ST. GEORGE - At the Gracie Zion Jiu-Jitsu studio, students learn self-defense that leads to, even more importantly, self-empowerment.
Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is a variation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art focusing on the concept that a smaller, weaker fighter can defeat a larger, stronger opponent by using leverage, joint-locks and chokeholds rather than punching and kicking. The Gracie style was developed over three generations by the Gracie family of Brazil, notable for their many contributions to sports, including: the founding of Mixed Martial Arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which has grown rapidly in popularity since the 1990s.
In recent years, law enforcement officers from many agencies throughout the United States have adopted Jiu-Jitsu as a form of hand-to-hand combat, as has the military. Currently, there are over 50 certified Gracie training centers operating in a dozen countries.
The Gracie family is also responsible for creating BullyProof, a self-empowerment program for children and teenagers facing bullying and peer pressure, especially at school. Aside from training in Jiu-Jitsu, BullyProof encourages youth to use words first and violence last to resolve conflicts. The program is taught through the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of America, in many public schools and at all Gracie training centers.
“BullyProof literally teaches kids to fight fire with water,” said Jake Johnston, owner of Gracie Zion. “With bullying at an all-time high, it’s important for kids to learn skills that will allow them to feel confident.”
Over 20 years of experience in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Johnston has seen firsthand how these skills impact lives for the better. Though he originally practiced kickboxing as a form of self-defense, his transition into Jiu-Jitsu received a jump-start in 1991 during a sparring session with his instructor’s cousin. Despite his proficiency in the sport, the 6-foot-2, 170-pound Johnston quickly found that his punches and kicks were of little use against his towering 280-pound opponent. This led him to realize that in a real-life situation, kickboxing would not likely be an effective defense for a small man, woman or youth.
With his instructor’s help, Johnston located a man who was experienced in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and arranged a sparring session with him.
“He was about my size, but with only a few months of training, took me to the ground,” Johnston said. “I knew immediately that that was what I wanted to do.”
Johnston practiced with a series of Gracie instructional videos over the next year, but decided that learning face-to-face was the best option. He moved to Salt Lake City in late 1993 and began training under Pedro Sauer, an eighth degree red and black belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
In 1996, Johnston began traveling regularly to St. George to visit family. During his stays, he gathered small groups of people interested in martial arts and passed on techniques he was learning from Sauer.
“Nobody knew much about Jiu-Jitsu, so it was an honor to introduce them (to it),” he said. “I had already planted the seed in Southern Utah and always dreamed of coming back and opening a school.”
Johnston saw his dream come true in May 2011, when Gracie Zion opened its doors to students of all ages and skill levels. Interest spread so quickly that in just a year, the studio was forced to move to a larger location. Aside from being one of the owners, Johnston is the sole instructor and the only Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt in Southern Utah.
Students as young as 5 years old participate in BullyProof, one of many classes offered at Gracie Zion. Johnston also teaches a women’s self-defense program and Gracie Combatives, a course for adults to learn the core techniques of Jiu-Jitsu.
On Oct. 20, another longtime goal of Johnston’s will be realized when Ryron Gracie visits his studio. The grandson of legendary Gracie Jiu-Jitsu founder Hélio Gracie and a fourth-degree black belt instructor, Ryron Gracie will teach a seminar for adults at 9 a.m. and two BullyProof classes, at 1:30 p.m. for children ages 5-7 and at 3 p.m. for ages 8-12. The adult seminar is already sold out, but Johnston said that BullyProof will be the real highlight of the day.
As for regular classes at Gracie Zion, Johnston encouraged everyone to try one out, because everyone can participate in Jiu-Jitsu; no rules, no time limits and no weight classes.
“It is the most complete and effective self-defense system in the world, (but also) a great, friendly workout,” he said. “Just like lion cubs play games (that teach them) important survival skills, we teach our (students) to keep it playful while secretly turning them into lions.”
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