Mixed Martial Arts training gym builds community through self-defense

Written by: 
Geena DeMaio
Team Pride Academy is a Mixed Martial Arts gym located in Laie.

Community members and BYU-Hawaii students shared how learning from the steadfast coaches of Team Pride Academy have helped them develop a skill and gain confidence. In effort to teach to respect others and trust your own strength, the Whitford family opened Team Pride Academy, a Mixed Martial Arts training gym in Laie.

Amanda Whitford said, “Our goal is to get the community more active and to have a place for the kids to come and stay out of trouble.”

“We like to create a little town of Spartans, but I’m not just creating a town of Spartans but of Stripling Warriors”, Vance Moe-Fonoimoana, coach at TPA, exclaimed boldly.

A variety of MMA are offered including boxing, kickboxing, Casa De Fera Jiu-Jitsu, and wrestling. Additional classes such as ZUU and yoga are extended and available to all ages of interest.

Tiana Ormond, a senior studying peacebuilding, expressed the core idea is to have those who want to train be committed and consistent at Team Pride Academy as envisioned from the instructors.

How TPA Started

Joe and Amanda Whitford from Laie started to coach their children in wrestling four years ago from their own home. The Whitfords placed padding and a single sheet on the side of the house. As Joe Whitford began coaching his sons, his love for wrestling deepened.

Dylan Baker from Hauula shared the reason he started coaching the families. He said it was because he and the instructors have children around the same age. “It was mostly for the kids and then it evolved to the [BYUH] students. It was just meant to pass on to our children. The self-defense became popular in the neighborhood, so we started to see more kids. Then parents wanted to do it too, so we opened up other classes for adults.”

Kickboxing and Muay Thai coach, Moe-Fonoimoana from Laie explained, “Joe is gung-ho. Not only does he work his job, but he does a lot for the community for free. He was already running the wrestling class, so I asked him, ‘Hey can we do the jiu-jitsu? There are the mats there’. He was open and excited, especially having the kickboxing as well.”

Baker said, “When we came to Laie the students heard about it, then asked the parents if they want to join too.”

Amanda included, “More people kept coming and asking to have a class here.” In turn the Whitford family utilized the shelter to side of their home and invested for quality equipment for a hardy gym.

“We had been doing jiu-jitsu for three and a half years and we noticed there weren’t a lot of options for the kids and the community other than football and volleyball. Some of the kids couldn’t do football or volleyball so we wanted to give them another option that is year-round, that is not a seasonal sport,” shared Titus Napoleon, jiu-jitsu coach from Hauula.

Nae’ole shared, “I did sports growing up and I graduated from high school, but they didn’t have much of an outlet, like weightlifting, but it didn’t help that much. It just came at a time when I was looking for something to get exercise and this is a huge source of exercise.”

Dedicated Coaches

The coaches work full time in their professions and dedicate their spare hours to training but feels it’s well worth the devotion. Moe-Fonoimoana explained the instructors coach for free, and although there are fees to join TPA, “it’s a drop in a bucket” as money was allocated to build the gym into a training facility.

He continued to express that the training he does is moving and he is honored to have a small hand in the process. There are five coaches and classes. Team Pride Academy is the only martial arts gym on the North Shore. The next closest locations are in Mililani and Kaneohe. Participants come from Kaneohe for training specifically from TPA coaches as they are highly trained and qualified in the fields.

“Honestly, I don’t want to charge,” Moe-Fonoimoana added. “This is community service. I’m trying to build sports into this community.”

Andrew Ormond, a senior from New Zealand studying I.T., explained, “It’s important not just for training and going over to the gym but for one to get to know people outside of your comfort zone and in the community. Joining helps to connect with a different sort of sphere of person as well.”

Moe-Fonoimoana said he enjoys watching his students evolve. “Just give me two months. Some progress a lot faster than others but the fact of matter is they will progress in those couple months.”

Andrew later noted that although in his past he learned boxing, Coach Vance taught him kickboxing in about two months. Despite many differences in both boxing and kickboxing, Andrew said he feels confident in Coach Vance’s training.

Tiana said, “Our black belt, Coach Dylan, has a belt system different than other gyms. For example, he and his other black belt talk about when someone is ready to get a new belt, and it’s all very individualized.”

Rather than give a belt to someone who meets outlined criteria based primarily on moves, the coaches at TPA study the progress of the students individually. When a concept is mastered the new belt is earned, Tiana explained. She said this approach is very personal and the coaches truly care for the student’s progress. Even in car rides home, the coaches are still reflecting on how they can best help the students.

Critical Self-Defense

Napoleon has been active in self-defense for fifteen years and officially at Team Pride Academy for two years. He said he started jiu-jitsu since it helped a lot of kids with self-defense from being bullied.

“There are bullies everywhere: in school, in sports, in work,” Nakia Nae’ole, jiu-jitsu coach from Laie added. “When you are out in public and in society there are windows everywhere so why not try to learn and have fun while doing it? Why not better your chances?”

Napoleon said, "Jiu-Jitsu is wrestling submission. We use leverage to defeat the opponent. It’s one of the most humane ways to subdue an opponent… instead of punching them in the face or breaking things. We subdue them with joint locks, pressure and chokes to sever our opponents and make sure they don’t come after us.

Napoleon also noted that it is paramount to leave a dangerous situation if possible before contact, and self-defense is to be used as last resort. “We teach primarily self-defense rather than the flashy sport because there’s a difference.”

Napoleon pointed to his head and explained, “Everything should be figured out ‘right here’ before.”

Nae’ole referenced some recent crimes and said, “What irritates me most is that it happens so close. In the community that I grew up in, that’s not something we had to worry about because everyone looked out for each other and for the students.”

“In many altercations, 80% end in the person being on the ground and that is where Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu comes in handy,” explained Andrew. “The training is to teach the smaller person to have the advantage against a bigger person.

“Punching is second nature to humans but being on the ground is not. It will definitely take you out of your comfort zone and improve.”

Amanda shared, “It’s empowering. If something were to happen I know how to get out of a situation. I think that would be especially good for BYU-Hawaii students because many come to Hawaii and think they are just here for fun, but some people are not so aware of their surroundings.”

Tiana said learning these skills allows the trained person to control the attackers in a less violent way and being trained enables them to escape danger. Andrew elaborated that if the attacker is untrained, the trained person has a better chance of self-preservation and safety.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry, that’s why we have to train”, Nae’ole shared as his caution and advice.


Andrew described that growing up jiu-jitsu was not as popular as mixed martial arts in New Zealand. Since TPA offered the trainings Andrew decided to try it out and has been an active participator and now trainer.

There are many couples that attend together and learn from one another. Men rely more on strength in jiu-jitsu, while women usually are more technical.

Moe-Fonoimoana, said, “I think it’s awesome you have this little community. Just at Joe’s house you have kickboxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu, which is a trifecta for UFC. Every fighter in the UFC has to be well prepared in wrestling and well versed in jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. You just have to be you have to know all three if you want to be on that high level.”

“You learn to master your own body and learn to have fun with other people. It’s challenging and it’s a safe environment where you won’t get hurt.”

Baker continued, “You would think they get hurt but there are very few injuries. If they injure themselves it wasn’t because of someone else, it was actually themselves doing something when they are just pushing their body to work… It doesn’t come from somebody else hurting them.”

Tiana agreed that she has become more aware of her body movements and coordination from learning jiu-jitsu.

Lifetime Empowerment

Moe-Fonoimoana shared, “This is a platform, a jump off point where now they are like, ‘Hey look, I can do kick boxing, why should I be scared of volleyball coming at me?’ So now they’ve gained all these skills in athleticism, confidence, and that’s my main point.”

Andrew shared the benefits of the sports are immense and to join is good mentally, socially, physically. He explained that there’s the self-defense side, but also Jiu-Jitsu is a lifestyle.


Andrew said joining TPA will help you to improve yourself and be a lot more tolerable of a different type of situation. He said boxing and kickboxing are quite hard, and they will provide a different aspect for your life. “I encourage all students to try it out. It will be something brand new to them instinctively and physically. The students do not need prior experience before joining to train.”

BYU-Hawaii students and community members are invited to participate in serious inquiry. All ages and all genders are welcome as the training begins as young as five years old.

“We’re probably going to run up some seminars for the community. I’m a bishop on campus at BYU-Hawaii so we would invite the students also,” said Napoleon.

Team Pride Academy can be best reached on their Facebook page.


Date Published: 
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Last Edited: 
Tuesday, October 16, 2018