In mid-2016, after recovering from a back injury* that kept me off the mats for nearly half a year, I was looking to resume my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training. I had earned my blue belt and some stripes at a Pedro Sauer affiliate near my home, but the school moved and I wanted something new. My interest was in what I’ll call ‘traditional’ Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, like Pedro Sauer grew up on and teaches. I tried a few schools in Anne Arundel County where I lived, but they were all sport jiu-jitsu or MMA focused. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it’s what you’re looking for. I wanted something different.
At the time, I was running a small semi-private school out of my home. Seiya Dojo was a collective of friends all training to make each other better. My friend (and now partner at Kogen Dojo) Dwayne Bowie, who was then a new brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, came over semi-regularly to teach BJJ and to train with us. He and I decided that we would go through the Gracie Academy’s Gracie Combatives program together and turn Seiya Dojo into an official Gracie Garage. We purchased the Gracie Combatives DVD series and were about to start the process when we got to talking.
Bowie and I both wanted to own a school. Seiya Dojo was a good beginning, but we wanted a ‘legitimate’ martial art school where we could teach our respective arts – I teach Taikyoku Budo which is an amalgam of Japanese Jujutsu and Chinese Qigong practices and he teaches BJJ – and train with our friends. The more we talked, the more we realized that we wanted to open a school together, so we started brainstorming. Who was running a school the way we wanted to run ours (but ours with the twist of mixing traditional and modern arts together in one place)? Who was successful in the way we wanted to be? A few names came up, but one constant was Mike Stewart, co-owner of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Maryland under Relson Gracie.
One thing that stood out about Mike and Gracie Maryland, aside from Mike’s strong social media presence, was the fact that Mike hosted seminars with both Pedro Sauer and Relson Gracie, together at the same time. Not only that, Mike was running a Relson Gracie school, but he had a Pedro Sauer black belt named Mike Johnson teaching there. This was the kind of relationship we were looking for, the kind that embraced different affiliations that shared a common purpose: To learn, maintain, and teach the standards of traditional Gracie Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art focused on modern, effective self defense for everyday people.
Right around this time, Mike Stewart and some of the Gracie Maryland instructors had participated in a podcast with Paul Tokgozoglu called Mat Tricks. What Mike talked about on Paul’s podcast, his attitude, the culture he tried to create, the way he treated his instructors, etc. all strengthened our resolve to meet with Mike and to pick his brain about opening and running a martial art academy centered around Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Fortunately for us, Mike had also just started accepting business consultation appointments so we reached out to him. He agreed to meet with us, but trying to make all of our schedules work together would prove difficult.
Not one to sit around and wait, I decided to go to Gracie Maryland’s Columbia location to watch a class. Specifically, I wanted to watch Pedro Sauer black belt Mike Johnson teach. My brother Matt, who eventually also became co-owner of Kogen Dojo and is our head Muay Thai instructor, used to train with Mike Johnson and had nothing but good things to say about him. I was trying to stay in the Pedro Sauer association and looking for a teacher and a school, so I thought that Mike Johnson might be a good person to talk to. A strange thing happened on the way into Gracie Maryland Columbia, however. When I walked in, I met Mike Stewart’s brother Jordan at the front desk and we started talking.
Jordan was extremely polite and hospitable toward me. I told him I was there to watch a class, that Bowie and I were interested in opening a school, and that we were scheduled to meet with his brother for a business consultation later that week. He welcomed me and said he’d be glad to answer any of my questions. Never one to turn down the opportunity to ask questions, I started asking away. Jordan did not hesitate to answer every question I had. It was as if they had nothing to hide. This was shocking to me because I had trained at schools previously where everything was a secret, especially pricing. Some schools hide their pricing so that they can charge different people different prices, but Jordan literally handed me their class price sheet and said, “It’s the same for everyone.” Jordan was honest and open. We talked a while and I watched class. Every time I offered to go sit down, to leave him to his work and his Saturday, he insisted, “I don’t mind. Ask me anything you’d like. If you’re cool with Mike, you’re cool with me.” I was starting to feel at home, but what pushed me over the edge was watching the kids train because they were doing what Mike Stewart calls “Real Gracie Jiu-Jitsu,” which is to say they were focused on self defense from the intial conflict from the feet all the way to the submission or escape at the end.
Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo and Taikyoku Mind & Body
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