By Jordan Newmark  |  12 December 2019   

He won’t quit.

Whether it’s during eleven hours of hard sparring for charity, ten years as a teacher and small business owner or nearly two decades of grinding to become a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt, Chris Civello isn’t going to quit.

If anything, the founder and head instructor of Sakura BJJ in Dover, New Jersey is going to endure, learn, and improve toward achieving his goal. A goal that began with rising through the grappling ranks and over time morphed into helping others and, simply, being happy.

“I started this school pretty much to have training partners,” admits Civello who opened Sakura BJJ in 2010 while he was a purple belt. “I really thought this was going to be so easy and I was going to sign up all these people immediately and I was going to have all these training partners. It certainly wasn’t the case (laughs).

I had $482 left in like a great jug of change and I cashed it in a Coinstar machine. I asked my wife and I think she gave me a loan and we were off. I found a location and I asked my teacher if I could have permission to open and that was it.

I don’t know how this has come so far. Everything was against us. Still. I’m not a businessman, I’m a jiu-jitsu teacher. I do my best. My business plan was to treat people with respect and make them happy. Just make sure they’re happy. That’s it.”

Commitment & Consistency

Can you imagine? Civello was so committed to the craft that he started his own gym to practice. Also, it hints at the lack of consistency Civello was experiencing with the schools that he went to. For years, Civello criss-crossed New Jersey and into New York studying under world class instructors whose schools would close or move. Most would find this alone discouraging enough to stop their jiu-jitsu journey, but Civello kept at it because what he found on the mats was worth the struggle.

“That’s where I learn my lessons- on the mat,” tell Civello. “And they’re hard lessons. You might get into this to learn how to fight and you may even have a person in mind, but as it goes on it changes. 

I was 22 when I started jiu-jitsu and it took me 19 years to get my black belt. By the time I was efficient at doing anything, everybody has moved on. The same guys some have kids and families, some are dead, some are doing great, some have moved on and some haven’t. You can’t just go around fighting everybody. What you’re left with are these lessons and they’re hard lessons. 

I was fortunate enough to be around some great, successful men when I was on the mat. When I would go tattoo, I wasn’t around those same type of people. I’m sure there are great tattoo people out there, I know some of them, but in my journey it wasn’t like that. When I was on the mat, I was like this is what I want to be.”

Inspired By Who He's Surrounded By

Two of those great men are two of BJJ’s most acclaimed- Marcello Garcia and Paul Schreiner. For almost seven years as a brown belt, Civello battled the best and brightest at Garcia’s jiu-jitsu academy in New York City until May 2017 when he was promoted to black belt.

Marcelo Garcia Jiu Jitsu NYC | Fighting Arts Health Lab

“I’m number 21, there’s not many of us,” says Civello who learned from these greats to be both a better practitioner and to be a teacher for his own students. “At Marcelo’s, we have Paul Schreiner - I don’t think he gets enough credit, think he’s the equivalent of Renzo’s John Danaher - and to seem him break everything down and just go down that rabbit hole a little deeper it started turning me onto that,” explains Civello.

“It’s just an indescribable feeling having somebody who comes in and they can’t even do a push-up and then they win a gold medal at a tournament or their life gets better or they were able to defend themselves when nobody was going to stop the fight. That’s important to me. 

It brings me back to when I was a kid thinking man I wish I had known that when I was getting bullied, I mean who hasn’t been bullied. I’ve been fortunate to be around such great teachers as well and seeing their passion for it and seeing how it comes back to you like tenfold.

I think to teach you really have to know what you’re talking about to pass the information on. The whole idea of people who can’t- teach. It’s such a ridiculous notion, especially in jiu-jitsu.”

Do Not Cross "The Line"

As a husband and father of two young boys, teaching the kids’ anti-bullying program is of particular interest for Civello. “I remember Renzo Gracie saying, ‘Jiu-jistu just makes us a little luckier,’” says Civello about how real fights are incredibly risky even for those who are trained.

Civello’s approach is what he believes is a realistic one that BJJ is difficult, it’s not for everyone, and it won’t necessarily save you, which he knows could turn off potential new students, but Civello wants that honesty out there.

Fighting is serious, so avoid it at all costs, but if it happens then take it very seriously.

“We go through talking first, keeping your distance, but we always talk about ‘the line’ and if somebody does cross that line then being ultra aggressive,” affirms Civello. “I think if somebody assaults you then they need to get stopped by any means necessary. 

I think people are always worried about their bottom line of what the parents are going to think and my goal is to keep the kids safe.

Care for those Who Seek Guidance

Sometimes that’s not going to come out pretty. I’m not chasing money, I’m not trying to be the biggest school with the most students. I want to make sure everyone is going to be ok. 

I’d like to think that all my students could fight if they had to. Even then, you just hope. You hope you’ve done a good enough job and you hope they can execute if something does happen. It’s worrisome.

Even today, I was training some of the kids and I was thinking how amazing how some of my more experienced kids can go against someone four or five years older who just started and they can completely handle it. That makes me so happy.”

Pushing One's Limits For A Good Cause

Civello’s caring doesn’t stop with humans, it extends to canines as well. Civello and his wife, Lori, have worked with and adopted two dogs from Japanese Chin Care and Rescue Effort.

On September 3rd, 2018, Civello mixed his passion for jiu-jitsu and helping dogs by fundraising for a local NJ charity “11th Hour Rescue” with eleven straight hours of sparring on the mats. The result was a lot of money raised and a whole lot of bruises, which Civello detailed in an interesting blog post, "The 11th Hour."

Chris Civello 11th Hour Roll

Source: mymmanews.com

“It just kind of came up one day, ‘Maybe we should an 11 hour roll for 11th Hour Rescue,’” remembers Civello. “I was like I used to do endurance racing, how hard could it be? I just need to pace myself.

As it started to build momentum, it started to get more nerve wracking and then it was happening. We just booked a date and went with it. I got to bring a lot of information back. People weren’t really being nice. Some of them were really here to fight (laughs). They were putting it on me. It was rough. 

We wanted to do 11 hours for $11,000 for 11th Hour Rescue. I think we made $6800, which I think is the most anyone’s ever raised for them in one shot. I should’ve said $1,100 and then $6,800 would have made me look like a king (laughs). When I did present the check to the woman from 11th Hour Rescue, she was in tears and it was overwhelming. I’m just the guy carrying the flag for jiu-jitsu, so when this extra stuff happens it is overwhelming for me too.”

Always A Student, Never A Master

As he enters his third decade in BJJ and his school enters its second, you can follow Sakura BJJ on instagram at @SakuraBJJ - and make sure to check out Civello’s famed baseball bat break via kimura. 

“I produced my first black belt this year and it was pretty neat,” reveals Civello. “You just kind of take it day-by-day and appreciate the time those people spend with you. Martial arts schools are a revolving door and you’re going to get too ahead of yourself and disappointed. People move, people have families, people leave. It hurts when people leave, it’s hard not to get affected by it, but I try not to think about it. 

I hope that I will have black belts under me and if they do then they’ve definitely earned it. I’m a very demanding teacher. I’m definitely still a student and still learning, but I’m really happy being a dad right now and I’m really happy being happy right and I’m worrying less and less about who I can twist into a pretzel. And worrying about what man I’m becoming because I think we’re always becoming something and not that we’re ever there.”

If you’re in the area, swing by the school because Civello’s always ready to teach and won’t ever quit.

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About the author

Jordan Newmark is a philosophy major turned MMA writer who has interviewed the greatest to the grimiest the sport has had to offer for the past decade for UFC.com, UFC magazine, FOX Sports, and a myriad of men's sites covering Bellator and Strikeforce. Newmark has seen the evolution of caged-combat first hand from banned in the USA to billion dollar industry and has picked the brains of the best fighters and coaches in the process.

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