Growing mixed martial arts from the Ground up

Ground Control's John Rallo (left) and Binky Jones have been friends since playing youth football together as kids in Baltimore. Both men used wrestling skills learned at local high schools as a bridge to mixed martial arts.
Ground Control's John Rallo (left) and Binky Jones have been friends since playing youth football together as kids in Baltimore. Both men used wrestling skills learned at local high schools as a bridge to mixed martial arts. (Pramit Mohapatra: Special to Baltimoresun.com)
Drive east along Boston Street, past Canton and the 1st Mariner building and you arrive at the Broom Factory, less than a mile from Interstate 95 on the left-hand side. Resembling an old industrial building from the outside of 3500 Boston St., inside the Broom Factory contains inconspicuous office suites used by a variety of businesses. The second-floor door to one of the suites looks like any other, but step inside and you may be surprised -- instead of an accounting office or small tech company, you'll find the home of Baltimore's mixed martial arts movement, Ground Control Baltimore Academy.

Ground Control boasts close to 200 students and holds classes every day of the week in its nearly 3,500-square-foot training facility, according to co-owner John Rallo. The facility is separated into a larger room consisting of mats, a half-cage, a locker room and a smaller room with a number of punching bags and weight machines. Ground Control trains a wide variety of students in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu classes, as well as boxing and kickboxing. Students range in age and ability; some train simply to get in shape or gain self-confidence, while others participate in competitive MMA for Ground Control's fight team.

The story of Ground Control, Rallo and his star fighter/instructor (and lifelong friend) James "Binky" Jones is the story of MMA in America. Most casual fans of the sport see the glitz and the glamour of the Ultimate Fighting Championship today, but MMA has been around for more than a decade and much of its recent success stems from the grassroots foundation laid by many fighters across the country. Ground Control is Baltimore's contribution to this grassroots movement.

John Rallo -- Fighter and Entrepreneur
Rallo, 37, has an energetic personality as big as his 6-foot-1, 275-pound frame. He grew up in Baltimore and, as he puts it, "ran the streets of Highlandtown, before it was a nice neighborhood." He excelled in sports and went on to star in football at McDonogh High School, where he also wrestled on the side, filling in whenever the wrestling team needed him.

After graduating from high school in 1986, Rallo attended Widener University in Chester, Pa., before transferring to Towson University. Rallo never finished college, opting to leave school early to start a computer company with a relative. After eight years with the company, Rallo left to work with Mutual of New York, a financial company.

Around this time, Rallo became interested in the Brazilian system of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu after watching early UFC events. He was particularly moved by Royce Gracie's victory over Dan Severn at UFC 4 in 1994. In the bout, the 176-pound Gracie beat the 250-pound Severn by first-round submission. The undersized Gracie impressed Rallo so much that he began looking for a school to learn Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, techniques developed by Royce and his family members. After the Severn-Gracie fight, Rallo thought, "I am not having some little dude beat me like that -- I need to learn what [Gracie] knows."

As fate would have it, Rallo won a 16-fighter grappling tournament at Essex Community College in May 1998 that was refereed by Mark Finley, a Rickson Gracie (Royce's older brother) representative from Los Angeles looking to start a jiu-jitsu school in Baltimore. Finley invited Rallo to start teaching mixed martial arts classes with him at the Baltimore Boxing Club on South Broadway. These first classes -- representing the humble beginnings of Ground Control -- had very few students and were held in the middle of the floor at the boxing gym.

Ground Control's next training facility was a YMCA, where classes were taught in the basement. Finley became a police officer in Anne Arundel County and handed the school over to Rallo. The school moved again to the aerobics room at the Canton Club and then the Broom Factory, initially occupying a suite about one-third the current size. Rallo and his two current co-owners -- Rob Mulqueen, who handles much of the business side, and Rocky Marcantoni, a brown belt and an instructor at the academy -- finally moved Ground Control to the current facility in April 2005.

Rallo continued to fight, even as the school became more successful and a bigger part of his life. In 1999, he won the East Coast Grappler's Cup, defeating two of Renzo Gracie's fighters along the way. Rallo then won Grappler's Quest a few weeks later, earning a phone call from Renzo Gracie, a member of the famous Brazilian clan and a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu teacher in New York City. Based on Rallo's performance, Gracie awarded him a Blue Belt and deputized Rallo to represent Team Renzo Gracie at tournaments.

Rallo has amassed a professional mixed martial arts record of 6-0 as a heavyweight fighter and recently earned a Gracie Black Belt for his accomplishment as a fighter and a teacher of the art. However, a torn ACL in the spring of 2005 forced Rallo to focus almost solely on the academy. Rallo says the ACL injury made him withdraw from a spot on season two of Spike TV's reality show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) -- cutting short a chance to break into the UFC -- but the misfortune may have ultimately been a boon for the school.

When Ground Control moved to the Broom Factory in 2005, the academy had only 40 students, according to Rallo. Almost two years later, Rallo says there are close to 200 students, all of whom must sign long-term contracts which guarantee the academy a predictable source of income. Students pay $125 per month to train at Ground Control, which includes unlimited access to all of the academy's facilities (discounts are available for college students and law enforcement).

Binky Jones -- Fighter and Teacher
Jones, a 37-year-old Baltimore native, stars on the Ground Control fight team, which represents the school at competitions around the region. The mild-mannered Jones holds a Renzo Gracie Purple Belt, fights in the 155-pound weight class and has been with the academy for three years.

Jones met Rallo when both played pee-wee football together in Dundalk. Jones was primarily raised by his mother as his father was in and out of his life, but he was fortunate to encounter male role models in youth football coaches, including Rallo's father, John Rallo Sr., and Robert Ray.

In high school, Jones wrestled at Mount St. Joseph's and found another childhood mentor in wrestling coach John Hefner. Jones remembers his time on the Gaels' wrestling team fondly because of the close relationship he shared with his teammates -- a feeling of brotherhood he now feels as a member of Ground Control, forged from countless hours of "training … sweating … bleeding together."

After high school, Jones wrestled two years at Morgan State University, but with no real opportunities to wrestle professionally, his chances of continuing in the sport after college appeared slim.

That changed when Jones' former high school teammate and current manager, Cordell Hunter, introduced him to UFC and the early fights won by Royce Gracie. Jones' interest in MMA then led him to Lloyd Irvin's mixed martial arts school in Camp Springs, Md. Jones believed in MMA after his first workout with Irvin. Even though he could take Irvin down using wrestling skills, once the two were on the ground, Irvin came out on top.

Jones struggled in his early years as a fighter, estimating that he didn't start making money in the sport for "five to six years." His wife Sherry worried about the violence in MMA and didn't understand the amount of money Jones spent on training, working out and competing. Those years of sacrifice and hard work paid off for Jones, who now earns money as an instructor at Ground Control and through fight sponsorship.

In the spring of 2005, Jones almost had the opportunity of a lifetime when he auditioned for season two of TUF. Rallo accompanied Jones to Renzo Gracie's school in New York City for an audition. He competed against 150 other fighters in front of UFC President Dana White. Jones stood out, both on the wrestling mat -- choking out his first opponent in a little over a minute -- and with his boxing. After the audition, he was one of 20 fighters chosen to move on and interview with White and two other UFC representatives.

Two months later, Jones received a phone call from White instructing him to head out to Las Vegas (where TUF is filmed) as a replacement for an injured fighter. He spent two weeks in Las Vegas, but ultimately was not chosen for one of the final 16 slots on the show.

Not making TUF 2 has not deterred Jones from working toward his dream of being a professional fighter. He works out six days a week, finding time outside his busy work and family life to put in the necessary training hours. On weekdays, Jones wakes up at 5 a.m. so he can work out one hour before his day job as a vocational teacher. Jones leaves work each day at 3 p.m. and picks up his children -- 10-year-old Kayla and 6-year-old Savon -- from school or daycare. He helps his kids with their homework, does chores around the house and then leaves for Ground Control around 5:45 pm to train for close to another two hours.

Jones is currently training for his second-round match in the Ring of Combat XII tournament March 16 against Jay Estrada. He won his first-round match Nov. 17 in Atlantic City, defeating kung fu black belt Charles Wilson by decision. Jones hopes to win the tournament and use it as a springboard for another opportunity to fight in the UFC.

While Jones continues to make a name for himself as a fighter, some of his most gratifying work may be as a teacher helping troubled teens at the Youth in Transition alternative school in Woodlawn. Jones has worked at the school for 16 years -- the first nine years as a counselor and the last seven years as a vocational teacher. Jones teaches ninth and tenth graders in the warehouse program and describes his students as "troubled teenagers who come from broken homes and have made mistakes in their lives."

Jones sees his work with the Youth in Transition school as an opportunity to "pay back" those who helped and mentor him throughout his childhood. While the students in his class know that Jones fights -- some crack jokes, calling him "Bruce Lee" -- he has never shown tapes of his fights in class.

The Future of Ground Control
Ground Control's growth, the success of competition team fighters like Jones and the increased popularity of MMA across the country has Rallo dreaming even bigger dreams. He believes the school needs to expand again and can accommodate another 50-100 students right now. Rallo says Ground Control is in the process of securing a 6,000-8,000 square foot property just outside of the city. He envisions the new facility will have a full MMA cage, several workout rooms, locker rooms, showers and possibly room for the boxing ring currently stowed away due to space limitations.

Rallo believes that the school may have somebody fighting in the UFC "in four to five years," but he is in no rush, contending that safety is his primary responsibility to his students, who need to be brought along "the right way." Students who are new to the sport don't even compete until they complete two to three years of training, and many who initially think they can fight often back down because "everyone wants to be a fighter until they get punched in the mouth." Rallo also sees room in the world of mixed martial arts for everyone -- men, women, and children -- and plans to hold classes in the future facility that will be tailored to all three groups.

Another part of Rallo's mission is to educate the public about a sport he calls "kinetic chess." He cringes at the thought of mixed martial arts being portrayed as no-holds-barred as it was in its early days. He adamantly states he "doesn't want the connotation that all we do is … beat each other up because it's far from the truth."

Rallo is convinced that when skeptics see that mixed martial arts is a sport governed by rules aimed to keep the fighters safe, where it is "honorable to tap" (give up), the sport will gain more widespread acceptance. To that end, Rallo is working with a member of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission to educate Maryland lawmakers with safety data on the sport, working toward obtaining state sanctioning of MMA.

In spite of the naysayers, fighters like Rallo and Jones and academies like Ground Control continue to lay the groundwork for the continued growth of MMA.
Ground Control Baltimore Academy is located at 3500 Boston St., Ste. 234. You can visit www.groundcontrolbaltimore.com for more information on class schedules and registration.

The name of Binky Jones' son was misstated in a previous version of this article. The Sun regrets the error.

Pramit Mohapatra covers mixed martial arts for Baltimoresun.com.

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