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A Formidable Foe on the Force

Deputy Excels at Brazilian Jujitsu

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page LZ03

The Sterling man kept fighting, even as a half-dozen Loudoun County sheriff's deputies trying to arrest him used their strength -- and pepper spray -- to control him. He was assaulting one officer when Deputy Matt Powell stepped in and wrestled the suspect down using martial arts techniques he had been studying for just two months.

That was in 1998. Today, Powell is a world champion in the sport, an obscure but growing style of wrestling called Brazilian jujitsu.


Deputy Matt Powell, who is a champion in Brazilian jujitsu, teaches defensive tactics at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy in Ashburn. (Photos Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

Last month, Powell went to Columbus, Ohio, to fight in one of the sport's largest international competitions. Powell, 35, had taken home bronze and silver medals in previous years. This time, however, he won the gold in his amateur division.

"I had a really good day," said Powell, a modest 6-foot-3, 205-pounder with tattooed forearms and a shaved head.

The Sterling incident, he said, was just one of the many times he has put his moves to work during nearly 14 years on the force. These days, Powell imparts some of the moves to recruits at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy in Ashburn, where he is a full-time instructor specializing in defense skills.

The other day, he and several instructors monitored pairs of recruits in helmets and holsters packed with faux guns as they role-played confrontations between officers and violent suspects.

Powell walked around, occasionally swatting recruits' arms with a red, padded mitt strapped to his hand. The swipe was a reminder that they need to keep their hands up to protect their heads.

Later, he modeled controlled jabs. "Each strike is its own entity," he said. "Complete the first strike, then move to the second strike."

Though Powell does not use those kinds of jabs in Brazilian jujitsu, which involves mostly on-the-mat grappling moves such as chokes and arm locks, he has perfected that kind of control under pressure -- a key to success in what he calls "a very noble sport."

"Everyone says it's exactly like chess," he said. "You really are trying to be two or three steps ahead of your opponent."

Powell, a native of Round Hill, learned some defense skills during four years in the Navy. In 1998, figuring that martial arts might help him on the job as a sheriff's deputy, he signed up for an introductory course at a now-defunct school in Falls Church. He soon was training five times a week.

"I just couldn't get enough of it," he said.

An increasing number of people feel the same. Participation in the sport has soared in recent years as fighters using the techniques have appeared on the "Ultimate Fighting Championship," a martial arts competition often shown on pay-per-view television, said John Cooper, director of the Columbus competition -- called the Arnold Schwarzenegger Gracie World Submission Championships -- which this year had about 1,500 entrants.

At least 10 schools or gyms in Northern Virginia offer classes in Brazilian jujitsu. Dan Wallen, an owner of Fight Works, a Sterling-based school that Powell co-founded, said people choose the sport because it is good exercise and "when all is said and done, it's just fun."


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