Ask Matt A Question

Life In the Gym: Wiltse Brothers Live and Breath BJJ

By Brett Hart Created: April, 2017 - Modified: July, 2021

For 24-year-old three-time world middleweight grappling champion Andrew Wiltse, competitive martial arts has punched his ticket out of a dead-end lifestyle.

Growing up on an island in far northern Michigan, Wiltse didn't really fit into his small community.


''When I was in middle school, I had this long hair that curled down over my eyes and I didn't like to get it cut,'' Wiltse said. ''All I did was read books every day. I'd read a thousand pages every day.''

His reclusive tendencies led to him being the recipient of a lot of bullying during his middle school and high school years - that is until he decided to take on martial arts.

''It really made a big change as far as confidence,'' he said. ''All the bullying immediately stopped. I went from, 'I kind of just want to beat the bullies up' to 'I'm kind of good at this and I really kind of like this.' Now it's a full blown obsession.''

New Obsession

Over the past 10 years, Wiltse has tried his hand at Judo, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, Boxing and Jiu Jitsu, working his way to a brown belt in Judo and purple belt in Jiu Jitsu.

Since beginning his Jiu Jitsu training 3 1/2 years ago, the sport has taken him by storm - even spurring him to pack his bags and move 12 hours from his hometown of Drummond Island to live, work and train in a gym in Mount Vernon, Illinois.

Life Changing Decision

After graduating from high school and while preparing for college, Wiltse felt MMA would be the logical next step for him in martial arts. He started training in a boxing gym an hour from home and found himself a training partner for others working on their grappling skills.

''This bald guy was on the mat,'' Wiltse said. ''His name was Heath. He tapped me out probably 50 times. At the time, I hadn't been tapped out in 2 years by anyone.''

Shocked by what had transpired, Wiltse stayed in contact with Heath for the next 2 years while he attended college.

Then one day, Heath (Pedigo) offered him the opportunity to come live at his gym, Pedigo Submission Fighting, in Mount Vernon and train full time. Within a week, Wiltse had taken Heath up on the offer and had moved in - without telling anyone back home about the plan.

Family Trade

Shortly thereafter Andrew's brother, Bird, followed suit and moved into the gym to train with him while finishing high school.

''We train together every single day,'' Andrew said. ''He's my primary drilling partner and primary sparring partner.''

On their more intense days, the duo puts in 8-9 hours at the gym, teaching kids classes and kickboxing cardio fitness classes in addition to 2-3 hours of drills and 2-3 hours of sparring. On a light day, they cut back to 4 hours of gym time.

''We just train,'' Andrew said. ''We still read books, but when we're done reading, we train more. ... I don't really have any friends that don't go to the gym. I don't really have a life outside of the gym. I'm at the gym 24/7.''

While winning two IBJJF world championships in his division was exciting for Andrew, what really got his adrenaline pumping was when he claimed the world open weight no gi title.

Andrew is in good company at the gym, also, as Bird, 21, recently won worlds as well as a 145-pound blue belt.

The Mental Game

As a coach, Andrew said the best part is watching kids who come in with no confidence turn into youngsters ready to take on the world.

''You don't want them to be the bully, but you want them to be confident,'' Andrew said. ''We try to instill a mindset that they need to try to win and do their best.''

''I like the technical aspect (of BJJ),'' Andrew said. ''I really like competitive things. I played competitive Halo in high school professionally. I like chess and stuff like that. I like how you can see it all in your head before it happens on the mats. You don't have to be more physical than someone and you can still dominate them based on the mental aspect of it.''

Andrew competes regularly in Greatmats-sponsored American Grappling Federation tournaments to stay competitive and is grateful to the AGF for offering numerous opportunities to compete in well-run tournaments throughout the year.

Island Pride

Although their dad, who still lives in Michigan, doesn't get to see Andrew or Bird grapple often, Andrew said his father is incredibly proud of what he and Bird are doing with their lives.

''He was a wrestler in high school, and he's 67 now,'' Andrew said of his father. ''Now you've got me and my brother living in the gym, going everywhere and competing and winning tournaments.''

That pride has spread through the Drummond Island community as well.

''A lot of the guys I graduated with are stuck up there,'' Andrew said. ''It's one of those places you kind of get trapped. ... They look up to me and my brother because we're out and doing things.''

To learn more about Greatmats-sponsored American Grappling Federation Tournaments and athletes visit Greatmats' AGF Tournament Resource Page.

Martial arts mats
Andrew Wiltse
Pedigo Submission Fighting
Mount Vernon IL 62864