Zac Cunningham's Jiu-Jitsu Story ~ From Being Bullied To Being An Inspiration

    Submission Shark Community | Instagram: @zaccunningham13

    Zac Cunningham BJJ and Quote

    Full Name: Zac Cunningham

    Age: 21

    Belt Colour: Purple Belt

    Professor: Rener and Ryron Gracie

    Short Term Goals: Continue to grow with jiu-jitsu, finish up college, become better at every role in life I play (Instructor, student, boyfriend, son, etc), become more healthy, and get 20,000 Instagram followers.

    Submission Shark: 

    From hating those "Stupid Pajama Pants" to inspiring others to try them on, Zac Cunningham managed to find tremendous self-growth through Jiu-Jitsu. After being bullied, he was introduced to BJJ and continued to work towards his new goal of being the best version of himself. It's amazing to see how much of a transformation its made for him.

    This is a great read for anyone that wants to become an instructor, been a victim of bullying, or is just a fan of Gracie jiu-jitsu. In this article, we discuss how effective jiu-jitsu is for relieving mental stress, how it can help people understand each other better, how to defend yourself against bullies and much more!

    Zac and I both agree that BJJ should be promoted more as it can help many more people that may not know about this art. Please share if you enjoy this article and/or if you feel like it can help someone improve their lives.

    How long have you been doing jiu-jitsu for? 

    7 1/2 years

    Where do you train out of?

    Gracie University Headquarters in Torrance, California.

    Do you prefer gi or no-gi?


    Have your instructors helped you in other aspects of life other than jiu-jitsu?

    Zac Cunningham with Rener Gracie and Ryron Gracie

    No doubt, they helped me become the man I am today.

    What are some lessons you learned from jiu-jitsu that applies to everyday life?

    That you can handle whatever life throws at you, there is no reason to tap to pressure.

    How often do you train?

    A couple of times a week


    What made you want to start training?

    When I was growing up I was a military brat, my Dad was in the Air Force so we moved around quite a bit. I was also very athletic my childhood, I was a five-time all-star baseball player, and I also played football and basketball. These were all the sports I played while living in Nashua, New Hampshire, however when it was time to move from New Hampshire to Los Angeles, California I got discouraged, and quit all my sports.

    I also got bullied right away as soon as I started school. I moved to El Segundo, California which is a very rich community, I wasn't poor, but I definitely wasn't as well off as the local kids from El Segundo.

    Zac Cunningham Bullied

    They would make fun me for my hair, for wearing the same pair of shoes or pants a couple of days in a row, for not owning a house and having to rent, for being fat, it was rough. Because of this, I started eating my feelings, I would just go to school, go home, and eat. My snack of choice was a quarter pound zip-lock bag filled to the brim with pepperidge farm rainbow goldfish that I would eat twice a day on top of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

    I gained even more weight, and I gained it fast because these habits continued for 4-5 months. By the end of it, I was 13 years old, 5 feet 2 inches tall, and weighed 155 pounds.


    My parents had enough, they forced me to do jiu-jitsu. My parents decided to pick what was Gracie Academy on Artesia Blvd. in Torrance, California just because of “how well done and professional their website was compared to the other schools” they looked into, no one in my family had any idea what they were doing, or what they were signing me up for. I was not having it, I was furious at my parents for making me do jiu-jitsu, especially on my day off, because my first day was on MLK day, and I just wanted to eat goldfish and lay in bed.

    I also felt like jiu-jitsu and “wearing those stupid pyjamas” was going to get me bullied even more. I was dragged in and literally forced to do it, it was on January 17th, 2012 and the class was Class 5 of the Combatives curriculum, Punch Block Series Stages 1-4, with the Guillotine Choke. Even though I was forced to do it, I fell in love, and I couldn't even fight it, I found my passion.

    I wanted to be in the building all the time, it was the only place I actually felt accepted and where I felt like I could fully be myself, my parents signed up my little brother for kids classes, and I would just sit and watch.

    Zac Cunningham Gracie Academy

    After watching for a year, I asked if I could help out and just walk around and volunteer, I was told I could, and the passion increased even more. After doing that for a bit I wanted more responsibility in the building, so I asked if I could help out with anything anyone needed help within an internship, they said yes.

    So on top of assisting with kids classes and training, I helped fold towels, clean gis, bathrooms, mats, helped with the shipping department, I would shred loads of papers for hours on end, help with the front desk, I carried boxes, and literally anything they needed to be done, I did it the best of my ability.


    Then I got my first private student a couple of years later while doing all of that, then with time I got a couple more private students, then eventually I became a bigger assistant in group classes for kids, and now a couple years later and fast forward to today I am the youngest lead instructor at Gracie University Headquarters, I teach about ten to fifteen private classes a week, and now I run the kids classes, and the Bullyproof program at Gracie University and assist in the beginner adult classes.

    Hard work pays off and I love where this journey has taken me so far, but this is still just the beginning and there is so much more to achieve! 

    Do you plan on training your whole life?

    Yes, I plan on teaching and training my whole life.



    What’s it about jiu-jitsu that makes it so addicting?

    I think the positivity from it, and the fact that it never ends, there is always something new to learn and explore for everyone.



    What has jiu-jitsu done for your physical health?

    As I previously stated when I first started I was 13 years old, 155 pounds, and 5 feet 2 inches tall. Now I am 21 years old, 190 pounds, and 6 feet 1 inch tall. So jiu-jitsu literally taught me how and why I should take care of myself and my well being.

    Has jiu-jitsu benefited your mental health?

    There is no question that jiu-jitsu has saved my life. If I didn't have jiu-jitsu I seriously might not be here today because I really struggled a lot and jiu-jitsu was always there for me when I needed it.

    If you could restart your jiu-jitsu journey, would you do anything differently?

    No, I think that concept itself is part of the journey

    What’s your advice for someone that’s never tried jiu-jitsu before but is interested in trying it?



    You will never regret it, and if you do regret it for some crazy reason, you can find me or contact me and we can figure it out :)

    Do you have any aspirations in jiu-jitsu?

    I have a bunch of different goals depending on the subject of jiu-jitsu, mainly with teaching and training. My main training goals are just to improve every day, and of course to become a black belt, both of which I know will happen with time.

    My main teaching goals right now are to improve at it every day, to one day have my own beginners adult class soon that I teach at the headquarters, and to travel the whole world to teach and spread the art, which are also goals I know will happen with time. These aspirations all come together to form the big overall goal which how I want to impact jiu-jitsu, and people in a positive way, and I also want to be the best I can possibly be whether its in training or in teaching.

    Zac Cunningham Teaching Jiu-Jitsu at the Certified Training Center in Osaka, Japan
    Zac Cunningham teaching at the Certified Training Center in Osaka, Japan 

    What’s your favourite move?

    Arm Triangles are my thing right now.

    Zac Cunningham Arm Triangle BJJ

    If you didn’t discover jiu-jitsu, where do you think you’d be now?

    It is very difficult to tell, but possibly not even alive, I'm very thankful that this was the path that fate and God has chosen for me, I wouldn't want any aspect of my life on or off the mat any other way.

    Where Would You Be Right Now If You Didn't Discover Jiu Jitsu? Dead or in Jail... | Alex Baker's Story

    Where Would You Be Right Now If You Didn't Discover Jiu-Jitsu? Dead or in Jail... | Alex Baker's Story

    Would you like to see the sport become more mainstream?

    Yes, I truly think jiu-jitsu will make the whole world a better place, I’d personally prefer the self-defence or submission only aspect of jiu-jitsu to become more mainstream than anything else but at the same time we are all team jiu-jitsu and any positive jiu-jitsu exposure to the world is a great thing!

    Running a Jiu Jitsu School Assembly with Bobbie Timario!

    Running a Jiu-Jitsu School Assembly with Bobbie Timario!

    Have any of your training partners pushed you to reach your full potential?

    Gracie University Training Partners Zac Cunningham

    Yes, I believe that all of them do in a very positive and unique way, especially at Gracie University.

    Zac Cunningham with Brian T-City Ortega back in 2014

    Zac Cunningham with Brian T-City Ortega back in 2014

    When you were first starting, what was the most difficult concept of jiu-jitsu that you had trouble getting?

    When I first started I was very floppy and loose, I was way too nice and afraid I was going to hurt someone or get myself hurt if I put my full effort into techniques. I would try my best but I would feel guilty to fully try techniques, luckily it was a phase I grew out of so now I can actually get techniques down and practice them better and more safely.

    Zac Cunningham GST North Carolina

    GST North Carolina Zac Cunningham

    GST North Carolina

    GST North Carolina

    If you could roll with any practitioner, dead or alive, who would it be?

    I would want to roll or just talk to Helio Gracie

    Zac Cunningham and his brother with a picture of Helio Gracie

    What makes you want to inspire and motivate others?

    Zac Cunningham Inspiring Students at Gracie BJJ Academy

    A lesson I’ve learned about jiu-jitsu is that none of this is about me, it is bigger than me. This is all about jiu-jitsu, and jiu-jitsu has had such a positive impact on me, and my life that I like to say I literally owe a life debt to jiu-jitsu, and the Gracie Family, one that is impossible to pay back, but it is something that I can try my best to pay back by spreading the art, spreading jiu-jitsu, and hopefully impacting people and the world with or without jiu-jitsu in a positive way, the same way that jiu-jitsu itself impacted me.

    At the end of the day that is what it is all about, that is why I am so passionate, and why I do what I do. Because I know that the world needs this and that there are still people out there that don't have it, and I know that those people need it as much as or even more than I needed it right now at this moment.

    With Grandmaster Rorion Gracie at 15 years old
    Zac Cunningham with Grandmaster Rorion Gracie at 15 years old

    Was there a difficult moment in your life where jiu-jitsu helped you get through it? If so, please explain.

    When I moved to California even though I joined jiu-jitsu 4-5 months into the move and into the bullying, that bullying still lasted for five years, from eighth grade all the way to the end of my senior year in high school.

    It was just different bullies and circumstances I had to deal with, and I struggled because I felt like something was wrong with me, sometimes I still struggle with that, to be honest, however, Gracie Academy which is now Gracie University in Torrance were the only places I could go, and fully be myself and not have to worry about people being messed up to me, it took away pressure, it was my safe space and it became my number one spot to hang out.

    This caused me to stay out of trouble and stay on the right path, being in this environment constantly taught me how to be a better person on and off the mat. A lot of the traits I carry that make me who I am today come from either my parents, the Gracies or both.

    My goal is to be the best version of myself I can be by just being responsible, respectful, caring, and by trying to spread positivity to everyone I can. I am even straight edge (no alcohol and drugs) and I plan on keeping it that way. Luckily for me, I’m blessed enough that doing these things and carrying these mindsets in life has turned into me leading by example for the students I teach today, which makes me feel really good, really proud, and really honoured.

    How Jiu-Jitsu Helped Me Recover From Drug and Alcohol Abuse | Justin Bachman's Story

    How Jiu-Jitsu Helped Me Recover From Drug and Alcohol Abuse | Justin Bachman's Story

    Do you believe it was a good idea that your father put you into this sport after being bullied? 

    It was the best thing my father has ever done for me, I will be forever grateful for his and my mother's contributions they were able to provide, physically and mentally to encourage my dreams and allowing me to make them happen.

    Whether it was constant car rides and lunches when I didn't have a license or money, or whether it was believing that I could become an instructor one day if I put my mind to it and worked hard. Even when no one else would believe in me, they were there to push me, and drive me like none other.

    Do you have any advice for someone that is currently getting bullied and doesn't know what to do about it?

    Realize that you are an incredible human being, just know that, and don't let bullies who are either jealous of you or insecure about themselves ruin your style and/or attitude, do what you want to do for you and no one else, and don't think twice about it.

    Trust me when I say that bullying does not end once school is over, it continues into adulthood, I still deal with bullies to this day, however luckily for me I just know how to be above it all and how immature and silly it all is.

    Also just know that you can truly achieve anything you put your mind to whether that is overcoming a bully or achieving a goal that seems impossible. If you need to stand up for yourself learn jiu-jitsu and the three T’s

    1.Talk (to the bully and tell them to stop with confidence) if that doesn't work

    2. Tell (a teacher, principal, parents, adult, etc) if that doesn't work

    3. Tackle (use jiu-jitsu to defend yourself, if you don't know it, learn it!).

    However, it's important to know that the first step to overcoming anything is making sure you love yourself and believe in you.



    For the bullies out there, why should they stop acting this way and how did their actions make you feel when you were younger?

    If you are a bully I honestly am not mad and cannot blame you. This world is a cold place sometimes, and I get that, and if you feel like you are possibly a bully, and you are scared of being one and are reading this right now, just know that you are not a bad person and that you were not born a bully, you learned how to be a bully from something else in life, and its hard, its tough.

    Life is cruel like that sometimes, but just think about how messed up and cruel this world can be sometimes, and ask yourself if you really want to be a part of that or if you want to be someone who adds to the hate and negativity that already exists in the world? I know for a fact you don’t, so my advice is to just be more self-aware of how your actions affect the people around you, sometimes you might not even know it, and if you ever catch yourself, just own it, and try your best to move forward and change it.

    Have you seen personal growth within the students you teach? If so, in what way?

    I love seeing the personal growth within my students, whether they’re struggling with something and they overcome it like a bully at school, or sometimes you have students that start out super shy, where they won't even speak, but with time they slowly gain confidence and/or comfortability and start to open up.

    You also have other students who start very young at like three or four years old, and sometimes it can be a big challenge to teach a child in that age range but it is not impossible by any means, in fact, it is super fun and as the years go by you see them grow with jiu-jitsu and as a little human being and that is always really cool to see as well. Or even if it is just a person overcoming trying jiu-jitsu for the first time, and then they try it by putting themselves out there, and then love it and will never turn back, that is also always great to see.

    In general, if I can make my students happy to be on the mat that is the best feeling. Because I know that them being on the mat no matter what their circumstances are is beneficial for them.

    I know you teach your students many life lessons but is there anything that they taught you about yourself or in any other aspects of life?

    My students have honestly taught me that I need to believe in myself more and to not take life so seriously, it's easy to let life and its stresses get to you, but you have to have moments where you just let go, breathe, be yourself, and have fun.

    Another thing I’ve learned from my students is that I always need to make sure that I am living a positive lifestyle and leading by example in all aspects of life, in a way where my students would be proud when or if they saw every action I take.

    Zac Cunningham Teaching BJJ to Kids

    Just another day at work!!

    For anyone that wants to have a similar teaching job as you, what advice would you have for them? and do you believe this is a fulfilling job? 

    You have to work extremely hard, and just be ready to do whatever it takes, even if it seems like it has nothing to do with what you want to do, like you want to be an instructor one day but they tell you to help clean a bathroom, or fold towels, at the end of the day it is all a test, and it is a moment, and an opportunity to show your potential as the best bathroom cleaner, or best most crisp towel folder anyone has ever seen.

    @submission.shark Instagram

    Every chance you get to show how hard you work, and how much effort you can put into something, you better show it at the place where you want to become an instructor, and just be straight forward with them because every school is different.

    Tell them, “I want to be an instructor one day, what are the steps I need to take to get there, and how can I achieve it?” they’ll tell you. I guarantee you it will sound overwhelming probably at first and like a lot of steps, but if I can do it so can you, you are capable, and if you are truly passionate about it then it will all be worth it.

    If you want to specifically become a certified instructor under Gracie University and possibly have your school become a Gracie Certified Training Center, or if you want to open up your own CTC (Certified Training Center) in your area, go to, click the “locations” tab, and then click the tab that says “Become a CTC”. This will tell you all the information you need to know, and if you have any other questions after you look online you can contact Gracie University and ask to talk to Victor who runs the CTC Department.

    I honestly do think being an instructor and representing the Gracie Family is one of the most fulfilling jobs there is, I can't really imagine anything more fulfilling.



    Why do you think Gracie University not only teaches you how to defend yourself but also instills a very kind & respectful philosophy? Does Rener & Ryron emphasis not being a bully? 

    Rener Gracie, Ryron Gracie and Zac Cunningham

    I think the environment and the curriculum here is vital for this. The important topics that instill the jiu-jitsu philosophy and healthy habits in life is a part of our curriculum. Every class we do animal warmups to start, then after that, we talk while stretching about one of six chapters we cover in a year. 1. Responsibility (January, February) 2. Health (March, April) 3. Respect (May, June) 4. Citizenship (July, August) 5. Manners (September, October) 6. Caring (November, December) and then after we talk about one of those chapters we do 3-4 jiu-jitsu moves or techniques that cover the most common bully scenario threats, and how to defend yourself. We even finish with a game of dodgeball! It is super fun and safe environment that propels kids to be good students and people on and off the mat.

    Running Gracie Game Day! Gracie University
    Zac Cunningham Running Gracie Game Day!

    How does it feel being in a position where you can change someone's life and bullyproof them? 

    It is seriously an honour to hold the position I hold and to represent the Gracie Family in the way I do, and just because I'm in this awesome position it doesn't mean now I'm good and get to relax, now the real work begins, its time to do my best to affect people in a positive way with jiu-jitsu and just hope and pray for the best as they gain these skills and are able to become bullyproof and/or be able to defend themselves.

    Gracie University Bullyproof Camp 2018Bullyproof Camp 2018 Zac Cunningham at Gracie University BJJ

    Bullyproof Camp 2018

    What would you like to say to your students and their parents for trusting you to help them grow as a person?

    First of all, just thank you. It takes a lot for someone to trust you with their child, that is a lot of responsibility to carry, and the fact that I am given that trust alone means a lot to me.

    On that note I am given this trust for a reason and it is because of what I do and who I represent, so my promise to you whether you are a current or future parent and/or student is that I will do everything I can to uphold the teachings of the Gracie Family the way they want me to, and that I will give you and/or your child the proper tools necessary to defend yourself/themselves along with the tools to be able to handle life itself as approved by Helio Gracie and their grandsons Ryron and Rener Gracie.

    Is jiu-jitsu something that can be practiced and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of physical abilities, gender, cultural background etc.? Do you believe this art can help bring down these manmade divisions and help create a more understanding society?

    No doubt in my mind, yes, jiu-jitsu will make the world a better place. I think jiu-jitsu really does have this power, and that it can be practiced and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of physical abilities, gender, cultural background, etc.

    I also believe this art can help bring down these manmade divisions, and help create a more understanding society, which is another reason why we must spread it, because right now jiu-jitsu is still young, its only just about to turn 100 years old, and we are pioneers, we are 1/10th of 1% of the world population that does jiu-jitsu and knows what it is.

    We have to spread it and change the world with it as much as we all can in order to make these big changes we want to see in society.

    What's it like training at Gracie University HQ and how was your overall experience rising through the ranks?

    I love training and being a part of Gracie University, it is an incredible, friendly, and safe environment that caters to people of all skill levels. If I’m honest I never really focused too much on the ranks, I just take it day by day and know that jiu-jitsu is a marathon, not a sprint.

    Zac Cunninghamat Gracie University
    The dream team! (I'm all the way on the end) 

    Which belt promotion was the most memorable for you? and Why?

    I would say my purple belt because it is the most recent being about a year ago now and because I remember really struggling with some issues life threw at me during the last year I had my blue belt, and it was tough but I handled it all the best I could and then when I felt like I made it out and got through those issues a couple of months passed and then I got my purple belt, it was just icing on the cake, to be honest.

    I also failed, because my goal was to become a teenage purple belt like the majority of people I looked up to but I didn’t achieve it, and I remember that bugging me pretty badly. I turned twenty and was bummed out and knew I failed my goal to be a teenage purple belt, but I also didn't really care at the same time weirdly, I knew that it was not healthy to compare myself to others, because everyone's journey is different.

    I also knew that with time no matter what I would get it eventually, the age I got my purple belt wouldn't matter in twenty to thirty years, so I just wanted to keep going, I ended up getting it at twenty years and four months old. I just missed the mark I aimed for but it didn't matter at the end of the day whether I hit the mark or not, all that matters is that my jiu-jitsu journey continues.

    I remember putting a lot around that moment and expecting it to be this big thing once I got my purple belt but it wasn't as big as I thought it was going to be which also helped my jiu-jitsu game and mindset that belts and stripes really don't matter, jiu-jitsu is bigger than that, you have to find deeper purpose than just stripes and belts for the art if you plan on sticking with it.

    What would you like to say to everyone that has supported you throughout your journey?

    My circle is extremely small, and the people who have always been there for me and have supported me no matter what I want to take a moment to recognize because I am extremely thankful for them.

    Zac Cunningham Family

    Zac Cunningham Family

    Like for example my Mom and Dad, who literally raised me and provided me with the best childhood and youth they could, my little brother Ben who is my best friend and who is always there for me. My amazing girlfriend Jules who has always supported me, and has always believed in me, she even believes in me at times where I don't even believe in me. She is literally the best girlfriend I could ask for, and I don't know what I did to deserve her.

    About to get choked out by my girlfriend JulesZac Cunningham and his girlfriend Jules








    And lastly the Gracie Family; Rener, Ryron, Eve, Victoria, thank you guys for always having my back, always teaching me, always trusting me, and always being there for me, it is an honour to be a part of everything we are doing. Those people listed are the people I never want to, or could never imagine my life without.

    Rener Gracie and Zac Cunningham
    Sharing a laugh with Rener Gracie

    Everyone else who is supporting and believes in me throughout this journey I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, your support means the world to me and I'm blessed to be able to have it. This is just the beginning, I want to change the world in a positive way and we still have a lot of time left to make it happen, and with all your support I feel like we can achieve it.

    Zac Cunningham, Eve Torres, CM Punk and Rener GracieZac Cunningham Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

    Ryron and Jon Jiu-JitsuZac Cunningham at Gracie Academy

    When the journey is over, how would you like to be remembered?

    Something I struggled with was wanting to be remembered, I always wanted to do something big, I wanted to be in history books, I wanted to live a life that outlived me, and I was struggling because I wanted to do something that was bigger than me where I was remembered by the whole world population, not impossible, but pretty close to it.

    Zac Cunningham

    This is when I realized that mindset is not good, it is extremely unhealthy. I realized I need to think about quality over quantity. Not the amount of people in the world I touch, but the amount of positivity and connection I give to the people I am able to reach in my lifetime. So I'm done with the numbers, when the journey is over I want to be remembered as someone who impacted every single person they were able to connect with and come across in a positive way.

    “If one sun can put light on the whole world, so can one person.” -Zac Cunningham

    That's it, every single person I meet whether it's for one minute or for years of knowing them, I just want to impact them in a positive way and be remembered for that, whether that is with jiu-jitsu or without jiu-jitsu.

    If you would like to continue following my journey you can follow my Instagram  @zaccunningham13 

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