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A fighting chance

Canton gym owner dreams of getting MMA sanctioned in Md.

By Childs Walker

Sun Reporter

January 27, 2008

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From the skull on his shirt to his own gleaming noggin to the tattoo of a grinning demon on his enormous right biceps, John Rallo looks decidedly like someone you would never want to mess with.

And that's part of the truth of his existence. He's bounced drunks from local pubs, knocked out other dangerous men inside steel cages and even guarded rock star Tommy Lee on tour.

But listen to Rallo talk about the philosophy he imparts to his students at the Ground Control mixed martial arts gym in Canton, and you realize that there's more to his story.

"You'll never see me bullying my way around town," says the first Baltimorean to fight mixed martial arts at an elite level. "This art is profound, and with that comes responsibility not to flaunt it. I don't want guys out there in Ground Control shirts acting like knuckleheads."

Yes, Rallo might look like and be the baddest guy on the block. With his 6-foot-1, 275-pound frame and tattoos, he might seem to personify a sport that has been equated to human cockfighting, bar brawling and every other type of primitive violence.

But when he opens up, he sounds like a cerebral teacher from your local high school.

He wants the public to know there are many more like him in mixed martial arts. He wants his students to be seen as smart people learning a craft, not as macho fighters looking for trouble. He wants the General Assembly to pass bills that will sanction MMA in Maryland. He wants to be the face of his sport's rise to the mainstream in the town where he grew up.

"I'm not trying to twist anybody's arm," Rallo says of his efforts to spread mixed martial arts. "I just believe that if everyone knows the facts and knows the quality of people involved in the sport, there's no way anybody can be against it."

In fact, MMA has grown rapidly since Rallo, 39, began training in the mid-1990s. Its leading organization, Ultimate Fighting Championship, runs monthly pay-per-view cards that draw more viewers than all but the largest boxing fights. Its biggest stars, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, are among the most searched-for names on the Internet. The sport is now sanctioned in most states.

But Maryland is still catching up to the boom.

Fights aren't allowed under state law, and Baltimore has yet to produce a world-class star in the sport. The city's few gyms aren't as well known as those in California, New York and Iowa.

Rallo believes that can change.

He dreams of overseeing sparkling new gyms with hundreds of students, some good enough to compete with anyone in the world. He dreams of getting the sport sanctioned by the General Assembly and of promoting shows that would draw thousands of devotees to the Du Burns Arena or maybe some bigger venue. He dreams of making matches between his guys and the big names from California, Iowa and Brazil.

"He's the perfect poster child for the issue," says Ed Hitchcock, an attorney at Gordon Feinblatt who is working on a legalization effort that they are confident will succeed. "He's this great big guy who epitomizes the physical side of the sport, but he also has a terrific educational background. This is no hoodlum thug. He's smart, he's thoughtful and he's a nice guy."

Getting started
Rallo grew up in Highlandtown, not far from his gym. He was always a large, powerful boy. Other kids regularly challenged him in neighborhood scraps, and he realized that the prospect of physical contact did not unsettle him as it did many.

"It was just something I was always comfortable with," he says.

He channeled his natural physicality into high school football stardom at McDonogh. Because he was big and strong and had a decent double-leg takedown, he sometimes filled in as a heavyweight on the school's wrestling team.

Rallo played college football at Widener and transferred to Towson. He dropped out to start a computer company with his cousin, showing an entrepreneurial streak that later led him to manage properties and run a mortgage company with his brother.

He remained active after graduation, lifting weights and playing in competitive softball and semipro football leagues. He used his size and strength to bounce at bars around the neighborhood. But he rarely dreamed of further athletic glory.

Then, one night in the mid-1990s, he ordered an early UFC pay-per-view with his buddies. They were convinced that, given his size, power and background as a bouncer, Rallo could step right into the cage against those guys.

He knew better.

"I would be having a heart attack," he told them. "A bar fight only lasts 30 seconds."

One fighter deeply intrigued Rallo, however. Royce Gracie was a 170-pound man in a white robe, but he could wrap himself around the most menacing hulks in ways that made them say "uncle" within seconds.

"He was killing 220-pound wrestlers who were better than I ever was," Rallo recalls.

The technique of the fights captivated him more than the violence. He was amazed that a huge guy could dangle his arm in front of Gracie a moment too long and Gracie could seize the limb, stretch it out, use his legs to exert pressure and have the giant screaming in pain within seconds.

He wanted to know how Gracie - the most famous member of the world's most famous jiu-jitsu clan - was able to do that.

After training and competing locally, Rallo began traveling to New York to train under Gracie's cousin, Renzo.

Rallo loved the intricacy of jiu-jitsu. To the untrained eye, it looked like two guys grappling on a mat. But for the seasoned practitioner, any subtle movement by an opponent opened the possibility for a dozen or more counter moves. If a guy laid a hand on Rallo's upper arm, his mind flashed to 15 ways he could reverse the pressure or pull the guy in to be choked out.

He equates the sport to extremely physical chess.

"You had to be smart, not just strong," he says. "I liked that."

Turning point
Eventually, Rallo entered an amateur mixed martial arts fight. MMA incorporates jiu-jitsu but also features boxing, kicking and amateur wrestling moves. In the United States, fights are contested inside a cage and rounds last five minutes.

Rallo was not an accomplished puncher, but one thing he never felt when entering the cage was fear. Many of his students say the first fight is the hardest.

But Rallo saw the experience more clinically, as an opportunity to apply what he had learned. He came out punching, but when his opponent didn't go down, Rallo began to fade because his conditioning was not finely tuned.

"I'm glad I lost," he says of the first fight. "I learned so much from it. In fact, Renzo told me, 'This is good. This is good. Now, you know you're human.' "

Rallo's results improved. He won six professional fights, scoring a technical knockout over a guy trained by star fighter Frank Shamrock. For years, he was the most advanced fighter Baltimore had produced. But the sport was still so obscure that when Rallo told people what he did, they assumed he was a professional wrestler.

Just when he had a shot at greater prominence, his fortune changed.

Rallo was in line to appear on the second season of the UFC's Ultimate Fighter reality show. But he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in 2005. The injury proved to be a turning point as Rallo shifted his attention from training himself to training other fighters.

He formed a business partnership with one of his students, Rob Mulqueen, and they vowed to expand Ground Control from a club to a full gym with paying members. As the sport took off, their numbers quickly grew from the dozens to 100 by the end of 2005 to about 200 now.

Rallo hopes his business will grow enough that he won't have to work as a bodyguard or manage properties to make a living. Not that he failed to get a kick out of watching Tommy Lee's back last year.

Out of respect for Lee's privacy, Rallo doesn't like to talk about that work. But in typically measured fashion, he says that bodyguarding is about being polite and firm rather than brutish with fans.

Learning curve
To get to Ground Control, you enter the refurbished Broom Factory off Boston Street and take an old cargo elevator to the second floor. A nondescript door opens into two high-ceilinged rooms, one full of weightlifting equipment and the other covered in mats, where Rallo's disciples roll around in jiu-jitsu positions. Fight posters cover the walls. Punching bags hang from the ceiling.

Students come in all shapes and sizes. In one corner there's Pat Layden, who has dropped 95 pounds since he began training 18 months ago. Over there by the heavy bag is Tenyeh Dixon, a lanky, unorthodox kicker and puncher who made it deep into tryouts for the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter. By the door stands Cynthia O'Rourke, a wiry UMBC student who has been winning female grappling tournaments.

Many wear Ground Control shirts with the slogan "Wanna Fight?" across the front. But Rallo doesn't have much interest in the implied aggression of those words.

The guys who come into his gym talking the loudest are usually the first to walk out. Rallo never trusts a prospective student who says his goal is to fight in UFC.

"We'll see how much you like to fight when you get punched in the face the first time," he says. "It's not for everybody."

He and Mulqueen zealously protect their school's reputation. Once, they heard a student was proclaiming himself an ultimate fighter and starting trouble in local bars. They revoked his $125-a-month membership instantly.

The students who shine come in wanting to learn the sport and, after a few weeks, realize they can't get enough.

"You have to respect the art of it," Rallo says. "You can't go out there because you're angry."

Though sparring sessions at the gym are intense, it's not a realm of testosterone overload. Students appreciate Rallo as much for his analysis and pointed quips as for his brawn.

"You can misjudge him because of his size," says O'Rourke, who at 135 pounds jokes that she could barely wrestle Rallo's leg. "But he's extremely technical. Sometimes he catches me by surprise because he'll correct the tiniest little thing in my technique."

With business hopping, Rallo and Mulqueen are looking at a larger space near the Baltimore Travel Plaza and a possible satellite school in Columbia.

At the same time he's building his business, he's working with lobbyists to get a bill that would legalize MMA before the General Assembly this winter. He's met with several legislators to explain the sport and describe how it's safer than boxing.

"I've fought legitimate guys. I have legitimate connections throughout the sport," he says. "And right now, I'm just trying to use the good reputation I have to give everybody a vehicle."

childs.walker@baltsun.com