Almost exactly two years ago, many jiu-jitsu gym owners had to ask themselves a question they’d never had to ask themselves before: “How do I continue to do what I love, keep my business open, and keep my students safe in a very close-contact sport during a pandemic?”
For Weiss Sakhizada of Sucker Free Jiu-Jitsu, the answer was clear: make safety the first priority, then adapt, adapt, adapt.
Sakhizada started his jiu-jitsu training at a local gym in the summer of 2011. He told the Jiu-Jitsu Times he was “hooked after [his] first day,” and the passion only increased after competing in his first tournament four months thereafter. “I was never good at sports,” he says. “I don’t think I ever won anything in my life. I was hyped to win a NAGA, and I have never seen my dad so proud of me. I lost fifty lbs. after four months and fell in love with jiu-jitsu.”
Like many jiu-jitsu students, Sakhizada began taking on more responsibilities and development after earning his purple belt. For him, this meant coaching a few classes every week at his original gym and training at Marcelo Garcia’s academy in NYC. From there, the opportunities only increased. He got another teaching opportunity, this time at a UFC Gym, a year later. Finally, he was able to live the dream of making a living through BJJ, and better yet, he also met his friend and future business partner, Tyrone Garcia. “We worked together as instructors, and at the end of our shifts, we would just chill and talk about what it would be like if we had our own gym,” says Sakhizada. “A few months later, we decided to quit our jobs and went through the process of opening a gym. We opened Sucker Free to have our own place to train so that we could do things differently. We wanted to build a chill, informal, inclusive, and challenging place to train. No politics, just jiu-jitsu. Most gyms at the time forbade cross-training, and we wanted the community to know that we were all about it.”
Three years later, things were going well for Sakhizada and Garcia in their ventures with Sucker Free — so well, in fact, that they were planning on opening a second location in Brooklyn. But then — as the unofficial tagline for 2020 goes — COVID happened.
“We cut our memberships a week after the pandemic began and closed our doors because we felt it was the responsible thing to do,” says Sakhizada. In September 2020, with a need to support himself and stay connected with his students, he began teaching at pop-up locations, from basements to bodegas to cigar shops to backyards. While the team didn’t have a consistent place to train, the sense of community was still there: a reminder that a jiu-jitsu academy is more about the people you train with than the building you train in.
In January 2021, Sucker Free’s luck changed in a positive, but unexpected way. Two of Sakhizada’s friends offered to rent him space in the back of their Boost Mobile store. While training jiu-jitsu in the back of a wireless shop was hardly conventional, it provided Sakhizada and Garcia exactly what they needed for Sucker Free. “The Boost Mobile gave us a more consistent place to teach, train, and continue building the brand. It was an incredible experience,” says Sakhizada. “All that mattered was that we had each other, some great tunes, and the desire to improve. We never gave up on our brand, even when things got really hard. I was just happy to still be able to do jiu-jitsu with my friends.”
While there was a certain novelty about having such a unique training space, it also came with its own unique set of challenges. “The back door didn’t have a good lock, so one time we got our speaker and Roomba stolen,” Sakhizada recalls. “Sometimes training got tight and people collided into one another.”
Despite the struggles, though, the temporary accommodation allowed Sucker Free to stay true to its values while giving the students a place to train. “I was mainly trying to accommodate the students we did have, but I kept it referral-based,” says Sakhizada about his student base at the time. “If you were cool and responsible with COVID, you were welcome.”
Remarkably, despite the lack of space and unique circumstances, Sucker Free managed to not only survive during that time, but also thrive. “I took silver and bronze at American Nationals and won a few IBJJF tournaments training in that little space in the back of a Boost Mobile store,” says Sakhizada. “My students did really well in local competitions. Everyone’s jiu-jitsu improved, and they got into better shape. Most importantly, we had fun and shared a lot of laughs.”
As of January 2022, Sucker Free’s time in the Boost Mobile came to a bittersweet end when Sakhizada and Garcia were able to open their own academies in New York and Bogota, Colombia, respectively. “We are going to continue to work together and grow the brand,” says Sakhizada. “I am excited to start offering free training to children who can’t afford it. I think if I could change the cultural landscape of jiu-jitsu, it would be to inspire other gym owners to prioritize providing a safe place for everyone where people are held accountable.”
With two locations set to open and an affiliate gym (Academic Grappling) supporting their mission, Sucker Free Jiu-Jitsu is once again on the upswing. While the pandemic hit them hard, they’re back on their feet thanks to a dedicated community, a strong sense of determination, and yes, a little “boost” from some friends.