"I took it one win at a time and then said ‘I’m not too terrible at this, maybe I can keep doing it.’" - John Cholish
Renzo Gracie has a gift for putting anything into the proper bit of perspective. So after John Cholish finished up his mixed martial arts debut in 2007 with a first round submission loss to Jason Patino, it wasn’t time for Gracie to coddle his young charge. He simply told it like it was.
“I never seen someone smile so much from getting hit in the face,” he said.
Over four years and seven fights later, none of which he’s lost, the 27-year old Cholish laughs at the memory, but also adds a disclaimer.
“Since that first fight I’ve been very fortunate and I’ve worked on my skills at not getting hit in the face.”
But the love of the game is still there, and while you hear that a lot from mixed martial artists, Cholish really means it, and he’s got the proof to back it up. Simply put, if the Hackettstown, New Jersey native walked away from the sport tomorrow, he would probably be miserable, but financially he would be just fine. That’s what happens when you graduate from Cornell University with a degree in Applied Economics and Management and currently work as a Commodities Broker with a primary focus on brokering Natural Gas and Crude Oil options, futures, and swaps.
Yeah, he’s not your average pro athlete. But without the need to have fighting put food on his table, Cholish has freed himself to immerse himself in the sport and do it just because it’s a passion of his.
“I do it because I love it, and I know I have the income and the security from my primary job that I feel like I’m fighting for the right reason,” said Cholish, noting that whatever reasons his peers fight for aren’t wrong ones, just that what he does works for him. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty good at what he does.
7-1 as a pro, with his last two wins coming via submission over WEC vet Jameel Massouh and Ultimate Fighter alum Marc Stevens, Cholish has seen his skill set grow significantly under the tutelage of lead coach John Danaher, as well as Gracie, and he’s emerged as a lot more well-rounded fighter than he was when he first walked into Gracie’s New York City academy with “only” a Division I wrestling background from Cornell. And back then, fighting wasn’t on his immediate radar.
“Mainly it was something to keep me busy and keep me in good shape,” Cholish recalled. “I was there for less than a year, and one of the guys casually threw out, ‘hey, would you like to have a fight?’ I said ‘Sure, that would be neat.’ I was initially thinking of it as something to do once to say to my grandkids ‘yeah, that MMA stuff, I did that.’”
But after that first bout, which was held outdoors on a baseball diamond in Fort Myers, Florida, there was no turning back for him.
“I really fell in love with the whole idea of being able to challenge yourself against another person, and I basically took it from there and decided if I’m gonna do this, I have to do it the proper way and take a step back and start training all the disciplines and blending them together,” he said.
Cholish wouldn’t fight again for over a year, but when he returned in 2008 with a decision win over Chris Connor, he said “I felt so much more comfortable once I got there.”
That made things uncomfortable for his subsequent opponents, who all fell down to defeat against Cholish. Apparently the only thing keeping the lightweight prospect from greater glory would be fitting training and fights in while he worked a high-pressure day job. But he never saw it that way.
“I just relate it to my career in college,” he said. “We had a pretty rigorous schedule, and our coaches and our staff were really big in helping us out with time management. I guess the easiest way to put it is that they always said that the primary objective was to get good grades and focus on your schoolwork. So that came first. We had set practices during the week, but if you needed help with school or classwork, they would help set up things like tutoring or extra office hours. And a big proponent of our training was getting extra workouts in, whether it was with an individual training partner, one of the coaches on the team, or going to the lifting program and doing some strength and conditioning. And if you had a set goal or a set idea of what you wanted to get accomplished, there’s no reason whatsoever to be in the gym for more than an hour, an hour and a half tops. Some guys come to the gym and sit around for two or three hours; what do they really get done? So whether it’s working on a specific technique or working on improving a certain strength area or speed, if you have an idea of why you’re coming in and everyone that’s there is on the same track, you’re gonna be pretty efficient. I think I have to give a lot of credit to being able to utilize my time management skills.”
Not to mention his self-admitted habit of having “a tough time sitting still.” Combine everything and here he is in the UFC, making his debut on Saturday against fellow lightweight prospect Mitch Clarke. It’s an unlikely tale, but one in which Cholish still has some chapters left to write. And you know you can’t wait to see how this one ends.
“What you realize when you study any martial art or any individual sport is that the only way to test your skill or ability or whether you’re actually improving from your training is in an actual live simulation,” he said. “That progressively led to me fighting, and I took it one win at a time and then said ‘I’m not too terrible at this, maybe I can keep doing it.’”