What was it like growing up in the Bronx?
Growing up in the Bronx was unique. It was one of things where I lived in not such a great neighborhood—but growing up in it, I didn’t think anything of it.
We lived in the projects, and as I got a bit older, I started to become a bit more aware of my surroundings. Like, I didn’t know what nickel bags and dime bags were; they were laying all over the street. When I was going into the 6th grade, we decided to move upstate to Monroe, New York.
How did you start training?
Growing up, I was never a great athlete. I didn’t do much sports until the 8th grade, when I joined the diving team in school. I enjoyed it because it came easy and I was really good at it. I spent 3 years on the team in middle school. It was halfway through my 2nd year that I discovered Tiger Schulmann’s. When I started training, I immediately knew that this was much better than diving. I went to my Mom and Dad and told them that I wanted to start training full-time and they we’re both like: “No way. You need to stick with the diving. You can get a scholarship and go to college for it.” But I had zero desire for it. To be honest, there was nothing that was going to stop me from [pursuing martial arts] training.
Although they didn’t see a career path in it, I was dead set to do it. Although they made me finish the last year of diving while I trained, I was doing my best to get kicked off the team and eventually quit to pursue martial arts full-time.
Was there a specific moment when your parents went from skeptics to supporters?
It was probably when they came to my first competition. My first official competition was actually at Challenge of Champions. I was real new—I think I was a blue belt or something—and here I was facing guys with much higher belts. I wasn’t intimidated, but I could tell by the look on my mother’s face that she was. It was my first competition, and I took 1st place. I think they said to themselves, “Wow. He’s good.” It’s been 100 percent support since then.
Are you inspired by any other MMA athletes?
In 8th grade, around the time I was diving, I started watching Ultimate Fighter Season 2. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow. This is great, this is awesome. This is the craziest sport I’ve ever seen.” I was immediately into it. I became a huge, huge fan of the sport and then I found the Tiger Schulmann’s school the year after.
Matt Hughes was a guy who I was really drawn to immediately. He coached in that season, but I remembered him from seeing him slam Carlos Newton in UFC 34. After his recent accident, it’s really sad to see what he’s going through. His fight, determination in his recovery is inspiring to me.
You’ve overcome adversity in your life. Could you share a bit of your story?
When I was in the 6th grade I found out that I had scoliosis. At first, it wasn’t anything too serious. For those who don’t know, its a curvature of the spine, and mine was at about 20 degrees. We were told the best thing to do was to keep monitoring it, that it could either get progressively better, or get worse. I got worse. It was actually right when I started training that I went back to the doctor. It hadn’t even been a year at Tiger Schulmann’s and the doctor told me that the curvature doubled and that my only option was surgery.
They told me that due to the severity of the procedure (2 metal rods and $15K worth of screws) that training would be over forever and this would most likely end all athletic activities.
Now if you know me, you know that me and all my brothers are all super active. At our house we had skateboards, trampolines; we were always outside. I’m a very active kid. At 16, I wasn’t taking that for an answer. There was no way that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything,especially martial arts. I remember crying in the doctor’s office when we decided to go through with the surgery.
Two days after my 16th birthday, I got the surgery. It was the worst day of my life. Imagine this: you’re 16, you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s pitch black, no one is there, you can’t even move. The only thing I could do was go back to sleep. I’d wake up, see my mom there, its daytime, then go back to sleep. Wake up, see my cousins there, it’s dinner time, go back to sleep. It went on like that for a few days like that. The pain started to subside, I went through some minor [physical therapy] to get out of the hospital, and after a week was discharged.
The road to recovery was not an easy one, for sure. My parents had to do everything for me. They literally had to feed me, wash me, and help me go to the bathroom. I had to stay in bed for a while, and at 16 years old, that was tough. While other friends were out running around, playing sports, having fun, my mom was giving me a bath.
It was a long, slow recovery, but after 3 months, I returned to train at Tiger Schulmann’s and haven’t looked back since.
What does fighting at Madison Square Garden mean to you?
For every combat sports athlete, fighting at MSG is the pinnacle. It’s the most iconic arena in the world, and I think that every fighter wants to fight there. However, being a New York fighter, it’s extra special. It means the world to me. I’m going to have that place packed out. All my friends, all my family, all of Tiger Schulmann’s schools are going to be there. Can you imagine that? Almost 50 schools all rooting for you? It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
What separates you from other fighters?
My pressure. If you watch my fights, I’m in your face the entire time. I’m well trained and I don’t get tired. I eat shots and keep coming. On my feet, I’m a nightmare match up. If you’re gonna fight me, you’re going to have your back up against the cage the whole time, because I’m going to be in your face, bringing that pressure.
When it’s all said and done, what do you want to be remembered for?
One of the best ever, right? Isn’t that what everybody wants? I want to be the most exciting fighter. I just want to come out there and do what I do. It comes natural. I don’t try to be exciting, I just think my style is exciting. That’s what I want to be remembered for: being the best, and being the most exciting.