When Stuart Ramos told his brother he was opening a martial arts studio in Towson, his sibling was incredulous.
"You're going to open a studio in Towson?" his brother, Brad, who lives in Northern Virginia, asked rhetorically. "Anyway, where is Towson?"
Even folks who know the Baltimore County seat pretty well may not have an inkling where the Maryland Judo & Jiu-Jitsu Academy is located, although Ramos' program is steadily building a reputation for producing high-caliber competitors.
Tucked away behind Gardiner's Furniture on Orchard Park Lane off of Joppa Road just west of Loch Raven Boulevard, Ramos is putting the Towson studio on the martial arts map.
"We've won 80 percent of our matches, and we beat my brother's team, too," Stuart Ramos said. "They didn't know where we were from then, but they know now."
Lately, several of the younger competitors have taken success a step further with stellar performances in their age/weight brackets at the USA Judo Junior Olympic National and International Championships in Irving, Texas in late June.
Cockeysville resident Julian Crisostomo, 11, led the way by capturing a gold medal in the international competition and a silver medal in the national competition in the 31-kilogram (68-pound) bracket.
Teammates Alexa Silao, 13, (Timonium) took silver in the national competition 40 kilogram (88-pound) division, and David Dippel, 8, (Rodgers Forge) did the same in the 27-kilogram (60-pound) division.
Ramos said that he was "shocked" by how well his competitors fared and how quickly they disposed of opponents.
"Alexa won her first bout in less than a minute," he said, noting that bouts are allowed to go up to three minutes. "And she beat the defending champion."
Reinforcing the notion that hard work can pay off is something that has to be satisfying to the native Hawaiian, who lives in Timonium.
"These kids are very dedicated to the sport," Ramos said. "They don't play any other sports. People ask me how we do so well. I tell them that most other martial arts studios only hold practices a couple of times a week. Our kids work out five or six times a week. They're putting in the work and doing all the things they need to do at home, too."
Moreover, Ramos, who has a Master's degree in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, demands high academic standards from his troops.
"Stu always wants to see their report cards," said Steve Suggs, whose 9-year-old son, Mason, has been a student at the studio for three years.
Ramos wants his school-age students to be smart competitors as well as stars in the classroom.
"Technique comes before size," he said when asked about how a smaller person can flip a much larger opponent with apparent ease during practice. "We train them to use minimal effort to get maximum efficiency."
Suggs, a Hunt Valley resident, said that Mason can't get enough of the two sports, but prefers judo to jiu-jitsu.
The sports are similar — yet distinctive from one another.
"Jiu-jitsu is more of a self-defense-oriented sport," Ramos said. "Defending yourself is a lot different than trying to score points with a choke hold while trying to survive in a bout, which is what you do in judo."
The website, www.differencebetween.net, maintains that, "in judo the key to winning is to take advantage of the opponent's momentum (and) to indulge in clever and opportunistic grappling, throwing and tripping. Jiu-jitsu, on the other hand, uses several combinations of traps, pins, devastating blows and joint locks. You could say that while judo is more of a sport, jiu-jitsu has to do with real fighting."
Jennifer Dippel, David's mom, one of the few females at a recent practice, said that, in simplest terms, judo is contested about 80 percent of the time in an upright position while the inverse is true of jiu-jitsu.
That said, the sports are similar enough that they are taught together.
And for Dippel, whether it's judo or jiu-jitsu, she's happy because she gets to work out in the same non-air conditioned room with her son and the other students.
While bonding with her son is fun, the 41-year-old web master for the Towson University College of Education said that "the cool part is that you get to throw bigger and stronger guys (onto a mat) by getting them off-balance and using their momentum against them. I never did a lot of roughhousing as a kid, so this has been a lot of fun for me."
David said his mom wanted him to try martial arts for a different reason.
"She wanted to get me tired out," the Rodgers Forge Elementary School third-grader said with a wide grin. "And then she liked it so much that she wanted to join, too."
Ramos said that when he spotted his neighbor, Alexa, doing a front somersault off a walkway railing, he was taken aback.
"She's one of the most talented kids I've ever seen, athleticism-wise," he said.
Alexa was playing tee-ball and had taken up the violin before Ramos convinced the Ridgely Middle School student's parents that martial arts would be the perfect activity for her.
Julian, he said, was not in the best shape and was an average student when he joined the studio 18 months ago.
"He was a heavy-set kid when he came here," Ramos said. "Now, he's a highly conditioned athlete who has a 4.0 in school (also at Ridgley) and is No. 1 in attendance at the studio. He practiced about 300 days last year. Out of all my students, he probably has the most technique."
All of that came after Julian started slowly, going winless in his first five tournaments.
"A lot of kids would have quit, but not Julian," Ramos said. "He pushed through, and it made him better. When he gets behind in a match now, it doesn't phase him. He has a lot of confidence in himself."