Rivals unite to honor fallen officer; Sergio Penha black-belt dies saving life

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The seminar on August 9 brought together the Las Vegas Jiu-Jitsu community. Photo: Frank Curreri

On August 9, the Las Vegas Jiu-Jitsu community came together for a seminar that gathered proceeds for a fallen officer and fellow BJJ member. Officer David Vanbuskirk earned his black belt under Sergio Penha and worked as a search and rescue officer in the Las Vegas area when he died from a fall directly after pulling a hiker to safety. His death urged members of the Jiu-Jitsu family to come together in what turned out to be a humbling event.

Read how the event unfolded through the words of Frank Curreri as he was in attendance of the historic event:

Anyone who owns a red-and-black belt, as Sergio Penha does, cannot help but be from “The Old School.” Part of that code, being a so-called “Man’s Man,” means masking weakness. It means that a guy like Penha, veteran of Grandmaster Osvaldo Alves’ ferocious dog-eat-dog style training sessions, would rather spend an afternoon getting teeth pulled in a dentist’s office, without anesthesia, than be caught crying.

Of course, even the most powerful and emotionally disciplined leader has an achilles heel. Especially when one of his longtime students, a black belt no less, meets a sudden death way before anyone imagined. Such a tragedy recently befell David Vanbuskirk, a police officer who died July 22 rescuing a stranded hiker in the mountains 35 miles from the Las Vegas strip.

Vanbuskirk successfully saved the hiker’s life – as he had saved hundreds of others throughout his career – but lost his own when his harness (connected to a helicopter) somehow came loose. A fun-loving guy who could light up any room with his near-perfect smile, Vanbuskirk was just 36 years old.

Sergio Penha address those present. Photo: Frank Curreri

“For two weeks I cried like a baby,” Penha said. “I had him from white belt to black belt. I saw David for eight or nine years, four to five days a week, and have nothing bad to say about him. He really was like an angel. He was also a tough guy, so I used to put him a lot to train with Stephan (Bonnar) or Anthony (Njokuani) before their fights. Of course, David got beat up sometimes because he was training with professional fighters, but he never said ‘no.’ You have to respect someone who has balls like that.”

A magical power of our art is how it transforms strangers into friends, and friends into blood. One day you’re training with a guy, a year later he feels like “family.” It’s a popular refrain and cliché in BJJ circles. Think about it: How many times have you heard a BJJ player say, “My students are like family to me” or“My teammates are like family to me”? 

Now let’s change gears and entertain another mental exercise: How often do you hear someone say “they are like family to me” about the instructors or students at the BJJ academy five miles down the road? The academy that is competing with your academy for the same students, the same dollars, for the same gold medals and bragging rights and prestige at local tournaments?

Maybe never, right?

Which is what made a recent Friday night seminar in Las Vegas so historic. Eighty BJJ players gathered at Xtreme Couture’s gym for a seminar that raised $10,000 for Vanbuskirk’s widow. Considering the price tag for admittance – a mere $50 – the 3-hour experience should go down as one of the greatest BJJ seminar bargains ever. I would have eagerly parted with $50 bucks to attend a seminar run only by Sergio Penha, famed for his epic match with Rickson Gracie and for leaping over brown belt entirely and going straight from purple to black belt. What certified the seminar as awesomely ridiculous is  that it, in addition to Penha, it featured technical instruction from five other top-shelf black belts from across the BJJ-rich Las Vegas Valley.

keiko offer labor dayThe rest of the formidable list of volunteer instructors: six-time world champion Robert Drysdale; world-class black belt Simpson Go; Amilcar “Mica” Cipili, a Royler Gracie affiliate whose teams have fared very well in local tournaments; Neal Melanson, the Jiu-Jitsu coach at Xtreme Couture who is a black belt in Judo and Hayastan under Karo Parisyan (and awarded Randy Couture a black belt in the same art); and Robert Follis, a BJJ black belt and one of the brightest (if unsung and often overlooked) coaching minds in MMA who has worked extensively with Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Matt Linland, among others.

Even the most seasoned BJJ player could learn a few things in a room packed with that much knowledge and experience, which may explain why at least 17 total BJJ black belts attended the seminar. The tragedy of Officer Vanbuskirk’s death and the watershed event that ensued provided a proper perspective for what it really means to be “family” in BJJ. A reminder that should echo across continents to any BJJ schools and instructors who may have gotten too wrapped up in the “us/them” mentality.

“We’ve come together; we are brothers,” Sergio Penha said while addressing everyone in attendance. “Drysdale, Mica …you know, we fight each other all the time when my students compete against your students. That’s the way it has to be, but we also have to respect each other. I respect Drysdale, Mica, Chad (Lyman) and everyone who shares the love of BJJ. I love this sport.”

Many different rivaling teams came together. Photo: Frank Curreri

Penha then dropped a little “Old School” history lesson, alluding even to his legendary match with Rickson Gracie, a match Penha was winning handily on points before Rickson dramatically summoned a choke in the last 30 seconds or so to steal victory. If he could go back in time, the ultra-aggressive Penha said he would still choose not to fight conservatively in the later stages of his match with Rickson, whom he later referred to as “a brother.”

“When I started doing this sport we didn’t have many rules,” Penha said. “I came from a time where, if a guy closed his guard, you lifted him and smashed him to the ground … You could go for the neck crank, you could go for the heel hook, you could do whatever you want, but there had to be respect. And that’s the way I respect every single one of you. If you step on the mat and you’re training every single day, I have respect for you because you are showing balls (holds both hands out wide and gestures).”

Randy Couture volunteered to participate in the seminar but was in Bulgaria filming the Expendables 3 movie and could not get the green light for a getaway, according to Chad Lyman, one of three Las Vegas police officers who dreamed up the seminar as a way to honor their fallen peer.

“We’re trying as a Jiu-Jitsu community to remember one of our own who fell serving other people. We came together in unity, doing something that we loved and that (Officer Vanbuskirk) loved,” said Lyman, who following the seminar received his BJJ black belt from Michael Chapman.

Given the amazing success of the August seminar – which was organized, planned and executed in just eight days – Lyman said officers are already discussing the possibility of making this an annual event to honor law enforcement who perish in the line of duty.

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