UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro this weekend will rightly include homage to the iconic Gracie family, creators of Brazilian jiu-jitsu nearly 100 years ago, creators of the Ultimate Fighting Championship nearly 20 years ago, creators of legendary family fighting figures and jiu-jitsu instructors that span the globe.
But the Gracies' most positive impact might be felt at a middle school in a Denver suburb where a seventh grader is unafraid of bullies for the first time since he can remember.
Martin Hendricks, 12, spent a week this summer at the Gracie Academy in Torrance, Calif., in an intensive program designed to make him "Bullyproof." He learned as many jiu-jitsu self-defense techniques as a kid can absorb in five days, he memorized a blueprint for dealing with a bully fairly and squarely, and he gained self-confidence. The first week of school he put the lessons into practice.
"I'm still a little nervous but it all went well," Hendricks said quietly in a phone call to Rener Gracie, his personal instructor at the academy. "He'll never bother me again. Let me tell you about it."
It's back-to-school time all over the country. For kids that get picked on, it's a return to a horror zone. Experts say that more than 150,000 children miss school every day because they are afraid of being bullied. More than half of all schoolchildren have witnessed a bullying incident and three of every four students say bullying is a problem at their school.
The bulk of bullying occurs from the fourth through the eighth grades, although it can continue through high school and even in the workplace. Bullying is intimidation or domination toward someone perceived as weaker, a way to establish superiority through coercion or force. The emotional scars are often worse than the physical beatings, and victims of bullying often become depressed and do poorly in school. Bullying can even lead to suicide.
Rener Gracie, 27-year-old son of UFC originator Rorion Gracie and grandson of legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu grandmaster Helio Gracie, knows all the statistics. He recognized that the martial art perfected by three generations of his uncles and cousins is ideal for combating bullies. So he and his brother Ryron developed a program specifically for youngsters who have been the target of taunts and shoves, kicks and punches.
Jiu-jitsu is a strategic, relatively nonviolent method of self-defense. It utilizes leverage, locks and holds that can neutralize a bigger, stronger opponent when both combatants are off their feet and grappling in close quarters. Combined with a clear understanding of the appropriate rules of engagement in a school setting, knowing the basics of jiu-jitsu can give a child the necessary tools to combat a bully.
"The program is engaging, it's fun and it will ensure that your son or daughter doesn't have to go through life at the mercy of tormenting bullies," Rener said.
Martin Hendricks was so timid when he arrived in Torrance last month with his mother and sister that he wouldn't speak to anyone at the Gracie Academy. Rener knew his background from speaking to his mother: Martin had been bullied for many years by many kids and had simply taken it.
"His grades suffered and he would never stick up for himself," said his mother, Wendy. "He's a nice, gentle soul kind of kid and now he didn't even want to go to school.
"Bullying is an epidemic. It's horrible and schools sweep it under the carpet. It breaks my heart."
Wendy learned about the Gracie Bullyproof program through this online video:
She called Rener and decided to take her son to California. "I finally felt like I found somebody who gets this," she said.
In addition to attending daily three-hour group classes, Martin was given private jiu-jitsu instruction by Rener each evening for a week. Then there was the mental training. Rener helped Martin understand that his fear of a bully hurting him was sensible. So was his fear of retaliating when he had no fighting skills.
Rener asked him: "If we can eliminate the fear of injury through technique and preparation, would it make sense to stand up to the bully?"
"Yes," Martin replied.
"Let's do it."
It took until Thursday for Martin to convincingly respond to a taunt by walking up to the instructor posing as a bully and saying with conviction, "Don't ever do that again."
Rener taught Martin the three T-steps: TALK to the bully and ask him to leave you alone. TELL the teacher and your parent that the bully won't stop even after you've talked to him. TACKLE the bully and use jiu-jitsu to gain control of him without resorting to punches or kicks.
"If you draw that line with your words and the bully respects it, the case is closed without a physical altercation," Rener told Martin. "But if you draw that line and they slap you, kick you, cross that line again, you don't think twice. You take both of your hands and push him as hard as you can in the chest. You blast him. Knock him off his feet.
"Then take control using jiu-jitsu and tell him you will let him go if he promises not to bother you any longer. If he won't say it, wait until a teacher or another adult shows up before letting him up."
Martin nodded. Rener had given him a plan and taught him enough jiu-jitsu techniques to take control of a bully. Still, Martin wondered, would he be able to execute the plan when he returned to Colorado and started school the following week?
Many schools across the U.S. have a "zero tolerance" policy regarding bullying and on-campus fights of every sort, suspending any student involved because often it is difficult to assign blame. The Gracies support zero tolerance but point out that the policy doesn't work well in deterring verbal abuse -- the most common form of bullying.
"That's why it is so important for a child being bullied to first ask the bully to stop the abuse, hopefully in a confident manner, then to inform a teacher or principal and their parent if the bullying persists," Rener said.
Sometimes, Rener said, the behavior will end there because a school administrator will contact the parent of the bully and the issue will be addressed at home. But bullies can be conniving, and after a short respite the abuse can start again when no adults are present.
That's when it's time for the victim to consider using jiu-jitsu, zero tolerance or no zero tolerance. And it's why teaching jiu-jitsu self-defense and submission techniques separates the Gracie program from others that also emphasize verbal negotiations with bullies.
"It's a lot easier to get a bully to promise he won't bother you any more if you are on top of him pinning him down against his will," Rener said.
The most injurious jiu-jitsu techniques aren't taught to kids. No chokes. Nothing that could render an opponent unconscious. It's a far different curriculum than the one that leads to advanced belts for adults, and it's far different from the Women Empowered program designed to help females fight off would-be rapists.
That isn't to say the Bullyproof techniques can't be devastating in submitting a foe. The 33 junior combative lessons required for a student to pass the course -- at the Gracie Academy or online -- include some of the same moves MMA stars Anderson Silva, Forrest Griffin and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira will employ at UFC 134 on Saturday.
Four days into the school year and Martin was getting bullied again. He'd asked the bigger, stronger boy to stop calling him names and throwing a water bottle at him. But the abuse continued.
Rener called and delivered a pep talk. "Martin, would you rather fight one time and be protected for the rest of your life, or do you want to get bullied for the rest of your life?"
Martin sighed. "I'd rather fight once."
"Do it, my friend," Rener said. "The bully still thinks he owns you. Tomorrow he will do the same thing. And when he does, you will engage. You don't ask permission, you don't stop, you just engage."
The next day the bully not only bothered Martin, but he pestered Martin's friend so much that the boy shook his head and said he might commit suicide. The bully then asked Martin if he could practice some new punching techniques on him, and hit him. Then he threw a water bottle at him.
Everything Martin had learned during his week at the Gracie Academy bubbled to the surface. He jumped off the lunch bench and while in midair pushed the bully in the chest with both hands as hard as he could. Both boys landed on the ground and Martin pinned the bully by placing his knee on his chest and holding his arms down with his own.
It was a classic jiu-jitsu combination -- decisive and effective without causing trauma or blood.
The bully was shocked and as he struggled in vain to get up he yelled that Martin was crazy. The bully's friends told Martin to get up, but as he told the principal later: "I chose not to."
The principal took both boys into his office and called Wendy.
"I was absolutely thrilled," she said. "The school, of course, thought I was nuts. But I explained that this was a long time coming for Martin. He's still that kind kid. He stuck up for himself and for his friend.
On Monday the principal called Martin into the office and let him know he wasn't in trouble. Fighting was not tolerated, he was told, but in this instance the response was appropriate. Neither Martin nor his mother told the school about his jiu-jitsu training.
The bully sought out Martin at lunch and apologized in front of other kids. Word got around the school. No longer is Martin the target of bullying -- from anybody.
Martin had one more piece of business. He called Rener to thank him.
"I couldn't have been more jazzed," Rener said. "He went through the entire cycle of standing up for himself verbally first, then physically, but not violently. He kept it humble, and allowed the bully to save face.
"No punches. No kicks. He just held him with Gracie jiu-jitsu. It's the gentle way."
-- Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor at Yahoo! Sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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