For Catonsville martial arts fighter, 'hard work has paid off'

Jesse Stirn prepares for his upcoming mixed martial arts fight at Ground Control gym in Columbia.
Jesse Stirn prepares for his upcoming mixed martial arts fight at Ground Control gym in Columbia. (Jon Bleiweis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Fifteen marks are tattooed across Jesse Stirn's left arm. Two are red, the rest are black.

The marks tally the number of matches the 24-year-old professional mixed martial arts fighter from Woodlawn has completed.


He has two marks to add, both in black.

He doesn't want to add any more red, signifying defeat.


"It's nice to see that his hard work has paid off for him," said Bryce Garipay, a staff member at Ground Control, a Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Columbia, where Stirn trains. "That's why he's winning fights."

Being a fighter wasn't always in Stirn's plans.

He didn't get into fighting until he was 18 and out of high school. He started studying computer programming at Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, but when he ran out of money and didn't want to take out a loan, he switched gears and decided to devote himself to the sport.

While some fighters enter the field having some experience in wrestling, Stirn's lack of background, his coach says, can be an advantage.


"He didn't come with bad habits," said Stirn's coach, Ryan Mackin. "He had a completely blank slate."

He doubted Stirn at first, but was happy to have been proven wrong.

"He never stopped showing up and never stopped working to improve," he said. "When he's out there, no matter where the fight is, I know he'll be able to adapt."

Mixed martial arts combines techniques of several sports, including wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, judo and karate. In Maryland, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing the state to sanction matches in April 2008. The sport is regulated by the Maryland State Athletic Commission.

After a three-year amateur career and a stint in Thailand to learn martial arts, Stirn decided to turn professional two years ago, as he no longer wanted to fight for free. As an amateur, the promoter may cover the cost of an injury from a fight, but the fighter still has to pay bills and a gym membership while he trained, he said.

"It was time," he said. "I had to make money off of it."

While the best of the best fighters may make millions, Stirn said he earned about $1,500 from his first professional fight in the United States, which included a percentage of ticket sales, a $500 appearance payment and another $500 for winning. Earnings are doubled if you win, he said.

In his most recent fight, he lost money, after fees and contract issues, he said.

"If you're in this for the money, you're in the wrong sport," he said.

Stirn's next fight is days away: Shogun Fights XV at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore on Oct. 15. He anticipates an audience of about 5,000 that night. It will be aired on television at a later date.

"It's one of the biggest events on the East Coast besides UFC," he said. "That in itself is scary."

He plans to donate a portion of any winnings and sales from T-shirts he designs typically as a promotion to Ellicott City flood relief.

After he saw the damage from the summer flooding in the historic Howard County mill town, he wanted to find a way he could give back to a city with a special place in his heart. He has several friends from the area.

"I love that city," he said. "Everything about it, the people, the way it's set up by the river."

Stirn fights about every two to three months, he said. After his Oct. 15 fight in Baltimore, his next match is in December in Washington, D.C.

The day after a fight, he'll check his phone and if he wins, handle the influx of congratulatory phone calls and text messages. If he loses, "Nobody really cares and they don't send anything," he said. "It's funny how that works."

He then eats breakfast with his family and gets the biggest stack of pancakes he can find. While he said his father thinks his decision to be a fighter is "pretty cool," his mother, who has been to just one of his matches, doesn't like to watch.

"It's a career choice, even though it's an odd one," he said. "She doesn't like to watch it, but she can respect it."

He then sleeps on a hammock for several hours, before eating a cheeseburger and onion rings. He calls his diet the farmer's delight — protein, starch, greens, water and milk. It keeps him sustained and lean, he said.

Instead of training once or twice a day, five or six days a week, he decreases it to two to three days a week, so his body doesn't lose momentum.

Growing up on the inner city streets of Baltimore in 1968, life was tough for 6-year-old Willie Johnson. The rough and tough atmosphere exposed Johnson to abuse and drugs in a place that supported violence. But his life changed when he encountered the contact sport of mixed martial arts.

Training picks up as the date of a fight gets closer. When he finds out who his opponent will be, usually a 1 1/2 to two months in advance, he'll research him and see what strategy works well. At the same time, he has to worry about the business side of the sport, finding more sponsors and selling tickets.

The 5-foot, 8-inch Stirn typically fights in the 135-pound weight class, although he's moving up to fight at 140 pounds for his upcoming fight. On Oct. 4, he was at 160 pounds.

"You go through a bit of insanity doing the long training hours and the dieting and the weight cutting near the end," he said.

Outside the ring, Stirn wants to use martial arts to spread an anti-bullying message. He has spoken to kids at local gyms about it and hopes to speak to local schools, including his alma mater, Western Tech.

Since he's started training, he has viewed fighting as entertainment. He said he's never been tempted to use what he knows outside a controlled situation with a referee and protection.

"I think it's not just the physical act of protecting yourself, but the mentality you get from it," he said about martial arts. "You understand that it's just another form of communication that you don't need to go to [at] that point."

To make extra money, he works twice a week as a chimney sweep. He calls the 10-hour work days in the hot sun insane, but satisfying.

Stirn enjoys the lifestyle that fighting has provided for him, but it's impossible to tell how long he sees himself doing it, as he's one injury away from the end of his career.

He has considered several fallback plans, from fight promotions or running a gym, to returning to computer programming or channeling his previous experience as a mechanic.

But how does he want to be known?

"Maybe as Robin Hood," he said. "Make the money entertaining and give it back however I can. I don't need a lot of money."



When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15

Where: Royal Farms Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St, Baltimore

Cost: $33-$253

Web: Ticketmaster.com