Some rock bands get their start in a garage hammering out tunes. The technology of Apple and Microsoft had garages as their place of origin. The Escobar family’s garage at their Tucson home was a flurry of activity more than two decades ago with 20 people rolling on mats, grasping the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu style of fighting.
Martin Escobar has become the king of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Tucson because of what transpired in that cramped garage in the mid 1990’s.
That was long before martial arts became the wildly popular sport that it is today.
With so many visitors occupying the Escobar home, Martin’s wife Barbara suggested a much-needed alternative.
“My wife said maybe you should start thinking about starting a business and get into a building,” Escobar said. “Sure as heck, in 1997, I took out a license to open up a business.”
That business — the De Brazil Jiu-Jitsu Academy located near Kino Boulevard and Avation Highway — is the longest standing of its kind in Tucson nearing its 20th anniversary.
“We had about 20 people when we started and then it became 40,” Escobar said. “Now, we are to where I’m a little over 100 adult students and about 40 to 50 kids who are participating.”
The growth is purely through word of mouth because Escobar does not have advertising in his budget.
Escobar and his family, which includes his kids, accomplished young fighters Levi and Miranda, will move the operation to a larger facility in December near 22nd Avenue and I-10. The gym there is 3,200 square feet, which is about 200 square feet larger than the present facility.
A section will be devoted to boxing, led by trainer Carlos Valdez, who coaches Levi.
“With my school right now, it’s tucked away in a commercial district,” Escobar said. “It’s not at a storefront where everybody can see it, but it’s held its own for 20 years.
“With where we are moving near 22nd and I-10, we will finally have a storefront. We’ll finally be up front where we’ll have a bunch of traffic see our school. … If we’ve been tucked away, hidden from everybody, I can just imagine what it’s going to be like when everybody can see the sign. It’s got a lighted sign and everything. It looks pretty bright. The future looks bright.”
When the De Brazil Jiu-Jitsu Academy opened in 1997, only the 20 fighters who rolled on the mats in the Escobar’s garage took part in the instructions given by Martin. And that was the case for a few years until it reached 40. In the last five years, the participation has grown to where it is now and figures to continue to expand at a good rate.
“Jiu-Jitsu continues to grow,” Escobar said. “Think of it now from what it was when I started training (in 1994). I was one of 14 blue belts and one of seven purple belts in Arizona. Now to think that there are 100’s and 100’s of purple belts and blue belts in this state.”
* * * * *
Escobar, now a black belt, developed a passion for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after he watched in 1994 the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bout in the United States. Royce Gracie, of the renowned Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighting family, won three matches in the event to capture the welterweight title.
“At that point and time, the Gracie family came out and basically took on all-comers,” Escobar said. “At that time, it was style vs. style. So basically it was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu against kickboxing, Muay Thay and wrestling. It was art against art.
“I saw this kid, young guy, skinny, he looked like he could get run over by anything. All of a sudden. he was taking out bigger guys. At that time with UFC, they were tournament style. There were three, four fights in a row this guy had to compete in. … Here he was tearing through that.”
Escobar was in the process of becoming a police officer and became intrigued by the training possibilities of Jiu-Jitsu for that line of work.
After he and Barbara moved to Phoenix in 1994 because she gained employment there, the Mesa Police Department offered Escobar a position. It did not have the money appropriated to hire him immediately, however. It could not get him into the police academy.
In January 1995, the Tucson Police Department brought Escobar on board. Shortly thereafter, he found a Kajukenbo instructor in Tucson. Kajukenbo includes karate, Jiu-Jitsu, judo and tempo boxing.
“That’s how I started my martial arts venture,” Escobar said. “The funny thing is that instructor winds up being Chris Valdez, who is now Levi’s boxing coach.”
For the last 15 years, Valdez has trained boxers and mixed-martial artists as part of his nonprofit organization, The Youth Corps of America.
Escobar’s commitment to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu intensified later in 1995. He found a studio in Phoenix that offered training in that style of fighting. It was an affiliate program of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
“I began driving up to Phoenix three times a week because my wife would have to go up there for her job,” Escobar said. “Levi was really small. He was born in 1996. He was just a little kid.
“I would spend my day waiting for my wife to get out of work. Levi and I would hang out at the mall. I would wait for my class to start at 7 o’clock and it would go until 9 o’clock and then we’d drive back to Tucson. So I was very committed. I’m very compulsive in what I do. I would drive up there some times three times a week. That’s how I began.”
Escobar quickly developed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to where he was able to train at a facility in Florence, Calif., with Royce Gracie as an instructor.
“He actually presented me with my first belt, a blue belt,” Escobar said. “So that was pretty awesome. I mean here’s a guy who is considered an icon now with the UFC and the way Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was introduced to the United States. I ended up getting my first belt from him. It was pretty awesome. I still have that belt.”
After returning from California, Escobar bought mats and started the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training sessions in his garage. Many of the participants were fellow officers within the Tucson Police Department.
* * * * *
The De Brazil Jiu-Jitsu Academy has now in turn become a feeder for the TPD. Nine students have become officers. That is one of the many values Escobar’s facility provides the community.
Escobar is a man of values — “I stuck to those values and I don’t think I’ll ever abandon those values,” he said — and he has made national headlines because of them.
In 2010, when he filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Tucson law enforcement be exempt from enforcing a controversial state immigration law.
The law, signed by former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010, allowed police to ask anyone for proof of legal U.S. residency. Critics of the law, including Escobar, claimed it created the practice of racial profiling by police. The federal court dismissed his lawsuit.
Escobar, 52, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico and immigrated with his parents when he was 5 years old.
He retired from the TPD in September after serving for 21 years “and nine months,” he said with a laugh.
“I don’t miscount those months. It was a beautiful career. I have nothing but good things to say about my time there. It was funny. I asked one of the assistant chiefs to be a reference. He was my captain down on my division. ‘I’m glad you were able to analyze when you’re ready to go,’ he said. ‘Some people stick it out and they get bitter.’ I wanted to leave on a high note.”
Incorporating Escobar’s involvement in law enforcement — he is now a detective in the Pima County Attorney’s Office — he runs his academy with certain codes for participants to live by. That includes the warrior code, or the Bushido Code, which involves these elements: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor and loyalty.
“We change people’s lives,” Escobar said. “I even have a guy in there who was a hardcore (gang) banger and I recognized some of the tattoos that he had when he came in. I pulled him aside. I said, ‘Hey listen, I recognize some of the tattoos. Just so you know, I’m a cop. I have nothing against you or anything like that. If you’re coming here to train I will gladly train you, no problem at all.’
“He has become one of my most loyal and one of my best students. Everybody loves him to death. He even got a tattoo about two years ago that he put on his chest that is actually the logo of our bulldog. Around it he put ‘Jiu-Jitsu saved my life.’ When you can impact people like that, you feel good about it, knowing that you changed people’s way of thinking and way of life into something better. He’s one of the many stories. Jiu-Jitsu and what we do there is a positive thing.”
Escobar prides his operation at De Brazil with being more of a community-enriching organization than a business. He went so far as to say that he does not run his school like a business. He keeps his prices lower than the growing competition in Tucson and he does not believe in long-term contracts like others.
He allows his students to pay month-to-month because he knows of the financial burdens that may arise.
“We are one family,” Escobar said. “We fight together. We lose together. It doesn’t matter.
“That’s the atmosphere I try to strive for, not so much of a business, but as a big family. If I was a rich guy, I would teach everybody for free.”
Because of his extensive background in Jiu-Jitsu, love for the sport and his deep respect for the Bushido Code, Escobar is not one who will take dollars over dignity.
“I hope Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t get commercialized but we’re starting to see some of that,” he said. “In a sense, you sell your belt, you sell the rank, when you do that. My school is known as a hardcore school where you have to earn your rank and it’s just not given to you.
“I’m starting to see programs where it’s becoming a commercial, a way to make money. I don’t think that was ever the intent. … The sport has grown. It has blown up. It’s beautiful. It’s such a beautiful art. I don’t like it when people use it for commercial reasons.”
His daughter Miranda has learned the priceless value of Jiu-Jitsu goes beyond what takes place on the mat.
“It becomes a part of who you are basically,” said Miranda, a blue belt. “You’re adopting a lifestyle when you start Jiu-Jitsu. When I tell people about it, I say it’s a great experience to have on top of the physical part.
“It’s more than the physical activity. It’s about growing as a fighter and learning more about yourself.”
* * * * *
What also sets De Brazil apart from the rest is Martin’s instructors, including his children Miranda and Levi.
Martin said other facilities have perhaps one or two instructors with black belts while De Brazil, “has 11 students who have been promoted to the rank of black belt and work with me.”
“It takes about an average of nine to 10 years to get your black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. That’s how long these guys have been with me. They help me on a daily basis with classes.”
Escobar foresees a time soon of him retiring and his son Levi and daughter Miranda taking over the day-to-day operations of De Brazil.
Levi, 21, was a four-year letterman in wrestling at Tucson High School. He has rolled on the mats under the tutelage of his father since he was 6.
Last month, he improved to 5-2 in his amateur career with a unanimous decision victory over Cedric Katawamba in the Combate 13 event at Casino del Sol.
Miranda, 17, is a junior at Tucson High School who also competes in volleyball for the Badgers as a setter. She also has been trained by her father since she entered grade school.
“When she was 14, I didn’t want her competing in Jiu-Jitsu against boys anymore because of the testosterone; the boys were getting a lot bigger than her,” Escobar said. “There wasn’t too many little girls practicing in her division, so I stuck her in the women’s adult division.
“At 14 years old, she became the state champion. That was pretty impressive for a little gal. That was pretty awesome.”
The plan is for Miranda to operate the youth training development at De Brazil when she and Levi take over for their father.
“I always look forward going to the academy,” she said. “It’s been a real great experience having that every day just because I know I always have that support. With tournaments and everything, everybody’s been pushing us. It’s really been impactful for me.
“The people at the academy are like family to me, a bunch of uncles and aunts and cousins. Even though we’re training against each other and think people can get hurt, no matter what, we’re always there for each other. I look forward to being a part of that in the future.”
“We are one family. We fight together. We lose together. It doesn’t matter. That’s the atmosphere I try to strive for, not so much of a business, but as a big family. If I was a rich guy, I would teach everybody for free.” — De Brazil Jiu-Jitsu Academy owner Martin Escobar
Levi, who said he will fight at least twice more before turning pro, calls De Brazil his “sanctuary.”
“Just being there, I better myself as a fighter, competitor, teacher, instructor and as a human being,” Levi said. “When I’m there, I don’t think about anything else going on in the world. I’m just there, present in the moment.
“I want to take it further than where it’s now. I want to make Tucson a mecca for Jiu-Jitsu and MMA training. I want to make it where people think, ‘He’s going to be a pro fighter if he goes there to De Brazil.'”
Levi, a purple belt, has taught at his dad’s academy for the last eight years, since he was 13.
He talks highly of the Gracie family, particularly Carlson Gracie, who was a grand master of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Levi looks up to the late Gracie, who passed away in 2006 at 73 years old. He says he wants to be just like him.
“My dad brought him out to Tucson one time,” Levi said. “No one knows that. Him being here was very big.”
His father also has a special place in his development.
“He’s everything,” Levi said. “I would be nothing without him. … I’m here because of my dad’s legacy and what he’s done for the community.”
The meaningful days gone by have impacted Martin Escobar in a way that he wants to give back.
The constant commute to Phoenix to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, start of his training and teaching in the garage of his house, and his perseverance from his upbringing in a family of Mexican immigrants keeps him grounded.
When De Brazil moves to its larger facility at 22nd and the I-10 in December, Martin plans to set up a program that will benefit the youth around that location.
“Because it is in the old project area, there are some under-privileged kids there that don’t have the money,” he said. “We’re thinking of setting up some scholarships in that area for kids who can’t afford it. Chris Valdez has already done that with his boxing program.
“I offered him a place at my school to help kids along the process too. I think it’s going to work out great. I can’t wait for the end of this year and what’s in store for our academy after that. We have come a very long way since those days in the garage but we know we have room for much more growth.”
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.