There are many reasons to fight.
Some throw their fists to protect themselves. Others do it for a workout. A brave few do it for paycheck, while more do it to relieve stress. Whatever the reason for fighting, John Rallo has seen it come through one of his four Ground Control gyms.
"For me, MMA and jujitsu have given me the ability to do something that I love, make a living and hopefully better the lives of others through what we teach," Rallo said.
Rallo is the man who built the foundation for legalized mixed martial arts fighting in Maryland. The former professional fighter, Tommy Lee bodyguard and all-around Baltimore man lobbied state lawmakers to bring the growing sport to the Free State.
"I just thought it was foolish that we always had to go to other states to do this,” Rallo said. “Money was leaving the state. It was a pain in the rear end to travel all the time to here and there for our guys to fight."
Take one look at the hulking Rallo (he was just 19 the first time he bench pressed 500 pounds), and it’s easy to see why in 2008 lawmakers unanimously passed a measure that would put organized mixed martial arts fighting in the spotlight .
The move has given a chance to mid-Atlantic brawlers to make a go of fighting professionally in a sport that has eclipsed the popularity of boxing. Rallo further paved with the way for fighters as the founder of Shogun Fights , a Baltimore-based fight show averaging 5,000 attendees that has served as a springboard for fighters to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Three fighters have come through the Shogun ranks to compete in the UFC: Jim “The Kid” Hettes, Dustin Pague and Zach Davis.
“Maybe we’ll have a champ from Baltimore one day,” Rallo said.
Rallo said within the next year Adi Alic, a promising lightweight whose Shogun record stands at 3-0, could be called up to the UFC.
Six years after Rallo went to Annapolis, the state will this weekend play to host to UFC 172 , an epic main event pitting Jon “Bones” Jones against Glover Teixeria. Jones is widely considered one of the most exciting fighters in the sport today and is the youngest UFC champion of all time.
Rallo laments that his Shogun event had to be postponed in lieu of the UFC bout but ultimately, he said, the fight is good for the city in general, especially economically.
“We’re still in the beginning stages to be honest with you,” Rallo said of the mid-Atlantic’s MMA development. “To develop a fighter it takes years and years. Adi has been with us for seven years. You’re building a fighter from the ground up. It takes a lot of time especially now because there is so much competition. Back in the day, half of these guys in here would be there already. Now the sport has gotten to such a level it’s not easy to get in anymore. You’re going to have to be on point … no more style versus style.
“In Maryland, I think we’re still well-represented,” Rallo continued. “The sport here is doing well. The fact that Shogun can draw 5,000 fans that’s a testament to the atmosphere here to the sport. The fact that the UFC came here and sold out 14,000 seats at the Baltimore Arena that’s another testament.”
Building a fighter from the ground up starts for Rallo at one of his four Ground Control gyms. Twice a week, the top fighters from his four gyms meet to spar. With the next bout for some a few weeks away, the attendance of a Monday night sparing session in April is a little light, at about a dozen or so.
Why they fight
Rallo has high hopes for the young featherweight Mamadou Sall.
Sall is a tall, thin fighter with a menacing reach.
"I started training and I felt like I was getting good fast, so I said I'll try to make this a career," Sall said.
Rallo is impressed by Sall’s dedication, although the 20-year-old’s amateur record of 0-2 leaves room for development.
“You learn a lot from losing,” Sall said.
Sall was disqualified in one fight for an illegal hit, and ran out of energy in the other after improperly cutting weight ahead of the match—two mistakes he says he won’t make again.
"Ever since I was young I wanted to do martial arts. I used to always ask my father to put me in karate classes and stuff like that. … Eventually I found this gym," Sall said. "It takes a lot of dedication. Right now I'm in school and I try to put it altogether. But this is all I've ever wanted to do."
Dave Daniecki , at 38 years old, is at the other end of the MMA spectrum.
He was 5-0 as an amateur and is currently 7-1 as a professional. He was a state champion wrestler for Loyola before going on to play lacrosse at Penn State and then professionally for the Baltimore Thunder and the Baltimore Bayhawks.
"It's the best release,” Daniecki said. “For me, working out—lifting weights or running –after punching someone in the face,
and even getting punched in the face, I just feel at the top of my game. I feel like I'm the most productive I can be. It's a high that I feel when I leave practice.
"Maybe it's a sickness," he added.
Daniecki, of Perry Hall, is by day a medical supplies salesman. He said doctors love his war stories.
"Everybody is tough. Everybody has good conditioning. So when I touch gloves I'm trying to look into your eyes and break your spirit, make you give up," he said.
He prefers not to go to his “real job” with the bumps and bruises and other hazards that come with spending weekends beating up other 200-pound tough guys.
"When you're out there, you don't think about those kinds of thing. It happens. I've had everything busted up: broken nose, stitches, black eyes, bloody lips," Daniecki said.
At the practice, Daniecki goes to work on top of Jessie Nicklow , a professional boxer who is seeking a better opportunity at a better life in MMA.
"My life is not complete without fighting. I need to fight," Nicklow said.
At 27 years old, Nicklow has been fighting for 14 years and has a professional boxing record of 24-4-3. His first MMA bout saw Nicklow, AKA: The Beast, knock out Jacob Estep 3 minutes into the second round.
"I think the problem is, a lot of guys now-a-days don't know how to get mean," Nicklow said. "If you're not in there to bleed and die and give it your all, then you shouldn't be in there."
Nicklow’s move away from boxing isn’t financially motivated. He said there is still good money to be made in the ring, but he finds there are more opportunities in mixed martial arts as opposed to boxing.
"To me, it's more exciting,” Nicklow said. “I love boxing. I love competitiveness. I love the technique of it. But a lot of guys don't see that. They want to see blood. They want to see guts. They want to see guys going to sleep. They want to see guys busted open. That's the reality of it. Nobody likes to see a guy out-box somebody for 12 rounds."
At the heart of it, Nicklow just wants a better future through fighting.
"If I wouldn't have started boxing and competing I would've gone the complete other way. … It kept me out of trouble," Nicklow said. "I want to buy another house. I want to be comfortable. I want to be happy. I want whoever I'm with to be happy. I want my dog to be happy. Other than that, I want to make people bleed."
Rallo keeps a watchful eye over the practice as fighters take turns in the “ground and pound” position. Rallo himself started fighting late in life at 29 years old. He was impressed by what small men could do with proper training against much bigger men.
It was the Royce Gracie versus Dan Severn fight that convinced Rallo to turn his attention to mixed martial arts.
"This is an Olympic alternate -- a 265 pound guy (Severn) -- fighting a 170 pound guy (Gracie). And when I saw the 170-pound guy make the 265-pound Olympian quit, I wanted to know -- I was like I'm not having some little dude do that to me,” Rallo said. “I want to know what they know. So I sought it out."
Rallo at the time was working as a bodyguard for Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee.
After just two professional fights, Rallo suffered an ACL tear that set back future plans for UFC stardom. He was slated to compete on the second season of the MMA reality show The Ultimate Fighter.
"The knee injury did not stop me from anything,” Rallo said. “Just like anybody, I rehabbed the ACL and I was ready to go. It was just a conscious decision.
"In my mid-30s, money wasn't what it is now, so I wound up focusing on the gym by force because I was laid up for about a year rehabbing the ACL and the school blew up. It went from 40 people to 100 people," Rallo said.
And everyone one of them has a different reason to fight.