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Prose and Kohn

Brazilian jiu-jitsu event promotes anti-bullying initiative

Thadeu Vieira's event, held at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, saw more than 300 competitors.

Aayla Bruttell and John Darling face off during the 2023 Sarasota BJJ Open, held Sept. 22 at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex.
Aayla Bruttell and John Darling face off during the 2023 Sarasota BJJ Open, held Sept. 22 at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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Thadeu Vieira felt moved to do something. 

Vieira, who runs Sarasota's Vieira Martial Arts Academy, had heard numerous stories in the last year about kids being bullied in school. Some of those stories came from an old friend named John Hokanson, the co-owner of Fiorelli Winery and Vineyard in Bradenton. 

Hokanson was a student of Vieira's Brazilian jiu-jitsu teachings nearly a decade ago but stopped because a lack of time. Hokanson recently returned to Vieira's school because a high school family member of his, Jayke Maracle, had experienced an act of bullying in a school bathroom. To show Maracle what BJJ can do for someone, not just physically but mentally, Hokanson signed Maracle up for classes, and Hokanson returned to class alongside him. 

Hokanson and Maracle's story was but one of many Vieira heard in recent months. With Hokanson's encouragement, Vieira decided he had to do something positive, something to fight back against bullying. The sport, after all, teaches people to have confidence and stand up for themselves. 

Enter: The Sarasota BJJ Open. 

The event was held Sept. 23 at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex. The Open was a traditional BJJ tournament, but it had a few twists. 

One, it featured a free self-defense workshop for anyone who paid the $5 event admission fee, even spectators. Two, while there were awards handed to individual winners at the event, there were not team awards given to the BJJ school who did the best, as is tradition at such things. Vieira said he wanted the focus to be on the message behind the event, and to bring all the BJJ schools in the area together, celebrating the art of competition instead of pining for a trophy. 

Thadeu Vieira said he put on the Sarasota BJJ Open in part as an anti-bullying initiative and plans to host similar events one per quarter in the future.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

It was a massive success. At 10 a.m. — the time the event's first matches were scheduled to begin — there was a line of people wrapping around the corner of the community center waiting to get inside. 

The event was expected to last until 3 p.m.; it ended up going until 6 p.m. Vieira said approximately 300 competitors took the mat and approximately 500 more spectators watched all the action. Vieira said some of those spectators had no relation to any of the competitors; they just wanted to watch the action and maybe learn a thing or two about self-defense. 99% of the time, Vieira said, that doesn't happen at BJJ events. This one was different. 

"It was the largest event I've ever put on," Vieira said. "You know, between different instructors, there's a lot of competition. Sometimes, when you hold an event here, they don't want to come. I usually have to beg them to come. But this time it was easy. There was a great energy in the room. It was the first time we were united." 

Hokanson and Maracle were in attendance at the event. Maracle competed in matches, but Hokanson did not. Why? Because he's recovering from a broken wrist he suffered at the 2023 World Master Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Las Vegas. Yes, after nearly a decade away from the sport, Hokanson was game enough to go for a medal. His injury, which occurred in a semifinal match, forced him to tie for third in his division of the event. Hokanson had no regrets about giving it a shot; the message was far more important.

"My wife asked me, 'Was it worth it?'" Hokanson said. "The broken arm? No. But the statement you can make to your children? Yes. Get out there and do it with your kids. Understand the pressure they are under and their fears."

Maracle, too, was glad Hokanson convinced him to try BJJ. He said taking up BJJ has helped him gain the confidence, the internal toughness, that Hokanson wanted him to find. The other competitors in the gym are more than willing to give him advice when needed. He's even taken some of Hokanson's natural ability. Maracle took a silver medal in his Boys White Teen III division of the Siesta Key Open tournament in May.

"I love it," Maracle said. "You get to make friends and you get to have fun. You get hands-on learning. It cures your boredom. You learn how to defend yourself and you can compete in tournaments with the skills you learn. I didn't want to do it at first, but after a while I started to like it. I am glad I stuck with it I'm not scared of anything now."

Vieira said this will not be the final anti-bullying event he runs. In fact, he hopes to hold them once a quarter, he said. At those events, he plans on turning some of the proceeds into scholarship money, giving it to other martial arts schools to cover the costs of athletes who are being bullied. Vieira also raffled off six BJJ uniforms to spectators in the hopes of getting people to try the martial art. 

After this first event, Vieira said, he had fellow instructors coming up to him, asking when the next one would be. They want to help spread the message, he said. It's a new mentality in the field, but a welcome one, he said. Bullying may never fully go away, but Vieira and the community are going to do everything they can to combat it, to give today's kids the skills they need to stay strong through whatever they face — as kids, and through the rest of their lives. 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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