If John Rallo looks like the kind of guy you would expect to see working as a bodyguard at a heavy metal rock concert, it's because that's what he used to do for a living. Tattoos cover his huge arms like a long-sleeve shirt, and his shoulders and upper torso look like they could belong to a grizzly bear.
But Rallo, who has worked as bodyguard for Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee and Sylvester Stallone, wants people to understand that he's a businessman, too, and he has never approached his work in the manner that his tough-guy appearance might suggest. He's organized, diligent, meticulous and ambitious.
There are a number of reasons mixed martial arts - a combat sport that allows the use of striking and grappling techniques - is legal in Maryland. Rallo, 40, who is trained in the Brazilian art of jiu-jitsu and is the first Baltimorean to fight professionally as a mixed martial artist at an elite level, is a major one. And when the first legalized professional MMA event held in Maryland takes place tonight at 1st Mariner Arena, it will be the culmination of years of hard work and patience.
"I'm excited, nervous and hoping we have all our bases covered," said Rallo, who is promoting the 11-fight card as a part of his Shogun Fights production. "I've been involved in lots of events as a fighter and lots of them as a coach, and now I'm wearing the promoter hat. This obviously isn't the UFC, but I still want it to feel like an event. I'm trying to make this thing an experience."
There will be a $250 VIP lounge inside the arena and an after-party with a disc jockey and a dance floor. A Marine color guard will march in for the national anthem. Ticket sales have run as Rallo expected, between 4,000 and 5,000.
"The fights are obviously going to be good and exciting, but I'm trying to make this a networking event," said Rallo, who owns and runs the state's best-known MMA school, Ground Control Academy, which has locations in Canton, Owings Mills and Columbia. "If we do two or three of these a year, I want people to circle that date and say, 'Man, we had a blast last time, we need to go again.' "
Rallo says he understands that people might be hesitant to take such statements seriously - can you really network at an event where people are there to watch someone get punched in the face? - but his approach to putting on this event is similar to the way he led the charge to legalize MMA in Maryland.
Many gym owners, coaches and former fighters might have longed to see the sport sanctioned by state government, but Rallo went through proper channels, hiring a lawyer, lobbying state legislators and recruiting people to testify in committee meetings long before a bill came up for a vote in Annapolis. He showed them a Johns Hopkins University study that concluded MMA is safer than boxing.
MMA fighter Binky Jones, who has known Rallo since they were kids growing up in Dundalk and now trains at Ground Control Academy, said he can remember Rallo up in the middle of the night with his laptop when the two friends were in Russia for one of Jones' fights in 2005. Rallo could feel MMA gaining momentum, and so he was determined to gather support and persuade people to help him out, even from the other side of the globe.
"He was up all night, pecking away and talking on his phone," Jones said. "At that time, I don't think any of us thought there was any chance [that Maryland would legalize the sport]. It was only legal in like four or five states."
"What helped me was that my uncle, politically, was big into unions," said Rallo, who went to high school at McDonogh and college at Towson. "I'm friends with a lot of union guys. So I knew some of these politicians and delegates because my uncle would introduce me to those people at fundraisers. People started to put a face with the name."
Patrick Panella, executive director of Maryland's State Athletic Commission, said Rallo asked him what he needed to do to convince state officials it was a legitimate sport willing to be regulated, and then he went out and did it.
"He really led the effort," Pannella said. "The people in his community were certainly familiar with the sport, but to be honest, not too many elected officials were. He provided an open door. He said, 'We want to get this right and get it regulated.'
"He's been the undisputed leader of the MMA community in Maryland," Pannella said, "and he deserves a lot of credit."
The Maryland bill that legalized MMA passed by a huge margin last year, and it was seen as another example of the country slowly coming to accept the sport as something more dignified than "human cockfighting," which is what Arizona Sen. John McCain dubbed it in its early stages, when there were few rules and almost no oversight.