Not all martial arts are the same. And, as can easily be deduced, not all martial artists are cut from the same cloth. There are some who started training as young children, and some who didn’t start until their 20’s or even 60’s. Some are lifelong athletes, asn some have only focused in one sport. In fact, some are just straight brawlers, and others take more of an approach like a professional athlete.
In Thailand, it is not unusual for Muay Thai fighters to start training at a very young age, and eventually start fighting almost weekly by their teenage years. In parts of Russia or the U.S. Midwest, some kids start wrestling before they can even read a book. In Brazil, kids are hanging around jiu-jitsu gyms when they can barely afford to eat. Regardless of what their background is, many of the best martial artists in the world have been doing it since they were really young.
For the most part, Mikey “Darth Rigatoni” Musumeci was a typical kid, growing up in New Jersey. He was outside playing baseball and football with his friends, but his primary sport was jiu-jitsu, which he and his older sister Tammi started when he was four years old and she was six. Both siblings excelled at jiu-jitsu, as well as in school. Mikey had very little interest in other sports.
“What I feel with jiu-jitsu is, first of all, it’s never-ending puzzle,” Musumeci told Combat Press. “So, I’ll do something, and I’ll have an answer, but then there’ll be a new reaction. There’ll be a new reaction. There’ll be a new reaction. And, you never feel satisfied that you have every answer to every action, so it keeps my mind occupied in a way that makes me keep going.
“But another reason why I do jiu-jitsu is I feel I have a gift for it you know? I’ve been doing it so many years, since I was a young kid. I wanted to go to law school, but I feel that God gave me this gift, and I feel like I’d be wasting my gift going to do something else when I’m so talented at an age where I’m able to compete.”
Musumeci had one other sport he was interested in as a kid. But, when he was only 10 years old, his family relocated from New Jersey to Florida. The rest, they say, is history.
“I was just a regular kid, you know?” said Musumeci. “Just a completely regular kid. I loved baseball, so I’d go train and then go outside with my friends. I’d play football, baseball, just random sports outside, but I consistently trained since I was four, you know?
“I was a big fan of the New York Yankees, like I was obsessed with them. My sister is a Mets fan though, so it’s so lame. I knew every player on the roster of the Yankees. I was very obsessed with watching baseball. But then, when I moved to Florida, I didn’t have the Yankees on TV anymore. You only get the local team, and I wasn’t going to become a Marlins fan. Screw that. So, I kind of just gave up on watching baseball at that time. Then, I started becoming obsessed with jiu-jitsu like I was with baseball. I started knowing who everyone was in jiu-jitsu. I started really getting into it – the same obsession – and then I grew up with it.”
Musumeci, who is now 26 years old, ended up moving from Fatjo’s Martial Arts Academy in New Jersy to multiple academies throughout Florida. He trained under one coach for a short time, before ending up at an American Top Team academy. He then bounced between a couple different ATT affiliates, WMB Miami, and even did some coaching as the Jaco Training Center, former home of the Blackzilians Fight Team, where he met Gilbert Burns. He eventually trained under the Mendes Brothers at Art of Jiu-Jitsu, and even under Caio Terra. Needless to say, unlike some grapplers who spend their entire careers under one roof, Musumeci was gaining a ton of experience from different perspectives that most could only dream of.
The New Jersey native earned a stack of medals at the colored belt levels, and after earning his black belt from Jonatas Gurgel and Gilbert Burns in 2015, his career really started to gain momentum. Musumeci already owns multiple titles at the highest levels of jiu-jitsu, including four IBJFF World Championship gold medals, one gold medal at IBJJF Pans, and one gold medal at the IBJJF World No-Gi Championship. He also holds five pro wins at Who’s Number One. All of this success has led to a fight contract with ONE Championship, who is rapidly growing their pro submission grappling roster to add to the other martial arts they currently promote.
“It really feels like I’m like a baseball player or a football player,” Musumeci said. “It actually feels like a professional organization. I feel like these tournaments – like ADCC or IBJJF – are amazing. They’re great tournaments to build exposure for you, but then, when you get to the major leagues, I feel like ONE Championship is like the major leagues now for publicity, the platform itself, the amount of money you can make, and the way they treat the athletes. There are so many benefits to being a part of ONE, man. My goal is to make this the biggest platform possible, so people can make a living with jiu-jitsu in the future, and it could be a big mainstream thing.”
For those outside of the sport, submission grappling may not be the most exciting sport to watch. It doesn’t appear to have the same fast, crazy action and dazzling knockouts as kickboxing or MMA. However, submission grappling comes with different rule sets, and some of the rule sets – the ones that allow for stalling to win by points – have sort of dug their own graves. ONE Championship understood the need to avoid a lack of action, so they set their rules accordingly.
“I think a big problem why jiu-jitsu can very boring for people is because the format in regular competition is just strategy with points,” Musumeci explained. “So, people are fighting very conservatively, trying to hold on, trying to win a close-contested match playing strategy. But, for ONE Championship we’re only rewarded for attacking submissions. There’s no other way to win. You have to submit the person.
“So, it creates an environment where both people are just throwing attacks at each other every second. Then, it doesn’t matter who’s watching. Muay Thai, kickboxing, MMA fans – they could all enjoy it because they enjoy submissions in MMA. It makes it really exciting to watch, and that’s why I put a lot of pressure on myself in these ONE matches. I know I have to make it exciting, so then viewers outside of jujitsu could enjoy it. That’s what I’m really working toward right now.”
Musumeci made his ONE debut at ONE 156 in Apr. 2022. His opponent was 46-year-old living legend, and BJJ black belt, Masakazu Imanari. Coming into the match, Imanari, who started training at 18 years old, held a 39-20-2 pro MMA record, was a multiple time DEEP champion across two divisions, and has multiple patented grappling moves, including the “Imanari roll”, which is a roll from standing into a leglock position that has gained a lot of popularity in modern submission grappling.
Imanari was a big test for Musumeci, and one he took in stride. In fact, four minutes and nine seconds into their bout, Musumeci was able to submit Imanari, launching the youngster into the ONE spotlight.
“I felt kind of starstruck, you know, because he’s such a legend,” said Musumeci. “So, just touching him, I’m like, ‘Oh my God. I’m right now rolling with, like, a legend.’ He was already competing and fighting MMA when I was like one year old, so the guy is such a legend. It definitely was a starstruck experience for me, and he’s a legend in Asia, so fighting a legend-in-Asia in Asia, you know, definitely was different, and it was my first competition ever in Asia, so it was a whole new experience.”
Not only was the experience of fighting Imanari, and in Asia, a highlight of his career, he was competing on a real fight card that has two title fights, featuring kickboxing and Muay Thai, as well as nine MMA fights. The whole experience was off the charts for the guy who mostly has competed in grappling tournaments.
“It was super interesting,” Musumeci elaborated. “It was the biggest match I’ve ever had and, like, in a freaking cage. Being a jiu-jitsu person, from fighting in a high school gymnasium to fighting in this big arena in a cage in front of all these people, it’s definitely a different experience. Like, you feel like you’re about to go into an MMA fight, honestly. A guy came up to me before, and he’s like, ‘You want me to wrap your hands?’ And, I’m like, ‘No, no, no, I’m not doing an MMA fight.’ So, it’s really interesting and just a new experience.
“It definitely was uncomfortable for me, being in front of so many people, being an introvert. But, every time I feel uncomfortable, I have this sick part of me that, whenever I feel uncomfortable, I have to do it. So, it pushes me to do more and more things, and I I feel like it made me excel as a person that I pushed myself to do that. And, every time I keep doing this, it pushes me to excel.”
Now that Musumeci has shaken off the initial butterflies of his first ONE bout, he is going to take things up a notch. This Friday night, during U.S. primetime, the world-champion grappler will look to add another accolade to his list of achievements. As a feature bout on the main card of ONE on Prime Video 2, Musumeci will face a familiar foe in Cleber Sousa, as the two look to become the inaugural ONE flyweight submission grappling champion.
Sousa and Musumeci first met at the black belt level at the IBJJF Pans back in 2017, and the Brazilian won that quarterfinal match by referee decision. Later that year, at the Abu Dhabi World Pro tournament, Musumeci beat Sousa by points, and he went on to win that round-robin tournament, beating all four opponents. The two have not met since.
Sousa has been more active in competition thus far in 2022, participating in the ADCC trials, as well as the IBJJF World Championships where he lost in his divisional semi-finals. Musumeci, on the other hand, has only been competing in pro bouts, including WNO and GrappleFest, before his ONE debut. Not one to focus too much on his opponents, the New Jersey native already knows a lot about the Brazilian.
“I think he’s a tough opponent,” said Musumeci. “He’s a very strong guy – very physical, tough guy. I kind of see all my opponents the same. They’re kind of the same mold. They’re just all strong and tough, and I feel like it’s just me trying to figure out the puzzle – like, working to get my jiu-jitsu to work against these guys. I’m going to throw attacks at him every second, and it’s up to me to have an answer to how he tries to defend my attacks. If I have the answer, we’ll see a beautiful position that I hit. If I don’t have the answer, you’ll see me have to problem-solve it in the match, and then work my way to getting the position and finishing the fight.”
Musumeci has his sights set on the ONE title, which he plans to defend as well. He has many goals in life, and, in his mid-20’s, time is on his side. In addition to his grappling goals and potential business ventures, he also plans to continue his higher education. He is currently studying to take the GMAT, as he looks to get into graduate business school.
“I went to Nova Southeastern University,” said the world champion. “I had a full scholarship there, because I had a Florida Bright Futures scholarship for my ACT score, so I got to go to school for free, and I got my Bachelor’s in business. Now, I want to get my Master’s in business.”
The GMAT, while being a tough test for some, has a fairly short time commitment in terms of what it takes to study, and a Master’s degree in business can be easy to navigate while also having a professional career. And, Musumeci is a professional grappler in every sense of the word. He currently trains out of his garage in Las Vegas, and he doesn’t have a formal gym affiliation. He trains with many grapplers he knows of varying belt levels and degrees of experience. However, he trains about 15 hours per day, and, as he recently discussed on the Joe Rogan Experience, he only eats once per day, and it is always a pizza and a pound of pasta.
While eating pizza and pasta, and only once per day, may not seem like a typical athlete’s diet, it works for Musumeci, and he is pretty ripped for a guy who mostly eats carbohydrates. However, with his Italian family heritage, he knows how to make his food, and he knows how to make it right. Hisn diet is so unique, that he has actually added some unusual sponsors.
“I have this pasta sponsor called Pasta Colombo,” said Darth Rigatoni. “It’s from, I believe, Sardinia, Italy. They ship it straight from Italy all the way to me in America, and the quality of it is amazing. It’s definitely different than eating like regular box Barilla pasta. For the pizza dough, I usually just use Whole Foods pizza dough. I’m not really like big on making my own dough, because I don’t have time. Like, making the dough is like a chemistry process. You have to really be into it with like the hydration, the amount of water, the amount of oil – like, everything. I haven’t really played with that as much. But, when I have more time in the future, I’m going to get really into pizza dough too.”
In addition to having a pasta sponsor, Musumeci also has an olive oil sponsor – Martino Coltivazione. Both companies send him these top-shelf ingredients straight from Italy, and he attributes a lot of his dietary and athletic successes to these ingredients.
“I think having the pasta, like the higher quality pasta, I feel like it’s a good energy from the carbs and the olive oil being higher quality,” said Musumeci. Everything I’m using is organic and good quality. Like, people think when I say ‘pizza,’ I’m eating like Domino’s or Papa John’s. I’m eating food like straight from Italy, like all organic, really high-quality, and expensive, you know? I feel like the quality is what makes the difference.”
Well, pizza and pasta aside, Musumeci has a big task ahead tomorrow night at ONE on Prime Video 2, when he faces Sousa. Should he win the title, he will certainly want to get back in the cage to defend it. Regardless, he has other ideas for what he can do inside the ONE Cirlce.
“My goal is to compete in ONE Championship, win the title – God willing, I could do that,” Musumeci said. “That would be my biggest title, yet, in jiu-jitsu. Then, my goal is to possibly have a match with Demetrious Johnson in a jiu-jitsu match. We could alter the rules a little bit. I think we would make it no leglocks, just to make it more fair and safer for him.
“My goal is now to bring more people to jiu-jitsu. I know that me and Demetrious, if we did a match, could generate over 100 million views, and that would be a big, big thing for jiu-jitsu – the biggest match ever with viewership. That would bring more people to start jiu-jitsu, which means that we’re having an impact on others and helping the sport grow. So, that’s kind of my goal at this point. I’ve already won all the titles I wanted to in jiu-jitsu, except this ONE title, of course. After I win this ONE title, my goal is going to be again more to help and bring others to jujitsu and try to help the sport grow as much as I can for the next generation.”
ONE on Prime Video 2 airs live in its entirety on Amazon Prime Video starting at 8 p.m. ET.
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