Throw Down. Get up. Repeat.
Judo and jiu jitsu club camaraderie reflects the City College experience
Story and Photographs by Abraham Davis
A thud breaks the din of sneakers squeaking across the polished gymnasium floor at City College of San Francisco’s Wellness Center. It’s the sound of bodies smacking padded mats in the dojo on the second floor where the judo and jiu jitsu club meets.
Thud after thud, students, each dressed in a traditional martial arts gi, pronounced “ghee”, throw one another to the ground. In pairs, they practice chokeholds and how to break their opponents’ arms.
This choke-and-get-choked, throw-and-be-thrown, is the give-and-take that creates strong friendships, connections and respect between club members.
“It’s the philosophy of maximum efficiency and mutual benefit. You learn to take care of the other and learn to work and respect each other,” says Sharlyne Palacio, a City College student and black belt. She is also the sister of Mitchell Palacio, the founder and head instructor of the club.
Although technically a series of City College physical education classes focused on judo and jiu jitsu, Mitchell Palacio chose to call the classes a “club” to make it feel more inclusive. “I wanted to share that camaraderie that I had growing up,” he says.
Palacio has a decorated background in martial arts. Not only is he the instructor, he was the president of California’s State Governing Body for Judo and a world-class athlete who competed at all levels of national judo competition from high school to the Olympic trials.
Never one to boast, Palacio is quiet about his accomplishments. Even his son Cole Palacio, who also practices judo, doesn’t know how accomplished his father is. “He just thinks I teach judo at City College,” Palacio says with a chuckle.
Palacio started at City College in 1978 as a tennis and soccer coach and taught one “pseudo-self-defense class” which developed into his current judo and jiu jitsu classes. He competed in his final Olympic trials in 1984 and opened the “club” two years later.
Judo and jiu jitsu both originated in Japan. Jiu jitsu was originally created by Samurai, the military warriors of feudal Japan, as self-defense that didn’t require the use of weapons. During the mid 1800s jiu jitsu evolved into judo. Judo spread quickly all over the world, eclipsing jiu jitsu in popularity. Then, in the 1920s in Brazil, the Gracie family started to develop their own style which spread and evolved into “Brazilian jiu jitsu.” Today more people practice judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu globally than the older Japanese jiu jitsu.
Palacio attributes a significant increase in his club’s membership to the influence of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC, events in recent years. The first UFC event, held in the mid 1990s had only 86,000 pay-per-view purchases compared to the upcoming 229th event boasting a record-breaking 2.4 million pay-per-view purchases, according to mixed martial arts website Tapology.
These days, more women sign up for the club. “Our female fighters are better than our males, in both judo and jiu jitsu,” Palacio says.
This may be due to their approach. He thinks women train to try and prove something to themselves, while men want to prove something to others. “It’s more intrinsic,” he says of the women’s ambitions.
In judo and jiu jitsu, men and women practice with each other, although they fight in separate categories during competitions.
“It’s very empowering to practice against men,” says City College student Madison Auble, a jiu jitsu white belt, after a sweaty Tuesday night practice.
A white belt is the lowest tier belt, followed by blue, then purple, then brown and finally, the highest tier, the esteemed black belt. Technically the red belt is the highest tier, but that is reserved for grandmasterswho who have dedicated a minimum of 50 years to mastering the art.
Auble tried jiu jitsu for the first time last fall, after browsing the list of available physical education classes. “Not only did it sound bad-ass, it also sounded physically and mentally stimulating,” she says.
Auble competed in the California State Championship Judo Tournament in fall 2019 and came back this spring for more. She now considers jiu jitsu a big
part of her life.
“It’s so fun, every single practice you learn something new and advance a little more,” she says.
Graphic design major Jhoney Chong began her martial arts journey with the club when she moved to the U.S. from Panama two years ago.
She has since earned her brown belt in judo and is working towards her blue belt in jiu jitsu. Now she mostly trains at Magalit Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Gym in San Francisco, but she still attends the City College club on Tuesday and Thursday nights to help out Palacio.
Most of Chong’s friends in her new home of San Francisco are people she has connected with through judo and jiu jitsu. Chong believes the process of learning, training, competing and helping each other creates a strong community.
“Sometimes I know something more than someone else, sometimes someone else knows more than me, so we come together and get better with each other,” she says.
Chong loves how many women participate and thinks it takes courage for them to grapple in a male-dominated sport.
Age isn’t a factor either. Sharlyne Palacio, 69, and Minobu Shibuya, 55, are lifelong learners who take the judo class offered at City College. They met in the judo class and have been good friends ever since.
“It’s the philosophy of maximum efficiency and mutual benefit. You learn to take care of the other and learn to work and respect each other.” — Sharlyne Palacio
Palacio’s class forms a circle to watch him demonstrate another move called a kimura. Palacio holds his student’s wrist while looping his own arm through the student’s to grab his own wrist. Then Palacio pulls his elbows close to his belly, putting pressure on the student’s shoulder. To the untrained eye it looks like a big pretzel. After he shows them a few times, a mix of all ages, sizes, genders and backgrounds randomly pair off and get to it.
They teach, encourage, and laugh together, making their dojo so much more than a room full of random people practicing self-defense. It represents everything that makes City College succeed: A diverse community built by people committed to helping each other. Together they foster skills that will serve them beyond the dojo as they move forward in life.