FLINT, Michigan -- Nestled on the corner of Zimmerman Street and Corunna Road in what was once a theatre and then church, lies Great Lakes Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
. Owned and operated by Justin McHugh and wife Kelley, GLBJJ is on a mission to change Flint residents’ lives on and off the mat.
The couple, who have been teaching BJJ for almost a decade, began their journey to start ‘Great Lakes’ in college. That’s where they fell in love with one another and with a sport that now allows them to “live their best lives.”
“I knew that I wanted to be a martial arts instructor, but (originally) it wasn’t jiu jitsu,” Justin said. “I wanted to teach some type of karate or kung fu. But I put it on the back burner because I wanted to pursue a college football career.”
McHugh did play college and professional football, but the thought of teaching martial arts never left his mind. He was inspired ever since he watched The Karate Kid
“I originally wanted to do Akido” he said, while crediting Kelley with eventually convincing him to practice BJJ.
“She (Kelley) was already doing jiu jitsu at the time when we started dating,” he said. “So, I tried it, fell in love, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Kelley says she became interested in the sport after watching Royce Gracie compete in UFC.
“When I saw him (Gracie) on the television, and he looked so small on the screen, I thought if he can do it then I can go do it. So, I started to train,” she said.
Years later, she met Gracie only to realize he is 6-feet tall and not as short as he appears on screen.
“He’s awesome,” she said of the UFC legend.
The couple’s interests in martial arts then led them to join a club in Holly, Michigan. But after the club disbanded, they had to find another facility to train at. Soon Justin and another high-ranking member of that club received an offer to bring their skills to Flint at the Great Lakes Chiropractic and Movement Center. Yet again they were forced to relocate, but this time because of their success.
“After two years there we ran out of space and needed to get our own building,” Justin said. “And this (referring to the current location) just kind of fell in our lap.”
Since opening at the new location, GLBJJ’s membership has soared to almost 100 students, a milestone they hope to reach by the end of the year. Despite the challenges of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, Great Lakes has managed to retain its membership, which they attribute to their family atmosphere and variety of class offerings. Members had fees refunded during times restrictions forced gyms to be closed and they also made use of outdoors spaces to grapple on the lawn while following health and safety guidelines for outdoor events.
“We have a very tight knit group of people who are here,” Kelley said.
“We have numerous high-level instructors that come out, multiple black belts,” Justin said. “We’re constantly having great techniques being taught and people coming in to help teach.”
Great Lakes is partnered with Warrior Way Martial Arts School. That brings jiu jitsu, NoGi, kickboxing, mma skills, and more to the facility.
Kelley also stated how she likes the fact that their group has full families who train together at their gym. Parents at Great Lakes can often be found assisting with their kids' classes then gearing up for the adult sessions immediately after. All members are free to light weights and hit the bag during open times.
“We have a relaxed vibe here,” Justin says.
Recently the Great Lakes team took home medals from the Chicago IBJJF tournament. That winning energy has definitely transferred back home during training. Now they’re focused on competing in fall BJJ tournaments while the world watches the summer Olympics – absent once more of bjj.
Both also believe that Flint’s own prominent connection to Mixed Martial Arts could grow the sport here. Flint’s Claressa Shields, an Olympic gold medalist in boxing, made her MMA debut and picked up a win. They see Flint potentially becoming a hub for martial arts because of the natural athletic talent that already exists here.
They’re also happy their business is part of Flint’s continued revitalization.
“Every day you see just a little sprinkle of something good happening, and growth,” Kelley said.
“Flint is building itself up again, and it's starting to become what it once was in the eyes of people who are outside of Flint,” Justin said.