On the latest episode of the Easton Podcast, host and Easton CEO Mike Tousignant sits down with our founder, Amal Easton, to talk about how Amal devoted his life to his passions and turned his passion for martial arts into a school that, 25 years later, has just opened its eighth location.
While Easton has successfully scaled its business model from one school to a network of academies across Colorado’s Front Range thanks to its adaptation of a military-like system of decentralized command (also seen in the world of academia), its roots have a more organic, creative start.
Professor Amal, who received his black belt from Renzo Gracie, was born to a pair of educated hippies who had left the East Coast for off-grid life in New Mexico, with no running water and a teepee for shelter.
Amal grew up nearly entirely in nature for his first few years and developed a strong penchant for all kinds of outdoor activities. While Amal didn’t excel in team sports, he had good balance and coordination and did well in individual sports like skiing, kayaking, biking, skateboarding and martial arts.
A small kid for his age and frequently picked on, focusing on his strengths and getting really good helped Amal find a sense of confidence and belonging, and he spent all of his other free time outside of school training and on the slopes, skiing.
Amal had a unique childhood also in that his parents sought a deeper connection with and understanding of the world around them than a traditional lifestyle could offer.
This meant that Amal both got his first job at age eight on his own, and was also told that he should always pursue his passion, with happiness valued far over traditional “norm” and financial status.
Amal’s focus was lazer sharp from an early age – he graduated college early and was ready to devote his life to skiing.
While he loved – and still loves – life on the slopes, eventually Amal realized that the sort of lifestyle he’d need to maintain to make it work didn’t seem quite as appealing or sustainable with age.
Amal redirected himself back to school for a certification in acupuncture to pursue a more “proper” career. Then, in 1991, he discovered Jiu Jitsu.
Free form to Brazil
Around when he began studying acupuncture, Amal met Marcos Gonzales, a former Navy Seal trained by the Machado brothers, cousins to members of the Gracie family. Marcos had moved to New Mexico to also study acupuncture and began teaching Gracie Jiu Jitsu, as he called it.
At the time, BJJ was nearly unheard of, and the only people known to teach it were a family of athletes and martial artists in Brazil, the Gracie family. Having had a direct line of training from Mitsuyo Maeda, the Gracies were actively transmuting the Japanese art of Judo into a ground-based grappling art that even the smallest person could employ in self defense.
At that point, Amal had been training in Muay Thai for several years and had had a couple fights – both in which he had fallen to the ground at some point. It became painfully clear how helpless you were on the ground without Jiu Jitsu. Up to this point the only way he could access BJJ was through a fuzzy video screen (the only place you could learn it was if somebody showed you) but now he could experience what it felt like himself.
When Marcos showed Amal how effective grappling could be in a combat situation, Amal was sold. He became obsessed with the sport and immediately after graduation from his acupuncture school, packed up to move to Brazil.
For three years Amal stayed and trained with the Gracie family, learning quickly that Brazil was not the easiest place to live at the time for an American. The American Dollar had dropped greatly to the Brazilian Real, and what Amal thought was a decent amount of money to move with ended up being nearly nothing. To get a job required a phone which cost over $7,000 just to get a line installed, and that didn’t even include the phone.
Luckily, his experience growing up in New Mexico had prepared Amal for this sort of tough environment. His ability to commit to the grind, with the only place he could afford being a room in a dilapidated mansion on a small island he could only access by boat, allowed him to move through each experience with resilience and curiosity.
Amal loved exploring the uncomfortable spaces and seeing different ways of being, and he particularly enjoyed the oddities he encountered. This experience – the pure commitment to the Jiu Jitsu lifestyle and embrace of unconventional norms – carried into every piece of Amal’s life as he returned to the United States and opened his first school.
Previously, in 1996, he had come back for a summer amid training in Brazil and got offered a job in Fort Lauderdale, Florida opening a Gracie Brothers Academy with Crawlin Gracie. When Crawlin had to go back to Brazil, Amal, then a purple belt, had to run the school himself – teaching classes, cleaning the mats, bathrooms, and even living and sleeping in it.
Amal never knew what to expect when people would come in. He imagined that he had something better than anyone else with BJJ, but Jiu Jitsu hadn’t yet reached popularity, and people would frequently come in with Sambo and wrestling, wanting to test their skills against this “so-called” Jiu Jitsu. Luckily, Jiu Jitsu never failed.
When Amal returned from Brazil and opened Boulder Jiu Jitsu in 1998, all of this experience came to aid. Now living in a closet of his own academy, he stayed plugged in constantly – including once waking up to answer the phone because he needed students so badly not realizing it was 3am (much to the surprise of the prospective student who had planned to leave a voicemail.)
He taught all of the classes, ran all the new member presentations, and cleaned the mats and the bathrooms. He taught five to seven classes six days a week, and when he wasn’t in the academy teaching, he was out putting flyers up anywhere he could.
“I loved teaching people,” says Amal, “I really loved Jiu Jitsu, and I loved making nerds be able to tie people in knots – there’s nothing cooler than that, right?”
He was living entirely in his truth – and following what his parents had always said: Choose something that makes you happy.
“My parents always said, it doesn’t matter what you do in life as long as you’re happy,” says Amal. “Because if you’re happy at what you do, you’ll be good at it, and you’ll enjoy doing it. So you’ll either make money because you’re good at it or you won’t make money but you’ll be happy.”
Investing in yourself (and others)
Along the way of building himself and the academy up, a realtor student introduced Amal to the book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. This book became extremely influential, and inspired him to invest in real estate. Amal saved up enough to buy first house in Boulder, his requirement being that it had to have lots of rooms for renting. Living in this home and renting the rooms to others, mostly students, he was eventually able to buy a house for himself.
We may associate investing with needing to have money – only the rich can afford to invest, we might say to ourselves. However, that doesn’t have to be true. Yes, we have to work to make it happen, but even if you’re dirt broke, you don’t have to stay that way – as we see with Amal.
Amal later passed this book on to Mike Tousignant, teaching him how to invest in real estate as well when Mike wanted to buy a home and grow his family. This seed of wisdom burrows deep into the values at Easton Training Center, as we have built up and circulate our list of recommended reading over the years. Each of these books is on here because at one point, it helped and influenced one or more of our leaders to expand and grow.
The best leaders don’t need to run every angle of the operation if they can teach others how to read the books and think outside the box. That’s why we encourage you to grow, think for yourself and invoke the power of stewardship to empower your team.
“Just be ready to be a student,” says Mike, “and see what’s available.”
In the business world, Amal had also begun investing – in the company and in others. As the sport’s popularity and Easton’s success grew, Amal needed help to run the company. He brought in a student of his, former UFC fighter Eliott Marshall, who helped plug Easton into a larger community and strengthened both its martial arts and operational potential, and created other spaces where individuals could step in and add value.
As more people joined the team, over time Easton’s operations morphed into a many-headed creature made up of a crew of talented individuals with a variety of strengths and skills.
No matter how streamlined Easton gets (because yes – that is the goal), we will never lose sight of the human element at the heart of it: the passion for what we love, the value martial arts can add to our lives and the beauty of sharing it with others.
In many ways, this organic, creative energy continues to run as strong as ever through the undercurrent of our entire organization, allowing us to find new openings to fill and manifest our own dream jobs at Easton Training Center.
While over the years, Easton’s culture has undoubtedly shifted to a more beginner-friendly environment that welcomes students of all mettle, the spark Amal first lit – making something out of nothing – has remained at the core of Easton.