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Interview w/ Clint Crabtree of Grand Rapids Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Since 2005, Clint Crabtree has welcomed hundreds of students through the doors of Grand Rapids Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and has invested in the lives of his students. Prior to opening GRBJJ he spent seven years in the Army and achieved the ranking of E4 Corporal.. With all of Clint’s life experiences in the Army and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I wanted to talk to him about of these experiences, and how they have shaped him and his school.

When did you first realize you wanted to train in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
In 1995, a couple of years after the UFC started and watching Royce Gracie. I was interested in Jiu-Jistu and Gracie was in the UFC.

When did you first start training with Carlson Gracie Junior?
Initially, I started training with Royce Gracie. He would come out to the Midwest to do seminars. He came to do seminars on the East Side of Michigan. I met Royce and the people who hosted him. I gave them my contact info and they would let me know when he was coming back. I would see Royce when he was close by. My training consisted of guys local guys, going to Walled Lake and seeing Royce at seminars. That developed into a relationship with Carlson Gracie in Chicago. I was traveling to Chicago twice a month on top of all the other training I was doing,

Did wrestling influence your decision to start training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
It sure did. Wrestling was something I had done my entire my life and I was more interested in the grappling arts than I was violent aspect of fight like the striking aspect.

What were some of your accomplishments in wrestling?
I won four Freestyle State Championships in Michigan, and one National Freestyle State Championship. Later on, I won the All Army European Championship.

When did you get your Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
I received it on January 19th, 2008. I felt overwhelmed. I had spent about ten years training and I had poured my heart into it. It was draining emotionally and physically. I had already competed and won medals in multiple tournaments at Brown Belt.

What was your motivation for starting Grand Rapids Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 2005?
There was no place to train in West Michigan. I was either traveling Walled Lake, Columbus Ohio, and Chicago a few times a week. The foundation of GRBJJ started at Pine Street Elementary in Wayland, MI.

Did the Army help you feel confident about teaching and training others?
For sure because it helped me develop leadership and team building. The army helped me build the foundations of GRBJJ. Some of the principles of GRBJJ are, you have to better yourself in all aspects of every day life, and do what you can to make the team better as well as yourself. The main sayings of GRBJJ are, “Nothing given, only earned” and “Honor, Tradition and Dedication.”

How has GRBJJ grown and evolved since then?
We started in Pine Street, then we moved into the old Ampro Building(now Gun Lake Casino), and I was doing all of this as a blue belt. I then rented a place in Gun Lake and had six students. When I got my tenth student I thought this was going to be huge. I was contact by a business owner in Grand Rapids to move up there and by then I was a purple belt. My highest ranked student at the time was a blue belt. Now, we own our own place and I have seven black belts under me as well as two hundred students. I also have two branches where they can train at which are located in Kalamazoo and on the Northeast side of Grand Rapids.

What have been some of the highlights of running GRBJJ?
Every day watching my students get better and achieve things that they thought were impossible. I’ve seen them become better people. I love watching their excitement when I show them new things no matter how long they have been with me. I am honored and blessed to being doing this. I am honored that my students get emotional accomplishing their goals and receiving their belts from me.

Have you had any amateur or professional MMA fights? What was the experience like?
I fought several times in MMA as an amateur. It was interesting, because it’s different than what people might think. The training is much different and it’s not as easy as everyone thinks. I didn’t get nervous, but it was neat to see Jiu-Jitsu came full circle for me. It was humbling because at forty years old and a Type One Diabetic, I was doing what I saw Royce doing but on an amateur level.

Other than Royce Carlson Gracie Jr., are there any notable names in BJJ or MMA that you’ve trained or interacted with?
Jorge Gurgel is who I actually got my black belt from. My first, second and third degree were with Carlson Gracie Jr. I also went to Brazil with Robson Moura who is an eight time world champion. To this day he’s one of the best friends I have. Jeremy Horn also refereed one of my amateur MMA fights.

Who are some of your favorite MMA fighters?
Anderson Silva hands down and the younger BJ Penn. The whole package of being a great athlete, highly skilled at their art, and their confidence is something that drew me to them. Silva showed it was an art and gave it the respect that it needed. I love that warrior spirit in the regards of showcasing your athletic skills and showing the respect on top of it. I respect the ones who keep it professional and show respect to their opponents after the fight is over.

You are a pretty passionate sports fan. Who are some of your favorite athletes?
Barry Sanders, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Herschel Walker, and Derek Jeter. They have that same mentality that MMA fighters have. They have a warrior spirit about them that they work hard and hold on to what they want. On the women’s side, Sandra Gal is someone I’ve been following on the LPGA. She’s very personable and focused. You can see the look in her eyes of that same warrior spirit that I keep talking about.

Now onto a more serious topic. In today’s society, bullying seems to be more of an issue than it ever has been. Would you recommend Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to someone who is being bullied?
One hundred percent because it develops self confidence, self awareness, teaches kids to work together, and it’s the ultimate problem solver in terms of fighting out of a bad situation. It’s about believing in yourself during a bad situation. When times are tough this is a good resource to solve the problem. It’s a good way to set boundaries, but it’s not an easy thing to solve. The quality of Jiu-Jitsu gives you the ability to solve problems easier. It gives you the confidence to speak up, raise awareness and stick up for others who are being bullied.

What would be your advice if someone came to you and said they were being bullied?
The first thing I would tell them is, try to avoid the situation if you can. I would find out what was going on and advise them to speak up to someone and not be embarrassed about it. I would also advise them to make friends. Bullies don’t want to pick on someone who is surrounded by friends. Also keep your friends included in what’s going on in your life. If none of this is working, then we need to stand up for ourselves and make a stand. The best way to make a stand and have the confidence to do the art of Jiu-Jitsu.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Karate Kid. In Karate Kid, Miyagi often says Karate is for defense only. Do you feel the same way about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
One hundred percent. It doesn’t matter the martial art. It’s one of the basic fundamental foundations of all Martial Arts.

Speaking of movies, are there any Martial Art movies you enjoy?
I like the old ones featuring Bruce Lee.

When people hear or see the name Grand Rapids Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, what do you want their impression to be?

A tradition like no other. We were the first ones here in Grand Rapids. I think people who know about Jiu-Jitsu know about the reputation of GRBJJ and the hard work we put in. You are going to make friends, achieve things you once thought impossible, and you’re going to become better person in every aspect of your life.

When people walk through the doors of GRBJJ what should they expect?
What I want them to expect and what they believe they’re walking into are two different things. I want them to expect a smiling friendly face who has more experience in a Jiu-Jitsu gym then anyone in West Michigan. I want people to know that there are people here to help and know we’ve all been there on day one of being a student. I think some people believe they are walking into a UFC gym which is not the case.

What are some of your future goals for GRBJJ?
We are currently adding more classes to the schedule. My next goals or to have an early and midday class every day of the week(Monday through Friday). I would like one night class every weekday. I also would love to get more women and children involved. I just want to do what I can to spread the beautiful art of Jiu-Jitsu.

Any final thoughts?

I have a lot of people who contact me about inquiring on how to get started. The percentage of people who inquire and actually start is low. Come on in and give it a try. I’ve been doing Jiu-Jitsu for twenty four years and I remember my very first day. I remember being nervous and not knowing what to expect. I remember thinking that everyone was going to beat me up. It’s because that I remember that, I am here to help. I think my students reflect that same attitude. They are here to help and we get it. Another day of putting my GI is my first day of being a black, because I learn new things. We all learn new things. We are here to work hard, make friends, develop skills and help make the world a better place.

Grand Rapids Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu offers classes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Muay-Thai, and MMA training. They also offer Kids BJJ, as well as Fitness Classes and Self Defense Classes upon request. For more info go to or check out their Facebook at

Professor Crabtree having his hand raised by Jeremy Horn after a victory at Rumble in the Zoo in 2010

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