Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym owner’s redemption story lifts others

Once homeless, Joe Thompson now owns two Brazilian jiu-jitsu gyms, with a third to come, on Long Island. Above, Thompson working with children at his Ronkonkoma gym. // Courtesy Joe Thompson

By Yaw Bonsu

At 16, Joe Thompson was couch surfing. Some nights, he’d pick the lock of his parents’ car and sleep in the backseat.

“They struggled so much that they fought and they were abusive,” Thompson said. “My mom was abusive — verbally abusive, physically abusive at times.”

Thompson went from being homeless to running two (soon to be three) Brazillian jiu-jitsu gyms. He uses his upbringing to bring the Long Island community together, including anti-bullying programs, domestic violence prevention classes and more in his programming — all while training and fighting himself, at the age of 63.

As a teenager, Thompson recalled, he would at times sleep in a tunnel intended for hospitals in East Meadow. When it was warmer, he would sleep on the beach, usually with no shoes and little to eat. At age 17, Thompson joined the United States Marine Corps.

Thompson’s Marine Corps portrait. He joined the Corps, in part, to escape a troubled childhood, and he found himself, becoming an engineer and entrepreneur. // Courtesy Joe Thompson

“At some point in your life, you look at something to marry and say I gotta change things quickly,” Thompson said.

“Got myself together, got my act together, put myself through school, finished school, finished college, went to the Marine Corps, which was the first thing that helped straighten me out.”

Six years in the Marine Corps was enough to have Thompson soul-searching. His love for mixed martial arts soon grew. More specifically, his love for Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

“The thing I loved about jiu-jitsu and why I started [and] stuck with jiu-jitsu over the other martial arts so much was that it challenged me so much,” Thompson said.

“What I found fighting to do is calm me down,” he said. “You had a lot of rage from all that when I was young. As you get older, you hopefully put that rage in check.”

Thompson sparring at his gym in Ronkonkoma. // Photo by Yaw Bonsu/Long Island Advocate

Thompson was a full-time engineer. Despite his love for jiu-jitsu, the bills had to be paid somehow, which meant a rigorous schedule that lasted decades.

“I would get up in the morning at six in the morning,” he said, “teach at my instructor’s school in Wantagh, go to work all day, come back in the afternoon and train during lunch. Go back to work and then come out here and teach. Did it for almost 20 years.”

Thompson pursued his mixed martial arts career late. He won his first fight at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City at 42.

Canva graphic by Yaw Bonsu/Long Island Advocate

Thompson is a multi-time winner of the Pan-American games in jiu-jitsu. He is also a three-time International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation. World Champion, winning his latest title last year.

Thompson posing with his gold medal after winning the IBJFF Masters Seniors Jiu-Jitsu Championships. // Courtesy Joe Thompson

Teaching came into play in 2011. Thompson partnered with Unique Fitness owner Steven Smith, former Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor Chris Cope and boxer Kristian Vasquez.

In 2014, Thompson founded his first Lockdown Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym, a 1,700-square-foot facility at Gatelot Plaza in Ronkonkoma.

He expanded that gym to an empty supermarket seconds away from the old facility. This gym, which Thompson calls his flagship facility, is 6,000 square feet and includes CrossFit, boxing, kickboxing, and of course, Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

It is here where Thompson makes his biggest impact. “As a kid who struggled, I was bullied a lot. So one of the things we started running monthly is an anti-bullying program,” Thompson said. “What we want to do is change the mindset. Even though I can teach the kids who are being bullied how to defend themselves, I want to teach the kids who are doing the bullying how to help others and not hurt others.”

His other gym is in Hewlett. His programs also include ones focused on combating domestic violence. “We find out that most of the time women when they’re being attacked…Ninety percent of the time you’re attacked by somebody you know,” he noted.

Thompson posing for a group photo with one of his classes. // Courtesy Joe Thompson

Newer programs include working with the Jewish community. Thompson plans to teach self-defense at synagogues overseas amid a growing number of hate crimes against the community.

He also works with troubled youth. “We brought in kids who were in a detention center and helped them choose another path, you know, showing them how this can lead to another path in their lives,” Thompson said. “I’m not trying to train them to be fighters. I’m trying to train them to be better people.”

From homeless to community leader, Thompson uses the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu to show why the art is much more than a fight on the mat. “I spent too long as a kid being told I’d amount to nothing,” he said, “and now I’ve amounted to a lot more than anyone had ever thought.”

Thompson with one of his many young students. // Courtesy Joe Thompson