Black Belt Professor Turns His Passion into the Family Business
Sam Brown has established Bonners Ferry, Idaho, as the Jiu-Jitsu destination for students of the Brazilian style of self-defense
By Dan Aznoff
Photos By Jon Brown Photography
Age is a matter of perspective.
For Sam Brown of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, the age of 39 is just a number.
“I still train regularly and compete when I can,” he explained with a quick smile. “Just not quite as much as when I was younger and healthier.”
In 2015, Brown opened his small studio in Bonners Ferry. His dream was to eventually grow into a larger facility where he could combine his personal experience working in traditional gyms with the Jiu-Jitsu training they were already doing.
That vision became reality seven months ago when Brown opened the doors to, what he described as, “a different kind of gym.”
His overall plan had always been to provide world-class martial arts instruction with alternatives for fitness workouts in a family friendly environment.
Shortly after opening five years ago, Brown found himself searching for another—much larger—site where he could offer more than just Jiu-Jitsu. His time and dedication eventually resulted in the grand opening of his dream, the APEX Fitness and Martial Arts gym.
In the short time since the unique fitness center began to welcome students to the facility built to his exacting specifications, the martial arts gym has expanded to include separate areas for boxing and grappling in addition to family oriented workouts. His wife, Diana, also teaches Zumba.
Sam and Diana first met in New Hampshire—where Sam is from and where Diana was attending college on a student visa from Bogota, Colombia. The couple were married while they were still in New England before they traveled together to visit her in her hometown of Bogota.
Prior to meeting his spouse, Brown had traveled to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. This is where his Jiu-Jitsu journey began and his love for the art started.
“I could have lived there forever,” he said. “Beautiful city. Beautiful people.”
Brown said he stayed in Brazil “until he could not afford to stay any longer.”
He returned to New England, met and married Diana and started to search for an American city where he and his bride could establish their first home. The idea to visit the town of Bonners Ferry—more than 2,500 miles from where he was born and raised—was based on a recommendation from his father, who had been impressed with the small town when he had visited the area years before.
Brown admitted the charming rural community where he has chosen to live is “night-and-day” from the crowded cities of the South American country that his wife grew up in and the busy East Coast where he had spent his younger years.
Known in his gym as “Professor,” the second-degree black belt explained that he had achieved the title, which is earned one year after getting your black belt if you’re teaching Jiu-Jitsu.
“It is considered an honor,” he explained. “A teacher is a revered position in the Brazilian culture. The position I hold as the head of my team is not one that I take lightly.”
Having a family and a business in the small-town environment is something that Brown has enjoyed thoroughly—and he never plans to leave. He often expresses the wish that he had been born and raised in this area and loves the fact that his kids will grow up in such a beautiful and friendly town.
Brown explained that the decision to move West was made not long after the birth of their daughter.
Sam and Diana have three children who all began training in martial arts before their fifth birthdays. Their 13-year-old daughter Sofia has taken part in Jiu-Jitsu competitions for more than six years. She has “won many competitions,” according to her proud father.
The couple’s two boys—Sam Jr., 8, and 6-year-old Solomon—are currently training and competing in Jiu-Jitsu as well as refining their skills on the finer points of Taekwondo.
“They are both super athletic,” Brown said with a wide smile. “But I think they really enjoy the finer aspects of kicking and screaming.”
The design, equipment and layout of the interior of the APEX Fitness and Martial Arts gym, he said, would fit in with some of the most respected facilities in any big city. All of the equipment is state of the art. One wall is covered with a 40-foot canvas mural that spans the mountain ranges from the peaks that loom over the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro to the Rockies and the Bitterroot Mountains that dominate the skyline over Montana and Idaho.
The same mural that hangs proudly inside the APEX also honors the legacy of the martial art of Jiu-Jitsu with images of the individuals who helped establish the art’s unique moves and techniques.
The images on the wall also depict illustrations of his friend and mentor, Sylvio Behring. Mestre Sylvio Behring is a world-class fighter from Brazil who has established Jiu-Jitsu training centers around the world. Each of Sylvio’s training centers is staffed with black- and brown-belt athletes who teach in the style of the Jiu-Jitsu Master.
Behring is the son of ninth-degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Grand Master Flavio Behring. The entrepreneurial son holds an eighth-degree red and black belt in Jiu-Jitsu as well as a black belt in Judo.
Widely regarded as one of the top grappling instructors of his generation, Sylvio began his career training under the tutelage of ninth-degree Grand Master Alvaro Barreto. He advanced quickly to become one of Barreto’s top students.
Sylvio has also been credited with the development of Jiu-Jitsu in diverse regions of Brazil from Sao Paulo to Porto Alegre. His late brother, Marcelo Behring, has also been recognized as an important pioneer in the evolution of the martial art. Brown took a moment from admiring the mural on the wall of the APEX studio to appreciate the years of dedication the images represent. “It is really cool to just step back and appreciate the artistry and the history that went into the mural,” Brown proudly. “It could really be considered the Mt. Rushmore of Jiu-Jitsu.”
The mountains of Idaho displayed on the murals also played an important role in the second-degree black belt’s decision to establish a Jiu-Jitsu center in what seemed like an unlikely location for the American center for instruction.
For a year, when Brown first moved to Idaho, he said he would make the 70-minute drive to Sandpoint, Idaho, to teach. At that time, the gym in Sandpoint did not have a black belt in residence.
“After a year, I decided to open up a school in Bonners Ferry so I could stop making that long drive,” he laughed. “Once the school turned out to be successful, my plan was underway.”
Brown said he was honored to have Mestre Sylvio Behring present for the APEX grand opening in February. He described the seven months leading up to the grand opening of the new APEX location as “some of the hardest work we have ever done.”
In the days before COVID, Brown explained that Sylvio had visited with American students in the Idaho town on a regular basis to lead seminars for a growing number of students who made the long drive to learn from the master. The Jiu-Jitsu team based in Bonners Ferry, said Brown, draws on students of the sport from as far away as Sandpoint in Idaho and the towns of Troy and Libby in Montana.
“Master Sylvio is like family. I do not think the people of Bonners Ferry realize that a legend in the world of Jiu-Jitsu is coming to their town twice every year to train with our students,” said Brown.
“Personally, I have been extremely grateful for all of his help and the investment that he has made in me over the years.”
Finding the right space for a world-class facility in Bonners Ferry was a more complex challenge than Brown had imagined. He toured several prospective sites before accepting the challenge to build the gym he had always envisioned.
The search for an expanded gym took him inside several abandoned buildings and to the outskirts of town. He explained that he could have selected a smaller space, which would have required less buildout. But in the end, he chose a bigger project knowing that it would allow him to bring his vision from the drawing board to reality.
“This is my ideal situation. I spend my days in the gym that I built, where I am able to share the knowledge and the skills that have been passed on through the efforts of some of the grand masters of the sport that I love,” said Brown.
“And I am doing it all in this unbelievably beautiful place,” he concluded. “This is my dream.”
More information on the APEX Fitness and Martial Arts gym on Main Street is available at ApexFitGym.com.
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California and has received acclamation for his articles on energy and the plight of homeless seniors. Aznoff is the author of three books that document colorful periods of history in the history of Washington state. He can be reached directly at email@example.com.