A recent group shot from the women’s class at Mission First Jiu Jitsu

There is a fight club on Aquidneck Island…and it’s women only.

For nearly 15 years men and women have walked through the door, tied on their belts, and gathered on the mats at Mission First Jiu-Jitsu in Middletown. Located within an otherwise unremarkable commercial building on West Main Road, what happens next is anything but ordinary. The combination of expert instruction and intense training in this popular and powerful grappling martial art has created a strong local community of dedicated practitioners. And due in large part to that sustained success, Mission First is now able to offer an all-women’s class taught by experienced women instructors. 

Mission First Jiu-Jitsu was founded by lifelong Newport resident Pat Watterson. Watterson, a former Navy SEAL who spent 23 years in military service, is excited to be one of very few jiu-jitsu gyms in the region to offer classes exclusively for women by women. 

“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long-time and we’re thrilled to be able to finally offer classes for women. I’m really proud that we have two of our most outstanding long-time students leading the instruction,” said Watterson. 

Julianne Gavan and Michelle Paranzino, a purple belt and brown belt respectively, have about a decade of combined experience training jiu-jitsu, nearly all of that at Mission First. 

Mission First Jiu-Jitsu Instructors Julie Gavan (left) and Michelle Paranzino (right)

“My husband and I watched our kids train three days a week for a little over a year, and at the age of 41, I decided I had to give it a try and instantly fell in love with how I felt. I kept coming back because I was in the best shape of my life and that felt amazing,” said Gavan, a mother of two who works full-time. 

“Aside from the physical capabilities, jiu-jitsu teaches me to breathe and stay calm in an uncomfortable situation.  When I am training, I am one-hundred percent focused and I forget about the rest of the stuff going on in life.  It is a huge stress reducer and a great workout. New students should know that it is ok to be nervous and that we will guide them through the basics. You will be taken out of your comfort zone and when you come out on the other side you will feel accomplished,” Gavan said.  

“We break the class time down into four sections; warmups, drills, sparring, and cool down. The techniques we are teaching are very basic moves and concepts since the class is all beginners,” said Gavan.  

Jiu-jitsu is a grappling martial art that focuses on taking your opponent to the ground, obtaining a dominant position over your opponent, and using a variety of chokeholds and joint locks to submit them. It is widely recognized among mixed martial artists as an essential discipline to master because of its efficiency and efficacy. It is also considered one of the best martial arts for women’s self-defense. 

Mission First student Elizabeth McKenzie competes in a regional tournament

“Learning jiu-jitsu prepares you to fight with opponents that are larger than you. It’s a very useful martial art in a real-world scenario, particularly for women, in that it is both defensive and offensive. It not only prepares you to attack an opponent but to thwart an attack and put yourself in a position to fight back or escape,” said Gavan. 

Jiu-jitsu translates to “the gentle art” in Japanese, the culture to which its roots date back. The full name of Brazilian jiu-jitsu recognizes the important role that Brazil played in the evolution and elevation of the discipline in the twentieth century. 

“It’s not karate!” said Paranzino, an Assistant Professor at the Naval War College who teaches strategy and policy when she’s not teaching jiu-jitsu.

“Jiu-jitsu is pure grappling, no striking involved,” she continued.

Paranzino, like many long-term practitioners, is eager to stress both the tangible and intangible value of regular training.

“It’s nearly impossible to express in words the value that training jiu-jitsu can bring to one’s life. Starting with the physical, it’s an intense and fun workout that will get you in the best shape of your life. Jiu-jitsu is also a really interesting sport at the intellectual level because it involves a significant degree of strategy. Each practitioner is like a puzzle to be solved, and because people are always changing, you’re constantly on your toes trying to figure out what they’re trying to do and how to best thwart it,” said Paranzino. 

“To people who seem interested in the self-defense aspect of martial arts, I explain that the vast majority of fights go to the ground, which is where jiu-jitsu is the superior modality. To people who are more interested in physical exercise, I explain that jiu-jitsu is the best workout they could ever hope to enjoy. And for people who seem receptive to the benefits of combat sports beyond the purely physical realm, I explain that jiu-jitsu is a constant struggle with the ego, and therefore requires walking a spiritual path. Ego-driven people typically do not last long in this sport,” said Paranzino.

Women’s classes are currently being offered on Wednesdays from 5:15 – 6:30 PM. Gym membership is billed monthly with no multi-month contract required. Participation requires the ownership of a gi, a mouth guard, and no jewelry is allowed on the mats. Because beginners may not be familiar with what the sport entails, those interested are encouraged to arrange to come into the gym and observe a class before participating. 

Mission First also offers kid classes broken down into different age groups, and co-ed adult classes that welcome men and women of all levels, from beginners to experienced tournament competitors.

A recent group shot from the women’s class at Mission First Jiu Jitsu

Ryan Belmore is the Publisher of What'sUpNewp. 
Belmore has been involved with What’sUpNewp since shortly after its launch in 2012, proudly leading it to be named Best Local News Blog in Rhode Island by Rhode Island Monthly readers in 2018, 2019, and 2020 and an honorable mention in the Common Good Awards in 2021.

Born and raised in Rhode Island, Belmore graduated from Coventry High School and the Community College of Rhode Island. In addition to living in Newport for 10 years, he has lived in Portsmouth, Coventry, Providence, Smithfield, Burrillville, and East Greenwich.

Belmore currently serves as Vice President of the Board Of Directors for Fort Adams Trust and on the Board of Directors for Potter League For Animals. He previously served on the Board of Lucy's Hearth and the Arts & Cultural Alliance for Newport County.

Belmore and his wife, Jen, currently live in Alexandria, Virginia, a move they made in 2021. Read more about that here - https://whatsupnewp.com/2021/09/letter-from-the-publisher-some-personal-news/

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In 2020, Belmore was named Member of the Year by LION and won the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Newport County's Dominque Award.
Belmore can be contacted at ryan@whatsupnewp.com and 401-662-1653.