MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
A Quantico Middle/High School student recently took a trip to Senegal, working to open up new opportunities for the West African country’s young men. But to help them, he had to fight them.
Traditional wrestling, known as “laamb” in the local language, is hugely popular in West Africa, explained Malick, a junior at the school. However, the sport has not gained appeal globally, and its practitioners, aside from a handful of the very best fighters, can’t hope for more than a modest income.
With the idea that broadening their fighting style could allow these fighters access to franchises like the hugely popular Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator Mixed Martial Arts or others, Malick, his father and the owner of the Stafford dojo where the teenager trains, along with a few of the dojo’s other students, set out for Senegal on Oct. 27 to teach the art of Brazilian jiu jitsu.
“They’re extremely ready to learn jiu jitsu, and they’re very humble people as well,” Malick said of the fighters they worked with. “Even though I was a 16-year-old, they treated me like a teacher.”
Between Nov. 3 and Nov. 9, the group staged six events in Dakar and nearby M’Bour. Each of the three seminars drew 75 to 100 fighters, and a couple of television stations showed up for the tournament staged on Dakar’s Muscle Beach, he said.
The response “far exceeded my expectations, and I had pretty high expectations,” said Chief Warrant Officer Armand Rupert, Malick’s father, who works aboard Quantico at Marine Corps Intelligence Activity.
Rupert, who is a native of Senegal, coordinated the project under the name of the Lion Heart Initiative, the nonprofit organization he founded this year with the vision of bringing well-regulated, competitive mixed martial arts in West Africa.
He convinced Kelly Grissom, founder and head instructor at Koa Martial Arts and Fitness in Stafford and a retired Marine, to join in his effort. In September, he reached out to Senegalese judo champion Alassane Thioub, who started outreach to the judo and laamb communities in Senegal and ended up hosting the group when they arrived.
Fluent in French and the West African language of Wolof, Rupert stepped up outreach with radio appearances and networking after he and Malick arrived in Dakar ahead of the rest of the group.
“He speaks the native language, and he has an incredible ability to network and get things done in a place where it is extremely difficult to get things done,” Grissom said, adding that it was only Rupert’s determination that convinced him to get involved in the trip. “There’s no way I would just go to Senegal to teach jiu jitsu.”
Malick said the trip was life-changing. “I realized how well martial arts can bring people together and build friendships,” he said. “I feel like we created a really strong bond, and I believe jiu jitsu will expand in Senegal because of that.”
Michael Johnson, principal at Quantico Middle/High, said he didn’t hesitate to grant his student permission to take time off school to go on the trip. “Malick is a very, very good student, very conscientious,” he said. “He’ll be better for the experience, and I’m sure West Africa will be better for him going there to provide the experience.”
When he started training at Koa almost four years ago, Malick had studied judo, the immediate precursor of Brazilian jiu jitsu, since he was 8 years old, but he wasn’t especially good at the sport, he said. “I feel like I found my home in jiu jitsu.”
He was the only minor in the group when he joined Koa at age 12, Grissom said, adding that Malick nonetheless managed to hold his own among the adults. Now that the dojo has more young people training, Grissom has hired Malick as a part-time assistant instructor.
“He’s very successful competitively when he competes,” Grissom said. “I don’t think he’s lost a match in three years or so of competition.”
Malick, however, conceded that he did take home a silver medal a couple of years ago.
“There are two rules around the house: You keep up your grades, and you fight,” his father said, explaining that he feels competitive fighting develops discipline and confidence. It’s when young people lack those traits that they get in trouble, he said. “[Malick] doesn’t feel the need to prove himself, because he does so regularly on the mat.”
He won again when facing a judo black belt in the tournament in Dakar, Rupert said, although he added that Malick had the advantage of knowing jiu jitsu’s ground-grappling skills.
A documentary on the trip to Senegal is now in the works, as one member of the group Grissom took with him is not only a jiu jitsu brown belt but also a professional photographer and videographer. Rupert said he hopes to have the film finished in the next six months and to use it to publicize the project and win sponsorship to fund the next trip to West Africa. He and Grissom paid for this first trip out of pocket.
Next year, Rupert would like to return to Senegal and perhaps also offer training in Gambia, and in 2015, he plans to bring Brazilian jiu jitsu to Liberia. His goal is to see a gym open up in the next few years, with the long-term aim that a mixed-martial arts circuit will emerge in West Africa.
He said the work has the humanitarian aspect of opening up opportunities in a developing country and is also in line with his hobbies of watching and dabbling in sports fighting. But he said it’s also a way of bonding with his son.
“If [jiu jitsu] wasn’t his life passion, I probably wouldn’t be doing this,” Rupert said.
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