My thoughts on how training jiu-jitsu gives you a realistic sense of self
Thanks for joining on me on my journey through the martial arts. Over the past 15 years training, teaching, competing and learning martial arts has been my greatest passion. I’m using this page to keep guys updated on the latest news and events surrounding myself, my students and my academies as well as a chance to share my MMA philosophies and techniques. Hopefully, this will be a medium to interact with like minded martial artists who share my passion.
My friend Sam Rivera stopped by my school Precision MMA in LaGrange, NY and made this incredible video. Sam is really an incredible film maker and he perfectly captured many of my deeply held views on martial arts and got some great shots of my students in the process – check it out and be sure to subscribe to Sam’s channel!
Anyone. Any time. Any place. It is a credo that many fighters espouse, but few are willing to accept the consequences of the edict. One fighter who has embraced taking on all comers is Sean “Shorty Rock” Santella. During Sean’s MMA career, easy street has been the path less traveled by. During his very first day of training he broke his arm, but in typical form he left undeterred.
Sean was committed to being a fighter and he stepped into his first amateur fight confident that he could use MMA as a way to get ahead. Sean grew up with a single mother in poverty, a troublemaker who never finished high school and seemed to be speeding down a road toward failure. MMA was his clean slate, his chance at redemption and he jumped at the opportunity with unrivaled enthusiasm.
Sean would lose his first amateur fight. His investment in his MMA dream had yielded a payout of a broken arm and a heartbreaking defeat. 0-1 is the most common record in mixed martial arts competition. Aspiring combatants, expecting to be the hammer, play the role of the nail and find a new hobby. However, it would take more than that to deter Sean. In a pattern that would become all too familiar he took time off, regrouped and came back strong. In 2008 Sean rattled off 4 consecutive wins including an amateur title and a victory over future UFC fighter Louis Gaudinot. Sean proved he was ready to step up and in his pro debut informed the promoter he would take on anyone.
Young fighters typically select “safe fights” early in their careers, match-ups in which they have an obvious advantage and will allow them to play to their strengths and cruise to victory. Sean wasn’t interested in that path. He made his pro debut against Nick Pace. Pace came from one of the premier schools and boasted a perfect 6-0 record with 5 consecutive finishes. He was someone no one wanted to face. Sean fought hard and found himself on the wrong end of a judges decision. Once again he was 0-1.
Loss wasn’t new for Sean, but what happened next was. After a hard training session he was feeling weak and light headed. The feeling persisted and Sean found himself in the hospital where doctors told him he had just suffered a stroke. No one could tell Sean why at 24 years old in his physical prime he had suffered an ailment typically reserved for people in their 70’s. Sean’s back was against the wall. He had just lost his pro debut and suffered a health scare that would send even the toughest of characters into a panic. Sean did what he always did when things didn’t go his way, he worked hard and kept on fighting.
Sean kept his stroke a secret and after taking a 7 month hiatus he found himself back in the cage taking the fights others ran from. Sean rattled off 5 wins in 2009 finishing the year undefeated, ending all but one fight inside the first round. Sean began to develop a reputation with promoters as someone who would take on all challengers. At one point, while cornering a friend, Sean took a fight out of the crowd when a fighter had his opponent no show. Despite having to move up in weight and knowing literally nothing about his opponent, Sean drove to the nearest sporting goods store, bought a cup and mouthpiece and won by submission. He even went on to earn a submission victory over the man who defeated him in his amateur debut. Sean’s determination had finally begun to pay off. He wasn’t going to be known as the dropout who never amounted to anything, he was the fighter bound for greatness.
Things are never that easy for Sean though. His winning streak came to an end following a back and forth battle with crafty veteran Josh Rave. Following the fight the New Jersey athletic commission got wind of Sean’s prior stroke an placed him on indefinite suspension. Sean went from fighting every month to sitting on his hands not knowing if he’d ever be allowed to fight again. The problem was that no doctor could answer the obvious question – why did Sean have a stroke in the first place? Sean refused to go quietly though, petitioning the commission he underwent a seemingly never ending battery of medical examinations poking and prodding every conceivable possibility. Finally, after 6 months of uncertainty, Sean was granted a license to fight.
Sean let every promoter know he was back in business and ready to take on the toughest fighters in the region. Top prospects, Strikeforce & Bellator veterans, Jiu-Jitsu black belts and NCAA wrestling champions all quickly earned a notch in the loss column when they stood across from Sean Santella. In 9 fights his lone defeat came at the hands of still undefeated UFC star Aljamain Sterling. Along the way Sean had won titles in both Ring of Combat and CFFC the region’s top MMA promotions.
Sean was set to face feared flyweight Zack Makovsky. It was no secret that the winner of this fight would likely be called up to the UFC. Sean’s goal was finally within his grasp, his shot at the big time. Then, while rolling in jiu-jitsu class, Sean heard a loud pop. He tried to ignore it, but he knew something wasn’t right. He hobbled into his doctor’s office and was given the bad news. He had completely torn his LCL, his fight was off and he would require reconstructive surgery. Sean would have to sit and watch from his couch as Makovsky was signed by the UFC and began collecting victories and turning heads. Adding salt to the wound, unaware of his surgery, the UFC reached out to Shorty and offered him a last minute replacement spot on a card when a fighter dropped out – right place, wrong time.
It would be an entire year before Sean would be able to return to competition. He would fight Nick Honstein in his return bout. Maybe it was the ring rust or perhaps the pressure to make up for missed opportunities, but Sean was not himself. He was a step behind Nick the whole fight. Despite locking up submission after submission Nick would escape by the skin of his teeth and land shots. Shorty would lose his title and suffer his first loss in 2 and ½ years. Sean wanted to bounce back quickly, but fighters would either outright refuse to face him or days prior to the bout would claim they were unable to make weight. After 9 fights fell through, Sean signed to fight Jimmy Grant. Grant came in over weight. Sean and his team had decided long ago that they would not fight anyone who missed weight. However, Sean felt pressured considering opponents dropping out had kept him out of the cage for 10 months. Grant would go into the fight, use his size to take Sean down and then defend offering little to no offense. Sean actively pursued submissions the entire bout, but his opponent was awarded the split decision victory. Grant would miss weight again for his next fight, proving that he is in fact a bantamweight who has simply been fighting flyweights for his own advantage.
Sean now had his back up against the wall. He had consecutive losses for the first time in his career and finding a fight had never been harder. Rather than allow himself to be discouraged Sean stayed in the gym. He worked to improve his wrestling to ensure a lay and pray loss would never again be marked on his record. He also let promoters know he was ready to step in against the toughest opponent they could find in the northeast. Finally promoters gave him a fight against Matt Rizzo. Rizzo was riding a 3 fight winning streak and more importantly he had finished Jimmy Grant. This was Sean’s chance to jump right back in the rankings against an opponent no one wanted to face. Rizzo was a ground specialist and it was clear whoever won this fight would be recognized as the most dangerous jiu-jitsu fighter in the region.
The bout was billed as two of the top flyweights outside the UFC battling to see who was more deserving of a shot at the big time. The fight began with Rizzo pressing Sean against the fence and looking to smother him and take him down. Sean countered every attempt and landed
big shots that staggered Rizzo. Eventually Sean timed a takedown of his own and immediately advanced to the back where he flattened Rizzo out and began landing heavy blows. Rizzo was able to make it to the end of the round, but the tide was clearly in Sean’s favor. In round 2 Sean once again brought the fight to the ground and advanced to half guard. Sean threw a back elbow and Rizzo’s corner protested. The referee stopped the action deeming that the blow struck the back of Rizzo’s head. Rizzo was unable to continue and the bout was ruled a no contest. Whether the blow was legal or not depends on your definition of “back of the head”, but as the replay showed on the projector screen the court of public opinion ruled in Sean’s favor.
Sean had fought the perfect fight in a showcase bout against a top ranked opponent, but he would not earn the victory that would have surely catapulted him to the front of the flyweight line. The path was clear; rematch Rizzo and get that victory back. Ring of Combat 53 would be the venue and the bout would be for the flyweight title. To raise the stakes even higher, UFC president Dana White would be in attendance. It seemed like the stars had finally aligned for Sean, nothing was going to stop him now. However, things are never that easy for Sean Santella. Just when things seemed to be at their best a setback is always waiting in the wings. Halfway through the fight camp we received word that Rizzo pulled out of the fight. The promoter didn’t think anyone would be willing to step up against Sean considering his track record. Sean once again faced an uncertain future at a pivotal juncture in his career. Staying the path paid off though. Ring of Combat found a worthy adversary in the form of Jay Pressley. Jay was undefeated at flyweight and was being touted as the next big thing out of team Roufusport, the same camp that produced UFC champion Anthony Pettis.
In training Sean was looking unstoppable. After his last fight we knew we couldn’t leave things to the judges, we had to finish the fight and leave no doubt that Sean wasn’t simply the better fighter, but that he was leagues above the opposition – this was Sean’s now or never fight. No injuries, no ring rust, no weigh-in problems, or health issues, he was going to show the UFC what Sean Santella was capable of when firing on all cylinders.
The fight began and Sean fired off a series of leg kicks before charging forward and putting Pressley on his back. Pressely was touted as a skilled wrestler, but Sean had no trouble keeping him down. Pressely knew his only chance was to get to his feet. He turned his back in order to stand and in the blink of an eye Sean had a fully locked body triangle. Seconds later he slapped on the rear naked choke and earned the submission victory. His celebratory breakdancing routine was nearly as long as the fight. If Sean’s pink hair didn’t get Dana White’s attention his grappling certainly did. The chants of “U-F-C” filled the arena as Sean’s hand was raised in victory.
For Sean’s career to continue he needs the UFC, but in many respects the UFC needs him too. The flyweight division has no compelling fighters, no strong story line, no characters that inspire the public. Sean has that story that makes people sit up and take notice. He was the kid who was supposed to end up dead of in jail. He wasn’t supposed to make it in the sport. He should have quit when he broke his arm, when he lost his first fight, when he had a stroke, when he tore his knee. His story is one of perseverance and triumph in the face of adversity. His fighting style is a metaphor for how he lives his life, guns blazing and full throttle. Dana White is famous for asking the question, “Do you want to be a fighter”? After 20 professional bouts Sean Santella has shown he’ll take on all comers.
Over the course of any athlete’s career there will inevitably be moments he wishes he could redo. Missed opportunities, off days, miscalculations, zigging instead of zagging – those salty recollections that lead to sleepless nights and the ever present longing for a second chance to rewrite history with the clarity of hindsight. Andy Main knows that feeling all too well. He was given the chance of a lifetime with The Ultimate Fighter. However, he was in the right place at the wrong time. Barely 21 years old, Andy was the youngest cast member in TUF history and being just a year into his professional career he was also one of the greenest. After earning his place in the house with a first round submission he fell victim to crafty veteran Kyle Watson and he was quickly erased from the collective memory of MMA fans and UFC matchmakers alike. In the years that passed Andy would achieve many accolades – earning his Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belt, opening his own academy and collecting MMA victories both locally and internationally. However, despite these successes he was haunted by the worst three words in any athlete’s vocabulary – woulda, coulda, shouda. Although time travel is still reserved for the realm of science fiction, occasionally fate will smile on us and offer a second chance. Andy would be afforded his shot at redemption at Pancrase 270 as he would face a familiar foe in the organizations featherweight champion Nam Phan.
Main first met the heavy handed Vietnamese fighter as a fellow member of team Koshcheck on TUF 12. Andy and Nam developed a friendship bonding over their mutual love of martial arts, Dragon Ball Z and Japanese culture. Unlike Andy, Nam was a battle tested veteran when he joined the cast of TUF. His experience lead him to success in the competition. Nam scored multiple TKO victories and became the sole member of team Koshcheck to advance to the semi-finals and ultimately earned a spot on the UFC’s roster. For years Main watched as Nam grew in popularity and earned multiple fight of the night honors in the world’s top MMA organization. The two would reunite when Nam reached out to Main with a unique proposition, a chance to fight for “team Nam Phan” in Pancrase. Andy jumped at the opportunity, fighting in Japan had been cluttering his bucket list for years. I joined Nam and Andy for the Pancrase adventure. Andy would go on to earn a stellar victory and be invited back to compete against some of the top fighters Pancrase had to offer. At the time, the idea of Nam and Andy squaring off seemed like a virtual impossibility. Andy was fighting at lightweight in Pancrase and Nam at bantamweight in the UFC. However, after each shuffled weight classes and Nam moved on from the UFC they found themselves on a collision course.
After his first bout in Pancrase Andy had told the organization’s president that he would one day be fighting for the King of Pancrase belt. Pancrase did not make Andy’s journey to the title easy, throwing successive top contenders his way. However, after four trips to the cage Andy remained unbeaten and earned the number 1 contender slot and a title shot, a title held by Nam Phan who had captured the crown just months earlier. The prospect of fighting Nam presented conflicting emotions for Andy. On the one hand, Nam was an acquaintance and the one who gave him the opportunity to fight in Pancrase in the first place. On the other hand, this was Andy’s shot to prove he was more than what he showed back on TUF 12. A chance to remove that bad taste from his mouth that lingered since his exodus from the Ultimate Fighter and the perfect litmus test to see if he was indeed worthy of fighting in the UFC. To his credit, Nam has never been one to cherry pick opponents or shy from a challenge. Nam accepted the bout and it became the main event for Pancrase 270.
This would be Andy’s toughest fight to date. Nam had been through wars with some of the toughest fighters in the UFC. Additionally, he was riding a win streak and looked to be resurging. However, Andy was as confident as ever. He knew there was one massive comparative advantage – jiu-jitsu. Although Nam was a black belt himself, Andy knew he had a few tricks up his sleeve that Nam wouldn’t be ready for. If he could avoid Nam’s trademark bodyshot and overhand right Andy was certain he could bring the bout to the ground and execute his game plan.
In preparation for the bout Andy ramped up his aggression. In his eyes, winning alone would not be enough. He wanted this to be his showcase fight, a performance that would make everyone in the upper echelon of mixed martial arts stand and take notice. Halfway through his camp he discovered that the event would be broadcast on UFC Fight Pass. He would finally have the platform to show why he deserved to be mentioned among the top featherweights outside the UFC.
A nice part of fighting in Japan is the sense of camaraderie you develop with the other North American fighters. This time around we shared our trip with the CSW fighters Colleen Schneider, Victor Henry and their legendary corner man Josh Barnett. Being around a fellow English speaker who is facing the same adversity is a source of comfort. Victor and I exchanged Bill Burr jokes while Colleen and I discussed black metal while she pointed out the best spots for vegetarian entrees. I’m not someone who is often apprehensive, but meeting Josh Barnett was certainly intimidating. He has a look of intensity and a stern gaze, so serious it made me wonder if his former moniker of “baby faced” was supposed to be ironic. Adding to his mystique was the still fresh bruising from his grueling battle against Roy Nelson which took place just days earlier. In reality though, once he felt comfortable around us, Josh was very friendly. He told us old stories of backstage confrontations at Pride, his experiences training across the globe and his iconic fights with legends of the sport. While back stage he even took the time to answer my questions about leg locks and give me a mini seminar of sorts.
The weigh-ins were interesting. I randomly ran into two old training partners, one from Connecticut and another from New York. We hadn’t seen each other in years; Japan was the last place I thought our paths would cross. Nam was cordial at the weigh-ins, even joking with the Japanese press telling them Andy was notorious for stealing women’s underwear. There was an uneasy moment when Josh recognized the American commentator Dan “The Wolfman” Theodore the two had a less than pleasant exchange about some online claims and remarks made by Dan. Cooler heads prevailed, but had things escalated I don’t think there was anyone there who could have restrained Josh, despite the room being populated wall to wall with professional fighters.
Fight night we had a new addition to our entourage. Andy’s brother and fellow stud BJJ black belt Mike Main would join us in the corner. Mike is notoriously relaxed and easy going. His calm demeanor helped settle my growing anxiety. I also had someone to drill leg drags and heel hooks with to pass the time. Backstage Josh provided a soundtrack which ranged from blistering speed metal to the best of James Brown. The fights began and we were off to a great start. Colleen earned a decision victory in a back and for the war and Victor easily cruised to a submission victory. Following his victory, Victor was unexpectedly greeted by his father, who on a whim decided last minute to book a flight from California to Tokyo. His father said he made the decision after thinking about how many of his friends had suffered heart attacks and he didn’t want to go to his grave never having seen his son fight in Japan. The positivity in the room made us grow in confidence.
Before final preparation Andy, Mike and I went over strategy. The game plan was to stick and move on the feet and look for an opening for the takedown. We assumed Nam would expose his back immediately in an effort to get back to his feet. Andy was very confident he would be able to use that opening to transition to the twister, a move he was certain Nam would be unprepared for. Nam is a dangerous, but predictable fighter. We knew he would bring hard hooks and big overhands and look to rip the body. Although there was danger, we had no fear of the unknown.
The fight began and Andy began executing the game plan perfectly. He was confusing Nam with his movement and picking his off with shots from the outside. A well timed single leg resulted in Nam immediately giving his back. Andy locked in his control and although the twister didn’t present itself he was able to land hard clean shots at will. Due to Pancrase’s open scoring we knew all judges had given us the opening round. Nam came out like a ball of fire in the second round; desperate to keep his title he began throwing heavy shots. Nam landed a hard head kick which made us jump out of our seats for a moment, but Andy’s chin is strong and he shrugged the shot off with little sign of slowing down. Once again Andy was able to get the takedown and work Nam over on the ground earning him the round on the judges’ score cards. In round 3 Andy really began opening up and landing at will. He even scored a brutal standing elbow from a set up I showed him just an hour earlier while killing time in the back. He once again took Nam off his feet and began to lock in the twister. As he locked around Nam’s head everything seemed perfect. He began cranking and contorting Nam’s spine, but Nam refused to tap. In 14 years as a pro Nam had never once been submitted and he made it clear he would not go gently into that good night. A grimace and a brief yell of pain were all we could get before Nam willed his way out. We would see round 4. At this point Andy had won every round, a decision loss was a mathematical impossibility. However, slowing down was not in the cards. Andy marched forward aggressively and Nam looked completely exhausted. In a surprise moment Nam initiated the takedown. Andy locked in a kimura on the way down and seamlessly transitioned to the triangle. There would be no grandiose escape this time. No amount of will or determination could keep Nam breathing. Recognizing the end had finally come, he tapped out. Andy Main was now the King of Pancrase.
Overwhelmed with emotion Andy soaked in the moment and was near tears as the belt was placed around his waist. This was simultaneously the final realization of a hard fought goal as well as the funeral song for the regrets of the past. Andy had shown that now his time had arrived. Gone was the wide eyed kid who bit off more than he could chew and in his place stood a battled hardened champion who now sits upon the thrown of MMA royalty. In his post-fight speech Andy made clear his intentions. He demanded to fight in the UFC. In the interest of all parties concern it is best that his demands be met.