Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy

Getting some self-help on the floor

Lynda Bustamante deftly avoids a punch to the face, wraps her arms around her opponent’s waist, shifts her weight and tosses him to the ground.

“For me, it is an adrenaline rush to know that I can go against guys without having to use so much strength,” said the 20-year-old Los Angeles resident.

Surrounding her at the Gracie Barra Brazilian jiu-jitsu studio on Brand Avenue are pairs of martial arts students grappling with one another, their bodies so tangled that is difficult to determine where one starts and the other ends.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu was derived from Japanese judo in the early 20th century. It is a martial art predicated on leverage and unbalancing an opponent, said Raul Montolfo, owner and senior instructor at the Gracie Barra studio. About 90% of jiu-jitsu technique is on the ground.


“If a woman is going to be attacked, a guy is not going to stand toe-to-toe with you and punch, he is going to grab you and throw you to the ground,” Montolfo said. “That is where most self-defense is going to start.”

Students start by learning basic self-defense, such as how to defend against a chokehold or keep from being thrown to the ground. Then they move into ground defense.

“It used to be if you were thrown on your back and the person is on top of you, especially a bigger person, you couldn’t defend yourself,” Montolfo said. “With jiu-jitsu, we’re are able to teach the person how to move their hips, how to move their body, how to defend themselves, and to use leverage to … submit the person.”

Marvin Mangahis, 34, of La Crescenta, took up jiu-jitsu in an effort to introduce his 5-year-old son, Nathaniel, to martial arts. Three months later, he said, the pair is feeling more and more at home on the mat.


“He is less shy, he is more confident, he is more comfortable,” Mangahis said of his son.

The Gracie Barra studio opened in Glendale in June and now has more than 100 students, said program coordinator Ani Javadian. The franchise is still owned by the Gracie family, which established jiu-jitsu in Brazil as a viable martial art. Members can access any of the 350 Gracie Barra studios around the world.

Warm-ups include scrambling, sliding and crawling across the length of the 60-foot-long mat, motions that jiu-jitsu practitioners put to use when fighting. Students then practice specific defense techniques, including harnessing momentum and leveraging weight to subdue their opponent.

Jiu-jitsu is popular with people who work in law enforcement and security, as well as women who want to defend themselves in case of an attack, said Montolfo. It is also a good jumping-off point for those interested in mixed martial arts fighting, he added.

Learning to de-escalate violence is a critical component of his job as a security guard, said Matt Cervantes, 20, of Los Angeles.

“I love that I can use someone’s own weight against them and not have to fight them,” Cervantes said.

Ron Sealana, 30, of Hollywood, said he attends jiu-jitsu class six days a week. He has dropped 30 pounds since starting five months ago.

“I didn’t know I could move that way,” Sealana said. “There are certain positions you get into and I just never thought my body could maneuver that way.”