×

Art of war: Mixed martial arts helps Nate Ghareeb find a place to belong

  • Nate Ghareeb, left, of Southampton, punches Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, grapples with Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, grapples with Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, of Southampton, and Matt Bienia, of Springfield, go airborne during their mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, top, of Southampton, grapples with Matt Bienia, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, at Mohegan Sun. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, handles an onslaught from Matt Bienia, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, at Mohegan Sun. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, waits for the bell during his mixed martial arts fight with Matt Bienja, of Springfield, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, top, of Southampton, grapples with Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, left, of Southampton, punches Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, punches Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, left, of Southampton, trades kicks with Matt Bienia, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, at Mohegan Sun. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, of Southampton, walks to the ring for his mixed martial arts fight against Matt Bienja, of Springfield, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, left, of Southampton, absorbs a kick from Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, top, of Southampton, takes down Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, center, of Southampton, listens to Chris Rodriguez at the end of the second round of his fight against Matt Bienja, of Springfield, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, trades blows with Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, left, of Southampton, blocks a kick from Matt Bienja, of Springfield, during his mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, is forced to submit when an arm bar is applied by Matt Bienja, of Springfield, ending their mixed martial arts fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, left, of Southampton, gets some support from Stephen Pinard, from left, Jon Manley and Chris Rodriguez after his loss to Matt Bienja, of Springfield, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, center, of Southampton, paces the ring, flanked by Jon Manley, left, and Stephen Pinard after a submission hold by Matt Bienja, of Springfield, ended his fight Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, eyes the amateur championship belt as it carried to his opponent, Matt Bienja, of Springfield, after his loss Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The referee declares Matt Bienia, of Springfield, the winner of a mixed martial arts fight against Nate Ghareeb, of Southampton, Saturday, Jan. 6, at Mohegan Sun. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, of Southampton, left, congratulates Matt Bienja, of Springfield, in Bienja's locker room after his loss Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, of Southampton, left, congratulates Matt Bienja, of Springfield, in Bienja's locker room after his loss Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, of Southampton, left, congratulates Matt Bienja, of Springfield, in Bienja's locker room after his loss Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mixed martial arts fighter Nate Ghareeb, right, of Southampton, has his hands wrapped by his coach, Jon Manley, before his fight against Matt Bienja, of Springfield, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mohegan Sun Arena, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, of Southampton, does some stretching in his locker room before his mixed martial arts fight against Matt Bienja, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nate Ghareeb, right, does some stretching in his locker room while waiting for his mixed martial arts fight against Matt Bienja to begin Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 at Mohegan Sun. Members of his corner, Chris Rodriguez, left, and Stephen Pinard wait with him. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@kylegrbwsk
Sunday, January 14, 2018

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The cage door shut behind Nate Ghareeb. A metallic clang and plastic-wrapped thud sealed him, the referee and his opponent, Matt Bienia, in the octagonal ring. Nearly 10,000 people occupied the seats at Mohegan Sun Arena, filling the lower bowl and cage-side floor seating.

“Most of them will never experience what I’ve been able to experience,” said Ghareeb, a Southampton native. “Most of them will never step inside this cage.”

Bathed in fluorescent white spotlight at Reality Fighting 100 on Jan. 6, Ghareeb bounced on his heels. His teal and black shorts display a taut 155-pound frame. A tattoo on the top of his left foot read, “MEANT FOR GREATNESS.”

Ghareeb, 24, stared ahead while the referee clarified the rules of engagement. His eyes focused on Bienia, a fighter from Springfield.

“At first (being in a cage) feels claustrophobic,” Ghareeb said. “There is an anxiety to it. There is a little fear.”

But now, he’s comfortable there. He worked for more than three years to make this 750-square-feet space his own, somewhere he belongs.

“For me it was really to open up my mind and realize you’re here, you’re doing this, don’t be afraid,” Ghareeb said. “I get to be me.”

“When they close that door,” he says, referring to an opponent. “It’s me and you.”

Not an obvious star

Ghareeb’s journey to the octagon began when he was an above-average wrestler at Hampshire Regional. As a senior, he finished third at the 2012 Division 3 Western Massachusetts championships and fourth at the Division 3 state tournament at 170 pounds.

“He was a state-level wrestler by his third year,” Hampshire coach Todd Bryant said. “By no means was he going to be a New England champion, but I think the only thing holding him back at that time was his focus.”

Ghareeb enjoyed watching professional wrestling at the time and aspired to compete in World Wrestling Entertainment. Bryant asked him about his future plans during the last few days of his senior year. His college decision wavered, and Ghareeb lacked a clear vision to pursue the WWE dream.

Bryant suggested mixed martial arts (MMA), a combat sport that allows wrestling, boxing and martial arts in an eight-sided ring.

“Nate had the right tools, had the right mental focus, he had the physicality,” Bryant said. “He had the mindset.”

Ghareeb hadn’t considered that path.

“For me it was ...,” Ghareeb said, pausing to shrug. “I didn’t know anything about it.”

The idea intrigued him entering his freshman year at Springfield College. He joined the Pride’s wrestling program with a plan.

“If I keep wrestling, I’ll use it to get into this MMA stuff,” Ghareeb recalled thinking.

His health forced a detour. Ghareeb practiced for three months, then broke his right foot at the season-opening Ithaca Invitational in early November. Doctors inserted a screw into his foot, ending his season.

A few months into his recovery, Ghareeb’s cousin Matt Drury gave him tickets to a Reality Fighting event for Christmas. They watched the fights from the cheap seats. The octagon beckoned.

“I thought to myself, ‘I could do this,’” he said.

That spring, an English teacher asked Ghareeb to create a PowerPoint for class on dreams and aspirations after they read a book on the subject.

In the PowerPoint, Ghareeb said he’d like to go to Thailand, learn the combat sport of muay thai and become a great striker, punching and kicking to victory. Ultimately, he told classmates, he’d like to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) mixed martial arts organization.

A clearly defined goal in place, Ghareeb returned to the wrestling team for his sophomore season focused on developing his MMA potential. The Ithaca Invitational arrived again, and Ghareeb tore a muscle in his shoulder.

“They told me pretty much ‘you’re never going to wrestle again,’ which for me was like whatever,” Ghareeb said. “I liked wrestling, I was good at it, but it wasn’t a passion.’”

The rest of the semester set Ghareeb adrift. He lifted weights. He struggled with anxiety and depression. Some of his friends dropped out. He couldn’t wrestle, and many of his friends were on the wrestling team.

“I wasn’t living the way I wanted to,” Ghareeb said. “I hit that rock bottom and decided I needed to make a change.”

That realization arrived while visiting his friend Steven Cowley at the University of New Hampshire. The sheer number of people and activities shocked him. He wanted to transfer to a bigger school and decided on the University of West Virginia, the Princeton Review’s top-ranked party school at the time.

“I wanted to meet people,” Ghareeb said. “I wanted to experience life.”

That summer between his sophomore and junior years of college, Ghareeb began pursuing MMA more directly. He contacted Jim McSweeney, a former high school wrestling coach he’d heard was training in MMA. McSweeney directed him to Team Link in Northampton, where he met Jon Manley and started Brazilian kickboxing.

Once Ghareeb arrived at West Virginia, he looked for a class, a gym, anything to continue training. Anything except wrestling.

“I was done with wrestling,” Ghareeb said. “I have a passion for the martial arts aspect of learning and creating your own style. There’s so many different ways to throw a jab.”

He stumbled into Chris Rodriguez’s muay thai club. Rodriguez had seen Ghareeb’s type before: the brash, confident kid convinced he’d become an MMA fighter.

“For the most part, they come in for a week, then they disappear,” Rodriguez said. “It’s all talk.”

Not with Ghareeb. He kept showing up, taking notes and improving. It became his thing. Ghareeb and Rodriguez forged a bond they called family.

Some days they would even skip criminology classes to train.

“Our type of people, this is what we are,” Rodriguez said. “This is what we always wanted to do.”

Ghareeb’s first two fights came on the first two weekends in April of his senior year. He knocked his first opponent out in 24 seconds and submitted his second opponent in the third round via a guillotine choke, which involves encircling an opponent’s neck and squeezing with the forearm.

“Completely unconscious,” Ghareeb said.

Journey of discovery

Ghareeb graduated from West Virginia in the summer of 2016 with a criminology degree, then designed his own postgrad MMA program. He trained six days a week at times, first at Team Link, then followed Jon Manley to Easthampton when he started his own gym in the Eastworks mill building.

“He and I started kind of at the same martial arts level, and he just focused,” McSweeney said. “He went into the stratosphere.”

Ghareeb sought further improvement. Last March, he decided to fulfill one of his English class PowerPoint goals: go to Thailand. He researched the trip and departed June 12.

Leaving work required little notice. His father owns Chilson’s Shops Inc. in Easthampton, where Ghareeb helped out. He also earned extra money checking IDs at the Tunnel Bar on weekends.

“I’m good at keeping track of my money,” Ghareeb said. “I save it instead of blowing it on stuff I know I don’t need.”

Ghareeb spent two months in Thailand training at camps like Top Team, AKA Thailand and TNY Muay Thai.

The temperature hovered in the mid to high 80s, the days soupy with humidity. He trained with world champions and UFC professionals.

“Guys who are living the dream like I’ve always wanted to,” Ghareeb said.

His training involved rotations of sparring and drills. He’d hit the bag 10,000 times, then spend 20 minutes in the clinch grappling or practice 300 kicks or 300 knee strikes. More than the physical toil, Ghareeb explored his mental limits.

“You start to change your mindset,” he said. “I’m not getting tired. I can do more.”

Achieving one of his own goals roused new passions in Ghareeb. He wanted to inspire others.

“My next thing has always been, use the fighting to get to be a motivational speaker someday,” Ghareeb said. “I want to inspire people to go and do more with their lives.”

After learning different disciplines and exploring other approaches, Ghareeb developed a unique style.

“It’s unorthodox. Nate has a style that’s not like anyone else’s,” Rodriguez said. “If you’re not glued and watching everything he does, he’s going to crack you with something you didn’t see.”

Ghareeb surprised himself as well. Traveling and interacting with different cultures didn’t just whet his appetite for MMA training; it made him want to expand his social horizons, too.

He read motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, Eric Thomas and Les Brown. He studied stoicism and ruminated on the “arts” part of martial arts.

“People have this perception that fighting is barbaric, these guys are messed up. We’re just everyday people,” Ghareeb said. “I’m not here to beat people up.”

He views the fighting as a craft and a means of self-expression. Granted, violence always exists when punching another man in the face, but Ghareeb doesn’t fight from a place of anger.

“A lot of fighters I work with are damaged in a lot of ways, but not Nate,” said Jack Yee, Ghareeb’s mental strength coach. “He’s a very level-headed kid.”

Yee started working with Ghareeb at Jon Manley MMA in October when he heard that there was a young fighter who needed help with his strength and conditioning. The workouts Ghareeb completed with Yee pushed him past the point of physical exhaustion to where he needed to rely on mental fortitude to complete them.

Yee has a background in sports psychology and has worked as a middle school teacher and counselor for 30 years. He publishes a blog called mentaltoughnessguy.com and operates a counseling business. Normally Yee charges athletes for his services, but he helps Ghareeb for free.

“He’s a young athlete, and I didn’t feel like charging him,” Yee said.

Typically Yee deals with motivation and helping athletes focus. Neither was a problem for Ghareeb, so he began to work on the next level of mental toughness.

“Training as a fighter, you’re always coming up with obstacles,” Yee said. “What I want to install with him is having a positive mindset, not to get discouraged.”

They talked for an extended period of time about Ghareeb and his view of himself. Yee paid close attention to the words Ghareeb used. He wrote down the illuminating ones like “awareness” and “different.”

“I pride myself on being different. I’m not like everybody else,” Ghareeb said. “I’m not a professional UFC fighter. I aspire to be.”

Ghareeb’s amateur record stood at 5-1 before Reality Fighting 100. He’s fought in organized bouts for 18 months from West Virginia to Vermont and Connecticut.

Ghareeb hopes to be 10-1 by the end of his amateur career and hold three amateur belts before turning pro.

“This is what I wanted,” Ghareeb said. “As an amateur, I’m trying to build my resume.”

In the octagon

Ghareeb felt his back press against the Reality Fighting 100 cage at Mohegan Sun. Less than 20 seconds into his lightweight title match with Bienia, he found himself in trouble. Bienia caught his first attempt at a shin kick, a muay thai specialty, and pushed Ghareeb backward, going for a takedown.

Ghareeb backpedaled, steadying himself against cool plastic and hopping on his “destined for greatness” foot. He stalled that engagement until the referee separated the fighters and returned them to a standing position, just where Ghareeb wanted. He circled around Bienia’s punches, slipping against the cage and quickly popping Bienia in the chin with his left fist. The arena volume crescendoed when his punch landed. Bienia stumbled a step then kept the confrontation contained in a clinch until the bell sounded.

Ghareeb took Bienia to the ground multiple times in the second round and tried for a submission. Not finding one, he let his opponent up so they could strike.

Bienia caught him in the third round. He took Ghareeb to the mat and gained his back, searching for an arm. He found Ghareeb’s right arm, the skin bearing tribal tattoos and block text reading “grappler” slick with perspiration. Bienia locked the arm bar, a submission hold that hyperextends a fighter’s elbow joint. A hush fell over the crowd, assuming the fight was over.

It wasn’t.

Ghareeb slipped for a moment, frantically pursuing freedom.

“I was holding for dear life,” he said. “It wasn’t extended all the way and I was like, ‘shit, maybe I can roll, I can try and do something.”

There was nothing to do. Bienia had his arm bar locked. Ghareeb acquiesced and patted his hand against Bienia’s shoulder, tapping to surrender the victory.

“I wasn’t going to tap, wasn’t going to tap, but it’s like dude I’m not getting paid for this, I’m not gonna let him break my arm,” Ghareeb said. “If I was getting millions of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars, f--- it, break my arm, and I’ll keep going. But I’ve got to get back in the fight. I’m not where I want to be yet.”

The evening’s master of ceremonies brought the fighters to the center of the ring. Bienia stood to his left, and Ghareeb was on his right, closest to the two ring girls holding the belt. The MC raised Bienia’s right hand to declare him champion, and the girls delivered him the belt. Ghareeb’s eyes followed the belt as it crossed his path to Bienia. As he walked out of the octagon and across the arena floor, the crowd applauded his tenacity and showmanship.

In the octagon, the MC questioned Bienia about his submission.

“He’s such a tough SOB. That arm bar was locked. I don’t think he was ever going to tap,” Bienia said. “I thought he was going to lose the arm before he tapped.”

Ghareeb returned to his locker room with Manley, Rodriguez and Steve Pinard, a training partner from Manley’s gym. When Bienia returned to his own room across the hall, Ghareeb crossed the red-carpeted threshold and thanked him. They complimented each other’s fighting styles, shared a hug and posed for pictures.

“People think it’s a barbaric sport or people want to kill each other,” Ghareeb said. “It’s about improving your life.”

Leaving Bienia, Ghareeb took a shower and threw up. His conditioning had started to fail him near the end of the fight, he said. He made a mistake allowing Bienia to take him down and control his back that cost him.

“That’s a mistake I can’t let happen again,” Ghareeb said.

Ghareeb exited the shower clad in a blue paisley suit and pink collared shirt. He laced up brown leather shoes, then took one last picture with Rodriguez and Pinard. Ghareeb mean mugged the camera and raised his right index finger, signaling “No. 1,” still chasing goals.

“I’m not even that disappointed. I got to be with my friends and family and people that I love,” Ghareeb said. “Here’s the reality: I got to do what I love.”

He got to be himself.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.