. “We train full contact,” he replies, “without the baggage of some other systems. We have no traditional forms (pre-set routines) like karate, taekwondo and kung-fu – and our workouts are less structured. We do warm-ups and then get to it, using padding and equipment so we can practice full power which you have to do if you’re going to be able to use this in real situations.”
Is Muay Thai kicking the same as in the Japanese and Korean arts? “No,” says Chris, “they have a wider range. Muay Thai’s more economical, using only what’s been shown to be effective in the ring – roundhouse kicks to legs or body, straight push kicks. Of course, we use fists, too, though unlike western boxing elbow strikes and knees are allowed. Muay Thai’s an in-close sport, perfected over centuries.”
I ask him how he came to choose Rockaway for his gym? “Well we moved here!” he grins. “When we took this storefront it was a real mess but Sarah and I and a few early students put in a lot of sweat equity to make this a place people can feel comfortable in.”
I look around at the clean interior brick façade, the mirrors and trophies on display and the shiny new equipment and can’t help but agree.
“We opened about a year ago, Sarah handling the all-women’s classes for exercise and self defense, while I do the classes for those interested in competing. Some of the women in Sarah’s class switch over though as they come to share our passion for the sport.”
Finally I broach the big question: How does Muay Thai stack up to other martial arts, especially the jujitsu that’s become so prominent in the world of MMA?
“I wouldn’t say ours is the be-all and end-all,” Chris responds, “because there are good things to be said for all the arts. A lot depends on the practitioner. Muay Thai, being sports-oriented and focused on punching and kicks, has some weaknesses. If a guy tackles you in a brawl and brings you to the ground ... well that’s not our game. I actually have a background in jujitsu and I’m pretty tough from my years of training and professional bouts, but I’m realistic enough to say that in some situations Muay Thai alone might not be enough. But it gives you a real advantage right off because it teaches you how to hit hard and how to take it. We emphasize safety in class through the use of padding. But in the street all you’ve got is yourself ... and what you’ve been trained to do.”