Tom almost puts his fist through Mike’s skull, after that he’s holding a microphone in his hand, telling the crowd that Mike was a good opponent, their beef is quashed and can they please stop brawling up in the bleachers. For the longest time, Tom was just some guy grappling in the gym. But now, after three minutes and seven seconds of fury within the confines of a cage, Mr. DeBlass is the closest thing these Jersey Shore folk will ever get to seeing a conquering king.
Charlemagne. Hannibal of Carthage. Alexander the Great. That kind of king.
Tom is flanked by an announcer in a suit, scantily-clad women with broad, forced smiles, and teammates wearing jeans and t-shirts that bear the name “DeBlass” in white letters across their chests. Mike is a few feet away, his expression hovering between disappointment and “get me the hell out of here”. He’s no longer on a stool, but is still being attended to by the doctors, the doctors watching to make sure he doesn’t spontaneously collapse like a puppet with severed strings. Like he did minutes before in the throes of battle, when Tom thumped him into a stupor.
Punch someone hard enough in the head and their brain sloshes around and switches to the “off” position. Hit them in the sweet spot behind the ear and they do the Funky Chicken and go horizontal, sometimes lying still, sometimes flopping about as if a small part of them wants to keep fighting but the rest of them would rather be relaxing in a bathtub with a glass of Pinot Grigio.
Trap someone’s foot in your armpit and twist your body laterally, and you’ll torque their ankle which in turn torques their knee, forcing them to either give up or face the painful, regret-filled rehabbing of torn ligaments. Ditto if you twist your body the other direction, or grab their foot with your hands and hyperrotate. And if you catch someone’s foot in your armpit and lean back, with your forearm across their Achilles tendon like a fulcrum made of radius and ulna, again, it’s all kinds of joy.
Something about having a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu makes Tom good at the twisting stuff. Something about his disposition – usually sunny but another thing entirely once the ref says “go” – makes him good at the punching stuff, too.
“Guys, please, there’s no need for this,” Tom says, once more imploring the crowd to calm down, and the two warring factions – the multitude who’ve come to see their beloved sensei and dear friend emerge from battle victorious and the dozens who came to see Mike win but got something else instead – are separated by casino security in crimson blazers and uniformed Atlantic City police officers. Someone, a young female in Mike’s clan, continues to mouth off, clearly unable to stomach having her side’s warrior go down with such finality. But she’s herded out with the rest of them, leaving the about a thousand and a half still present to bask in the main event’s post-coital glow.
In six months, the New York Times will describe Tom as a “heavily tattooed bulldog”, but I’ve been watching him fight since his debut nearly a decade ago – when he repped a school called Tong Dragon and the sum of his knowledge about unarmed combat existed on a point somewhere between “fuck” and “all” – and not once has the word “bulldog” come to mind. Snapshot of Tom, standing there in the cage: six-feet tall on the dot and in the neighborhood of 220 pounds, with an aura of accomplishment making him sharp around the edges, like a drawing heavily contrasted with its background or a picture of something in focus surrounded by blur. Early on he was lanky, but he’s more barrel-chested these days, layers of muscle packed onto his shoulders like sculpted clay. On his face, the faint trappings of a beard. A smile that only matches his eyes after his fights are over. Running down his right forearm is a tattoo, “Isabelle”, the name of his precious toddler.
This is MMA in the minor leagues, what the uninitiated would call “that ultimate fighting stuff” or “some cagefighting”, or even “no-holds-barred crap” if they were especially old and ignorant and wanted to get elected to something. But such labels tend to conjure up images, circa-1993 images that don’t embody what it’s evolved into, even at the level just below the UFC’s standard of world-class glitz and glamor. Because it’s a whole new world down here, far more legitimate and populated by more people with grand plans than the willy-nilly of just ten years ago. Now, if you’re a fighter with dreams, you can see success through the exposure gained on a reality TV show, or at the very least, eke out a living juggling a day job while getting paid to fight, the short term goal a blue-collar notion where working with your hands for a living means beating the crap out of someone who’s trying to beat the crap out of you. All of this can happen before a fighter ever makes it into the UFC proper, which, is still almost universally the brass ring.
Tom hasn’t made it into the Octagon yet. No, tonight’s fistic festivities are contained within the Showroom in the Tropicana Casino & Resort, the cage set up on a stage that usually features entertainers belting out tunes but instead is the nexus of Ring of Combat, one of the Northeast’s pre-eminent regional shows and stepping stone to greatness. Ring of Combat is minor league ball, the Brooklyn Cyclones to the UFC’s New York Mets, and the theory is if you play enough innings and hit enough homeruns, then sooner or later you will be called up to make the leap, emerging not from the cramped dressing rooms beneath the Showroom but instead walking out from the bowels of the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas, striding proudly into the warm love of 13,000 cheering fans.
Tom hasn’t made it to the Octagon yet, but in seven months he will.
It’s Ring of Combat for those in the Northeast United States, but it could just as easily be another regional organization, in a hotel ballroom in North Jersey, under a tent in a dusty field in Louisiana, in a civic center in Minnesota, or in a high school gymnasium in California, spectators barely contained by the folding chairs set up in rows that emanate from the cage in ever-expanding concentric circles. It’s all the same, a multitude of stories and violence intertwined. Watching them scrap here at this point in their careers is like watching the Strokes perform at Luna Lounge before they made it big – you know you’re seeing something special, but what are you seeing exactly? Are you gazing upon a future UFC champ in action, still tentative with that jab or stiff with transitions off those takedowns but getting there? Or are you watching an almost-was and never-will-be? Are you witnessing a man exorcise his demons with teeth-clenched rage? Or are you observing an athlete test the boundaries of his ability with the verité of fist-fighting?
The answer invariably changes with each person who steps into the cage and aspires to greatness, a mercurial thing far more compelling and gratifying to know than the short-lived adrenaline-rush thrill of watching them beat each other stupid. How Tom used his right hand to make Mike’s brain short circuit doesn’t mean half as much as what made them both get in there, and what keeps them going back for more. The knockouts and tap outs mean nothing compared to the dreams they strive so hard to realize.
In seven months Tom will realize his dream and compete in the Octagon, when it’s set up in an arena in Stockholm, Sweden, when he needs to wear warm clothes and worry about how the change in time zones will affect his performance. But that’s not tonight. Tonight, Tom is the newly-crowned Ring of Combat champ. The King of the Jersey Shore.
Into the microphone Tom speaks, thanking God, his coaches and trainers, his students for putting up with him and supporting him and for coming and rooting for him. The way his words come out, you almost automatically think “bruiser”.
The way his words come out, you think someone called Central Casting and requested “New Jersey tough guy”.
If not for his deep, thoughtful intellect, it would not be an inaccurate assessment.
The first time Tom fights, it’s an inauspicious amateur debut that comes too soon against an opponent already a seasoned kickboxer and veteran ass-kicker. Reality Fighting is the promotion, held in the gymnasium of a high school in Bayonne on a Saturday, back when there are maybe five UFC events a year broadcast on pay-per-view and that’s it, that’s all you get. SpikeTV has yet to give birth to the Ultimate Fighter TV show, isn’t even pregnant with the child and has yet to be courted and sweet talked and felt up by Dana White. FOX is years away from giving the sport the time of day. If you want to slake your thirst for this kind of fighting, you have to finagle VHS tapes of events from Japan or Brazil, or find something local. Hence, Reality Fighting.
Dave Tirelli is Tom’s opponent, and when the referee shouts for them to start Dave begins punching Tom in the face and doesn’t stop until Tom’s corner throws in the towel. Two and a half minutes, and when first fights go this badly you usually never see those battered competitors return, casualties of unanticipated cruelty and mortally wounded pride and forevermore charting a course for the twin isles of Discouragement and Shame (located in the Sea of Why the Fuck Did I Do That?).
But Tom does come back, albeit after three years of reinvention, of jiu-jitsu tutelage under the legendary Ricardo Almeida and countless hours grappling and grunting in a white kimono, as the color of his belt grows darker and darker. It’s a common animal that gets beaten and changes course for more peaceful passage. Rare is the one that comes back for more. Rarer still is the one that returns a new beast entirely, capable of inflicting that initial beating it received back upon its enemies tenfold. Yet there is Tom in 2006, that rarest of beasts, in a cage set up in a gymnasium in a high school in the South Jersey town of Vorhees, marching unflinchingly into a destiny that comes one measured and deliberate bout at a time.
There are maybe a hundred people in the bleachers on this night in Vorhees, a paltry number of spectators that would make any promoter weep at the revenue lost, but sometimes the fewer eyeballs the better when the stakes are redemption, when self-worth is found in the ratio of successes to failures.
And Tom does his thing, is methodical and makes it work, and he wins that comeback fight about a minute into Round 2, wrenching his opponent’s foot to get the tap out. Then he dives back into the waters of jiu-jitsu, winning medals at the Pan Ams, at the Mundials, and even earning a berth at the esteemed Abu Dhabi tournament. He returns to MMA competition in 2010. He’s no longer a rare beast. He is now one of a kind, and more than ready for what awaits him in the cage.
NASA engineers don’t plot trajectories this precise.
Sometimes dreams aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
After a stellar minor league career spanning seven fights in nearly two years – knocking out Mike, submitting both a UFC vet and a much heavier fighter in under a minute, battling out a few decisions – Tom punches his ticket to the Octagon as a late-replacement to face Cyrille Diabate in Sweden. “When the UFC calls you come” is the mantra oft-repeated by aspirants intent on working their way up, so Tom doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t think twice. When he loses via majority decision in his UFC debut, it’s okay because he’s assured he’ll get another crack at it – and he does, this time in the organization’s first venture into Macau.
For his fights in the minors, Tom was within driving distance of the venues, so close it was virtually no hassle to fill the stands with his students, a legion of them cheering him on and bolstering his confidence. But Stockholm and Macau… there’s no exit on the Garden State Parkway for those places, and that distance is too great for anyone but Tom’s corner men to make the trek. When Tom strides toward the cage, sure, the Kings of Leon are coming out of the arena’s speakers and the dream he’d worked so hard to make reality is finally coming true, but it’s not quite right. His loss by another hard-fought in decision in Macau only makes it worse.
It’s November, 2012, and Tom is home, back in New Jersey and back from gallivanting around the world to fight in the UFC and earn the first and only losses of his pro career. The travel and time away and battles have left the King of the Jersey Shore battered and bruised, both in body and spirit. “I definitely could’ve used a few more fights before I went to the UFC,” he tells me, and he talks of the arithmetic of it all. To be able to earn the moniker “UFC fighter”, Tom spent X amount of time away from Isabelle plus Y amount of time away from his school and students. Meanwhile, it cost him Z to pay his coaches and corner men, and how do you factor in the toll taken on one’s own flesh? Regardless, the math of the equation led to only one conclusion, and Tom utters it, a one word answer that encompasses so much of what goes unseen and what’s sacrificed by those competing in the minor leagues to those who make it all the way to the top. “Retirement,” he says.
The word is “retirement”.
The first round sees Tom eating knuckles in the form of a jab that’s quicker than his own, and because his opponent is longer and rangier, Tom’s struggling to find the footwork and angles that will bring him to where he can plant a fist square in Carlos Brooks’ face. The solution doesn’t come before the time in Round 1 runs out, so Tom sits on his stool for a minute, seemingly brooding while his corner gives him instructions. Around, the crowd within Ovation Hall in the Revel Casino is alive – half of them Tom’s people, half of them Carlos’. On the flash drives given to the media sitting in press row, the digitized releases all denote this event as Bellator 95.
At this point in time, Tom’s contemporaries who came up with him in Ring of Combat are all comfortable in their respective niches in the UFC. Uriah Hall is a TUF superstar. Costa Philippou is a top ten middleweight. And Chris Weidman is a few short months away from knocking out Anderson Silva. But Tom is right where he needs to be, right where he belongs. Referee Bill Bookwalter shoos away the corners, and when all is clear, he signals for the two combatants to resume their battle. Tom takes Carlos down, and from within the Tiger Schulmann-trained fighter’s half-guard, does his best imitation of the firebombing of Dresden on Carlos’ face.
The doctors call off the bout before the third round can begin. Tom’s arm is raised in victory soon after.
Carlos will need surgery to repair the damage done to his orbital bone.
When it comes to 30-year-old fighters, retirement can be a nebulous thing that bears many meanings. For Tom, it was an amiable exit from his UFC contract, some time to heal up and gather his thoughts, and to listen thoughtfully when Bellator came to him with an offer. A fight in Atlantic City, you say? A bout on the undercard of the number two MMA promotion out there, in a venue close to home, on an event that will be broadcast online? This time, the numbers added up.
For the time being, Tom is once more astride his throne, reigning over his kingdom.
Maybe it’s true that for good fighters all paths lead to the UFC, but if Tom’s journey teaches us anything, it’s that they don’t have to end at the Octagon.
It’s November, 2013, and in a few days Tom will step back into the Bellator cage, his second bout on a three-fight contract. He will face UFC vet Jason Lambert.
For many, Bellator – despite weekly shows on SpikeTV – is the minor leagues, but that’s not quite true. Few, if any, regional shows can provide the exposure that Bjorn Rebney’s baby does, and the revolving door of prospects on their way up the ladder and former UFC competitors on their way down makes for some interesting traffic. At the very least, it’s a home that’s more suitable to fighters like Tom.
These are the facts about Tom: He has about 280 students at his jiu-jitsu academy now, some of them world-class tournament competitors. He’s still an active grappling competitor himself, and from his performances this year in the Pan Ams, Grapplers Quest and the Worlds, he’s ranked among the best in the world when it comes to rolling without the gi. For his Bellator 108 bout against Lambert on Friday, Tom has sold around 300 tickets – an impressive number that will make for pleasantly raucous crowd when he sets foot in the cage. Unlike the vast majority of MMA fighters out there, Tom is one of the few with a flourishing existence beyond the chain-link fencing and four-ounce gloves. He doesn’t NEED to fight to pay the bills. And from the photos he constantly posts on Facebook, his daughter Isabelle is still precious.
It is a few days before his fight against Lambert, and Tom tells me he’s ready. Very ready. But he’s a thinker, and like many of the conquering lieges of history, he’s meticulous in how he plans and plots conquests. If he wins on Friday, then what? Another fight with Bellator, and maybe a return to the UFC after that? Or should he focus solely on teaching and winning medals for grappling, two things that for Tom can go hand in hand? What could he gain from more trips into the Octagon that would out-weigh what he already has with his students and with the jiu-jitsu world?
“You are in a rare but fortunate predicament,” I say. “Most fighters would kill to have the success outside the cage you have.”
“Exactly,” Tom says.
Not too long ago Tito Ortiz and Quinton Jackson’s intertwined destinies were derailed by fate, and Bellator had to turn to plan “B”. “After this fight you should ask for Rampage or Tito,” I say.
“I’d love to fight one of them,” he replies without hesitation.
And therein lies the story of Tom’s career. For not one second does either Tom’s willingness to take on those former UFC champs or his ability to put up one hell of a fight come into question. Once, long ago, he was a rookie getting is ass kicked at Reality Fighting. But he found redemption in the grandest way possible, in a black belt in jiu-jitsu, in the minor leagues, in the UFC, and in his success beyond. Regardless of what may lie ahead, Tom’s toughest battles could very well be behind him.
All hail the King.