Cranberry Kai: Young martial artists learn self-defense

Dec 29, 2022

Nathan Iannuccilli is no stranger to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but on his first day of class at SBG Martial Arts on Kendrick Road, the 10-year-old felt “awkward” as he slipped off his Crocs and stepped onto the mat. 

“Remember how you were on your first day of class,” instructor Chris Rappold told Iannuccilli’s new classmates. “Make sure he has a good experience.”

SBG, which stands for Straight Blast Gym, is a martial arts academy with schools all over the world, but it is not a franchise. 

“It’s more of a collaboration of coaches from all different backgrounds,” said Stephen Whittier, of Mattapoisett, who founded Wareham SBG in 2007. 

Whittier has a fourth-degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he has taught to thousands of kids. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a grappling martial art which uses “the levers of the human body” to grapple with and overcome bigger and stronger opponents. Kids learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu are taught how to control opponents, but not hurt them. 

“They’re not victims,” Whittier said. “Kids that used to be afraid are no longer afraid, so they don’t get bullied. They’re not easy targets anymore.” 

He also uses Brazilian jiu-jitsu to teach confidence and self-control. While parents sometimes worry that it will make their kids violent, Whittier has found that kids with martial arts experience don’t start fights — they finish them.

“It’s excellent,” he said. “We’ve literally had instances where parents would come back and say ‘My child would have been severely hurt.’ They were able to protect themselves.”

Iannuccilli studied jiu-jitsu back when he was living in Stoughton. 

“I was 7 years old,” he said, “that age when you get into those kinds of sports.”

When he and his family moved to Wareham in 2020, he started playing football. Now that football season is over, he decided to go back to jiu-jitsu. He likes how the martial art gives him the chance to show off his strength and make new friends. Rolling around with people, he said, is a good way to get to know them. 

“I’m really excited to get back in the dojo,” he said.

After stepping on the mat, Iannuccilli was paired with 12-year-old Karcen Aguiar, of Middleboro. Aguiar came to SBG in 2020, looking to defend himself against bullies. He said that he was nervous on his first day, but “dedication, hard work and lots of bumps and bruises” allowed him to rise through the ranks. 

“It’s changed my perspective of life,” said Aguiar, who wants to be an MMA fighter when he grows up. “I’ve learned how to defend myself.” 

Aguiar used his skills during what he described as an “altercation” with another boy at an end-of-school party last year. 

“I didn’t even have to punch him,” he recalled. “I just took him down. He was continuously kicking me, and kicking me, and kicking me, and he tried to come at me.”

Along with self-defense, Aguiar has learned respect, honesty and the joy of sharing his passion with his friends.

“You get pretty ripped from it too,” he added.

The time commitment has forced him to give up some of his past hobbies.

“I don’t play video games,” he said, “I don’t have much time to do it. It’s sad, I know.” 

Iannuccilli and Aguiar quickly got to work. Practicing a technique known as the crash helmet, Aguiar acted like he was going to grab Iannuccilli. Iannuccilli responded by shielding his head with his arms and wrapping himself tightly around Aguiar’s waist.

“You can tell he’s a strong guy, right?” Rappold said to Iannuccilli as he grappled with Carson.

“I want to do it,” Aguiar said, “but I don’t want to hurt him.”

“I was actually tearing up in the corner over there,” said Aguiar’s mother, Jessica Bergen, “because he went from a very shy, quiet child that got bullied, into a confident, open individual. He’s loving and caring, but from his skills here, he doesn’t take anybody’s garbage.”

Using Aguiar as a model, Rappold showed the class how to suplex someone.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” Said 9-year-old Teagan Barros, raising her hand. “What if you can’t pick your partner up?”

Rappold explained that a smaller fighter can use the distribution of weight in the human body to knock their opponent off-balance.

“It’s not like I’m lifting them up and carrying them somewhere,” he said. “I’m just replacing where they stand.”

Aguiar and Iannuccilli slowly suplexed each other, resembling a graceful dance. Smiling, they complimented each other’s strength.

Coach Matt Borges took Rappold’s place for the rest of the lesson. Borges is the kind of instructor who calls his students “kiddos” and loves to repeat Mr. Miyagi’s catchphrase, “Wax on, wax off.” However, discipline is key to him.

“I still want you taking the technique seriously,” he told his students. “We can have fun, but we still train hard while we’re doing it.” 

Borges stepped up to Aguiar, pointed to his black gi and said “Oh, you got something down there.”

When Aguiar looked down, Borges threw a punch in slow-motion, which Aguiar quickly countered.

“You’re going full street on me, Karcen!” Borges said. “Good job!” 

Using his own special technique, Aguiar managed to lift Borges completely off the ground. The class applauded, and Aguiar took a bow.

“If I can’t take him down, what’s our second option?” Borges asked the class. 

Aguiar raised his hand.

“Someone besides Karcen.”

In a dangerous situation, Borges said, running away is always an option. A bully isn’t going to take “I didn’t learn this in class” as an excuse not to beat up on you.

“There’s always different options,” he said. “That’s why jiu-jitsu is so cool, there’s different pieces to the puzzle.” 

When he saw Iannuccilli practicing with Aguiar, Borges was skeptical.

“Have you done this before?” He asked Iannuccilli. “Nathan, you’re going to hurt your knees taking on this guy.” 

Then Iannuccilli started to grapple with Borges.

“I give up, I give up!” Borges cried. “Take my lunch money!”

Borges then began teaching arm bars, one of Aguiar’s favorite moves. 

“Come in my friend,” Aguiar said as he pinned down another student. “It’s time to go in the death chamber.”

“You’re very morbid,” Borges said. “How about the danger zone? That’s better than the death chamber.”

“Or how about the fart chamber?” Aguiar replied.

At the end of the lesson, Borges gave the students their “homework:” To watch “The Karate Kid” and think of “one way to give back” during the holiday season, whether it was donating to the less fortunate or simply doing chores.

“You guys do chores?” One boy asked.

“I’m going to talk to your mom and dad,” Borges said. “Things need to change at your house, boy!”

After the lesson, Iannuccilli said that he and Aguiar will become good friends.

“I could tell he was nervous,” Aguiar said about Iannuccilli, “but also that he was paying attention. He could rise up and turn into somebody like me.”