Litigator gets kick out of opening gym
May 16, 2011
By Maria Kantzavelos
Law Bulletin staff writer
Corporate litigator Collin B. Williams knew there must be a better way when he arrived at his law firm for work one morning with a broken nose and black eye.
His injuries from sparring at a gym during a workout in mixed martial arts (MMA) — a full contact combat sport that allows a variety of fighting techniques and skills, including striking as well as grappling techniques — had him thinking about an opportunity.
“I did realize, there really was a market for a gym where you could train in these things, but you didn’t need to get hit in the face,” said Williams, an associate at Greenberg, Traurig LLP. “Because at the end of the day, there are people who do have to go to work on Monday and I’m sure there are people out there with employers who are less understanding of outside pursuits.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who would love to try this stuff, but simply can’t do it in a full contact aspect.”
Williams, an athlete since childhood and former football player at his college alma mater Middlebury College in Vermont, has embraced MMA as his outlet from the practice of law since about six years ago. He said he was looking for something other than “lifting weights and jogging on a treadmill — the typical gym activities, which I think are, in general, extremely boring.”
While struggling to find the right fit for him in a gym where he could practice boxing, jiu-jitsu and kickboxing all in one setting, Williams said another source of frustration was that most of the gyms he belonged to required sparring as participants moved up the MMA ranks.
“That was fine for me for a while, but when I broke my nose and eye, I had concussion issues for a year and a half and I just said, I can’t do this anymore,” Williams said. “I just said, I want to keep doing this training, but I can’t do the sparring aspect of it.”
He said he had also become frustrated with the slim MMA offerings he ran into at gyms around town.
“I sort of bounced from gyms trying to find a place to do the specific martial arts I wanted to do,” Williams said.
“At one point, my wife said, ‘Why don’t you just open your own gym?’ ” Williams said. “Two years later, here we sit.”
Williams is referring to Emerald Smoke, a 4,500-square-foot facility in Chicago’s West Loop where he and the gym’s members can train like MMA fighters, but not necessarily with the bruises to show for it.
“We’re very geared towards the person who’s not actually interested in getting punched in the face,” Williams said. “Some gyms are the hard-core fight gyms; very interested in sparring. We’re the antithesis of that.”
He tapped into his background in corporate law to transform a vacant brick box near the corner of Milwaukee and Grand Avenues, into a fitness facility dedicated exclusively to mixed martial arts.
“Getting this started, I don’t know if I could have done it without the background, just as far as incorporating and sort of crossing my T’s and dotting my I’s,” Williams said. “Everything I’ve done, from reviewing contracts and really keeping myself from getting screwed has been my background in the law. I don’t know if this would have happened without it.”
Williams said he connected with combat sports equipment maker Everlast to equip the gym with the company’s gear, like the half dozen back racks and the row of speed bags and the kicking shields, gloves and thigh pads that hint at the way the offerings are designed for taking in MMA as a form of fitness without the sparring.
He also sought out instructors and trainers and MMA fighter Mike Bodziach as general manager.
A focal point of the exposed brick facility is the gym’s regulation-issued cage, where some classes are offered. But, even though offering a training ground for competitive MMA fighters is not Emerald Smoke’s “bread and butter,” Williams said the gym does attract several such aspiring fighters.
The gym offers a variety of group classes in such areas as MMA fundamentals, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai kickboxing and advanced boxing, and in strength and conditioning, and yoga.
Bodziach described some of the benefits of a sport that he said is increasing in popularity as a form of fitness, aside from learning how to fight.
“We’re trying to basically bridge the gap between your average every day person who’s looking for a good workout and the way a fighter is trained,” Bodziach said. “Because, just because you train like a fighter, it doesn’t mean you have to get in the cage and fight somebody. You can come in here and do the workout from beginning to end and get a phenomenal workout and enjoy the physical and mental benefits you can reap from it, without having to get in there and do battle.”
Business has been good, said Williams, a 2003 graduate of Tulane University Law School. So far, he said, 75 to 80 members have signed on and “we’re probably growing about five people a week.”
For Williams, Emerald Smoke has become not only a business venture far removed from the life of a law firm lawyer, but also a place to call his own to train in a sport he is passionate about.
“I love this sport,” Williams said. “I love all sports. I love football, hockey. But there’s not much room to build a football stadium. What would you do? Build a hockey rink? That’d be expensive. This is one sport that I absolutely love, th at I felt I could do something in.”
To boot, the law firm associate said, the MMA workout is “fantastic therapy.”
“[The practice of law] is, without question, a stressful and intense profession. At the end of the day, I can spend two hours here forgetting about everything I did at the office, getting all my energy out.”