The Beginning: Thai Boxing
Amal Easton has been a martial artist for most of his life. As a young child, he struggled with being bullied at school, so his parents signed him up for Thai boxing classes when he was 8 years old. By the early 90s, Amal had trained for over a decade and had fought in the ring twice. So he was no stranger to martial arts when Brazilian Jiu Jitsu first came into his life.
It started with a few fuzzy “Gracie in Action” video tapes. Amal watched the obscure fighting style, and quickly recognized the utility of learning how to fight on the ground. In one of his Thai boxing fights, both he and his opponent slipped to the ground at one point during the fight, and he realized he needed more than just striking skills to be a well-rounded martial artist. Not long after discovering BJJ, while attending acupuncture school in Santa Fe, Amal had the opportunity to start training with Marco Gonzales.
Marco was a tough blue belt who had trained with the Machado brothers out in California before moving to Santa Fe. At the time, very few BJJ academies existed in the United States, and none were located in New Mexico. Learning from Marco was a unique opportunity which Amal took full advantage of.
“Once I tried it, I was in love,” says Amal. He threw himself into training BJJ. Thai boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would stay with Amal for the rest of his life.
The Journey to Brazil
In 1995 Amal graduated from acupuncture school. He had always loved to travel, but for the past 3 years he had been focused on his studies and unable to travel much. He didn’t feel ready to settle down into a job right away, and opted instead to embark on an adventure.
There were three good options: he could go to China to work in a hospital and put his acupuncture skills to use, he could travel to Thailand to continue to hone his Thai boxing skills, or he could head to Brazil to train BJJ at the source. He chose Brazil.
Amal sold everything he owned and bought himself a one way ticket to Rio de Janeiro.
Prior to arriving in Brazil, Amal had very few opportunities to train with black belts, as there were only a few black belt academies in all of North America at the time. “If you really wanted the history and the depth, you had to go to Brazil,” Amal says. He remembers being stunned the first time he walked into the Gracie Barra Academy to see an entire room full of black belts.
For the next three and a half years, Amal lived in Brazil and dedicated himself full time to learning the art of Jiu Jitsu. “All I did was train. Sometimes I would take Sundays off, maybe 50/50, but pretty much 6 days a week if I wasn’t asleep or eating, I was training.”
Amal eventually received his purple belt at Gracie Barra. Then it was time to come back to the United States.
The Academy is Born
When Amal returned to Boulder, he faced a predicament. He had spent the past three and a half years training Jiu Jitsu every day, and now he was back in the US where he had nobody to train with. So he didn’t waste any time starting his own academy. He rented a house, put mats down in the garage, and recruited a small group of students. In 1998, the Easton academy was born.
Soon after starting his own school, Amal noticed an entry for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the phone book. There was a karate school in town that offered classes in BJJ. Intrigued, Amal headed to the school to check it out, and was shocked when he ran into his old friend Mark Johnson.
Mark and Amal had met and trained together in Brazil, but they lost touch when Mark left to go back to the US. Now reunited, Mark quickly told Amal that he was struggling to continue teaching his BJJ classes, since he lived in Denver and had to commute. He needed someone to take his students under their wing. So Amal took over teaching the BJJ classes at the karate school and moved his own students out of the garage. Not long after, he was able to rent his own space and founded the first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school in Boulder.
Amal made many sacrifices in the early days of the Easton academy. For a time, he slept in a small closet in the school every night. He drove an old beat up car and lived simply. He had never valued material items much. Instead of focusing on money, he relentlessly pursued his dream of bringing Jiu Jitsu to the people of Colorado.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was still a relatively unknown martial art in the US, and Amal worked hard to market the school. In the days before most people used the internet, he spent much of his time going out and talking about Jiu Jitsu to anyone who would listen. He did demonstrations at schools, malls, and festivals. He handed out flyers and put up posters. Slowly but surely, the hard work paid off and the academy grew.
A second struggle for Amal was continuing to grow his own knowledge of BJJ. He would invite black belts from Brazil to travel to Colorado and guest teach at the academy. And twice a year, for three weeks, he would travel to either Brazil or New York to train at other academies and bring back new techniques to teach his own students. It was at Renzo Gracie’s academy in New York that Amal received his own black belt in 2002. By now, he was also teaching a hardcore group of students who were skilled in their own right. He had achieved his dreams, both of earning a black belt and bringing Jiu Jitsu to Colorado.
Hard Work, Luck, and Opporutnity
Easton Training Center continued to grow. Today, 20 years after Amal’s first school opened in Boulder, the academy spans eight locations across Boulder and the Denver area. Amal attributes his success to a combination of hard work and luck. He feels lucky to have been born to parents who were supportive of his goals in a country where he had the freedom to pursue his dreams. “You have to recognize opportunity,” he says. He made the choice to live freely and wholeheartedly devote his life to his love of martial arts.
Amal also credits the Gracie family for the opportunities he had. Many of the Gracies traveled the world competing in the UFC and other no-holds-barred tournaments to spread the gospel of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the world.
“I have huge respect for the Gracie guys who got out there and fought. Those are the guys whose sweat and blood my career was built on. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. All of us do.”
As we celebrate 20 years of Easton Training Center, take a minute to look back on the opportunities you have had in your own life and be thankful for the people who have helped you grow and achieve your goals. We look forward to seeing you all on the mats!