Gracie Combatives at Ronin Athletics

TLDR; If you have been on the fence about trying BJJ cause you have been afraid of getting smashed, crushed, beat up, hurt, humiliated or whatever. Maybe you should come and try out the Gracie Combatives program. You will learn the techniques before you get your ass whooped.

You may remember that my wife recently wrote a review about her experience taking on the Gracie Women Empowered Self Defense program at Ronin Athletics. Well, I recently bit the bullet myself and took a commute down to the city to finally try out the Gracie Combatives program. 

I absolutely must note that the very first face I saw when I walked out of the elevator was Assistant Instructor, Johnny.

Coach Johnny and Coach Bart on the mats

This dude greeted me with a big smile, super positive energy and even addressed me by my name before ever meeting me once! These guys run a very fine oiled machine here, it is impressive!

In any case, being greeted by such positive vibes really helped me out because I was extremely anxious. I was so scared to go that I nearly didn’t. I was giving myself every excuse that one can think of to weasel out of the new situation. At the end of the day, it was me who got up the courage to show up, but Johnny definitely helped to put me at ease with his warm smile and kind welcome. 

I also saw the school owner Christian and we shook hands, but he was on the way out that day. Johnny was in charge of the welcoming committee on this day. I said this to him directly and I’ll say it again today, Johnny is a major asset to this school, 100%!

I got whooped, but I. DID. NOT. TAP!

So it’s funny, I was the one who sort of put my wife on to the Women Empowered program and in turn her enthusiasm and excitement over it encouraged me to come and try the Combatives program. 

At first I was a bit reluctant. I live and work in queens. I have absolutely no reason or need to commute into the city. I was coming in only on Sundays to accompany her and keep her safe. However, Ronin Athletics is the only school that is a Gracie Certified Training Center. If I want to participate in this program, then these are the sacrifices that must be made. So far, I’ve been training a week and I’d say its worth it, I’m learning so much stuff that I’d usually avoid.

I am the longest standing white belt. This picture was taken in 2006

So the program is broken down into a very highly structured and controlled format which you learn in a safe environment.  Over the years, I’ve trained at many BJJ schools and I’ve never walked out of one where something didn’t really hurt a lot. That’s not to say that the other places I’ve been to are bad, I love them all. I’ve met and trained with a lot of great guys, worked with some amazing coaches and I love and miss them all. But the training approaches are very different at the early stages of training. 

The difference in methods is highly debated in the BJJ community. At this school and all Gracie CTC, (at least in this beginner Combatives class) we don’t spend any time working on conditioning, intense warm ups, or other pre-training exhaustive exercises like bear walks, knee ups, etc. FYI, I did notice the team doing bear walks in the Master cycle class, but I’m not there yet.

The entire Combatives class was solely focused on teaching you the techniques of that day’s curriculum. They have the class planned well in advance, it’s logged on a card and everyone is on the same page. All Gracie CTCs follow the same exact uniformed format. As far as I know, you are required to wear white only (preferably Gracie branded) gis in this class. Say what you want about Rener and Ryron, they got this branding on lock. Those guys are smart business men.

I’ll be using a new no stripe belt here as the stripes represent something different in a CTC, but I’ve kept my 3 stripes from Professor Villarica

In any case, that’s it, at the end of class there is no rolling, no positional sparring, nothing like that at this Combatives level. You go in to the school, review the last techniques in the beginning, learn the new techniques and then you are done. I’m going into my 3rd class this week, with no injuries. I am a bit sore, but not injured. Last time I tried 3 classes a week, I had my right shoulder labrum torn. Yes, it’s still torn.

As you advance in the program, then they open up more aspects of training to you. After you complete 2 of your three combatives cycles, they then let you work on reflex development. Then as you further progress up the ladder, eventually you get to spar and I suspect the program becomes slightly more like what we are used to, while still maintaining the structured teaching format.

Now I’ve always felt that one of the things that separates BJJ from other martial arts is that you are actually fighting and learning how to fight right from the start. This is the “old school” form of thought that I come from and it was one of the things that concerned me about this Gracie program, besides the commute.

When my wife started and I saw how they train, I thought to myself, how can they learn to fight without the pressure of an opponent attacking then in a live, resisting scenario? This is how I’ve always trained BJJ, live sparring is what separates us from the other styles where you don’t actually fight a resisting opponent. This immediately worried me.

Lora, Chris and Christian after Women Empowered Class

However, after my first few classes, I am thinking that this approach is probably more sustainable for a true beginner. If I had started training this way back in 2006, I’d probably be a black belt by now. I maybe wouldn’t have a torn shoulder ligament, a neck and lower back injury, jacked up wrists and I’d probably not have taken 13 years off from training. Instead, I’m still a white belt with all those aforementioned injuries. Meh. But who knows though? As you advance, it seems the program becomes more like what I’m used to, so I could have probably gotten jacked up anyway. Who knows? It all happens for a reason they say, no?

I do believe that a white belt who trains for the first time at a traditional style school for 1 month will probably tap one who trains at a CTC for the same amount of time. The reason I say that is because they are actually fighting an uncooperative opponent right away. Our guy here would have at most 24 combatives classes, but no real fight time. This other guy would have been fighting for 24 actual sparring sessions. The sparring definitely makes a difference in actual fighting.

Still, in the long run, long term, I suspect that the guys here will likely have a better understanding of the techniques and principles of BJJ. Once they actually start fighting in the Master cycle, I think they will get really good, really fast and probably then tap the same guy because they will have a greater command of the fundamentals. All you have to do is watch Christian in action or a few of Johnny’s competition videos to see how solid their game is developed. Also, they may be better prepared to survive a street scenario.

My man James was helping me with MMA style personal training at the gym

You also have to consider the nature of the program. The Gracie Combatives program is about surviving a street altercation, not necessarily rolling around with another BJJ guy. That part comes later in the curriculum. Is this way better? Is the other way better? Well, everyone will have their views on that. I can’t really opine strongly as I’m not senior enough, I can only speak to my own experience and you can take that with a grain of salt.

For me specifically, this program is great because it allows me to learn a lot of technique with little to no risk of injury. I am filling in so many gaps in my fundamental BJJ game and I am loving the learning process so much. As far as the fighting aspect, for me specifically, well, I’ve been fighting for years. I even fought and got beat down in a NYC No Holds Barred Underground fight. I know what rolling is like, I know what fighting is like. I’ve felt the pressure of an opponent trying to bash my face into the floor. I think I can afford to focus solely on technique and the fundamentals while still being able to defend myself if I need to.

In my situation, this style of training is amazing. Besides, if I want to actually roll, I can just do a drop in at any of the schools in my area. I have my old home UNA, I have Kings Combat and there are many other places you can just drop in and train at. But right now, I’m dedicating my free days to training here. Like I said, I’m learning so much and I am really loving it. So many things are starting to make sense with how it is broken down and I find that so enlightening and fascinating.

Underground Combat League 2006

Is this good for a new guy? Well, that’s debatable and I’m not in a position to debate it either way. I think I am biased based off of where I come from and I’m smart enough to know that bias is never good when trying to arrive at an objective conclusion. I reserve myself to not having a strong opinion on this point. Frankly, I think either way can work and it depends on the person at hand.

So on my first class I saw Professor Christian Montes, but class was led by Coach Bart and Coach Johnny. Bart is a brown belt and Johnny is a 4 stripe blue belt. I spent most of my time working with Johnny directly. This is presumably to help me on the first day and also most likely a supervision and safety thing. I noticed on my second class that another blue belt was working with a first timer and went through the same technique as Johnny did with me. The trap and roll.

I loved working with Johnny, it was great for me because this young man is extremely cool and very knowledgeable. He’s an instantly likable dude. Coach Bart is really cool too, he was leading the class, but I noticed that he also lets Johnny take the wheel quite a bit. They have a great synergy between them. However, most of my first day was spent under Johnny’s guidance.

Funny story, my sister messaged me after I posted our picture and said she recognized him from the Bronx party and baseball circuit. My wife also knows him from the women empowered classes on Wednesday. In addition to that, I’ve had a few gay friends write me asking me for his name cause they think he’s cute. Our boy Johnny is a stud! I told them, if you want to meet Johnny, come try out a class or join the school! Tell them Christine’s Angel sent you. LOL.

I wanted to make this a more balanced MMA record.

So we spent class going over a standing takedown and a side mount guard recovery technique. I want to point out something that blew my mind. So when trying to recover guard from side control, my foot would always, always get stuck on my opponents belly or gi. It is one of the reasons I hate being on my back. Never mind that I have short, fat, unathletic, tight legs. I’m just not built to be a back player. 

In any case, I digress. Coach Johnny was able to diagnose and quickly point out why I couldn’t finish the move properly. I also explained my duck feet situation and that further clarified why it takes me a bit more effort to do the movement.

On one of our first dates, my wife saw me get beat down. LOL.

So the reason my foot would get stuck is because I didn’t create enough space for my foot, once the space was created, I could work the foot down. I’m telling y’all, I was mind blown at this minor but crucial detail that I’ve never known.

This is a big deal to me, not knowing this detail has caused me so much trouble when rolling because I couldn’t recover guard a lot of the time. This is why I mentioned that over time, these guys could get really good. And since I’ll be training here, I’ll be getting good, or at least better than I am.

The facility itself is quite beautiful. We have an adequate area for changing, a private bathroom, very clean and hygienically maintained mats, a nice reception area and of course, great instructors. I maintain that I don’t like the commute, but as I go more often, I’m sure it will become less painful.

Today will be my third day attending class, I know right, 3 days in one week? No injuries? What the hell? But that’s what I mean when I say this is more sustainable. Last time I tried to train this much, I’ll say it again, I tore the labrum on my right shoulder. I felt a bit sore after Tuesday’s class and I was surprisingly tired, (surprised because we don’t roll, but I was exhausted) but other than that, I feel great and ready to go.

At the moment, I’m looking at joining up for 3 days a week. I think I can hack it. I’ve also scaled back on my teaching classes. I know it sucks to give up income to spend more money, but we gotta follow our passions in life, you know?

If you have been on the fence about trying BJJ and you have been afraid of getting smashed, crushed, beat up, hurt, humiliated or whatever. Maybe you should come and try out the Gracie Combatives program. You will learn the techniques safely before getting your ass whooped! I’ll see you on the mats!