By Keith D. Yates
Can you have a successful mixed martial arts (MMA) school geared towards children? Can you come back from looking insolvency square in the face? Can you overcome years of weight gain, even having reached the point where you’re considered morbidly obese?
The answers to these questions are yes, yes, and yes, if you are the resilient David and Suzana Chacon, owners of Dominion Martial Arts Institute of Mentorship in Oswego, Illinois!
David began his martial arts training at Gen-Ki Karate in Chicago as a child. He also spent a few years in a taekwondo school, earning only a red belt because his parents divorced and he had to stop training. In his early 20s, he developed an interest in ground fighting because, like many stand-up fighters, he felt insecure about what to do if he ever found himself on the ground in a real-life street situation. So, when he was 23, he looked around for a solution and found an MMA coach.
But David says it was more than just wanting to learn how to move around on the mat.
“I had gained a lot of weight,” he admits. “It just crept up slowly over time, and I found myself, at six feet tall, weighing over 265 pounds.”
The sluggishness and self-image problems that go along with that were also evident in David’s life. This was in spite of the fact that he was doing well financially in the real-estate business.
His knees and back hurt because of the excess weight and, even though he had developed a certain degree of discipline from his earlier martial practice, it was hard to stay motivated to train. That’s the point where he says he had a “spiritual awakening” and turned away from much of his old life that he admits included drinking and even drugs.
“I realized that if I was going to turn my life around it had to include my physical health,” he says.
So, with a new diet and extreme MMA training, he began to see dramatic progress.
“Within eight months, I had lost 105 pounds and was recognized with a write-up in Men’s Fitness magazine,” states David.
He even added an MMA-style interval training set-up in his home basement to augment his routine. As the weight came off and he added solid muscle, he discovered his old strength and endurance coming back.
“Because of my previous martial arts background and my tenacity in training and losing weight, my coach said, ‘You really ought to think about making this a career,’” remembers David.
He had never before thought about that because he was so focused on his real-estate endeavors.
“Frankly,” he admits, “I didn’t know if I could accomplish my financial goals in the martial arts business.”
But the changes he had made in his life had so energized him that, just nine months after he started his MMA training, he was opening a school with a business partner. It was November of 2009. David was, as he calls it, “on the front lines,” coaching and working with the students while his partner ran the business.
Soon, however, his partner departed and David brought his wife, Suzana, into the business.
“Actually, we’ve always been partners,” he says of his wife whom he met when he was just 21 and she was 19. Suzana was an assistant manager for his old real-estate-investment partner and they married in 2007.
The school started well.
“When we first opened,” Suzana recalls, “we had the passion to influence as many young people as possible.”
She says that David’s communication abilities honed from his years in the real estate business enabled them to grow and succeed.
But the pressures of running a full-time business and raising two young children took a toll on their physical and mental health. “We were at the end,” says David. “Extracurricular activities for the kids weren’t even an option. Just paying the bills was hard enough.”
He took on a side job selling roofs just to try and make ends meet — and started to put some of that weight he had shed years before back on. On their worst days, they both thought about closing the school and returning to real estate.
“We seemed to be on a roller coaster,” he says. “You can imagine after years of pouring your heart and soul into something and not seeing the results you hope for. . .” he trails off. “I found myself in a depression. So, in 2016, against my wishes, my wife convinced me we should go to the Martial Arts SuperShow in Las Vegas. While I sat in the back of the room at the SuperShow, she vigorously took notes.”
When they got back, they began to immediately apply what they had learned and increased their monthly gross from $5,800 to $12,000. But the hard work still left David feeling a lot of pressure.
A Turning Point
It was Suzana, again, who talked David into signing up for a one-year commitment to the Martial Arts Industry Association (MAIA), the world’s leading school-business consulting group. He says after talking to Mike Metzger, he became convinced that by following the established systems and procedures, and by staging a big holiday event, they could pay their entire consulting fees in just a few hours.
And they did! That was in October 2016 and it proved to be a turning point. In 2017, they averaged over $34,000 gross per month.
Before MAIA, David taught most all the classes by himself while Suzana did all the behind-the-scenes work.
“She was, and is, the backbone of the school,” he gushes. “I was doing all the ‘inside’ work and was in the school for hours every single day.”
“Before, we did everything ourselves as owner/operators have to do,” Suzana explains. “Our goal was to replace ourselves internally — completely — in two years so that we would become ‘owners’ and not ‘owner/operators. MAIA helped us with business systems, with hiring staff to work as program directors and coaches. Now, I focus on things like hitting our number goals, marketing and retention.”
Nowadays, David doesn’t teach the day-to-day classes and training sessions himself, but spends his time developing his coaching staff. Suzana does go into the school in the evenings with her own two kids, ages 6 and 8, as they are in the program.
“This also gives me the opportunity to interact with the other parents,” she says.
Reaching Beyond the School Walls
The Chacons also do a substantial amount of outreach both in their local community and even globally.
“We’ve pulled our student body together to form a solid foundation for our academy to accomplish missions, whether it be feeding the homeless locally to raising tens of thousands of dollars for overseas orphanages and rescuing children from garbage dumps in the most dangerous parts of the world,” says David proudly.
“We take our student leaders out and train them to make a difference. That also reinforces our name in the community as to who we are and what we do,” adds Suzana. “David’s done a great job right from the beginning in sharing our vision from speaking in the public schools to community gatherings.”
From his days motivating his sales staff in the real-estate world, David learned the value of verbal communication. He uses that gift to influence kids not only in their school, but by speaking in public schools in their district.
“It was actually pretty easy to get into the public schools,” he says. “We would give a motivational message at the end of class — not a scripted one but one from the heart. We’d have parents coming up and saying, ‘This needs to be in my child’s school.’”
After one of David’s successful speeches in 2010, he had seven other public schools almost immediately invite him to come to their campuses. He addresses areas such as bullying and self-confidence, of course, but he also stresses things like character and honesty.
When they go back into a public school, the school’s staff and parents know who they are and what they stand for.
Suzana says, “It was a process for sure, but the community now sees us as a resource. We’ve had teachers and even police officers refer children to us for discipline, self-confidence and character.”
David was eventually asked to be on the board of “Character Counts,” a character-development program for the entire school district. He has now traveled to several foreign countries carrying the same message of self-motivation and empowerment. The Chacons stress that they do these talks not because they are a funnel into their school, but because they’re committed to making a difference in young people’s lives.
Mixed Martial Arts at the Core
Even though their school in Oswego, Illinois, is called Dominion Martial Arts, its curriculum is strictly MMA.
“We have that name because a lot of people imagine MMA as being cage-fighting, and that’s not who we are,” explains David.
Kevin Duffield’s son was in another martial arts school in the area and says they switched to Dominion.
“We went to one of their anti-bullying seminars and were convinced,” Duffield says. “My wife and I are so pleased with David’s school. Our expectations were not just met, but went through the roof. They always have a great message for the kids and they certainly lead by example.”
A Very Safe and Careful Curriculum
David says safety is always paramount.
“Our approach, at the beginner levels, is that there is no sparring, no submissions. Kids learn how to throw a jab, a cross, a hook, a roundhouse kick, all on their feet,” he says. “Then, on the ground, they’ll learn how to hold someone in a side-side-control position or in a mount position.”
He stresses that the students learn that, in any situation where there is a bigger bully — perhaps a larger or stronger opponent — the purpose is not to hurt them but to control them.
“We teach how you can engage someone bigger or stronger,” David says, “and still maintain control.”
He points out that by breaking that barrier of physical space — actually putting your hands on someone — you have major gains in self-confidence. After a period of time, the students are nominated to proceed into what they call the “Black Belt Program,” which has about 80 participants.
“That’s where they’re introduced into sparring in a very controlled environment,” says David, “They wear gear from head to toe, even though there are no head shots allowed.”
After learning to use stand-up strikes, they proceed to kneel on the mat to see how can get their partner into a side-side-control or mounted position. Then there are high-fives all around.
“Everything is still pretty basic,” he says. “It’s all about learning to take someone down with a single- or double-leg sweep, all the while enforcing the smiles and camaraderie of friendly competition.”
Students are still not allowed to try submissions or chokeholds, or arm or leg locks.
“They are learning to master the fundamentals of takedowns and controlling positions, number one,” Davis explains. “And number two, how to get out of those positions.
“So, when the kids are ready, when they see it is a sport, when they don’t take it personally and aren’t crying when they can’t get up,” David explains, “only then do they get nominated to move up to our Master’s Program.”
At this advanced level, the students can spar more intensely and are allowed to try submissions.
“This has proved to be a really great way to transition from the beginning to the advanced stages of MMA for kids,” he explains. “People ask how can you be a successful mixed martial arts school with mostly kids in your classes. I tell them our ‘step-up’ process is a beautiful bridge to teach self-confidence. And I’ve never heard a single complaint from a parent that this is too ‘brutal,’ like you might think.”
Suzana adds that her six-year-old little girl is in class and that, as a parent, she would never condone something that is dangerous.
“In fact,” she adds, “my daughter demonstrates the balance we emphasize. She is so sweet, but she’s really strong!”
Although the school doesn’t emphasize tournaments, several of their students have competed in submission-grappling competitions (think jiu-jitsu-type matches) and have done well. Most of their coaches also have competition experience as well as being trained personally by David.
They run about 40 classes per week, including a coed fitness program which has long been conducted by one of the moms in the school. She had a fitness background and a desire for women’s health and fitness.
The MAIA Influence
The Chacons have adapted the MAIA concept of rotating curriculum.
“We have ‘A’ days and ‘B’ days as well as specialty days,” says David. “Monday and Tuesdays are broken down into beginners, intermediate and advanced classes. Wednesdays and Thursdays are where they merge everyone together with the Black Belt and Master’s Club members training separately.
“Our specialty classes are on Friday and Saturday, and we’ll have anything from sparring to jiu-jutsu escapes to striking.”
The school has a “Lion’s Cub” program, with belt ranks for the little kids. When they either age out or belt-out, they move into the regular 12-belt system. There, the rotating curriculum consists of techniques from kickboxing, jiu-jitsu and muay thai. There are no training forms or patterns as in a karate or taekwondo programs, and the students train wearing t-shirts and MMA shorts. In the two club programs, they can wear colorful rash guard shirts.
Something else the Chacons have picked up from MAIA are the “mass intros,” or free community events.
“That’s one way we grew the school so fast after we incorporated some of the MAIA concepts,” says David.
Of course, he was already experienced in speaking to students. But with the added emphasis on large-scale events, he addresses 400 to 500 kids in back-to-back school assemblies.
“I can’t say enough about what MAIA has done for us,” David insists. “We were at near rock-bottom and then, in the first year with MAIA, we had a 375% growth. They have a genuine passion and willingness to help us achieve our goals.”
The beginner’s program starts at $199 down and $149 a month. The Black Belt Program is a 36-month commitment with $249 down and $169 monthly. The Master’s Club comes in at $299 down and $189 a month. All of the programs offer a discount rate for prepays.
Mentorship is the Key
David and Suzana both say that their best advice to someone wanting to start a school or to grow their existing school is to seek out those who are already highly successful.
“Whether it is weight loss or business principles, or even your personal life and marriage, why not hire those who can mentor you?” David poses.
“Mentorship has definitely become a foundation for everything we do,” adds Suzana.
“When I started to put back on some of that weight, I hired a fitness accountability coach,” David says. “And we just got back from a highly-intensive, week-long Tony Robbins seminar. We are so excited at the transformation that’s going to take place in our personal and professional lives.”
So, with the help of advisors and mentors, you can achieve your fitness goals, your financial goals and even your personal life goals. David and Suzana Chacon can tell you so, and they are living proof that it’s true!
Besides being a prolific author, Dallas’ Keith D. Yates is the longest continually-teaching martial arts instructor in the state of Texas. He can be reached through his website, www.akato.org.
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