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Martial arts lovers battle cancer at Holbrook fundraiser, one round at a time

Between 60 and 70 people gathered at the Vamos Brazilian jiujitsu martial arts school Saturday for a day of sparring, or "rolling," to benefit the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

Scores of martial arts lovers gathered at the Vamos Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu martial arts school in Holbrook Saturday for a day of sparring, or "rolling," to benefit the Lymphoma Research Foundation. (Credit: Newsday / Jean-Paul Salamanca)

Inspired by his wife’s recovery from lymphoma, a Long Island resident has channeled his love of jiujitsu into a unique charity event raising money to battle the disease.

Between 60 and 70 people gathered at the Vamos Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu martial arts school in Holbrook on Saturday for a day of sparring, or "rolling," to benefit the Lymphoma Research Foundation, a nationwide health organization dedicated to lymphoma research and education. For one to eight grueling hours, the participants grappled with each other in various holds and locks for up to 80 five-minute rounds, with only a few breaks in between.

“It becomes a mind-over-matter thing,” said Ryan Gerena,  22, of Shirley, an amateur MMA fighter. “It’s about staying focused, staying hard and continuing to go through it.”

Benjamin Birchall, 34, of Selden, organized the event as part of Grapplers 80, a group created to bring together jiujitsu practitioners to raise money for charity. An Australian native, Birchall had been living in Brisbane, Australia with his wife, Melissa Birchall, and their two children Benjamin, now 6 years old, and Jack, now 5, in 2015 when Melissa was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that affects the lymphatic system.

“The change that initiated in my life is a big motivator for me to raise money for charity,” said Birchall, who had to balance work, attend his wife’s radiation treatments and help raise their children until Melissa’s lymphoma went into remission in 2016.

Jiujitsu, Birchall said, was something that helped him focus and clear his mind during that strenuous time.

“It was a big anchor that has gotten me through a lot of these tough periods,” said Birchall. “It gives you that level of clarity and a level of being with yourself that I don’t get from anything else.”

Through a mix of participation fees and donations, the Grapplers 80 group exceeded its $5,000 fundraising goal by generating $6,625 as of Saturday.

“What’s emotional for me is that this isn’t something to raise money for me. This is all going towards the greater good,” said Melissa Birchall, 39, who is now expecting the couple’s third child.

Matt Denzler, 39, of Stony Brook, said it was important for him to be a part of the Saturday fundraiser. Denzler’s friend, Anthony James, died of Hodgkin lymphoma years ago.

“Sometimes, it takes one little thing. Maybe someone who is battling cancer finds out about this and it plants a seed or it changes something,” said Denzler. “Sometimes all you have to do is change your mind. That’s also what being a martial artist is all about — mind first.”

More information on Grapplers 80’s fundraising campaign can be found on the group’s Facebook page and its page on the Lymphoma Research Foundation’s website.

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