"I think anytime you're pursuing something that's very creative in nature, there's going to be a lot of competition. A lot of people want to do it. And you got to get used to having more losses than wins for sure."
In Episode 45 of the 1st Floor Conversations podcast, we were joined by competitive MMA fighter, combat sports commentator, and co-owner of District Martial Arts, Charles DiGisco. Charles has been part of the Mixed Martial Arts world for more than a decade. We were excited to connect with him. After all, quietly and firmly, the UFC has secured a spot, center stage in the world of combat sports, and as his gym continues to become one of the fastest-growing gyms in the DC area I had to figure out what it was all about. Let's jump in.
Charles, a New York-born—Italian American—New Jersey transplant, has worked hard for success. He wasn't raised as a gym rat; in fact, Charles found combat sports at age 16 in the local YMCA.
Charles found MMA at a time when television fights were still reserved for after midnight when the kids were tucked away in bed, and training often took place in "some guy's garage." You weren't watching MMA on ESPN; it aired on Spike TV with few rules and highlight reels spotlighting bloodied faces. You can imagine why Charles's parents didn't support his new obsession. No one wanted their only child to be a cage fighter.
Regardless, he set out to write his own story, paying for gym memberships and training in everything from kickboxing to wrestling, Mixed Martial Arts and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. There existed a constant battle between curiosity and fear that drove the desire to improve as a fighter. It's a mindset centered on recognizing that no matter what moves you learn, someone else has already mastered them. Each moment of improvement is a revolving door, simultaneously exposing a potential weakness.
"And that's really what developed me into a somewhat well-rounded fighter because I just could not stop chasing that knowledge."
Earlier, we touched on notes of violence that jumpstarted UFC as a real spectacle. The fight between Forrest Griffin and Stephen Boehner at the Ultimate Fighter finale gained a lot of traction for this crazy, high energy, gladiator-style sport.
Charles references one fighter in particular, George St. Pierre, who led the evolution of the sport by treating it with the discipline of a professional athlete and martial artist. He laid the foundation for athletes to put sportsmanship before the fight and for fighters like Connor McGregor and Ronda Rousey to deliver it to the mainstream media.
This new craze was so much more than excitement behind a "new" sport. There was the emergence of female athletes breaking glass ceilings at the forefront of UFC. For what felt like the first time in sports, male and female counterparts were treated with equal respect and like-compensation.
Fighters were taking on the most seasoned boxers of all time and lasting round after round. The transition to network television and $4.2 billion deal with ESPN set the stage to legitimize the sport. It brought about athlete sponsorships from Reebok, the anti-doping agency, and SportsCenter coverage. Consider that transition... Cage fighting on Spike TV where fighter sold their old promotion slots for ad-sponsors and apparel to a multi-billion dollar ESPN deal, drug testing, primetime ESPN coverage, and an industry wide brand sponsorship deal. To understate the monumental shift that took place is to ignore a transition point from where UFC and MMA was a behind the scenes "thing" to being a worldwide phenomenon.
As we consider the magnitude of the league and the raw talent, it begs the question... how can something so raw, violent, and competitive be considered an art? Let's talk about it.
What makes mixed martial arts an art form?
Not every fighter is artistic, but if you look at a few of the greats, guys like John Jones, "they're slipping and hitting angles that you wouldn't believe. That's where it becomes art... it provides the opportunity for a level of creativity that you won't see in other sports." And, that's what it comes down to.
Compare MMA to a stick and ball sport like baseball. The batter may see a handful of different pitches, but there is ultimately one process to connect the bat to the ball. Fighters, on the other hand, have an unlimited number of variations with the platform to be as creative as they want.
Behind the Scenes:
It's incredibly cutthroat. Charles tells us from personal experience, putting on an MMA event is unlike anything else, and gives a lot of credit to UFC President and chief promoter, Dana White. Unlike most sports, in MMA, it's the athletes who transcend the sport. He compares it to a concert. Take a superstar like Beyoncé, for example; she is the primary focus, center stage, with all eyes on her. She IS the event. When you're having an MMA event, every single fighter becomes a Beyoncé - as Charles put it.
Combine that level of stardom with the myriad of ways the event can fall apart, and you get a high-stress environment primed for conflict. Common issues are fighters missing medicals, fighters missing weight, and coaches not getting their Athletic Commission Licenses. It's nearly impossible to be the overseer of all things, and White's been in the lead chair for years now.
Quick decision making, problem-solving, and a little magic allow for the hosting of televised fights even during the quarantine. Charles equates the level of intricacy in delivering an event during a pandemic to landing on the moon.
As the interview progressed, we started to discuss District Martial Arts, his gym. After all, I could not get past the thought that you have people experienced in the sport and new people trying to learn. How do you build a culture around conflict and violence when the skill gap can be so large?
When asked about building the culture at his gym, District Martial Arts, Charles highlights the importance of both friendship and mindset.
Walking through the doors of the gym is his favorite part of the day. He focuses on building relationships with everyone on the mat. If that sounds a little too Kumbaya, you may need a quick mindset shift.
Training in MMA is competitive. You're fighting an opponent, but your goal is not to beat them, it is to learn and practice a particular skill:
"You have to take the macho, tough-guy attitude out of the equation because it is all about improving and helping others to improve. A rising tide lifts all ships."
The Wrap Up:
The sport of MMA is getting more popular by the second, with every fight, promotion, and exhibition. What used to be the stepchild of the combat world is now sitting front row. Charles DiGisco and his partners at District Martial Arts have done an incredible job building a community that syndicates life, sport, and business. One that blends the hierarchy of owner, teacher, and student.
The hypothesis has undoubtedly held on the mat and in the gym. Let's build a good foundation to cover our blind spots and create an incredible quality of life. Thank you for checking out the 1st Floor Conversations Blueprint, where the view at the top is only as good as the foundation which preserves it.