Gambino, a wrestling and football standout during his Sawyer days, said the discipline of the former has proven to be vital in his quick success in the professional MMA ranks. His record stands at 6-0.
“Wrestling is one on one, that’s only you,” he said during a telephone interview. “Wrestling really motivated me. If I lose, it’s just me, no one else. Wrestling is points and you’ve got to pin somebody. MMA you can use your fists, knees whatever you need to win. That’s what motivates me.”
Gambino was speaking from his Montreal apartment, a city in which he doesn’t speak the predominant language and in which he’s miles from home. That sense of isolation evokes the training scenes from the Rocky films which inspired Gambino as a kid, especially the fourth installment which saw Sylvester Stallone’s iconic pugilist prepare to take on Russian automaton Ivan Drago by running up snowy mountains and throwing massive cuts of timber as part of his training regimen.
Montreal isn’t nearly as isolated as the Soviet wilderness, but for a young man who’s drawn inspiration from family all his life, it can sometimes feel just as far away.
“I have three brothers, one younger,” Gambino said. “My mother was from Yonkers, my father was from Saugerties but they were tough on us. ‘Don’t go looking for trouble, but don’t let anybody get the best of you.’”
Gambino said the move to MMA, which combines any number of fighting disciplines in a caged ring, was a natural for him.
“I’ve always been in good physical shape and I thought I’d be good at it,” he said. “Growing up, I had a few fights here and there. I never lost.”
It started with wrestling, but rather than continue on the mat in college with the hopes of maybe eventually finding his way to MMA, Gambino’s course was set by a small amount of good fortune and a much larger amount of determination. After graduating high school in 2008, Gambino was working for his step-father’s landscaping company with an eye toward taking over the business one day. But when he heard about the NY Top Team MMA training facility opening in Saugerties, he began an arduous routine of working full-time during the day and training at night. He credits Ron Darnley and others at NY Top Team for helping turn him into a fighter who, after going four-for-four in amateur bouts, started to feel the pull from Canada, where he was told his skill wasn’t just enough to go pro with the Mixed Fight League, but also attract attention from the legendary Tri-Star Gym.
But first came the Rocky IV moment, as Gambino trained for his first two professional bouts at Speedy Gym in Granby, a small town roughly the same distance from Montreal as Saugerties is from Albany. For six months, Gambino lived in Speedy Gym owner Dirk Waardenburg’s basement while he trained. All the while he had his sights set on Tri-Star.
“It was difficult to get into that gym, it’s so well known on a professional level,” said Gambino, recalling having paid his dues by turning up every Friday to watch sparring just to prove he wanted to be there.
After winning his first two professional bouts by first round TKO, he got his chance.
“Finally, one day after Friday sparring, I was told to bring my gear for the next week,” Gambino said.
10 MMA fights and no losses, including the last six at the professional level; that’s where Gambino finds himself in the wake of a second round tap-out win over Toronto native Matt Spizak last month.
Gambino trains and lives in Montreal, though he returns home to Saugerties for a few weeks following a bout to spend time with family and train locally. Each time, he remembers how difficult it was to leave for the first time, to sell his car and his street bike so he could afford the trip, and to say goodbye to the friends and family who’ve always provided support and inspiration.
“I get homesick a little bit, but I think about why I’m here,” he said. “I want to chase my dream. Everybody has seen me in action, from football and wrestling. Knowing everyone supports me, when times get tough, when I get homesick, I use that as motivation.”
Gambino has also been motivated by his unique tattoos, all of which he’s had done in Saugerties at Marky Mark’s, including a chain-link fence across his right rib cage that extends to his back.
“Everybody loves that,” he said. “Up here in the gym with all these professional fighters, they see it while I’m training and they’re blown away. After my third fight I decided to get it.”
He also has “Step into my world” on the side of his right rib cage, “Tap, snap or nap” on his back, an Italian flag on his chest and “Raging Warrior” on the inside of his right triceps. That last was inspired by a high school nickname.
“I was always pissed before games,” he said. “In wrestling I went up to varsity in 8th grade, and in football I went varsity in 10th grade. They’d ask where I got all that rage because, I was possessed on the field.”
After taking a headbutt over his right eye during a high school wrestling match, Gambino received seven stitches, donned a Hannibal Lecter-esque facemask and kept wrestling. And winning.
“’You’re a real warrior, a true warrior,’” Gambino said his teammates told him.
Ever since going pro, Gambino’s star has continued to rise. He’s been featured in magazines, has a local Canadian fanbase thanks to the sport’s popularity as a live televised event and continues being talked about as a serious contender as a featherweight. And while his next fight is expected to take place in Canada in December, he hopes his career arc will see him hit some big arenas in the United States before long.
“There’s a lot of talk and a lot of push to go to Madison Square Garden,” he said of the Mixed Fight League. “They’re very close to doing that. Obviously Las Vegas, the MGM is a goal. But for me, Madison Square Garden, a hometown place, would be great.”
Scott Wickham, who coached Gambino during his five years of varsity wrestling, said he wasn’t surprised by the young athlete’s success.
“He was always so determined as far as wrestling went,” Wickham said. “He’s still the only sectional champ I’ve had, and I’m in my 15th year of coaching. To me, it’s a natural sport for him. He’s got that determination and the will to win.”
Wickham said he keeps up with Gambino’s career online and through conversations between the two, but he hasn’t had a chance to see any of his former charge’s professional bouts.
“The only thing I’ve ever wanted from any of the individuals who’ve wrestled with me was for them to be happy,” Wickham said.
As for advice he might have for young Saugerties kids hoping to get into MMA one day, Gambino said wrestling is what got him to where he is today.
“Wrestling is the best base to start out,” he said. “And if you have a goal it doesn’t matter how small a town you come from, it’s the heart that’s beating in your chest. Once I found the opening, I went for it. I never dreamed of training at Tri Star gym. But it went so fast for me, and it was really due to my wrestling.”