MIAMI – Hauley Tillman’s students call him “Sensei Champ.” He believes children can develop mental strength, courage, discipline, integrity, kindness, and many other qualities through the practice of martial arts.
The mixed martial arts fighter from Miami’s Liberty City knows that firsthand. He was a homeless teen when Steven Tarrago, a retired police lieutenant, saw him exercising and decided to mentor him.
Tarrago saw Tillman shadowboxing at a public park before he started to give him rides to his Twin Dragons dojo. Tillman, now 35 and a father of two, is a black belt in karate, Krav Maga, judo, jiu-jitsu, and kung fu.
“He took me under his wing and taught me everything I know,” Tillman said about Tarrago. “He’s like a brother to me.”
Last year, Tillman decided to use his $5,000 in winnings from the Pillow Fight Championship, or PFC, bracket victory, to rent a space so he could run The Mighty Warriorz Dojo, a martial arts school in the impoverished neighborhood where he grew up.
The school runs on donations. Families pay what they can to join. He teaches boxing, karate, and jiu-jitsu lessons. He serves students free meals every Thursday and hosts giveaway events. Tillman hopes that it will become a beacon of light for those who need support as he once did.
After losing a benefactor to deportation, Tillman said he feared that he wasn’t going to be able to pay the dojo’s rent. Tarrago set up a GoFundMe fundraiser, Local 10 News reported on it, and the donation goal of $6,020 was met in about a day.
“I just want to say, from the bottom of my heart, that I am very grateful, very thankful,” Tillman said.
About half of the donation was from Democratic Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo.
“I really appreciate the Senator for sending his donation,” Tillman said.
The dojos where he teaches are in Liberty City and in Little Haiti, right next to Miami Edison Senior High School.
Tillman said he isn’t giving up and he will continue doing what he can to keep the dojo open.
“I come from a tough area but I thank everyone for judging me by my spirit and character and not for how I look,” Tillman said about the support he received from Pizzo and other donors who didn’t know him or trust him like Tarrago does.