Conversation in a physics class propelled James Gray to MMA – MMA Junkie
Sitting in Advanced Placement physics class, James Gray was set on the path to becoming a first-round fighting sensation.
He was a 16-year-old high school sophomore, and he was going through a dark period. After a recent move from his longtime Philadelphia home to Michigan, his girlfriend of more than two years committed suicide. That brought back painful memories of his mother’s suicide when he was a young boy.
He felt even more alone after his move, leaving his friends behind. He was smart, and he was a good athlete, but nothing had stuck – until a new friend nudged him in physics class.
“He said to me, ‘Did you watch the UFC?’” Gray told MMAjunkie. “I liked (MMA), but I hadn’t seen it. He said, ‘It was a sick fight, lots of jiu-jitsu.’
“I said, ‘What’s that?’”
It was an innocent question that would change his life. Injecting passion into a cloudy part of his life, jiu-jitsu training led Gray to competition success and then to an MMA career in which he has been rarely challenged.
Set to face Daniel Virginio for the Xtreme Fighting Championships eight-man bantamweight tournament title (the final has yet to be scheduled), James Gray is now 4-0 as a professional with all wins in 89 seconds or less, including two victories in the XFC tournament, both in Brazil, which have provided personal validation for the mostly self-taught Gray.
In fact, even though Gray has had little formal training outside of his first three months of jiu-jitsu as a high school student, he has gone on to teach nearly five dozen other fighters, including more than 10 professionals. His team is stout, his confidence is high and his history of first-round wins will soon be tested in his biggest fight to date.
“I’m a person who needs to feel like, ‘You could lose this fight,’ ” Gray said. “That’s what drives me.”
Looking for a path
Gray was raised in Philadelphia as the son of a mechanic who was a Golden Gloves boxer. He’s the kind of guy who has an attitude that signals he shouldn’t be messed with, even though he doesn’t start anything. Gray learned from that.
His mother’s death when he was about 5 years old was jarring, but things stabilized when his father remarried and Gray found enjoyment in playing roller and ice hockey, as well as other sports. He also found a serious girlfriend, and they decided to keep things going long distance when he moved to Michigan.
Then, after her death, things got darker in an already uncomfortable new environment.
“I had zero motivation for anything in my entire life,” he said. “That’s when I met this guy (in physics class), and we started talking about UFC and jiu-jitsu.
“I could finally pour myself into something. I was working on something, and I was finally having fun.”
He had first gone to a local gym, where jiu-jitsu became his passion. After a few months, he noticed that a jiu-jitsu tournament was happening in New Jersey, and he convinced his father it would be a good experience and a chance to be near old friends.
He signed up for a division meant for fighters with more experience, for the challenge of it.
“I won five matches, and I won the tournament, and I was completely hooked,” he said.
He also left his gym and did a majority of his training through videos and tutorials online. He researched the world champions and watched what they did, read about their training and tried to mimic their moves.
“They were my superheroes,” Gray said.
After a while, Gray realized that whenever he would tell his friends about his jiu-jitsu success, they had some variation of this reaction: Oh yeah? Well it’s not a real fight unless you can punch.
Eventually tired of hearing it, Gray agreed to try an MMA fight. He thought it would be a one-time thing, but then he won quickly. Then he won a second fight in less than a minute, and a third in less than a minute.
He was having success, but he needed something to take him to the next level.
“What changed it for me, and this might sound funny, was I started drinking,” he said. “I didn’t drink until I was 20. So I was starting to do that some, and there was a show someone said I should try.
“The guy I was supposed to fight couldn’t go, but they said they had someone else. I was 130, and this guy was 170, but I said I would try it.”
He lost the fight, and he had to ask himself: If he didn’t take this fight seriously, how could he take himself seriously at all? He made a new commitment to himself. He would dedicate himself fully to MMA, and when someone could beat him at the best of his abilities and training, he would consider stopping. But he wouldn’t take anything lightly again.
From then on, Gray only fought when he found a strong opponent, which stretched his amateur career about six years. He continued winning.
He made his professional debut in May 2013, and he won in 76 seconds. Then he won a second fight in 86 seconds.
Things changed. He was 2-0, and XFC offered him a chance to fight in its bantamweight tournament. He would go to Brazil, and he would meet more experienced fighters who could provide him the kind of test he was looking for.
His performance on that big test was a first-round submission win. That third pro fight was a defining moment for him, and it set up the former jiu-jitsu specialist and self-taught bulldozer to make a run to the XFC tournament title.
“That validated so many things over so many years,” he said. “It showed me that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. That’s one of the dots that got everything connected for me, and now I’m excited as ever to compete.”