Finnie McMahon – My Martial Arts Journey to Fort Collins
Hey MTC Family,
After running a martial arts school in Fort Collins for the last 12 years I thought it would be fun for people to learn more about my journey and how I got here.
First Exposure to Martial Arts
My first memory that I have of the martial arts is driving down the dirt road from my mom’s house and singing the song from the Karate Kid movie: “I am the man who will fight for your honor.” I absolutely fell in love with the Karate Kid and soon after watching it, my dad enrolled both my brother and me into the local Karate school. I think I was around nine years old and I really got into it. I remember going to a tournament with my brother; we were both small so our dad told us to get in close and punch the body. This strategy worked well as both of us won several of our matches. This was a great way for my dad, brother, and I to connect. I did karate for three or four years before other things like snowboarding and skateboarding pulled me away.
A Young Man’s Adventures
My journey took me away from martial arts for the next decade. I wanted to travel and see the world; to Alaska and Costa Rica, eventually landing in Crested Butte, Colorado where I lived for three years. After doing the “ski bum” thing for a while, I was ready to get more serious about life and work toward building a family and career. My plan was to move to Denver to go to film school, as I was already filming extreme kayaking and thought this was the path for me.
My First Exposure to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
I moved back to Santa Fe for three months as I waited for the spring semester to start in Denver. My old high school buddy had just started doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and he talked me into taking a class at the new school in Santa Fe, run by Professor Alberto Crane. I watched Royce Gracie in the first UFC, a mixed martial arts (MMA) event. In this event I saw his family’s Gracie Jiu-Jitsu dominate the competition so I had an idea of what Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, or BJJ, were all about.
Tough But Not Technical
I was 24 and thought I was pretty tough, but during my first class two of the purple belt women triangle choked me several times and I couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely blown away how easily these women kicked my butt and I wanted to learn as much as I could. I trained everyday they had classes, getting the nickname “bandaid” as my knees and elbows would bleed so much from the rough mats that I always had to wear band-aids.
Off to Denver
It was hard to move to Denver as I had become very close with the Santa Fe group and Professor Alberto Crane, but I was on a mission so I loaded up my truck and headed north. One of Professor Alberto Crane’s good friends, Amal Easton, was running a BJJ school in Boulder and he recommended I check it out. I was living in Denver but would make the drive up to Boulder three or four times per week. My first class was with Jay Jack and he wanted to roll with me to see if I could do the advanced class. Jay proceeded to tap me out several times, but afterwards allowed me to join the advanced class. This is where my real adventure began!
Professor Easton in Boulder, Colorado
When I think back to those early days in Boulder it’s amazing to see where the team has gone. Back then, there were only around 100 students, Jay lived at the Academy in a back room and Professor Easton was a brown belt. I also met Professor Eliot Marshall in those early days and he and I became good friends. I started teaching the kids classes with him, which I really enjoyed. I also would do the intro classes for the adult program and back then we would just teach the introductory students a few moves and then ask them if they wanted to roll. No one knew what Gracie Jiu-Jitsu or BJJ was so we felt like we had to prove that it worked by beating up the new students who came in for an intro class. This turned out to be a poor sales strategy, as people do not enjoy getting destroyed in their first class.
A Jiu-Jitsu Love Story
During the first month of taking classes in Boulder I also met my wife, Tessa Queen, on the mat. Meeting her was the beginning of what has become a Jiu-Jitsu love story. At the writing of this we are celebrating our 15 year wedding anniversary and it has been an amazing ride. It’s crazy to think about how life works out: if I had not started training BJJ in Santa Fe then I would never have met my wife and probably would have been working in video production.
My whole life I have enjoyed competing, and it was the same with BJJ. I remember being nervous before my first tournament as a white belt. We would go down to a local tournament that the Colorado Karate Association would put on in Denver. When the match started I held my breath for the first few seconds until I became aware of Professor Easton’s voice yelling at me to breathe. I won my first match and was hooked. I continued to compete in BJJ for the next several years, going to around five tournaments a year. It was challenging back then because there were not many local competitions and we would have to travel to Las Vegas or California. I always enjoyed traveling so this wasn’t a problem for me. The only challenge was coming up with the money, as I had very little of it at that time.
Becoming Part of the Renzo Gracie Team
I met Professor Renzo Gracie in the summer of 2004 and really got a kick out of him. He was super charismatic and brought everyone up around him. As an early birthday present Tessa bought me a plane ticket to New York to train with the Renzo Gracie Team for a week. I stayed at my friend’s parents’ house in his old room and trained two times a day. It was really great for my growth to be exposed to such an awesome group of BJJ practitioners. I also met Professor Ricardo Almeida who had a large influence on me and our future Academy.
Testing the Martial Arts I Had Learned
After reaching the purple belt, I started to get interested in competing in MMA. I had re-injured my knee from an old snowboarding accident when I was 19. While I was recovering I would watch BJJ and MMA fights, and I decided that I wanted to try a fight. Aside from a few intense situations while I was working as a bouncer in Boulder, I hadn’t really had to do BJJ in a real fight and I wanted to test myself. I started doing the kickboxing classes at Easton’s in Boulder, boxing at a local boxing gym, and doing small group privates in Muay Thai with Duane Ludwig. We really didn’t have much of an idea of what we were doing and would meet up on Friday nights and beat the crap out of each other. I remember going to the boxing gym on sparring nights with Tyler Toner, and the guys there would try and kill us. After a lot of arduous training, I eventually ended up doing a fight. The experience was exhilarating, but I felt torn afterward. I really liked the idea that with BJJ you could defend yourself without hurting the other person, but when I saw my opponent’s face all bruised up after the fight, I felt bad for doing that to him.
Difficult Decision to Move Forward
For a few months afterward I thought I would fight again but then Professor Easton sat me down and asked me if I wanted to manage his Academy. I saw two clear paths ahead, one of a fighter and one of learning how to run a martial arts academy. I never went to college but I believed that if I dedicated myself I could learn and one day run my own place. The MMA path is a hard one and to this day I don’t regret my decision. Professor Easton showed me everything and I owe him so much for investing in me and giving me a path to a career that I have really enjoyed.
The Beginning of the Fort Collins McMahon Training Center
After running Professor Easton’s Academy for several years and receiving brown belt, my wife Tessa and I decided to head up to Fort Collins to open up our own martial arts academy. I remember driving up behind the moving truck and being scared out of my mind. We left all of our friends and jumped into the unknown. The first few years were challenging but we also had a lot of success. One of our largest challenges was finding the balance between keeping my own training going and running the Academy. In the early days of running our academy, our first goal were to earn our black belts. Second, we wanted to have a baby and third, buy our own house. In 2009, I won the Pan American championships in California at brown belt and earned my black belt on the podium from Professor Easton. My wife, Tessa, earned her black belt the same year and has also won the Pan American championships several times. We had our daughter in the summer of 2010, bought our house a year later, and had our son in 2014. Tessa and I have been fortunate that so many of our dreams have come true.
What Jiu-Jitsu has Done for My Life
I am very grateful for everything I’ve learned from training in martial arts over the years. I’ve learned that it’s good to continually challenge myself. While we all sometimes feel like not doing much and being lazy, this can lead to depression, so I encourage myself and others to resist those impulses and get out there. Belonging to a group of people that have similar goals has been vitally important for me and brought me a lot of happiness. I’ve learned that life continuously challenges us and tries to kick our butts, but training martial arts develops in us the courage to overcome these challenges and to get back up, every time we fall.
We have had such an amazing journey over these past years and have seen so many people grow and develop through jiu-jitsu. I love the community that we, as an academy, have developed, and am so grateful for all of the different students I have had the opportunity to teach and learn from.
Tell me about your journey!