Veteran Finds Passion Through Jiu-Jitsu

By Staff Writer Richard Arce

Joey Zente, OSD Austin Fitness Activity Leader and creator of Veterans Jiu-Jitsu, had never really heard of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu before 2008. It wasn’t until he watched a replay of UFC 1 that his interest was sparked. Joey signed up for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class the following week and was instantly hooked.

There were a number of reasons Joey was taken with Jiu-Jitsu. He has always liked puzzles and Jiu-Jitsu was a puzzle with an infinite number of pieces. Additionally, as a Marine Corp Veteran, he values community. In order to work on the Jiu-Jitsu puzzle, you need other people. No single person has all the pieces you need. Jiu-Jitsu builds community, self-confidence, and most importantly for Joey, it is real. He noted, “You can not fake Jiu-Jitsu.” After that first class, Joey dedicated himself to training and received his black belt in October of 2016.

Veterans Jiu-Jitsu, an organization dedicated to building communities of veterans around the world through the physical and mental training of jiu-jitsu, developed organically as Joey continued to pursue Jiu-Jitsu. He did not set out to create anything initially.

Joey adopted Jiu-Jitsu as his drug of choice after leaving the Marine Corps in 2008. As intensely as Joey trained to be a Marine, he trained to get better at Jiu-Jitsu. At times, even working jobs he hated just to afford to train. Eventually, as a purple belt, he was able to run his own school. But he soon began to realize that money and martial arts were conflicting elements. Joey hated chasing dollars in the name of teaching Jiu-Jitsu, so he ultimately decided to sell his gym. But the desire to teach remained. In pursuit of a new venue, he approached another gym owner and asked if he could teach free classes at his school.

When Joey first contacted the gym owner, he says the man was confused. Joey explained, “The guy looked bewildered. ‘Why would you want to do that? I am trying to run a business we can’t just give away free classes.’ At first, I was a little disappointed, but then I thought to myself, ‘What if it was free for veterans?’ It was perfect. I tend to prefer being around military people, especially in those first few years after rejoining the civilian life.”

And with that, Veterans Jiu-Jitsu was born. Though a lot has changed since that initial conversation with a local gym owner in 2015.  Joey explained, “We spent about a year at that first gym before eventually landing at the VFW. And now after 3 years, we have moved on to a beautiful new facility in Austin called Village of Wolves BJJ. That’s just our new HQ.”

But it isn’t just in Austin. Veterans Jiu-Jitsu has members all over the world. Joey said, “There are thousands of veterans all across the country and even the world that support and represent Veterans Jiu-Jitsu. I technically run the organization, but it is really about the overall concept of building local communities of Veterans via jiu-jitsu.”

It is that passion to build a local community of Veterans that makes Veterans Jiu-Jitsu a great fit with OSD. Together, OSD and Veterans Jiu-Jitsu offers several opportunities for Austin area Veterans to both get a great workout and build community. OSD also sponsors several Veterans Jiu-Jitsu members as they compete in local and national tournaments.

The OSD Austin sponsored Veterans Jiu Jitsu classes happen every Thursday and Friday and average about a dozen or so people. Joey tailors the moves to people of different ages, sizes, and experience levels. If you are more advanced, you continue to learn the same technique but retain in better detail.

Joey explained, “On Thursday at 6:30 PM we have an all levels class. We usually start off with some basic movement and flexibility exercises. Simple stuff to get the body moving in the right direction and get the blood flowing. Next comes the technique and drilling, I will show and explain the position or submission in detail and allow for about 30 minutes of drilling in order to really let the muscle memory develop. We usually go over at least a position and a submission, including how it relates to sport jiu-jitsu, MMA, or a street fight. Towards the end of class, we pair up and spar. Sometimes for points, sometimes, for position or submission, and sometimes just for fun. On Fridays, we get together at 6 pm for Open Mat. Which is where you can work on anything, ask questions, or just roll.

If you are committed, the classes really can change your life. Joey explains, “For me, it was a lifestyle change. I started to eat healthier and drink more water in order to be ready for class the next day. I stopped smoking cigarettes because my lungs hated me for trying to be a smoker and a jiu-jitsu practitioner. Priorities. Training jiu-jitsu changes people’s priorities.”

Jiu-Jitsu also creates a bond, a sense of comradery that many Veterans crave after leaving the service. Joey continued, “I also have a little joke about “hug therapy” which has roots in real science (Look it up!). When you are training jiu-jitsu in a friendly environment with cool people it really does feel good. You are in close contact with another human being, sharing knowledge and experience. Like I said, this sh*t is as real as it gets.”

If you are a Veteran in Austin, Joey would love for you to drop in on a class. But even if you aren’t, you can still find a way to get involved. He explained, “Come train with us. Go train anywhere. There are Veterans training at pretty much every gym I’ve ever been to. Getting on the mats with other Veterans is the starting point. The really good stuff is staying committed to your training and your teammates and watching the magic.”