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After a violent childhood, a martial arts teacher passes on lessons in self-defense

Monroig is teaching a self-defense class. Photo: Yiting Sun

Monroig, right, teaching a self-defense class. Photo: Yiting Sun

In a gym facing the street, Yadira Torres stood with her bare feet on the hard wood floor and looked into the mirror on the wall, learning how to grab an assailant from his back and thrust a knee to his chest and suffocate him.

The coach in the mirror was a 35-year-old Puerto Rican with a shiny bald head and a patterned beard. The muscles on his arms bulged out of his red gym suit.

Last year in her Bronx apartment, Torres, 28, did not know how to defend herself when her boyfriend became physically abusive.

She finally broke up with her boyfriend and decided to take action against mistreatment toward women.

“I want to be ready if something like this happens in the future,” said Torres.

A month ago, she began her first class at Musuko Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing Academy, a training center on Webster Avenue in the Fordham section of the Bronx.

Torres was learning self-defense skills from Stevenson Monroig, who stood in front of the mirror demonstrating the front kick technique in slow motion to a group of 13 women.

Violence haunted Monroig’s childhood. When he was eight, his stepfather stabbed his mother 24 times with an ice pick. He did not see the ordeal happen, but watching his mother in tears in a hospital bed was powerful enough to steer his life to a different direction.

That turbulent childhood motivated him to train in martial arts to protect his mother, and now, to protect other people who might face the same kind of danger.

“It is my way of giving back to the community,” said Monroig.

Monroig charges $10 for a one-hour class, and often extends it to two hours. For him, helping his students learn is more important than profit. His center stands out for having a coach who has experienced the consequences of violence and has spent his entire career fighting against it.

After his mother got stabbed, Monroig was determined to master the kicks and thrashings that could scare off his stepfather. But he had to wait two years until his mother finally left the man. That is when he began practicing gin jan do, jujitsu, and katsugo with Jorge Vazcones, a martial artist in the Bronx.

Monroig does not allow slackers in his class. Photo: Yiting Sun

Monroig does not allow slackers in his class. Photo: Yiting Sun

He soon became a star student, with three black belts in the three kinds of martial arts he practiced by the age of 18.

Today, right above the mirror on the gym room wall there is a picture of Vazcones at the age of 44 dressed in Japanese style martial arts suits with a folding fan in his hand.

Monroig began giving back at age 16, when he started teaching for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation at the Pelham Fritz Recreation Center in Manhattan, earning $20 per hour.

Under his instruction, kids who couldn’t afford going to regular martial arts schools learned gin jan do, jujitsu and katsugo.

Two years later, Monroig opened his own studio in the Tremont section of the Bronx.

This March, when he had so many students that his old studio was overcrowded, he opened a new training center on Webster Avenue, where both kids and housewives, cops and ordinary citizens come to learn how to grasp an attacker’s head with both hands and thrust a knee to his groin.

Monroig, a divorced father of two, now mentors 100 students through mixed martial arts classes from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday. They come from Inwood, Yonkers, and of course, from the Bronx.

Students learn life-saving lessons with Monroig. Photo: Yiting Sun

Students learn life-saving lessons with Monroig. Photo: Yiting Sun

These could be lifesaving lessons in the Bronx, where the murder rate is up nearly 22 percent this year, according to New York Police Department statistics.

Because of his mother’s experience, Monroig pays particular attention to women students.“I educate the women, make them more aware of the signs of a potential batterer,” said Monroig, who teach them both mental awareness and actual attack techniques.

Monroig said he does not want to simply teach his students how to fight, but also how to spot signs of danger and avoid getting into a fight.

“The moment a man puts his hands on you, it’s a big sign,” he told students at a recent class. “You got to leave right there.”

Monroig urged his students to yell if they are attacked. “If you make noise, you create witnesses,” he said. “They don’t want somebody like that.”

After the lecture, he drilled the students in techniques.

One student, Nia Palacio, wore a shoulder strap tied to a wall, and practiced attacking a man with her elbows and knees. The point was to simulate the situation in which two men threaten a woman from both back and front.

Palacio, 25, a law student at New York University and a Bronx resident,  liked her first self-defense class.  “If somebody comes after me, or attacks me, I’ll know how to handle the situation,” she said.

Long-time students of Monroig said the self-defense training changed their lives.

Lynda Rodriguez, 27, a student at Lehman College who lives in the Bronx, said two years of training with Monroig helped her transform from a girly girl to a fearless woman.

“I feel I’m stronger now, and I’m able to venture into different avenues,” said Rodriguez.

Before taking up martial arts, Rodriguez was limited to traditional female jobs such as secretary or store clerk. But as a census worker during the summer, she knocked on strangers’ doors, not knowing what was behind that door. “If I didn’t have this training, I wouldn’t want to take that type of job,” said Rodriguez.

In her security job at 40/40 Club, Rodriguez’s responsibility is to search women for drugs and guns and drag them out if they misbehave.

Rodriguez thinks this self-defense training program is especially important for people in the Bronx. “Living in the middle of the Bronx, you could jump into so many different avenues,” she said. “If you don’t build yourself up and stay disciplined, you are lost.”

Learning self-defense is not limited to ordinary people who might end up in a dangerous situation. Monroig’s students also include law enforcement professionals who need to learn new techniques.

Rene, 36, a Customs and Border Protection officer who did not want his last name used because of his job, participates in self-defense courses at work. But about two months ago, he added Monroig’s courses to his schedule as well because he felt he needed more training.

“Here is intense,” said Rene, who lives in the Fordham section of the Bronx. “I can be more in shape, so I’ll be ready if something does happen.”

Rene says much of his work is on the Mexican border, where he often faces the unexpected when entering a warehouse or other buildings where drugs are sold or distributed.

Monroig wishes he could lower the crime rate in the Bronx. Photo: Yiting Sun

Monroig hopes he can help lower the crime rate in the Bronx. Photo: Yiting Sun

“If certain things arise, I have to use what I learned here to defend myself, so I can arrest them and come on top, and go home to my wife and kids at night,” he said.

Rene said the most useful technique he learned at the studio is grappling, which is a technique to control a person on the floor, because the first thing on any drug dealer’s mind is to grab the officer’s weapon. With grappling, Rene said, he can subdue the drug dealer and take his weapon instead.

Monroig says he hopes that teaching law-biding citizens how to defend themselves could lower the overall crime rate in the Bronx. “Everyday they don’t have to use the techniques learned here is a plus,” he said.

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