Fighting fighting with fighting

Fighting fighting with fighting
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

A Williamsburg mixed martial arts aficionado says he can keep troubled kids from resorting to violence — by teaching them to fight.

Joseph Katz started offering free classes to at-risk youth at Williamsburg’s Renzo Gracie Fight Academy this summer because people who know how to throw a punch also know when not to throw a punch.

“The only reason why [the kids] fight in the streets is because they don’t know how to fight,” said Katz, who calls the classes Hope Academy. “When they know how to fight, they don’t have to show up and prove a point.”

The 25-year-old Hasidic Jew says he was inspired to give free classes and pay for equipment out of pocket after realizing so many neighborhood teens have problems in school and at home — then resort to misbehavior and violence to vent their frustration.

Katz himself discovered martial arts in his teens during a period of family turbulence and found that training helped him gain self-confidence, even though the sport wasn’t encouraged by members of his community.

“This is my new family,” Katz said of the gym, which he opened in April. “Everybody is my brother, everybody is my sister. We fight here, we eat here.”

Now Katz wants Williamsburg’s troubled teens to share in that sense of community by taking lessons in jiu jitsu, boxing, strength-training, cardiovascular fitness, and mixed martial arts — a combat sport with minimal rules that’s surging in popularity across the nation, but remains illegal for staged bouts in New York state.

But backers of the plan say mixed martial arts teaches skills that are useful outside of the octagon.

“We’re not attempting to create [mixed martial arts] champions … We’re trying to create better human beings,” said state Sen. Eric Adams (D–Park Slope), who studied taekwando as a teenager. “We’re trying to teach principles — taking care of your body, being a better person, not using violence for the offensive.”

Katz says the respect and discipline needed to excel in martial arts easily transfers to the classroom — and he monitors students’ grades and puts them on probation from weekly workout sessions if their academic performance starts slipping.

Anastasia Bitis, a physical education teacher who brought her summer-class students to the gym for training, said the class turned surly, apathetic “knuckleheads” into punctual, polite model students.

“The difference I saw in my kids in three weeks is huge,” said Bitis.

Danny Rivera, a 17-year-old student at Believe Northside Charter High School, said he found comfort practicing jiu jitsu, boxing, and conditioning over the summer.

“It teaches me how to stay hard working,” Rivera said. “And instead of staying in the streets I can come here and feel welcome. The streets aren’t always welcoming.”

The Hope Academy began with 25 students, and another 20 are lined up to start soon, Katz said. He hopes to have at least 100 students participating within the next two months, and eventually wants to send coaches into schools to do demonstrations — though funding remains unclear.

“We’ll see how much money comes in,” Katz said. “Either way, I’m a fighter. I don’t give up even if it’s hard for me. I’m going to keep going and do what I do.”