Tom Cronin immediately flew home when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
When he arrived in Louisiana, Tom discovered the cancer had aggressively attacked her body and she was on her death bead.
Tom remembered it was the night before his 33rd birthday when he sat with his mother in her hospital bed.
“You won this?” she said while holding the gold medal he won at the Jiu‐Jitsu World Championship.
“You fight these guys?” she asked contemplating how he earned the medal. He was never athletic as a child and started Jiu‐Jitsu only six months earlier. “How much did they pay you?”
“Nothing,” Tom said. “I paid to do it.”
His mother looked confused wondering why he would pay money to fight with other men. She paused as she thought about it for a minute and said, “I’m really proud of you.”
“That was good enough for me,” Tom mentioned as he recalled the story.
“Tomorrow is your birthday,” she said. “What do you want?”
“I just want more time with you,” Tom answered because the doctors said she was hanging on by a string.
Tom held his mother and they fell asleep.
The next morning she woke up and said, “Happy birthday.”
Tears welled up in Tom’s eyes as he told me, “She made it to my birthday,”
A few minutes later Tom’s mother whispered, “See you later.”
Tom held his mother and they cried as she passed away in his arms.
In 2007, Tom Cronin was in the unique position of beginning to study Jiu‐Jitsu while simultaneously helping Carlson Gracie Jr. open an academy in Temecula, California.
Fast forward to today and he has earned the coveted black belt and owns and runs the school full‐time. He has accumulated six Jiu‐Jitsu World championship titles and multiple other gold medals.
In 2007, Jiu‐Jitsu become a significant part of his life.
“Looking back… when you see those t‐shirts that say ‘Jiu‐Jitsu saved my life,’ it’s true,” Tom said.
Tom thought things were going well when he was running a successful contracting business and raising a family.
“It hit the fan when I found out I was in a marriage where my wife was being unfaithful,” Tom said. “First I found out I was getting cheated on — then I was arrested.”
During an argument, Tom’s wife called the police and before he realized what was happening, he was being handcuffed in his own home.
“I was so naïve,” Tom said. “I figured the justice system worked and innocent people didn’t go to jail, but that’s not the case. Everybody in the system is so jaded. They don’t care about you or who did what.”
Tom spent four nights in jail and endured a lengthy legal battle until the judge realized the extent of the truth.
Tom discovered he had a child from a past relationship that he never knew about.
“I didn’t even know I had a daughter until she was six,” Tom said.
Years later, Tom reunited with his daughter’s mother and they got married.
“It was like a Jerry Springer show,” Tom said. “But rather than be spiteful, I tried to do the best I could.”
After missing years of his daughter’s life, he was just beginning to get to know her when he was arrested.
“To make matters worse,” Tom said, “the guy that my ex was stepping out on me with was living in the house I bought one month earlier.”
When the dust settled, Tom became the first man in the Commonwealth of Virginia to win full custody of a daughter.
“They just don’t give fathers their daughters,” Tom said. “That should tell you that it was an extreme case.”
Tom had never been in trouble with the law so he never appreciated the simple freedoms until they were stripped away.
“Everything I valued was taken,” Tom said. “I had no sense of control in my life.”
As traumatic as the experience was, it led him on a positive path that changed his life.
“I wanted to learn how to fight,” Tom said. “I never wanted to feel so helpless again. It was something internal for me when I had my freedom taken away.”
“Another human being is not ever going to dictate what my life is to me,” Tom said. “Not to literally fight, but to be in control of what was happening inside my own brain.”
Tom explained that Jiu‐Jitsu has given him a degree of control that allows him to live a better life. It becomes your choice whether you fight or not. It is the option of free will.
After the divorce, Tom and his daughter moved to California for a fresh start.
Tom was always curious about Jiu‐Jitsu and thought it might be good for his daughter too. His ex‐wife was always against the idea, but once in California, he started looking at schools.
They visited several, but none were very welcoming. The places always smelled and guys were eyeballing them when they walked through the door.
“I was ready to give up on Jiu‐Jitsu,” Tom said. “But when I met Carlson it was like a breath of fresh air. “The first thing he did was come out and give us hugs.”
Carlson Gracie Junior has an easy going personality that made an impact on Tom and his daughter. His daughter was very shy at the time, but even she wanted to try a class.
“One day we were leaving Jiu‐Jitsu and she was covered in sweat and had this big smile on her face,” Tom said. “I looked over and she held up her hands and said, “I love Jiu‐Jitsu.”
Tom smiled and said, “I love Jiu‐Jitsu too.”
She still trains today and has earned a purple belt.
Tom never intended to open a Jiu‐Jitsu school, but he has a tendency to go all in with everything he does.
After a series of internal political problems, the school closed where Tom started training leaving him with nowhere to train.
While they were still white belts, Tom and his friends set up mats in a warehouse and learned from YouTube videos and anyone who wanted to train. He also spent countless hours being coached by Carlson Jr. on the phone. By summer, Tom decided to enter the World Championships as a white belt.
“As soon as I won,” Tom said. “All the other students got hope in their eyes.”
They were all inspired to continue training, and before long, Tom financed a new gym where Carlson Gracie Junior returned to teach every month.
“I just wanted a place to train with a good vibe,” Tom said about running a gym while wearing a white belt. “It’s not supposed to be the way it goes, but I’ll take it.”
Things continued along for about a year and a half when they brought in a few full‐time black belt instructors. They had some good instructors, but also a few who brought problems.
They had an instructor that could not stop chasing the female students and another who would scream at their many lawyer and doctor students. Eventually he had to dismiss a couple of them.
“You cannot fire me,” One of the black belts said. “You’re a stupid white belt,”
Tom did fire a couple of black belts and was also funneling his own money into the gym every month to keep it afloat.
“I was investing in my own stress,” Tom said. “I remember reaching a point where I thought maybe I should shut down the school and go train somewhere else.”
He was discouraged, but what kept him going was the thought of abandoning all the students that loved learning Jiu‐Jitsu. Tom stuck it out while running his contracting business and teaching part‐time to fill the void between instructors.
By about the fourth year, the economy turned and the real estate market collapsed. One of Tom’s clients went bankrupt shorting Tom out of tens of thousands of dollars.
“That was all I had,” Tom said. “I took a big hit, financially.”
Tom was torn between selling the gym to rebuild his business or to go all in with Jiu‐Jitsu.
“It was rough,” Tom said. “But I chose Jiu‐Jitsu.”
Tom explained that there have been times when he had lots of money, but was miserable and other times when he has had very little money, but was happy.
“It was hard to survive the first six months,” Tom said. “Sometimes, I couldn’t drive home to shower because I would run out of gas. I was always right on the edge of something getting turned off or some collection notice or something.”
Eventually people got used to him being at the gym and things improved. By the time Tom was a brown belt, he was teaching full time and after only six years of training, Tom received his black belt from Carlson Gracie Junior.
Tom said there were three things Carlson Jr. encouraged him to invest in that helped him learn Jiu‐Jitsu faster than typical; training, teaching and competition.
Tom still competes regularly. In fact, we met for this interview the night before his Fight to Win Pro 5 middle weight title fight against Alberto Crane.
Tom said that competition provides an opportunity to discover your game under real pressure. Not everything you learn will work, but in competition you prove what works for you.
“If I never competed, I would be nowhere near as capable on the mat as I am now,” Tom said. “I would say it’s a good third of my growth.”
Tom realizes competition is not for everyone, but he suggests that everyone should try it.
He explained that teaching helps you digest and solidify the technique.
“I even tell my lower belt students that one day you are going to become your own teacher,” Tom said. “You will start doing stuff you have never even seen before.”
But the number one factor for success in Jiu‐Jitsu is to simply not quit.
“If you just stick it out, I promise you will get better.”
Tom suggested that you should embrace the struggle, which means learning to be okay with tapping out. Learning to tap in Jiu‐Jitsu translates to peace in other parts of your life too.
“My family and I lost years with my daughter,” Tom said, “but I accepted it and I am going to be positive and move on.”
“When we come to class for an hour and a half, you leave your stress at the door,” Tom said.” You check all your marital problems, job and crap at the door.”
“More than anything, Jiu‐Jitsu has helped with that,” Tom said. “It makes you realize what is important in life.”
When I asked Tom about success, he said, “I already feel successful. I’ve felt failure and I overcame it,”
“I’ve already helped so many people achieve happiness and helped them become better versions of themselves through Jiu‐Jitsu,” Tom said. “I’m on the loop now, the replay list.”
Tom plans to keep training and teaching Jiu‐Jitsu indefinitely. He is motivated by his students’ success and his personal drive to compete while representing the reemerging Carlson Gracie team.
“I am very passionate about the Carlson Gracie team, mainly because of my first experiences with Carlson Jr. and the legacy his father left behind,” Tom said. “He didn’t want anything from me and he didn’t put himself on a pedestal.”
Tom named off several ofe my own Jiu‐Jitsu heroes; Allan Goes, Mario Sperry, Wallid Ismail, Murillo Bustamante and others.
“They used to win every absolute division in every tournament,” Tom said. “Nobody got a first unless it was a Carlson guy.”
Tom gets excited when he talks about these guys and his goal to put Carlson Gracie fighters back on the podium and it appears he is on his way to achieving that goal. The day following our interview, Tom won the Fight to Win Pro 5 Middle weight title.
Did you enjoy this interview? Click here to read interviews of other BJJ legends.
To be notified of new articles, enter your best email below.