Fighter Maker

Fightland Blog

By Jim Genia

(Jamie Cruz's star pupil, Jim Miller)

In 1995, Jamie Cruz walked into the extracurricular martial arts club at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and watched the men grappling on the matted floor there with curiosity. The UFC was so new then, and to see the moves of Brazilian jiu-jitsu – one of the sport’s foundational styles – being practiced up close was like spotting Bigfoot riding on the Loch Ness Monster’s back. Cruz watched and eventually joined in. Seven years later, he was a top competitor in the local grappling circuit, and jiu-jitsu master Renzo Gracie was handing him his black belt. Not long after that, Cruz was teaching UFC regulars, and brothers, Jim and Dan Miller how to choke guys unconscious.

Some people paint pictures, or write books, or build cabinets, or put together car engines. Cruz helps build fighters. 

“I train hobbyists, I train fighters, I train people who want to compete as grapplers – you know, people who want to make a name for themselves and open up schools,” the 39-year-old New Jersey resident tells me. He’s been teaching for a decade and is responsible for all things jiu-jitsu at the AMA Fight Club in Whippany, New Jersey, which is home to the Miller brothers, former UFC fighter Charlie Brenneman, and a host of other tough guys whose names you’d recognize if you followed the regional MMA scene.

Though opportunities to get a taste of MMA competition have ebbed and flowed over the years for those in the Northeast, there have always been ample outlets for the grappling-inclined, with tournaments like Grapplers Quest, North American Grappling Association events, and a multitude of other jiu-jitsu events occurring with great frequency. It was in these that Cruz carved out a name for himself as a skilled, technical practitioner. Once he even defeated Matt Hughes’ twin brother, Mark. But mixed martial arts eluded him.

“I trained three times for MMA events,” he says. “One time I got hurt, one time the opponent got hurt, and it never materialized. The third time was for [Sportfighting promoter] Brian Cimins. He had the venue on some Indian reservation in Connecticut or New York State – I don’t remember which. And the chief died, so they had to cancel all the events. That was like the third one I had trained for, and I had trained my ass off and it just never materialized, so I was like, ‘Screw this. It’s not meant to happen.’ I never really liked training in the first place – it’s a lot of conditioning, a lot of wrestling, a lot of getting hit, and I didn’t like getting hit. But even if I did fight, it probably never would’ve turned into anything.”

So how is it different training UFC fighters compared to straight grapplers? “It’s a lot harder,” Cruz says. “[MMA fighters] expect a lot. Most UFC fighters and MMA guys don’t like training with the gi – it’s a tough transition to deal with. Also, as I get older, it’s a lot tougher because these guys are a lot younger. They’re hungry and want to make a name for themselves and prove themselves, and I’m not getting any younger so it gets tougher and tougher as the years go by.”

Considering that the Miller brothers are now black belts, does he still play an active role in their jiu-jitsu training? “Not as much as I used to, but we still roll and train and go over moves and stuff.” Jim can probably thank Cruz, at least partially, for his escape from Joe Lauzon’s diving ankle-lock at the end of their fight two weeks ago in Las Vegas.

Cruz says that if one of the brothers has an upcoming fight against a strong grappler, he will work with them. “If it comes to the point where they’re definitely going to go to the ground with their opponent, then I’ll become more involved,” Cruz says. “Usually I’ll work with them about once or twice a week. Usually what we do is ‘worst-case scenario’ stuff, like if a guy is on your back. I remember when Jim was fighting Mark Bocek, one of the things I went over – because Bocek was very good at taking the back – was how to get out when someone’s got the back and they’ve got the hooks in."

When I ask him what he’s most proud of when it comes to his own jiu-jitsu, Cruz doesn’t hesitate to name his lineage. To earn a black belt from Renzo Gracie signifies devotion, and the sense of accomplishment must be dizzying. Myself, I only made it as far as blue belt – the first belt after white and far down the food chain from purple, brown, and black. But I still remember the day Cruz showed up at that martial arts club at John Jay and watched us grapple. I don’t for a second think I taught him any techniques or set him down any path. But it’s nice to be able to say, “See that guy training those UFC stars to be killers? I knew him way back when.” 

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