Soul of a fighter

Photo by Dion Ogust

Joey “The Raging Warrior” Gambino looks intimidating, but he exudes the kind of serenity only possible when one regularly purges every last drop of aggression in a controlled setting.

The mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter and Saugerties High alum is one bout removed from winning the featherweight title of the Cage Fighting Fury Championship (CFFC), and he’ll have his first opportunity to defend his crown on Saturday, Feb. 4 in Atlantic City.

Gambino is zealous in his dedication to his training and diet before a fight. Local friends say they won’t get to see the fun version of him until after he steps out of the cage. He arrived from his training headquarters in Montreal last week, preparing himself for the fight by losing a few bowling balls’ worth of weight.

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“For me, I walk around 168 (pounds) and I fight 145,” Gambino said.

Gambino is undefeated in eight professional fights, and in addition to defending his CFFC title, a win will also guarantee him a contract with the sport’s most widely recognized promoter, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Gambino’s challenger is Kenny Foster, who plies his trade under the comparatively ambiguous nickname, “The Tooth Fairy.” Gambino is hoping to hang on to his title and his teeth against Foster, and in order to do so he’s trained with this specific fight in mind.

“This guy is a lefty, the first southpaw I’ve ever fought,” said Gambino. “All I did this whole training camp was train with left-handed fighters. I know exactly what he’s coming with. He seems like a real tough guy. I feel that I’m better than him in a stand-up or ground game. He seems more like a brawler who likes to push hard. He leaves himself open for a lot of strikes, so I’m going to look to capitalize on that.”

Ron Darnley of NY Top Team has been training Gambino since he first parlayed a successful high school wrestling career into a life as an MMA fighter. Darnley is confident that Gambino is going to come away from Saturday’s fight with his undefeated record intact.

“No disrespect to Mr. Foster, but it’s going to be Joey’s night again,” said Darnley. “This gentleman Joey is fighting has a wrestling background. But Joey isn’t just a wrestler anymore; he has an MMA background and he’s well-rounded.”

Gambino, recently ranked 2012’s #2 featherweight prospect in the world, is hoping that as he moves through his career he’ll be able to dispel a few common misperceptions about MMA.

“Yeah, it’s two guys fighting each other in a cage and it looks brutal, but at the same time we have respect for each other just like boxers do,” he said. “You go in, not necessarily angry, but hungry to get in and fight the other guy to get that win.”

Darnley agreed.

“Society has put a stigma on guys like us, that we’re thugs,” he said, bristling at a quote from Senator John McCain who called the sport “human cockfighting.” “We’re normal people with love in our hearts.”

Gambino added that with all the various disciplines involved in MMA fighting, a bout is much more than a brawl.

“We train every day doing the same thing over and over and over,” he said. “In action, it’s just a reflex and you don’t have to think too much about it. In the cage, I feel comfortable and try to push it in the direction that I want to go. But I also try to respond to him. It’s a chess game. You make a move to improve your position, or you let him make a move and you counter.”

Darnley noted that Gambino has an even greater edge because of the people who know him the best.

“His family, I can’t say enough about them,” Darnley said. “They’re just very nice people.”

Gambino has four brothers and a father who support him without reservation, though perhaps the most identifiable member of his family to anyone in the crowd at one of his fights is Marge Hill, his mother.

“My mom, you have to peel her off the cage,” Gambino said. “Even when I’m winning, she’s trying to get after the other guy. Everyone goes to watch me, but at the same time they get a show at ringside by watching my mother.”

Hill said she admits to being nervous before a fight, something that goes back to Gambino’s days wrestling for Saugerties High.

“I love watching him go in there and do his thing,” she said. “I’m a wreck when he goes in there, and I cry my eyes out. I’m not okay until he comes out. But I’m so proud.”

Gambino said he relies not only on family to support him from the crowd, but also a strong Saugerties contingent who follow him wherever he goes into battle. Gambino sold 113 tickets through Mirabella’s, and he believes strongly that it’s the people who’ve known him all his life who give him a boost when he needs it the most.

“It’s huge motivation,” he said. “When I have them behind me it reminds me of my days back in wrestling. When I step in the cage and people have come this far to see me, I can’t let them down.”

Gambino’s fan base in the world of MMA is continually on the rise, but he always tries to take the time out to acknowledge the support of people within the Saugerties community.

“I stop by the high school to visit coaches and teachers,” Gambino said. “I check in on the wrestling team and do some drills with them. It inspires me.”

If it’s his combination of skill and dedication that’s resulted in an undefeated record in the cage, it’s other attributes that could help him become one of the sport’s most popular athletes.

“He’s a tremendous person to be around,” said Darnley. “He’s very marketable and very likeable, and he has a vocabulary of more than 500 words, unlike a lot of these other fighters. That’s not to downplay any other fighters. He’s got a really good head on his shoulders.”

Darnley said he believes Gambino’s star will continue to rise even as he moves into the sport’s brightest spotlight.

“One day, Joey Gambino will be a champion UFC fighter,” Darnley said. “He will definitely hold that belt. He has something that cannot be taught, and that’s heart. Not only does he have heart now, but he has skills to back it up. That young man has the eye of the tiger. He’s unlike any athlete I’ve ever trained.”

Hill offered similar praise for Gambino, not just as a fighter but as a man.

“I believe this is the path God has given him,” Hill said. “I always told all my boys, ‘Whatever you decide to be is up to you. Do it and do it right and make me proud.’ And Joey always has. He is a great kid; he always was. He always had a great personality and was never disrespectful. I’m proud of the man he became.”

 

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