In sport of all kinds, specific proving grounds are where stars earn the ignition of their burning inferno. Traditionally in the United States, there are clear pathways for athletes to ascend from amateur status to high profile professional. In American Football, Baseball, Hockey, Basketball, even Tennis, Soccer and Wrestling these passages are built into the system. For the most part, it begins with youth programs. Those programs progress into the local school systems from which the best continue to move forward, eventually entering the realm of collegiate athletics. College becomes the final step and a vast majority of these athletes, one among them CES bantamweight champion Tony Gravely, aren’t awarded the high salaries and life-changing opportunities. Only a few in the crowd receive them.
Tony Gravely and a Childhood Dream
The Appalachian State wrestler Tony Gravely may not have found himself on a similar path as Jordan Burroughs but he did find an old misplaced dream. One that mulled within his brain for quite a while. A dream to fight, to be champion and one of the best ever.
“(My dad and I) used to watch (UFC), I used to tell him that’s going to be me one day. Going through life you set goals when you’re younger, life happens and then you throw those goals away and you set something else. It’s one of those things where I set that goal, I kinda put it behind and now I am coming back to it. I think there is a reason why I set it. That’s the main goal, I want to be in the UFC. Not only just want to be in the UFC, I want to be UFC bantamweight champion. I don’t want to be there just to compete, I want to be there and I want to dominate, I want to be one of the best in the UFC. My ultimate goal is to be UFC bantamweight champion and be in the UFC Hall of Fame…”
Yet, upon completing school Gravely found himself working a typical 9-5 job. He worked as a construction project manager, something that he studied while in college. The steady pay and consistent routine were nice, for a short while. Although his work provided stability, it didn’t provide fulfillment.
“I’ve always been really active so to sit at a desk and do things like that, it just wasn’t for me. It was almost like spiritual suicide, in a way. It was killing me do stuff like that even though it paid well. We came to the conclusion that I’d rather do something that I love doing and make less money.”
This dream wasn’t random. It didn’t manifest in a short period of time, it was something that grew from a young age within Gravely. As a youngster, he had found a connection to martial arts. While growing up, Tony Gravely’s father taught Taekwondo. The appreciation for martial arts in the Gravely home naturally left an impact upon the CES bantamweight champ. Time spent watching the beginning of the UFC and the creation of the sport further cultivated his desire to fight.
“My dad taught Taekwondo for a long time. So I started with Taekwondo until I was in sixth grade and I started wrestling. I always used to watch MMA when I was younger, back when it first started. When there were hardly any rules at all. Its something I’ve always wanted to do but I never got the chance to do it.”
When an opportunity came to begin training, he seized it. Yet, the realization of fighting as a career didn’t come easy. He began his professional career while still working as a construction project manager. The grind was taxing. Going from work, to the gym and back home left little energy for much else in Gravely’s life. Following his first few professional fights, he decided one aspect of his life needed to change.
“Working a job, being tired, going to the gym and the whole thing, it was like one of these has to go. And it’s not going to be fighting because I enjoy fighting. So my wife and I, we talked about it, talked to my parents about it, talked to her parents about it and I told them that’s what I wanted to do. If I could do anything with my life it would be fighting. It’s what I love to do. So, I quit my job.”
Tony Gravely’s journey to this point, where he defends his CES bantamweight title at CES 54 against Massachusetts prospect Kris Moutinho was all but easy. Many struggles presented themselves along the way. For one, the income he generates from fighting is simply not enough to support a family. This gap left Gravely’s wife with the financial burdens of not only married life but fight life as well.
“Fighters on the regional level don’t make as much money as fighters in the UFC, Bellator and all the other different promotions. It’s been a struggle, it’s been a big sacrifice for my wife and I. She’s pretty much like my sugar momma, she’s my biggest sponsor… She pays for the majority of things because she has a steady income and I don’t. But you know it’s one of those things where we both understand that its all going to pay off. I’m going to return the favor and it’s going to work out in the end.”
Nearing the End
It seems that Gravely is near the end of this long struggle that was fighting his way into the UFC. Currently, he holds two titles, he defends one at CES 54 against the aforementioned, Kris Moutinho. Logic would predict the only thing separating Gravely from his UFC dreams are, at most, a few more impressive performances. At this point in his career with 21 pro fights to his name, the next steps are a bit confusing for the champion.
“I wonder what they’re looking for and at times you don’t know for sure if they even have their eyes on you. I would hope that they do, and I’m doing my best to make sure that happens but I don’t know for a fact if they know who Tony Gravely is or not. So I always ask myself what do I have to do? Why am I not there?”
The Opportunity of CES 54
Frustrating or not, CES 54 is a great platform for Tony Gravely to make a statement to UFC executives. Coming off a slam KO to earn the CES bantamweight title, his first challenger brings forth what can only be an exhilarating clash of styles. Not only that, but CES 54 marks the first event broadcast on UFC Fight Pass. The CES promotion announced in late 2018, the event broadcast would make a transition to the UFC’s streaming service from its previous home AXS TV. This first CES title defense presents a big opportunity on dual fronts.
“I’m confident no matter who they put in front of me. My goal is to be the best and to be in the UFC. I’m not trying to dodge all the tough fighters just to get my shot in the UFC, just to go out there and get beat up in front of everybody and get embarrassed and get spit right back out to a regional level. The great thing about having titles is that they’re going to keep giving you tough opponents which is what makes me excited… I have the belt so that means give me somebody tough and that’s exactly what they are doing. They are giving me another tough guy.
I’ve seen (Kris Moutinho) fight before, I know he’s tough. He seems to be mostly a striker. But I am confident that my striking is better, my wrestling is better, my grappling is better. I feel like I am a lot more physical than he is, I think that I am going to be a tough matchup for him… I’ve had plenty of fights, plenty of competitions in wrestling, I don’t underestimate anybody no matter what. I’m going to go out there and I’m going to give it my 120 percent and we are going to see who the better fighter is.”
Thank You’s From Tony Gravely
“(I want) to thank all of the other wonderful people that have been supporting me and believing in me throughout my career and life. Without the combination of those people and the people I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t be the fighter and person that I am today.”