If you say the words "jiu-jitsu" and "New York City" together, usually the first thing that comes to the average fight fan's mind are the big name instructors - like Renzo Gracie, John Danaher and Marcelo Garcia. But in a city with almost 8.5 million residents, there's bound to be more than the big names teaching that beautiful-yet-badass Brazilian art.
Carmine Zocchi is one of those unsung instructors. And his story harkens back to the days when the UFC was small, and the outlets in the Big Apple where one could learn how to fight like they did in the cage were scant. Back in the mid- to late '90s, you could train at Renzo's growing academy, maybe Fabio Clemente's tiny operation set up in the yoga room of a health club, and that was it in terms of destination schools. But if for some reason or another those places weren't for you, you needed a bit of luck - which is what Carmine had when he found a purple belt to teach him what it meant to effectively execute the chokes and armbars and escapes that form the backbone of the style. (Yeah, you could say we take for granted today what was a scarce commodity back then.)
Eventually, Carmine hooked up with UFC 20 veteran Marcelo Mello, an old school jiu-jitsu black belt fresh off the boat from Brazil, and with Mello teaching out of the basement of a health club in Astoria, Carmine earned a purple belt himself. Eventually, Mello would award him a black belt of his own.
It's Wednesday, Day Two of this whole "7 Days in NYC" thing, so I'm driving out to Carmine's school in a distant part of Queens (Maspeth to be exact, which is hella far from any subway station). For insight on what it was like to train and fight outside of Renzo's circle back in the day, Carmine's perspective is both unique and invaluable.
I first met Carmine in 2001, when I strolled into a budding MMA school called Combined Martial Arts, which at the time was on the second floor of a building in Jackson Heights. Outside the window, maybe only 20 feet away, the 7 train was a constant distraction as it rumbled either towards Flushing or Manhattan, but the school was a gem, complete with a ring, mats, and plenty of space to create fighters. One such fighter was Kaream Ellington, and there was Carmine, putting him through his paces on the ground. It was someone else's academy back then, Carmine was just on staff as an instructor.
Oh how times have changed...
Adorning the walls are all manner of clippings, photos and even programs from old fight shows. So many feature Carmine himself, who for the longest time was a constant competitor.
We talk of Carmine's time fighting, which he did quite a bit of - at the old BAMA Fight Night shows in New Jersey, at Ring of Combat, at underground shindigs in the Five Boroughs. He tells explains to me the impetus behind his getting into the ring.
"I got into fighting because all my guys in my gym were fighting. They were all doing jiu-jitsu and grappling competitions, and Shootfighting and MMA underground fighting, and I felt like I was left out. I was like, 'Man, I want to be part of this.' And I did it. I thought I was tough and I did it."Some time after 9/11, Marcelo Mello was in Brazil, unable to get back into the States. That was a definite speed bump in Carmine's jiu-jitsu journey, but it had an upside.
"What happened with Marcelo is he tried to get his visa by getting married, and I guess they caught him and they told him he had to leave. And Marcelo could have fought it, he was here for a long time, but I guess at that time he was like, 'I'm not going to fight it.' He went back [to Brazil], and before he went back he was like, 'I need someone who's going to run my academy and be my soldier here.' I was surprised that he told me I was going to be the guy."In the time between his time at Combined Martial Arts to when he got his own academy, Carmine was the proverbial Johnny Appleseed of jiu-jitsu, going from martial arts school to martial arts school, planting seeds of grappling knowledge that would touch many. It was not uncommon to find him at a karate school one night, showing them hip escapes, and at a kung fu school another, showing them how to maintain mount.
What differences does Carmine see in the local jiu-jitsu scene between those earlier days and now?
"Back then you really needed to take maybe ten years to get a black belt, and today you don't need to do that. You have the answers right online. You want to know how to pass Rubber Guard? Go right online and learn. There's instructional tapes right now, and there's YouTube and there's hundreds of different schools and very good instructors. You've got to remember that when I was training, there was one instructor. Either you went to Renzo or you went to Marcelo [Mello] - there wasn't really that many guys around."
We talk of his family, of his son and daughter and the difficulties he's always faced as a single dad juggling all the myriad responsibilities that come with family and teaching. We also talk of legacy. And then, as if to complete some sort of cosmic circle, we're joined by Kaream Ellington, who still occasionally trains with him.
And that's it, and we're shaking hands and saying our adieus. You can't go to a Ring of Combat event without seeing Carmine in someone's corner, shouting instructions. I know I'll run into him sooner or later.
Given how many he's taught and still teaches, it will likely be sooner.
Carmine in action: