For years we've waited for him, the next generation fighter to take the sport of mixed martial arts to untold highs. He wouldn't be a kickboxer learning wrestling for the first time or an NCAA champion figuring out the difference between a cross and a hook. He'd be a fighter who grew up surrounded by all disciplines, one who learned individual arts, but always in the context of how those techniques would work in a fight. This unique fighter, soon to be the norm, walks among us now. He's under the radar and still waiting for his star turn. But UFC featherweight Josh Grispi won't be waiting long.
"Since the start of his training in our gym, everything has related to fighting. We've shown him jiu jitsu and wrestling technique but it always relates back to MMA," Grispi's head trainer Scott Lockhart said. "Everyone we bring in has a submission or MMA background. Even with boxing and kickboxing, you know a lot of stuff you learn in these disciplines doesn't relate to MMA. He may be learning guard passes like in jiu jitsu, but with us it's always 'punch him in the face and then pass the guard.' We can just eliminate stuff from wrestling that will get you choked out. We can say 'this works better if you punch to set up the takedown.' He's been learning everything this way for years."
"I've been training MMA exclusively since I was 13. I take pieces of these other sports and make it my own," the 22 year old Massachusetts native Grispi told Bloody Elbow in an exclusive interview. "You can create your own style with these various parts. That's why I love it so much. There's a peace I get right before a fight. There's this tunnel vision and everything clicks. There's a flow. It's just become so natural to me. I just get in a zone. It's just instinct, reacting, defending, and using all your skills."
Grispi trains with Lockhart and Bill Mahoney at South Shore Sportfighting, a Boston area school with a growing reputation for excellence. They've got a slew of young talent on the rise, but Grispi is the standout. He's got natural athleticism, years of training, speed, power, and something even more important - a bit of a mean streak belaying his otherwise mild mannered personality.
"He's a polite kid, very spiritual, but he's definitely got a serious temper. That comes out in the cage. It's a good place for him to kind of vent it," Lockhart said. "I can remember, even before he had his first fight, taking him over to a local show at the fairgrounds for an exhibition. He went over to show people what MMA offered, did some hard sparring. We brought Josh because he had great potential and we wanted to get him in front of a crowd. There were these two drunk guys in the crowd and they were harassing the ring girls. We're trying to warm up and talk about what we're going to do and Josh only had one thing on his mind. 'Can I go over and smash those guys? I want to go kill those guys.' I thought it was cool, looking at it from a trainer's stand point, that in front of this big crowd for the first time he wasn't nervous at all. That killer instinct is important. You can think you're the best fighter ever but walking out in front of a thousand screaming fans basically in your underwear, that can break a lot of guys mentally. Not Josh. He just wanted to smash someone's face."
More on the cancelled Aldo fight and the future after the break.
UFC 125 was supposed to be Grispi's coming out party, his first chance to really shine. He was set to challenge for Jose Aldo's UFC featherweight title in the evening's co-main event. Instead, Aldo had to drop out with an injury and Grispi is now fighting the unknown Dustin Poirier on the ION Television undercard.
"I was a little bummed at first. But you take it as it comes," Grispi said. "The fight was on for awhile and we got all this publicity. And then it just went away. Now I'm fighting someone else. I'm not saying he's not dangerous, but obviously Aldo is Jose Aldo. Training to fight Aldo really had me hyped up and it pushed me to a new level. I think it was good for me actually."
Before the fight, Grispi likely had no clue who Dustin Poirier was. That's not a slight. Lockhart says the young prospect almost never watches MMA for fun. If you ask him about what happened at the last UFC pay per view, he'll stare at you with blank eyes.
"He never watches it," Lockhart said. "Even when the WEC would be on I'd say 'Hey you should probably watch these guys. You might fight him some day.' But he just doesn't like to watch it. He takes his own fights seriously, but he's not a big aficionado of the sport. He doesn't know all the names, he's not a huge fan."
Don't mistake this lack of interest in MMA broadcasts with a lack of passion for the sport. Grispi is a guy who likes doing, not watching. He's so obsessed with MMA that he's planning on building a cage in his backyard, all the better to work on technique as the inspiration comes to him.
"I want one so bad," Grispi said. "I think it would be great. I'll live in that thing once we get it built. It's going to be awesome."
Although Poirier is clearly a stepping stone, the South Shore team swears he isn't being overlooked. "I know exactly where he's coming from. He's a young kid and he's going to come out hard and try to take my head off," Grispi said. "He's coming off a knockout and he feels unstoppable. You think your hands are so heavy when you get those knockouts. He's hungry and is going to do anything he can to get it. It's my job to stop him. "
Team Grispi knows stopping Poirier is the first step towards bigger things. Grispi got a taste of the limelight when the SPIKE TV crew came out to film the UFC 125 Countdown show prior to Aldo having to drop out. He's satisfied with fighting Poirier - after a series of injuries limited him to just one fight in 2010 he's happy to fight anybody. But make no mistake about it - Grispi has his eyes on Aldo''s big gold belt.
"That's my goal. I'm full time thinking about Dustin right now," Grispi said. "But when this is over I want to get my title shot. I want to put my gym on the map because they deserve it so much. If I had started somewhere else I wouldn't even be at this level. My whole gym is just down to Earth people. It's such a great atmosphere to train in. I want to put it on the map, help put all the guys I train with on the map."