In October of 2010, NY based Professional Muay Thai Champion, Chris Romulo and his wife Sarah, took all they had; mind, body, soul and a vision to start the 1st ever Muay Thai gym in Rockaway Beach, NY. With the help of a handful of dedicated students, they rented and gutted out an abandoned storefront that hadn’t been occupied in over a decade. The place was the size of a typical bodega in New York with rundown plastered walls, a rusted tin ceiling hanging from the rafters and a bare plywood floor over dirt and sand. The Romulo’s and their students scraped, hammered, painted, welded, cut and taped until their fingers bled so that they could open up CROM Martial Training to the people on the peninsula called The Rockaways. It was a jam-packed year of not only opening their gym, but also Chris and Sarah expecting their first child together, Chris winning his 1st professional Muay Thai championship belt, and developing a stable of fighters. Romulo felt like he was standing on top of Mount Everest. Living his dream with Sarah and his son Jube. He was helping his community thrive while doing something he loved.
But as Mother Nature and the universe would have it, sometimes great things have to come to an abrupt halt. Almost, exactly 2 years later, the news started hyping up “The Perfect Storm” aka Super Storm Sandy. This storm was supposed to be something that one would only experience once every hundred years. The ironic thing about Sandy was, just one year earlier Hurricane Irene was also hyped as the storm of all storms. Hurricane Irene, fortunately, was a bust, leaving people skeptical of what Hurricane Sandy had in store for the East Coast. But on October 29th, 2012, in less than 24 hours, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the Rockaways, leaving it under 6-8’ of water from the ocean surge and overflow from Jamaica Bay. Hundreds of homes burned to the ground, leaving people fighting for their lives. For the Romulo’s, everything they strived to build, in the few years that they were living there, was drowned by the waves that also ripped a boardwalk to shreds and sprawled it out 3 blocks away off of its foundation. The Romulo’s were left homeless and gymless for 6 months, but they decided to not quit and figure out a way to come back bigger and better than before. And within 5 years, and many temporary locations later, their business is thriving.
When reports of Hurricane Maria started spreading in Sept 2017, Chris and Sarah started getting flashbacks of the challenges they went through nearly 5 years prior. They could empathize with what Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries were about to go through and prayed for the best. When all was said and done Puerto Rico was hit 20 times harder than most people expected and the devastation was unbelievable. Almost immediately, Sarah started reaching out to the Rockaway community to pay it forward and gather as much relief help as possible to send down to people on the island.
5 months later they were contacted by Paul Rossy, Head Muay Thai instructor at Black Mamba BJJ in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. The martial arts and combat sports community felt the direct impact leaving them in desolation. “I remember walking around my neighborhood after the hurricane and telling myself how are we gonna get through this?” said Rossy. After the hurricane, most of the island’s gyms and dojos were knocked out and didn’t come back. They either got ravaged as a consequence of the natural disaster or somehow were affected by the lack of electrical power or financial means to support rent and instructors. The dojo Black Mamba BJJ formerly known as Jose Velez BJJ, was about to collapse. The original owner, black belt BJJ player Jose Velez, was a great instructor and human being, lost it all and had no other choice but to move stateside. He lost everything. He didn’t have any other choice. “I thought about all the friends that I would miss if they moved out or wouldn’t be able to afford classes at our dojo since a new economy, and socio-cultural context had begun.” said Rossy. The dojo, the family, was about to be broken by the struggle after María.
“After a month post Hurricane Maria I received a text from one of my students asking me if I was willing to keep giving classes at the gym. It caught me off guard since I thought that it was over. When I asked Jorge, one of our BJJ instructors, what was going on, he told me that the team, the family, was committed to staying open despite the uncertainty. Black Mamba was the rebirth of our family and the creation of a new context. Students picked up the gym and created a non-profit combat sport club. From there it became our mission to start supporting the Muay Thai scene. Or whatever was left of it to be honest.” said Rossy.
Rossy met Chris around 8 years ago at a Muay Thai event in NYC. “We spoke briefly that day and later that night, I saw him fighting and winning in devastating fashion. Cool, calm, collected, but most of all humble,” said Rossy. Paul reached out to Chris in January 2018 and explained that he wanted to hold a Muay Thai seminar in his gym to keep his eager students, and other Muay Thai students on the island, on the mats and ready to battle back emotionally, psychologically and physically against any lingering trauma from Hurricane Maria. “When I asked Chris what would be his seminar fee to bring him out to the island, without hesitating, Chris told me that it wouldn’t feel right charging us after what we have been through. My jaw dropped after such a selfless act,” said Rossy.
“I jumped at the opportunity to help by coming out to Puerto Rico and facilitating a seminar, as this was my chance to once again give back to the Muay Thai community. Back when Hurricane Sandy knocked us down for an 8 count, the tight-knit Muay Thai family did everything in their power to get us back up on our feet,” said Chris.
Chris knows what it feels like to get knocked against the ropes; staggered and confused. But he’s always had support from coaches, family and loved ones to help him find the way up. So, for the rest of his life, he has understood the value of outstretching a hand to help pull others in need up the mountain of life. “Coming out to Puerto Rico was an inspirational experience for me because sharing the art that I love not only brings me joy, but I know that many others benefit from what I can pass on”. said Chris.
At the seminar on April 7th it was so much more than an opportunity to train and learn proper technique. It didn’t matter if students were advanced or beginners, children or adults, everyone was there for a purpose. Their collective love for Muay Thai, their collective love for Martial arts, their collective love for country and family. It was also a gathering of old and new friends of the sport. Chris and his family taught this tight-knit group the value of family and overcoming obstacles…they taught them what it means to CHAMP UP…
Over the few days that the Romulo’s were in Puerto Rico they walked the beautiful city and country streets, there were plenty of remnants of the damage that was left behind, boarded up homes, powerless neighborhoods in the mountains and dying palm trees. “What I’ve learned over the years is that right alongside destruction is creation. As I gave a speech to the students on overcoming adversity after the seminar, I shared with them that my hope is that I have planted the seed of Muay Thai back in Puerto Rico and that I am excited to watch it grow and flourish” said Chris.
Looking forward, with the all positive feedback from the seminar, Romulo and Rossy are planning to host a few more events in 2018 to ensure that Muay Thai will continue to be cultivated with quality and integrity throughout the island. The follow-up workshops will cater to current and prospective coaches.