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From Power Rangers to black belt: The Happy Warrior’s long Jiu Jitsu journey

Roxanne Modafferi takes fans on her long, complex journey to earning her Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt.

Scott Hirano, Invicta FC

I loved team sports as a kid, especially soccer. My dad also loved soccer, so from the time I could run, we were kicking around a soccer ball.

One day when I was twelve or thirteen, I went over to my mom after an episode of the Power Rangers TV show had finished.

“Mom,” I said, “Can I do martial arts? I want to learn to fight and beat up the bad guys, too!”

“Um, okay,” she said, and did some researching, probably the phone book. “How about Tae Kwon Do?”

I joined a studio in Kennett Square, PA. I loved it! I learned to punch, kick, spin kick, jump kick, and break wooden boards. I memorized forms, and rose in the ranks. I got different colored belts. I think my mom thought it had something to do with me wanting to get emotions out because my parents were going through a divorce, but that wasn’t it. Two words: Power. Rangers.

After about a year, the academy started to host fund raisers to raise money. I don’t think the school was in trouble. I’m not sure what was going on but it was weird, because I couldn’t get my next promotion unless I sold a certain number of pizzas.

“Mom,” I said, “I don’t want to sell pizzas.”

“Okay,” Mom said, not wanting me to sell pizzas either, and likely grabbing the phone book again. “How about Kempo Karate?”

“SURE! Cool, maybe I can try ALL KINDS of martial arts!” I said, really getting excited for the change. I joined Mark Lawler’s Kempo Karate studio. And I loved it too! They had self defense-y kind of moves, and combinations with names like Jumping Crane and Pouncing Tiger... maybe... (Sorry, Mr. Lawler, I don’t actually remember them, but things like that.) It was also the first time I was able to full contact spar. I was about fourteen. I had so much fun! Finally, I was a learning how to REALLY fight. I rose in the ranks but never made black belt.

Then my dad moved to Boston, so my mom moved to Lenox, MA, so I could be closer to him. Thank goodness because my middle school classmates were meanies. Along the way, we spent the summer in Amsterdam, NY. And of course, I wanted to do martial arts. Good old Mom researched. “There’s a Uechi Ryu school in town! It’s Okinawan Karate.”

I was so excited to dabble in yet another martial art, even if it was only for a short while.

Upon moving to Lenox, there was no Kempo studio so we joined another Tae Kwon Do School. They were nice but made me start from white belt, which I didn’t think was fair. I was really bored.

Then one day I had a startling epiphany! I woke up and didn’t want to do it anymore. I said, “Mom, I don’t want to hit anybody anymore. It’s morally wrong. I want to do a martial art that doesn’t involve hitting.”

“Er, okay,” said my poor mother, probably lunging for the phone book. “How about Judo?” she suggested.

“Sure?”

I joined the Dalton Judo club. I’d been doing all this simultaneously with soccer, mind you. I gave up on other team sports for various reasons, mostly I wanted to focus on soccer and martial arts. Plus my eyesight was failing me and I couldn’t see the ball (baseball, tennis, basketball, etc.) I loved soccer enough to get sports glasses for it.

Judo became my favorite. You grab somebody in their gi, jerk them around to break their balance, and then throw them on their back. Depending on how cleanly you threw them, you could win immediately (ippon) or get a half point and then have to pin them for twenty seconds to win. I wasn’t naturally athletic or strong, so using balance and leverage worked well for me.

Unlike Tae Kwon Do and Kempo, Judo promotions weren’t given out by time and tests, but by ability and if the teacher felt you were ready. Sensei Harry Chandler promoted me up to brown after about three years. I trained hard, traveling to Jason Morris’ Judo club in New York (thanks for driving me so much, Mom!). I started competing in Judo tournaments. I did very well. I was serious. I remember, as a lowly yellow belt, I went to the Pan American games in New York after caravanning for hours in the car with my team. I threw an upper-ranked brown belt with the very first move I tried. She was so depressed that she left the tournament. That taught me that anybody can win at any given time. Just be brave and try.

I even got some of my high school friends into it.

Myself and two high school friends at 16 years old

I made close friends in my dojo. The only time I took time off was for soccer season, because it was too tiring to do both.

Then something life-changing happened. I was seventeen and a half, a senior in high school. One day while I was competing in a Judo tournament, I got pinned on my shoulders. I was squirming this way and that, desperately trying to get out of the hold-down. I gave a mighty twist, and something popped in my back. I felt excruciating pain. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I either herniated something, tore something, or did something to screw up a disk.

Obviously I lost. I limped home, and could barely walk the rest of the week. It was bad. I think soccer season had just started. Our Lenox team had always kind of sucked, but finally that year, I’d made varsity and we were good. I mean, really good. We were winning our games and even beat Wahconah. NOBODY BEAT WAHCONAH.

But whenever I ran, my back started hurting. During practice I tried to play, but I ended up limping off the field. My back injury was one of the most significant turning points of my life. I remember crying face down in the grass in physical and emotional agony – after so many years of soccer, our team was finally in the playoffs, I was a starter, it was my senior year, my last year ever, and I couldn’t run. When it felt better and I returned to practice, it immediately started hurting again. I begged the coach to put me in a game. She put me in. I played twenty minutes and then had to come out. I couldn’t walk for two days afterwards. I had to stay home from school. That experience changed my life forever. In the future, if anything ever bummed me out, I would tell myself, “At least you can walk.”

I could only watch from the sidelines. I had to stop running. No jogging, no soccer, no tennis, no sprinting for the bus, no any kind of running activities, no team sports, or my back would hurt. It would jar me. I couldn’t stand up for more than 30 minutes without my back hurting. Standing in lines hurt. Amusement parks were torture to stand in line for! Sitting for over an hour hurt. Long car rides were torture. And the worst part was, Judo hurt it. The twisting and falling hurt it. I had to quit Judo. Was I to be a cripple? (Side Note: This state of my back continued for 20 very long years until only recently, thanks to my physical trainer Lorenzo Pavilica.)

I was depressed. I graduated from high school and got accepted to the University of Massachusetts so I could study Japanese. My Judo friend John Wooster said to me, “Roxanne, you should try Brazilian jiujitsu.”

“Nah,” I said, depressed.

“Come on,” he coaxed. He was a brown belt in Judo, and had been there for me from day one. “Just try a class before you go away to college. It’s like Judo except more on the ground. Me, my brother Lee, and Warren are really getting into it. We’re going to Rich LaBonte’s Gracie Association up in Adams, Mass.”

“No thanks, I’m not interested,” I grumbled, cranky about my life. Then one day I agreed because I trusted John. The ‘association,’ as it was called, ended up being a set of mats laid out in Rich’s basement.

And my life changed again. I LOVED IT. Somehow, it didn’t hurt my back. There was no hard impact on my back, and the twisting wasn’t sharp enough to hurt me. I could do it!

Warren, John, Rich, and Roxy in 2001

I trained jiujitsu as much as I could, putting a white belt back on, going to class. I even trained with John outside of class time, watching BJJ DVDs from the Gracies and Mario Sperry, and others. We were obsessed.

I received my blue belt from Royce Gracie himself in a seminar.

Royce Gracie Seminar 2002 - myself and teammates promoted

“Want to come over and watch the UFC with us on Saturday?” John said one day.

“What’s that?” I wondered on the way over. It was UFC 31 and I watched Matt Serra fight Shonie Carter, Randy Couture vs Pedro Rizzo, Carlos Newton vs Pat Miletich…

“That’s awesome!” the JiuJitsu and Judo guys were saying, “Let’s practice it tomorrow!”

“I could never do such a violent thing!” I said out loud.

“Aww, come on, Roxy!” they laughed.

The next class, we added light strikes to take-downs into our BJJ warmups. Hmph! The violence! However, I started doing it and warmed up to the idea.

I drove back from college to keep training with my favorite guys, but people moved, things changed, and I sadly settled into a routine at college—where eventually I found Kirik Jenness and Dave Roy at the Amherst Athletic Club. There, I started MMA in earnest. I was doing some kickboxing classes, which was very different from TKD or Kempo, and submission grappling. I didn’t put on a jiujitsu gi quite so much, but instead focused on my no-gi grappling game.

Team New England Submission Fighting (Amherst Athletic Club) around 2003

Yeah, we broke the walls. Of course I trained mostly with big dudes.

I started competing in grappling and jiujitsu tournaments. I went to almost every NAGA tournament. Kirik was friends with Kipp, the owner, so I not only competed, but helped set up and run them. This was back in the days when the girls fought the boys because there were no womens divisions. I was a blue belt.

Roxy (right) competing in a NAGA tournament circa 2002-2003

I became super influenced by the Japanese anime Dragon Ball Z. The characters in the show train martial arts so hard, almost desperately, to defeat their enemies—powering up and getting stronger and stronger.

During the summer, I did gi training at Joao Amaral’s New England Brazilian jiujitsu academy in Everett, just outside of Boston. I trained there all summer for four years, and in 2005 when I graduated from college, I received my purple belt from him. By that point I had already started competing in MMA.

I honestly don’t know why my striking was so horrible since I started with striking arts, but I beat everybody with jiujitsu. Then I moved to Japan. In a nut shell, for the eight years I lived, worked, and trained in Japan, I think I maybe put on my JiuJitsu gi one time.

I prioritized no-gi grappling because I knew it would be more conducive to my MMA career, and I didn’t want to get confused and pull guard in an MMA fight. (I’ve actually pulled guard several times in MMA fights over my career, and none of them went very well for me.)

MMA grappling evolved rapidly. It was no longer cool to be on bottom guard, which was where I was good. Fighters became more savvy and could avoid basic submission attempts. I had to alter my style to prioritize NOT getting stuck on the bottom, but trying to always get on top. Sport jiujitsu has changed as well, however. People have begun inverting, berimbolo-ing, and crab riding constantly. Many black belt matches consist of both players simultaneously guard pulling, and then fighting leg and ankle locks in 50/50.

I’ve trained at Paraestra Kichijouji under Kotani-san and Uematsu-san, Wajyutsu Keishukai under K-Taro Nakamura and Hideki Kadowaki, AACC under Hiroyuki Abe, and Ground Slam under Shuichiro Katsumura.

Returning to the States, I joined Syndicate and became a disciple of head coach John Wood. He taught me not only striking and MMA, but lots of chain wrestling and grappling. I credit him with saving my MMA career, and teaching me how to flow better from my standup game to my ground game.

And again, at Syndicate, I chose to de-prioritize gi JiuJitsu. Finally when Alexandre “Capitao” Almeida took over teaching there, I started going to his gi classes religiously. I taught kids jiujitsu classes and my purple belt was in shambles from putting it on every day for that, but not from me learning. I felt shame every time I tied it. I didn’t just want a promotion, I wanted to raise my skill level so that would be deserving of it. I had to power up!

Finally, after committing myself back to gi for a few years, I won the Jiu Jitsu World League 2017 Super Championship. Capitao promoted me to brown belt on the podium.

It was one of my greatest accomplishments, after all the things I’d sacrificed to make room for the time and effort.

Then Capitao left Syndicate. Feeling lost, I started training with UFC fighter and jiujitsu wizard Mike Pyle exclusively. I went from being a fan girl, to bribing him for private lessons by giving him a new PS4, to becoming a regular weekly student, and friend.

We did mostly no-gi, and he developed my top half-guard/mount game. Now I can pass and mount most people (unless you’re Mike Pyle). Around the same time, I started doing gi training at Evan Dunham’s BJJ academy, mostly with Rene Lopez and Taylor “Ninja” McCorriston.

Everybody began asking me when I’d get my black belt. A fan even told me to stop sandbagging the brown belt division when I competed. But who was my main teacher now? I was working with Syndicate AND Dunham’s BJJ. Mike Pyle put three years into me, which is probably the most time I’ve spent with a single teacher. I felt stuck for a long time. However, a martial artist isn’t supposed to care about belts, only about getting better and improving oneself. That’s what I did. I relished new techniques and challenges. I decided to develop my spider guard game (Chance Vanek helped me out a lot with that).

I won IBJJF Master Worlds at Brown Belt, one of the most prestigious international tournaments in the world, in August 2019.

Then one day Evan Dunham told me that Mike would come to his gym’s open mat on Saturday Feb 15th.

“Cool!” I said. I was happy Mike would get new high level people to roll with at Evan’s.

The next day, Mike said, “By the way, I’m going to Evan’s open mat in two weeks.”

“Right, he told me,” I said, pleased.

That week, Evan texted me. “Don’t forget, Pyle is coming to open mat.”

“Um…yeah, I know,” I replied, thinking it was a little weird he was reminding ME.

Then Mike reminded me again, “So I’ll be going to open mat this Saturday. You’re going, right?”

“Um….yes,” I said. Why do they keep telling me?

Roxy getting promoted by Mike Pyle.

I stood at the front desk of Syndicate, chatting with my teammate Valerie when I got the text. “There’s NO WAY I’ll get…” I said, not even wanting to verbalize something that was so important to me, but also something that I’m not supposed to want. “I mean, if I do, you know, I would want both of them to be there… oh my gosh, I’m trying not to think about it. I don’t care. I have so much more I have to learn anyway.”

Her smile sparkling. “I’ll be there for open mat, so I guess we’ll see!”

That Saturday, I showed up for the 9 AM Fundamentals class, taught by Evan. At ten o’clock, open mat began, and there was Mike Pyle! We all free rolled for about and hour. Then Evan told everyone that we were going to take a break, and to line up on the wall. That never happens during open mat! I looked at Valerie, who had indeed come.

“No way,” I mouthed.

The black belts present, Evan, David Gill, and Mike, stood in front of the large class, and Evan gave a nice speech introducing Pyle. It looked like Mike had hidden something in his gi, as if maybe, say, a BELT, was tucked in there. I would know because I’ve promoted my kid students that way to surprise them. No freaking way. I must be imagining it. Then Mike started talking, introduced himself, and then called to me to step out. Yes, he pulled a black belt out from his gi.

He said it was long overdue, and that I was “a hell of a martial artist.” I was happily crying so hard I could barely hear him, so I was grateful a friend took a video I could watch later. I’ve been so grateful to Evan for believing in me, supporting me, and calling me a good role model for his kids and others. I’ve been feeling like I’m glowing inside ever since. I have been doing jiujitsu for 19 years, but martial arts for 22. Now I’ve finally received a black belt.

Mike Pyle, Roxy, Evan Dunham

Some people say that once you get a black belt, you realize it’s only the beginning. I don’t exactly agree. After all, I’ve walked a very long and exciting path, training until my white belt turned black. But, I still can’t see the end of the road.

I have so much more I want to learn! After all, there are bad guys to beat up, and kids to instruct on how to be good martial artists. I want to be a good example, like the teachers that were there for me growing up.

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