Rich Graeff is a world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but competition is not the only thing he likes about the martial art.
"It's good for my mind," he said. "It's good for my body. It's good for my soul. I get to meet great people. I get to train with great people."
Rich, 44, of Belleville, is an instructor at B.J.J. Lifestyle Academy, which specializes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
"It's been on the East and West coasts for a while," said owner Michael Rethmeyer, 33, of St. Louis. "But in the Midwest, it's still in its youth."
Brazilian jiu-jitsu focuses on submission holds and other ground-fighting techniques that make use of leverage.
It allows people who are smaller and weaker to defend against bigger and stronger opponents.
"It's great for dealing with bullies," Michael said. "You can control someone without hurting him."
On a recent weekday, about a dozen men hit the mats at B.J.J. for an adult class, wearing white, blue or black uniforms, known as gis.
They started with a drill on shrimping (escaping an opponent's control) and guard passing (moving into a dominant position on top).
"You've got to grab the pants and push the knee down," Rich told a pair of grapplers. "You can't just post."
Some students take classes to lose weight, get in shape, improve eye-hand coordination or cope with stress.
Chiropractor Eric Waltemate, 37, of Nashville, switched to Brazilian jiu-jitsu after trying karate, tae kwon do and other martial arts.
"You get real-world, real-time fighting skills," he said. "That's what you need if you're walking down a dark alley and you get jumped by a bigger guy."
Jiu-jitsu was practiced in India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan before spreading to Brazil in the early 1900s.
"The Gracie family developed a more contemporary form (emphasizing ground-fighting)," said Michael, who was born in California but grew up in Brazil with his American father and Brazilian mother.
Michael learned jiu-jitsu from a Gracie family member before moving back to the United States at 19. He worked 10 years for Anheuser-Busch, then opened B.J.J.
Rich is one of Michael's star students. The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation ranked him No. 1 among purple belts in the world last year.
"It's the first time anyone in the St. Louis region has done that," Michael said.
Rich had a particularly strong showing last year. He won two gold medals at the Pan Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship in California, one at the Rio International Open Championship in Brazil and one at the Master and Seniors World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in California.
Rich has been practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu for seven years. He's now a brown belt.
"It's more than a martial art," he said. "It's a lifestyle. We immerse ourselves in it because we love it. I wake up thinking about jiu-jitsu, and I go to bed thinking about jiu-jitsu."
B.J.J. Lifestyle Academy has classes for adults (men and women) and children. It's at 5308 North Belt West in Belleville. For more information, call 314-780-4222.