As a die-hard boxing fan, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with mixed martial arts. In fact, I probably would have laughed in your face had anyone told me a few years ago that I would end up training in an MMA gym. And yet, here I am. That said, what sold me was not so much the whole mixed martial arts frenzy, but the character of Justin Etheridge, owner, manager and head instructor of the Angry Monkey MMA Gym located in the South-West area of Montreal. His benevolence, charisma and work ethic convinced me to dig deeper into his persona and grant him an interview. So if you fight fans wish to know how to be a successful businessman and qualified teacher whilst mingling with the “stars”, then you should take a closer look.
Yes, as a sport MMA has indeed grown exponentially over the course of the new millennium, but not every MMA gym out there is thriving. In this interview, you’ll discover the main dos and don’ts of mixed martial arts gym management. So without any further ado, I present to you: Justin Etheridge.
Q: Justin, you obviously live in Montreal, but were you born and raised here?
A: No, I was born in the town St-Anthony located in Newfoundland. In fact, the town is only 30 minutes away from L’Anse aux Meadows where the Vikings first landed in North America. I was raised on the Québec-Labrador frontier and lived there till I was 17. Afterwards, I left ended up going to Champlain College for a year or so in the Eastern Townships. I was on Bishop’s campus but that didn’t work out as I favoured partying like a rockstar over hitting the books at night (laughs). Later on, I landed a construction gig in St-Catherines, Ontario. I was initially working the night shift under a big skyway bridge 7 days a week from 7pm to 6am. It was like that during the first three months, so that was something. Needless to say, it was a drastic change from my short-lived student life. Later on, I just kept buzzing around from city to city working incessantly.
Q: You’re a long way from home and you lived in various Canadian cities; how did you end up in Montreal?
A: I just found my niche here. Montreal is a great city; I love its European flavour, the French culture and above all, the fight scene is by far the best in the country and one of the best on the planet period.
Q: How long have you been practicing martial arts and other combat sports? What’s your martial arts background?
A: While I was on campus (not partying!), I tried kickboxing and later on, I took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes here and there while I was moving around the country. I took my first BJJ class in Barrie, Ontario. But it wasn’t until around the age of 25 that I really started committing to it full time; before that I was still playing hockey (I was a goalie). However, something in me clicked at some point and just I realized that this was really the path for me. So after experiencing my “martial epiphany”, I sold my hockey equipment just like that and never looked back. I focused mainly on grappling arts such as No-Gi Jiu Jitsu, wrestling, and submission for MMA.
Q: From a grappling point of view, what is the difference between No-Gi Jiu Jitsu, standard Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and wrestling?
A: No-Gi is a bit more restricted because, as the name implies, you’re fighting without the Gi (uniform), so the range of technique is consequently limited. Because of its technical limitation, I personally find it less dangerous but there’s a lot more movement and scrambles. That said, I feel you get the full spectrum of Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s arsenal when you actually train with the Gi on. You really get to appreciate all of Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s main selling points such as the efficiency and dangerousness of its techniques as well as its thought process. As for wrestling, there are plenty of takedowns and pins and unlike BJJ, you strive much more to maintain the top position. However, wrestling is quite underrated from a technical standpoint; it really is a beauty combat sport. Yes, brawn does factors in, but brains is also a must in wrestling.
Q: When did you open your gym and why did you focus on a mixed martial arts/boxing gym?
A: I believe it was the weekend following the Pacquiao-Bradley rematch. My first gym was located on Saint-Patrick Street in the South-West part of Montreal. At the time, I had nothing specific in mind and I certainly did not expect to end up where I am now, not only in terms of location but also in terms of career aspiration. Initially, I was just looking for 1000 square feet so I searched extensively all over the South-West. I had been coaching fighters at other gyms prior to that, but it simply didn’t work out. At one place, the bailiff even showed up so I told myself: “Okay, this isn’t going as planned”. Moreover, I was still working construction at the time because, you know, I was just getting started in the fight business and, as I said earlier, I had nothing concrete planned out so it would have been stupid to quit my day job right away. But somehow, I ended up at my first location on Saint-Patrick. It was too big for me as all I needed was one of the two rooms they were renting out. Yet, I had to sign up for both since it they both came as a package deal. The owner gave me good deal though, but I still ended up with far more space than I needed.
Initially my intention was just to have a ring, hang up a heavy bag and that was it; all I wanted was 4 walls and a roof to train my customers and get my feet wet in the fight business. That’s it. Surprisingly though, I was getting a lot of new customers to a point where I was working both jobs full-time; I was working construction during the day and teaching private classes almost every night. I was initially just offering private lessons and training a few competitors on the side when people started showing up asking for regular kickboxing classes. I turned them down at first but after sending over 30 people back home, I sat down scratching my chin and wondered if there wasn’t something to it after all. So I started off with only 2 kickboxing classes a week just to test the waters and there was an astonishing turn-up of 28 people on the very first class. It was an instant success. Then one thing quickly led to another; I started hiring staff and when I saw I couldn’t hold on to my day job any longer, I quit construction entirely and became a full-fledged MMA gym owner and instructor, just like that.
Q: You recently moved from your St-Patrick location to a brand new venue on Verdun Street, what precipitated you to move to a new venue?
A: We simply outgrew our last location and although we had a lot of success, the location wasn’t the best; plenty of members would come up to me and say: “Hey, I love the place but it’s so hard to get here”. So we moved to Verdun for accessibility purposes and also because we needed even more space. Our new location is roughly 2.5 times bigger than our former location, so it’s quite an upgrade. Our current location is roughly 5700 hundred square feet. The top floor is dedicated to boxing, cross-training and private lessons. The front desk and my office are also located on the top floor. Grappling arts such as BJJ are located in the basement. However we also give our Muay Thai classes in the basement since there are various levels and multiple heavy bags.
Q: MMA has been the fastest growing sport around the world for well over a decade and plenty of gyms have spurted out like weeds following the meteoric rise of the sport; what sets your gym apart from the others? What does your facility offer?
A: We have a real personal touch and a variety of different classes and programs such as women’s kickboxing and programs for kids. We currently offer 30 weekly classes. We give our customers everything we’ve got; we give what we can give and we always focus on quality. Moreover, we always invite constructive criticism in order to make sure we are a better gym today than we were yesterday, and that we’ll be a better gym tomorrow than we are today. We don’t sit on our laurels and pat ourselves in the back feeling content; that’s one of the best ways to head straight towards bankruptcy. We thus send out newsletters and promos in order to build a healthy relation with our customers. That said, we don’t train just anybody though: if you don’t show me that you’re serious, I won’t bother; but if you give it all you’ve got, then so will I.
The gym is like my baby and I’m the parent. And as a parent, your job is to provide and nurture your baby so it may grow and stay healthy; the same can be said about your business. But being a savvy businessman isn’t enough; you have to be passionate and love what you do as well. And the fact that I’m handy really helps: my gym is brand new, and the moment something breaks and needs fixing, I’m on it right away. Furthermore, it’s always clean and I always stay aware of any new trend regarding workout programs or training apparatuses so that my customers may have access to the best equipment possible. So I try to provide a contrast between second-to-none training equipment with an old-school, Spartan-inspired training mentality that we try to instill into our customers. So the deal is simple: we offer the best equipment and the very best from our coaches, but customers have to do their part as well. We don’t want fluffiness or flakiness from them; it has to be mutual commitment on both ends. As for anything else in life, it’s all those little details combined that you pay attention to which make a world of difference at the end of the day.
Q: Even though MMA has been the fastest growing sport of the new millennium, there are still plenty of gyms across the world which have closed down not long after first opening their doors. Why is that in your opinion?
A: Listen, there are some very capable and competent coaches out there, but they aren’t good businessmen: they make bad decisions, they choose bad locations with poor visibility, they don’t know how to promote, some are stubborn and don’t want to learn and evolve and let’s face it, some simply have no personality. So at the end of the day, you cannot be one-dimensional and see yourself as nothing more than a coach owning a gym; you have to see yourself as an entrepreneur, as a salesman, and as a visionary. From the get-go, I understood the importance of being a jack-of-all-trades. It’s a competitive industry and you have to be on top of your game and know the ABCs of business management. You have to get on with social media, you have to promote, you have to put yourself out there, you have to keep your eyes open and find out what your competitor is doing that makes him-her successful or not.
And let’s be honest, there are others guys who simply aren’t good at anything at all period, and we’re talking both the sporting AND the business aspect of gym management. Owning, but especially running a gym is a heck of a commitment: you have to genuinely care, be authentic and “real”, you have to love what you do and of course, you have to put in the hard work day in, day out. Luckily, I have a great wife who also happens to be very smart. So she handles all the logistical part of the business which gives me a breather. And that’s another thing: you have to put your pride and ego aside and ask for help when you feel overwhelmed or simply out of your element. I mean I’m no stranger to 70-hour work weeks and I’ve been rolling like this from the very beginning, but splitting things up with my better half makes it a whole lot easier. It’s a team effort and delegating tasks, not only with my wife, but with my coaching staff as well is one of the pillars of my success. Hard work and trust will determine whether or not you’ll make or break. Sadly, many gym owners don’t understand that, or simply don’t want to make the necessary sacrifices and that’s why they ultimately end up closing their doors.
Q: Outside the gym, who is Justin Etheridge?
A: I’m just your regular, everyday guy: I’m a husband, a family man, and a law-abiding citizen who’s always ready to help his fellow neighbor if need be. I’m a man of principle and I live by my own personal code. I’m in a good place in my life and I feel blessed, but I also know that I deserve all of it because I worked hard and never stopped believing in myself and that’s what matters at the end of the day.
Q: What kind of instructor are you? The friendly type? The drill Sgt? What’s your style of teaching?
A: (laughs) A bit of both I would say. I’m either hot or cold, there’s no in-between. However, I should specify that what my students bring to the table dictates my mood and behavior; if you slack off, show up late or complain, I’ll put you back in your place by raising my voice and make you skip and extra round; but if you’re here on time, or even early, do your homework and welcome a grueling training session with open arms, I’ll be a lot nicer to you. But at the end of the day, if you work your butt off no matter what, I’ll always congratulate you for a job well done. No student should ever walk out of a gym feeling bummed out; if there is a lesson to be learned, that lesson must always be taught in a constructive fashion. All in all, I’m fair both to my students and to myself and that two-way fairness is also something I express outside the gym as well.
Q: What is the vision that you have for your gym? Where do you see yourself five to ten years from now?
A: Community involvement. I want more of it. This is hands down one of my main goals. I wish to reach out to underprivileged children and give them a chance to box, and use boxing or any other combative art as a positive outlet for them to grow right both mentally and spiritually. And by the same token, I wish to continue to try to change this erroneous opinion that some people have towards combat sports such as boxing. There are still too many people out there who wrongfully think that teaching boxing is teaching violence. This is both completely absurd and light years away from the truth. It’s pure misinformation, or, should I say, lack thereof and that needs to change.
Combat arts, be it boxing, Muay Thai, BJJ, karate, judo, kung fu, you name it, is first and foremost about self-control and self-restraint. You turn violence and channel it into a sporting competition taking place in a controlled environment where there are strict rules to abide by. You turn lack of self-control into discipline and mutual respect. You turn self-esteem issues into self-confidence and empowerment. That’s what we do at Angry Monkey MMA. Sadly many people, especially some school teachers, are still ignorant in that regard. I know this for a fact because I approached plenty of schools with the intention of offering FREE boxing classes to children, especially those hailing from broken homes. And guess how many replies I received? Zip, zero, none, nada. I was dumbstruck. The real problem is that some of those teachers never tasted the harsh reality that their students go through on a daily basis; so consequently, they have no idea what those kids are dealing with every single day. And because ignorance is bliss and because they are afraid of reprisals of any sort for suggesting martial arts to a kid, they don’t bother looking into it any further. Ask anyone who’s done boxing or any other martial art how they feel after a class; I mean, I have personally never been so serene and zen ever since I entered the world of martial arts. This journey is about knowing thyself, that’s what it’s all about; it’s about personal growth, self-knowledge, and self-actualization.
Q: You’re known amongst your peers as a Good Samaritan who has been involved in your community on more than one occasion. You even started your own socialistic gig called “Fight for the Sud-West”: could you tell us more about that program and the reason why you started it in the first place?
A: Fight for the Sud-West is an idea that came to me during summer 2015. One of my students had been diagnosed with two different types of cancer, so I organized a fundraiser with a bunch of people to help her out. In fact that’s how I found our current location because the event was held just two blocks away.
She was moved by the gesture but said that she had very good medical insurance coverage and that she therefore didn’t need the money. Instead, she encouraged us to donate the money to cancer foundations, which we did. And that’s when a light bulb appeared over my head. I realized in that moment that I really enjoyed helping others in that fashion and that’s when the Fight for Sud-West community program was born.
We held our first official fundraiser in May 2017. It was an instant hit as we raised $4700. We mainly owe our success to the 18 sponsors who financially helped us bankroll the event. We held another fundraiser last November and raised $3700. We technically sold more tickets the second time around, but we unfortunately garnered only one third of the sponsors we had the first time (sponsourship money covers all the costs up front). Regardless of that fact, every single penny still went to the Share the Warmth foundation which offers a variety of services to the community such as free-lunch programs to kids.
Q: Who is, or was, your favourite fighter?
A: Mike Tyson hands down. His dominance and ferocity put him in a league of his own; you were on the edge of your seat whenever he was fighting. Even his sparring sessions are mesmerizing.
Q: What’s the best fight you’ve ever seen?
A: I’d say the first Gatti-Ward fight; nobody expected to watch such an epic fight like that. There were fireworks from the opening bell to the last and whole lot of heart and guts on both ends. As for MMA, definitely the first Dan Henderson-Milanu “Shogun” Rua fight. That one was also action-packed all the way; both fighters displayed a never-say-die attitude during the entirety of the fight. Just when you thought a guy was on his way out, he’d comeback and even up the score. It was amazing. Both fights were a true contest of sheer will over skill.
Q: Which fight would you like to see materializing in the near future?
A: I’d like to see Conor McGregor (21-3-0) fight Khabib Nurmagomedov (25-0-0) because on the one hand, the Russian fighter is undefeated and depending on how you look at it, one could argue that he has a better record than McGregor’s. Nurmagomedov thus deserves a title shot in my opinion. I think McGregor has done very well for himself in the past few years. He’s a great showman, a smart businessman and nobody can take away what he’s accomplished against José Aldo and Nate Diaz. Moreover, he went out of his element to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably one of the greatest boxers of all time. At the same time, he also secured his future by fighting “Money”. In doing so, he was thus granted an opportunity of a lifetime and earned nearly 10 times what he made against Diaz (3,000,000 USD) two years ago, his best payday, or should I say, the biggest payday in UFC history, which pales by comparison to boxing’s gargantuan purses. Therefore it’s time for him to return the favour and grant a deserving fighter his shot rather than hand-picking his next opponent and sail towards an easy win. I’m saying this because on the other hand, I firmly believe that this would be a fight that McGregor simply wouldn’t win.
Q: You’ve been very busy in the past few years, yet you’re still fairly new in the world of martial arts. And yet, you’ve befriended some big names in the fight community. How did that happen?
A: It’s probably due to my devilish good-looks and contagious smile (laughs). No, but seriously, I went on some kind of martial arts “pilgrimage”, if I may call it that way, in my formative years. I wanted to learn as much as possible from all the greatest contemporary fighters regardless of the art. I thus made several trips to Lowell, Massachusetts where I trained at Ramhalo’s, the same gym where Mickey Ward and his half–brother and former trainer Dickie Eklund used to train. While I was down there, I seized the opportunity to hone my Muay Thai skills with kru Mark Delagrotte. I also stopped by Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn since any moderately knowledgeable boxing fan knows that this place is nothing short of legendary. But I didn’t restrict my journey to the East Coast only; I took my grappling game to a different level by working out with Martin Kampmann in Las Vegas and Bas Rutten in West Lake, California. I even flew overseas to Amsterdam to train at Mike’s Gym, which is the Gleason’s Gym of kickboxing. Needless to say that those were all experiences of a lifetime, but I especially enjoyed my time with Bas Rutten. We simply hit it off right from the get-go. He’s super charismatic and a stand-up guy on top of that; to me that’s gold especially in this day and age. I also cherished my time spent in Dickie Eklund’s company; I mean the man has so many stories to tell, it’s unbelievable. No wonder they made a movie about him and his brother Mickey (The Fighter). I think Christian Bale did a great job impersonating him. Luckily, I’m still in touch with all of them, especially Bas and Dickie with whom I keep tabs on a regular basis.
Q: There’s an old adage in martial arts that says that there’s a beginning but no end in regard to one’s learning; what’s next for you?
A: Trust me, some days I do feel old even if I’m just 36 (laughs). More seriously, I’d like to take up a few private lessons with Jean-Charles Skarbowsky. My wife is French, so next time we’ll go to France to visit her family, I’ll make sure to make a pit stop at Sharbowsky’s gym. He’s a quiet guy but a very good Muay Thai instructor.
So this wraps up our interview with the charismatic Justin Etheridge, a stand-up guy, a great teacher and a savvy businessman. As you noticed, living your dream is probably the most fulfilling feeling in the world, but it requires hard work, wits and commitment. For those of you living in the Montreal area, Justin is ready to help you gain back that beach body you lost during the holidays. The Angry Monkey Gym as a belated New Year’s resolution? Why not!