Keeping It Real: RJ’s Story

Fri 03 May 2024

Living With Cerebral Palsy Doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Part One*
By RJ Nealon

There are moments in people’s lives when things just click. Moments that we might not be searching for, but we all need. We may feel sadness. Anger and disappointment. Or maybe we feel confusion. Regardless, it’s important to feel these emotions and be at peace with them.

February 26, 2023. Finishers Sub-Only in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania at 10th Planet. Opponent—Mason Klein. Live on the streaming service Flograppling.

It was my first-ever submission-only super fight and it was with one of the most well-established promotions on the east coast. There were fighters on the card I had looked up to. In some respects, I felt like I didn’t belong. And maybe in hindsight I didn’t. But here I was competing for the promotion I had set a goal to compete for. I lost in less than 45 seconds. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I felt like I had let my team down. I had an opportunity to compete at the highest level, and I blew it.

I cried. And felt sorry for myself. I honestly contemplated quitting. But then I remembered my why.

I have cerebral palsy and I’m trying to be the trailblazer for adaptive athletes who dream of competing in combat sports.

Suddenly a wave of motivation overcame me.

Just like that, the future goals started to bleed through my mind.

From that moment forward, Brazilian jiu-jitsu became my everything.

Eat. Sleep. Breathe. Live. Jiu-jitsu.

RJ, a tall man with shaved brown hair and glasses wearing a black jiu jitsu uniform with a blue belt and wearing red sneakers. He is holding a medal standing in front of blue tournament signs.

I would train twice a day, drive up to two hours each way at times to train with the best. I’d pay for private one-on-one training sessions with black belt competitors, and I would look for the tournaments with the toughest competition. I was obsessed.

You must understand that prior to my start in martial arts, I felt like an outsider. As someone with an intellectual and physical disability, I felt there was no place for someone like me to fit in. But the beauty of jiu-jitsu is each player has a different game and that’s the art of it. The hours of mat time I was putting in allowed me to take my disability and develop a style that works to my advantage. I started to have success. Many modified grips, being comfortable upside down, and having flexibility all worked in my favor.

And I know I’m different. No, not because of my disability. I’m different because nobody works harder than me. Nobody makes the sacrifices I do. Nobody has the mental toughness I do. I know one day I will be the best in the world. It’s not a question of if, but of when. Life has taken me into some deep waters. A stroke at birth. Surgery in kindergarten. The inability to drive until well into adulthood. And every other challenge that comes with having cerebral palsy.

I became the person I wanted to be because of the refusal to quit. I speak things into existence, and I always bet on myself. I know if I ever get into deep waters competing, nobody is built to withstand the threshold like I am.

*RJ’s story is part of KEEPING IT REAL — a series of personal stories that will take you deeper into the lives of people with CP. Each person makes different choices based on what works for them, and we’ll showcase that — highlighting what life is like for them on a daily basis, what they care about, and the ways CP impacts them. 

The KEEPING IT REAL blog is intended solely to raise awareness about the varied human experience with cerebral palsy and shouldn’t be read or construed to contain any medical advice, medical endorsement, or other endorsement by Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation. Only you and your doctor know what’s best for you. Please consult your doctor for medical advice.


Thu 09 May 2024

Long banner with a rounded square photo of RJ on the left side. Text reads "Keeping it Real: RJ's Story, Part 2". A purple line underneath and the green cparf logo in the bottom right corner.

By RJ Nealon I often think back to that quick submission loss and tell myself that it was probably the best thing that happened to me and my journey. It forced me to take a deep hard look at myself and converse with my inner self. What do I want? What impact do I want […]

Fri 26 Apr 2024

The second part of this Science Spotlight focuses on the specifics and potential treatment of dystonia for people with cerebral palsy.