Soon after the MMA Expo in April, in which I had my monumental sparring session with the legendary Dan “The Beast” Severn, I committed to learning grappling in conjunction with the strike training I was receiving from James “J.J.” Jefferson. I confidently strolled into The Ricardo Almeida Association’s South Jersey Brazilian Jiu Jitsu School and began observing the Black Belt Class in mid-session. Surprisingly, I heard silence from the sparring students. Just the rustling sounds of a triple-thick gi ,from time to time, as these warriors-in-training silently grappled each other in an effort to gain the right footing necessary to take control of their personal struggles they were encountering on the mats. An unassuming man with a goatee and black belt adorned around his waist approached me. I introduced myself, no doubt riddled with an unwarranted cockiness. And why not? I was a “student” of MMA Striking! This gentleman before me and I were practically kindred spirits of the cage…right? Unaffected, and most certainly unimpressed by my boasting introduction, the man introduced himself to me as Professor Bongiorno. It was his school I had walked into and seemingly made myself at home in. Professor invited me into his office to talk further about my Jiu Jitsu intentions and what his studio had to offer.
Professor Bongiorno allowed me to embellish on how I once was an obese man who lost a tremendous amount of weight and was now PERSONALLY being training in Mixed Martial Arts with the host of an MMA Xtreme Show as well as the Philly MMA Expo, James “J.J.” Jefferson. I went on, in detail, about my time in the ring with a legendary UFC Superweight and how I recently took the job of Marketing Director of all MMA Expos, going forward…What a great asset to the school I must be! Free publicity to have me “learn a few moves” on his watch! Now, had my recently developed ego not given me tunnel vision, at the time, I would have seen that Professor’s office was riddled with Pan Am Awards and pictures of him with fighting royalty, like Ricardo Almeida, Renzo Gracie and Matt Serra. He kindly gave me some information, probably hoping that I could fit my recently inflated head out the door as quick as possible, and he went back to his class. I, on the other hand, did not get the hint and took my paperwork home with me. I convinced my twelve year old daughter to take the teen class with me to keep me honest about going. I figured that if I had to bring her twice a week, I would be more inclined to squeeze in two classes a week amidst my “very busy” MMA conditioning and strike-training schedule, myself.
So a week later, we, as a Father/Daughter Team, arrived at South Jersey Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Professor Bongiorno could not have been any sweeter to my little girl. He gave her a brand new gi adorned with Team Renzo Gracie across the sleeve, welcomed her to the family and promised her many classes filled with fun and education. As I stood smiling and waiting for my crispy white gi, I realized that I was the only one standing in the room…Professor had walked out. I stopped him and said, with a smirk, “And, uhhh, my gi? Where’s mine?” At which time, he looked at me and said “Just as much as you want to check us out and see if we are a fit for you, we want to see if you are a fit for us. I want to see just how much you take to the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Down the road, we’ll talk about putting one of my gi’s on you.”
At first, I was juggling both…Strike-Training and Jiu Jitsu. J.J. would tease me about how, at every class, I was given an old tattered gi to wear by Professor Bongiorno’s staff…more times than not, a women’s size, both too short and too tight for me! I would explain how “the students” (As if I was not part of the group) had to earn their way into MMA Strike Training Classes by achieving three initial stripes, first. That, there was no attending even a live sparring class until a student achieved it least two initial stripes. J.J. would say things while I tagged his Focus Mits and Muy Thai pads like “I guess you are getting ahead of the curve, here!” I believed it, too. I believed that the best the MMA World had to offer was coming from my recent involvement and my relationship with the MMA Expo. I even launched a private LLC so I could trade and sub-contract my services based on my stellar reputation from working with such an illustrious organization! However, life has strange paths laid in front of us, and I was about to experience one of them…
Slowly, I began to really delve into the community within South Jersey Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Like sticking a toe in the pool, I began to take classes a bit more seriously and talk, interpersonally, with my peers. My daughter became MY support structure every week, just as much as I was hers in training and I started going to more and more classes. I didn’t complain so much about the old and worn gi I had to wear and give back at the end of every class. In fact, I actually became anxious to just earn a gi of my own…something my twelve year old got just for showing up! I also began to feel increasingly guilty about taking training outside of my school. The students I had the privilege of training with, week after week, watched after class as the “No-Gi MMA Students” trained hard at incorporating striking into the fundamentals of the ground work WE learn, over and over, in heavy and steaming hot uniforms. Those MMA students earned that right to learn those skills and the spectators from the Basics Classes watched with envy and excitement. Suddenly, it hit me…You don’t walk into an Art School and ask to learn a few strokes so you can go home and paint a masterpiece. Art is something that takes practice, time and dedication. That is what I was learning…a Martial ART. That is what that gi represents. It is a privilege to wear it…to learn in it and to progress in it. Somewhere, along the way, of working so hard to get fit to begin to learn mixed martial arts, I lost sight of the fact that I had to BEGIN an ART. There are no shortcuts and, if anything, I’m behind the curve as I just RECENTLY got active and involved in learning this art form at 33 years of age. For that I have to train that much harder and take my studies that much more seriously; I had to say goodbye to my time “playing” MMA Training with J.J. and earn the honor, the right way.
At first, it was painful to have to severe those training ties as, I felt closer to my goals in J.J’s hands then I ever had boxing once a week in the Aerobics Room of my gym with one of the personal trainers on shift, just months before. It, however, became increasingly easier to walk away when business became sour. It became harder to sub-contract my sales services while associated with the MMA Expo, as the foot traffic and, ultimately, the return on investment was lacking from the most recent event. Whether it was the fact that it was not publicized enough or that it was the first warm and sunny day in a series of freezing cold and gloomy weekends, the expectation of attendees was high and the turnout was low. Either way, I grew bitter. I should have been mad at myself, first, as I was the one that preemptively began trading my company name on one event before the proverbial “votes were in.” But, I projected that anger onto J.J. Partly because I felt misguided about training and partly because I was tired of having to defend an Expo I did not own…just sold some sponsorship to in good faith. Mot mostly I was mad because, beyond all of that, I was one of the people who suffered a financial loss due to lacking ticket sales. It was the coup de grace for me…I ended my personal training and business relationship and lost myself in my work as well as my Jiu Jitsu.
A much more humble man, I became a regular face, weekly at the basic classes and even a mixed belt class at lunchtime. Eventually, I was presented my gi by Professor Bongiorno and welcomed into the SJBJJ Family. I may not have had the glitz and glamour of a Television Host and Expo Promoter beating on me in designer board shorts, but I had the weekly “high fives” of my coaches, my friends in Jiu Jitsu Class and most of all, Professor Bongiorno. What friends I retained from the Expo, I tapped to come together and help me pull off a fundraiser for the Angiosarcoma Awareness Foundation; An event that raised over $500 towards research at New York’s Sloan-Kettering Institute. This was my way of paying it forward and remembering how I started this journey of health and martial arts, to begin with…a tip of the hat to my Mom for initially changing my life once, post-diagnosis.
In the end, business righted itself, and I was introduced to a series of media outlets who needed help selling their various products and services. After hearing a plethora of positive votes of confidence on the creativity and ethics of Carl Mascarehnas and his Asylum Fight League promotion, I even agreed to sell sponsorship and vendor space to his up-and-coming MMA event on June 18th in Lakewood, NJ. I figured that it couldn’t hurt to give that avenue one last honest try to earn a living in! But, best of all, while standing single file with my fellow Jiu Jitsu Brothers-on-the-Mat, Coach Jay Regalbuto was busy announcing recent belt promotions. Ready to clap for the lucky student to have earned his or her next step in the art, I waited to congratulate…only to hear my name announced! I was stunned beyond belief. I walked up and accepted my first striped belt from Coach Jay after a hearty handshake and hug. “Good job on all your hard work. Keep it up.” He said to me. At that moment, and to date, I have never been more proud on this journey. Of all the things I have accomplished and experienced so far, that has been the highlight, for me.
So, I have to wait until I earn my right to begin the coveted MMA Class with Pro MMA Fighter, Coach Andy Riddles at South Jersey Brazilian Jiu Jitsu…and I am okay with that. What I am looking forward to now, is earning my next stripe and being able to take live training classes. Maybe I can even train to compete in a Grappling Tournament with my Jiu Jitsu Brothers. That is a very real possibility. In the meantime, I have made peace with James Jefferson. He was a fun chapter in my Fight Quest and a crucial one, at that. I wish him well with what he does and as for my MMA aspirations? They are still there. My MMA Training will come, but I intend on earning it…
If you are in the New Jersey area, check out Asylum Fight League’s “Fights Under The Lights” at the Blue Claws Baseball Stadium on June 18th in Lakewood.
Signing off, True Believers. I won’t leave you hanging, again…
- Ricky “Reckless” Sperrazza -
Category: Mixed Martial Arts.