When you think of the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, what comes to mind?
For some, the self-defense system may bring of a more aggressive branch of combat sport, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Some may not be familiar with the activity at all.
But for others, like Fairfield resident Jon Thomas, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is more than a way to stay active -- it's a method of battling cancer.
Thomas, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt, is the founder of Tap Cancer Out, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to raising funds for cancer societies.
The nonprofit was officially founded in 2011, after Thomas was inspired by groups honored at the 2010 Classy Awards in San Diego. The awards are put on by StayClassy, Inc., a company that creates software for charity and nonprofits. Thomas was there through his job at Story WorldWide, an advertising agency in Norwalk.
"I went and saw all these people doing amazing things," Thomas said in a recent interview with Patch. "I asked myself what I was doing, and it wasn't much. I wanted to do something."
Thomas chose to funnel that effort into raising money to support those affected by cancer, a topic "dear to my heart," he said.
His idea was to fundraise utilizing the Jiu-Jitsu community.
'I wanted to bring the community together to raise money for cancer.'
"Lots of people do Jiu-Jitsu, but there's not much of a philanthropic presence. I wanted to leverage the community," Thomas said. "I wanted to bring the community together to raise money for cancer."
The going was slow at first. Initially, the organization was called Tap Out Cancer, similar to the MMA extreme training program TapouT. Thomas said he reached out to TapouT to see if there would be a problem with the nonprofit being called "Tap Out Cancer," but didn't hear back.
On the fundraising front, Thomas and his wife, Becky, tried to sell merchandise at MMA tournaments but to no avail. Either the tournament coordinators refused to waive the vendor fee or the couple only sold a few T-shirts here and there.
And then, months after Thomas had reached out to the brand, representatives from TapouT sent an order for Thomas to cease and desist the use of the name "Tap Out Cancer."
"I was disheartened, but it turned out to the best thing that could have happened," Thomas said. "We got tons of support from the Jiu-Jitsu community; they all wanted to help. They were so annoyed and disgusted."
So the name was changed slightly to "Tap Cancer Out," and Thomas realized his target audience was not the MMA world, it was the community he set out to the leverage -- the people who practice and support Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
"The Jiu-Jitsu community is not just people who compete," Thomas said. "It's friends, family, and anyone who wants to tap cancer out."
Tap Cancer Out Charity Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Tournament
From there, Tap Cancer Out chose the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (which has a branch in Wilton) as its beneficiary and fundraising through T-shirt sales began to roll in.
"They were steady, but not where we wanted to be," Thomas said.
He wanted to take the fundraising a step further -- Thomas decided Tap Cancer Out should host its own Jiu-Jitsu tournament.
It took a long time to set a venue "because people were weary of the MMA image" that surrounds Jiu-Jitsu, Thomas said.
After writing many proposals and seeking out places, Bunnell High School in Stratford, where Becky Thomas grew up, wanted to help. The school offered the use of its gymnasium and wrestling mats.
Once the venue was secured, Thomas reached out to the Jiu-Jitsu community. Participants could either fundraise $150 to gain entry into tournament or pay $30 to compete.
The Tap Cancer Out Charity Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Tournament was held on April 28, 2012. Of the 200 competitors, 50 fundraised through pages set up by StayClassy, Inc., to compete. Before the match began, Tap Cancer Out had raised $17,000, doubling the organization's goal of $10,000.
By the end of the tournament, Tap Cancer Out was able to donate $22,658 to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
"It was way more than we ever expected in our first year," Thomas said. "It was a great day for the Jiu-Jitsu community to show who we are."
Since the tournament, Thomas and his wife have been inundated with tournament offers. People are fundraising on their own for Tap Cancer Out, and the couple's goal is to raise $100,000 in through tournaments and selling merchandise next year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
"We don't know where the next tournament will be, bit it will be huge," Thomas said -- after all, it's just he and Becky behind the nonprofit, and both juggle two jobs.
"It's really great to hear that we get so much support."
[Editor's Note: Interested in donating to Tap Cancer Out or finding out information for upcoming fundraisers and tournaments? Check out the nonprofit's website and Facebook page. You can also vote for Tap Cancer Out, which has been nominated for the "Best New Charity" in the 2012 Classy Awards. Regional voting ends Thursday, July 26.]