ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. -- Strip malls are as much a part of New Jersey lore as Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. They are omnipresent throughout the state, but what makes the Elmwood Park strip mall different is the nondescript single-story building that sits just a stone’s throw away from the local Subway and 7-11.
The only way to get inside the building is to walk down a narrow alleyway that leads to the entrance out back. Take a few steps up that alleyway at the right time of day, and the sound will hit you -- an irregular boom that only grows louder with every step. Make it halfway up and the boom is suddenly joined by dull smacks and guttural yells that seem to serve as a final warning for all who would think to approach that increasingly claustrophobic alley.
Turn the corner and the hell-scape in your mind is replaced by the sight of the Tiger Schulmann Fight Team engaging in what it has not so affectionately termed “morning torture.” The climax to its regular morning training session at its headquarters is a grueling strength and conditioning circuit that consists of flipping over massive tractor tires for about 100 feet and then slamming a sledgehammer down one-handed, 30 reps at a time.
Both circuits are repeated several times under a merciless sun, and the breaks between sets are so short that they make a mockery of the idea behind respites. Ten of Tiger Schulmann’s best are taking part in morning torture on this day. Among them are Bellator welterweight champion Lyman Good and undefeated middleweight knockout machine Uriah Hall.
Yet someone stands out among the pack. He looks to be only a couple of inches taller than the tire he flips, but he gets after it without an ounce of hesitation. As soon as he finishes, he starts barking encouragement at his teammates on the second circuit before taking over and handling the sledgehammer like he was born with one in his hand.
By the time the training session ends, it’s barely past noon, and undefeated bantamweight prospect Nick Pace has already spent nearly three grueling hours training for his June 11 bantamweight title bout against Steve Deangelis at Ring of Combat 30. He plops down next to me in a shiny, chrome chair, and bits of tire rubber embedded in his chest start to fall off haphazardly.
Somehow he does not appear to be the least bit winded and repeatedly apologizes for the dirt and sweat covering his body and penetrating the air.
Soon, he will head back to the Tiger Schulmann branch in Bay Ridge, where he regularly puts in an eight-hour shift as head trainer. This arrangement makes Pace one of the very few prospects in the sport who does not work a second, non-MMA related job and gives him the advantage of being entrenched in the sport for nearly every waking hour of his day.
“It’s great because I don’t have to go work construction or be a plumber just to fight.” Pace says. “The best part is that I’m always working on my technique, the basics, because I’m teaching people all the little things that are easy to ignore. I love doing it, and it makes me better, day in and day out.”
Pace’s love affair with martial arts began back when he was a pre-teen terror fueled by the Saturday morning exploits of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“I was a madman as a little kid, so back when I was 10, a friend of mine invited me to take classes at Tiger Schulmann’s, and I was in love with it from my first day,” he says. “I remember after my first class I was, like, ‘I can’t believe it. I’m in karate.’ I actually slept in my gi that night. After that, it was a wrap. I knew I wanted to do this.”
Photo Courtesy: Bellator
However, Pace’s Staten Island childhood was not all Ninja Turtles and martial arts, as his parents separated when he was 13. Raised mostly by his stern but loving mother, Andrea, from that point forward, he credits her with the mental fortitude and discipline that has kept him going all these years.
“In Staten Island, there’s not much to do except, y’ know, get drunk and smoke weed, but I was never into that,” Pace says. “And that’s really because my mom is tough as all hell, and I learned so much from her as far as mental strength and staying focused.”
Pace’s mastery of the mental game is usually the first trait his teammates point to when he comes up in conversation -- that and some good-natured putdowns.
“Nick? Oh, he sucks,” Hall says in an opening deadpan, though he quickly changes course. “Nick is the funniest guy around. He just says things that make you turn your head and laugh. But when it’s time to train, he doesn’t play around. He’s bullheaded and he comes at me hard … almost knocked me out once. Don’t tell him I said that.”
This comes from a guy who has more than 50 pounds on Pace. The sudden flash of solemnity that dashes across Hall’s usually genial face makes it clear he was not joking around. Good backs up Hall and takes it one step further.
“It’s not just that he’s talented; he’s so dedicated to his training,” Good says. “He has unbelievable potential, and if Bellator calls him for the bantamweight tournament, he’ll absolutely win it. I don’t think there’s anybody who can stop him.”
For his part, Pace seems unconcerned with Bellator’s internal decision making, despite his spectacular first-round flying knee knockout over Collin Tebo at Bellator 11. Still, he makes no bones about the fact that he does not want to spend his whole career on the Northeast regional circuit.
“I hope Bellator calls me because I know I can win their tournament, but I hope [the] WEC calls me, too,” Pace says. “I’m just looking to keep my options open and keep working towards being what I know I can be -- the best.”
The notion of a truly great mixed martial artist emerging from the Tiger Schulmann Fight Team seems unlikely to many observers, especially those in the Northeast who associate the gym with children’s karate classes and senior citizen seminars. Good’s success in Bellator has helped erode that perception, but Pace remains aware of it, and it quickly raises the ire of the lifelong Schulmann disciple.
“Gyms like Renzo Gracie’s in Manhattan do the exact same stuff as Tiger Schulmann’s,” he says. “Every gym has classes for kids and stuff, but because they have guys in the UFC they never get any crap for it. Right now, Tiger Schulmann’s is on its way up, and people are gonna find out that all that ‘McDojo’ stuff is bulls--t.”
If nothing else, the gym certainly has the right environment in place for refining great talent, as its headquarters is the stuff of dreams for any prospective fighter. Row after row of brand new gym equipment, a full-sized ring and cage and several hundred square feet dedicated to grappling mats are testaments to both the financial success of the Tiger Schulmann brand, as well its dedication to developing a respected fight team.
Beyond the obvious opportunities afforded by a proper training environment, Pace, after 13 years with the same team, seems genuinely motivated to prove that his time there has been building to something special. Aware of the demands that come with greatness, Pace makes it clear what he means when he says he wants to be the best.
“I want to fight Miguel Torres, Brian Bowles, Dominick Cruz … any of them,” he says. “Let’s go. I’m ready.”
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