Inside the Mind of an MMA Champion

Cholish fights for Team Renzo Gracie in New York City (Photo by Lucas Noonan |

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By John Archibald, Editor

Enter the mind of John Cholish, a professional Mixed Martial Artist and graduate of Cornell University who spends his days as a broker on Wall Street and his nights crafting an MMA game that has already led him to pair of championship titles. He jumps back and forth between two worlds that eat most men alive before they ever get their feet wet, and he does each with the determination and focus that has him destined for the greatest of successes in both fields.

“I’ve always been very good at scheduling my time,” Cholish says in a humbling tone. “I find that I get more done and more accomplished the busier my schedule, just like when I was in college at Cornell, wrestling on the varsity team at the Division 1 level. My grades were actually better during wrestling season when my schedule was very tight between wrestling practice and competition while taking a full course roster. Being busy seems to work very well for me.”

As far as the balance between Wall Street and MMA, he also finds the demand of each profession equally rewarding.

“Obviously, one challenges me more on a mental level and the other much more on a physical level, so it’s a nice balance,” he said. “A lot of aspects definitely carry over in the transition between the two. The work ethic that I take from wrestling and fighting is something that I’ve brought over to my financial side.”

An obvious question that one has for Cholish is how a Wall Street broker with a degree from Cornell University found his way to the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City. His wrestling background gives the obvious reason for the involvement, but intrigue surrounds his ability to be dialed into such a demanding sport when he was already facing the intensity of a high-stress day job.

“My first job coming right out of college was with Morgan Stanley,” he reflected. “I worked on a team with two senior guys on the retail brokerage side, and Renzo Gracie’s gym was literally a block from where I worked. So I went over and stopped by one day, and within a week, I started doing Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai. I started training four or five times a week, and then that turned into six days a week. Before I knew it, I was fighting professionally.”

Cholish had his first professional fight within a year of starting his MMA training, and he opted not to take any amateur matches before jumping into the professional ranks. For his first fight, he traveled all the way to Fort Myers, Florida, to go against local native Jason Patino at Cage Fights 6.

“I was doing very well throughout the fight, and I had Renzo and Daniel Gracie in my corner, who both thought I was winning,” Cholish recollected. “Sure enough, even with two of the greatest Jiu-Jitsu minds in my corner, I shot in with a double leg with about 30 seconds to go in the final round, and he put on a beautiful guillotine. Then I did exactly what most wrestlers do who haven’t trained too long, and I tried to pull out. I couldn’t get out of it and ended up tapping out.”

While opening his professional career with a loss may have been disappointing for him, Cholish did not let the setback knock his focus.

“It really sent me back to the drawing board where I didn’t fight for over a year,” he said of the match. “I told myself ‘Okay, I can’t be one-dimensional. This sport is no longer for one-dimensional fighters.’ I really had to practice my boxing, my Judo, my Muay Thai. I think I was able to demonstrate that a year later when I had takedowns and transitions, and I had some good strikes with my knees and kicks. The loss really made me re-focus on what needed to be done and how much you have to put into this sport to be successful.”

Needless to say once you take a look at Cholish’s record since that first defeat, which has consisted of a five-fight winning streak, he has rebounded quite nicely. In fact, each of his past two bouts have been title matches, and both have resulted in him leaving with the belt strapped around his waist.

“The one before my last fight was for the UCC (Urban Conflict Championships), which is a relatively new organization in Jersey City. I had a really tough opponent, Hitalo Machado, who is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Brown Belt. That was a five five-minute round fight that ended up going to the fourth round, and I was able to finish with a TKO. My last fight went into the last round against a very tough opponent in Rich Moskowitz.”

I was lucky enough to be in attendance for the latter bout, a main event pairing that saw Cholish leave the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City as the Ring of Combat Lightweight Champion. I left that night very impressed with Cholish, and it was easy to see how immensely talented an MMA fighter he is.

“It’s a really great feeling,” Cholish stated about winning a title. “My first fight in Florida, I was doing it for the love of the sport and certainly not the money. It’s definitely still the love of the sport that does it for me, but being able to set a challenge that won’t be easy to overcome like Hitalo or Rich, and actually being able to go out there and utilize everything that I worked on the past 8-10 weeks and be victorious, is what really pays off. It’s a great feeling, not only the feeling you experience that night, but the whole training camp that leads up to it.”

Regardless of the outcome on any particular night, Cholish feels both competitors deserve the upmost respect for having the intestinal fortitude to lock themselves in the cage with another fighter.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize the amount of work, time and effort that both fighters, the winner and the loser, put into this, as well as the heart and energy they put into it,” he remarked. “Definitely, getting the win feels great, but I think even in my first fight when I came up with a loss, it was still a great feeling. Going out there and competing is not something everyone will do. Whether it’s a win or a loss, it’s just about going out there and getting the experience.”

Inevitably, that experience tends to lead to some facial recovery that is needed after a fight, which could make meeting with daytime clients a bit awkward, but Cholish’s highly likeable personality made it pretty easy for him to overcome any of those moments.

“I started at Morgan Stanley and then transitioned to Merrill Lynch, was doing very well over there, and I actually had four or five clients come out to my fights and support me, which is great,” he commented. “I think they knew between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5-6 p.m. when I was working, I was 100 percent committed to doing my job well. And at night time, I was committed to training for fights.”

The irony behind Cholish’s championship victory at Ring of Combat XXXII on Saturday, October 23rd, was that he had a new job to start two days later, a position that he actually landed due in large part to MMA.

“I loved doing retail brokerage, and now I’m brokering commodities of natural gas and hopefully crude oil soon on the institutional side,” Cholish stated. “I actually met my new boss, Tim Kelly, one night and introduced him to two of my trainers. For the past year and a half, two years, he started training Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu, and I’ve gotten to know him better over that time. He found out I worked in finance, and about a month and a half ago, he started a brokering team on the institutional side called the Beacon OTC Group, and he eventually invited me over to do a couple of interviews. It’s funny how things work out. He actually took a helicopter with a couple of friends and flew down to Atlantic City to support me in my last fight.”

Kelly, who actually has an amateur fight of his own slated for December 10th, says the characteristics that Cholish displays when fighting are the same traits that led to bringing him on board the Beacon OTC Group.

“We were training partners, and I also viewed him as a mentor in the ring,” Kelly said. “What I saw in him in training and in the gym with Martial Arts was the kind of skill set that I was looking for to hire as a broker. Competitiveness, humility, respect, hard work ethic – that’s what we’re looking for here on Wall Street. So basically what he demonstrated to me in the gym were the qualities that I knew would make him a successful broker, so we went out and hired him.”

Much like what Cholish voiced earlier, Kelly says those same principles that are applied in MMA are something that are similarly adapted on Wall Street.

“The fight game is a team sport. I cannot stress that enough,” Kelly confirmed. “In the fight game, you’re part of a team, you’re not out there by yourself. That is similar to what we do here on Wall Street. The media makes it out like people are greedy and not socially responsible, and that’s just not accurate. In our group, we have four people, and we’re all a team.”

Any successful team always has strong support for one another in place. In my conversation with Cholish, he let me know of a few words of encouragement that Kelly gave him when he arrived at his new post.

“There’s a pretty big learning curve at my new job,” Cholish remarked. “From the first day, Tim told me ‘Johnny, you may have whatever color belt you have in Jiu-Jitsu, but you’re a white belt here and I’m a black belt. And I’m going to teach you everything I know, so you better be ready.’”

Little did Cholish know when he wandered a block from work and into the Renzo Gracie Academy in 2006, MMA would lead him to championship titles and a premiere job on Wall Street. Clearly humble and appreciative of everything he has been able to achieve through MMA, Cholish is quick to acknowledge those who have helped get him where he is.

“I’m very fortunate for plenty of reasons,” he stated. “The traffic that comes through the gym is great. Initially, with Renzo, John Danaher and Joe Sampieri, my Muay Thai coach, and then with Erik Owings, who I ended up living with for two years after I met him at the gym. This is a whole another story, but we ended up having an apartment on the Upper East Side with two floors, and we had mats on the second floor where we would train in our free time. On top of that, I’ve also been very fortunate to train and become good friends with Georges St. Pierre, Frankie Edgar and Kenny Florian, so before my fights, I’ve spent at least some time in Boston, Montreal and New Jersey.”

The togetherness of those involved with MMA is something that goes unmatched in most aspects of life, and that is something that Cholish strongly takes away from the sport.

“You’re not just a team, but more like a family,” he commented. “The guys you train with are the guys you usually spend the most time with.”

And as far as being a representative of the most legendary family in MMA, Cholish says that is not something he takes for granted.

“It’s a huge confidence booster, but at the same time, you have that name on your back,” he stated. “You have to carry that Gracie name, and you want to do it well. And when I can get praise from my corner, it means the world to me.”

You can follow John Cholish on Twitter @JohnCholish and Renzo Gracie @RenzoGracieBJJ.

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