Dragonfly Martial Arts Academy Owner & Former Navy SEAL Teaches Others to Be Great

Photographer: Amy Payne

Like many little boys, Kenny Bigbee Jr. grew up aspiring to be just like his father.

“My dad was my hero,” Bigbee says.

In fact, he was the neighborhood hero of sorts.

“Dad used his martial arts skills to protect the people of the city,” explains Bigbee, who originally hails from Indianapolis.

Think Batman, minus the gadgets. His father was involved in an organization called the Guardian Angels, which is essentially a citizens’ safety patrol group. He didn’t wear a cape, but he did don a red beret as he walked the streets doing citizens’ arrests, employing his martial arts techniques when necessary.

“If somebody tried to steal a purse, he would defend the person until the police arrived,” says Bigbee, who describes his father as living “fearless and free”—a motto that impacted Bigbee to the core.

“It’s a root mentality — the ability to have uncommon courage,” he says. “My dad inspired me to not only be courageous but be my best self.”

He decided to do so by working to become a Navy SEAL, despite the odds.

“Normally there’s a 70 percent attrition rate in becoming a Navy SEAL,” Bigbee says. “That means that if 100 go in, only 30 come out. As an African-American, however, the percentage plummets to just 2%.”

Nevertheless, Bigbee’s determination didn’t waver even though he didn’t know how to swim properly. Though SEAL stands for “Sea, Air, And Land,” it’s primarily a maritime operation, which means that those in training spend an inordinate amount of time in the water.

“That’s all you do. They call it ‘wet insanity’ because you’re always cold and wet,” Bigbee says. “That’s why we used to be called Frogmen.”

Bigbee miraculously passed the swim test and in 1999 became the 32nd African-American Navy SEAL. It was a unique time period in history because Congress had just received notice that there was an infinitely small population of minorities in that unit. Bigbee’s friend, David Goggins, also from Indy, became the 36th African-American Navy SEAL. In December 2018, Goggins published a book called “Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds,” which reached the Amazon best-seller list in just six days.

Navy SEAL’s grueling training involves BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL), which lasts six months and is designed to weed out those individuals who do not have the fortitude to endure things like Hell Week where trainees must stay awake for 120 continuous hours.

“You are declared legally insane by Wednesday,” Bigbee says. Even so, he admits that Navy SEAL arduous training has nothing on motherhood.

“I think that moms may be tougher than Navy SEALs with the stuff they endure on a daily basis,” says Bigbee with a chuckle. “The chaos they face I don’t think I could handle.”

When Bigbee first moved to Hendricks County after getting out of the military, he had trouble finding work due to the poor economy, post-911. Bigbee, who had grown accustomed to eating ramen noodles, took what he could find.

“I went from jumping out of airplanes to serving coffee in restaurants. That’s a pretty dynamic shift,” he says.

One day, he had a revelation.

“Why don’t I do what I love?” he thought, and he melded his unique experience with the Navy SEALs with his affinity for martial arts and found a way to help others. In 2008, he opened Dragonfly Martial Arts Academy in downtown Plainfield.

Bigbee embodies the mindset of becoming your best. He was asked to train and mentor SEAL candidates, having been sought out by Naval Special Warfare Scouts to prepare them for the toughest military training in the world.

“I received an appreciation award from the Navy recruiting district for going above and beyond, resulting in their region achieving the highest conversion rate of candidates becoming Navy SEAL graduates in the nation,” Bigbee says. 

These days, when he’s not teaching, Bigbee travels the world delivering elite achievement coaching to Fortune 500 companies, sharing the message of how steadfast determination can change one’s life. Nominated for the Martial Arts Hall of Fame, he has taught martial arts in Brazil, Bangkok, Thailand and Croatia at some of the most respected academies in the world.

In addition, for the past year Bigbee, with his company Tactical ACTS (Adaptive Combat Tactical Solutions), has been training the Hendricks County SWAT team all about tactical mindset, tactical strategy, firearms and martial combat.

Bigbee’s mission in life, whether it’s in the martial arts studio, at SWAT training or speaking in front of a crowd, is to inspire people to become their best selves by being elite.

“Being elite doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the best. You just need to not settle for being less than your best,” says Bigbee, who preaches peak performance under pressure. He maintains that if one can perform in the face of adversity, fear falls away. Bigbee maintains that martial arts is a great training ground for life because when you run into challenges on the mat, the practice teaches you how to deal with them.

“The studio is a controlled environment, but it’s an authentic challenge nevertheless,” Bigbee says. “What you’re actually doing is facing your worst fear every day, learning how to defy the odds and overcome them. When you master your mindset, your quality of life improves.”

This is why martial arts can help defeat anxiety, which plagues a huge segment of society. Anxiety is all about feeling hopeless and helpless due to the great unknown. Martial arts instructs you to look within yourself to determine what you can control.

“That’s the antithesis of anxiety,” Bigbee says. 

Steven Lai, an attorney who trains at DragonFly, is grateful for how martial arts empowers him.

“When I can control my mindset in training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu/martial arts, then I walk into [an intense situation] at work, [the stress] pales in comparison,” Lai says. “I can remain calm and focused.” 

The same is true of Bigbee’s younger students. For instance, one of his middle school students who used to get bullied witnessed a peer getting harassed and he stood up for the boy and diffused the situation.

“He became the hero because he learned how to take control of what was in himself,” Bigbee says. “It was a life-changing experience for him.”

Like his dad, Bigbee is a hero in his own right as he works to draw out the best in everyone he meets.

“As human beings, we are constantly trying to improve,” he says. “If you don’t improve, you lose at the game of life.”

Dragonfly Martial Arts Academy is located at. 122 W. Main Street in Plainfield. For more information, call 877-889-KICK or visit dragonflyma.com.