TOMS RIVER – According to Jonathan Crow, founder and co-owner of Toms River-based Affinity Martial Arts, martial arts played an instrumental role in his life from an early age.
“At seven, I was diagnosed with asthma and a doctor suggested that I get into martial arts for the exercise and to learn breathing techniques to help build my lungs,” said Crow, 42, of his initial introduction to the sport.
A child of divorce who grew up in an unstable household in Toms River, Crow soon met master instructor Mike Rifkin, a figure who became pivotal in Crow’s martial arts journey and helped Crow deepen his involvement in the sport.
Since then, “martial arts has been the biggest love affair of my life and I hold multiple black belts, including one in American Full Contact Kickboxing, as well as a four-stripe purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu under Master Carlos Machado,” Crow said.
While his skills progressed through his teens, his association with an unsavory group of friends threatened to derail his future, “and I knew that if I didn’t change something, my life would take a different direction than I hoped,” Crow said.
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On the advice of his uncle Jay, a 30-year military veteran, “I joined the Army right out of high school and it was the best decision I ever made,” he said of his 11 years in the armed forces and multiple tours in Iraq.
After returning home and selling cars for two years, “I attended a 12-week training program at the Ocean County Police Academy in Lakewood and have been a corrections officer at the Ocean County Department of Corrections since 2011,” Crow said.
Throughout that time, his devotion to martial arts never subsided — though circumstances unexpectedly changed.
While he continued to practice under Rifkin, “Mike eventually moved to Florida and I didn’t know what to do,” Crow said. “I connected with his teaching style and didn’t want to find another instructor.”
Instead, “I called Mike, and, out of respect, asked his permission to open a school of my own, to which he said, ‘Go for it!’”
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In 2017, Crow leased space in the same Toms River plaza where Rifkin had been located (and eventually moved to his current, larger space nearby a year later).
“I chose the name Affinity Martial Arts for the academy because it reflects my love for the sport and my desire to share my passion with others,” he said.
Training for life
In his 1,600-square-foot space, Crow offers a range of martial arts programs for all ages.
Among them, “our KinderKick program for kids ages 4 to 6 is tailored to their attention span and incorporates developmental concepts, including numbers, colors and the alphabet,” Crow said. “For kids ages 6 to 12, we offer our ‘Juniors MMA,’ a complete martial arts program where kids learn the striking aspect, full self-defense and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.
“For adults, we offer a cardio fitness program, which features cardio fitness workouts that change daily, as well as full kickboxing/martial arts and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu programs,” said Crow, a certified personal trainer since 2008. “We also offer an adult yoga program to ensure that people stretch their muscles outside of the practice of MMA as well as a unique program designed expressly for law enforcement personnel to teach them how to defend themselves without hurting others.”
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At Affinity Martial Arts, fee structures promote affordable access to classes.
“A lot of martial arts schools in the area charge $325 per month plus a uniform cost for a student to train twice a week,” Crow said. “With the exception of our KinderKick program, our programs are generally priced from $100 to $175 a month and offer unlimited classes; a $75 registration fee includes a uniform for kids or two T-shirts for adults. As long as we can keep the lights on, I’m happy.”
As for his approach to instruction, “we don’t expect people to train to be fighters, but rather to train for life,” Crow said. “It’s not just about throwing a kick or punch or executing a choke or takedown, but more about getting out of harm’s way and having the ability and cardiovascular strength to get away from a dangerous situation.”
At the tight-knit academy, Crow and two fellow instructors — Master Mike Rifkin, who ultimately moved back to Ocean County from Florida and now co-owns Affinity Martial Arts with Crow, and yoga instructor Tara Quigley — teach a combined 25 classes a week to dozens of students, including members of entire families.
“In addition, over half of our students are female and are so capable,” Crow said. “We treat everyone the same regardless of gender and give everyone the tools necessary to defend themselves and get home safely.”
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Building confidence and community
Among industry trends, Crow said that positive steps taken by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have helped make mixed martial arts a more family-oriented sport than ever. In addition, “the once traditional weapon-heavy approach to martial arts is now transitioning into more contact and defense-based styles,” he said.
As for challenges, Crow works hard to dispel people’s misconceptions of martial arts.
“Some believe that it’s about violence, but it’s more about confidence that stems from training; it actually takes more skill to control a punch or strangle than people would think,” he said.
The pandemic brought additional challenges. After shutting down last March, “we held classes virtually three days a week and are very grateful to those who stood by us, but we lost a number of students during that time as well,” he said.
Since reopening in July at 25% capacity indoors and running both outdoor and virtual classes, “we’re finally seeing a turnaround and our membership is growing again,” he said. “People are tired of being in the house and come into our facility with a huge smile because they’re so happy that we’re open.”
Looking ahead, “we’ll be launching a new women’s-only self-defense course this month,” Crow said of the curriculum, which will offer 12 weeks of twice-weekly classes and a T-shirt for $250.
“I’m also working with high schools to bring in kids who can’t necessarily afford training at a gym or martial arts academy,” he said. “I was once that kid and hope to return the favor and have our academy be their family.”
For Crow, the academy represents his chance to give back and support his community.
“I’m not necessarily a religious person, but this sport is church to me — the one place where I can go inside myself and forget the world’s troubles for a little while,” he said. “I’m now able to provide to others the life-changing opportunities that were given to me as a kid.”
“I hope we can have a positive impact on anyone who steps through our doors, and someday I’d love to hand this school over to one of my students so that they can carry on the dream,” concluded Crow, who takes pride in helping to keep his students both physically and mentally fit. “It’s important to stay active and martial arts can make such a positive difference in your life.”
Affinity Martial Arts
Location: 1012 Cox Cro Road, Unit No. 7, Toms River
Owners: Jonathan Crow and Mike Rifkin