Inverted Gear Blog / Inverted Gear
Below we're republishing one of our most well-received and meaningful blog posts, the story of Nelson's mother's battle with cancer.
Go hug the people you love today!
Cancer, Jiu-Jitsu, and a Lesson in Persistence
“Tienes que ser persistente,” my mom always said. “You have to be persistent.” She drilled this phrase into my head while I was growing up. Little Nelson having trouble tying his shoes? Keep trying. Math is hard? Keep working. Can’t beat dad in chess? Don’t give up. I heard this phrase repeated to myself and my sister millions of times over the years, and now my mom has started using it on my nephews.
As any kid would, I hated this. I assumed that none of my friends had their mother repeating the importance of persistence over and over, so why did I have to keep trying? Couldn’t I just give up and try something else?
In October 2011, I was in Atlanta at Alliance HQ for an instructors’ workshop. I was going to stay an extra week to train and then fly to California for No-Gi Worlds. I had been training hard for it, motivated by a first round lost at Gi Worlds the June before. I wanted redemption.
That Wednesday, I got a call from my mom. She hadn’t told me the doctors had found something during her last check-up. A biopsy confirmed it was breast cancer.
I had to sit down. In her usual way, she told me she didn’t want me to come home. She wanted me to go to my tournament. She didn’t want the attention or to be a burden. Despite her protests, I caught the first flight home and was sitting at the oncologist’s a few days later. I still remember the doctor telling us the diagnosis: stage 2B breast cancer. While my sister, father and I were processing this, my mom was the first to react. She said “Let me know what I need to do, because I will not die of this.” This set the tone for the rest of her treatment, it was gonna be a battle and she was ready for it.
My dad owns a truck company was still on the road. My sister was on her last year of post-grad. So I became my mom’s chauffeur and went to everyone one of her chemo and radiation therapies. I would teach my morning class, take the drive to the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, bring her home, make sure she ate something, and go teach in the evening. Despite the gravity of the situation, my mom still encouraged me to compete. She insisted, so I planned to compete at Pans. I registered, booked a flight, and a few days before I left, my mom got really sick during one of her chemo treatments, she needed to be hospitalized. After some tests we got news of her white blood cell count.
It was at zero.
“Tienes que ser persistente,” she said. “I’m going to beat this. You go to your tournament.”
I refused, but she made me promise to compete in the next east coast tournament.
After a few scary days of uncertainty, she pulled through. Her blood count returned to normal and was allowed to return to her normal routine.
A few weeks later, the New York Open rolled around. This my third time competing in it, and prior to my mom having cancer, the only thought I had about the tournament was that I had lost my first round by advantage my year and lost in the semis by 2 points in the following year. Close matches, for me, hurt more than having to tap out or getting dominated by points. I think it’s something about feeling so close to victory and questioning whether or not I could have given just a little bit more to turn the tide.
But not competing was never really an option. After all, “Tienes que ser persistente.”
I took gold that year (proudly holding a Tap Cancer Out t-shirt on the podium). That win still means a lot to me, but after being at mom’s side during her battle with cancer, the meaning of most of the things in my life has changed. Competition is still important to me, except now I see it more as a test, do I still have the persistence needed to get on that podium? Can I get through a grueling 6 week camp of double sessions? Can I battle through few 10 minute matches?
My mom is done with treatment and is back to her usual self. She truly is one of the toughest ladies I know, and every time I think about quitting anything, I hear her voice in my head.
“Tienes que ser persistente.” Always.
On May 18, 2012 our first order for www.invertedgear.com came through, from New Zealand. And Panda Nation was born. As I write this blog, we are closing on our 10,000th order. The support we have received over the years has been amazing. We have an incredible community full of friendly jiu-jiteiros.
Thinking about how far we’ve come and the thousands of people that have helped our brand to grow got me feeling a bit fuzzy. Seeing Panda gis on every continent we’ve visited made me think that Panda Nation reaches pretty far, but how far? Well, we mapped out our customers, and the results, well, they blew me away. Take a look:
We have growing left to do, but in most major jiu-jitsu hotspots, you can’t go very far without meeting a fellow Panda!
For all the orders we’ve gotten and all of the places we’ve visited, we’ve met very few bad apples. Even if something went wrong with an order, the people we talk with are understanding and respectful, true representatives of what our sport strives to be. Seeing that map got me feeling nostalgic, so I dug through and pulled out some of our favorite emails:
Pansy P., Brooklyn, NY
Love your gi. The only one that fits me properly. I'm 5'1" and 140 lb. Had two gi before yours. Wished I had three Inverted Gear gis instead.
Miguel C., Vineland, NJ
I received my A2 black gi pants today, which completes my order. Thank you so much for your timely actions and the courteous manner in which you remedied my problem. You've made me a very happy customer, and I am going share the positive experience I had with Inverted Gear on my social media accounts.
Thank you again!
Tim G., N Grafton, MA
You guys are awesome...and I freaking LOVE my gi...I'm going to make my wife get me another one for my birthday!
Adelaide, Feltham, England UK
Dear (Awesome) Inverted Gear People,
Happy New Year!
I finally received my white panda gi today, and I have to say it is absolutely stunning. It is comfortable to roll in, everyone in the class was asking where I got it, and it's rather difficult to focus while wearing such cute panda designs! (But we'll get over the attention issue right?)
I wanted to thank you for bringing this brand to life. I will keep on using your brand and spread the good word.
All the very best for 2016.
Laura C., Sparta, NJ
First of all, you guys are amazing! I only ordered 2 days ago and it arrived today so I was able to give it to my daughter at her graduation party! SHE IS IN LOVE with her gi and rash guard!!
Paul D., Riverside, CA
I love the fact you offer in between sizes for the tall lanky dudes like myself. I also really enjoy the extra loops and drawstrings. Only pair of pants that never comes untied when rolling.
I wish I had something to suggest to improve upon but in all honesty, it’s perfect.
I love love love my inverted gear gi!! Thanks guys for making such an amazing gi.
Quinn M., McDonough, GA
I've been a huge fan of Inverted Gear ever since I got my first IG gi back in 2013. I have a collection of 7 panda gi's ranging from the original white and blue, black, the purple CS, to the bam-blue and I love them all!
Marco Tse, Markham, Ontario Canada
I'm a big fan of Inverted Gear gis. So far I have the navy bamboo, black tap cancer out, panda armor, and the blue panda gi 2.0 version… I love the fit of your gis, for some reason they fit much better than most other brands, which is why I have 4 of them...
Rachel H., San Diego, CA
I wanted to take a chance to thank Inverted Gear for going above and beyond. A teammate of mine recently reached out to your company because our pants were shrinking significantly. You went above and beyond helping us getting us fitting attire. I love Inverted Gear (I'm still eagerly watching the website for those sambo shorts :D) and have teammates that laugh whenever they see the panda because it reminds them of me... They like to joke I make the panda right side up. I look forward to more to come from Inverted and love knowing I can trust the product you deliver. All the best and happy rolling!
Thank you to every member of Panda Nation for being so kind to us. We’re looking forward to serving you for many years to come.
-Nelson & Hillary
In the mix of big tournaments taking place, like the Abu Dhabi Pro the week prior and the Eddie Bravo Invitational taking place the same day, you may not have heard about a very special tournament: Tap Cancer Out. Hillary and I spent our Saturday in Stratford, CT. at their tenth event and their fifth in Stratford. This is the longest running TCO tournament and has become the biggest attracting over 450 competitors and raising over $100,000, shattering their goal of $80,000.
Inverted Gear has been a TCO sponsor since 2012. I met Jon Thomas, the mastermind behind the organization, when I ordered a shirt and a few patches so I could wear them at the New York Open. My mom was going through chemo at the time, and I wanted to help her fight in every small way that I could. When my package got lost in the mail—Jon used to ship everything out of a spare bedroom much like myself—he offered to hand deliver them to the tournament. I met with Jon after I had done competing, just before I was called to claim my medals. Jon later told me I was the first person to wear TCO gear on an IBJJF podium.
We started Sponsoring TCO soon after, donating gis to the highest fundraisers for each tournament.
And this is part of what makes TCO a great organization. It operates much differently than a typical jiu-jitsu tournament. Instead of just paying to compete, a fundraising page is created automatically when you sign up. Once you fundraise enough, you get to compete for free and you can win awesome gear from TCO and other awesome brands like 93 brand and Manto. After the event, proceeds go to the charity of the year. TCO has made donations to Lymphoma and Leukemia Society, St. Baldrick’s, and this year the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
Jon, his wife Becky, and the rest of the Tap Cancer Our crew have worked tirelessly to make these tournaments great experiences. Their leadership coupled with the very real difference these tournaments make has inspired and molded a completely unique tournament culture. Competitors know that there is more at stake than a medal, so they take losses more graciously and spend less time arguing with referees.
When everyone in the room is there for a cause, the tone is tangibly different. It’s amazing.
And it’s just getting started.
Hillary and I are looking forward to supporting TCO for many years to come. Our TCO collaboration gis are still available through the TCO store in black and white. If you already have those in your collection, add a few more or hold tight for our shipment of gray gis coming this summer.
If you haven’t supported or competed in a TCO event, get involved as soon as you can. The next time you’re on the tournament floor, say hi to me and Hillary. We don’t plan on missing a TCO tournament if we can help it. The cause means too much to us.
I started Inverted Gear four years ago. Yesterday, our 19th gi shipment landed in the United States. Four years ago, I could never imagine being where we are today. I wasn’t even sure I could sell our first 100 gis, let alone ever have a need for another shipping container full of merchandise.
For that I thank you.
Thank you for choosing Inverted Gear. Thank you for recommending us to your friends. Your kind words in the gym and on social media have been instrumental in our growth. We have done very little advertising yet have succeeded in selling out of every batch we order. And we can’t thank you enough.
The gi landscape has changed a lot since we first opened our doors. Back when we started, there were a limited number of options for gi brands, probably less than twenty serious companies. Now we have over 100, yet you keep choosing us. That never stops amazing me. I love checking our email and social media in the mornings and seeing pictures of Panda Nation grapplers all over the world—from first time buyers, to the hardcore fans with a closet full of gis. It’s still all very surreal, but I love every minute of it.
We are working hard to pay it forward. Our sponsored team continues to grow. We are up from 20 athletes last year to 30 this year. We continue to support the great folks at Tap Cancer Out, sponsoring all of their tournaments this year and releasing another collaboration gi in a few months. We’ve been working to make more original content for our blog, more technique and match footage from our sponsored athletes, and a growing social media community.
All of this has led to a mild r/bjj addiction for me. I can’t get enough of the jiu-jitsu community.
The sport has come a long way in four years, but we think the sport still has a lot of growing to do. To perhaps play a small part in that, we have a huge announcement:
We are sponsoring Polaris 3! We believe that Polaris is doing an amazing job of pushing the sport to the next level. They are giving athletes a platform like we haven’t seen before. As much as we say we have professional grapplers, the prospects for professional grapplers are extremely limited. The success of Polaris, in our minds, is the start of something great.
I started Inverted Gear in 2012. I never thought in my wildest dreams Inverted Gear would be as successful as it is today. I am still amazed that I can travel to remote places and find people wearing our gis or scroll to my Facebook feed and spot pandas in the background during technique videos filmed as far away as Japan. I still remember working on the website, hosted on BigCartel back then, and having a presale of our first batch of gis—50 blue and 50 white. I remember how nervous I was.
I thought, “Did I just throw all my savings down the drain?” and “How many people are going to want to wear gis with a silly upside down panda on them?”
My life has changed tremendously since those days, but let’s start at the beginning.
For starters, I had no business background. I took exactly one business class in college before I dropped out, 20 credits away from an exercise science degree. As you can imagine my parents were thrilled by this decision. I was 24. I was a purple belt in BJJ, was working a part-time job during the day and teaching BJJ at night. I still lived at my parents’ home when I started the company, and their basement is still referred to as our old “warehouse.”
I read a ton of business books in that time. I dreamed of what life would be like when I earned my black belt and could have my own Jiu-Jitsu School. The students of the school I currently taught at wanted a patch for their gis and some shirts with “Nelson Puentes Jiu Jitsu” on it. One of my students, Steve Pachon, offered to help out with a logo. Steve and I started throwing ideas around and the idea of a BJJ panda stuck. I had recently spent about a week teaching what I called Panda guard, and we were all obsessed with it.
It all started with that logo.
A local print shop made the t-shirts, and we started rocking them at local tournaments. Then something funny happened—people that I had never met before kept coming up to me and asking me to buy one of the shirts! I would ask them “Are you sure? It has my name on it?”
The logo struck a chord in the community. At that time, in 2012, the BJJ gear scene was drastically different from where it is now. Other than Shoyoroll, the general direction of the industry was to take the MMA-tough-guy route. I recognized this and thought, “Maybe we can start a brand for non-tough guys!”
There was a clear disconnect between where the market was going and what BJJ guys were about. Most of us looked like accountants. If you saw us on the street (other than the cauliflower ear), you would have no idea we trained martial arts. Sure, we trained, but then we went home and read books and played card games or got sucked into video games. So I asked Steve to redraw the logo and came up with the name Inverted Gear. Bearimbolo Brand was a close second, and thank God we didn’t go with that one!
After we drew up the initial gi design, I contacted 10 factories. Five of them didn’t bother getting back to me since my order of 100 gis was too small for them. Of the five that did reply, only four agreed to produce samples. After many weeks of late night back and forth emails—it felt like I lived on Pakistan time—and after many trips to Western Union, my first gi samples were on the way. Some of them were terrible.
One factory “corrected” our design, “Hey guys here is the sample. You had put the panda upside down but we fixed it for you!” Another factory took “artistic liberties” and added artwork that wasn’t there before. Two factories stood out though, and I ended up deciding on the one we still use today because the cut and quality was better. I emptied my life savings and used it to make my first order.
The first shipment was a nerve-wracking experience. The estimated deadline approached quickly, and we had issues with customs. I didn’t file all of the proper paperwork, so it took some extra doing to get the shipment cleared. When it finally did, I borrowed the Puentes family minivan and drove from New Jersey to a New York airport warehouse to pick up the first ten boxes of Inverted Gear product. The feeling was electric. I already had preorders to fill, and the very first order was going to New Zealand (which meant having to figure out international shipping; something I didn’t expect).
I recruited a few friends to help ship orders and paid them in gis. By the time it was all said and done, we shipped 80 gis. Soon after I shipped the 20 remaining gis. I could not believe I had pulled this off. I remember my first company expense was buying a laptop for Steve who had been helping me with the design work so he could work on some shirts for Inverted Gear as well. Quickly the second shipment followed, then a third, and then on the fourth we outgrew my parents’ basement.
Our last shipment was 2100 gis—large enough to warrant our own container. Thank you, all of you, that have supported the brand over the last few years, especially those of you that have been here since the beginning. I could not have done it without you. It’s been an amazing journey, and we are glad you are a part of it. The community behind this sport is incredible, and I hope that other creators take the plunge to bring their unique vision to the world.