“I paid 50 bucks for a self-defense seminar,” Chris Lovato said, “and all I remember were the takedowns and the instructor doing this weird breathing thing.”
At the end of the seminar, the instructor lined the students up and each was given a chance to knock him down.
“I’ve got this,” Chris thought because of his wrestling background. “I jumped to the front of the line and the next thing I knew I was looking up at the ceiling.”
Everyone was given one shot, but Chris snuck back in line to try again.
“He got lucky,” Chris thought. “I didn’t know what the hell happened the second time, but I ended up on my back staring up at the ceiling again. I had no idea who he was, but he fucked me up.”
That was Chris’s introduction to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and the instructor—Rickson Gracie—was one of the best fighters of all time.
Since then, Chris has gone on to earn black belts in Judo and Jiu-Jitsu and also owns three Paragon Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) academies. He also serves as the only civilian self-defense instructor at the local police academy and he is a California P.O.S.T. Master Instructor who teaches other police trainers throughout the state of California.
When he started at that first BJJ seminar, Chris had already been wrestling since his junior year of high school in Santa Cruz, California.
“I wasn’t terribly good at wrestling, but I really liked it,” Chris said. “I got pummeled in my first match and lost by a bunch of points, but I got to cross-face this dude like crazy, and afterwards, the guy was bleeding all over his face. It was the best thing I had ever done because they let me fight, and they actually encouraged it.”
Chris got into a lot of fights when he was younger, especially before he had wrestling as an outlet.
“I was bullied a lot,” Chris said. “I was scared back then because after school they would gang up on me, shove me against the wall, and beat me.”
When Chris got to the eighth grade, he started fighting back.
“I’d finally had enough,” Chris said. “I decided that if I was going to get hit, I might as well hit back. One day the leader had my arms pinned against the wall and I didn’t know what to do, so I head-butted him in the nose.”
When Chris started standing up to his tormentors, people started leaving him alone. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the more he fought back, the more empowered he became.
“I realized I could take care of myself,” Chris said. “I started getting more aggressive and I just kept pushing the boundaries.”
As he became more assertive, it carried over into sports, which led to altercations on the basketball court too.
“To be honest, I was an angry kid,” Chris said. “I started looking for fights all the time, but the more confident and aggressive I became, the more people started leaving me alone.”
Chris’s childhood provided many reasons to fuel his anger. His mother was only 15 years old when he was born. His sister was born two years later, and his father died three months later when he crashed his motorcycle over a cliff.
“My first childhood memory is flying to Las Vegas to live with my mom and her parents,” Chris said. “We bounced around between her parents and a bunch of other places. I didn’t even know who these people were. I just remember living in this ghetto apartment with parties and strangers around the house.”
Those early years were chaos as his mother struggled to raise two children while she was still a child herself.
“They were always partying while my sister and I were running around the apartment,” Chris said. “One day some dude unscrewed the leg of a chair and beat the shit out of another guy in the apartment.”
Eventually things got so bad that Chris and his sister were put up for adoption until his grandfather picked them up and raised them in the Santa Cruz mountains.
“My grandfather was an old-school guy,” Chris said. “If I was home I had to work. He had five acres with a cow, pigs, chickens and rabbits, so every morning I had to take care of all the animals. I hated the winter break because we had two weeks off from school and I spent the whole break pruning apple trees.”
Chris’s grandfather was a heavy equipment operator who grew up during the Great Depression. During construction projects, his grandfather brought scrap construction materials home for Chris to salvage the materials.
“I had to pull the nails out and use a hammer on an anvil to straighten and sort them by size,” Chris said. “My grandfather wasn’t poor, he just wouldn’t throw anything away in case someone needed it someday.”
Chris worked weekends and evenings during the winter, but during the summers, Chris had to put in a half-day’s work before he was free for the afternoon.
“One year I dug a 150-foot-long trench by myself,” Chris said. “I was out there alone every day digging in this 8‑foot-deep trench with no one around, violating every safety rule. I hated it at the time, but I appreciated it when I got older.”
Chris was hired for his first construction job in high school for $5 an hour. A week later the boss gave him a $1 per hour raise because he said Chris worked too hard.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but my grandfather taught me how to work,” Chris said. “When I joined the workforce, I noticed that most people just don’t know how to work.”
Chris is grateful for the lessons, but it was not easy living with his grandfather.
“When I was young I was always trying to please my grandfather,” Chris said. “He was an alcoholic who would become irrational and he wasn’t the huggy type. I never heard, ‘I love you,’ nothing like that at all.”
When Chris made typical childhood mistakes, his grandfather’s discipline would certainly be considered child abuse by today’s standards, but it was not all that uncommon for that generation.
“I got in trouble if I didn’t anticipate what needed to be done next,” Chris said. “I remember running in circles and he was whipping the shit out of me with a stick from my knees up to my back.”
Chris did not have a father, and his mother was incapable of raising kids. He had already bounced around from home to home, so he felt like he had to walk on eggshells around his grandfather.
“I was always trying to please my grandfather because I felt like I needed his reassurance,” Chris said. “I never knew what was going to happen, because he’d say some stupid shit sometimes.”
One night, his grandfather came home late and Chris went to the car to help his grandfather walk in the house.
“He was hammered,” Chris said. “I told him to come inside as I held the door open.”
“Who the fuck are you to invite me in my own home,” his grandfather snapped at him. “You don’t have to live with us. We can send you somewhere else.”
Chris knew his grandfather cared about him, but Chris lived in a state of anxiety worrying that he and his sister could be thrown out at any moment with nowhere to go.
Chris was friends with a few older boys whom he grew up with and admired.
“I started stepping out of my shell,” Chris said. “I was drinking and partying a little with these guys on the weekends, and at first, it wasn’t a big deal.”
Anytime Chris wanted alcohol, his grandfather always had two refrigerators full of cans of Black Label beer.
“Every time I hung out with these guys, we started drinking,” Chris said. “I got less reserved and started doing a lot of dumb things.”
Chris had watched his grandfather’s example for years. Every time they drove home from Santa Cruz, his grandfather stopped at the same liquor store to buy a 12-pack for the long drive home.
“Drinking and driving didn’t seem like a big deal to me,” Chris said. “I was a stupid kid, I just didn’t perceive it as a threat.”
During the summer when Chris was 16 years old, he went fishing at a pond with his friend, whose father worked with Chris’s grandfather. They had been close friends ever since the first grade.
“We did a lot of stupid shit together all the time,” Chris said. “We were both drunk that day and when I drove home, I hit a telephone pole at 70 miles per hour. I don’t even know what happened, but it hit on the passenger side and tore the gray Toyota Corolla in half.”
They were in the middle of nowhere, alone on a rural, two-lane road and Chris was unconscious.
“I woke up and no one was around,” Chris said. “I took one look at my friend and he was lying next to me dead. I started freaking out.”
A motorist called paramedics and they tried to calm Chris down, but he was hysterical.
“That was my best friend,” Chris said in shock. “He’s fucking dead.”
They strapped Chris into an ambulance and took him to the hospital.
“I don’t know how I lived,” Chris said. “I was bruised up, broke a tooth, and had a bunch of glass in my face, but other than that, I was fine.”
Chris’s grandparents came to the hospital. They were supportive, but they were in shock that Chris’s childhood friend was dead.
“From now on, whatever you do in your life, you have to do it for two people,” his grandfather told him.
Once Chris was cleared from the hospital, he was booked into juvenile hall and spent the rest of the summer locked up until he was released to go to school and participate in sports.
“I don’t think they would ever do that today,” Chris said. “They were much more lenient back then, and by all appearances, I was a good kid. I got good grades. I was playing basketball and kind of doing all the things you’re supposed to do, but every Friday night after my game, my grandfather drove me back to juvie. That was a huge motivation for me to start wrestling, because if I wasn’t in sports, I was back in jail or working on the ranch.”
When Chris was released from the hall, his sister introduced him to the high school wrestling coach.
“I fell in love with wrestling,” Chris said. “I started devoting all my time to it. It wasn’t verbalized, but I kind of figured out that if I kept myself out of the house, I wouldn’t have to work.”
Chris competed in the high school and freestyle wrestling season and played football too. On weekdays, he traveled to different schools to attend practices and then he competed in tournaments on the weekends.
On a typical day, Chris was on the bus by 7:00 in the morning for the one-hour trip to school. After school, he’d take a 30-minute bus ride to a different school for wrestling practice. At 8:30 in the evening he wrapped up the day after a 1½-hour bus ride home.
Every wrestling tournament and football game added time to Chris’s sentence, but he eventually completed his time and never returned to the criminal justice system.
“There was a lot of shit going on in jail,” Chris said. “Just seeing all that kind of straightened me up. I didn’t want to deal with it, so I didn’t drink for a long time.”
When Chris completed his sentence, his grandfather took him to meet with his friend’s parents.
“I had to face his whole family,” Chris said. “That was one of the hardest things to deal with.”
Chris was forced to attend counseling, but like most adolescents, he did not want to participate.
“I was very angry,” Chris said. “I blamed myself for killing my best friend. I was only sixteen and I wasn’t ready to grow up. I was pissed off at the whole situation.”
Chris began to shut down.
“I mostly kept to myself,” Chris said. “I wouldn’t even say hi to people when they tried to talk to me at school.”
Everyone who grew up in the rural area owned hunting rifles and that caused some concern for the people close to Chris.
“They took all my guns away,” Chris said. “I don’t think I made comments, but they worried about suicide and it was probably warranted.”
Chris used wrestling as a place to channel his anger.
“I’m not even sure how I got through it all,” Chris said. “When I was wrestling, I would go as hard as I could. It just felt good to go super hard—almost out of control at times. I was always on the edge of being way too physical … I don’t know if it was anger … maybe it was just being super competitive. I don’t know.”
Chris was not satisfied with winning wrestling matches.
“Even when I won, I was still unhappy,” Chris said. “I didn’t like to win by a little. When I was competing, I wanted total dominance. I wanted it to be perfect.”
When Chris was fighting at his best, he lost awareness of what was occurring in the match.
“I don’t even know what happens,” Chris said. “I have to go back and deconstruct the fight to figure out what happened, but when it’s going right, I can hardly recall a single thing.”
Chris’s coach saw something in him, so after high school, his coach helped him get in to Brigham Young University in Utah. At the time, it was one of the top 25 wrestling programs in the nation and a huge jump from the level of wrestlers he had been training with.
“I walked on the wrestling team and it was an awesome experience,” Chris said. “I got pretty good, pretty fast, but I didn’t realize it because I was surrounded by all these monsters.”
Twice a year the 12 guys in his weight class cut weight and wrestled each other to determine the top wrestler on the team.
“I got up to fourth or fifth,” Chris said. “I showed up and would get my ass kicked, but I felt pretty good about myself.”
Chris did not have a scholarship like the other kids on the team. He was paying his own way through college, so he had to change his plans when the bill came in for his second year.
“I can’t fucking do this,” Chris said after seeing the exorbitant private school tuition bill. “When the school year ended, I moved back to California and went back to work.”
Chris returned to his high school construction job. He was doing concrete, framing, and digging ditches, but it wasn’t long before he was back to wrestling.
“A week before wrestling season started, I got a call,” Chris said. “They asked if I wanted to be the high school wrestling coach. I said, ‘Not really.’”
They did not have anyone else to fill the position, so Chris felt obligated to take it.
“Head coach at 20 years old?” Chris said. “I didn’t want that kind responsibility. It caused me a lot of anxiety because I was in charge of all these kids and I was not used to it. I didn’t have the tools at the time to deal with a lot of stuff that came up with teenagers.”
Chris stumbled through the first year and ended up coaching for five years until he moved away to finish college. While he was coaching, he took community college classes, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his career. When he read the description of an engineering class, he went in and met with the instructor.
“He had me in 10 minutes,” Chris said. “He talked about weights, forces, and stuff. It was like solving a puzzle and I decided to be an engineer on the spot.”
Chris was accepted into Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s engineering program, so he packed up his pregnant girlfriend and they moved. During breaks from school, Chris returned to Santa Cruz to pick up construction jobs to pay his way through school. During one of these visits, Chris discovered that Claudio Franca had opened a Jiu-Jitsu school in Santa Cruz. Chris had already attended the Rickson Gracie seminar and wanted to learn more.
“I wasn’t really hooked yet,” Chris said. “It was just another part of my grappling career. I had done American style and freestyle wrestling. I also did some Greco-Roman and a little bit of Judo along the way. To me it was just another grappling thing.”
Claudio’s school was new, so it was full of white belts.
“He would teach us a couple of moves and then we’d beat the shit out of each other,” Chris said. “It was brutal. I got stitches and came home bloody all the time.”
Because Chris only went to Claudio’s academy during school breaks, he also joined a Judo club in San Luis Obispo and he earned his Judo black belt relatively fast.
“When I was a brown belt, I started beating some black belts in Judo competition,” Chris said. “Judo is just another grappling sport, but with different rules. I got away with doing stuff from wrestling that you can’t do now, like doubles and singles.”
When Chris finished his engineering degree, he took a job in Santa Barbara where he met Richardo “Franjinha” Miller, the founder of Paragon Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“Franjinha ran it like a wrestling class,” Chris said. “It was an intense class and he would actually roll with us.”
Chris was a blue belt in Jiu-Jitsu and had never rolled with a black belt before that first class at Paragon.
“I was a little apprehensive,” Chris said. “I didn’t know what the boundaries were.”
Franjinha stopped in the middle of their sparring session and snapped at Chris.
“Don’t look at the fucking belt,” Franjinha said with his heavy Brazilian accent when Chris was holding back. “You just roll.”
Chris was hooked on Jiu-Jitsu and for several years he drove between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara to train and compete as he worked his way through the belts. He won the Pan Am and World tournaments as a purple and brown belt.
By the time Chris received his brown belt, commuting long distances to academies was taking its toll. The group of people carpooling grew so much that they needed two cars to make the long drive.
“We had ten people carpooling and I realized that if we had our own place, it would save an hour and a half drive three times a week,” Chris said. “But I wanted to be a student. I didn’t want the responsibility of running a gym.”
Chris was reluctant to become a teacher, just like he was reluctant to become a wrestling coach, but Franjinha was supportive and helped Chris open a Paragon Jiu-Jitsu academy in San Luis Obispo.
“It grew really slowly,” Chris said. “I was still working full time, which is how I paid the $1500 monthly rent for a year and a half before the gym started to break even.”
Chris worked full time as an engineer and taught Jiu-Jitsu for free at night. It was working until he was promoted into management at the engineering firm.
“I was doing too much and getting burnt out,” Chris said. “I was working 100 hours per week trying to juggle the business and work. Every time the phone rang, it was some emergency and I’d have to drop everything.”
The economy took a downturn and his company began downsizing. There was a chance he could be laid off or relocated. Chris looked at the economics of his Jiu-Jitsu academy and realized that one gym would not financially sustain him if he left his job.
“I needed two gyms, two populations, to make it possible to live on,” Chris said. “I talked to my wife about opening another gym, but she was against it. We had three kids and she needed the security of a steady paycheck. We started seeing things differently and it became one of the causes of our divorce.”
Chris opened a second academy in a neighboring town and decided to leave his job.
“I agonized over it for about a week,” Chris said. “It was scary. I had worked my way up to middle management and would be stepping away from a lot of money and a guaranteed paycheck. But I did the math and I figured I could live off almost nothing and just squeak by.”
Once Chris made the decision, he felt a huge relief.
“I had all this stuff I was trying to juggle; engineering, family, business, and I was going through a divorce,” Chris said. “When I focused on the Jiu-Jitsu business, it was just like being in class. I could just get wrapped up in it and all the other stuff would just go away. People love Jiu-Jitsu because it’s an escape. When you go to class, you’re forced to be in the moment. You can’t be thinking about all this other shit that’s happening in the other parts of your life.”
When Chris focused on his business, he began to really enjoy being a teacher.
“In the early days, I was apprehensive about teaching,” Chris said. “I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s Jiu-Jitsu, but then I began to see how it impacts so many people in a positive way.”
After training for a year, one of Chris’s students approached him after class.
“I want to thank you, coach. You saved my life,” the student told Chris. “Without Jiu-Jitsu, I was angry and getting into fights. I was going through a divorce and sitting at home drinking all day. I’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for Jiu-Jitsu.”
His student’s transformation was similar to what wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu had provided for Chris.
“I haven’t gotten into a fight since I’ve started Jiu-Jitsu,” Chris said. “I learned that it’s really not worth it. I just see a lot of people upset and things get blown out of proportion, but there’s nothing going on right now that can’t wait until tomorrow when I’m not emotional about it.”
All these years of training have changed his perspective.
“In my wrestling days, I used to look at my opponent like they were the fucking enemy,” Chris said. “Today, I’m not angry anymore. These guys are cool, and I don’t hold anything against them. When I’m rolling, it’s not me against them. It’s just me against the position.”
Changing his perspective has allowed Chris to enjoy training in a different way.
“Even early on in my Jiu-Jitsu career, when I was training, I thought either I’m going to beat you up or you’re going to beat me up. I’ve grown away from that. I can’t go hard every day of the week. It just doesn’t work for my body, or my mind. It doesn’t do anybody any good. It doesn’t grow the sport or the martial arts, but I still see people doing it today.”
Today, Chris enjoys growing as an instructor as he constantly seeks better ways to help his students learn. His first formal instruction on teaching came when he took a three-week instructor course to teach at the police academy.
“I was taught how to teach,” Chris said. “I started appreciating the art of teaching, so now I’m always trying to make myself a better instructor. I’m always trying to tweak it for different people because the four-year-old needs it said differently than a 30-year-old engineer. I appreciate smaller circles—all the little intricacies are so exciting because I’m seeing that there’s so much more to learn.”
By all appearances, Chris was a doing well as an engineer, making a great living, and climbing the ladder in his career.
“By many people’s definition, I was successful, but I used to dread Sundays because I’d have to go to work on Monday,” Chris said. “I’m very thankful that I found Jiu-Jitsu, because today, Sunday is great. Monday I still work hard, make enough money to get by, but now I get to impact so many people’s lives and have fun doing it.”
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