“We’re a family here”: App State’s jiu-jitsu’s climb back from uncertainty

Two students grapple while others rest in between rounds at a jiu-jitsu club meeting Sept. 9, 2023.
Two students grapple while others rest in between rounds at a jiu-jitsu club meeting Sept. 9, 2023.
Sam Fleming

Over the last several years, App State’s Jiu-Jitsu Club went from a club weeks away from shutting down to bringing home gold medals.

Operating out of Boone Docks MMA & BJJ off of Blowing Rock Road, the club offers the ability to learn the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu to everyone willing to try. From wrestling, to Muay Thai, to never having been in a fight before, the club wants people to become a better fighter, and also a better person.

“We want all genders, skill levels and forms of athleticism,” Director Carter Tipton said. “We just want to be a place where everyone can come and enjoy the sport that all of us teaching them love. We’re a family here.”  

With 50 members coming out each week, previous years were a struggle for retention rates. 2021 was a battle to keep the club afloat as previous members didn’t return after shutting down because of the pandemic. There were even talks about closing altogether, but everyone gave one response to why the club is successful today, head coach Liam Brown. 

“Every time I said ‘we’ or ‘us’ during this I was talking about Liam,” Carter Tipton said. “Liam loves this sport more than anyone and loves to share his skills with others. The club wouldn’t have success without him, it wouldn’t exist without him.” 

Brown, an App State graduate, joined in 2018 with no prior MMA or wrestling experience. There was an interest in UFC, but he never fought before, whether it was messing around with his friends or getting angry at someone else. Brown gravitated toward a non-violent approach in competitive outputs before coming to the university that fall.

Senior Maya Carr shows off a bruise from a jiu-jitsu club meeting Sept. 9, 2023. (Sam Fleming )

“I was a runner in high school. So, I originally joined for the fun and to stay in shape, but I just fell in love with it,” Brown said. 

The joy he felt for the club was something that he never experienced before, and putting his full effort into reshaping the club to what it had been in years past was a no brainer to Brown.

Brown, who has been the head coach since the club was brought back in 2021, focused on building relationships with his students and making them more self-confident in the sport they’re pursuing.

Those relationships Brown built made him dive deeper into his new passion. Brown met Carter Tipton’s older brother Owen, and knew he found someone with the same passion he did. The two grew together from there and eventually took on a new task in the sport.

While it took Brown three semesters to graduate from a white belt to a blue belt, it gave him so much joy knowing from how inexperienced he was a year and a half prior. 

After receiving his blue belt, the club shut down and seemed to be an afterthought to most people; but to Brown, he was devastated to see the sport he loved lose the traction he and his teammates built. Brown didn’t want the sport he cared so deeply about to become a lost piece of his life, and thought of every way to keep the club alive.

Brown and Owen Tipton, pleaded with Boone Docks’ black belt to get the club back running. After weeks of begging, they got the go-ahead to put their effort into putting the pieces back together. 

The change of pace through the first couple of weeks was challenging. The pandemic affected how many days and hours a week they could be on the mats and help beginners get their feet under them. It not only affected amateurs, but also experienced members. Going from practicing four days a week to two days is a big hit for people who could only go the two days. 

“It was challenging at the start,” Brown said. “Going from being able to practice Monday through Thursday and then moving to only Monday and Tuesday it’s tough for some students because they can only come once a week now due to their schedule.” 

While the first semester was difficult, there were still new people joining every week. As new people joined, the goal didn’t change: make everyone feel welcomed and teach them the sport the coaches were so emotional about. The coaches wanted to bring people to tournaments just as they had when they started. They made it evident any skill level was welcome to join them on their trip.

 That tournament was the North Carolina college invitational at UNC-Chapel Hill in October 2021, and brought out the most people from any college that attended. Seeds were being planted for the club to become what it once was. As the year turned and some pandemic restrictions lifted, there was gradual growth in the amount of people showing up to practice. 

“It kind of just boomed you know,” Brown said. “Being able to tell people that we’re able to get them on the mats more often than before was huge. We even were able to be open on weekends and a lot of the people who were really into that just fell into it even more.”

While the club saw a lot of success in the final semester of the 2021-22 academic year, only one member returned for the start of the 2022-23 season. While it was challenging, the retention rate was so low, everyone that returned back had so much passion for the club. This time, the drive to keep the club running was higher than ever and after a couple weeks, the club skyrocketed from about 15 to 45-50 consistent members. 

“It was so cool to go to our first competition after everyone had joined. We brought about 40 people to a college invitational and while there weren’t any trophies or places, everyone just had an amazing time,” Carter Tipton said. 

Students Annmarie and Bug grapple in full guard at a jiu-jitsu club meeting Sept. 9, 2023. (Sam Fleming )

After the first competition, there were no more competitions left to attend until the spring, so the club got to work on perfecting everyone’s craft. From practicing armbars, to full on sparring, the club took the break seriously and it was reflected in the results. 

“When I joined in October, I was very new to it,” said sophomore Alex Jenkins. “I wrestled in high school so the form and speed was there for me, but it was super cool to get to learn face to face with someone like Liam, who just cares so much about the art form this is and the club as a whole.”

When the spring rolled around and it was time to go to the next competition, the team was ready. They attended Good Fights, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament in April where any skill level can compete. The group brought 15-20 people and won multiple gold and silver medals against competitors with two to three times their experience. 

With the tournament success and the new academic year arriving, the club stayed at 50 people a week. This marked a huge victory to Brown and Carter Tipton as they grew with the club, seeing it at its lowest, but also helping build it back up to what it is now. While the success is nice, Brown said his main focus is still on getting new people to come out every week. 

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