Ryan Cunningham began wrestling at Sutherlin High School, graduating from there in 2001. He later went on to coach at Glide and Sutherlin high and Roseburg’s Joseph Lane Middle School.

Then the 34-year-old Roseburg resident stumbled into doing some martial arts judo in 2005. Cunningham would go on to attain his Black Belt in judo in 2013 and after training in ju-jitsu for eight years, just achieved his Black Belt two weeks ago.

Cunningham, a 5-foot-6, 135-pounder, is what you would call a Dual Black Belt, which is difficult to attain due to the time and commitment each individual discipline requires.

Cunningham said he only took two weeks off in the eight years that he trained five or six days a week.

“A lot of practice and fortunately for me I really like it,” Cunningham said. “So it didn’t feel like overbearing work, so a lot of practice and patience from my family and friends as I was obsessing over this.”

His wrestling background helped because it was all grappling, and judo and ju-jitsu are all grappling.

Martial art was a sport that allowed Cunningham to participate and succeed at like wrestling, regardless of his size.

“Being a smaller guy, all the grappling stuff is not necessarily all strength-based. It allows me to be 50 or 60 pounds lighter than my training partner,” Cunningham said. “Other sports my ceiling was super limited. So it’s not necessarily the way with this sport.”

Cunningham began training in Brazilian ju-jitsu in 2009 under Ben Baxter in Eugene. The two later partnered to open Performance Martial Arts in January 2013 in Springfield.

With the free time he had on off days back in Roseburg, Cunningham decided to open another location in his hometown after people inquired about his coaching services. He’s taught children since 2009.

Cunningham is the head Brazilian ju-jitsu, judo and youth instructor. Performance Martial Arts offers classes for ages 3-5, 6-9, 10-14 and adults. Kickboxing and wrestling are also offered.

Giving back to the community has always been a part of Performance Martial Arts and continues to be a primary goal.

“Continue fundraising efforts, in the four years we’ve been open we’ve raised over $20,000 for charity, several thousands of pounds for local foodbanks and helped out a few families in need by doing seminars or grapple fundraisers,” Cunningham said. “That’s what I really like to do and that’s awesome. I have a platform to affect positive change.”

Cunningham won his first ju-jitsu tournament in 2005, and also won the Oregon Open, which is the biggest tournament in the state. He’s also won the U.S. Open at the Purple Belt level in Santa Cruz and competed in the Pan-America games at the Master’s World Championships.

Locally, the options to compete are very limited, so traveling to bigger tournaments is the focus moving forward for Cunningham.

“Martial arts are an awesome vehicle for positive change. When I started training I was 70 pounds heavier than I am now,” Cunningham said. “I was sedentary and lazy and it’s absolutely changed my life for the positive. Everyone I’ve seen that has gotten involved with it experienced positive feedback. I would encourage people to find a martial art that you like and give it a shot.”

Growing up in Roseburg, Cunningham played baseball, football, golf and wrestling, but didn’t realize he really enjoyed wrestling until he tried it in high school. He also likes to hunt and fish.

Cunningham and his wife, Julie, have two daughters ages 4 and 2.

Martial arts require mental toughness, especially if you want to become a Black Belt.

“Perseverance is the biggest positive to this sport. Only 3 percent of people that start ju-jitsu make it to Black Belt,” Cunningham said. “Because it takes a long time and you experience life changes over that time. Being able to stay consistent is hard. Early on in the process you get mentally exhausted and frustrated. Setting short-term and long-term goals is really big to progress.”

Performance Martial Arts raises money through training fundraisers, and they donate the proceeds to local nonprofits such as relief nurseries, battered women shelters, Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Humane Society.

“The community really rallies around those fundraisers,” Cunningham said.

Open mat food drives allow participants to bring in 10 cans of food in order to train, which is then directly donated to UCAN. They offer a 30-day free trial for five cans of food, which go to the food bank, and free classes on Mondays for veterans and first responders.

Cunningham encourages anyone on the fence to give martial arts a shot.

“If people are interested in trying it or have the slightest inkling at all, do it,” he said. “It could be the thing you’re missing in your life. You burn a ton of calories and build confidence. It’s awesome for adults, for kids it’s incredible. We have a life skills program that helps them develop leadership skills. We want to leave the community a better place than what we found it and if we can use martial arts as a vehicle for that, then that’s awesome.”

Part-time sports reporter Josh Gaunt can be reached at 541-957-4220 or via email at jgaunt@nrtoday.com. Follow him on Twitter @joshgaunt17

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