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Despite already running several martial arts programs, Ryerson still won’t allow mixed martial arts-related clubs. Charles Vanegas reports

In September of 2010, Lorne Gershman tried to start a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) club at Ryerson.

“I had a really bad schedule for school and it stopped a lot of my training at my gym,” says the fifth-year accounting student. “So I had the idea, let’s start the club, maybe I can teach some kids, see if there are some other decent jiu-jitsu guys at Ryerson.”

So he set up a group on Facebook. A handful of members joined, and they began meeting at the RAC for informal training sessions in the studios, with Gershman teaching technique.

However, after only a few sessions, Gershman received an email from Anthony Seymour, then-manager of recreation, demanding that he “cease booking space within RAC or using open space within RAC for the purposes of the BJJ Club”, as well as remove “Ryerson” from the Facebook group name. While Gershman was banned from booking space at the RAC, the group remained online with its title unchanged.

“You can’t tell me what to do on Facebook,” he says.

Gershman has been training in the martial art of BJJ for the past four years. Similar to judo, the aim in BJJ is to grapple with and eventually take your opponent to the ground and force them into submission using various joint-locks and holds.

With the growing popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) — a sport that combines various fighting styles, such as wrestling, kickboxing, muay-Thai and karate — and its most popular league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), BJJ is gaining more name-recognition, as it is the basis of many top fighters’ ground games.

In 2010, Gershman began training at Grant Brothers Boxing and MMA Gym, under the guidance of former-WEC fighter Wagnney Fabiano — the man who introduced BJJ to Canadian fighter, and current UFC Welterweight Champion, Georges St-Pierre.

“It’s amazing,” says Gershman on working with Fabiano. “To be dominated by a guy who is 5-ft-5, 140lbs, when you’re 6’1, 185lbs, it’s mind-blowing. You get to see just how good a person can get.”

While on just the second belt rank (blue), Gershman now trains BJJ novices at Grant Brothers, as well as Chu’s Martial Arts Academy.

“I do a lot of one-on-one training with the white belts as one of the senior students. They’ll ask me, ‘can you show me this? What do I do in this situation? And then I show them.”

But ranking up in BJJ is a lengthy process. Unlike karate, which sometimes allows practitioners to reach the rank of black belt in as little as two to five years, BJJ requires about the same commitment per rank, meaning black belts will have had at least a decade of experience.

“They don’t care how well you ‘know’ a move; you need to be able to perform it against a real opponent, who is actively trying to stop you,” says Gershman. “It’s really hard [to move up].”

Gershman believes a big reason that a BJJ club has not been approved is the connection it has with the UFC and the stigma attached to it. In the mid-90s, U.S. senator John McCain called for a ban on the sport, which he referred to as “human cockfighting.”

While MMA has exploded in popularity in the past few years — especially in Canada, which has hosted five of the top six UFC shows in terms of attendance, including the 55,724 sell-out at the Rogers Centre last year — it has still struggled to shake off such criticisms, and was only legalized in Ontario in Aug. 2010.

“It’s just the way people perceive it — that it is affiliated with the UFC. There’s a real stigma attached, and they just don’t want it in their school,” says Gershman.

Clubs Coordinator Nick Asquini agrees that stigma may have played a role in clubs associated with MMA being declined in the past.

“Mixed martial arts could have been turned down or declined in the past because there is a taboo around the sport,” says Asquini. “To be real about it, it’s only been legalized in Ontario for what? A year? It would have set a pretty big precedence if the university was sanctioning an MMA club and it’s not even a sanctioned sport in Ontario.”

However, MMA-related clubs had been present at other universities before the sport became legal. Domenic Passero, a BJJ brown belt (one step below black belt) who trains with Gershman at Grant Brothers, started a BJJ program at York University back in 1999. He says that he faced similar problems due to misconceptions about BJJ, but was fortunate to find someone within the sports faculty who was actually trained in jiu-jitsu and could vouch for the sport.

“Whatever qualms people might have about jiu-jitsu, or training MMA, he didn’t have them”, says Passero. “[For the others] it certainly wasn’t like what their expectations were like ‘were there going to be MMA fights? Are guys going to be wearing gloves [and punching each other]?’ But once they knew we were wearing mouth guards, there was no striking, and it was all controlled submissions, they seemed to understand it.”

Once the club was up and running, it became the second biggest athletic instructional program at York, boasting 25 students in just two weeks.

“[In] boxing, it takes a long time for someone to get up to speed, where they can spar and not get hurt. In BJJ, within weeks we can get a student on the mats, sparring [without much risk of injury],” says Passero.

Meanwhile, Gershman has attempted to get BJJ “official club status” with Ryerson Athletics. Last year he filled out an application, and met with then-Club Coordinato Randy Pipher.

“We sat down and talked about different ideas” says Pipher.

“Where we tended to run into a wall was — with any of those martial arts clubs — there’s insurance to be covered. And with what he wanted to do, we needed mats. But with any of our sports clubs, they need to be completely self-sustaining. They would have to find those funds [for mats]. So it became a thing where we were having safety issues before we even started.”

Gershman isn’t the only one who’s failed to start a club. Last semester, Ben Morgan, a fourth-year entrepreneurship student, also attempted to start a BJJ club — first with the RSU and then with the RAC, but was also unsuccessful.

Ryerson Athletics currently recognizes only three martial arts clubs as official athletic clubs: karate, kendo and taekwondo. Two of those, karate and taekwondo, are also limited by the RAC’s lack of crash mats.

The mats would prevent slips or falls, provide more stability during high kicks targeted to upper areas such as the head or face (although the karate club does not use strikes), and reduce pressure on footing.

“Without mats, beginners tend to acquire blisters much more easily,” says Alex Frias, Ryerson Taekwondo Supervisor.

And according to RAC employees, the karate club does do some throws — even without mats. Crash mats can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Not only does the RAC lack the necessary mats, it may also lack the space to store them, or even practice.

“Our cheerleading club has a set of mats that are currently stored in three different places, and they’re big and heavy to move so it really limits where they can practice,” says Asquini.

“Hopefully the new space that we’ll gain with the Athletic Centre at the Gardens will alleviate the space limitations we have in Kerr Hall and the RAC, so if those programs do get off the ground, we can purchase those mats and store that equipment.”

While it won’t satisfy the demands of all MMA enthusiasts, it is possible to create a makeshift training schedule with the various programs that are offered at the RAC.

In addition to karate and taekwondo clubs, kickboxing classes are available (for a fee) to RAC members. Another option is the “Ultimate Workout,” a class created by Nino Robles, a fitness specialist at the RAC. Modeled after exercises used by strongman competitors (and named after pro-wrestler The Ultimate Warrior), it builds strength and endurance, while requiring participants to engage in tasks such as pulling running sleds, using battling ropes, and flipping 485lb tractor tires.

While there are still obstacles to getting an approved BJJ club, it may just be a matter of time.

“With the UFC and MMA, it’s really growing into a big thing in Canada. I don’t see why we can’t have it — we just need to take the proper precautions in making sure they are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and won’t injure each other,” says Pipher.

Morgan is undeterred by previous failures, and says he will continue to advocate for a BJJ club this semester. And despite being in his final semester at Ryerson, Gershman says he is still willing to help teach if a BJJ club gets approved.

“I love jiu-jitsu,” he says, “and I really just want to teach others.”


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