Back in 2012, I wrote a story for BJJ Legends magazine about promoting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Moldova. (Brazilian Jiu-Jitus in Burlacu Moldova) At the time I was trying to drum up support both in and outside of the country: creating awareness among foreigners that the country even existed, while trying to convince Moldovans that training and teaching BJJ could potentially help to open an innumerable amount of doors for them. By now, I have completely worked myself out of a job… and I couldn’t be happier!
You see, the whole idea of non-profit work is to eventually work yourself out of a job. Think about it; if you run a non-profit aiming to defeat poverty, and poverty is defeated, why go to the office anymore? Even if you run a non-profit that is a labor union or something, you would hypothetically not need to be employed anymore if everyone was getting their fair share at their jobs. Of course, we can all think of exceptions to this idea, but it is otherwise a good rule of thumb when seeking to work with or donate to non-profit organizations.
A lot has happened since 2012. In addition to no longer having much work in regards to “the Moldova Project”, my wife and I have also moved back to the US, bought some property and opened a new gym with a new goal in mind. More on that later, but first let me tell you how BJJ has evolved over the years in Moldova into what it has become today.
In 2011 we were blessed to have received some international attention to our program via Christian Graugart, the original BJJ Globetrotter, and his around-the-world BJJ adventure. Shortly after his visit, some traditional martial artists decided to open their own BJJ gym in the capital of Chisinau. This was a very important step in the process as time itself stops and starts in Chisinau for most Moldovans. I knew that once this happened, the spread of Jiu-Jitsu throughout the country would be inevitable.
Around the same time, a team from a mid-sized town in the south of Moldova decided to take up the Brazilian variety of Jiu-Jitsu in addition to their own version of martial arts. Led by the charismatic former member of Soviet special forces, Sergiu Dobrea, team Se-An-Do continues to have one of the largest youth programs in the country. They’re a considerable force to be reckoned with in a myriad of fighting sports in Moldova.
So now, with these three core teams in place, one of my former students and I decided to host a tournament. We decided to try a new tournament format loosely based on a classic collegiate-style wrestling competition: the dual. Basically, there are around 10 weight classes, and each team chooses their best fighter for each weight class. With three existing teams in Moldova now, the “Burlacu Tri-Duals” was born.
I had some really high hopes for this new idea of mine. Unfortunately, the annual tournament was plagued from the beginning. The first year the Chisinau team bailed at the last minute, so we just had 2 teams competing against each other. The second-year Se-An-Do wasn’t able to participate but luckily a newly-formed team also from the southern region was able to take their place. The third year the format was scrapped and a more traditional (and from my point of view, boring) format was adopted. Thus, the “Burlacu Tri-Duals” became the “Burlacu Open” tournament. By this time, I was just a supporting figure; my former student, Alexandru Birlea, took over the reins almost completely, and I’m happy to say that he did a really great job!
Over time, other teams threw their hats into the promotional ring and a whole slew of other BJJ competitions were held in the south of the country as well as the capital. There was the Moldova Cup, the Moldovan BJJ Championships as well as ADCC Moldova, just to name a few. By the time I left the area in 2014, there were no less than eight teams training Jiu-Jitsu across the country. I have no idea how many are training now, but Jiu-Jitsu is thankfully becoming more common in Moldova, and more importantly, it is completely sustainable! Moldovans are running their own gyms, their own tournaments and are buying and selling their own equipment. I’ll occasionally get a box or two of used gis together for kids who otherwise can’t afford a new one, but this has proven to be more of a hassle than what it’s worth for both parties involved. So, really, this is a great thing!
From 2006 when I started the first BJJ program in the country, to 2014 when I left Eastern Europe, presumably for good, I definitely missed out on a good deal of training opportunities, tournaments, promotions and all the other cool stuff you get along with taking the more traditional route of training with one team. On the other hand, I’m proud to say that one of my first students, Alexandru Birlea, is ranked higher than me in BJJ, he can beat my ass, and he’s also the head BJJ coach for a UFC fighter. Not bad for a poor kid from a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in a country that nobody has heard of! I’m obviously super proud of him, his accomplishments as well as the accomplishments of so many others like him. But, of course, I’ve checked my ego at the beginning of this article, so enough bragging from me for now ;).
The Open Source Project
As we gradually became more and more hands-off with the Moldova program, my wife and I had been looking for the next step in our lives. When we moved back from Eastern Europe in 2014, our goal was to learn a bit of the hospitality business and then eventually go into business for ourselves. Over the years we really had a lot of fun both hosting guests at our little apartment in Bucharest, as well as being hosted by a multitude of people, mostly in Moldova and Romania. If there’s one thing that Romanians and Moldovans typically do very well, it’s hospitality, so we took our ideas with us and moved to Texas.
We lived in Pharr, Texas for about a year and a half, and while we were there, we worked at an RV resort in part to get back into the swing of things in the US as well as test the waters to see if we really wanted to go into hospitality. The job paid horribly, but luckily I was able to teach fundamental BJJ at Carlos Diego Ferreira’s gym in Pharr, in exchange for training time with the team. I credit Team Ferreira with helping me to love training Jiu-Jitsu again and to finally make the transition from just being a wrestler who happened to do Jiu-Jitsu, to a full-fledged BJJ fighter.
Our next move was to Gunnison, Colorado. We worked at a motel cleaning rooms part-time during the day, and I would train and/or teach at Gunnison BJJ in the evenings. Cleaning rooms and doing yard work at the motel was surprisingly a very positive experience; I was finally able to work with my hands, which I found to be very personally fulfilling, and then I would train BJJ on my off time. There wasn’t a lot of consistent structure at the gym, so I was able to teach myself most of the new-school moves and concepts that I had missed out on while I was out in the middle of nowhere. While I’ll probably never berimbolo anybody, I have grown to have an affinity for the leg lasso and I’m even able to invert when appropriate.
Unfortunately, I have a bad hip and had to undergo hip surgery in November of 2016. I was on crutches for a good 3 months, which gave my other joints, ribs and back a good amount of time to heal as well. My wife and I spent 2 of these months traveling east from Gunnison, and all the way down the coast to Key West. Our new mission was to find an affordable piece of property with which to start our business. The business would include both Jiu-Jitsu and hospitality, all wrapped up in one somehow.
On our way out to the coast we decided to stop through Asheville, NC just to see what was there. We found the perfect property for sale that was in our price range, and after wandering the coast for a couple months, not really finding anything that compared to this property in Asheville, we returned to Appalachia and put a bid on the property. The bid was eventually accepted and now we have a gym as well as over two acres of future campground!
Now, here’s how I came up with the concept of Open Source Jiu-Jitsu. During my time away from BJJ and from work, I decided to formalize the fundamental Jiu-Jitsu that I had been teaching all of these years by writing a curriculum. The curriculum is 10-weeks long and is designed to continuously rotate through every 10 weeks. This way, if you show up and start training in the middle of the curriculum, you will see the same technique again in ten weeks. Furthermore, as most of us know, drilling and tightening up our fundamentals is never a bad idea, so we encourage our students to go through the curriculum more than once.
All of our fundamentals classes, which utilize the curriculum, are “pay-what-you-want”. This way, even the poorest of BJJ students can train Jiu-Jitsu and save their dignity. It’s just one more heavily-utilized excuse not to train Jiu-Jitsu, that has been taken off the table completely. I’ve never even made $30,000 in a year in my whole entire life, and the last time I even came close was 2009. I’ve frequently been in the position where I had to ask an instructor if I could clean mats or teach in exchange for training time, and that can really wear on your morale over time.
We have a contributions box in our gym where our students are welcome to give a suggested donation of between $10 and $20 per lesson… or not! The box is usually behind me while I’m teaching and interacting with students, so I have no idea who’s paying and who isn’t. This way it prevents me from holding grudges against non-payers or favoring paying students.
Another component of “the Open Source model”, is that I am not the only one giving instruction all the time. If I happen to be the best-qualified teacher on a given subject, then I’ll do the teaching in this circumstance. However, if we happen to have a high-level wrestler in the room, for example, it makes more sense to have that person teaching takedowns, assuming that they are good at communicating their knowledge to others.
Sustainability and the Future of Open Source Jiu-Jitsu
While Open Source Jiu-Jitsu is, in fact, a for-profit LLC, our goals haven’t changed much since the Moldova Project. We want people to feel empowered, and to improve their lives as well as the lives of others through Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. We want to produce high-quality teachers, athletes and overall high-quality people at our gym, and we don’t want money or a lack thereof to be an issue that gets in the way of training Jiu-Jitsu.
Furthermore, we aim to have the above-mentioned teachers and otherwise good people run the program in the future. As long as we are paying the bills and continue to maintain high-quality BJJ and other programs, we want others to be able to thrive in this environment and basically run the gym with minimal oversight in order to reach their goals.
We’re also hoping that this idea spreads and that other gyms see the value of adding a similar program to their existing structure. We’re convinced that after seeing how successful the program is here at Open Source Jiu-Jitsu, that other gyms will see that you are in fact able to run a profitable business and offer “pay-what-you-want” classes, or something similar, at the same time.
We also want to invite established, high-level grapplers to come not only to see Asheville but to be a part of what we have going on here. The campground and the gym being in the same location is like a match made in heaven. While we regularly take in wandering grapplers into our home, we’re only going to be adding more options around the property where folks can chill out, see the sights and get some rolls in. Our vision is that some folks will be able to stay a couple weeks or even months, turning this into a true open source project.
Special thanks to my wife and business partner, Amanda McMasters, and to the countless others who have helped me so far along the way during this epic jiu-jitsu journey of mine.
Until then, thank you, dear reader, for having read all of this. If you ever happen to be in Asheville and would like to see what we have going on here… perhaps even guest teach a class, please feel free to contact us at bobby at opensourcebjj.net. Hope to see you on the mats!
Jennifer Perez returned home last week after a year traveling the world and training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. She visited 10 countries and 45 academies. Fresh off her travels Kostas Fantaousakis asks her about her year abroad.
Kostas: Jenifer, how long have you been training in BJJ.
Jennifer: I have been training since February 2012. I started Training BJJ as a way to rebuild my self-esteem and strength that had been drained from a bad relationship of 9 years.
Kostas: What is your belt rank and who is your instructor(s) in BJJ? Do you train in other sports too or just BJJ?
Jennifer: I was promoted to blue belt in June of 2013 under Amal Easton. I trained kickboxing and Muay Thai 2 years prior to starting BJJ. I had a 1 year break between the time I stopped MT and started BJJ
Kostas: How did you get this idea to travel around the world and visit so many academies?
Jennifer: Japan was always a place I wanted to visit so after my breakup I took some savings and booked my trip to Japan. Fast-forward, on my flight back I couldn’t help but be sad knowing that the high from my trip would soon subside. There was a Fidelity commercial that came on and at the end of it it said "Save Today to Live Tomorrow"...that was the moment I realized I had to quit what was making me unhappy and dedicate at least one year to myself. To try and discover my intended purpose. I read BJJ globetrotter by Christian Graugart and immediately knew I had to do that.
Kostas: Can you name some of the countries you visited? How long did it take to visit 45 academies?
Jennifer: I’ve visited about 50 academies in total this year and visited some amazing places like South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, Portugal, Singapore, Panamá, Puerto Rico and a few more. I started Jan 15th of 2014 & in Jan 2015 I visited my 50th academy AlleyCat Fitness Foundation in Casco Viejo Panama.
Kostas: Did you travel all by yourself or did you have other athletes with you?
Jennifer: For the most part I was alone but our Jiu-Jitsu community is so amazing that once I connected with at least one person from the academy I was treated like family instantly!
I met up with many friends along the way that stayed and globetrotted with me for weeks at a time. Like Vivian Velez from Puerto Rico and Talita Alencar from Rio. It was great to have full time partners who also enjoyed visiting other academies as much as I did.
Kostas: How do you decide which school to visit? Do you use the internet to get information first and then contact the school or do you ask friends and fellow athletes where to go?
Jennifer: I primarily relied on referrals from my professor teammates and other members of the globetrotting community that made suggestions on where to train. I did google a few places out on a remote island in Lombok but that’s because I was itching to train & no one there seemed to know what Jiu-Jitsu was.
Kostas: There seems to be a recent trend in BJJ to combine traveling and training. After visiting so many countries could you give travelers a few tips on what to look for and what to avoid when visiting schools abroad?
Jennifer: I can’t say I've had a bad experience because I truly haven’t. Everyone was always so welcoming. What I do recommend is if you are traveling on a budget make sure to call ahead and confirm the cost of the drop in fee. Also, as a female I was nervous at first meeting so many new people and telling people my story and the fact that I was traveling alone, it was scary but the complete opposite happened. It’s like I had big brothers in every country I visited!
Tip: Train with respect and you will always be welcomed back! It’s that simple. Our community may seem big but it’s quite small and if you are a good person with good intention the door to any academy will always be open but being disrespectful and rude will spread like wild fire and soon the doors will start to shut on you. Stay positive and happy always.
Also, I always had gear from my sponsor Newaza Apparel or from Easton BJJ and I gave them out to the professors as thank you gifts for allowing me to train there. Nice gestures are always appreciated.
Kostas: Every BJJ school is different. Some focus more on self-defense, others in MMA and others on sport Jiu-Jitsu. Did you notice any other differences? How do schools vary from one country to the other?
Jennifer: Yes there were many different styles of BJJ. I remember showing up to No-gi class with Prof. Nico Han at Synergy MMA there were about 10 guys on the mat and I was one of 3 women. I was excited to train, except for the fact that I was getting punched in the ribs when I locked down the guard and in transition to a triangle I was getting tapped in the head by punches from by partner. It was very annoying and I kept losing focus but I believe that was the point and lesson of Prof. Nico -- self-defense first.
Some schools that I enjoyed very much this year were Atos BJJ in San Diego & Mendes Bros in Costa Mesa. Both were very competitive academies with amazing training and tough competitors. Alvarez BJJ in Dallas TX has incorporated wrestling into their training and after being there for a week. I can definitely say there is no question why they have such high level performing athletes. I trained with Lucas Leite and Pati Fontes at Checkmat La Habra and their machine drills are amazing. I still use a lot of them today. I also spent two weeks training Ft. Lee Combatives with Prof Matt Smith, whoa, what a monster of an instructor. Trained with military men every morning at 5:30 am, def no berimbolos were being used here! Prof. Edison Takohara at OverLimit teaches Judo every night as a part of the BJJ curriculum, it was very fun and I learned some pretty cool throws. Every academy was different. I started at Easton BJJ where we had a curriculum and learned step by step, move by move, fundamental, intermediate and advanced. Some academies didn’t offer this. There is one class and that is it, sink or swim. You have to pay attention and learn quickly.
BJJ is a very artistic martial art and each country is painting with the same colors except every painting in the end looks very different from the other.
Kostas: Did you meet any famous instructors/athletes during your travels?
Jennifer: Yes, many amazing talented athletes. From Fernando Terere in Lisboa, to Prof. Rickson Gracie in Torrence, Lucas Leite in la Habra, Miyao Bros In Japan, Mendes Bros in Costa, Nico Han in Bali, Master Cyborg in Miami, Michelle Nicolini, MacKenzie Dern and the list goes on and on... Truly a blessed year.
Kostas: Do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice that was given to you during so many training sessions around the world?
Jennifer: I was in Miami prepping for the worlds and Master Cyborg was running a class and after 3 hours of intense training he said, "I don't care if you win, there will always be more opportunities. The only thing I care about is that you never quit."
Another great moment was in Lisboa, after training, Prof. Terere overhears me talk about my roll with my partner and says to me the best way to win is to believe you've already won!!
Ian Lieberman of Easton BJJ said to me after a really tough roll, Jen you are 5'ft 127 lbs. blue belt he's 6'4 200lb black belt. You did great! Hahaha, I know BJJ isn’t about the size of the person, it is about the size of patience you have with yourself.
Kostas: Did anything surprise you when visiting other countries?
Jennifer: Yes, I was surprised and impressed with the determination of my Brazilian brothers and sisters in Japan that worked 12 sometimes 14 hour shifts. Afterwards go straight to the academy to train at 9:30pm train until midnight, go home only to sleep 4 hours max and be up and doing it again the next day. Now any excuse I hear people make to not train seems petty and inconsiderate!
Kostas: To finish this interview would you say that the BJJ lifestyle is unique in bringing people of different ethnicity and backgrounds together?
Jennifer: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu isn’t just a martial art or a sport it is much more special than that. It unites and brings people from all walks of life to one center point. The mat is full of not just one type but many and that is why it is so beautiful. There is no discrimination, no racism, no politics, no religion... It’s all about the flow of the roll! That's why I love this so much.