Sometimes when one chapter closes, even if it’s a painful chapter, the next one will lift you up.
For jiu-jitsu teacher Mory Fernandez, he thought his love of the martial art was in danger after a hard fallout with his teacher. He felt alone, he said.
But with perseverance, he had started something new.
“I was left alone in the jungle trying to survive. I always found a way to get out there, strive and get what is mine. And not only keep it to myself, but I always went back and (shared with everyone else),” Fernandez said. “What does a lion do? He always stands alone, but he always goes back and takes care of the family. That’s pretty much how I felt.”
Now, in the garage of his home, he established his school “Lions MMA” and teaches about 20 students. With his love of jiu-jitsu as strong as ever, he’s optimistic of its future.
Fernandez sat down with TGI at his school earlier this month and talked about going through tough times and now finding himself with a renewed passion.
Your school is called “Lions MMA,’ but you teach jiu-jitsu. Why is that?
We’re starting to do both now. When we first started, after I first separated from my teacher, I started this with coach Randy (Ogata). We only did MMA. We got into the MMA for a couple of years, then the MMA died down because one of my students went off to Egypt for war. He’s stationed out there, so we stopped the MMA and focused on jiu-jitsu. Once we started focusing on the jiu-jitsu, all these neighborhood kids were coming. My old colleagues from the other dojo was coming over here, and it started to get big. Like, “Oh. OK, let’s just do jiu-jitsu for now.” We’ve just been doing jiu-jitsu for four years straight.
Then just last week Friday, we started MMA again because the kids were asking. One of our coaches, Ruben Texeira, he’s an MMA fighter. They’re asking him, “Uncle, you going to fight again?” He’s like, “Yeah, I’m thinking about it. Why? You guys like fight?” They’re like, “Yeah, we’re interested.” So, he said why don’t we do an MMA class? So, we did our first MMA class last week Friday, and it was successful. All the kids loved it. We got them mouthguards, sparring gloves and stuff, and they just enjoyed it. So now, instead of doing no-ji on Friday’s we do MMA.
How long have you been doing jiu-jitsu and MMA?
All in all, jiu-jitsu and MMA, going on my 11th year now. I’ve been running my dojo for four years, which is when I had all the commotion with my teacher. Everything had unfolded over money. By seeing that, I cannot see my passion ruined over money because I had seen them. I had seen with my own eyes money ruined everything. Everything ruined over money, and we didn’t have that contact anymore like we usually had.
It’s horrible how money can ruin your passion. That’s why I keep my place open. I don’t charge them one dime. The only thing I charge, their payment to me, is their hard work, dedication and respect on the mat. When game day come, we’re fighting. We’re not going to joke around. That’s my payment. When I was growing up, we didn’t have this kine stuff. We had a cane field where we brawl guys. We try to burn them up, and we get in trouble.
Now, I get all this knowledge that I had gained throughout the years. Why am I going to just hold it to myself. I might as well share it with the youth so they can learn the life terms of how to be a good candidate for society — instead of just running around and getting in trouble. You keep them focused here. I always tell my students that if you tie in your martial arts into your way of life, you’ll go far.
Have you fought MMA before?
Yeah. I had a couple of fights, but I don’t really talk about it. It was just one thing that I did. Jiu-jitsu is what I do and who I am. Because of martial arts, I found myself. By finding myself, I can love myself, and I can love these kids that look up to me as their sensei.
Can you talk more about you and your former teacher? What happened?
Yeah. I made a decision. A few years ago, I left him for two years. It’s because of the money thing. I went back because I was loyal to him. That’s my teacher. I learned everything from this guy. This 11 years of knowledge was a gift from him. I went back, and same thing again. He talked about money. He just stood there, like, “Yeah, you’re loyal to me.” To me, loyalty and respect goes both ways.
After this last tournament, I brought my team back (to him). I always give everything to this guy. I don’t take credit for anything. That’s how much respect I have for my professor. Every time we win, we bring all the golds back there. “Professor, this is what we did.” We present it to him, and he just puts me down.
For me, enough was enough. I sat down. I asked the team, “What you want me to do? I can stay brown belt all my life. I don’t care. My knowledge, I’m good. But if you want to continue, I have to continue. I have to get to that next level to make you guys succeed.” They said, “Sensei, I’d like for you to continue, but not with him. There’s a lot of blackbelts out there. Just take your time, sensei.” It was so sentimental. They all wrapped their arms around me. “Sensei, everything is going to be good.”
After that, how did you start your own school?
Like I said, I had just left. The reason how I came up with that name “Lions,” it was just how I felt. I was left alone in the jungle trying to survive. I always found a way to get out there, strive and get what is mine. And not only keep it to myself, but I always went back and (shared with everyone else). What does a lion do? He always stands alone, but he always goes back and takes care of the family. That’s pretty much how I felt. My teacher left me alone. I felt like a lion alone in the jungle, and that’s how we came up with the name, “Lions MMA.”
It was like a rebound for me, doing with with the support of coach Randy. He was like, “Hey, you got to go back. You got to continue your journey. Don’t ruin this because everybody’s looking up to you now.” I always kept that in mind and in my heart, and I just kept on going. Seeing the seeds that I’m planting — the students — just watering them, spending time with them and seeing the seed grow, now we’re getting fruit. We’re about to eat. Why are we going to stop now?
So, you started training in this garage because it’s space?
Pretty much. When we first bought this house, I told Pop, “I can train in this garage.” Then he was like, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to park our cars here.” This was the parking area, but again, they wanted me to continue.
How many students do you have now?
Now, I have a total of 22 students. The youngest I have here is 7 years old. The oldest, I’d say 42 is the oldest.
When did you notice more students were coming? Even if it’s not the biggest group, people are coming regularly.
That was going on for another two years. I was the type of person where I was like, I wasn’t going to turn these guys down. They were coming, and like, “Brah, we have no more parking.” But, we made it work with Uncle Harold (neighbor and supporter Harold Matsunaga). That’s one of our closest friends, Uncle Harold. He’s like our No. 1 fan.
I couldn’t turn these guys down. We just continued doing things. We had enough parking going. Then, we started noticing we had drama. Parents coming here, they bring their drama over here. It was getting out of hand. Mom guys don’t know what we’re doing here like, “How come my son doing this?” Like, “Don’t question me. I’m the teacher.” That’s when Pops was like, “We got to handpick our own guys because now it’s becoming public. Look at the space we get. We got to handpick our guys. We handpick them, we train them right, we get to know them. Not just an outsider, we like to get to know them here.”
We continued to do that. Now, we got from end-to-end our students. We know each and everyone’s name. We have a group text because I like to know how everyone’s doing. I know if you’re more like a family, you’re going to go far and conquer every tournament out there, which we’ve been doing. It’s because of that bond that we get.
So even if you’re welcoming to everybody, you have to be selective of your students.
Right. Plus, I don’t like having too much because they’re not going to get that much attention. If I can keep them right here and keep it structured, (the better). I have a rule over here. First (offense), seven days is your suspension. Second time, two weeks. Third time, you’re gone. It’s just how it’s got to be. Same treatment for everybody.
As a sensei, how do you find balance between being a family and being a strict teacher?
It’s hard. For me, it hurts because we are a family. I feel sorry for them, but I got to be thick-skinned because I got to train them right. Yes, it hurts he’s not here, but I got to show him that was wrong. If you’re wrong, stand corrected. It’s simple. Brush it off. Don’t bark back. If you bark back, then you’re disrespecting and now you’re creating something else. That’s why I always tell my students, “I don’t care how old you are. I’m like the dad here on the mat. I don’t care how old you are. Respect goes both ways. Respect each other on and off the mats. Period.”
So, you really don’t charge?
Pretty much. Right after work, I want to put my feet up. But these kids are looking up to me, and I will not let them down. This is my passion. They keep me going. If I don’t keep going, they’ll fall apart, and then we’re going to die. It’s how it’s going to be. After eight hours, I come home and I put on my other suit, and we do it again every single day.
Since you don’t charge, how do you come up with needed funds?
Pretty much, we maintain our place. We take care of everything on our own. We’re not co-dependent. We discipline the kids so well here, I don’t think these mats will ever get (destroyed). They take extra tender-loving care on these mats.
How long do you think you’ll keep this going?
Like I said, this is not what I do. This is my lifestyle. It’s going to be for as long as I live. I’ve said this before to my students. My dad is like, “I’m going to stop already.” The longest I stopped was three days, and I start feeling sick and I’m missing my team. Even if I want to stop, this phone is going to blow up. They’re not going to let me go.
When you see your students compete, how does that make you feel?
For me, all the medals and swords and belts, it’s all secondary. For me, win or lose, it’s about stepping on that mat, performing and giving it your all. That’s gold to me already. Having that medal, it’s a bonus.
Sorry. I lose words when I talk about them. They’re my pride and joy. That’s my passion, and jiu-jitsu is my passion. Without them, I wouldn’t be the sensei that I am. Without (my old teacher), I wouldn’t be the sensei that I am.
Nick Celario, can be reached at 245-0437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.