After quietly opening its doors over the summer, a new Gowanus martial arts studio is attracting students from as far New Jersey and the Bronx with its modern style and masterful technique.
Birdman Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, located at 548 Union St., just past Third Avenue, is the first studio opened by John "Birdman" Finn, a 14-year practitioner who received his black belt at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City and has since taught students as divergent as the MMA fighting champions Dan and Jim Miller to secret service operatives working President Obama detail.
"Their jobs require them to work out a certain number of hours each week and, after training with me for years elsewhere, they will wake up at 5 a.m. in order to drive here for the 7 a.m. class," says Finn, "We call that 'bacon and eggs,' it's a codename."
One of the biggest misconceptions by those unfamiliar with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is that you need to be big like the muscle-bound men on televised UFC matches, says Finn, whose long flowing locks, substantial beard and slight build might make him appear to be an easy target on the mat.
Unknowing opponents would quickly find themselves mistaken in that assumption.
In fact, part of the broad appeal of the sport lies in its David versus Goliath ethos. BJJ—created in 1914 by Brazilian brothers Carlos and Helio Gracie—promotes the ideology that a smaller person can successfully defend against a larger assailant through the use of leverage and proper technique. By taking the fight to the ground and applying strategic joint-locks and chokeholds, students can effectively take control of the match.
"I have a lighter touch, I teach a very detail-oriented class that approaches things slowly in a focused way," says Finn. "It's about challenging yourself to be better than that person on the opposite side of the cage."
Finn, who will be competing again in Brazil this summer, was introduced to the sport after a devastating crash caused him to leave competitive BMX jumping. BJJ began as a form of rehabilitation from his injuries, he says, and he quickly became obsessed.
After working at studios in the New York and New Jersey metro area, and training in Rio de Janiero, he is now realizing the dream of sharing his skills from his own studio, even attracting students to travel from beyond the borough.
"John has everyone from an owner of a top L.E.S. salon, to a famous graffiti artist, to a top male model coming to study. But what I like about it is the level of confidence it builds in people you might typically underestimate on the floor," says wife and business partner Beth. It was at her suggestion that Finn will be launching his first women-only class on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 9:30 a.m.
"People come to this sport for many reasons: physical fitness, competition, and even self-defense," says Finn. "Significantly more men train than women. But I do have a few. And I understand that for some women, it might be uncomfortable. So I think a women-only class could be interesting."
One thing he will not be offering is weekend classes. "I subscribe to the traditional Brazilian mentality that weekends are for spending time with your family, relaxing," says Finn. "There may be guys who are frustrated by not having a Saturday morning class, but that's only on the single weekend out of the year when they have nothing else to do."
That doesn't mean, however, students are getting short shrift. Lovers of the sport can attend as many classes as they want for a flat fee of $199 per month.
A shared love of BJJ has also served as the base for friendships that extend outside the Birdman studio—with students raising pints at Canal Bar, taking group motorcycle rides together and coordinating morning trips out to the Rockaways to surf after class once warm weather arrives.
"The bulk of us, for whatever reason, train jiu jitsu, ride motorcycles and surf," says Finn. "It's become a nice community of people. It's very social. But it can be whatever you need it to be."
Anyone interested in exploring classes at the studio can check out the "technique of the week" videos posted on Birdman's Facebook page. If that sparks your interest, you can train for a week free of charge, says Finn.
"I teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu because I love it, not because I have to," says Finn. "You need to find the place that's right for you."
And the rest will follow.