Gracie Cincinnati; Ohio's Best Kept Secret (Part One)
Six years ago when people talked about jiu jitsu in the Cincinnati area they would really only mention popular places like The Ultimate Fighter Season 2 contestant Jorge Gurgel’s mixed martial arts gym. Former UFC Middleweight Champion Rich Franklin had emerged from that school so it was natural that it received a high level of reputability. It wasn’t until a few years later that serious competition arrived.
Enter Gracie Cincinnati.
Gracie Cincinnati’s Lead instructor James Kelly has studied martial arts since 1992. He has traveled the world teaching the art and training with leading experts including the founding father of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Kelly has studied under Grandmaster Helio Gracie, and Grandmaster’s, Flavio Behring, Alvaro Berreto, Master’s Relson and Rickson Gracie and Master Ricardo Murgel, Master Silvio Behring and Professor’s Royler, Rolker, and Royce Gracie, and Carlos, Rigan, John, Jean-Jacques, and Roger Machado.
Oh, and did we mention he is the character “Preacher” in the popular Medal of Honor video game series’s next installment.
His right hand man is Justin Christopher. Christopher has also had the privilege to instruct some of the Nations top special warfare operators and Law Enforcement SWAT teams in the combat effectiveness of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Teaching over the last decade, and competing and training under the guidance of Pedro Sauer, Relson Gracie and Rickson Gracie.
Gracie Cincinnati has exploded since its beginning with famous faces and fighters having found themselves grappling on the large mat inside the school. Besides jiu jitsu, their Cross Fit program has taken over the left half of the gym. While I was there at least 40 people were running, lifting, pulling, and sweating happily for an hour. It really is a big city school with a close knit family making up its membership.
The school has been in Ohio for five years, but they moved the school from St. George, Utah in 2006. They have been in their current location for two and a half years. The main reason for their booming success is the legitimacy, skill, and credentials James Kelly brings to the table.
“I’m a jiu jitsu guy”, stated Kelly. “I learned from Rickson Gracie and Pedro Sauer in Gracie Jitsu. We don’t have many professional fighters in the school. My arrangement for professional fighters that come through here is that I just work with them on their ground game. I’m not a stand up or striking guy. The arrangement I have made with the guys is that I will teach them what I know in grappling and then they can modify that for the sport that they choose. We don’t manage fighters and we don’t control anything outside of their ground game. I usually interface with their other instructors. Striking or wrestling, I know a lot of guys that do that sort of stuff, but as far as training at this school we do strictly jiu jitsu”.
Cincinnati, and Ohio in general for that matter, is a hotbed of mixed martial arts gyms. One of the things Kelly believes sets his school apart is just that. It’s a school.
“Absolutely, we are more of a school”, Kelly said. “When we came in to Cincinnati we looked at our competition and we saw Jorge Gurgel, and a couple other jiu jitsu guys. I had been training with the Gracies like I said, Pedro Sauer and Rickson, and felt like we were superior in the jiu jitsu area”.
Not working specifically with or managing fighters was not a tough decision for Jim.
“I had worked with fighters before and they are strong and tough personalities”, he said. “It’s very difficult to make good business where somebody is already established as a fighter. I didn’t want to poach guys either so we wanted to make sure we differentiated ourselves, and when we came to Cincinnati I felt like if we stuck with just jiu jitsu we would make friends and play nice with everyone”.
His school is unique. Training under Rickson and Sauer throughout his time in jiu jitsu has paid dividends, and given him impressive credentials.
“There are no more Rickson affiliated schools. Rickson moved back to Brazil after the departure of his son. The next closest Gracie lineage guy would Matt Strack. All of the rest of the guys are older guys like Luis Palhares or Rodrigo Vaghi in Missouri, and then Kron. Kron has really kind of taken the helm of the Rickson association, and he’s really focused on his career in LA right now. The next closest guy with Gracie lineage is Robin Gieseler in Columbus, Ohio”.
His journey in jiu jitsu started while he served in the military. It is difficult sometimes for a service member to make time for anything else besides their military career. Kelly was able to do it.
“I started jiu jitsu in Hawaii in 1994, Relson was out there but I did not meet him while I was there”, Jim said. “I was in the Marine Corps at that time. So I trained at the Marine Corps gym there”.
(It was at this point that Jim and I discovered that we had both been in the same unit, 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, at the same time. We also knew the same people and trained in some of the same areas. Needless to say what started as a twenty minute interview extended to sixty minutes and beyond).
It was after he returned home to the continental United States that he got truly serious about his jiu jitsu.
“I came back to the states and started training at some local gyms around here”, said Kelly. “I realized that’s what I wanted to do and I had a Marine Corps colleague out in Los Angeles. He offered me a job so I drove out there within a year of my return to the states. I found Rigan Machado and the Dog Brothers at the Inosanto Academy. I started training with those guys and they introduced me to Pedro Sauer. Then I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. I stayed there from 1996 to 2006. That’s where I trained and I was introduced to Pedro and Rickson. Those two were childhood best friends and had a really close relationship. I benefited from that. I trained with alot of the top guys at the time because there was not a lot of jiu jitsu development. As a matter of fact after the split from the Gracies, besides the Machados, there was Fabio Santos in San Diego. Renzo hadn’t moved to New York yet so they hadn’t had that big split. The Machados had just left Rorion so it was real early when I started training”.