The popularity of Brazilian jiu jitsu is soaring in recent times. Aoife Loughnane asks where has it come from and what is it all about?
He lands on the mat with an almighty thud.
One by one like a row of dominoes, the class do several forward flips followed by a series of backward flips. All the while making this difficult movement look both easy and graceful.
This is the warm-up for the beginners jiu jitsu class at Smithfields Jungle BJJ (Brazilian jiu jitsu) and I am watching in awe.
Until about a year ago, jiu jitsu wasn’t a term I was familiar with. Then suddenly, it seemed as though everyone was attending weekly classes and had several competitions under their belts.
So where and why this sudden interest for this martial art come about in Dublin?
“Jiu jitsu promotes the concept that a smaller or weaker individual can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger or heavier assailant by most notably, taking the fight to the ground, and then applying joint-locks and chokeholds to defeat the opponent.”
– Peter Mamaev, head coach and founder of Jungle BJJ
With events like UFC Fight Night selling out every year and the fact that the reigning UFC Lightweight Champion is Dublin’s very own Conor McGregor, mixed martial arts (MMA) is definitely having its day in the sun.
MMA conjures up images of boxing rings, bulging muscles, and bloodied faces.
Jiu jitsu, while it is a big part of MMA, it is softer as a sport on the whole. It focuses on soft mats, choreographed movements, and a strength that is mental rather than psychical.
Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) is a combat sport that primarily focuses on ground fighting and grappling. Originating from Kodakan judo, it stems from the philosophical idea of being at one physically, mentally and morally.
The City spoke to Jungle BJJs founder Peter Mamaev to find out what jiu jitsu entails and why the demand for it is there in our fair city.
Jungle BJJ began in June 2016 after their former coach relocated to Portugal. Peter Mamaev had only been training with him for three weeks, having received his purple belt under a different coach.
Rather than stop BJJ training altogether, Mamaev decided to take over. He established Jungle BJJ Dublin with the support of Fernando Araujo, head of Jungle BJJ association which is based in Prague.
“Jiu jitsu promotes the concept that a smaller or weaker individual can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger or heavier assailant by using proper technique, leverage, and most notably, taking the fight to the ground, and then applying joint-locks and chokeholds to defeat the opponent,” Mamaev says.
The school’s plan was to keep their original core team and eventually grow to 20 or so members. However, word quickly spread about their work.
“People kept signing up – as of today, we have about 50 regular members,” Mamaev says. “To satisfy the demand and push the overall level of coaching up, we introduced morning classes twice a week (7-8am) and brought in one of country’s best coaches to teach wrestling for BJJ classes.”
For complete jiu jitsu novices, Jungle BJJ have recently introduced a dedicated eight week course for complete beginners to facilitate a smooth introduction to BJJ. This course has been a great success so far, and a new one kicks off on 27 March 2017.
Jungle BJJ is not the only Jiu Jitsu school in Dublin that has been attracting new members.
East Coast JJA or ‘Ireland’s premier Jiu Jitsu Academy,’ began in 2009. It grew from one of Ireland’s original Jiu Jitsu gyms ‘Next Generation.’
A string of injuries forced head coach David Jones to step down from his role. At just 22 years of age, Darragh O’Conaill took over the running of the school with a new name and direction.
The Academy’s growth from 20 members in 2009 to over 200 in 2017 reflects the growing demand for jiu jitsu in Dublin.
“With Conor McGregor’s rise to the top of the sport he has brought martial arts to the mainstream here.”
– Head coach Darragh O’Conaill at East Coast JJA
What began as three classes a week in a leisure centre activity room has now grown into a fully dedicated training facility with classes seven days a week.
East Coast has also expanded with other academies in Bray, Arklow, Waterford, Cardiff and Newcastle.
So where exactly is the interest in jiu jitsu coming from in Dublin and why?
O’Conaill says that, “Irish people have a great mentality for combat sport. Our boxers are commonly among the best in the world and most recently Conor McGregor has become one of the biggest sports stars we’ve ever had.”
Jungle BJJ’s Peter Mamaev agrees that jiu jitsu is accessible. However, other factors are also contributing to the growing demand in Dublin for the sport.
“People are expanding their view of fitness outside of regular commercial gyms into something more engaging,” he says.
The expanding mix of cultures in Dublin has created interest to less well-known sports.
“Dublin has a wonderful cosmopolitan culture, with a lot people who at some stage travelled around the world and started training jiu-jitsu in Brazil, Japan, or other countries, and now would like to continue their journey in the sport,” says Mamaev.
Mental health management
Jiu jitsu is not just about keeping in good physical shape. It can also help to manage anxiety, stress and develop mental well-being.
— Peter Liciaga (@peterliciaga) March 13, 2017
Mamaev says that stress relief is a very common benefit of jiu jitsu, particularly the ‘sparring’ element.
“It helps people achieve very easily a state of thoughtlessness. It becomes almost meditative as you are forced to concentrate only on the present moment as you spar or ‘roll.’”
While this meditative element allows you to forget your daily troubles or worries, O’Conaill does not believe that stress management is the primary reason for the initial interest.
“However, BJJ helps tremendously in that regard. Jiu jitsu engages your body and mind so much during the class that you have no choice but forget about everything else, even if you are going through hard times at work or personal life,” he says.
“All walks of life train Jiu jitsu for many reasons, from confidence and self defence to fitness/weight loss and competition,” O’Conaill says.
A look inside Jungle BJJ. Video by Aoife Loughnane
The Irish Times ran an article in 2014 by Laura Kennedy called “The Yes Woman: Jiu jitsu’s not about muscle”, where it is explained that the sport is just as much for women as it is for men.
Physical strength and size have nothing to do with it. Jiu jitsu is about problem solving; it is about the power of the mind.
Kennedy wrote that, “it is not always the strongest person who wins but the most inventive and clever.”
There is an idea that the number one reason women should train in jiu jitsu is to protect themselves. This is not strictly true, as I discovered when I spoke to both head coaches O’Conaill and Mamaev.
In Jungle BJJ,most members are beginners. “Although we have a number of experienced purple and blue belts as well,” Mamaev adds.
As far the background, there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ member profile at Jungle BJJ, with a diverse group of people from all over the world.
But what about female members? “There are nine girls training with us now, with another four or five due to start by the end of this month,” he says.
East Coast Academy also has a diverse membership; male and female, kids, teenagers and adults.
Age is definitely just a number when it comes to this sport, as the Academy’s members show. “Our youngest member is five years old and our oldest member 58,” O’Conaill says.
It is clear to see that the figures are booming and there is demand for jiu jitsu schools.
But, what of the future of jiu jitsu in Dublin? Is this perhaps just a fad that will die out in the next few years?
Jungle BJJ are reaping the rewards of the risk they took when Mamaev took over the school.
“We are aiming to continue our growth, attract more people from all walks of life, add kids and teens classes to the schedule and keep building our competition team,” Mamaev says.
Mamaev tells me that the school is also planning to get involved in expansion of jiu jitsu as a means of combat against mental health disorders for both kids and adults. They believe that “jiu jitsu can tremendously benefit people suffering from various mental health issues and hope make some positive impact in the local community.”
East Coast Academy has aspirations for growth on a more global scale.
“We aim for ECJJA to be one of the top Jiu Jitsu Academies / Teams in the world, that produces not just World Champion Level competitors, but healthy and happy people,” O’Conaill says.
Both East Coast Academy and Jungle BJJ are only two of many jiu jitsu schools that have sprung up in Dublin and their goal is simple: to spread jiu jitsu to as many people in Ireland as possible.
If Mamaev and O’Conaill have their way, jiu jitsu is here to stay in Dublin.
Featured image by Aoife Loughnane