Photo Information

Kelly Grissom, a Brazilian Jujitsu instructor, demonstrates a technique on a Senegalese man in Senegal, Nov. 2013. Kelly Grissom co-founded the Lion Heart Initiative, a plan to teach mixed martial arts to young urban youth of Senegal, West Africa, and create better opportunities for them.

Photo by Courtesy Photo

Marines fight with hearts of lions

17 Jun 2014 | Lance Cpl. Eric Keenan The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

In the small coastal nation of Senegal, West Africa, physical fitness and sports culture run deep throughout the populace.

For many young athletes, poverty in this third world nation is a day-to-day endeavor with only hopes of becoming a professional Laamb wrestler, the national sport, to fight a way to a better standard of living.

The Lion Heart Initiative is a non-profit plan to introduce mixed martial arts to the people of Senegal, with the intent of creating better opportunities for young urban youth of the nation.

CWO4 Armand K. Rupert, a Marine stationed aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, and Kelly Grissom, Brazilian Jujitsu instructor, along with five of Grissom’s students, traveled to Senegal for ten days demonstrating, training and sharing mixed martial arts, Nov. 1, 2013.

“Professional mixed martial arts is potentially a breakout opportunity for a country that has a physical fitness culture,” Grissom, a retired Marine major, said.

Mixed martial arts is a rising sport worldwide, with a large entertainment, advertising and commercial market.

Rupert saw advancement for Senegal and eventually other nations of West Africa through mixed martial arts.

“He had this idea that you could create martial arts, opportunity and a situation where young males learn martial values and ethos in a healthy environment with a goal to achieve,” Grissom said.

He believes what is now just Senegalese wrestling can grow into something more.

Rupert, an American born citizen, moved to Senegal with his parents when he was 8 years old.

“Since there were very few Americans and westerners in the region we lived, and my parents strongly felt I should assimilate into the local populace, I had to quickly learn the language and immerse in local culture,” Rupert said.

Rupert spent most of his formative years immersed in the local culture, speaks Wolof, an indigenous language, and French, the colonial language, and relates to most West Africans as a result.

“Growing up in a third-world country and returning to the U.S. for summer vacations, the contrast in the two lifestyles truly gave me an appreciation for the privileges we Americans enjoy,” Rupert said.

Rupert acknowledges much of his success throughout his Marine Corps career, life and with this initiative is because of these experiences.

“This early experience undoubtedly influenced my decision to dedicate most of my adult years to defending our way of life, while having a certain empathy for the challenges of young West Africans,” Rupert said.

The initiative went better than either of them had planned, receiving a huge response and interest from the locals.

“As soon as we started teaching it’s as if they were analyzing everything we were doing,” Grissom said. “They learned so much in 10 days.”

At the end of the ten days, Rupert and Grissom held a tournament for the locals to really experience mixed martial arts and to give a chance for them to test themselves against the American instructors themselves.

“Watching these martial artists and giving them something new that they haven’t seen and showing them a new way to train, that’s probably the best part about it,” Grissom said.

Rupert and Grissom had a vision, to spread a martial lifestyle through their passions to the poverty stricken nations of West Africa. It had an overwhelming success in the first introduction in Senegal and they intend to take it farther and grow it larger, said Rupert.

Rupert, Grissom and their team plan to return to Dakar, Senegal in early 2015.

“These guys [Senegalese] are here because they want to be physically tough, they want to be mentally tough and they’re pursuing a martial lifestyle which is what the military is all about too,” Grissom said. “I think that martial spirit can transcend cultures.”