From his work as an officer for the Athens Police Department, Carlos Mendez knows that more people need to learn self defense. He has been trained in martial arts since he was a 14-year-old in Venezuela and began learning Jiu-Jitsu after moving to Columbus for training at the Police Academy.
Mendez opened the Relson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Athens part-time in 2010 out of a room in the back of a gym. In January, he finally quit working at the APD to commit to the Jiu-Jitsu lifestyle full-time in a new location on Richland Avenue.
“I’m the kind of person where I need to be good at it, you know?” he said.
A combination of martial arts mastery and street smarts is fundamental to the Relson Gracie teachings. Relson is the second oldest son of Helio Gracie, who–with his brother Carlos– modified traditional Japanese Judo in the early 20th century to become what is now known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Relson trained under Helio and Carlos and went undefeated for 22 years as the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion. Numerous Jiu-Jitsu academies across North America are affiliated with his style of teaching, which remains true to his original mentors’ style while also preparing for altercations that my occur off the mat.
Gracie visited the Athens Academy a month before and even presented some students with their new belts. Jeremy Kinnara, an Athens resident, earned his first white stripe that night. He began practicing the sport six months before at the insistence of his two kids, who are enrolled in the “Little Sharks” class for students 5-9 years old.
They wanted their dad to show them new moves, but he didn’t know any. He joined the class to fix that, and now, he’s hooked.
Mothers of students in the Little Sharks and the Junior Combativies (for ages 10-14) wanted to join as well, so a women’s Jiu-Jitsu class formed. Bekah Thompson, who first mastered the women’s self defense program, teaches those classes.
Mendez instructs adult classes of all types, from fundamental classes for beginners to intermediate classes for students gearing towards competition.
Not even the fundamental class is easy, however. Ohio University student Justin Kendrick is a longtime fan of watching Jiu-Jitsu, but just decided to begin learning himself. It was his second day in the class, and while he kept up with the workout fine, he was still tired from day one.
“It kicked my ass a lot more than I expected,” he said.
A half-hour warm up of cardio and odd summersault-like movements across the firm, yet squishy blue center floor quickly gets the heart rate up. Mendez concludes the section by wrapping the students into a circle and leading a full body exercise, like squatting, for the group to do in unison.
Ten squats for every student in a class of 15 makes for sore thighs the morning after. When the 150 concludes, it should have been expected that he’d push for 10 more.
In the fundamentals class, Mendez teaches core techniques, mixing in Jiu-Jitsu style with street fighting smarts. More people should be trained in self defense, he said, because street fights are unpredictable.
In one demonstration, Mendez pinned one student on the mat beneath his left side in “side control” – on his side over his opponent’s torso to trap him from escaping or landing any hits. He’s about to show a possible way to get a submission in a competition, involving a quick windmill motion to “North and South” position (opponent’s feet point one way, his the other), so his stomach is flat on the floor with his upper arm pressing down the opponent’s neck. A quick double tap from his unfortunate partner signaling “can’t breathe, stop please” releases the move.
But back to side control. “Are you gonna do this in a street fight?” Mendez asked the class. “No. Just punch him.”