As mixed martial arts becomes mainstream, gym owner Lucas John sees more growth on the horizon.
For now, John has a day job. He works in schools throughout Central Vermont as a behavioral interventionist, giving him just enough time for his busy class schedule during his night job at Granite City MMA.
John has been running self-defense and martial arts classes out of his location above The House of Tang on River Street in Montpelier for just over a year. He commuted to Burlington from Barre for years, up to five times a week, while becoming versed in Muay Thai. The business major also earned a black belt in Aiki Jiu-Jitsu and four-stripe brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu before deciding to start his own gym.
“The owner of the House of Tang, Nam, was awesome,” John said. “He gave me a really good deal to get in there for the first few months. He helped me out a lot to help me get started, and once the ball started rolling it gained momentum quick.
“I believe in what I teach and I believe in what I do. I will not accept money the first time you step into my school — you are there to check it out. ... I’m not doing this to get rich. I’m doing it because I enjoy doing it, so I want to get that same culture of person in my gym.”
John’s success extends beyond his near-capacity classes. He had four fighters on the card at the most recent Hometown Heroes Battle in Barre event at the Barre Auditorium. Fourteen bouts were contested in front of a solid crowd.
“We’re a fight gym, but we are also a martial arts gym,” John said. “So we’ll adjust our classes to help the fighters out, but at the end of the day everybody is still progressing. I’ve been doing mixed martial arts for 12 years, reffing, judging, coaching. And I was truly blessed with the talent pool of students that came into my business that helped me open Granite City MMA.”
Isaac Mandell-Seaver, a 16-year-old from Calais, trained with John for less than a year before entering the octagon at the Aud. The first-time competitor faced a six-year veteran opponent who was ranked second in the nation by Grapplers Quest. The goal of grappling is to get your opponent to tap out using approved submission holds. According to John, Jiu-Jitsu is a form of grappling.
“Isaac lasted 10 minutes with him and did not get submitted,” John said. “So I put Isaac in an almost impossible task, because I believed in him, and it payed off in dividends. He didn’t win the tournament, but everybody in the Jiu-Jitsu community was floored.”
Former Spaulding High School wrestler Steven Rich, a neighbor of John’s in Barre, prepared for an MMA fight last month. But his scheduled opponent suffered a medical emergency the day before the fight and Rich agreed to reschedule with a grappling match against an opponent ranked four levels higher who was more than 100 pounds heavier than Rich. Although the former Crimson Tide standout dominated the first nine minutes of the bout, he was submitted in the end by a heel hook.
Another former Spaulding wrestler, Jon Lucey, fought in the 135-pound MMA main event at the Aud. Because it was a title fight, knees to the head were allowed along with kicks and punches. Elbow shots are not allowed in Vermont under any amateur rule set, but pro fights allow most elbows except vertical elbow strikes. Lucey was up against a fighter with lots of size and experience, but he prevailed in the fourth round with a rear naked choke.
Pete Haskins has known John since they trained at the United Fighting Arts Institute in South Burlington. Haskins also represented the Granite City MMA gym at the Battle in Barre.
“He’s like a celebrity up in Waterbury — everywhere you walk,” John said. “I’ll be at a restaurant and people will see my sweatshirt and they’re like, ‘Hey, you know Pete Haskins? Oh man, you’ve got to be a bad dude if you train with Pete Haskins.’ He’s just one of those guys. He had a ton of people (at the Barre Aud). He usually sells 50 to 100 tickets every fight. So when he won his fight the roof just came off the place.
“They all performed above and beyond any expectation that I could have put out there. Hard work and dedication are key to their success, and they have a ton of heart. You can’t teach heart.”
DonnyBrook Fight Promotion has another event scheduled for April 20 at the Barre Aud, and Granite City MMA will again be responsible for training a handful of the featured athletes.
“(DonnyBrook co-owner Rex Thompson) tries to follow the sanctioning body criteria so that he can submit the information into Tapology and it will become relevant information,” John said. “There is no sanctioning body in Vermont. I’ve been to sanctioned events in New York that are ran far more loosey-goosey than Rex runs in Vermont, so it’s a class act show.”
Some factors that put these fights into compliance for rankings in Tapology are the three judges, medical personnel, referees and the fighters’ meeting where everyone goes over the ABC rule set or unified rules of MMA, which are same as what UFC and Bellator use. In a little over a month, John will start fight camps for his competing athletes.
“When a guy has a fight signed, six to eight weeks out from the fight day, you go into a fight camp,” John said. “All your training gets turned up a ton and all your sparring gets turned up a ton. You go from three- or four-minute rounds to eight-minute rounds.
“Fight camp is when you flip that switch. You go from being the nice guy that everybody sees, to that primal creature that has to climb in a cage and try to (defeat) another human being within a certain rule set. ... And as a coach it’s my job to help them transition, because 90 percent of the fight gig is mental.”
Mental and physical strength are clearly essential for any MMA fighter, but other assets like flexibility and endurance can be just as important. The athlete’s ability to collect their thoughts and remain controlled during stressful situations can easily determine the outcome of a match. Coaches work with athletes for months and even years on psychological preparation for fights, but sometimes it’s difficult to fully understand what it’s like to be in the spotlight.
“Cardio wins fights, period,” John said. “What people don’t understand is that you have what is called an adrenaline dump, especially when you are new. You come out, you hear your music, your heart starts to beat, your mouth start to dry up and everything tenses up. You see the lights, you see the crowd, everybody is cheering your name. You get in the ring, the ref goes over the rules and you are so hyped up on adrenaline it’s disgusting. Then after the first round you’re sitting in your corner and the ref goes, ‘Are you ready for round two?’ And you look at your corner man like ‘What the heck did I get into?’ And that is why I feel so blessed to have this group, because they want that feeling and they are OK with pushing past that point.
“I train fighters who will represent the gym. No bullies, no running your mouth on social media — there’s little kids watching. Granite City MMA has a saying ‘Stay hungry, stay humble.’”
It has long been part of John’s business plan to own his gym and have it set up like some of the fight gyms in Las Vegas, with saunas and a pool and other “big-ticket stuff.” Before that happens, the lenders that John has talked to want to see a few years of business sustainability.
Considering the popularity of classes and the success of Granite City MMA’s fighters, John seems well on his way.