A fighting chance

Canton gym owner dreams of getting MMA sanctioned in Md.

January 27, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun Reporter

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, heck, 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 stream that later led him to manage properties and start a mortgage company.

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.

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