The Practice of Jiu-Jitsu: Protection in a Crime-Ridden City

“I have been assaulted and I have friends who have been assaulted,” says Andrea Wreede, a nanny and personal assistant, explaining why she took up jiu-jitsu. This Brazilian martial art, based on a system of technique and leverage, is designed to enable people to defend themselves against larger foes. Wreede moved to Savannah from Minnesota 8 years ago. She sits for an interview in her Statesboro Three Tree Coffee Roasters t-shirt, leggings and Nike sneakers—having just come from the gym. Her blonde ponytail bobs as she nods her head. Judging by her outfit, health and fitness are important to her. That’s why she was originally attracted to Jiu-jitsu.

Wreede is just one of Savannah’s many victims of violent crimes. reports that in 2014, there were 33 murders, 65 rapes, 371 assaults and 459 robberies in Savannah and the surrounding areas. In 2015, the murder count almost doubled., reports 53 homicides in 2015. Out of the 144,000 residents, 14 of those disturbances were domestic violence related. There were 50 reported murders in 2016. A high crime rate can make the environment ominous for citizens, students and tourists, especially women. Some became proactive in taking care of themselves when James Finizio opened his studio in Midtown three years ago.

Learning self-defense has been made a priority for many Savannah women as they’ve turned to Finizio's free self-defense seminars. As the owner of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (GJJ) Studio, he offers 15 co-ed self-defense classes a week and open mat sessions, as well as the free women’s workshops approximately every two to three months. Finizio says, “I think that Savannah really needed some of this self-defense [training].”

His studio is open to all genders, ages and religions, and he’s happy to aide anyone willing to learn. Finizio notes he’s seen the most women training here than he has anywhere else—in New Jersey, where he was born, or Maryland, where he grew up, or even in Atlanta, Ga. where he often visits for competitions. A regular trainee at GJJ and a New York transplant, Brie Espina, claims she felt safer living in New York than she does here in Savannah with her family, perhaps due to Savannah’s uncommon integration of social classes. From government housing to wealthy pockets with “neighborhood watches,” one block in Savannah may feel safe and the next doesn’t. Espina argues that “nowhere in Savannah is safe.”

She found Gracie Jiu-Jitsu through a free women’s self-defense seminar posted on Facebook last March and decided to try it, even though she found the idea of martial arts intimidating. “If I’m terrified, then I’ve got to do it,” she says, a method she credits her motivation to. At the workshop, she says Finizio made each attendee comfortable, by personalizing and catering each move or position to each student.

Finizio is a tall man, reaching 6’3” and 210 pounds, in his mid-twenties, with chocolate colored hair and dark eyes, no doubt due to his Italian ancestry. He has a firm handshake, a dark beard and straight, white teeth in a warm smile. He sits, wearing flip flops, a gray t-shirt and shorts, in a low-strung chair. He seems of slight build to be a jiu-jitsu expert when he is folded up and relaxed. He is laid back, in control and he speaks with a calmness that evokes a Californian, not a man from New Jersey. With his hands atop his knees, he leans back and his passion for martial arts runs free as he talks.

Some jiu-jitsu students “have a fire inside them for it [martial arts] and it’s almost addicting when you get connected to it,” says Finizio. “And I think that, for me, it just helped me deal with anxiety and kept me healthy and in good shape and a whole list of things, and I thought, if I could do this for other people, show them, I’d find value in what I’m doing.”

He says he was planning to relocate to Northern California to open his gym, but got caught in Savannah because of a relationship with a SCAD student. He was distraught by city’s high crime rate and thought he could make a difference by giving local women the knowledge to stay safe. Though his relationship has come and gone, Finizio decided staying in Georgia would be the “right decision.” He founded his studio on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014.

Nestled at 302 West Victory Drive, between Barnard and Montgomery streets, GJJ Studio sits next to Smoke Cartel Savannah, and down the road from the Black Orchard tattoo shop and a closed bike store. The studio is a single room with a desk and a couch by the front window. In the back half, the floor is covered with gray mats, the walls are painted white and American and Brazilian flags hang on the right side. In between the flags is a small portrait, perhaps a little bigger than a sheet of printer paper. It features Grand Master Helio Gracie, the words “de Jiu Jitsu da guanabara” circling behind his head. Helio Gracie learned jiu-jitsu from watching his brothers, Carlos, Oswaldo and Gastão, Jr., practice the martial art. At the age of 16, Helio began teaching a judo class at the original Gracie Academy in Rio. When Helio’s brother Carlos, the original instructor, was running late for a lesson, Helio stepped in to instruct a student. When Carlos arrived, the student asked Helio to continue the lesson, thus beginning his teaching career. From then, Helio began modifying the martial art and adjusting it to better suit his body build. He and his brother are known as the creators of modern Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Developed by the Gracie Family of Brazil, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is a type of modern jiu-jitsu that Finizio says focuses on “how humans really react in a self-defense situation,” and takes advantage of attackers who don’t know necessarily how to fight properly.” In other words, Finizio finds this form, based on leverage and distance management, to be the most realistic because “it wasn’t based on these small, perfect movements,” and doesn’t rely heavily on situational aspects. Jiu-jitsu can make a small woman feel like she weighs 200lbs, even 300lbs. It makes her feel strong and powerful. That’s where Finizio sees the value in his practice and why trainee Wreede began studying self-defense at his studio.

Wreede, like Espina, found Finizio’s studio through a free self-defense seminar through Facebook and was “immediately intrigued.” These workshops, typically lasting about two hours each, fixate on learning how to break grips. “So if someone grabs your wrist, [you can break free], you can run. That’s opportunity to mediate the situation 100%, which is preferred,” Finizio says.

These workshops give basic knowledge and understanding of how to use your body to your advantage because in Finizio’s words, “if you have some knowledge, it goes a long way.” He wants his students to leave his studio understanding “how you use your guard, how to block punches, how to try to get up off your back. If someone grabs your wrist, how to get out. If someone’s choking you, how to deal with that. If someone’s sitting on top of you, how to flip them over and then get up.” The objective is always to get up and get away, and not engage in combat. Practicing jiu-jitsu “turns you from being a victim into them [the attacker] questioning that they chose the wrong victim,” Finizio adds. In other words, jiu-jitsu turns the tables on attackers.

Still, Espina carries a Damsel in Defense Personal Alarm keychain, which includes an LED flashlight and at the press of a button, sounds a deafening high-pitched alarm. She explains she always has her guard up and the addition of a weapon on her keys gives her more protection.

“Jiu-jitsu’s just going to make your use of a weapon more effective,” Finizio says. He points out that there’s no bulb that lights up or bell that chimes when it’s time to defend yourself. During an attack, the perpetrator usually has the element of surprise, leaving a victim little to no time to pull out a weapon in their defense. Learning jiu-jitsu gives you finer intelligence on how to use your body, according to Finizio. This is something Espina can attest to, as she says she has gained confidence from practicing and living the lifestyle of jiu-jitsu.

Finizio explains that his seminars are all about being proactive. “The biggest problem I see is people are reactive, not proactive. Something happens—bad—and then they want to go learn self-defense,” he says.

Finizio’s advice for protecting yourself:

1.) Distance management—don’t let anyone get closer than you’re comfortable with.

2.) Make sure you have good balance—If you trip and fall and you don’t know how to get back up, it can be trouble, especially if the person is bigger than you.

3.) Keep your head on a swivel. Constantly be looking around you and be aware of your surroundings.

4.) Only keep one earbud in.

5.) Make sure you don’t look like a victim—People who have their headphones in or are looking down at their phone are the perfect targets.

6.) Practice jiu-jitsu.

“Obviously that’s a heavy bias, but it’s the truth,” says Finizio.

Wreede says she learned the basic physics of jiu-jitsu from attending one seminar. She says she left her first workshop with a higher sense of confidence. Finizio says, “You’ve got to help yourself first… You have a brief idea that hopefully in a moment, you could remember something that can help you, which is the goal.”