After he watched “The Karate Kid” when he was in elementary school, Chris Connelly was hooked.
He started training in martial arts his junior year at Briarwood Christian School after he took a year off from sports due to an injury, starting with boxing and then venturing into muay thai and other martial arts disciplines.
“I wanted to know how to fight so I could take care of myself, and I was always a fan of ‘Karate Kid.’ That was it,” Connelly said. “I was watching Saturday kung fu flicks and all that stuff.”
As a senior, he pursued teaching martial arts as his senior project, wanting to open a martial arts school called the Birmingham Academy of Martial Arts (B.A.M.A.), he said.
What started as a senior passion project turned into a successful mixed martial arts gym: Spartan Fitness in Homewood, which is approaching its 20th anniversary in 2023 and plans to open a second location in Moody.
“It was a growth process,” Connelly said. “We went from a utility closet to a racquetball court to an office warehouse with a leaky roof, no air conditioning or heating, to a nice storefront place that was half the size of our current location, and then we bought our current location and doubled our size.”
When Connelly started training in 1992, there were no martial arts gyms that taught people how to “actually fight,” with very few teaching boxing, muay thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts.
“There were plenty of taekwondo spots and karate spots,” Connelly said. “Oyama was the closest thing there was to actual fighting. You had Round One, a boxing gym, with Dave Gopper as the coach, but it was just boxing.”
He met an instructor from New York who taught multiple martial arts disciplines, including boxing and muay thai, Connelly said.
They trained wherever they could, including parks and abandoned schools, he said.
“There weren’t a lot of people doing this,” McNair said. “The friends that I made doing this were probably the best part. I’m still friends with those people today, and they’re some of the closest people in my life.”
He did everything he could to take his education a step further, going to seminars once a month to learn something new and buying VHS tapes, he said.
He drove to cities and states across the Southeast, including Florida and Georgia, going “wherever there was martial arts,” Connelly said.
He later became good friends with coaches Adam and Rory Singer at SBG Athens, a mixed martial arts gym in Athens, Georgia, and home to MMA world champions Forest Griffin and Brian Bowles, he said.
“Adam, Rory and I became very close buddies,” Connelly said. “We kind of helped each other develop and train. Initially, we were just a bunch of dudes beating each other up.”
Connelly was doing mixed martial arts in Birmingham before it became mainstream, he said.
“‘The Ultimate Fighter’ came on television and the UFC and MMA became more of a household thing,” Connelly said. “The UFC has spent millions and millions of dollars to make mixed martial arts athletes household names. People know what jiu-jitsu is now. It’s increased in popularity, we were just the ones to do it in Birmingham.”
“There was nobody mixing it all together,” Connelly added. “There was nobody combining wrestling with jiu-jitsu, there wasn’t any Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Birmingham at all. It didn’t exist so I had to learn it, bring it back and get a bunch of guys that wanted to train with me and eventually it just grew and grew.”
Connelly opened the first Spartan Fitness location on Green Springs Highway in 2014. They moved to their current location on Jan. 1, 2020, which was “the worst possible time to think about expanding, growing and buying a piece of real estate,” Connelly said.
When they moved to their current location, Connelly said, he brought all 800 members with him.
By the time lockdown was over, Spartan Fitness lost half of its membership, he said.
Two years later, Spartan Fitness recovered with more than 1,000 members and is now looking at opening a location in Moody.
“These things always take time,” Connelly said. “There’s a business in there that’s occupying it right now. We’re waiting to take over and there are some things that need to happen with the air conditioner, roof and things like that before we can get moved in. Once we get moved in, we’ll do our prelaunch and presale for that location. We’ve got a lot planned for that location when we do finally get it up.”
Martial arts is “growth through adversity,” a principle that Connelly’s taken with him in business and in life, he said.
Connelly said some people could look at Spartan Fitness’s success as luck, but it came from anything but.
“It’s not luck, we’ve just had to push through all sorts of things,” Connelly said. “We’ve been through the 2001 crash, the 2008 crash, we’ve been going through the current recession we’re in now. We’ve been through it, we’ve come out on the other end of it and we’ve only grown as a result of it.”
One of his objectives for opening Spartan Fitness, Connelly said, was to create a space for martial artists to pursue their passion, live the lifestyle of a martial artist and not make the same mistakes and “fall into the same pitfalls as I did.”
Connelly fought in his first amateur MMA fight in 1998 and his first professional fight in 2000, with 12 wins and 5 losses, he said.
He coached his own team as well as fighting for the same team, which is “not conducive for a martial artist,” he said.
Connelly fought while also working as a bartender and doing other jobs to make a livable income, he said.
Spartan Fitness features 24 coaches who are also athletes, Connelly said.
Amateur and professional fighters such as Anna Crutchfield, Ethan Melisano, David Clark and Arthur Mpofu are able to “totally submerge themselves inside of this game” while also being able to be an MMA and make a living.
“The objective, beyond just putting food on the table for myself, was to create a place where people like me could have a job and make ends meet and actually make a nice little living and then when the fight game is over, they’ve also got something else to fall back on. They could come back and work at the gym here or open their own facility, which I would help them out with,” Connelly said.