This is the story of three men and the cobra who brought them together.
Or rather, it is the story of an investor, a contractor, and a martial arts champion who decided to buy an Abbotsford jiu jitsu gym and became friends in the process.
The investor is Rory Bjarnason, sales manager at BE Pressure Supply by day, and gi-wearing martial artist by night. The contractor is Lloyd Handy, who claims jiu jitsu has transformed his life and his family. The champion is Jason Gagnon, soft-spoken head instructor for the trio’s gym: Genesis Martial Arts.
The cobra is Brazilian jiu jitsu legend and eight-time world champion Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles, whose L.A. gym is the inspiration for Genesis. From the colour of the mats to the way students greet each other before class, the Abbotsford gym is modelled on Cobrinha’s teachings. Even the jiu jitsu, a grappling style that began as way for fighters to defend themselves against larger opponents, is modified to reflect the Cobra’s methods.
Handy and Gagnon met at Genesis’ previous incarnation, West Coast Brazilian Jiu Jitsu & Mixed Martial Arts, when Handy was still relatively new to the sport and Gagnon was instructing at a gym in New Westminster. Handy was in his early 40s with young kids and a traffic control company. Gagnon was a mid-20s jiu jitsu juggernaut who, after picking up the sport on a barroom dare, had risen to become the international top-ranked brown-belt at his weight.
Perhaps little would have come of that meeting if it hadn’t been for a trip to Cobrinha’s gym in L.A. Gagnon and Handy shared a cab ride from the airport and an idea was born.
“I went into [Cobrinha’s gym] so blind,” said Handy, “I left there thinking like I’d started over, walked through a gym door for the first time.”
Inspired, the contractor initially began sponsoring Gagnon at tournaments, and then broached the idea of buying the West Coast gym in Abbotsford. Gagnon had skill, Handy had money, but the duo needed another investor.
Enter Bjarnason, the gregarious, tall salesman and (then) jiu jitsu virgin. His son Brogan and Handy’s son Cade attended classes together at West Coast, and the boys’ friendship had sparked one between their fathers. Unlike Handy, Bjarnason had never tried the sport, but the new maturity and co-ordination he saw in Brogan convinced him to invest.
“I don’t see another sport that you can do your whole life, and that gives you the confidence that you need to really deal with this world,” said Bjarnason. Eventually, his desire to help understand his son’s training, even help coach him, pushed Bjarnason into Gagnon’s classes.
For Handy, jiu jitsu was a path to a healthier lifestyle and a more positive community. Now a blue-belt, he competes alongside his two business partners at tournaments around the world. They’ve been to Tokyo, Chicago, Boston and Long Beach, among others. Gagnon and Jason have matching tattoos from a post-tournament night out in Vegas. “The journey never ends” is written in Portuguese on their forearms.
Gagnon runs and cleans the gym, trains, and coaches the classes – a modern-day martial arts master in downtown Abbotsford. Flexible beyond belief, coolly efficient in his technique, and marked with a prize-fighter’s brutalized ears, Gagnon is a jiu jitsu celebrity in his own right. Still, like Cobrinha himself, he is utterly humble as a coach and a fighter.
Handy and Bjarnason were initially surprised by this humility, best shown in the approachability of jiu jitsu’s superstars. Cobrinha has visited the Abby gym twice so far, teaching a few classes each time and staying in Handy’s home.
“The black-belt Cobrinha, eight-time world champion, the Wayne Gretzky of the sport. He’ll sit there and hang out with us…!” ramarked Bjarnason
In Gagnon’s opinion, the sport weeds out the arrogant and violent, leaving only those disciplined and humble enough to embrace defeat. Losing to those smaller than you is a common occurrence in jiu jitsu. Although Handy outweighs the brown-belt by 50 pounds, his strength and weight are dominated by Gagnon’s superior technique.
“They call jiu jitsu kinetic chess,” said Gagnon. “It’s like dancing with a resisting partner.
“It’s extremely honest. There are so many things in life that you can run away from, but you can’t run away from a 250-pound man being on top of you [on the mat]. There’s no way out. Either you’re going to learn … or you tap out and start again.”
Genesis Martial Arts is located at 2313 West Railway in Abbotsford. The gym trains in both jiu jitsu and muay thai kickboxing. Its students include a wide spectrum of ages, abilities, and professions.