In a recent interview with Knuckle Up original founder, Chris Stolzman I had the opportunity to learn more about how the gym started, how it got its name and how it became a fundamental force shaping Martial Arts in the City of Atlanta.
“I was just starting out in California. I got a job at the original LA boxing. At the time it wasn’t a chain. It was just one location and they did a lot of fitness boxing and kickboxing classes similar to what we would end up doing at KnuckleUp. It was there that I learned the health club business from the founder of LA Boxing, a guy named Wade Halberson. I worked for them until 1996. Then I took a break from martial arts and worked for Bally’s and then a sports club in Philadelphia. Shortly after that I moved to Atlanta.”
When Chris came to the city in the late 90’s Alliance Jiu Jitsu was the only game in town.
“I’d been training Jiu Jitsu on and off for a couple of years and when I came to Atlanta, Alliance Jiu Jitsu had just won back-to-back world championships and was headquartered in the City. So, I went in and started training at Alliance. While training there I met guys like Mat Lebron, and Paul Creighton, and Jacare Cavalcanti.
I wound up working for Jacare doing sales and management and helping train some of the Alliance guys like Paul with their striking. Eventually I got an LA boxing franchise and took over half the space inside Alliance and started teaching kickboxing and boxing. After about two years both Jacare’s Alliance Jiu Jitsu and my LA Boxing were doing well and we thought it a good idea to separate the businesses so Alliance moved into the space in Sandy Springs that they had for years and we moved into a space in the Prado and then eventually into KnuckleUp’s current space in Sandy Springs.”
Although the two clubs started together a healthy rivalry existed between Chris’s new Gym and Alliance.
“Up to that point we were just doing striking with a little MMA. To be honest, after we separated from Alliance there was a little competition between us so we started teaching Jiu Jitsu and no Gi Grappling a LA Boxing. Then we started winning the local NAGA’s and having some really good guys fighting for us like the Assuncao brothers, Clay Harvison and of course Steve Headden. We had a very big MMA team for a while. “
When the original LA Boxing changed ownership Chris saw the writing in the wall.
“Eventually the guy I bought the LA boxing franchise from sold the company and I didn’t see eye to eye with the new owners so we rebranded the company as Velocity Kickboxing. We had that brand for like six months until we found out there was a Velocity sports performance that wasn’t real happy about us using the same name so we needed a new name.
At this time Steve Headden had a company called KnuckleUp Productions he set up to promote local MMA shows. Since we already had a lot of visibility with the KnuckleUp MMA shows we decided to call the gyms that as well. So, in 2005 we became KnuckleUp Fitness. ”
In the early days, MMA was a hard sell around Atlanta.
“When we started MMA was not widely accepted. We used to go out and try to put fliers in all the local businesses and people would look at us like we were crazy. Then as The Ultimate Fighter came on TV and took MMA mainstream it became something that people started accepting. It went from being very niche fringe sport to something that people wanted to put their kids in. In Atlanta particularly it became a big part of the social scene with local MMA shows every three or four weeks.”
At one point or another most of the fighting talent in town walked through KnuckleUp’s doors to work or train or both.
“We had so many impressive people come train with us. Mark Selby and Steve Headden were the two guys I worked with the closest. You could be involved with MMA back in those days without seeing Steve Headden headlining a card. Douglas Lima was also amazing. He had his first professional fight on one our cards and his mom had to sign a permission slip because he was so young.”
KnuckleUp was instrumental in developing much of the fighting talent that would appear in Atlanta over the next decade. In the days before there was any real money in MMA, working with KnuckleUp gave athletes who wanted to train and compete full time a way to do so.
“The bottom line is that everybody involved with KnuckleUp in the early days were either active competitors or aspiring competitors. A lot of us just did the business side of it so we didn’t have to have a real job and could train and live in the gym all day. KnuckleUp helped a lot of our fighters support their career dreams by providing a way for them to support themselves while they trained. We even helped manage some of them. We’d get them better contracts and just helped them build their value as athletes.
If you look at it, a big proportion of the guys around town that either have schools now or are fighting competitively started with us. I’m very proud of the positive effect KnuckleUp had on MMA in Atlanta. We were ingrained in the whole thing from the very beginning.”