Local champion doesn’t hold weight in Ithaca’s martial arts community

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Ithaca resident Jon “Bones” Jones successfully defended his UFC Light Heavyweight title September 21, bringing attention to the martial arts scene in Ithaca; a scene that has proven independent of this recent fame.


Ultimate Athletics, a 20,000 square-foot Mixed Martial Arts Fitness and Training Center in the Ithaca Mall, boasts approximately 600 members. Owner Ryan Ciotoli said he has worked with and known “Bones” Jones since the beginnings of his career.

“I moved Jon to Ithaca. He used to be a part of our team and our gym back when we were in Cortland,” Ciotoli said. “It’s cool to have the light heavyweight champion in town but I don’t really think it impacts what goes on here [in Ithaca].”

Jones’ stature in Ithaca has not affected membership numbers at Ultimate Athletics, Ciotoli said. Robbie Sanders, a student and 3rd degree black belt at Ithaca Karate and Harmony — a school with an estimated 150 students — agreed.

“Enrollment in martial arts tends to go up and down, I don’t think it really has anything to do with MMA,” Ms. Sanders said.

Master John Littlefield, the Head Instructor at Kwon’s Champion School in the Ithaca Commons, said his 20-30 students have shown some interest in viewing MMA on television, but that it, again, has not increased or decreased his school size.

“[Enrollment] is about the same,” he said. “I’ve noticed an interest in people curious in watching the sport of mixed martial arts and cage fighting. In terms of traditional martial arts [enrollment], it’s probably the same.”

It seems that Ithaca’s martial arts scene is not dependent on the notoriety that “Bones” Jones brings to Tompkins County. Collin Lieberman recently moved to Ithaca and capitalized on this genuine interest in martial arts. Lieberman started offering Jeet Kune Do classes in February last year at the Ithaca City Health Club and now has about 20 regular students.

Though Lieberman teaches a different martial art, he recognizes the draw of MMA and noted that each form of martial arts is distinct and independent of each other.

“There’s different demographics for each,” he said. “MMA attracts younger men who want to prove something. Traditional martial arts usually attract people who want some activity, some discipline.”

Ithaca’s passion for martial arts continues to attract high quality instructors like Lieberman, who is three instructors removed from Bruce Lee (Lieberman’s instructor’s instructor’s instructor learned directly from Lee), the man who pioneered Jeet Kune Do. Bobi Chaffee, a student of Lieberman’s, said the classes at Ithaca’s City Health Club have been very popular amongst gym members.

“For this gym, for a class, it’s caught on,” she said. “The members here, they usually do their thing but I’ve had quite a few of them ask me, ‘What’s going on over there?’ Well you know what, go talk to Collin, take a free class and I would say more than half of them sign up and stick with it.”

According to Yahoo, there are eight registered martial arts businesses in the town of Ithaca, and though there is MMA star power in the form of Jon “Bones” Jones, the city’s stable martial arts community exists on its own.

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