Long Island is a developing hotbed for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) talent in the state of New York. Iconic figures like former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, one-time UFC welterweight champ Matt Serra, and their shared coach Ray Longo, have aided in putting New York MMA on the map. However, the forces for growth in the region aren’t just the men you notice on UFC broadcasts. There are also men like strength and conditioning expert Tony Ricci, a local boy who has become a key figure in the past, present, and future of MMA in the Empire State.
The 52-year-old’s rise to prominence had a start like many traditional American success stories. The son of Italian immigrants, Ricci was born in Brooklyn, but raised in Merrick, Long Island. He gained his love for the sea, and learned the value of hard work from an early age as he spent many days after school helping his father on the family’s fishing boat. “Childhood labor laws were not around [back then],” Ricci remarks with a laugh, because he aided his family on their boat from as early as eight years old.
Tony Ricci Helps in Building Bodies and New York MMA
When not busy on the family boat, he enjoyed playing sports like football and baseball. However, he was drawn to boxing early on while bonding with his father as they watched the legendary career of Muhammad Ali, and many other fighters of decades past. By the age of 13, he started training in the sport at the Freeport Recreation Center, and eventually would also start taking classes in combat karate. The man was already dabbling in blending what would later be called MMA well before anyone knew the term. “Before we knew mixed martial arts, they were pretty close,” Ricci recalls of his early martial arts training.
For a young man who adored sports, and the physicality of it, a career path would soon come into focus for him. “As I got older, I did start to realize that I did love sports science and training. I think even by 11th and 12th grade I knew I wanted to be around it,” Ricci says.
He would get an undergraduate degree in the field at LeTourneau University, and he would use it to fulfill a life-long dream. At just 22 years old, Ricci would be a co-owner of a weight-lifting gym. All the years of working for his family had paid off in helping to finance his new business endeavor, as his mother would finally let him cash in on what he had earned. “My mom would take every dime I used to make when I was young,” Ricci says begrudgingly with a smile. He appreciates it more now than he did then.
At just 22 years old, Ricci would be a co-owner of a weight-lifting gym.
By the late 1980s, Ricci was a college graduate, co-owner of a gym, and did strength and conditioning seminars on the side. Even for a youngster with his work-ethic, success would not last. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I ended up losing that business,” he says. With a failed gym on his resume, the kid from Merrick had to find a new path in the industry. And he would, far from his New York home.
In 1991 Ricci would end up in Texas of all places. In the Lone Star State he would get his first taste of professional MMA at its infancy. Now 24 years old, Ricci was offered a chance to work with some of the early pioneers of the sport—such as Guy Mezger—as they prepared for fights regionally, or for the Japanese promotion Pancrase (which was a precursor to the Asian MMA powerhouse Pride FC). He would also further his knowledge in the martial arts as he studied Sambo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), under grandmaster Ron Browning, and with BJJ legend Carlos Machado, respectively.
For this fan of Metallica and Motley Crue, and admirer of Royce and Rickson Gracie, this period in Texas was key in setting up the ground work for the MMA-related success to come. Though, the decade spent honing his impressive skills (which included getting his master’s degree in Sports Science) did come with a very physical form of payment. “I was a sparring partner [for his gym mates],” Ricci says. “We’re talking concussions, broken bones, blood and all that.”
“I was a sparring partner [for his gym mates],” Ricci says. “We’re talking concussions, broken bones, blood and all that.”
Yet the sparring was probably the least brutal remittance he has endured. Ricci has been in nine separate car accidents in his life. Two of which were head-on collisions with drunk drivers. The second of those two crashes occurred in Texas, and saw the drunk driver mangled and killed in the wreck. The years of hardcore sparring and auto accidents have now left him partially susceptible to seizures, making sparring these days a very carefully crafted training session.
Despite being so close to the sport during that time, it was never in Ricci’s nature to enter the fray as a professional fighter. While he is of average height, he was a hulking figure (and still is today) who had a diverse martial arts background. “I don’t know why I didn’t have a tremendous drive to fight,” he says. Of course, the concussions had an effect. Then there was the fact that he was in his early thirties, and had years of wear and tear from weight lifting and training in martial arts. Another factor was the blood-thirsty audiences he encountered while cornering his friends and clients on the Texas MMA regional circuit. Complete with yelling, crude remarks and beer bottle tossing.
At his core, he is a man with a kind heart, who appreciates the brutal art of combat sports. “I want to see a beautiful fight. You spill, you leak all over the place, and then you want two guys to come up and shake hands, and then it’s done,” Ricci says.
“I want to see a beautiful fight. You spill, you leak all over the place, and then you want two guys to come up and shake hands, and then it’s done,” Ricci says.
In 2001 he returned to his city of birth. At the time, his mother was ill (she is alive and well today), and he chose family over continuing his successful endeavors in Texas. However, when he returned to Long Island, he came back a master’s degree holder, and a certified strength coach with a wealth of knowledge in training high-level fighters. It wasn’t long before local trainers and managers started to call on Ricci to help improve their fighters.
By 2002, Chris Cardona, the owner/trainer of Bellmore Kickboxing & MMA, had invited Ricci to work with his combatants. And it was a relationship that helped to get him a foothold in the combat sports scene in the area.
His earliest ventures into training local MMA fighters would come via two UFC veterans. “Ryan [LaFlare] and Dennis [Bermudez] really started to kick that off for me, because I was more on the kickboxing and boxing side when I returned to New York.”
LaFlare is another Long Island native who currently owns Long Island MMA in Farmingdale. Bermudez hails from Saugerties, New York and is a top fighter in the UFC featherweight division.
The years of hardcore sparring and auto accidents have now left him partially susceptible to seizures, making sparring these days a very carefully crafted training session.
One of the most notable fighters Ricci has worked with is former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, and his head coach, Ray Longo. The trio has worked together for a few years, and Longo remembers being impressed with Ricci when they first discussed working together.
Despite having an in-depth knowledge of the fight game, Ricci respects the role different coaches have with a fighter, and avoids stepping on toes. “As a coach, I like to keep everything compartmentalized, so I don’t want the strength guy telling me the [fighter’s] jab isn’t good enough,” said Longo. The focus and passion Ricci shows in his work is something Longo appreciates very much in the man he considers a friend. The shared dedication to their craft, and the difficulties that come with it, has bonded the pair in some funny ways. “We deal with so many personalities between fighters, where we always say we got to get the hell out of here and open up a little coffee shop somewhere,” Longo jokes.
As his reputation grew, Ricci’s stable of fighters has also grown over the years. It has included male and female fighters like Liam McGeary (Bellator) Marcos Galvao (Bellator), Gian Villante (UFC), Elias Theodorou (UFC), Chris Algeri (champion boxer), Bobby Campbell (multi-time kickboxing champion), Heather Hardy (boxing champion and now Bellator fighter) and Jennie Nedell (Glory Kickboxing title contender). Many of those fighters are born and raised in New York, and are now established stars in their sport with Ricci’s help.
When asked to sum him up in a word, Nedell said, “True. He is a true real guy, and that’s rare these days.”
His fighters really seem to like and respect him, which is unsurprising, as he exudes a vibe of comfort and fun, like a favorite uncle. When asked to sum him up in a word, Nedell said, “True. He is a true real guy, and that’s rare these days. And he’s so knowledgeable it’s ridiculous.”
This “real guy” who currently lives in Long Beach—close to the sea where he feels most comfortable–still has a work-ethic to admire. Not long after his return home he would get a second master’s degree in nutrition, and finish his first of two doctorates (he is currently working on his second, in sports performance psychology at the University of Western States).
When not training current and future stars weekly out of Longo and Weidman MMA in Garden City, he spends much of his time during the year as an associate professor on the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University. “To me, being a professor is more coaching than it is education,” Ricci says. An excitement comes to his face as he talks about how he enjoys conveying a message to his students that sports science is a valuable profession to undertake. He feels this way because he has a genuine passion for helping people of all levels of fitness.
“The guy mixed servings of creatine in with his alcohol to prevent hangovers. I’ve literally never seen him hungover,” says Peacock.
Ricci also still speaks at seminars for enthusiasts and professionals in the strength training industry. That is where he met Dr. Corey Peacock. Peacock is a strength & conditioning coach based out of Florida’s Combat Club MMA gym. The two have forged a friendship around the respect they have for one another in their field. Peacock describes his friend as humble, and also calls him a “fireplug.” Because not only does he respect how Ricci applies his knowledge to work, he also has a genius mind at play. “The guy mixed servings of creatine in with his alcohol to prevent hangovers. I’ve literally never seen him hungover,” says Peacock. Who doesn’t love a professor who can scientifically drink you under the table?
While he has traveled the globe from Thailand to Bangkok and Dubai to Scotland during his career, he’s had to slowdown his once hectic schedule in recent years. “I just can’t run around anymore. It’s a lot to go to Brooklyn, then to go to Queens, then go back to Brooklyn, or Manhattan. I love these guys, but simultaneously I need a hand too,” Ricci admits.
That’s why what is happening on the island, between the various gyms like Longo and Weidman MMA, is so vital to the continued development of talent in the area. “See, for Long Island, it hasn’t been like American Top Team, like the Blackzilians, where everyone’s there,” explains Ricci. Those two Florida-based MMA gyms are where a large assortment of fighters gather to get complete training in one place. “That is just starting here. So there are more and more fighters I have the opportunity to work with right around here,” he says.
“Here is my honest philosophy on marriage, I didn’t see that many people that liked it,” he notes laughing.
When not teaching and training, Ricci is an avid fan of the opera and ballet, and owns memberships to the Metropolitan Opera and the American Ballet Theater (he even worked as a strength coach to a ballet company for a time). He mentions Gladiator as one of his favorite movies, and also enjoys Russian nationalist music. He has never been married, and for what he feels are understandable reasons. “Here is my honest philosophy on marriage, I didn’t see that many people that liked it,” he notes laughing.
In the end, aside from his love of the sea, his true passion is his career, as it keeps him close to the sport he loves. “95 percent of everyone I’ve ever met [as a strength coach] is really a great person. You meet really good people, and the bonds that are created through fight sports are a lifetime,” Ricci says. Those bonds show in the continued growth of MMA on the island. “We are building a great foundation here. If the sport, and the UFC continues to prosper, I see Long Island and New York definitely remaining a really strong point [for creating new stars in the sport],” Ricci says.
As a young boy he dreamed of being a fisherman like his father, even drawing pictures of himself on boats. Though those dreams changed as he matured, he still traversed oceans, traveling the world as a strength and conditioning professional for the last 23 years. He succeeded in academia, mastered several martial arts, and has helped turn New York MMA into a hotbed for talent. For a man that has done so much, what’s next?
“Maybe one day I’ll get a dog,” the local boy says.