gif By Hayley Gansert

The Fighting Spirit

Despite substance abuse, heartache and injury, a Jiu-Jitsu instructor refuses to tap out.

Written By Tameem Seraj

Photos by Don Gomez

Richard Arreola stands with his arms behind his back like a soldier at attention, keenly observing the pairs of men grappling around him gasping for air. He sits on his knees like he is about to pray, and gives a detailed description and demonstration of the next maneuver to his students—the over-under. Richard shouts “1, 2, 3” and in unison, the group’s clap echoes in the studio, then the men practice the move. He gets up from his crouched stance, bends over and rubs his left leg. Richard bows and puts on his worn-out gray Nikes before exiting.


Richard is a nogi Jiu-Jitsu instructor at Cal State Fullerton’s Student Recreation Center. Richard’s passion for the fighting style came about by accident, but it is no accident that the 33-year-old is a world champion in the sport.


Before Jiu-Jitsu consumed his life, Richard wrestled at Fullerton High School. At first he wasn’t interested in wearing tights to fight, but his friend, Christian, pestered him to join the team. The two had planned to get pizza after school one day and Christian told Richard to meet him in the wrestling room. Christian greeted Richard at the door, calmly put his arm around his friend and tossed Richard onto the center of the mat while simultaneously yelling “non-wrestler.”


Alcohol and drugs were richard’s new hobby, and he went from fighting people, to fighting substance abuse.The wrestling team had a hidden rule of roughing up non-wrestlers in their room—Richard was twisted into a pretzel and beaten by the team. Richard still ate with Christian, but he furious with his friend for tricking him. He wanted revenge and getting a good old-fashioned butt whooping was the fuel that ignited his passion for fighting, a passion that burns intensely to this day. He returned the next day to join the team, and before long, he was dishing out the beatings. Being undersized never intimidated Richard and the 5-foot-7-inch, 140-pound fighter regularly competed above his weight class, but found a way to win.


After high school, Richard lost touch with wrestling. He worked odd jobs and hung out with the wrong crowd, picking up bad habits that would hinder him from the life he wanted to live. Alcohol and drugs were Richard’s new hobby, and he went from fighting people, to fighting substance abuse. Ashamed of the man he had become, Richard struggled to find a way out. A phone call from his younger brother, Jason, gave him the wake-up call he needed. Jason wrestled at Orange High School and they needed an assistant coach. As soon as Jason said it was a paid position, Richard took the job. The car smashed Richard’s leg, launching him into the air before he landed on his head. The impact sent his gray Nikes into the next block. The imprint of his body was etched into the white Honda.


Richard couldn’t preach sobriety to his athletes while he was using, so he cut himself off, cold turkey. The kids reignited his passion and gave him a new sense of motivation. He enrolled at Santa Ana College to learn about coaching and at, 27 years old, he joined the joined the prestigious Dons wrestling program led by Vince Silva. The team won every event in the 2009 season and took the top spot in the state championship in the process. Richard received offers from four-year universities like Grand View University, Notre Dame and Columbia. He was on the verge of signing with Columbia when his wrestling career came to a screeching halt.


On the Fourth of July, 2010, Richard was at his friend’s house in Santa Ana, lighting off fireworks when a car came zipping around the corner of the residential neighborhood. Richard turned to run from the car, but he wasn’t fast enough. The car smashed into Richard’s leg, launching him into the air before he landed on his head. The impact sent his gray Nikes into the next block. The imprint of his body was etched into the white Honda.


He slipped in and out of consciousness as a female bystander attempted to revive him, gently slapping his face to keep him awake. The sound of sirens blared as Richard was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Still dazed, Richard had one question for the emergency medical technician: “Am I ever going to wrestle again?”


Richard suffered a compound fracture, snapping both of his lower leg bones in two. The injury required Richard to have a  titanium rod inserted from his knee down to the ankle. His mobility slowed, he was never going to be the wrestler he once was. But he wasn’t ready to give up.


Richard went through rigorous physical training to get back on the mat. The pain he felt in his leg was miniscule compared to the agony of watching his team struggle while he could do nothing to help. He worked in physical therapy sessions to rehabilitate his broken body twice a day and came back from the year-long injury in six months, only to be dealt another blow.


He and his girlfriend of eight years separated, leaving him emotionally crushed. His grades started to slip and he started doubting himself. He lost the two loves of his life and was left with nothing. Richard looked in the mirror one day, reflecting on what he was still able to accomplish with his injury.


John, a biology classmate, urged him to try Jiu-Jitsu. Once again, Richard was hesitant to try a new sport. He went to John’s gym, Team Oyama, just to placate his friend. Richard attended the nogi class, a Jiu-Jitsu class without the formal attire, and the similarities to wrestling drew him in. The obsession began to fester. He entered his first tournament in 2012 as a member of the Lotus Club, and was choked out twice—by the same opponent.


The Lotus Club had five members in the tournament and Richard was the only one who did not receive a medal. The man who once pinned All-Americans in collegiate wrestling couldn’t receive a medal in nogi Jiu-Jitsu. This only added fuel to the fire.


The gi coach, Giva Santana, encouraged Richard to broaden his horizon and try out the other jiujitsu forms. Richard excelled in gi, Jiu-Jitsu in formal attire. On March 21, 2013, he  won the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Pan-Ams as a white belt.


Santana promoted Richard to a blue belt as he stood on the podium as a champion. When the event finished, Richard sat in his car outside of the Bren The Portuguese referee raised Richard’s left hand, still in a fist, announcing him as the world champion.Events Center in Irvine. Tears streamed down his face. The gold medal around his neck, heavy, both physically and emotionally. He knew it couldn’t end there, there was still one challenge he had to complete—a championship.


Richard entered the IBJJF World Championships at Azusa Pacific University on Oct. 4. He choked, foot locked, knee barred, swept and wrist-locked his way to the final, where he matched up Dominic Soto, an opponent that he had previously lost to at the Los Angeles International Open.


The final turned into a defensive battle. Richard’s hand control exceeded Soto’s and he took advantage of this superiority. Richard sensed Soto’s stamina fading then lured him into a takedown attempt by leaving his leg out. Soto took the bait and Richard took him down. The referee awarded the point to Richard and he won 1-0. The Portuguese referee raised Richard’s left hand, still in a fist, announcing him as the world champion.


He stepped on the podium to receive his medal. He knelt down as the medal was put around his neck, a pair of familiar gray Nikes on his feet. The culmination of the low when those Nikes were flung into the next block to the high of the medal around his neck.


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