Watch our exclusive interview with Greg Cinelli on how using BJJ can save lives and can help one find their tribe after military retirement
Local Hero: Interview with Greg Cinelli
Using BJJ to Save Lives and Finding your Tribe after Military Retirement
Interviewee: Greg Cinelli
Location: Fenix Jiu Jitsu, Tewksbury, MA
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Last summer I heard through the BJJ grapevine about an incident involving a fireman using Jiu-Jitsu to subdue a man with a knife who had stabbed several policemen. Not long after, I saw a post about it on Instagram and realized this was a man I met once during a seminar. His name is Greg Cinelli, a brown belt who coaches at Fenix BJJ in Tewksbury, MA. I would soon come to find out that he is also one of the most beloved people in the community, and with good reason.
Greg, a retired Senior Chief Petty Officer, and Navy Corpsman, is passionate about the quality of life for veterans. He spoke with me about individuals coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and myriad mental and physical injuries. It is his belief that finding a tribe, after losing the one they had while in active service, can make all the difference in the life of a veteran who is now adjusting to civilian life. “The most valuable thing I’ve gotten from BJJ is the relationships. You can’t buy relationships. You have to earn them… good or bad.”
Greg is a supporter of We Defy Foundation (www.wedefyfoundation.org), which provides one-year BJJ scholarships for veterans who are either 80% mentally or physically disabled according to the VA or Purple Heart recipients. Greg explained that this is a form of recreational therapy that provides them with the tribe mentality that many veterans are looking for.
He also supports Gis for GIs (www.gis4gis.org), which distributes thousands of partially-used Gi’s nationwide after cleaning and repairing them. Sometimes they are even brand new. This is all to help veterans find their start in Jiu-Jitsu.
Greg is quite accomplished in the competition world. After a year off from competing, due to the Covid crisis, Greg recently competed in IBJJF Orlando, winning the Masters 5 division. Before that, he won NYC in November 2019. As a purple belt, Greg won World’s masters and received his brown belt shortly after. When he was overseas, he was exceptionally close to a lot of explosions and blew out both of his tympanic membranes (eardrum ruptures), leaving him completely deaf when he is on the mats without his hearing aids. Three of his coaches, Ronoldo Campos, Eduardo Nascimento, and Murilo Monteiro S Paolielo, developed a communication for his competitions. They would use hand signals and a whiteboard to tell him to speed things up, slow down, or go for the kill. He would also inform the referees and competitors that they cannot rely on their voices to get him to stop, but use physical touch only as a tap.
Greg has worked as a fireman for 23 years. In August of 2020, he was dispatched to a house to breach a door for the police. He was told that someone had stolen a rental van, and the plan was to arrest him, bring him in for processing, and then release him. But after further discussion, they realized he was an EDI (emotionally disturbed individual). In light of this information, they called for medical backup in case they needed assistance so they could hospitalize him before processing. But, when they breached the door, a lot of violence ensued. The man brandished a knife and, as Greg put it, sliced up several officers, and Greg ended up inside the house. Before he even realized it, the knife was in his face. And then, Greg reports about a ten-second gap where he does not remember what happened; only that he was in the pile of bodies on the ground.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sgt. Steve Rappa who was present during the incident. He told me that it was very frightening, and watching Greg in that moment motivated him to start training Jiu-Jitsu himself. Greg spoke with a great deal of humility about it, but this man told me directly that Greg had saved them all.
Several officers are still on the mend from it today, both physically and mentally. But everyone survived. Greg believed he got lucky… and said he would rather be lucky than good. “Good, I have control over. Luck, I have no control over. I’d take lucky over good any day of the week. We can always train more and get better at our jobs or do something that makes us better at what we do. Luck, you’ve got no control over. It’s either there, or it’s not.”
When I mentioned that I would be interviewing “a man from Fenix named Greg Cinelli” in casual conversation with friends, my comment was always met with recognition and enthusiasm. Athletes from multiple gyms all seemed to know and adore him. Peterson Rodrigues from Team Flo described him as a brother. Arturo Morales from Soneca BJJ said he considered Greg to be one of the best training partner friends he ever had. And Murilo Monteiro S Paolielo, from PSLPB Cicero Costha, simply told me that Greg is a great man. Even those who have not had to pleasure of meeting him responded with some acknowledgment that they have heard of him and that he is a nice guy. Alex Greene, behind the camera during our interviews, felt his positive energy immediately and enjoyed taking his class after the interview. On our drive afterward, we both concluded that Greg may be the best man we have ever met. I hope everyone will listen to this interview and that his words reach you in the way he has reached so many in the community already.