When Joel Garza moved his family from Wichita Kansas to Salida Colorado back in 2019 and considered starting a martial arts school, he didn’t have high hopes. His martial artist friends in Wichita cautioned him that small town Colorado might not be the best place to start a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy, that mountain people already have abundant recreation and would not be interested in a grappling martial art. Being a serious blue belt competitor in the sport and in need of training partners, Garza didn’t see any other option. He named his project 14ers Jiu Jitsu and began promoting through social media. A few hardy souls responded. The first few humble classes were held at a small event center (rented by the hour) in the city park.
Things have since changed. Today I meet with Joel before class at the more permanent 14ers location in the basement below a consignment shop in the historic district. We enter through a steel door off the alley and descend the stairs into what can only described as a large stone dungeon. It has 14ers swag, banks of lockers, weightlifting equipment, and large thick grappling mats that cover most of the floor space. Dozens of competition medals adorn one wall, most won by Garza and his 22-year-old assistant coach daughter, the rest from the other students in the academy.
This grappling martial art is primarily a form of ground fighting. Practitioners wear a traditional Gi, a heavy cotton garment as is used in Karate. BJJ utilizes a variety of joint locks, and chokes to subdue an opponent. When sufficiently developed these techniques allow a smaller person to defeat larger and stronger opponents, even “choking them out” (unconscious). The generally accepted historical origin is as follows: Mitsuyo Maeda brought Kodokan Judo from Japan to Brazil in 1917 and shared it with a Brazilian named Carlos Gracie. Over the following several decades the teachings were further developed into BJJ largely by the now famous Gracie family and their cousins the Machado family. BJJ exploded into widespread public awareness thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship that debuted in Denver in 1993. UFC 1 was a pioneering mixed martial arts spectacle with minimal rules and no weight classes. Representing his family, unimposing twenty-six-year-old Royce Gracie proved the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by repeatedly besting larger opponents from different martial disciplines, winning the event.
Garza shares with me how important BJJ is to him and the great extent it has improved his life. Comradery, weight loss, and improved overall health are just a few of the benefits. Now holding a purple belt rank, forty-four-year-old Joel takes pride in competing in BJJ and coaching those of his students that are foraying into competition themselves. The 14ers crew begin to arrive for the 6:30 pm class. The students range in age from teenage to middle age and have a wide variety of professions including law enforcement, online marketing, firefighting, military, or engineering. Most are men, a few are women. Some work in software development, some teach, others are blue collar workmen. All are welcoming and helpful. We each change into a traditional Gi and tie on our belt, some have a colored belt, most of us have a white.
Joel runs us through a warmup routine on the grappling mat. Next comes Garza’s evenings instruction, a few techniques that the students can work into their own repertoire (their “game”). We repeatedly drill the moves with a partner. The final thirty minutes of class is “live rolling”, we pair off and grapple for a five-minute period followed by a minute of rest, then repeat with a different partner. The objective of the sport is to “submit” one’s training partner, getting them to “tap out”. We apply the joint locks and chokes while defending ourselves from the same. It is more freeform than drilling, but not as violent as real competition. Fortunately, here in class the larger and/or more skilled practitioners allow the lower belt ranks to work their “game” while still making things difficult. BJJ is difficult…and a whole lot of fun. At 8:00 class ends, we all line up shoulder to shoulder facing our instructor then bow out for the evening.
The 14ers Jiu Jitsu crew is more than macho fighters, they are a bunch of nerds too. After class there is discussion of techniques, diet, philosophy, the latest Joe Rogan podcast, and of course upcoming competition. We change back into street clothes, gather our gear, and exit up the stairs back to street level. On the way out I grab a 14ers business card. Everyone says good night and heads their own way. Joel locks up and does the same. Exhausted, I start my own car and notice there is a message printed on the back of the business card. It reads: “It costs $0.00 to choke you out, and I love free shit!”