Matt Sung Lee, a former professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter with 30 professional fights, runs a little-known Martial Arts studio in Danby – just 10 minutes outside of downtown Ithaca. Lee, who has run the studio, Ithaca BJJ School, part-time for the last year, currently retired from his previous full-time job to devote all of his time and passion to the studio. Ithaca BJJ School focuses on the grappling sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), and teaches kickboxing as well.
Lee, who has been teaching Martial Arts for over 25 years, and who has fought professionally in major promotions like Bellator and Strikeforce, has taught children internationally in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Hawaii. He is a second degree black belt in BJJ whose training lineage traces directly back to the Gracie family, the founders of the sport. “BJJ is a Martial Art that translates across all countries and cultures” says Lee. “It’s been beautiful to watch young students transform and blossom with new found confidence. So many parents and school teachers share stories with me of seeing their children change for the better. They are standing straight, speaking more clearly, and are just happier kids.”
Lee’s studio is not your typical martial arts studio. Ithaca BJJ strives for a family-friendly atmosphere that is great for kids and new-comers. He offers kid’s classes 5 times per week, and every Saturday he offers Women’s Only classes and “Bring Your Family” Classes. But don’t be fooled; Lee’s years of professional fighting experience also make the studio great for adults and high-level fighters with loads of experience. One of his students, Kevin Adelman, says “Anyone can train at Matt’s gym, and feel very comfortable. Matt is so patient and friendly and he takes Jiu-Jitsu really seriously. I love that in a small town like Ithaca, I can get lessons from a former pro fighter who has years of experience training other professional fighters. There’s nowhere else in the area that I know of where you can learn from such a high-level fighter.”
Lee offers the first class for free. “I want to do what I can to introduce as many people as possible to this wonderful sport” says Lee, “and I want to give students, especially kids, the chance to see what Jiu-Jitsu has to offer before they make a commitment.”
Lee, who did a stint teaching martial arts at the former Ithaca MMA gym, Ultimate Athletics, in 2013, moved back to Ithaca in 2019 and has been running his current studio in Danby for about a year. “Ithaca is special to me” says Lee. “I was looking for a place to live where I could put my kids in a great school. I love the seasons here, it’s beautiful, and it’s full of nice and intelligent people. Ithaca is the perfect place.”
When asked what inspires him to teach, Lee says, “Sometimes I get a young student who I see change positively and grow while learning this discipline and that’s very uplifting. Even If I can just make a small difference in someone’s life, it makes me feel that I’m doing something important. It’s a special thing. In Jiu-Jitsu, there’s a lot of close contact. This is especially important now, in this day and age. When we grapple and roll it develops a special kind of bond between the students and it teaches kids how to behave with each other.”
You can find out more about Matt and Ithaca BJJ School, or purchase classes here.