Mixed Martial Arts finds home, big-name sponsorship in Wyoming

in Community/Recreation

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Pain shot across Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor Devin Henry’s face as he disengaged a grapple Monday with one of Cheyenne Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s students. 

“Hang on a sec,” Henry calmly told the student. “I think I broke my finger.” 

The 42-year-old’s purple belt cut a sharp contrast against his black gi, a lightweight, two-piece garment worn by several martial arts participants, as he cradled the injury and paced the training mats.

Within minutes, he returned to his student, and the duo continued to drill a series of subdual techniques.

“It doesn’t hurt now,” Henry said. “But I’m going to be in pain tomorrow, for sure.”

The Jiu Jitsu academy’s primary coach and owner Matt Cano nodded, acknowledging his junior instructor’s tenacity.

“It’s a rough sport, and you do get hurt from time to time,” Cano said. “But we bounce right back and keep at it.”

About 30 students and instructors sparred in pairs during the night’s training session, guided by Cano’s quiet directions.

Most of the time, he was on the ground with them, explaining and demonstrating Jiu Jitsu techniques simultaneously. But occasionally, he walked among the combatants, offering praise and critiquing the students’ moves.

“Jiu Jitsu is about human intelligence over brute strength,” Cano explained. “It’s human chess. It’s all about strategy.”

Japan to Brazil to America

After learning the Japanese martial art of Jiu-Jitsu from traveling instructor Mitsuyo Maeda, Carlos Gracie started a legacy by opening his family’s first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1925, according to the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu association Gracie Barra.

In the decades to follow, the Gracie family refined and adapted the fighting style until 1993, when Rorion Gracie put together the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a way to test his family’s techniques against other popular martial arts like Karate, Judo and Tai Kwan Do.

The sport exploded across the globe, and by 2006, even the U.S. Army used moves inspired by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in its Modern Army Combatives, hand-to-hand combat training.

Although backyard wrestling and bareknuckle boxing enjoyed a modicum of popularity among young fighters in Wyoming around the turn of the millennium, combat-centric training centers remained sparse around the state, Cano said.

“Growing up, I was really into watching the UFC and all that,” he recalled. “But, there weren’t any real high-quality trainers for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You got some good wrestlers around here and good boxers, but for the longest time, we didn’t have high quality trainers that strictly focused on (mixed martial arts).”

‘Homeless’

After a stint in the U.S. Army, Cano trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu throughout the Rocky Mountain region, fought in both amateur and professional MMA bouts, then decided to focus on bringing Wyoming to the forefront of the growing global martial arts trend.

“It was around 2015, and I had one more pro fight, but I always had one foot in, one foot out with teaching,” Cano said. “I wanted to spread my love for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it did — it spread like wildfire.”

Cano’s academy began with three buddies in a two-car garage. He quit his full-time job as a diesel mechanic and dedicated himself solely to the art.

“I had no income the first couple of years,” Cano explained. “I was homeless — just living in the academy.”

Nowadays, Cano’s academy is located in downtown Cheyenne with nearly 5,000 square feet of training space.

“We’ve got about 135 students here at the academy now,” he said. “That’s between our kids’ classes, advanced Jiu-Jitsu, beginning Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing classes.”

Name recognition

The academy owes its success to several factors, including the nearby U.S. Air Force base, the instructors’ determination and Cano’s passion for teaching.

But the 32-year-old coach said one of the tipping points for Cheyenne Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was an off-the-cuff friendship with Kurt Osiender.

“We’re the first major academy in Wyoming to be sponsored by a big name,” he explained.

Osiender is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt who trained under Ralph Gracie before starting his own academy in California. Referred to as a professor in the sport, Osiender met Cano during a series of seminars. 

“I kept asking him questions about different techniques, and after awhile, we just hit it off,” Cano said. “He comes and puts on seminars here at the academy throughout the year. He loves Wyoming. He loves guns and whiskey and Frontier Days. He says it’s his kind of state.”

In a sport where training lineage can hold as much weight as the color of a combatant’s belt, having a Gracie-trained instructor sponsor your gym is a huge honor, Cano said.

“Kurt certified my brown belt in 2016,” he remembered reverently. “That was a really big deal for me. Some people use stripes on the belt to indicate degrees, but Kurt’s old school and doesn’t do stripes.”

As much the student as the teacher, Cano said despite the growth of his own academy, he’s got a long way to go.

“I’m in no hurry to get my black belt,” he said. “Kurt will give it to me when he feels I’m ready. As long as I learn something every day, that’s all that matters.”

As the academy grows, Cano said he hopes to see Wyoming earn a place on the MMA map, but until then, he plans to keep rolling with his students and sharing his love for the sport.

“Spiritually and mentally, you’re in the zone with that training partner,” Cano said. “We share blood, sweat and tears on these mats. We’re all brothers and sisters here.”

To learn more about Cheyenne Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, visit https://CheyenneBJJ.wixsite.com/cbjj

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