It’s been a while since we added to our Northern Ohio/Western PA regional scene series. In this piece we’re going to take a look at a small but very active school in Erie Pennsylvania, Underground BJJ. Underground BJJ was founded and is led by Michael Rooney, a Roy Harris black belt. I had an opportunity to sit down with Mike and discuss what it was like establishing a school in an area that didn’t have any jiu jitsu when he first got started.
“Officially my only instructor is Roy Harris. When I started no one in the area was doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I was learning as much as I could from magazines and videos and taught friends that wanted to do it I met Roy a few years later (2001) at a seminar, but I started playing with BJJ about 7 years earlier.”
Underground BJJ has brought up several accomplished competitors, even though Rooney himself is not an active competitor. “My competition days are mostly over. I don’t have the desire to go after people on the mat like I used too. If you look at me too harsh I might tap because winning on the mat is not as important to me anymore.
Part of it might be because of lack of competition but I think it is more because it is not really my job. I teach because I love to do it. I don’t really make a living at it at all. My gym basically pays for itself and gives me a place to train for free. That is why I taught Karate for free at a YMCA for years and have always kept my rates. My BJJ family was the majority of my guests at my wedding. I met my wife at a cage fight while cornering one of my guys.”
As I mentioned Rooney has built up some very tough competitors, I was curious what he did to accomplish this.
“I wrestled before BJJ and kind of kept that mindset. I push my guys in training and I roll live every round. So one advantage they get is rolling with a black belt every day; that is something most of us old guys didn’t have. Also, we cross train with others and we even have a close friendship with other instructors that train with me but are technically part of other teams.” Cross training is very important to truly developing a diverse skill set.
Establishing a gym in a town that had nowhere else to learn jiu jitsu gave Michael a unique set of advantages and disadvantages starting out.
“I went to a business college and all my papers were about marketing and managing a school. The nice thing is that people who want to train find me. The down side is growing the gym. I had to teach for free or very little for a long time to establish a school.”
One concept that is always interesting in jiu jitsu is competition between different school, and students leaving schools to join other schools or to start their own academies. I was interested to see what Rooney thought about that insofar as the small market in which he resides:
“It would probably be positive to have other black belts in the area. Most are cool in bjj and I don’t think it would cost me any of my team. My guys train with me because they like the team. It does not matter if someone is better than me. They are loyal because they are part of my family.
If you are ever in Erie Pennsylvania check out Underground BJJ (http://undergroundbjj.com/). You’ll be amazed at the depth of knowledge in their room. In closing Michael Rooney had this to say: “I want to say thanks to my guys at the gym. It is our team and it is great.”