Welcome to Urban Jungle Self Defense.
Deep in the Heights at the MMA gym, Urban Jungle, you will learn more about yourself than you could know, from the inside out, to your sweat covered gloves. Owners Tony and Michelle Torres-Aponte have poured their knowledge and spirit into this gym for the last 13 years, but the story behind their success has been in the making for over two decades.
Tony Torres-Aponte started training in martial arts at the age of 10. With the likes of Bruce Lee as his idol, Tony began his training in boxing and quickly moved to styles such as Hawaiian Kempo, Tae Kwan Do and Jeet Kun Do under world class instructors. Muay Thai Kickboxing was the next step for Tony as he excelled under the instruction of a Thai legend by the name of "Lot." Lot was a seven time world champion in Thailand and he guided Tony to compete in the first Muay Thai matches to ever be held in the United States.
It's as if Tony's perseverance in mastering multiple arts was meant to bring him closer to yet another extraordinary opportunity. Tony was working at a health food restaurant called "The Spot" in Los Angeles, which just happened to be a favored eatery for the Gracie brothers, Royce, Rickson and Rorian. For those of you not ensconced in the world of MMA, the Gracie brothers are legends to the sport of Jiu-Jitsu. After becoming friends over time, the Brazilian brothers invited Tony, in broken English, to train with them. That invitation placed Tony into an exclusive group of Americans that had the opportunity to train with the Gracies in their famous "garage days". Tony also fought in a number of MMA fights before there were cages, back when there were no weight divisions, gloves or unified rules. These matches were fittingly called "Vale Tudo" which is Portuguese for "anything goes". Eye pokes, groin shots – it was hardcore stuff.
In 1994, Tony was on an extended visit with his family before his planned move back to Los Angeles. He had recently spent six years living in Maui, followed by six weeks of surfing in Costa Rica. He then met Michelle while waiting tables at a restaurant in Montrose. Tony used to tell her all about his training background in the martial arts. After the two met, Michelle says that was the proverbial "end of story. Or the beginning of our story…"
The current location of Urban Jungle in the Heights used to be a local lube shop. Michelle explains that "every time we would drive by, Tony would sigh and say, 'That would be the perfect space for a gym." In 1997, two months before their son was born, the spot went up for lease. The monthly lease payment was more than their garage apartment rent. They simply couldn't afford first and last month's payments.
A week later, they had a fender bender. While no one was hurt, Tony and Michelle received a check to repair their old Honda Civic. "The check was for $1800; exactly the amount of the first and last month's rent. Wow…" said Michelle. "But we knew that we would need to buy this building to ensure stability in our location. The owners of the structure offered to owner finance it for us. However, we needed to put $20,000 down. Tony offered four students a lifetime membership for $5000 each, and those four students are still with us today." The choice of location has served them well, as has their loyal student base. Many of their students have been with them for years, and Urban Jungle has helped kick start a few professional careers, such as Mike "Quick" Swick, a UFC welterweight.
In the beginning, before the UFC and cage fighting became mainstream, before shows like The Ultimate Fighter, the Torres-Apontes had a lot of explaining to do to potential clients. "We would spend so much time on the phone clarifying why our students were on the ground, and why we didn't break boards," laughs Michelle. "Tony used to find as many Jiu-Jitsu competitions to enter as possible. He would win and people would ask him where he trained. That's how we built our business."
The type of client that comes to Urban Jungle is as varied as the number of martial arts. Michelle reveals that you'll find "FBI agents, CIA agents, pilots, doctors, professionals, home makers, children, teenagers, weekend warriors, pro cage fighters and amateur fighters. A large number of our students have black belts in other martial arts." The variety of clientele illustrates that the programs available at the gym vary widely as well. Michelle offers a Bikini Boot Camp, and Tony teaches Fighter Fitness, where you can train like a fighter without the risk of going to work with a black eye on Monday. You'll also find a Kardio Kickbox class as well as Open Mat, where you can hone the skills you feel need the most work. You'll also find a Women's Fitness Camp created especially for women. All of their classes are taught in a safe environment, without intimidation.
What sets Urban Jungle apart is that you are valued as an individual. Tony and Michelle know their student's names and they get personally involved in your progress. "Jiu-Jitsu and MMA training is a form of therapy. Tony has a special way of dealing with each individual and their ego in such a graceful but straight-forward way," shares Michelle. "I believe we have the best training because of Tony's calm approach to very intense situations on the mat or in the cage. He has a gift of taking a 'fight' situation, something that is alive… He can break it down without destroying it, so that his students can really feel the situation, enabling them to get a little more c-omfortable in very uncomfortable situations."
The Gracies believe that Jiu-Jitsu is the most efficient martial art in the world. It involves not only skill, but you must also be able to strategize and stay calm. Those skills are valuable to everyone and can apply to situations in business and your personal life. The ability to remain composed and maneuver through issues is invaluable.
Tony and Michelle believe that "when you start to take some control of your body, not just with your fitness level, but with actual physical control, you start to feel that you can get out of a dangerous situation." To them it means that you can do anything from fighting in a cage to handling a bully. "That is a very empowering feeling that inspires self confidence in nearly any situation," reveals Tony.
The easiest way to initiate the Urban Jungle experience is to pick up the phone or stop by. They recognize that it can be intimidating to try a gym like theirs for the first time. "Our first form of contact is typically over the phone," explains Michelle. "We try to return calls within minutes of a message. We guide our clients through any questions they might have. We offer a free week of training and a guided tour when they come in." There's no need to be anxious about a first class. Tony and Michelle will guide you through each step with knowledge, patience and understanding.
Urban Jungle also gives back to the community whenever possible. "We love to give back directly to our community," discloses Michelle. "We have hosted free women's self defense workshops for the teachers of the neighborhood schools. We work directly with parents and teachers when it comes to children's behavior or grades. We believe that it takes a village to raise a strong family, and we are happy to be a part of that process."
When asked how they chose the moniker Urban Jungle, Michelle discloses that most martial arts are created through the study of animal movement. Michelle revealed that it made sense that these arts were being taught in the heart of their city, "thus, the Urban Jungle," she explains. And that's a fight in which Houston is the clear winner; no contest.