Just down the street from the Christie Pits, there stands a building painted blue.
It is a rather ordinary structure lining the endless string of businesses along the busy Bloor Street West corridor.
Stepping through the front door, there appears a worker behind a front desk while several sweat-drenched people sit around on stools looking mightily exhausted.
The mood of the folks inside gives off the impression this place is a lounge of sorts, or an Internet café without the Internet.
But over in one corner is a locked cabinet full of shiny trophies and covering the walls are gold-plated belts and medals and pictures of men dressed in gi's.
Now you know what you have walked into. You have just entered Toronto BJJ.
One of the city’s top martial arts academies, the club opened its doors at the corner of Bloor Street West and Crawford Street in 2006. It has since become hugely popular, boasting a contingent of over 600 students and a staff of 10 instructors.
The gym offers its members a variety of classes ranging from Muay Thai to submission wrestling to judo to women’s self defence.
And just like its name suggests, the club is home to a world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu program that provides both basic and advanced classes as well as women’s and even kid’s BJJ.
But unlike the common perception that martial arts facilities exist only to house sanctioned violence, an afternoon spent at Toronto BJJ demonstrated it is much more than that. It is, at its core, an institution of learning.
Armed with a group of hungry pupils, the club enlists a group of quality instructors who seem to truly love what they do for a living.
“Teaching, for me, is a great pleasure,” said Jorge Britto, the second degree BJJ black belt and head instructor at the club. “When I see some of my students getting belts or competing or changing their lifestyle, becoming healthier and making different choices, that for me is already a big paycheque.”
For others, their love of pedagogy combined with the financial incentive made becoming a martial arts instructor an easy career choice.
“I love to teach others and I love to pass on whatever knowledge I have,” said David Bodrug, who teaches a mixed martial arts class. “So I jumped on the opportunity to make money doing that.”
But while teaching remains a strong passion for all, there is no doubt these men are fighters first and foremost. For some, the combat aspect always trumps everything.
“Fighting. Fighting for sure,” said lead Muay Thai instructor O’Denva Phillips without hesitation when asked whether he preferred to teach or to fight. “When I started, I had no intentions of teaching, it just kind of fell into my lap. It kind of happened out of the blue.”
Whatever their motivations to instruct, it became clear after watching a few classes that Toronto BJJ employs some of the very best, giving the business so much confidence in its ability to retain newcomers that it even offers a 30-day free trial.
“We believe in our product,” said Ryan O’Shea, manager of the gym. “We believe in our gym, in the environment here. We’re committed to our product.”
While the clientele mostly consists of men, the gym also aims to attract females through offering women’s only BJJ and Muay Thai classes. The goal is to show the public anyone is welcome to join what has become a diverse, yet tight-knit group.
“That’s sort of our motto: train as a team and a family,” said O’Shea while describing his club’s brand. “We’re not a bunch of meatheads here.”
O’Shea’s thoughts were closely echoed by Britto, who has been teaching BJJ at the gym since 2008.
“We work really hard, we have no ego here, we try to work as hard as we can and keep humble,” Britto said. “We keep that point of view to improve ourselves every single day. We help each other and I believe a family environment makes the whole difference.”
A student can ask for no more than to have a teacher who truly cares about assisting them on their path to greatness, and after spending an afternoon with the instructors at Toronto BJJ, it is clear they have the staff to accomplish that.
So the next time you hear someone say martial arts academies exist solely to produce violence, tell them to think again because they are truly so much more than that.
They are places of higher learning and they deserve to be treated as such.
And with a solid foundation already in place after only five years of the club’s existence, Toronto BJJ has nowhere to go from here but up. Way up.