Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is quickly rising into one of the most popular forms of martial arts today. Fabjon Lunaj is an accomplished Brazilian Jiu Jitzu practitioner: he is humble, positive, persistent, patient, a great teacher willing to teach others and be “coachable”. He has the traits of a successful BJJ practitioner. Lunaj started lifting weights and bodybuilding as a hobby then later he incorporated Brazilian Jiu Jitzu (BJJ) into his MMA training. He has fought in mixed martial art matches, Muay Thai and competed in BJJ tournaments. Based in New York City, Lunaj has won major local Brazilian Jiu Jitzu tournaments including, NAGA, Grappler’s Quest, The Good Fight.
For the past 4 years Fabjon Lunaj has been training at the East Coast United BJJ & MMA Academy in New York, where he also met the love of his life and his BJJ partner Danielle Simone. Lunaj received his early BJJ training from Head Instructor Tito Hartz and Jojo Guarim, from ECUBJJ (East Coast United Brazilian Jiu Jitzu) in White Plains.
“I came to the United States with my family in July of 1999. We moved in an area of the Bronx where there is a large Albanian community. I went to public high school. I still don’t know how I survived without getting stabbed or going to jail. There were fights every day and people were always getting into trouble. My father passed away in the summer between my junior and senior year. I began working a lot more after my Dad passed away. I felt like I needed to step up and take on some of the responsibilities of the house and help take care of my Mom and sister.”
“After I graduated high school, I went to a local college. I still loved soccer and played for my college and various club teams. After a while, I saw that soccer wasn’t that popular here in the States and I didn’t think there was a future in it like there could be if I was still in Europe. I started lifting weights for body building as a hobby. I came across Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and it has literally changed my life!”
Born in Shkodra, Albania, Fabjon Lunaj spent his childhood playing soccer for the city’s youth academy. He completed his Associates Degree from the Technical Career College in New York. Lunaj hopes Brasilian Jiu Jitsu will soon turn into an Olympic Sport and hopes to one day form an Albanian Top Team.
“I was born in a city in the northwest of Albania called Shkodra. I lived there until the age of 14 where I passed most of my time going to school and playing soccer for the city’s youth academies. I spent my summers at the beach in a beach town called Velipoja or in a village where my father’s family is from, north of Shkodra, called Bajza. I still have family that lives in Bajza. I go back to Albania often and I make sure to go and visit my grandmother and my family who live there.”
NY Elite Exclusive interview with Fabjon Lunaj, Brasilian Jiu Jitsu Practitioner
NY Elite: What sparked your interest in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)?
Fabjon Lunaj: Well, I was into body building and having big arms and huge pecs, but after a while just lifting weights got boring. I wanted to try something that was more challenging, where I could test myself in a way and keep me on the edge. This was the same time the UFC was getting popular. I have to say that kind of sparked it. I joined a little local MMA gym where it was mostly kickboxing. One of the instructors there had trained Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and would show us some techniques. At the time I didn’t understand what I was seeing and said to myself this would never work. A person could never defend themselves with these techniques.
I went to a BJJ tournament in NJ where I competed and lost. We were mostly training kickboxing and I didn’t believe in the techniques anyway at that time. After I competed I decided to wait around to watch these 2 “big name” Jiu Jitsu guys, who at the time, I had never heard of. I didn’t understand much about BJJ but the whole time, one of the guys was on his butt and seemed like he was sitting down (even though he was clearly moving around a lot, but doing, what, I didn’t know) and the other guy was standing most of the time, and on his feet.
The match ended with the referee’s decision for the guy who was on his butt. I was amazed. I couldn’t understand how the guy who was sitting could be the winner. It was at that time I wanted to learn more about BJJ. The match was between Ryan Hall, the king of triangles at that time (a BJJ technique that uses legs to choke you out) and the underdog Mike Wacker. Not sure if they’ll get to read this article but if they do, I owe them a big thank you!!!! That match really sparked my interest in BJJ.
NY Elite: How often do you train? What’s a class of BJJ like at your academy like?
Fabjon Lunaj: I always try to make it to training at least 4 to 5 times a week. If I don’t go during the week I try to make it up on the weekends. I also try and go to the gym at least twice a week for some strength and conditioning to compliment my Jiu Jitsu.
A class at my academy starts with the warm ups that utilize some basic movements essential in BJJ. We sometimes do drills and then we learn 2 or 3 techniques. After that we go “live” and try to practice the techniques we learned sparring. Before we try to choke each other out (hahaha) we start by slapping hands and “rocks” (a pound with the fists). It’s a way of showing good sportsmanship and respect for your opponent. That an important part of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
NY Elite: What is the difference between “gi” and “nogi” in BJJ?
Fabjon Lunaj: Gi means you wear a Kimono. It looks like pants and a jacket. In no gi, you just wear shorts and a rash guard. In the gi you’re allowed to grab your opponent’s clothing/kimono to use it on your advantage but in no gi you cannot. Nogi is more similar to submission wrestling.
NY Elite: Can Brazilian Jiu Jitsu turn into an Olympic sport?
Fabjon Lunaj: Actually there’s talk that it will be demonstrated in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Every Olympic Games they introduce a new sport and then it is up the Olympic committee to add it as a sport. For example Tae Kwon Do was demonstrated in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea and 12 years later it became an Olympic sport in 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. So there might be hope for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu too.
NY Elite: What is the philosophy behind this sport?
Fabjon Lunaj: Well it turned into a sport the last 30-40 years or so. I may not be exactly right, but it all started as a self-defense martial art. It then turned into sport that focuses mostly on grappling and ground fighting. It originally derived from Japan, from Judo. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu the smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger aggressor by using good technique, leverage, and by taking the fight to the ground. Where he/she will apply joint locks and choke hold to defeat the opponent or to defuse a fight.
NY Elite: What do you think is the true essence and beauty of this art?
Fabjon Lunaj: Jiu Jitsu derived from Japan. Jiu Jitsu means the “gentle art”. We like to say Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the gentle art of breaking bones ( hahaha). The whole beauty behind is how someone smaller and weaker can take another to the ground by using leverage and proper technique. It also teaches ways to control a person larger and stronger and avoid being controlled or dominated.
Jiu Jitsu is not about strength or exerting a lot of energy. It should be fluid in a way, trying to find or create the path of least resistance, instead of combat with brute strength. Jiu Jitsu also teaches you life lessons. In a real life situation, you are put under pressure and have to think quickly and react quicker. If you chose wrong, you might not have a second chance. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, you are still in a high pressure situation, but if you don’t make the best decision, you just tap and start all over again, you get a second, third, fourth chance. So in BJJ, because each time you spar, you may be put under that intense pressure, you learn you have to stay calm, focused and use what the techniques that you learned from class. Same goes for real life situations, not just in physical confrontations but in decision makings too.
NY Elite: What are your views on current BJJ rules? What is allowed and what isn’t?
Fabjon Lunaj: With the growing of the sport the number and size of the tournaments are growing as well. The tournaments can have different rules, but generally the divisions are broken into belt level, weight and age. In BJJ there is a belting system which starts at white, then, blue, purple, brown, black, and then later on red and black (Coral) and then red belt, where you become a grand master. The higher belts are allowed to do more types of submissions. Most tournaments have a point system, but some are submission only. In the tournaments with points, the referee can award points for dominant positions, or give advantage points if he believes someone is attempting submissions. I generally agree with the way the rules are.
NY Elite: What competition have you been a part of?
Fabjon Lunaj: The academy I train at is a mixed martial arts school that concentrates in teaching Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I’ve fought in mixed martial art matches, Muay Thai and competed in BJJ tournaments. I try to compete as much as my “real” job allows. I mostly do local tournaments because I can’t travel far because of my work.
NY Elite: What do you focus on as a competitor during tournaments?
Fabjon Lunaj: As a competitor I mostly focus on my mental game and also building my stamina through sparring and some weight training. I used to focus on the other fighter, but I stopped doing that. I was wasting energy on thinking about their performance and what they were going to do. I realized I should just focus on myself. Instead of worrying about winning or losing. I just try and do better than the last time and sharpen myself each time I compete. If I beat the guy across from me I think that’s just a bonus. Perfection in BJJ doesn’t exist but I’m always pushing towards that direction.
NY Elite: What are your accomplishments up to date?
Fabjon Lunaj: I haven’t competed as much as I would like, but I have won few major local BJJ tournaments ( NAGA, Grappler’s Quest, The Good fight) In the coming year, I hope to stay healthy and make time to compete a lot more.
NY Elite: How has BJJ influenced your life?
Fabjon Lunaj: BJJ changed my life. There was a period when I stopped working out and started drinking and partying a lot. I began training a little MMA at the school where it was mostly kick boxing and one of the trainers would show us some Jiu Jitsu “stuff”. Then the tournament happened in NJ where it sparked the interest in me. I went looking and scouting BJJ gyms in and around the NYC. Some couldn’t fit my schedule and some I couldn’t afford at the time so I kinda gave up on it and went back to lifting weights and drinking and partying 3-4 nights a week.
Until about 4 years ago a MMA/BJJ academy opened up right around the corner from where I live. I saw the Brazilian flag on the canopy and was really hoping it wasn’t a new restaurant. Since Jiu Jitsu, I slowed a lot on the drinking and partying and I live a healthy life style. I also have to add that through Jiu Jtsu I met the love of my life who I’m going to marry this summer. We both train BJJ and that’s how we solve most of our arguments. We put on our kimonos slap hands and rock and it’s war. ( hahaha – I’m kidding, but we do spar and train together).
After I started training BJJ I have to say that I haven’t gotten into a street fight or bar fight which I was much more likely to get into before. Now I’m confident enough to walk away from a fight. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. This is funny, but it’s true. I think if everybody trained in Jiu Jitsu the world would be a much better place!!!! I love Jiu Jitsu so much that even when I take vacations I search nearby Jiu Jitsu schools so I can get in some training. People from all different walks of life train Jiu Jitsu. I share the mats with people that I thought I’d never socialize with. Along the way I have made so many friends – even outside of NY – and I can’t wait to go visit them. Pirata and VAVA!!!!!!
NY Elite: Fabjon, you also are thinking about the idea of forming Albanian Top Team. Tell us a little bit more about this?
Fabjon Lunaj: I have contacts with other Albanian guys who train and fight MMA, BJJ, Muay Thai, Boxing, Wrestling and Judo from Denmark Italy, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland , Albania and here in the States. I always tell them that we should form an Albanian Top team. I have said it more as an idea, but they all like the idea so maybe one day, who knows.
NY Elite: Tell us your involvement in training the youth?
Fabjon Lunaj: Before when I had more free time I’d come to the academy early and help Coach train the kids classes whenever I could. I was teaching an adult classes at my school up until very recently as well. I love teaching. It helps me sharpen my own skills at the same time that I am providing instruction to others. I believe to be a good Jiu Jitsu teacher you need to interact a lot with the students and pay attention to them during class. You should correct when you see them do the technique wrong or missing details.
NY Elite: BJJ is bully proof and helps build kid’s confidence. What are some of the important lessons kids can take away from this sport?
Fabjon Lunaj: Signing your child into a Jiu Jitsu gym can come with so many benefits. BJJ would be the best sport you start your child in because it can promote confidence, discipline, respect and many physical benefits. Most BJJ gyms preach and enforce positive attitudes and humble behaviors. Children from a young age imitate what they see and listen. This is where Jiu Jitsu comes in, to help shape a child’s attitude. A BJJ school should have a positive atmosphere where there is a lot of respect for the coach and other students who are their partners that they train with. Plus BJJ is one of the most practical martial arts right now for outside the gym, especially with all the bullying that is going on.
According to dosomething.org over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year. I can assure you that if all those 3.2 million students trained BJJ I’ll guarantee you that at least 3 million out of those 3.2 won’t be bullied or won’t let the person next to them get bullied. They can take a lot of life lessons from it to never give up even when they are under pressure or in bad situations. In class they spar and they’re put in bad situations all the time and they have to stay calm and think of the best and fastest possible way to get out of the situation (in BJJ when you’re close to getting choked or joint locked). That works in everyday life too nut just in children but with adults too I believe. That makes them more aware of their surroundings. In this case talking about bullies even if they’re heavier or bigger than your child.
BJJ doesn’t promote violence, but if it came to someone attacking your child who has had some time training BJJ he’ll be able to stay calm and neutralize the situation and put it under control or if the attacker doesn’t stop to choke him out through proper technique and leverage that was taught in class. For him or her that will be another day at the BJJ GYM! On top of that the healthy life style and physical benefits cause of the exercises for the warm ups, the drills for the techniques and then the live sparring. All of that it will make them burn a lot of calories and they would want to perform better and better as time goes by. How can they perform any better by eating junk food and drinking sodas and play video games? I don’t think so. Then they’re going to want to eat clean in order to perform better on the mats or in the tournaments if they want to follow that path. So if you’re reading this and have children, go on google search the nearest BJJ gym do a little research on the academy and sign your child up. They’ll thank you later. I wish I had started this when I was a lot younger.
NY Elite: How do the rules fit for the kids?
Fabjon Lunaj: For kids they’re usually stricter with the rules and the referees are more cautious. The rules vary on the tournaments and belt level type. Every tournament has its own rules and scoring system even for the kids. They’re stricter with the kids than the adults.
NY Elite: Do you feel that you have the support of the team?
Fabjon Lunaj: Yes most definitely. I feel like I have the support of my East Coast United BJJ team, which we are a pretty big team with 4 locations now in New York: Bronx, Queens, White Plains and Portchester. My head Instructor Tito Hartz helped shape the Jiu Jitsu in me from the beginning and Jojo Guarim from the White Plains ECUBJJ. Special thanks go to all my team mates too for always giving me your best Jiu Jitsu on the mats.
Least but not last special thanks go to my best friend, nutritionist, BJJ partner, life partner, my fiancé and future wife Danielle Simone for always pushing me to do better not just in BJJ but in all aspects of life. Can’t forget the owner and head instructor of Tirana MMA Center Rrezart Spahia and Julian Maloku for always being amazing hosts, always making me feel at home, every time I visit Tirana in Albania. I’d like to also thank Dorian Lapaj, head instructor of Gracie Barra Saranda, Albania for running an awesome summer camp in the beautiful coastal city of Saranda this past summer!
NY Elite: What other talents do you have?
Fabjon Lunaj: Since I played soccer from a younger age I can do a lot of tricks with a soccer ball. Can juggle 3 oranges at the same time. When I was young I thought I was going to be a Picaso.
NY Elite: What are your plans for 2016?
Fabjon Lunaj: Plan on competing a lot more once I heal 100 % from injuries I have accumulated throughout training, Traveling and training Jiu Jitsu all over the United States.