Finding a balance between maintaining traditions while embracing the blooming popularity of mixed martial arts is a delicate act. But for Counterstrike MMA Academy, emphasizing the fitness and fine art of fighting is essential to their success.
What began as four classes taught through the Oak Brook Park District in May of 2008 quickly turned into a business opportunity for Ross Gavino and Rey Tacadena. When Gavino realized the potential to move outside of the park district and start his own academy, he reached out to Tacadena, who was signed on as an instructor, to see if he was interested in partnering up.
Eight months later, in January 2009, Gavino and Tacadena opened CounterStrike at 730 Ogden Ave., a location they chose in order to be easier to spot.
“We wanted to stay nearby [Oak Brook] but we wanted to be exposed,” Gavino said. “One of things about a lot of MMA schools out there is that are a lot of them are in a warehouse setting and we wanted to be more visible.”
Retaining about 80 percent of their Oak Brook clientele, the pair started the academy with roughly eight students. They estimate to have about 100 now and continue to grow, despite a tough economy that has forced other academies to close their doors.
“One of the things we're seeing is a lot of other schools closing down while we're still open,” Tacadena said.
“A lot of these other places are commercialized in the sense they call it kickboxing or something but it's basically a Billy Blanks cardio class. With us you get the same cardio benefits, but you're also learning the traditional art itself.”
Learning the authentic traditions of each martial art CounterStrike teaches is one of its core principles. It's an unwavering business model and ethical approach that's applied to every class they teach, whether it's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Muay-Thai Kickboxing or any of the other disciplines they offer.
The traditions, and authenticity, Gavino said, are important to maintain as the sport of MMA becomes increasingly popular and more people want to get involved in it. CounterStrike has students as young as 5 years old.
“The main thing we do is let the kids [and every student] know we're teaching traditional Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and traditional Judo,” Gavino said. “We're not teaching them to fight, we're teaching them actual arts and styles.”
With the increasing popularity of MMA through promotions such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and Strikeforce comes a better universal knowledge and demand for different styles far more complex than the traditional karate and Tae-Kwon-Do kids typically take growing up. Tae-Kwon-Do, while still effective in its own right, Tacadena said, has lowered the bar for student achievement, and kids as young eight years old can earn black belts, which is something Tacadena sees as a negative when compared to other disciplines like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“If you went to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu you're not going to get your black belt until you're an adult,” Tacadena said. “Children can only go as high as a green belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Once they reach 16 they can go for the blue belt but it takes an extended period of time to get to that belt.”
Children make a small percentage of CounterStrike's clientele, though, according to Gavino. The majority of CounterStrike's students are adults, and many of them have come through the doors because of the popularity of MMA, he said. Once inside the gym, prospective students are interviewed to determine their individual goals.
“If you want to train just for the fitness, you can,” Tacadena said, adding that students can also train to learn an art or become an instructor. Training to fight in MMA or Muay Thai is also an option.
Everyone gets taught the same way, Gavino and Tacadena said, but the entry point for CounterStrike's MMA class is a little higher.
“Our MMA class is more of a fundamentals class and the instructor is going to expect when he says something like 'I want you to do a double leg takedown' that you know how to do it,” Tacadena said. “He's not going to stop and show you how to do it.”
Another one of CounterStrike's core principles is having high quality, experienced trainers. And it starts with Gavino and Tacadena themselves.
While Gavino handles a bit more of the business side and Tacadena the training side, both have a strong background in mixed martial arts.
Gavino is a graduate with a background in physical therapy and strength and conditioning, and has trained in Jeet Kune Do, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, striking and other styles.
Tacadena himself has been training and involved in mixed martial arts for 30 years, and coincidentally was Gavino's instructor at one point when Gavino was training in Filipino Martial Arts. It was during that training when Gavino asked Tacadena if he wanted to be an instructor in some of Gavino's Oak Brook Park District classes, a decision that eventually snowballed into the business they run today.
As well-versed in mixed martial arts as Gavino and Tacadena may be, the instructors they hire are even more so.
Pete Juska, CounterStrike's self-defense instructor, is one of only a handful of people certified to teach the Dog Brothers Martial Arts systems, which is filipino stick-fighting or “MMA with weapons” as Tacadena called it. Additionally, CounterStrike is the only school in the United States that is certified to teach the Dog Brothers system, according to Tacadena. Another instructor, Daniel Wanderley, is a professional fighter and 2nd degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with a laundry list of accomplishments.
Juska, who also takes classes at CounterStrike—a common practice of many CounterStrike instructors—said the quality of people at CounterStrike as one of its strengths.
“Everyone who trains [and teaches] here are great,” Juska said.
One student, 21 year-old Andrew Potapenko, started training at CounterStrike in November after getting into MMA through is friends, won his first amateur fight recently. Potapenko cited CounterStrike's “amazing coaches” as a main appeal of the academy.