GALLUP, N.M. – Champion jiu jitsu fighter and grappler Reggie Mitchell and his wife, Heidi Quintana, recently opened Fierce Protection Systems, a gym for fitness and self-defense, in Gallup to promote fitness to the Native community.
In addition to offering fitness programs, the gym serves as a mixed martial arts studio where Mitchell, Navajo, teaches and coaches the many skills he has learned over the years.
“My first teacher was my dad, teaching me boxing and jiu jitsu,” said Mitchell, whose father boxed in the military. “He taught me everything to give me the attitude and mind-set to be a fighter.”
Now, Mitchell coaches Team Fierce out of Gallup. The team is diverse in race, profession and skill.
Eddie Bortot, a local elementary school principal, said fighting physically, emotionally and spiritually brings him self-gratification.
“I also like the discipline that comes with it. From this training it carries out into my personal life and professional life,” Bortot said.
Team Fierce is a mixed martial arts group. Most of the members practice boxing, kickboxing, jiu jitsu, wrestling and submission grappling.
“We tap into the fierce side of ourselves. That side is the understanding the good and bad areas of development,” said Mitchell, who started competing in submission grappling at age 20. He consistently credits his father for instilling discipline in him.
“What he taught me was based around the law of nature: stamina, training, rhythm, balance, strength and flexibility,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell teaches the same philosophy to his students. He also reiterates the three L’s: live, laugh and enjoy life.
A longtime friend and student of Mitchell’s, Matthew Baker, explained that the three L’s, combined with Native philosophy, help him to focus during a fight.
“We are all here to help one another, to live, to love, to enjoy life and to hopefully leave a legacy for others,” Baker said. “This is what we fight to protect. This is why we learn how to fight and protect what is precious in life. If we want to live in the Beauty Way then we must learn to protect it.”
The Beauty Way is the spiritual contentment that all Navajos should strive for to bring strength, happiness and harmony.
Before opening the gym, Mitchell asked a spiritual adviser to pray for a prosperous investment. Mitchell said the prayers worked.
Soon after the ceremonies, Mitchell and Quintana bought a modest space in downtown Gallup. They fixed it up with the help of the team and their families.
Quintana said she would like to see the gym expand in the next three years.
“I hope that soon we can own our own building with different rooms for cardio classes, self-defense and weight lifting,” she said.
Quintana, Navajo and Maricopa, teaches pilates and cardio kickboxing at the gym. A former health care consultant, Quintana said she always had a passion for exercise. She is also no stranger to contact fighting: her uncle taught martial arts for many years, and she earned a brown belt in karate.
“When I met Reggie, he brought back all that passion out of me,” Quintana said. She is training with Mitchell as an apprentice.
They have the same goals, Quintana said. They both want to help promote fitness to Natives of all ages.
“My mission is to be able to restore the proud American Indian image,” Mitchell said.
Quintana said that when the gym first opened, she only had five students in both of her classes; now 30 students attend on a regular basis. “I am amazed with the clientele. They are mostly educators, lawyers and health care professionals,” she said.
She said her goal is to increase the gym’s Native membership because of the high rate of diabetes among American Indians. Also, more women are joining the gym. The gym also offers children’s fitness programs.
Mitchell said he takes health and fitness seriously. He visits schools and community events to preach the importance of a healthy lifestyle. His audience is usually Native youths.
“I tell them they come from a long line of warriors,” Mitchell said. “Self-defense is fighting. It encompasses the mind, body and spirit of a warrior.”
Mitchell remembers a story of Navajos running more than 20 miles decades ago. “They had the spirit of our ancestors in them. They could run for days. I love that, their discipline and bravery,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell likens himself to those bold warriors. After high school, Mitchell sought out other fighters to improve his technique. His first competition was a Toughman Contest. He stumbled upon the poster in a Farmington bar. The contest awarded cash, and the 20-year-old was off to Las Vegas.
“I fought a big guy. He had no technique, and I won,” he said.
Anticipating another fight, he was told to return the following weekend for another match. Living hundreds of miles away in Albuquerque, Mitchell accepted an entry fee refund and headed home.
Several years later, after sharpening his skills, Mitchell competed in the Pan Am games in Los Angeles. He is the only Native to participate in the prestigious mixed martial arts competition.
“When I walked into the arena, it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” Mitchell said. “Beyond the audience’s faces I could see my ancestors. I felt their presence and it was calming.”
During Mitchell’s first match, he dislocated his shoulder, but finished the match with a win. He popped his shoulder back into place because he had several more fights ahead. Mitchell said he fought five matches with a numb, throbbing shoulder and none of his opponents knew he was in pain.
“I left the four sacred mountains to do a job, and I wasn’t done,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t going to go down until someone beat me.”
In the fifth match, Mitchell attempted to put his opponent in an arm bar, but he didn’t have the full strength of his shoulder. Eventually, the opponent beat Mitchell by one point. Had he won that match, he would have brought home a gold medal.
Mitchell still competes on a professional level. His students, however, compete as amateur to semi-professional.
Bortot, a wrestler in high school, was immediately attracted to the physical contact with grappling and jiu jitsu.
“I liked the jui jitsu, and since I was a wrestler, I liked the grappling components of the art,” Bortot said. He competed in the grappling Copa Invitation in 2001 and most recently at the Grapplers Qwest last year. Bortot has been fighting for six years now, and he works out six times a week for almost three hours.
Coaching Team Fierce gives Mitchell an opportunity to teach all he knows to students eager to live healthy and fight accurately, he said.
“I’m a coach tapping into the past and punching people in the face with love, respect and the feeling of honor,” Mitchell said.
As a coach, Bortot said that Mitchell is a great motivator and a perfectionist. Mitchell is also a tough coach with an unlimited amount of love, Bortot added.
“He is hard on us, but only because he wants his fighters to succeed in the ring, on the mat or in the cage,” Bortot said. “He has genuine care for his fighters and personally does want us to succeed in the cage and in life.”
Bortot described the distinct connection between fighting and Native philosophy.
“It correlates into the spiritual realm and uses Indian ways of fighting that are embedded into jiu jitsu and muy thai, making a lethal fighting form called fierce jiu jitsu,” Bortot said.
Mitchell said he wants to succeed as a fighter and a coach, all the while humbling himself with the ways of his Navajo ancestors by staying healthy, praying every morning and making the right choices in his life.