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Chris Thompson says: “Just Train” – Brendan Higgins

by Brendan Higgins, contributing writer

“I’m kind of an open book.” This was the first thing Chris Thompson said to me. I knew at that moment I was about to hear a great story. Chris is the owner and chief instructor at Just Train Fitness-Martial Arts located at 3520 Quaker Lane in North Kingstown. This complex opened in October of 2013. It ushered in a new era in Rhode Island for fitness and Martial Arts. Just Train is best described as a place for powerful self-defense, inner calm and fat fighting fitness. There is so much going on in this impressive facility its best to stop in for a visit and tour to determine if any man, woman or child is ready to explore ones own untapped potential. Just Train is without a doubt the doorway to improve anyone’s quality of life. But first, let’s learn a bit more about the man who made this all possible.

Chris grew up in North Providence in the Lymansville section. Chris explained, “The end of Fruit Hill Ave, near St. Thomas Church. The backside of Rhode Island College. That’s where I grew up. My dad died when I was six. So, my mom was raising three boys. Me and my two older brothers, Ronnie and Brian. My dad got sick when he was 37 and died at 39. I saw a lot of shit when I was a kid. In a way, it took away my childhood. Childhood trauma is all relative. It depends on who you are talking to. I didn’t have any real horrible trauma like some others might have had, but it still screwed me up. While other kids were out playing, I was watching my dad cough up blood. My father died three different times. The ambulance came to the house, until the final time. My father was not the nicest person in the world. He was abusive towards my mother. My mother used to drink. So, I’ve seen a lot as a young child. I was not a good student. I couldn’t sit still. I had ADHD before it was cool. My mom was a great mother. She took me to Boston for testing and delivered the results to my school and it created resentments with my teachers. It felt like they didn’t want to cater to me. It made their job harder having to deal with me. I barely graduated from North Providence High School in 1991, but I made it.”

Chris pretty much raised himself. His father was gone. He had two older brothers, but they were living their own lives. Chris never felt that close to anyone but had a natural connection with all animals – more on that later. He started working when he was 12. He worked at Ricci’s Restaurant as a dishwasher. He recalled both his brothers working there and he realized he was going to have to make his own way in life. Chris said, “Felix Ricci was a huge mentor in my life. I remember him smacking me in the back of the head and putting me to work washing dishes for a few bucks. I didn’t have a lot growing up.” Chris started hustling any way he could to make money. Some of it was legal, and some of it was not. He lived through an era filled with excitement. He described a time over 20 years ago that included street fights with weapons. He said, “It was like rival schools getting into it. I would see kids on the corner with baseball bats and chains. It was real Outsiders shit. They were waiting for kids from Johnston or somewhere else coming down to fight. Unfortunately, it was all normal to me.” At a young age, Chris was already buying his own clothes, bought his first car, and was taking care of himself.

After high school Chris knew going to college was not in the cards. He admitted, “It would have been a waste of money. It wouldn’t be until years later that I started to enjoy learning. Today I love to read and gather information but after high school, I started to do a lot of partying. I was working 3 jobs. I was a grinder. I wanted to move out of my house by the time I was 19, and I made that happen.”

Chris first became aware of Martial Arts watching Bruce Lee movies, but he said it was watching his brother, Ronnie, practice that really got his attention. “My brother Ronnie was a street fighter. He was that much older than me (five years) that I never knew where he learned how to fight. There was a guy at the Boys and Girls Club that had a karate class, but I learned my basics from my brother practicing on me (laughing). I was a horrible athlete, a scared child, insecure but I had some natural ability. I was never really formally trained; I picked up quite a bit from my brother.”

After high school, Chris went to work in the Veterinary industry. He started out as a vet tech working for Dr. Patricia Ader at Animal Care Services in 1994. Chris told me he was an open book and his story about how he started in that line of work lived up to the hype. He said, “I kind of lied my way into it. I answered an ad placed by Dr. Ader.  I said I had kennel experience, but really didn’t. I just love animals.” Chris revealed his desire to work with animals had a two-fold reason. First, he needed to change his hard partying lifestyle. Second, he wanted to put his connection with animals to good use. He recalled as a child knowing every dog in the neighborhood by name. He also knew where they lived. It was necessary for Chris to incorporate this affinity for animals into his life. As a child Chris was already helping animals. He would find wounded squirrels and nurse them back to health. It was just part of his DNA. Two of his childhood dogs joined the family by following him home one day and stayed for the rest of their lives.

Chris continued, “I learned a ton working for Dr. Ader. She was also absolutely insane. She would throw things at me. The biggest thing I learned from her was her understanding of the human condition and human behavior. Within two years working for Dr. Ader, I was in the operating room doing anesthesia with no formal training. She showed me how to do everything hands on.”

After that, Chris went to work at Atwood Animal Hospital in Cranston. After working at his previous job, he was able to walk in the door with experience this time. Chris added, “Fake it till you make it.” By this time, Chris had a change of heart about education. He was learning more on the job each day while establishing himself in the Veterinary world.  Chris Thomson’s life was on track and about to take another turn for the better.

One day, a woman walked into the office wearing an East West Martial Arts hat. Chris recalled, “Her name was Lynn. I asked her about her baseball hat and the next thing you know, I was walking in to see what the place was about. It was old school Tae Kwon Do and I friggin’ loved it. I really caught on. I was ranking, but I really couldn’t afford it, but they let me keep training anyway. In the meantime, I vacuumed the floors and washed the mirrors and did the old school karate way. That is why I love Mario Mennella to this day. He was one of my favorite Martial Arts instructors. I didn’t have a father growing up. It was appreciation being shown by a male figure in my life. Even though I was in my 20s.”

In 1996, Chris moved to South County and began training with a Rhode Island Martial Arts icon, the late Nancy Lee Cerio, in North Kingstown. Chris trained under Cerio for several years. He made the transition to Kenpo from his Korean Martial Arts beginnings. Chris said, “We did a lot of pad work. We also did a lot of Kata. Nancy Lee was so good at teaching.”

Chris went to work for Ocean State Veterinary in 2000. He was working so much his Martial Arts training went on a hiatus, but eventually a coworker convinced Chris to check out the school he attended and the rest, as they say, is history. Welcome to Derderian Academy of Martial Arts. Chris explained, “Sifu Rafi saved my life. I’m here talking to you today because of all he did for me. He is not that much older than me, but he is a father figure in my life. I love him very much even though he would hate to hear that (laughing). I loved that place. I can still hear the sounds of the hard wood floors. Sifu Rafi Derderian has a philosophy. A new student has to watch at first before they can take a class. Once I went there, I never looked back. First off, students were wearing shorts, t-shirts and sneakers. They were hitting focus mitts and striking shields. I knew this was what I wanted to do. I look back now and see what I always wanted was to learn practical Martial Arts and that was exactly what was happening in this school.

I love traditional Martial Arts and pieces of it are very effective, but this was real. We drilled a lot. We hit the mitts every day. I was exhausted, I was sweating. When we sparred, MMA gloves were barely around at this point. We used those old Bruce Lee gloves. Yeah, gloves and a mouthpiece and we were blasting each other. These guys beat the shit out of me. “Redneck” Steve, that was his name, scared the hell out of me.” Chris had this enthusiasm in his voice and his eyes were wide open as he sat up in his chair and told me about his early experience with Jeet Kune Do. Legend has it that this school was calm compared to Derderian’s previous school in Providence. Chris progressed to the equivalent of Black Belt, but it’s known as Black Sash because it’s Chinese. This was the beginning of Chris going out on his own to open his own school. Chris explained, “Sifu Rafi is very selective when it comes to students opening a school. He can’t stop you from doing it, but you want his blessing. Its not a good thing to open up a school and not have his blessing. Before I could open my own place, I needed to spend some time teaching at Sifu’s school. I was also burning the candle at both ends. I was extremely busy working with animals and trying to teach JKD. I decided to back off from my career in the veterinary world so I could focus on teaching.” Chris eventually received Sifu Rafi’s blessing to go out and teach on his own. His first school was called Ocean State Jeet Kune Do. The school was located inside Absolute Fitness before moving to Renegade Fitness, both formerly located in East Greenwich.

Chris Thompson feeding Muay Thai Ajarn Kevin Seaman a kick during a seminar

Chris expressed extreme gratitude towards the owners of the gyms where his school lived during the early days. Chris knew he would eventually need his own space and began scouting locations for a long-term home. Chris is a firm believer in the Law of Attraction. He knew the universe would provide the exact location for his new home. One day Chris learned of a vacant building that had potential. He went to scout the location. Standing outside the building, looking in the window, he observed a space in need of a lot of work. Lighting fixtures hanging low and exposed wires. A man was squatting in a corner of the place. It was a mess. Chris explained, “I looked in and immediately saw the floor plan. I could split the room which is something I always wanted to do. I knew this was it. At that moment one of the building owners came around the corner driving a bobcat. He asked me if I wanted to take a look inside. I went in and looked around and I knew this was the spot. The landlord was a super cool laid-back guy. I think we could have made the deal on a handshake. It was that comfortable for both of us. We closed the deal and here we are. From when I looked in the window, and observed a big mess, to “here we are”, involved a lot of hard work accomplished by some pretty amazing people.”

Just Train offers a wide range of classes. Chris said, “My goal was to create a self-defense center with realism. You have to be in shape to defend yourself. If you find yourself in a life-or-death situation and you’re gassed in 15 seconds, it’s over. So, we offer cardio Kickboxing. It’s a conditioning class using light weight jam balls, suspension training, and Muay Thai rounds on the bag. The class is different every day. We have dozens of formats to plug into. It never gets boring. We also have the Body Forge Strength and Muscle class. This class will help anyone get stronger and I get feedback in all different forms. For example, one person told me after attending the class for a while they cleaned their entire yard without getting tired at all. Another person told me she picked up a 50 lb. bag of flour and carried it over her shoulder across the store before she realized what she had just done, with no effort. The purpose of this class is to make you functionally strong. We use kettle bells, battle ropes, sandbags, water jugs, and buckets, mixed with traditional bodybuilding to build muscle. So, between the two you get cardio and a baseline in strength building. I like to call it stealth or subtle strength. Old school strength stuff. I love it.” The lower level of the multifaceted facility features everything needed to achieve one’s fitness goals. It also offers a mystical view of a gorgeous pond in the woods behind the building.  

Just Train also offers a variety of Martial Arts to choose from including Jeet Kune Do, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai and Pekiti Tirsia. Chris is always available to discuss all of these disciplines at length with you to help determine what it is you want to achieve in training. In a nutshell, they cover it all at Just Train.

As a longtime martial artist, I am aware of how sterile Martial Arts/Karate schools can be. Especially those of the strip mall variety. Walking into Just Train, I immediately noticed many beautiful and healthy plants in the lobby. Two cats (Boogie and Holly who are mother and daughter) were lounging around while I conducted my interview with Chris. He rescued them from the woods when he took over the building, giving them a fabulous home. A large saltwater aquarium is in the process of coming to life as well. The furniture in the lobby is comfy and home like. The sterile environment does not exist at Just Train. It’s a friendly and safe place to all who enter.

I have personally been around the globe visiting Martial Arts and Wrestling gyms for decades and this place just blew me away. From the way Chris welcomed me, to the way students and staff treat each other, this is the place to be if you want to learn Martial Arts/Self Defense or just get into better shape. Chris continued, “As for the sterile atmosphere, I don’t like it. I like what I like. If I’m going to spend time here every day, I want everyone to be comfortable. When someone walks through that door, I sit with them and find out what goals they have. When someone tells me what they want I can usually see behind that and discover what they really want.

We offer violence prevention. I work with many people who have been physically or sexually assaulted in the past. I specialize in violence prevention. Its very important to me to help as many people as I can in this area. It’s much bigger than Martial Arts for me. The truth about violence and how to handle it. How it happens, why it happens and where it happens. The precursor to teach people what to do so they never have to fight for their life. Learning Martial Arts for self defense to me is kind of bullshit. It depends on the assumption of mutual combat or a fight. That is not how violence usually happens. It’s usually an ambush – an attack or an assault by people you don’t know. You are being attacked before you realize what is happening. I could go on forever about this subject.”

Chris Thompson is as genuine a person as you will ever meet. Life has been his school pretty much since the time he could walk. He has an articulate way of telling stories about his journey. He brings tremendous experience to his students. He lives in North Kingstown. He and his girlfriend, Jannell Danzer, share a love for animals and fitness. Chris explained, “She is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

The Just Train staff are all hand-picked by Chris. They are all highly skilled in the specialized classes offered. Chris said, “My Martial Arts teachers/coaches are all people with amazing backgrounds. I know them all personally.

My fitness teachers are mostly ingrown. If I see someone in class with potential and energy to teach, I encourage them to get certified. Having someone come up through the ranks can help keep away from the typical dynamics that go along with bringing in outside people. Someone who came up inside our walls provides a built-in sense of loyalty to me, to the gym, to the culture.”

If you want to attend a class without making a commitment, Just Train offers an introductory trial of 3 classes for $20. With a free pair of gloves. The gloves alone are worth more than the fee.

For more information on Just Train, feel free to stop by in person or visit their website at justtrainri.com or call (401) 295-0011. They are open 7 days a week with classes for everyone.

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Brendan Higgins, writer and author, RIPTA bus driver, former professional wrestler (Knuckles Nelson), and North Kingstown resident.

We welcome Brendan as a contributing writer to RINewsToday.

To read a story about Brendan, from our sports department, go to: https://rinewstoday.com/knuckles-nelson-waking-up-from-the-wrestling-ring-to-the-yoga-mat-john-cardullo/

Higgins is the author of “Waking Up: From the Wrestling Ring to the Yoga Mat”

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