I’m not a fighter. I’ve never knocked a guy out, never even been in a schoolyard brawl. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been watching and thinking about fighters, and when you do that there’s always a part of you that wonders, What if that were me?
I imagine the point of no return: when all your instincts are telling you to run away, to cover your face and scream like a baby, to do anything except keep getting up and coming back for more. When you just ignore those instincts, and dive in. That’s the moment every single fighter in the world has gotten through.
Rick Migliarese’s deciding moment came decades ago outside Meredith Elementary School in South Philadelphia, with a punch to a fellow student’s face.
“From second through seventh grade I pretty much got my butt kicked, I got bullied,” Migliarese says. “We [Rick and his older brother Phil] were the only Italian guys in an Irish neighborhood, so nobody liked us. One day in seventh grade, a kid was picking on me and I don’t know what happened; I just snapped and threw the sloppiest punch you’ve ever seen. But it connected. And it knocked him down.”
From then on, Rick was a street fighter, getting into all kinds of youthful trouble and settling his disputes physically, often angrily. He’d figured out a hard truth: “I was smart enough to know nobody was protecting me; I had to handle it.” It wasn’t until later that he and Phil happened into the more controlled world of martial arts.
That happened when Phil was hanging out at Steve Maxwell’s new Maxercise gym in Center City. “[Steve] needed a babysitter for his kids,” Rick recalls, and the boys started working for him. Around 1990, a couple of guys in the Gracie family did a Brazilian jiu-jitsu seminar at the gym, and Phil was hooked. “That very day I thought, ‘I’m not ever stopping that stuff. I’m getting the black belt,’” he says.
There was no UFC at the time and hardly any free-form tournaments. Martial arts were taught primarily as self-defense. The Gracie family, teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the United States for the first time, focused on techniques people could use in a real fight.
“Karate and all that other stuff wasn’t working, it wasn’t real,” says Phil. “I did jiu-jitsu for one day and I was able to put some kid down. Jiu-jitsu could level the playing field against someone who was bigger, stronger, faster.”
Meanwhile, Rick continued to drift and work out his aggressions on the street, but he eventually came into the fold and joined Phil under Relson Gracie’s tutelage. As soon as they were old enough to travel, the boys flew to Brazil, then to Hawaii, where Gracie lives. “When we got back to Philly, we felt like we were good enough,” says Phil. “We took over the Relson Gracie association here.” They were in the first handful of Americans to get Gracie black belts. These days, Rick, 34, and Phil, 37, run Balance Studios, a Gracie-certified gym in Philadelphia. They’re also co-owners of Matrix Fights, Philly’s biggest homegrown MMA promotion.
Today, MMA is a worldwide phenomenon, and any gym that teaches ji-jitsu feels the pressure to capitalize on the sport’s appeal. But the brothers always start their students with form and discipline — Phil is working on a “Yoga for fighters” iPhone app — downplaying the MMA aspect of Brazilian jiu-jitsu until students have reached an expert level. It's like an old-school traditional martial arts gym.
“Professionals pay us all this money just to teach them the basics of Gracie jiu-jitsu, like standing up in base,” he says. Take former student, and former UFC Lightweight Champion, Frankie Edgar: “Frankie stood up in base on BJ Penn [in UFC 112] after they made him practice it 10,000 times,” Phil says. “It actually won him the fight.”
Many of the people coming through the doors at Balance are white-collar professionals who can’t be easily typecast as aggressive meatheads. This is a good thing, says Phil, because “it takes brains to do it. People who are just brawlers? They only make it so far.” But all of those doctors and lawyers and salesmen, when they walk under the “Leave your shoes and your ego at the door” sign hanging over the door, have to face that same old fear of getting clocked in the face that plagues me.
Phil Migliarese thinks they’ve started to fight those instincts long before that punch actually comes. It happens “the moment they think of training,” he says. “Walking through the door, people have that fear. You have to get over the feeling of, ‘Oh shit, they’re going to kick my ass.’"
Balance Studios is run by Phil & Rick Migliarese. Phil Migliarese is a 5th degree Relson Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt with over 20 years experience in BJJ, Muay Thai Kickboxing, and MMA. Rick Migliarese is a 4th degree Relson Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt with over 20 years of experience in BJJ, Boxing, and MMA. Balance Studios has help contribute to many top MMA fighter's careers including Frankie Edgar, Bellator MMA Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez, UFC Flyweight contender Zack Makovsky, Bellator MMA tournament fighters Sam Oropeza, Will Martinez, and Timmy Carpenter, plus many more. Balance Studios has two locations in the city of Philadelphia. One location is in Center City (108-114 Bonsall St Philadelphia Pa 19103) and the second location is in Northeast Philly (8025 E. Roosevelt Blvd. 2nd Floor Philadelphia, PA 19152). To contact the Center City Balance Studios, their phone number is 215-636-9661 and the Northeast Philly Balance Studios phone number is 215-708-0402.
For more information on Balance Studios go to the Official Balance Studios website.
For more information on Matrix Fights go to the Official Matrix Fights website.
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