Alessio Looks to Break Canuck Curse in Bellator
Canada has long been known as the mecca of mixed martial arts. In addition to the strong national grassroots support of the sport from coast-to-coast, Canadian talents are recognized among the sport’s pioneers and a proud Canadian in Georges St-Pierre currently sits atop the heap in the UFC as their Welterweight champion, top pay-per-view draw, and one of the best pound for pound fighters on the planet.
However, the one nut that has proved difficult to crack for the true north strong and free has been the Bellator tournament. While success has been had on an individual fight level by athletes such as Ryan Ford, Elias Theodorou, and others, the Bellator tournaments have been bereft of Canucks with their hands held high.
Ben Greer kicked off the Canadian curse in Bellator tournaments with an opening round loss to eventual winner and first Bellator Featherweight champion Joe Soto. Coincidentally, it was also the last time Greer competed in MMA. Current UFC Lightweight Mike Ricci tried his luck in season two’s Lightweight tournament but was also upended in the qualifying round by Pat Curran. That season, Will Romero also entered that season’s Featherweight tournament, but had his ambitions quickly derailed by Patricio “Pitbull” Freire.
It was easy enough to write off the early Bellator failures as “development” or “bumps in the road”. A new generation of Canadian mixed martial artists were ready to take up the mantle of national pride and blaze a trail in Bellator. That is not how it has worked out so far. The results have continued to mark a Maple Leaf in the side of the “L” column. Nordine Taleb lost a decision to Marius Zaromskis in season seven, Guillaume de Lorenzi came up short against Saad Awad in the opening round of last season’s Lightweight tournament, and Canada’s first hope in season nine didn’t fare any better as Canadian-born resident of China Vaughn Anderson was submitted by the controversial War Machine in last weekend’s Bellator 100 Welterweight tournament opening round. Anderson had been touted by Bellator as “the best kept secret in MMA”, but know that the secret is out, the statement appears to be little more than shrewd marketing to build up a fighter unknown to a national audience on Bellator’s part.
Six Canadian fighters have entered Bellator tournaments and not one has ever had their hand raised.
That leaves Canada’s hopes on one man. One of the sport’s aforementioned pioneers, the man who stepped in to face Pat Miletich for the UFC Lightweight title and continues to compete at a high level today, John “The Natural” Alessio.
Alessio makes his Bellator debut Friday night in the opening round of season nine’s Lightweight tournament against Will Brooks. Alessio was cut by the UFC last year after an 0-2 run that saw the veteran come up short in the grappling department against fellow Canadian Mark Bocek and Shane Roller. Being matched up with another wrestler like Brooks was not high on Alessio’s priority list, “just my luck,” he laughs, but Alessio remains confident he can leave the cage with his hand raised and feels his physical strength will play a major factor.
“I, more than likely, would’ve had to fight [Brooks] at some point anyway so why not get it out of the way now. It doesn’t bother me and I’m not hung up on the fact he’s a wrestler or he’s a striker, I just prepare for the fight and I’ve been working hard on my wrestling and my overall MMA game and I’ve been working really hard on getting my strength up. When I made the cut to 155, I had to change my whole body. I used to have to go from 195 to 170 but then I had to change from 180 to 155 and in that process you’re going to lose strength. I felt like that was a huge deciding factor on those fights. I worked really hard for the last three months on getting my strength up a lot – a lot of dead lifts, Olympic lifts and tried to integrate it into my wrestling training. “
But physical tools have never been the source of trouble for Alessio in the cage. Indeed, his oft-described trouble with wrestlers turned into as much of a mental block for him than anything else. Despite his years of training, he found himself not believing that he could wrestle or stop a takedown. Through increased focus on the mental aspect of the game, Alessio is confident the results will bear fruit.
“It was really important for me to process some things that I was holding inside and did not even realize were issues until they really came up. I have been seeing a hypnotist, who works specifically with MMA fighters and poker players. We have had huge breakthroughs and he has really helped change my life inside and outside of fighting. It was an amazing thing and it really comes down to opening your mind up and self-evaluation. A lot of fighters don’t evaluate themselves. They bring in trainers and do things like that but they hold in some of those things that are mental blocks not physical blocks but a mental block can turn into a physical block really easily.
I had it stuck into my head that I couldn’t wrestle. I manifested this problem inside my head and really I’ve been wrestling and doing MMA for 15 years and I’ve been stuffing takedowns for 15 years. I think I spent a lot of time being mentally cheated about takedowns and now I can use my strength and technique. If he wants to shoot in on me, which I know he’s probably going to do once I shake him up a few times, then so be it! I’ll stuff that and even if he does get me down then I’ve been working on submissions and I’m just really mentally stronger than I’ve ever been. What’s he going to do when he can’t do the one thing that he’s good at? I can strike, I can wrestle, I can do submissions so I’m really not too worried.”
With his head on straight, Alessio is now free to focus on what he does best. An accidental eye-poke ruined his return to Canada in his match-up with Dave Mazany last year, but he’s aware that with his fight with Brooks taking place in Portland, Oregon, many Canadians from his home province of British Columbia will be making the trek. Indeed, Alessio carries an entire country with him in his corner on Friday night.
Two straight losses, getting cut from the UFC, and a no contest in his homecoming fight gave Alessio his own Mayan curse in 2012. A victory over Will Brooks will exorcise his own MMA demons and also break the Bellator Canadian curse. Only time will tell if the MMA gods finally rule in both his and Canada’s favour.