Friday, February 6, 2015

At CFFC 45, An MMA Pioneer Comes Home


Yuichirou Tsuchida was a tall, stoic karate champ whose sensei father thought it’d be a good idea if his son was tested in an MMA bout. So in November of 2005, the two flew from their home in Japan to Atlantic City, N.J., and soon Tsuchida was standing proudly in a ring erected in the arena at the Trump Taj Mahal. Then the referee said “Go!” and for the next 31 seconds, the karate man got the shit beat out of him. Violently. Furiously. Convincingly. And when it was all over – courtesy of a referee who didn’t want to become an accessory to murder – all Tsuchida could do was wonder just who it was who had so soundly thrashed him.

It was Joe Agostini.

Use the expression “Jersey tough” in MMA circles nowadays and people think of former UFC champ Frankie Edgar and enduring badass Jim Miller, men made of steel who will fight until there’s nothing left of themselves but smoking sparks and smoldering slag. But before Edgar and Miller ever stepped into the cage, there were others who defined the expression and made it their own. They came from schools run by instructors who could’ve fit in on the set of a “Sons of Anarchy” episode, who a century before would’ve been at home at a dockside tavern putting sailors to sleep with their fists, but now had a somewhat more legal avenue available to vent their aggression. They came from a tiny Jersey Shore academy called Pitts Penn, whose handful of members proudly sported a tattoo of an armored pit bull on their chests. And Joe (formerly known as Jose Rodriguez) was the scariest of the bunch.

On Saturday night, Joe will return to combat at Cage Fury Fighting Championships 45 after a layoff spanning a few years, and though he’s nestled in somewhere down on the undercard, the 300 who bought tickets from him, and those who can’t make it and will instead watch for him on GoFightLive, will bear witness to something quite different than the usual up-and-comers making their marks and regional elite vying for a berth among the UFC’s coveted ranks. Those who watch Joe fight will be seeing local history in action.

They’ll be seeing an MMA pioneer come home.

     *      *      *

There was no such thing as The Ultimate Fighter in 1999. There was no Zuffa LLC. Back then, the UFC was still owned by Semaphore Entertainment Group, and fans of the sport had to struggle to see events that were banned from cable, pay-per-view, and just about every state with an athletic commission. If you wanted to see fights, you had to know someone with a line on some videotapes, or be extremely lucky and get an inside track on which school was holding smokers.

For denizens of the Garden State, “Big” Dan Miragliotta’s Bayside Academy of Martial Arts was the spot for throwing down in this still new, still fringe sport. The Pitts Penn were regulars at Big Dan’s BAMA Fight Nights. It was at one such event that Joe got his start.

“I used to mess around with boxing when I was in the Marine Corps,” says Joe, now 42-years old and an ironworker living in Brick, N.J. “When I got out of the Marine Corps, I went to a local gym in my town. Mark Shopp happened to be there, who was the owner of Pitts Penn, and he asked me to come spar with his guys. And after boxing class was over, they’d have jiu-jitsu class, and I would sit there and watch it for a while. On Saturdays, Dan Fischer and Eddie Cruz would be there, and I’d mess around with those guys, and three months later I was fighting Scott McTigue at BAMA.”
(Photo courtesy of Evolution Martial Arts)
He adds, “Back then, we’d sign the waiver and we weighed-in that night, and it was just like wrestling – you fought that night. Everything’s changed as far as like that. We had such a small clique that everybody knew everybody… Joel [Gold, the owner of Full Contact Fighter magazine,] used to sit there at a lunch table with all his Full Contact Fighter stuff, and I used to love that. Those were the days for me. You don’t have that anymore.”

No one ever considered the Pitts Penn crew to be the most technical fighters around, but everyone agreed that to face one in a fight meant risking serious bodily harm. They fought with a kind of conviction and ferocity most couldn’t muster, and when it came to Joe, there was what seemed to be a withering anger.

“It’s just something that I picked up in the Marine Corps,” he says. “Every time I was boxing somebody, for some reason it was my chance to show them, ‘You done did it. I’m going to hit you with everything I have just because you’re going to sit there and try to tell me you’re better than me.’ It just kind of carried over into sparring with other guys, and when I went to Pitts Penn, I wasn’t really worried about hurting somebody most of the time. I was just like, ‘I’ll punch you, and I’ll knock you out or I won’t’.”

“Back then, Pitts Penn was just me, Chris Liguori, John Rotendella, Mark Shopp and Billy Craparo. That’s all we had. It was a small gym. Ninety-nine percent of the time that’s all we had.”

Still, they made the most of it. “There was usually always somebody stopping in at the Pitts Penn – Bas Rutten, Coban, Gokor Chivichyan, Gene LeBell. A lot of guys came to that little gym. We just didn’t have the men, and the proper training. We were tough kids and Mark was a good boxing coach, and we had a jiu-jitsu coach who came every Saturday or whatever. So if Mark was a blue belt at the time, that’s basically what we were working with, you know?”

     *      *      *

Joe legally changed his name a while back to honor the father figure who raised him, and the name change extends into the official fight database at There, a quick glance at his record reveals a fair number of losses to go with the wins. But, as usual, the binary data of simple victories and defeats doesn’t tell the whole story. You can’t see all the “almosts”. You can’t see the officiating gaffe that cost him the fight against Jorge Santiago at Reality Fighting in 2002; you can’t see how close he came to knocking out Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Edson Carvalho; you can’t see how Joe did knock out James Gabert for the Ring of Combat title, but woke Gabert up with follow-up punches and went on to lose a grueling decision that probably took years off of both their lives.

You can’t see those things. However, everyone who was there did, so Joe had no shortage of promoters willing to give him fights. And when his heavy hands didn’t get the job done, sometimes his improbable submission game took up the slack.

When the short-lived Mixed Fighting Championship set up operations in Atlantic City, Joe took on a heavier Lance Everson and put him to sleep in a minute and a half with an arm-in guillotine; at a Combat in the Cage event at Brookdale College, Joe tapped out Tenyeh Dixon in a minute and 19 seconds with a flying heelhook; and when a one-off event called MMA Mayhem set up a cage in the middle of Six Flags Great Adventure, Joe finished his foe with a rare double-armbar.
(Photo courtesy of Lisa Hickey)
Despite his successes, a spot in the UFC ultimately eluded him. But he’s fine with that. In boxing, there are professional sparring partners – fighters who specialize in being the iron that sharpens iron in the gym. Joe is MMA’s version of that.

“That’s what I’ve become,” he says. “That’s what I am with [UFC fighter] George [Sullivan]. When Frankie [Edgar] first started and we were together, and I was getting Frankie ready for Tyson Griffin, I was going in there and we were having sparring sessions. And Tyson Griffin hit him with a pretty solid shot, and Frankie was like, ‘Yeah, but he doesn’t hit harder than Jose so I’m good.’ It’s not that I take anything from Frankie’s success, but getting him ready, I was a part of that. I went down to see him fight, and that was one of my happiest moments in the sport.”
With UFC fighter George Sullivan in Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Christine Sullivan)
“The way my life turned out in not making to the UFC, it really doesn’t affect me so much,” says Joe, who takes great pride in having helped others earn a shot in the big show as a killer sparring partner. “It’s kind of a success that Kurt [Pellegrino] made it in, George Sullivan made it in, Frankie made it in – I’m glad to be a part of their lives when they were starting up and be a part of that. I’m happy for all their success.”

     *      *      *

Unlike Lyman Good, Jared Gordon, and probably everyone else on the card, stepping into the cage at Saturday’s CFFC 45 isn’t about Joe earning a trip into the Octagon – “I actually spoke with Dana White at one of The Ultimate Fighter tryouts, and he basically said that I was getting a little old and they don’t have the time to invest in me. It hurt to hear, but it’s the truth, and I can respect that.” Instead, fighting at CFFC 45 is about something else.

“It’s something I just want to do,” he says. “I’ve been in George’s training camps his last two fights. I’m basically his training partner, I’m the guy he beats up on, I’m the guy who’s pushing him. And I said, ‘You know what, I’ve had three years off, my body is feeling really good, my joints are not bother me, I’m doing strength and conditioning classes… maybe I’ll go for it.”

He adds, “I’m in really good shape, and think I’m going to go in there and be my old self. I look forward to getting into the cage, hearing the crowd scream – it’s one of the biggest rushes ever.”
With almost 16 years of fighting under his belt, Joe has just about seen and done it all. He never quite got to taste championship gold, but he did amass gold of a different sort, and when asked of his proudest accomplishment in MMA, he immediately recalls the friends he’s made over the years.

“I really don’t think I have an accomplishment like that that I achieved in this sport,” he says, “other than the fact that everyone I have in my life because of this sport is the greatest treasure that I have. I have many, many warm-hearted people in my life because of this sport. That’s pretty much the best thing I’ve gotten out it. I go around the state, bouncing around from gym to gym, and I’ve touched a lot of lives and made relationships with these people, and we stay in touch.”
Staredown with Kurt Pellegrino. (Photo courtesy of Joe Agostini)
For someone who pioneered sanctioned fistfighting in New Jersey, and helped lay the foundation of what it’s become today with no shortage of bloodshed and fury, valuing the friendships made over the years speaks volumes of Joe’s character. It also means that when the cage door shuts on Saturday night and Joe storms angrily across the canvas, he’ll be where he belongs.

Joe will be at home.

No comments: