Tom DeBlass earned $45,000 a year as a special education teacher in 2005. After his promotion to brown belt, he quit his teaching job, charged $20,000 onto his credit card, and opened his first school in an industrial park in Lacey, New Jersey.
He didn’t have enough money for a sign outside, so he put a sticky note on the door. Such a meager start would’ve deterred most. But DeBlass was determined. So he had to learn what worked and what didn’t–fast, lest he fail.
Sixteen years later, he makes $500,000 annually, he says. Most of his income comes from his academy, Ocean County BJJ in Forked River, New Jersey.
His second-biggest revenue stream is BJJ Fanatics, where he sells instructional videos alongside John Danaher, Dean Lister, and the G.O.A.T. at No-Gi, Gordon Ryan. DeBlass also travels twice a month to teach seminars.
DeBlass, a two-time Ring Of Combat Champion, has competed in the middleweight division for Bellator and the UFC and has a 9-2 record as an MMA fighter. He’s a 3x ADCC North American Trial Champion, 2x Pan American Champion, 2x No-Gi World Champion, 2x No-Gi World’s Bronze Champion, and a Brown Belt National Champion.
He’s now a third-degree black belt under Ricardo Almeida–like his friend Dante Rivera–and has the world’s largest non-Brazilian association. His academies are on five continents, totaling 5,000 students.
It was not the future he expected.
A Runt From New Jersey
A self-described “runt from New Jersey,” DeBlass had a penchant for fighting since as far back as he can remember. He suffered his first concussion at age five. Like most fighters, he’s unafraid to be vocal on social media about his battles.
But for DeBlass, his toughest opponents have always been the ones on the inside. He’s been open about his battles with depression, anger, suicidal thoughts, and learning to love an alcoholic father. Martial arts hasn’t just given him an income. It’s healed him.
And despite the medals and accolades, he stresses he’s not special or unique.
Instead, he credits his success to “extreme resilience.” He hasn’t spent a penny on advertising in two years. “Word of mouth has always worked best,” DeBlass said. Meanwhile, his marketing plan has been to be “open about his shortcomings.”
His transparency has worked: he’s amassed 300,000 Facebook and Instagram followers over the past five years. Six years ago, he had 19,000 of them. It took him 10 years “to become himself.” He didn’t start doing seminars until 2015. “It’s never too late. I didn’t win anything until brown belt. Then I won everything,” DeBlass said.
“As long as you’re resilient, and you’re disciplined, you can do it.”
Third-Degree Black Belt With White Belt Energy
When I walked into the academy, DeBlass was on the mats and exhibited the passion and vigor of a white belt who had just fallen in love with BJJ. It’s a feeling foreign to many longtime instructors in my experience.
Not DeBlass. And he treats his business the same way, focused on mastering the fundamentals as every good student–and teacher–should.
“It doesn’t matter what your academy looks like. It doesn’t matter how small you start, as long as you care about every student that comes through the door, you give your undivided attention to everybody who walks through that door,” DeBlass said.
“You saw me today, my passion, my intensity. I’ve been doing this forever, and I bring that same energy to the mats every day. These people are looking to me to be the best part of their day,” DeBlass said. “I have to give them that, I have to serve them, I am a servant, and if I don’t serve them well, they’ll go somewhere else.”
His autobiography, How You Bear It, debuted as the #1 bestseller on Amazon’s