What’s Tickling Mark DellaGrotte’s Toes

Earning Respect

By Joe Hall Feb 20, 2008
In Boston, DellaGrotte had immediately shifted his teaching focus to Thai boxing. He became a certified instructor under Master Yodtong, and his school became the U.S. branch of the Sityodtong camp. Then followed the most convincing evidence he had won the respect of the Thai natives.

During one of DellaGrotte's many visits, the exact year or trip he can't recall, he was waiting in the gym when the schoolchildren arrived. They ranged from about 10 years old to 14. Kids growing up training, and from a pickup truck they climbed out of the back and over the sides, to hustle in and bow to their trainers before putting up their school books and changing into their Thai shorts. DellaGrotte had seen the ritual countless times, but this particular trip, suddenly, the children were coming right up to him, bowing and calling him kru.

"Wow," said one of the European fighters training that day. "The kids bow to Mark."

The other trainers also began referring to him as kru, which means teacher and carries a tone of great respect. He had fought in Thailand, too. Enough to prove himself in the ring but also realize that while he was a good fighter, he was a better trainer.

"I really found my niche when I started to develop fighters of my own," he says. "I started to fight because I didn't want to be that instructor who was all theory and no practice. If the people you're trying to teach don't truly trust you, then you'll never reach them. You'll never touch that person."

Call it field-testing. DellaGrotte was also still trying new styles. When local ground specialists visited his school to study standup, he wouldn't let them leave without showing him some jiu-jitsu.

Kenny Florian (Pictures) was one of those grapplers. He had trained with DellaGrotte before being selected for the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter." Everyone figured Florian was too undersized and one-dimensional to be successful on the reality show. Then of course the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt used an elbow strike he had learned from DellaGrotte to cut Chris Leben (Pictures) and advance to the finals.

"That's when the phone started ringing," DellaGrotte says.

The next breakthrough came when he was asked to coach on "The Ultimate Fighter 4." Titled "The Comeback," the cast was 16 Octagon veterans vying for a title shot.

"These are your coaches," announced UFC President Dana White the first day of filming.

Georges St. Pierre (Pictures) emerged to widespread approval from the cast. Next was Randy Couture (Pictures), greeted with a reverent welcome. Then Mark DellaGrotte.

"Errrrpppp," DellaGrotte describes the reaction he received, "like the DJ had hit the table. Everybody was like, ‘Who the hell is that?' Nobody knew who I was. I think the only guy on the show who knew me was Jorge Rivera (Pictures), and he was one of my students."

So the first day of training, when the fighters asked him the plan, he said to glove up.

"Some of the coaches looked at me and said, ‘You're going to spar?' I was like, ‘I'm sparring with all 16 of these guys today.'"

DellaGrotte gave some lumps and took a few. At the end of the day, he was icing down with the fighters. At the end of the season, he was welcoming many of them to Boston for more training.

Travis Lutter (Pictures), Patrick Cote (Pictures) and Pete Spratt (Pictures) all began to visit DellaGrotte's gym after the show. Rivera and Florian are still based there, and he has also added Stephan Bonnar (Pictures) and Marcus Davis (Pictures) to the growing roster of fighters he helps prepare.

These guys swear by DellaGrotte. Lutter says it's the way he enhances a fighter's game without changing it. Bonnar points to his authentic Thai style built on top of a solid MMA foundation. Florian has been to Thailand with him and tells of world champions approaching DellaGrotte, bowing and asking him to hold the pads for them.

Unlike some striking trainers, DellaGrotte has also embraced the ground game. The 34-year-old is a purple belt approaching a brown in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Florian.

"My mind always thought MMA, but nobody really thought of me as the MMA guy," he says. "If you're not putting it all together, you're missing something. That's why I shifted my focus from just being a striking coach to actually teaching the whole package."

That's why MMA classes and grappling are now offered at DellaGrotte's gym, which is housed in the basement of his father's law office in Somerville, Mass. It's a nice, clean place. The ceiling drops low in certain sections, generating a good round of laughter whenever someone forgets that fact. On any given night, you could have a hard time finding a spot on the mat. Thai music plays in the background of the Thai boxing classes, and all the students' busy jump ropes coalesce into a sound like swarming bees.

Now this is not Bettendorf, Iowa, where UFC champions walk in and out of Pat Miletich (Pictures)'s gym every three hours or so. Certainly there are camps and trainers, in Brazil and abroad and stateside too, who have accomplished more than DellaGrotte has to date. In New Mexico, it should be said, there's a guy named Jackson probably answering a phone call right now from yet another pro fighter hoping to come down for some training.

DellaGrotte is in the midst of his climb, and he'll tell you as much. He is here and has goals there, but there's no doubt he's huffing across that distance daily. The impulses that have compelled him for more than a decade still drive him -- to figure out the future, to incorporate it into the present.

Ask him about cutting-edge MMA, and he'll talk for an hour. That's the game, he says, to keep mixing it up. Do it differently every fight, never stop developing, to where no opponent can drop a finger down on what one of DellaGrotte's fighters will do.

You could take out a notebook and a pen or you could watch him with his 15-month-old son, Dante. The father moves through his gym now, his blue-eyed boy in his arms, grinning. Not that he necessarily wants his child in a cage 18 years down the road. It's undeniable, though, that DellaGrotte holds something of what's to come. They can't pass a heavy bag without Dante pawing out what looks like a jab. This kid whose father slept with rats tickling his toes in Thailand, whose mother, Marie, runs the gym in Somerville and carried him for nine months, during which the world outside Dante resonated with the ringing of round timers and the thuds of shins kicking against pads. He has a playpen in the gym, for when he's not crawling across the mats. This child, who sits against the cage, watching his father train Kenny Florian (Pictures) toward a UFC title.

"I've gone to grappling tournaments and seen these little kids running around eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and slapping armbars on each other," DellaGrotte says with a visible zeal for the future. He can't wait. He's out there, looking for it.

"It's crazy," he says. "I'm telling you. I'm telling you this next generation is going to be scary."
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