POCATELLO — Colossal Fight Company at 546 S. Main St. in Old Town Pocatello might not look like much on the outside, but inside the building, the owners are working to transform people’s lives.
Owners David and Mackenzie Gorham started Colossal about three years ago, and David says the academy has experienced significant growth every year since, now teaching between 100 and 120 students who range in age from 5 to 56.
The couple says the biggest reason for that growth is that they have created a culture in which people from every background and body type can learn jiu jitsu with and from each other, all while teaching themselves valuable lessons.
LESSONS FROM JIU JITSU
The Gorhams say there are a variety of ways in which training in jiu jitsu, which, according to dictionary.com, is “a method developed in Japan of defending oneself without the use of weapons by using the strength and weight of an adversary to disable him,” can have a healthy impact on people, both in their minds and in their bodies.
Here are some of the lessons that can be learned from jiu jitsu, according to the Gorhams:
“You learn to rely on yourself, and you learn what you’re capable of,” David said. “Jiu jitsu is a team sport. You’re training all together. You might have a 110-pound girl rolling with a 300-pound man and they’re learning to train together. But even though we train as a team, we compete — and if you ever have to use it in self-defense — usually solo, right? So you learn to rely on yourself.”
“You learn that when you say no to someone, you don’t just have to hope they listen,” David said. “You can say no and be able to back that up.”
Some of the transformations in confidence in their students, especially among kids, have been astounding to the Gorhams.
“We’ve had kids who come in and they won’t look you in the eye and they don’t have any confidence,” David said. “And then six months, a year later, they’ve made friends, they’re happy, they’re able to be content with who they are because they know what they’re capable of, and you can just see their personality changes. We’ve had like three or four parents write us multi-page letters talking about the change in their kid and how grateful they are. Knowing that you’ve changed someone’s life that way, even one makes it worth it.”
Jiu jitsu teaches people, especially younger students, responsibility, David said. Their instructors are giving them a dangerous tool so they can defend themselves, but also trusting them not to use that tool for evil.
“This is something that’s dangerous,” David said. “You could kill or seriously hurt someone. With the kids, we’re not showing them that mindset. It’s like, ‘Hey, this is a game we’re playing. But the goal is if someone tries to hurt you, you have the ability to keep yourself safe, and that’s something that you have to use very responsibly.’”
“You learn A, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Someone who doesn’t look dangerous may be very dangerous,” David said. “And B, there’s no reason to fight most of the time, right? You can get it out (on the mat). You can learn and get that energy out. We don’t have anyone who’s out looking for fights. That’s bannable. No one in our school is going to be a negative impact on our community. Period.”
CARING FOR THEIR COMMUNITY
Because the Gorhams, who are both 31 years old, truly believe in their community and in the power of jiu jitsu, they have a policy of never turning away students if they have a lack of finances to pay for classes.
“We offer scholarships if we have people who actually want to train, who are passionate about it, (but can’t afford it),” said David, who is a financial planner at Liftoff Financial Planning as his day job. “Kids don’t have any autonomy, right? Mom and dad, one of them loses their job or whatever, a luxury activity is getting cut. … You’re going to keep training because money doesn’t keep people off our mats, and that’s something I’m really passionate about. If you want to be here, that’s something that we’re going to support, because if you actually believe that you’re serving the community and you’re doing it because it’s the right thing, you’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, hey, your payment didn’t run. Get out.’ That really abrupt mindset is both short-sighted, and it’s also morally wrong, especially with kids and teens. They can’t control that.”
That mentality, along with the work he put into getting the academy started and the free coaching he does for other types of martial arts tournaments, earned David one of the Idaho State Journal’s 20 Under 40 awards in 2018, which are given to young professionals who are making a difference in the community.
Mackenzie, who is a nuclear engineer for the Department of Energy, won the same award this year for founding the Chubbuck Food Pantry.
“I am a very devout Christian, and I think that people should behave according to how they believe,” Mackenzie said when she won the award. “One of the biggest things Christ talks about in the Bible is if you actually love people you are going to take care of them, and specifically he says you should feed and clothe the poor.”
IN THE BEGINNING
In late 2015, David, who had been training with the now-closed Precision Jiu Jitsu for about a decade, took over that business when the owners had to move away.
“Jiu jitsu is something that’s been a part of my life since I was 18 and it had such a tremendous, positive effect on me,” he said. “It’s something I wanted to make sure I shared and kept doing. It would have been easy to have the school close down. I could travel to another school in Idaho Falls or something to train, but I’m really serious about it, and I wanted to make sure there was high-quality jiu jitsu for people.”
Because of the nature of a martial arts academy — namely, having to do things like drilling bolts into the floor to hold mats — the couple wanted to buy a commercial space instead of trying to rent and having to go through a landlord for all the modifications.
When they bought the building that is now home to Colossal, it had been a pawn shop in its previous life, and, according to David, “It was really seedy.”
Mackenzie added, “Cleaning it out was disgusting. It was so gross.”
Despite the state the building was in, the Gorhams felt compelled to fix it up and finally opened up their academy in March 2016.
“The stuff we found was absolutely morbid,” David said. “I don’t like watching that kind of degradation over time in the community. It takes a lot of work to fix stuff. This place was a complete slum when we found it. When I showed it to a couple of my friends, they thought I was actually insane. … But I think if you really love something, you’ll make it nice again and not just let it degrade.”
Plus, the location is good for their students.
“We have a ton of students who live between five and 10 blocks who can walk here,” David said.
WELCOME TO ALL
Mackenzie said one of the biggest reasons she loves jiu jitsu is because it is empowering to women.
“Being a woman, there’s a lot of different martial arts that advertise themselves as self-defense. It’s my opinion that jiu jitsu is absolutely the best for a woman,” she said. “It’s based on the principles that physics and body structure will overcome athleticism and strength and so that weaker, slower, less athletic person against someone who doesn’t have those skills can overcome (them).”
She said that although she is not particularly athletic, on the mat she can easily take down men who are much larger than her.
“The weight doesn’t matter, and that’s really wonderful confidence for my ability to defend myself,” she said.
Mackenzie said she has seen young girls come into the academy, and after training for a while, they gain significant certainty in themselves.
“We have a group of teenage girls, we call it our Teen Girl Squad, and they’ve been moving up the ranks together and they’re really dedicated,” she said. “They compete, and just the difference in interacting with us, kind of authority figures here, from when they started until now, they can give you an answer about what they really are thinking instead of just kind of staring at their feet and shrugging. And I think a lot of that is just the confidence they get from being able to do something and knowing exactly what the outcome is going to be when they do it. I know if I hold my arms this way and squeeze my legs this way, that person, it doesn’t matter how strong they are, I’m going to be safe. That’s a big deal.”
David said he believes that Colossal is more receptive to women than other academies.
“We are a tremendously woman-friendly academy,” he said. “On any given night, you’re usually going to have three to five women who are training.”
He also said that the academy is exceptionally strict about keeping “a very high standard of moral conduct. No creeps. Nothing that would ever be any kind of a red flag.”
David said that any kind of abuse, which is unfortunately not uncommon enough at martial arts schools in the U.S., is not tolerated.
“That culture is absolute lockdown,” he said. “The term that’s used a lot is this is a very safe place. We’re a super friendly academy. Anyone can walk through our doors and feel welcome, and that is something that is 100 percent crucial to me.”
In addition to being an open place for women to train, Mackenzie said Colossal has attracted a lot of families — both parents who train with their children and spouses who are learning together.
“In addition to having a lot of women for this sized town and the type of sport it is, a lot of the guys who are in here, they’re bringing their kids. They’re training with their wife,” she said.
David added that people from every kind of background attend the academy and that being able to train together bridges a lot of divides people have between each other.
“There are people from every race, color, creed, philosophy, political briefs, they all play together,” he said. “We have people who have antithetical beliefs on a number of axes who are super good, they’re great, friends. They can sit and talk about it afterwards because there’s intimacy that comes from being able to train (together).”
‘AN EXTREMELY BODY POSITIVE SPORT’
Jiu jitsu is a sport in which people of all body types — from super skinny to obese — can succeed.
“Jiu jitsu is actually an extremely body positive sport,” David said. “Obviously at the lighter weights, you’re going to have a lot of shredded six packs and stuff, but you can see people be successful who literally look like anything. You’re super thin, you have a string-bean body like a scarecrow? There are a lot of people who have that archetype. If you’re overweight and you have a big belly? There are tons of champions with that. Male and female, all different body types can succeed.”
Both Gorhams emphasized that you do not need to be in shape to start training, but that people can start where they are, and that although people of all shapes and sizes can find success, it can also be an effective weight loss method.
“We’ve had people start who are 420, 440 pounds,” David said. “My original instructor, he started at 290 or 300 pounds, and he got down to I think 190 over three or four years.”
“My fitness tracker says an hour of jiu jitsu is like 500 calories,” Mackenzie added.
Mackenzie said the instructors never push students to do something they don’t want to do, whether because past trauma gets triggered in some positions or because some positions are just plain uncomfortable.
“You do what’s comfortable for you. We’re not going to make you work those positions,” she said. “If it’s an athletic thing, like, ‘I’m not flexible’ or ‘I feel overweight’ or ‘This is just hard for me,’ we can modify this. We can slow down. It’s very personalized, and I think a lot of times women don’t realize that. They think they have to come in and do exactly what the former college wrestlers who now want to compete at the national level are doing to each other, and you don’t have to.”
Also, jiu jitsu can flip some insecurities on their heads. People can be self-conscious about their weight, but in jiu jitsu, you’re trying to make yourself feel as heavy as possible to your opponents, so saying someone felt heavy in a match is a big compliment.
“You’ll see a 200-, 300-pound woman, and initially they’ll be really shy, but they’ll get all these compliments, like, ‘Man, you are so strong. Your legs are ripped.’ And all of a sudden something they were ashamed of becomes a huge plus,” David said.
Another thing that sets jiu jitsu apart from other sports is that it requires a lot of thinking.
“Someone does something and there are almost infinite responses,” Mackenzie said. “Some will be better than others. And then that changes based on your body type and their body type. … For people who want more of the finesse and the skill, jiu jitsu has just a huge amount of breadth and depth.”
David added, “It’s like chess with your mind and wrestling with your body. The two ways I think of it are, it’s either problem solving with dire physical consequences or involuntary yoga. While you’re trying to figure out the position and what you want to do, your opponent is trying to control you, choke you, sedate you. So you’re trying to solve a puzzle that’s fighting back.”
‘WE’D LOVE TO HAVE YOU’
In the future, the Gorhams would love to see either David or someone they teach earn a medal at a world competition.
Additionally, they’d like to continue growing and growing so that they eventually need to move to a larger facility.
“I want to get to the point where ideally we have more people clamoring to get in here than we can support, so we have to expand our teaching staff and move to a new facility,” David said. “We’ve been growing at a meteoric rate. I think it’s like 25 percent year over year.”
David said there are two main reasons Colossal has been so successful and make it stand out from the pack when it comes to martial arts schools. The first is that it’s a high-quality academy.
“We offer a high-quality jiu jitsu that can hold up against anyone,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not world champions, I’m not saying we’re the best, but we have that quality that’s recognized.”
The second reason is that the business is built on honesty. David said a lot of times people don’t believe him when he says they are welcome to come, even if they can’t pay anything at all. But when people come to him with a financial problem, he always tells them he will see them next class.
“You pay me what you can, even if that’s nothing and I mean what I say,” he said. “Once people see that we’re telling the truth and that we stand behind what we do, that’s attractive. Honesty is very attractive. We’re not blowing smoke. We’re not like ‘Oh, we’re the best in the world’ or anything like that. Here’s who we are. If you’d like to train with us, we’d love to have you, and we love jiu jitsu.”
Colossal Fight Company has classes for kids, young adults and adults Monday through Friday every week, and potential students are encouraged to try out a class for free. There are no contracts to sign to take classes. For more information on the academy and to register for classes, visit colossalfightcompany.com.