Scott Jorgensen and Jeff Curran | Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
When Jeff Curran finished construction on his new facility in 2018, he believed this was going to be the final home where he would teach martial arts.
Now less than two years later, his gym has been forced to close as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve never cried so much in my grown life, my adult life,” Curran said when revealing the news to MMA Fighting.
After moving locations nearly a dozen times, the 42-year-old former UFC fighter finally found what he felt was a perfect spot for his gym. He spent months doing construction on the inside of the building while putting together all the necessary pieces to teach Brazilian jiu-jitsu along with several other programs he planned to implement.
It wasn’t cheap but Curran knew that this was gym was going to be the culmination of his life’s work.
“May 1, 2018, I signed a new lease on this building and we had our grand opening Sept. 4, 2018,” Curran told MMA Fighting. “So I worked for four months renovating this place. Maybe raised $125,000 or $130,000 in cash and then put another $25,000 or $30,000 out of our pocket in credit cards. The cash we raised was through these lifetime memberships. These $5,000 lifetime deals. So I had no money to work with. I think we sold 18 of those. Just kind of grinding and just pushing to save money.
“We opened up and we’ve been killing it since. The business has been growing.”
In February, Curran’s office manager told him they were on track to have their best month ever in March. Once he reviewed the numbers, the Pedro Sauer black belt agreed that less than two years after opening, the Curran Jiu-Jitsu Academy was really hitting its stride as a top school in the area.
Soon after, Curran traveled to Wisconsin to teach at an affiliate academy and it was around this time that COVID-19 really started to spread in the United States. Concerns were already being raised about what this could mean for businesses, especially those that required physical contact like martial arts gyms.
“By the time we get back from Wisconsin, I’m like, ‘guys did you see the news? Everybody’s kind of freaking out,’” Curran explained. “There was word that we’re going to have to shut down. I’m like, is this real?
“So to be safe we closed down for the week, it was around March 12 or 13, I put a notice in the door saying we’ll be closing for a week and we’ll let everybody know in a week what’s going on. That was the start of it.”
On March 20, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide stay-at-home order, which prevented people from going anywhere that wasn’t deemed essential. At that point, Curran was forced to close down his gym indefinitely as his state along with many others across the country tried to stave off the COVID-19 outbreak.
At that point, Curran knew his business could be in trouble so he reached out to his landlord hoping to find a solution that would work for both of them.
“I have a 10-year lease and it progressively goes up after the first couple years to get a little closer to what he wanted to make in rent and my goal was to buy the building,” Curran said. “I hit him up on a Saturday night or a Sunday and I said ‘I might have to pay a half month’s rent, I’m freaking out, I might not have any money.’ He didn’t write me back.”
Eventually, Curran’s landlord reached out through his attorney trying to find a solution as the statewide shutdown continued.
Ultimately, he decided to continue paying his full rent to avoid any legal troubles but as more and more time passed, Curran came to realize something had to be done as his bank accounts were being drained.
“About two months in, I presented to him, it’s not looking any better so we either need to re-work a new deal and revisit our old lease once we return to normal and he wasn’t willing to do it on any level,” Curran said. “To his defense, he’s looking to retire. He ultimately wanted to sell the building and he invested in me moving in by giving me some free months and paying a realtor to make the deal so he had some money he wanted to earn back.
“But he still has a mortgage. He still has taxes to pay. I never wanted to short him. I just kept paying but it got to the point where all our funds are gone. A couple of guys have to go on unemployment. A couple of us have to do whatever random things we’ve got to do to make some money. We’re just going to batten down the hatches and see how long this lasts.”
In the end, Curran had to face reality — there was no chance his gym would survive the pandemic.
“It was not getting any better,” Curran said about the shutdown. “I will try to present him an offer to buy out of the remaining eight years of the lease and just see if he’ll take it. He thought about it and took it because he knew my other option would be to file bankruptcy or something. He took the offer, I agreed to get out of here.
“I put everything in a storage shed. This July is our 23rd anniversary for having my first school, my first academy. It’s kind of weird to not have one. I find myself here the past few months knowing that something drastic is coming.”
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Goodbye to Dartmoor Dr. So many of our new students begin their journey here, but I can promise you you’ll continue it in the next place. Jujitsu lives within us and it comes down to the time we spend in the math and the quality of instruction. Thank you all for so many great memories here, it is very heartbreaking to leave it behind but from here on out I will not be going back!! Only Forward.
Curran finished packing up his entire academy just over a week ago as he closed to doors to his gym for the final time.
Not soon after he shut down, one of his students who happened to be a pastor at a local church offered Curran a room where he could teach classes for the time being. Curran has set up a temporary home there after laying down some mats and informing his students that he’d be holding a few classes again but it’s a far cry from the gym he poured his blood, sweat and tears into.
Even as he hopes to find a new home for his gym, Curran understands that closing down his previous facility along with COVID-19 spikes still happening all over the United States that his business will probably never be the same again.
“I keep saying, there’s casualties in this,” Curran said. “Ultimately, my larger programs are my jiu-jitsu programs. That’s the core of my school. A few years back, I started drifting away from wanting to have a big fight team and my boxing coach Doug Mango and I decided we were going to have fighters instead of a fight team.
“I’ve had to restructure how I think my life needs to be. Part of that is probably leading away from the fight element. That’s the hardest part for me. I love being a coach. I love being able to help fighters develop but I feel like I’m going to be best served as an expert in their jiu-jitsu. Focus on one program.”
The gym closing will also have a ripple effect for certain athletes Curran worked with including UFC strawweight Felice Herrig, who is returning to action following knee surgery.
“It sucks,” Curran said. “I had lunch with Felice a couple of weeks ago and I told her unlike before, I’ll do whatever I can to help you and you do whatever you need to get ready for this fight. I’m not going to have ill will towards another gym if you want to go somewhere else or drive to Chicago or have another coach. You do what you need to do.
“I can’t be there for her. Right now, I don’t even have a gym let alone sparring partners. These are the physical things I’m short. There’s also an emotional and mental side that I’m just so exhausted from what I went through and what I have coming.”
Even now with classes being held in the room at the church, Curran understands that the future for his gym and probably all jiu-jitsu academies will continue to be threatened as long as the coronavirus is an omnipresent threat.
In the long run, Curran hopes to open another thriving academy in the future but for now he’s going to have to keep rolling with the punches that are being thrown at him.
“We don’t know what the new normal is going to be,” Curran said. “It’s not going to be the same. It’s not going to be everything we used to have. We’re going to have a little bit of structure to do our part to make sure we don’t take our town off the map.
“If I have 300 members and I would just stay open — 300 members just open grappling together and then going home and living their lives could create in my little town, a serious negative effect of this pandemic. I just always have to be the guy to say you might not always agree with me but I want to follow suit and maintain a good reputation for looking out for my members and my community.”