Jason Echols warms up at his home studio. Photo by Scott Ball.

It was a shot for his Hall of Fame highlight reel: Tim Duncan, three days shy of 39, falling to the floor, hitting a clutch push shot against the league’s best defensive center to break a 101-101 overtime tie in last week’s vital Game 2 against the Clippers. Without a healthy Tony Parker to help carry the load, the 18-year veteran was called on to play 44 minutes and be the team’s first and last offensive option. He delivered.

Tim Duncan surrounded by media after the Spurs' win of the 2014 NBA Finals. Photo by Scott Ball.
Tim Duncan surrounded by media after the Spurs’ win of the 2014 NBA Finals. Photo by Scott Ball.

With research showing an NBA player’s peak lasts from age 24-25, it’s no wonder why TNT announcers couldn’t stop gushing about Duncan’s “vintage” display on last Wednesday. It’s why the first question Tim was asked at the podium was this: “What’s the key to your success, longevity, and excellence in performance?”

Tim modestly deflected the question. But the two-time MVP may have already answered the question, at least partly.

Every off-season for the last six years, Tim Duncan has entrusted his fitness regimen to local independent kickboxing trainer Jason Echols. A San Antonio native, Echols runs his own martial arts and weight-training studio, Echols Fitness, behind his Alamo Heights home. Duncan and Echols met six years ago through mutual friends at a gym where Echols used to train. After showcasing some kickboxing for Duncan, the NBA star tried it for himself.

“He immediately fell in love with it,” says Echols. “He took to it like a fish in water.”

Echols thinks of his kickboxing-centered training as “the ultimate cross-fit.” Combining his experience in weight training and various martial arts, Jason developed a fitness system he says is suitable for both the elite athlete and the average person looking to get in shape.

In a recent statement made for Echols’ website, Duncan said his training with Echols has been his most enduring offseason fitness practice, thanks to “ever-changing and challenging workouts using boxing and martial arts.” He continued, “For the last six years, it’s been a great way to get my body ready for the rigors of my season.”

Echols, a modest man, would never claim to be responsible for Duncan’s remarkable durability and continued excellence. He acknowledges that, you know, “It helps being Tim Duncan.” Still, the martial arts trainer has seen (and felt) examples of martial arts keeping aging athletes spry.

“The grandmasters I worked with were quite a bit older than me, and my Kenpo grandmaster, who’s now in his 60s, comes over here and still kicks me in my head.”

Jason Echols poses for a photo at his home studio.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Jason Echols poses for a photo at his home studio. Photo by Scott Ball.

Echols has been pulled all his life by two passions: music and martial arts. He remembers clearly the time he and his brother, as kids, stumbled onto “Kung Fu Theater” after the cartoons ended.

“Both my brother and I sat there with our mouths open, and I said, ‘I wanna do that!’” Growing up in Universal City in the Judson school district, Echols “played all the usual sports: soccer, football, baseball.” Yet, it was his musical aspirations that led him down a path to martial arts. After seeing a Motley Crüe music video, he knew he wanted to be a rock star. He learned to play guitar and began weight training at age 15 to improve his stage presence.

This taste of weight training was addictive to Echols, who soon began experimenting with other forms of strength and conditioning. Around age 17, he started dabbling in martial arts. By his early 20s he was training seriously with a Tae Kwon Do grandmaster. At the same time, Echols was starting to play in bands. In 1999 Echols met and began an enduring friendship with Academy-Award nominated actor Jackie Earle Haley during his acting hiatus (1993-2006). Haley played drums with Echols in some local bands. When Haley would later be cast as the antihero Rorschach for the Marvel film “Watchmen,” it would be Echols who would help him train for the part. To this day, Haley trains with Echols as often as his schedule allows.

After studying Tae Kwon Do, Echols was led to a Kenpo grandmaster, which led him to Muay Thai and Western kickboxing. Early on, friends he trained with would tell him he would make a good trainer, and eventually he took their advice. Deciding to make music his hobby, Echols focused his attention on martial arts training. After 10 years Jason was introduced to No. 21.

Last June, days before 9,227 San Antonians filled the AT&T Center for the city’s first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event, Echols received a call from Duncan inviting him to dinner with an unnamed UFC fighter. The mystery guest  turned out to be accomplished Brazilian fighter Vitor Belfort, who came here with trainer Henri Hooft.

Hooft is the head striking coach for the Boca Raton, Florida based mixed martial arts (MMA) team Blackzilians. He trains many of the top UFC fighters in the world, including Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Belfort, both of whom are fighting for championships in UFC 187 on May 23.

Jason Echols trains Christina Pitzer on proper formation.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Jason Echols trains Christina Pitzer on proper formation. Photo by Scott Ball.

The dinner was a prelude to a partnership between Hooft and Echols. The Amsterdam-native Hooft teaches Dutch-style kickboxing, a standing form of striking used in MMA. While MMA allows fighters to use both striking and grappling techniques, Hooft teaches a style the UFC promoters prefer, says Echols: “more striking, less grappling.” A European world champion once himself, Hooft won about 100 matches in his career and has trained elite fighters for more than 30 years.

Since their meeting last summer, Hooft has made Echols the sole U.S. representative for his H Kickboxing system, which already has branches in Canada, Spain, and Holland. In addition, Echols arranged quarterly visits to the Blackzilians’ gym in Boca Raton to become proficient at Hooft’s system and to learn to coach MMA fighters by observing Hooft.

The UFC’s image has come a long way since its essentially lawless ‘90s beginnings, when Sen. John McCain labeled the UFC “human cockfighting” and led a movement that saw it dropped from major cable networks and banned in 36 states. UFC wisely changed course. Pairing with the Association of Boxing Commissions, they introduced weight classes, required gloves and outlawed “dirty” tactics. Since then, momentum has swung for the sport and it is currently regulated by the ABC in 47 US states.

Jason Echols and Christina Pitzer train together at Jason's home studio.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Jason Echols and Christina Pitzer train together at Jason’s home studio. Photo by Scott Ball.

As the UFC has become more mainstream, the public has developed more interest in training like their Octagon icons. Ronda Rousey, who became the UFC’s first female fighter and champ in 2012, has particularly helped popularize the sport for the female demographic. One of the sport’s few transcendent stars, she has appeared in late night shows, action flicks like “Fast 7,” and last month’s WWE WrestleMania.

In San Antonio, Echols points to the success of last year’s debut UFC event at the AT&T Center and the regularly packed Premiere Combat Group MMA fights Saturday nights at Cowboys Dancehall as evidence of the sport’s growing popularity in the city. Echols says Hooft also recognizes potential for the city’s MMA scene.

“My involvement with Henri is recognition on his part of growth — or the potential for growth — not just for his system, but that people want to get fit with MMA training, and not everyone wants to get their face bashed in doing it.” To his point, Hooft is visiting San Antonio this weekend to present an H Kickboxing seminar.

Now Echols has found himself in a training niche with plenty of people who want to train like MMA fighters, many of whom aren’t even fans of the UFC. One such student of Echols’ is beginner Christina Pitzar, who says kickboxing terrified her at first. But after trying it, she said, “I ended up loving it. It’s addictive. I can’t get enough of it.” Pitzar also extols its training benefits. “It doesn’t look like much — at least not when I do it — but you will feel this tomorrow,” Pitzar said.

Jason doesn’t operate the only business targeting MMA style trainers. The Express-News recently detailed the MMA training trend and how it’s spread through gyms like Dominion MMA and the Battle Tactics Academy. There’s even going to be an officially licensed UFC gym set to open at Brook Hollow in June. However, beyond MMA style training techniques, these gyms have little else in common with Echols’ setup.

The gyms mentioned above all look and feel like typical gyms. Echols’ dojo, by contrast, is a secluded outdoor pavilion surrounded by trees. Designed by South African treehouse specialist Attie Jonker, there is something zen-like about the environment. As sole owner and operator, Echols is able to get to know everyone with whom he trains. He says his studio’s privacy may be his “claim to fame” among clients, so I wasn’t totally surprised when Bexar County District Attorney Nico Lahood arrived for a weight-training and sparring session during my visit.

“I like to keep it low-key, man — keep it private,” says Echols. “These guys come here to avoid people bothering them, wanting to talk shop.”

Jason Echols and Nico LaHood pose for a photo at Jason's home studio.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Jason Echols and Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood pose for a photo at Jason’s home studio. Photo by Scott Ball.

Despite training some rather important people, Echols is grounded and personable. During their training session, Echols matches Pitzar’s witty bantering as they train. He says he keeps the mood positive whether he is working with an elite athlete or a beginner.

Echols offers one-hour group or private sessions that meet twice weekly and have upfront monthly rates of with $200 for group sessions ($25 per session) and $640 for private sessions ($80 per session). His monthly rates are intended to hold clients accountable. It helps them manage their priorities. Echols’ group sessions typically have no more than eight students to ensure that he is able to provide “vital one-on-one time with each person.”

To sign up for Echols’ classes email him through his website. UFC trainer Henri Hooft is hosting a seminar on his H Kickboxing system on May 2 from 12-3 p.m. Registration is $100. To sign up for the seminar visit the event page or call 210-300-4599.

*Featured/top image: Jason Echols warms up at his home studio. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Hunter Bates

Hunter Bates is a native San Antonian. He teaches developmental English at Palo Alto College, where he also directs the student literary journal. Make a fast friend: talk to him about the Spurs, '60s music,...