Jacob Benitez discovered Brazilian jiu-jitsu by chance. “I was always very interested in martial arts growing up. I did a little bit of boxing as a teenager. When I first saw an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight with Royce Gracie, I had no idea what Brazilian jiu-jitsu was. I saw what he did to a bunch of really tough looking guys and thought, ‘I really need to learn that,’” he recalls.
In 1996, it was hard to find anyone practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but Jacob pursued the art anyway. “It became a big part of my life,” he says. Ten years later, he and wife Angela began teaching classes in their garage. In 2008, they opened the Gracie Barra (pronounced “ba-ha”) dojo, or martial arts studio, on Avenida de Mesilla. They now instruct over 100 Las Cruces students every week.
This particular form of jiu-jitsu gets its name from the Gracie family and their Brazilian home of Barra da Tijuca. They were known as the “Gracies of Barra” and thus their method of jiu-jitsu became known as Gracie Barra.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is hard to describe to someone who’s never seen it. From a practical perspective, it is wrestling with submissions. “I’ve heard it described as a paradox of play and war because this is the only sport where your partner is trying to choke you; if they decide not to let you go, you die. That’s the war element. But then you get up and you shake hands, and these people are your friends; that’s the play aspect,” says 20-year-old Terrance King who has been studying under Jacob for two years.
Angela adds, “It’s a lot about feeling—feeling the balance, feeling the leverage, and feeling when it’s the right time to use the right movements.”
Brazilian jiu-jitsu teaches self-defense strategies. “You’re learning something that could potentially save your life, and working out at the same time,” explains Jacob. “I always keep that in mind when I’m teaching. You have to be able to use your jiu-jitsu to defend yourself against an aggressive attacker.”
That, Jacob notes, is what attracts so many law enforcement officers to the dojo. “It’s teaching you how to control a resistant person,” he adds.
But it’s also a great means of getting fit. Don’t be fooled by the slow, measured pace of the sport. It’s an intense workout. “I’ve done sports all my life—softball, volleyball, basketball; I’ve never found another exercise where I can get a full-body workout from head to toe in such a short amount of time,” says Angela. “You can’t just flop around and win a fight. It takes balance and control. You learn to control your body, but then you need to control someone else’s body as well.”
Mental acuity and emotional health are also improved. “My confidence has gone through the roof since I started,” notes Terrance. “Before I started I was pretty insecure and had a bad temper. Being here taught me to be calm under pressure and not to overreact. You can go to a regular gym and you’ll see people in their own zones, with their headphones on, not talking to each other. They aren’t really trying to expand who they are. I come here because of the people. They help make me a better person.”
Jacob and Angela’s students can’t be pigeon holed into any specific stereotype. Angela says their students range in age from four to over 60-years-old. One of their greatest success stories comes from the oldest couple in the dojo. “She had been doing taekwondo for years. She has her black belt, multi-level,” explains Angela. “But, she knew if she were to be taken to the ground she wouldn’t have any sort of defense.”
That client started practicing at Gracie Barra just after her 50th birthday and has lost over 70 pounds. Her husband noticed the changes and decided to join despite being visually impaired. “He now has daily social interaction when he comes to the dojo which he didn’t have before,” says Jacob. “Everyday I see success stories. I see people who feel out of place, shy, and insecure when they first walk in. It can be intimidating, but once they realize this is a welcoming environment, that person is in here leading the conversation.”
Gracie Barra Las Cruces • 421 Avenida de Mesilla 575-523-1404 • facebook.com/graciebarralascruces