BJJ Behind Bars: How Jiu-Jitsu Changed One Inmate’s Life

He knew the right hand was coming. “They never go for a body shot first,” Evan Robinson says. “They always want to take your head off.” He ducked the predicted punch, shot in, and took the fight to the rough prison floor, the place Robinson is most comfortable.

Meaning the ground. Prison isn’t comfortable.

Robinson won that fight by straight armbar, for the record. He’s normally not a person who tracks those victories—a self-proclaimed “nerd,” the 45-year-old business owner and certified personal trainer is more likely to talk about his losses. (“I’ve gotten my ass beat plenty of times, but at least I know I can definitely take an ass whooping.”) He remembers the armbar because it was one of only two prison fights he got in during a 15-year sentence, and because it was the same submission that sparked an ultimately life-saving devotion to “the jiu-jitsu mindset.”

But that’s rushing the story. Because before jiu-jitsu saved Evan Robinson’s life, it didn’t. It didn’t prevent a much younger version of himself from mashing the barrel of a gun to a neighborhood friend’s head while stealing all the cash in their house in 1997, or the State of Pennsylvania from sentencing him to “14 to 40 years” for felony armed robbery after. 

Before jiu-jitsu, Robinson was a “knucklehead” teenager who was “constantly getting into trouble” in the working class Allentown, PA area, hoping faux-thuggery would gain him respect from guys and attention from girls.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to be 2Pac one day or Biggie Smalls the next. It was all facade. But the girls I knew then liked the tough guys, so I started trying to be something I’m not,” Robinson recalls.

He did know one legitimately “tough” guy that everyone agreed was the real deal: a martial artist named Joe Van Brackle, that dude in a neighborhood full of hotheads who didn’t start shit but was adept at finishing it. 

“Joe was the—can I just say this how I would say this—that one white guy out of a bunch of bros that everyone respected, and I wanted to know why. He was the alpha no one messed with.” Robinson’s respect for Van Brackle evolved into friendship and then brotherhood, with Joe bringing martial arts into the bond. The two became roommates, opting for cheap training mats instead of furniture.

This was in the mid-1990s just outside Philadelphia, at a time when Rocky Balboa ruled supreme and manhood was defined by standup fist fights.

“One day he came to me and said we were learning the wrong stuff,” says Robinson. “He said some Brazilian brothers had the real thing, and was like ‘No more kickboxing.’”

Van Brackle showed Robinson that straight armbar. Then guard. Side control. He took him to training sessions at Philly’s Maxercise and then Renzo Gracie Academy, and the grappling bug invaded their lives. “Joe wanted me to stop doing stupid stuff. We made a pact to go to San Diego together, train together, live the jiu-jitsu lifestyle for real.”

Joe Van Brackle and Renzo Gracie, 1997.

But then came the night with the gun and the cash grab. Robinson and his accomplices wore masks but were not expert criminals, and were arrested soon after. He wound up at SCI-Somerset prison. “I was so angry with myself,” says Robinson today. “I kept thinking why didn’t I listen to Joe?”   

Faced with a buffet of inmate temptations from illicit gambling to hard drugs, Robinson decided to listen. “Orange Is The New Black is for real, there’s negative shit you can get into there every single day,” he says. “For me, I chose BJJ instead. Things would go down and I was like ‘Nah, I’m gonna stretch in my cell,’ or ‘nope, I’m gonna drill.’” He started exchanging letters with Van Brackle, who shared what he was learning outside. Robinson also started consuming books by BJ Penn, Chuck Liddell, anything he could get his hands on. “I remember the day I got The Gracie Way. I was like, man, look at the discipline here. Look what it actually takes to become champion!” He laughs. “I realized I didn’t have time to get into stupid stuff ever again. That means everything in a prison.”

It’s hard enough to shadow grapple, harder to do it in a penitentiary where practicing combat is forbidden. Fortunately, The Ultimate Fighter came along and made it onto facility TV. “Suddenly this place full of Philly boxers was watching the game change.” Robinson was able to start piecing his white belt knowledge and bookish understanding of BJJ together with actual fight tape. He talked technique with guards who did amateur fights on the weekend and found a few inmates interested in going over moves together. 

“I didn’t get into trouble because my mind wasn’t on trouble, so I was blessed that some guards would give me and the guys the opportunity to take 30 minutes in the laundry room to drill as long as no one got hurt,” explains Robinson. “We’d drill mount, passes, kimuras, I knew a little about lapel chokes—this was before the Mendes brothers, we didn’t have all kinds of guards then! Whatever details I couldn’t figure out I’d talk to Joe about.”

Meanwhile, Van Brackle wasn’t just rising through the ranks. He excelled, making multiple trips to train in Brazil. He got to California, landing at Atos and receiving his black belt from Andre Galvao. “He was in heaven,” Robinson sighs. “I had to live through his letters because I had been a knucklehead. I felt like I had let Joe down.” Van Brackle didn’t talk about that. Instead, he spoke of making Robinson his first blue belt promotion as soon as it was possible.

In March 2013, Robinson was finally released on parole. Limited by travel and income, he enrolled in a nearby Gracie Combatives course and waited for Van Brackle to get back from his BJJ journey on the West Coast. He took his prison body to Gold’s Gym and started getting licensed as a personal trainer and raising money to open his own gym. Most of all, however, he “didn’t do any stupid shit.”

Evan Robinson and Joe Van Brackle.

Applying the daily discipline and focus espoused by Van Brackle and The Gracie Way, Robinson gradually earned everything he wanted—sustained freedom, the training certification, his own gym, a car, a near-perfect credit score, and training sessions on the mats with the friend he’d made a pact with some fifteen years earlier. “People ask me how I managed all this in five years out,” says Robinson. “And I’m kind of like, wait, you’ve been out for 18 years and you didn’t make this happen? What are you doing with your time?”

The only thing that didn’t come was the promotion from Van Brackle.

Robinson has the kind of voice you can hear a smile in even over the phone, but it dims when he details how Compartment Syndrome, an excruciating intramuscular condition, led to the end of Van Brackle’s life. “Joe’s body was attacking itself,” he says. “And the doctors gave him these pain pills after a surgery.

“He…he just couldn’t beat the pills.”

Joe Van Brackle committed suicide in July 2017, leaving notes for friends and family. “In one of the notes he said if he couldn’t have his body and BJJ, what was the point anymore?” says Robinson. “That was one of the saddest days of my life.”

Since Van Brackle’s death, Robinson has committed himself to honoring his training partner in two ways. He created The Joe Van Brackle Scholarship, and is actively seeking a “stupid young kid like myself I can pay to train BJJ so they don’t get into what I did.” (The scholarship is for a male or a female in the Bethlehem/Allentown, PA area. You can and should reach out to help him with the effort here.)

And he’s “getting choked out every night I can” to get his blue belt, which he plans to dedicate to Joe. Robinson currently trains out of Renzo Gracie PA Academy in Hatfield, PA. 

“I have that jiu-jitsu mindset now. Now I know you get a black belt through blood and sweat, so I work for every damn thing the same way, I don’t expect it to be easy. Everything I have now, my career and my money, I earned it all legally!” he crows. “Seven out of ten men who have been incarcerated go back into the system. I’ve beaten those odds because of that mindset. Joe was right that what you want you can have if you work for it.” 

Evan Robinson 2017. Photo Credit Giulliana Fonseca.


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