Meet Mr. MMA

For you neophytes, that would be mixed martial arts, a new sport for Maryland personified by the colorful John Rallo.

Most days, the lower-level foyer of the 1st Mariner Arena, with its concrete floor and white cinderblock walls, is nothing more than a passageway. But for one night this month, the minds behind a series branded as the Shogun Fights, Maryland’s biggest mixed martial arts event, will give it the red-carpet treatment—transforming the space with music, hype, and food.

“This place will be like a nightclub,” says Shogun Fights originator and promoter John Rallo, bouncing slightly and waving a tattooed arm toward the hallway, which promises to be home to a rockin’ VIP party. Between the pre-party, the fights, and the after-party at local nightclub Mist, “It’s like Las Vegas,” says Rallo. “That’s the kind of vibe we try to create.”

The 6-foot-1 inch, heavily muscled 270-pounder cuts an imposing figure, not too unlike the contenders who will step into the caged ring on fight night. But while he once would have champed at the bit to compete, Rallo, 41, is currently focused on far more than just what goes on in the ring. “I want to make it an event,” he says.

But it’s certainly not an event for the faint of heart. Mixed martial arts (MMA), a blend of jiu-jitsu, judo, muy thai, wrestling, boxing, and kickboxing, is a full-contact sport. Some fights are clean and quick; others, bloody and grueling.

And while the sport’s chief demographic is young men—which explains Rallo’s improbably pretty ring girls—its appeal has broadened to include a wider mix of fans than you might expect. The two Shogun Fights that Rallo has already hosted drew big sports names like Michael Phelps, Kimmie Meissner, and the Ravens’ Ray Rice, among others. But in a testament to the power of Rallo’s local pull, if not to the lure of the sport itself, an impressive assortment of non-sports bigwigs showed up, too, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and über-pastor Frank Reid.

Rallo and arena general manager Frank Remesch (1st Mariner is not only the venue, but also a business partner in the fights) fully expect to seat a crowd of 5,000, each of whom will pony up anywhere from $25 to $250 for tickets. Part of their confidence stems from their heartfelt belief that delivering a high-energy experience will convince fans to shell out money for a live fight. But undeniably, too, Shogun Fights is the beneficiary of spectacular growth in the popularity of the sport, which shot from near obscurity in the early 1990s to achieve a rapidly growing worldwide following. Major fights, for example, boast one million or more pay-per-view buys.

Rallo, of course, hopes to profit from MMA’s blossoming appeal, but as a former fighter, current teacher of the sport, and perhaps the area’s most vocal proponent, he also hopes for more: He wants to give Baltimore fighters and fans a vibrant MMA scene of their own, one that will one day make it to the world stage. To do so, he’ll need perseverance and a far-reaching web of business and social connections. Fortunately, he’s got them in spades, thanks to a history that speaks for itself.

It’s not really surprising that John Rallo believed as a child that he would one day be a professional athlete.

Athletic from a young age, Rallo excelled in football, baseball, and wrestling, so much so that the exclusive McDonogh School offered up a scholarship when he was in seventh grade.

“I turned them down,” says Rallo, who wanted to finish middle school with his Catholic school buddies in Highlandtown. After that, he took up the private school on its second offer, becoming a boarder, as required, and spending the next four years studying and playing sports. It was a move that provided more than just a good education.

“It taught me a little bit about how to cross cultural or maybe socioeconomic barriers,” says Rallo. “I was a Baltimore City kid, so here you are going to school with, you know, people that, some of them, when they turn 16, come to school in Porsches.”

Although he proved to be a skillful wrestler and baseball player, “Honestly, I thought I was going to be a pro football player,” says Rallo. But a career in football wasn’t to be. After a stint at Division III Widener University, Rallo transferred to Towson University.

It was during that time that Rallo got his first taste of the business world, helping out at his cousin’s computer services firm, where he did everything from installations to writing business plans.

Business boomed and Rallo’s after-school jobs turned full time. College took a back seat, then fell by the wayside. Then there were other career detours—selling mutual funds, brokering mortgages, running a rental property business, touring as a security specialist with rock band Mötley Crüe.

But while college football was out of his life, Rallo never quite kicked the competitive habit. He dabbled in semi-pro football, took up powerlifting—at 19, he won a lifting contest by bench-pressing 519 pounds—and then finally found his sweet spot: Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a little-known sport until about 1993 when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—now MMA’s best-known promoter—hosted its first competition.

Although he had no formal training, Rallo jumped right in, entering and winning a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament. “I just beat them with my wrestling,” he says. The newcomer drew the attention of referee Mark Finley, who quickly recruited Rallo into his Baltimore training club.

Within a year, Rallo, although still a white belt, had won the East Coast Brazilian jiu-jitsu championship. His impressive showing brought Rallo into the orbit of Renzo Gracie, whose family is credited with inventing both Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA.

Rallo was soon driving twice a week to New York to train with Gracie, eventually earning his black belt.

For anyone unfamiliar with MMA, it’s easy to underestimate the magnitude of the arrangement. Being endorsed and trained by Gracie, says Rallo, “would be like learning jeet kune do from Bruce Lee.”

Over three years, Rallo won each of the five professional MMA fights he competed in. His goal then was typical of anyone interested in the sport.

“I figured I’d go to the UFC,” says Rallo. He was poised to head in that direction—Gracie says Rallo “could have been the heavyweight champion”—when an ACL tear derailed him.

By then, Rallo had taken over Finley’s small but growing martial arts school, which he’d renamed Ground Control Academy.

“I had to make the choice. Do I pursue being a fighter or try to make the business work?” In the end, simple math made the decision for him. “Back then, the biggest fighters were making maybe $100,000,” he says. Rallo felt certain he could make more working the business end. There was the bodyguarding, which paid well, and residual income from the school.

In the back of his mind, he imagined one day hosting his own MMA events in Baltimore. And it wasn’t just about money. Rallo hoped to give other athletes something he never had: the chance to compete at home. There was just one problem: In Maryland, competing in the sport of mixed martial arts was illegal.

“The law here said you could do boxing, you could do kickboxing, and you could do wrestling,” says Rallo. “So it made no sense to me that we couldn’t do a sport that just combined those things. Why did we have to go to New Jersey and give them our licensing money and our tax money?”

It was a good question, and one Rallo was soon putting to almost anyone who would listen—including the Maryland State Athletic Commission, which regulated boxing, kickboxing, and professional wrestling. Amending the agency’s mission would require passage of a new law by the state legislature.

That it would be Rallo who took up the cause made perfect sense. “I was it in Baltimore,” says Rallo. “Whether it sounds cocky or not, I started training in the late ’90s before anybody around here really knew what this stuff was. And it sort of became my life.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock was the perception—thanks in part to MMA’s early unruly days—that the sport is brutal. It’s a viewpoint that, despite increased safety rules, still holds in some circles today, and one that Rallo, who also promotes boxing events, counters calmly but firmly.

“I never tried to say that there was no danger involved in the sport,” he says. “It’s a contact sport, and, like any other contact sport, there’s going to be injury and danger.”

Of course, changing perceptions takes time and effort, but Rallo never doubted he’d prevail. “I’m very determined,” he says. And while he describes himself as, “brutally direct, sometimes to my detriment,” he has a passion and a persuasive polish that belies his hard exterior.

“He is probably the exact opposite of what people’s initial impression would be,” says Maryland Del. Kirill Resnick, who first heard Rallo discussing the issue on the radio and later sponsored a House of Delegates bill to legalize MMA. “He’s soft-spoken, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”

And Rallo, too, had astutely surmised that promoting safety in the sport would be essential to getting it legalized, says Patrick Pannella, executive director of the Maryland State Athletic Commission. “John loves the sport, we all know that. But what impressed me was that he really supported the high regulatory standards that the [commission] was recommending. He knew it was good for the sport to have high safety standards.”

Before long, Rallo had enlisted the help of a few key players and assembled a cadre of well-placed supporters, including State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, an early supporter who sponsored a Senate bill, Del. Reznick, and non-legislators like pastor Reid, who is a student of Rallo’s and testified on behalf of MMA.

The legwork paid off: Both the state Senate and House of Delegates bills passed—and in May 2008, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law a measure legalizing the sport.

Just over a year later, in October 2009, fight fans snapped up tickets to the state’s—and Rallo’s—first professional MMA event, Shogun Fights. “We thought we’d sell 3,500 tickets and we sold almost 5,000,” says Remesch. “We were ecstatic.” Five months later, Shogun Fights II handily sold another 5,000 seats.

On his chest and across his arms, Rallo has a battle between good and evil playing out in ink. On one side are tattoos of The Virgin Mary and an assortment of guardian angels; on the other, demons and death masks. His chest is adorned with an image of the archangel Michael triumphing over the devil with a choke hold. In Latin and English are messages Rallo tries to live by: you reap what you sow; deeds not words; strength and honor.

Although he isn’t a die-hard churchgoer, Rallo, who lives in White Marsh with his longtime girlfriend, Beckie, starts each day reading a passage from the Bible. From there, he’s off to tend to his businesses—and his body. Most days involve a good workout. But there are also frequent radio appearances and an endless stream of meetings with sponsors or business partners.

Usually, he’ll end up at one of his three Ground Control locations. Most often, it is the 6,000-square-foot East Baltimore site, which hums even on a weeknight with a steady succession of athletic endeavors—first jiu-jitsu class, then boxing, then, late in the evening, fight-team practice.

And while he’s clearly at home in the gym, “networking is very important in what I do,” says Rallo, who puts in face time at the city’s clubs but also increasingly finds himself invited to tony social events.

Rallo plans to continue growing Shogun Fights—he foresees one day selling 8,000 seats per show. He’s already in the early stages of talks for a television syndication deal that could put Shogun Fights in 40 million homes nationwide.

Whether or not that happens, Rallo feels certain MMA in Maryland and elsewhere will continue its spectacular rise, one day eclipsing even boxing in popularity. “Kids today aren’t growing up wanting to be Muhammad Ali,” he says. “They want to be [UFC Hall of Famer] Randy Couture.” True to form, Rallo doesn’t think small. In the not-too-distant future, he says, “Mixed martial arts is going to be the only combat sport.”