By Tera Rosebrough with DC Howard
Many talented young prospects enjoy careful matchmaking with the support of a local promoter, but Virginia-born road warrior Tony Gravely, 27, has blazed his own brave trail toward the UFC.
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Iron sharpens iron, and the reigning CES champ has forged his mettle at some of the toughest anvils on the U.S. regional scene, earning accolades and title belts at every step of the way. After plenty of success and lessons learned, Gravely is now set to defend his CES bantamweight title this Friday at CES 55 with a shot at the big show squarely in his crosshairs.
A Childhood Dream
For Gravely (17-5), martial arts has been a way of life – and the UFC his solitary goal – since a very young age. The son of a Tae Kwon do instructor, Tony started training that art before Kindergarden. As soon as Gravely found MMA on television, he knew that cagefighting was exactly what he wanted to do.
“Growing up, I watched a lot of King of the Cage and UFC with my dad. I also watched Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and any other MMA I could find. I decided what I was going to do with my life at age 6 or 7,” Gravely told The Body Lock.
Throughout his pro career, Gravely has shown off skilled wrestling that he uses to set up an aggressive ground striking attack – a bit like his childhood MMA idol, Tito Ortiz, though with a lot more speed and polish. Gravely started honing his wrestling base at a young age after his love of fighting got him into a bit of trouble in school. Like many dedicated wrestlers, the sport proved to be the perfect solution.
“I would never back down as a kid and I really liked being in fights. I didn’t have an outlet for all of my energy. Then, I got into wrestling in sixth grade and the fights stopped.”
For a spell, Gravely tried to balance MMA training with a desk job but terms that combination “spiritual suicide.” With the support of his wife, Tony now trains full-time under Perry Gibson in pursuit of his UFC goal. One effect is that it’s allowed him to travel more for training and find more accomplished partners to work with, especially on his core skillset, wrestling.
“My first two years of going pro, I didn’t train much wrestling because I didn’t have a lot of partners who could push me. Finally, I got in to the Virginia Tech wrestling room and have been going 2-3 days a week since July 2018”.
Road Warrior in the Regionals
A true road warrior, Gravely has held belts for a variety of promotions including nationwide regional King of the Cage, top New England promotion CES MMA, and Pennysylvania’s PA Cage Fight organization. He’s also won fights for LFA, CFFC, M-1 Global, Ring of Combat, and Fight Lab (North Carolina). All that experience has taught Gravely a great deal about the ins-and-outs of the business, from the fighter’s perspective.
“By working for different promotions, you learn how you should be treated, what’s right, what’s not right.”
“… (in the regionals) I don’t want to be with one promotion. That lessens the playing field. Now I have deals with King of the Cage and CES, and they’ve been great about giving me the OK to compete in promotions like M-1.”
Gravely currently owns the King of the Cage bantamweight title thanks to a finish of Drako Rodriguez last September, but his only loss in his past ten fights came in an earlier KOTC title bout versus recently signed Bellator prospect Patrick Mix. The lanky Mix, who is still undefeated, took advantage of Gravely’s aggression with a guillotine choke in May 2018 that delayed his rise to the King of the Cage throne. The loss was a setback but it also taught Gravely a lot about the level of skill and the approach he needed to achieve to dominate and defeat elite fighters.
“Growing up, I always watched King of the Cage with my Dad, so I wanted to win the Mix fight for my Dad, not just myself. I was heartbroken.”
“My training method didn’t change but my skills have. After the Mix loss, I started approaching fights in a smarter way…”
“That loss was a big learning experience and got me on the winning streak I am on now. My fight IQ went way up after that fight … that loss to Mix really changed my path.”
Never one to sit on the sidelines for long, Gravely jumped at the opportunity one month later to fight for the Fight Lab title against North Carolina prospect James Quigg. Despite fighting in Quigg’s home state, Gravely brought over one hundred vocal supporters (“school buddies, high school wrestling buddies, and family members”) from his hometown in Martinville, Virginia and ended up dominating and finishing Quigg in round 3.
“When you’re on a loss, having a new fight to train for helps motivate you again and I was determined to win. I also had my wife and coaches in my corner, they are always my biggest supporters.”
CES Gold Foreshadowing UFC Shot?
Tony Gravely made his biggest statement yet last November when he won the CES belt on AXS TV with a slam KO of Kody Nordby. Two months later, Gravely took on another handpicked hometown star Kris Moutinho in the CES 54 main event and looked more dominant than ever on the mat en route to a fourth-round TKO.
“Moutino wasn’t active on the ground, the canvas was slick so I figured I would just wrestle to wear him out and make sure to get in punches wherever I could. That’s the difference between MMA and wrestling, I’m a good wrestler but I fight like a mixed martial artist.”
With nine wins in his last ten fights and Tapology rankings as the #1 bantamweight in the US Southeast, US Northeast, New York, and New England, it’s clear that Gravely is as close to a UFC opportunity as anyone on the regional scene. Upcoming CES 55 challenger Darren Mima is a tough, experienced opponent, but Gravely has no plans to let the 17 fight veteran stand in the way of his dream of competing against the best in the world.
“I feel like it’s all the same, but I hope this fight is my toughest. I always train like I’m gonna fight T.J. Dillashaw, like it’s the toughest, absolute hardest fight. That way there are no surprises.”
One thing you’ll notice watching Tony Gravely fights is that commentators and ring announcers find all sorts of creative ways to say his last name. So which pronunciation should Bruce Buffer use when he finally says Gravely’s name before his inevitable UFC debut? Turns out that one side of the family, or the other, will be happy no matter what “The Buff” shouts on fight night.
“Well it’s Grah-vuh-lee, but the funny thing is, I have family up north that pronounces it Grave-lee. When the family gets together there are debates on how it’s said.”
Talking to Tony it’s clear that his family and team play a huge role in his life, helping to drive him to be his best in and outside the cage. With Gravely’s skills, work ethic, and high fight IQ, the sky is the limit for the 27-year-old prospect as he seeks to achieve his dreams and inspire others.
“My wife is my biggest support. I fight for this UFC dream for her, and for all the small town people that have big dreams.”
DC Howard is a US & global MMA aficionado and curator of the weekly World MMA Geek Guide. DC enjoys long walks uphill in both directions, watching facepunching, his cats, and watching facepunching with his cats.