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Martial arts master leads small-town team to unlikely victory on the mat

Armando Basulto had his opponent’s arm sandwiched between his legs. He leaned forward, putting pressure on the man’s shoulder. The man gritted his teeth and patted the mat in surrender.

Basulto slid away from the man who was still belly down on the mat, looked at his class and said, “Don’t snap off each other’s arms. You don’t want to take them home with you.”

Two years ago, Basulto and his wife, Christine, opened a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu academy at the Waynesville Recreation Center.

Five people attended the first class. Within three to four months the club had 15 people. Now, Tuesday and Thursday classes average 25 participants.

“For a club that’s only been in existence for two years, we’re in the top 10 in the Southeast,” Armando Basulto said.

The group attends three competitions a year, and almost all of Basulto’s students who compete place in the top three. Some members also travel to competitions individually. Five from the academy competed at the North American Grappling Association Tournament in Atlanta last weekend.

At a competition earlier this year in Charlotte, Ryan Conn, a white belt, took the mat against a blue belt — someone who’d been practicing Jiu-jitsu a few years longer than he had.

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“When you go in there, you try not to have your doubts,” Conn said. “I was a little nervous, but I didn’t go in there to lose.”

Conn went on to beat three blue belts to win the gold medal in that division.

“People were like, ‘Man, what do they feed their white belts?’” Armando Basulto said.

Even members who don’t fight will attend the event to cheer their teammates on, the Basultos said. Family members and friends, whom Basulto likened to soccer moms and Jiu-jitsu groupies, will also caravan to Atlanta.

“There’s a real feeling of camaraderie and family,” Christine Basulto said.

The bond between the teammates goes beyond the mat, the Basultos said. Members come together to help teammates in need — whether it’s helping each other find apartments and jobs or taking a team member who’s had a bad day out to dinner after practice.

When a member’s gi was stolen from his truck, everyone else donated a belt, jacket and pants to make sure he had something to wear to practice.

“It’s such an intimate art,” Armando Basulto said. “You can’t help literally dripping each other’s sweat onto each other’s faces.”

That sense of family and a dedication to teaching fundamentals have made the academy a success, Basulto said.

“I teach from the fundamentals and take a little longer to build a strong foundation,” Armando Basulto said. “I take the time to teach the why of everything.”

Besides Jiu-jitsu, Armando teaches fifth grade at Hazelwood Elementary, and Christine teaches K-8 English as a Second Language.

Since childhood, Armando Basulto had studied Judo. But while living in San Diego in 1994, he heard about a group of guys practicing in a garage and beating everyone in fights. That’s where he discovered Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.

“I just became obsessed with it,” Armando Basulto said.

Armando Basulto moved to New Jersey and opened his first academy. He started teaching his wife Jiu-jitsu when she began teaching school in the Bronx.

“I remember at the time thinking if I start, this is for life,” she said.

Women like Christine Basulto are more prone to excel in Jiu-jitsu than men because they depend more on technique than strength to win a match, Armando Basulto said

The Brazilian Jiu-jitsu that the Basultos teach goes back to the 1920s when Carlos Gracie started developing the art.

Many questioned his ability to fight because of his small size, but before long, Gracie had a hard time finding opponents because renowned fighters got sick of losing.

Carlos Gracie ended up placing a provocative, open challenge in a Brazilian paper loosely translated as saying: “If you want to get your face beaten and well-smashed, and if you want broken arms, look for me at this address…”

Royler Gracie, a descendent of the Gracie Jiu-jitsu legacy, will travel from Brazil to teach a seminar and instruct the club later this month before visiting Australia to surf.

Jiu-jitsu is designed to transform small fighters like the Gracies into more than formidable opponents.

Daniel Gottliebsen, a purple belt who’s been training for five years, remembers the first time he took the mat. He was 180 pounds — his opponent 130 pounds.

“He just wiped the mat with me,” Gottliebsen said. “I still learn something new every time I step on the mat. I get humbled.”

Armando Basulto said he’s seen many different types of people wander into his classes.

“It’s always the jock type that don’t stick around,” Armando Basulto said, adding that they don’t like being put in choke holds by women.

He said his job as an instructor would be much different if he got to hand pick his athletes. But instead he finds it rewarding to watch the transformation of students.

“I take the raw material, and I give them these skills,” Armando Basulto said. Many of his students make major changes in their lifestyles.

“It’s not just about athleticism,” Christine Basulto said, “but how it helps people’s lives improve.”

The Basultos have seen men lose 60 pounds and people who’ve changed their diets and stopped smoking so they can do better on the mats.

They’ve seen a woman afraid of breaking nails her first night overcome extreme nervousness to medal months later at competition.

“It’s about the little guy, and I also mean the little guy in his mind,” Armando Basulto said. “All of our success stories are about that.”

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