Most people probably haven’t been in many fights, if any at all. And that’s a good thing. (To be clear, anything before middle school or involving siblings doesn’t count.)

But if a serious physical altercation did occur, would you be ready? Would you know how to handle yourself without panicking? Odds are your left hook isn’t as Tyson-esque as you think it is. Or worse yet, the idea that a violent situation can happen seems so impossible, the thought of how to react hasn’t even occurred.

Mattie Brown thinks of self-defense training as a kind of insurance. Maybe the most important insurance you can invest in. A purple belt and trainer at 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu Jacksonville, Brown has also led an ongoing women’s self-defense course for over a year.

“A lot of people pay for insurance for their car or house and they don’t expect for their house to catch on fire or to get in an accident,” she says. “But jiu-jitsu and self-defense are basically insurance. They insure your life, and you only get one life. You can replace your house, you can replace your car, but you can’t replace your life.”

Brown’s classes consist of knife and gun disarms, aspects of striking and jiu-jitsu, communication, and general awareness. The program, aptly named Athena after the Greek goddess of war and wisdom (wisdom to be aware and avoid; war as a skill to use when necessary), aims to empower women and is fully partnered under 10th Planet Jacksonville.

Like all self-defense, Brown focuses on prevention. When she first moved to Jacksonville about a decade ago, a jiu-jitsu school in a local shopping center would consistently catch her eye. But she never joined a class until an unexpected, unwanted physical altercation with an acquaintance forced her to reconsider her own safety.

Brown explains that, like many women, she realized that too often a predator will be someone known and trusted. And in response she needed to learn how to better handle and defend herself in situations where violence is unavoidable.

“I had a reason to learn how to hit someone,” she says. “I had heard that jiu-jitsu was ground fighting, and so I thought it was a capoeira, low movement type of thing. I didn’t realize I was wrestling.”

At the time, Brown says she didn’t realize jiu-jitsu would have been a better answer for her situation than learning to hit someone, and perhaps a better answer than striking in most situations.

“And I get in [the class] and I thought ‘Oh this is different,’ and it was all guys. I was the only girl, but they were really nice. It was so much fun, and I was hooked my first day.”

So Brown kept coming back and found herself falling in love with the self-defense aspect. From there she was hungry for any outside martial arts information she could get her hands on, from training in knife fighting to various disarms and Muay Thai.

Jiu-jitsu has been a huge cornerstone of powerful, healthy change in Brown’s life. When she was younger and for reasons unknown to her, she had a stutter around men. Within six months of practicing jiu-jitsu, it was completely gone. And now seven years since she first stepped through those doors, Brown is no longer the only woman in the class, and is giving other women the same tools of empowerment.

“I definitely see that [in jiu-jitsu], there’s huge empowerment in how women carry themselves and just having that confidence,” says Brown. “Because generally you’re working with another guy, and you’re able to sweep them, get on top or control them or make them tap so it does in that way definitely empower.”

All photos: Jesse Brantman

Many jiu-jitsu practitioners express how addictive it can be, from being enjoyably challenging and competitive to the humbling aspect of always having something new to learn. And the tight-knit community formed on the mat is another powerful facet of the sport.

“Jiu-jitsu, you get a different bond because you’re trusting someone not to kill you or not to break your arm so there’s this huge aspect of trust,” says Brown. “So it’s this different trust than you have with anyone else anywhere, and it does really build some important bonds I think.”

Often, with anything new or unknown, there’s an element of fear or reluctance to take that first step. Martial arts in particular can be intimidating for any newcomers, maybe more so in some ways for women. But Brown encourages everyone to take that plunge, especially more women.  

“Do it, don’t keep pushing and putting it off,” she says. “That’s what I did, and I wish I had gotten into it sooner. And actually most people, guys and girls, that get into it say ‘man I wish I would have gotten into this when I was a kid!’” 

It just might be the insurance policy that changes, or saves, your life.

This feature originally appeared in Void Magazine Vol. 9, Issue 5, The Sports Issue.