Fabio Clemente: Twenty Years a Pioneer

Published on by Erin Herle

Twenty years ago, a Jiu-Jitsu academy was a rare sight in New York City. Despite being a mecca of all kinds of other industries, the martial arts lacked its, now popular, Brazilian style. Twenty years ago was when Fabio Clemente began teaching Jiu-Jitsu there and when he also was a single father raising two young kids while living in the studio.

On Friday, March 6, the Fabio Clemente BJJ Academy gathered inside their updated location near Union Square on E 12th Street. In all white gis, the team held an open mat followed by a ceremony to commemorate Fabio's grand history, one synonymous with Jiu-Jitsu's history in New York City.

As Jeff and I walked in we were greeted by the family, Fabio himself, his brown belt son Zata and his purple belt daughter Vedha. In the middle of hanging some of Fabio's medals earned long ago, placed in shadow boxes and staggered on the wall, they welcomed us in and gave us access to wherever we needed to cover the event.

Past the front desk, the hall of restrooms, the retro seating arrangement and the floor mat covered in flip-flops, we made our way up the stairs and onto the grey mats. In true open mat fashion there were people all along the walls both watching the rolls and chatting with one another. Jeff and I were the only ones not in proper training attire. About ten pairs of people could fit down the room of mats to spar while the non-participants and those who chose to rest a round were all scattered to observe, help avoid collisions and enjoy company.

When the event was underway, everyone sat among their rank facing a projector screen that came down near the entrance of the mat area. The amount of people filled the mats from wall to wall-- a sea of panda gis-- and Jeff and I found our place at the front--lucky we were. Fabio's speech began as to initiate the rest but not before he was interrupted by Murat's comedic thank you speech. As if to say, "Don't worry Fabio, you've done enough over the last 20 years," Murat Akinci and Babs Olusanmokun, the co-instructor, both made sure to announce their gratitude for everything Fabio had done for them and the students both on and off the mat.

Kevin Sheridan, another of the long-time black belts, spoke about Fabio's dedication to his kids, and to the academy as any day or night you could count on getting a good vibe and good positivity on the mats. He has experienced this consistently for sixteen years.

Since day one, Fabio kept a handwritten log of students who came in. Even though it was unfortunately destroyed in a flood, he remembers that Babs was number 89. He's been teaching alongside Fabio since he was a blue belt and the bond between the two is a strong. Babs led an inspiring speech about the hard work put in on the mats and that nothing will replace it. He said that in Jiu-Jitsu you're always learning as long as you put in the daily practice. Not the shining new school down the street or the other world champion instructors will make you that much better at Jiu-Jitsu because it's the work you put in yourself.

And then a huge announcement was made:

"Alliance NYC would be no more and the academy would no longer be part of the Alliance team but rather a new formation called Jiu-Jitsu for the People. Fabio decided to cut the ties from Alliance after eighteen years together because they could not keep up with the demands. Instead, he wants to see the academy take their own path."

Within those eighteen years, Fabio was the one who brought the big names to the city: Marcelo Garcia, Leo Vieira, Lucas Lepri. And now it was time to forge their own name. As Babs relayed, he also did a lot for the Alliance team having represented them at competitions since he was a blue belt. But, he said, "We want to give people a choice. We don't want to travel on the road anymore of a franchise."

The team was supportive and elated at the promise of a new name, and a new fire to fuel the existing flame.

After the announcement, a video was shown made by Fabio himself in movie trailer format that played most like a 300 sequel coming out. And a video put together highlighting the teachings and classes as well as competition moments of coaches and athletes under Fabio's tutelage. The crowd went wild throughout with intermittent jokes and teases.

And that's what really showed throughout the night--that this crowd of people had a relationship that's been picked on, tested and built upon years of trust and loyalty. Whether a white belt or a black belt on this team, each person is given respect as soon as they walk through the door. Poking fun at each other every chance they could get always kept the mood light, event throughout the big belt promotion speeches that happened.

One newly promoted purple belt had been training for about thirteen years on and off due to raising his kids and plaguing back problems. But he had returned and trained consistent enough to be deserving of the new rank. What stood out about his gratitude was not just that he had learned techniques and confidence (because surely he had) but he had learned to be a great father by following Fabio's lead.

Adnonis, a young student who had started with Fabio and Babs when he was sixteen, had stayed on the right path to earn a brown belt from them. He was one of few who really stuck with it and maintained a successful lifestyle outside of the mats as well. A college student at Columbia University, teaching wrestling and working a job all while training. Other students dropped off the radar. Babs said he smiles whenever he walks through the door because Adonis is a success story. While the belt was tied around his waist, Adonis struggled to hold back tears, clenching his jaw, staring at the floor, switching his weight from side to side.

Overall there were three new purple belts and three new brown belts. Eleven black belts in all were at the front of the army to congratulate the newly promoted with a throw or takedown. And the rest of the students, some of whom received strips on their belts, extended their congratulations by whipping each along the polish tunnel, the tradition at Fabio Clemente's academy.

The night was a fresh start not just for those who earned new belts but for everyone involved, ready for a new chapter, new name, new legacy set for the next twenty years. Zata, Fabio's son, was happy with the turnout and saw the night as as great way to celebrate his father's success: "My dad is one of the pioneers of Jiu-Jitsu in NYC. Twenty years is a lot of time to be teaching and staying in business. Today is also important because we are no longer Alliance. It's a new beginning for us. We're starting a new association and right now it involves us and any black belt under Fabio who would like to join. There's no monthly fees. It's something more evolutionary and not about the money."