Being a professional athlete means more than just achieving fame and fortune for Tony Gravely. And while the rest of the world still gets used to MMA fighters being recognized as legitimate athletes, Gravely is using his position to promote positivity.
The bantamweight prospect doesn’t even believe he fits the mold of the stereotypical fighter.
“I’m probably the farthest from the most typical fighter just because when I’m not fighting, I’m usually working with kids and I’m either like playing games, playing tag, dodgeball with kids, things like that,” Gravely told John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock.
“That’s probably something that a lot of people I guess wouldn’t know seeing a fight. I guess in general, people think that a lot of fighters are just kind of like meatheads unless you talk to them. I’d say I’m probably the farthest from and just because I’m not really intimidating. I’m just really laid back.”
Gravely’s second family is at Tech MMA Academy, where he not only trains but also coaches. Gravely teaches wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and MMA at the gym, and he often finds himself playing the chaperone role for the children who attend classes.
“It’s a good getaway from the hard work,” Gravely said. “I mean, not to get away from hard work, because the kids, they make you work too when you’re playing tag. But it’s just, it’s a good balance.”
Working with the children provides an added dose of cardio to his strenuous routine. It has also helped construct Gravely’s worldview.
Coaching has created a new support system built entirely from his students. With so many impressionable children looking up to him, Gravely makes it a point to lead by example.
“It keeps me down to earth as far as how I need to compose myself,” Gravely said. “The more I’ve fought, the more I’m around kids, the more they start to understand what I do. And then as they get older, they start to watch me fight and they watch my interviews and they watch me do things. So I have to make sure that I hold myself to a higher standard. I can’t be having a bad attitude, just doing things that people wouldn’t want their children to see.”
Growing up around MMA
The bantamweight prospect relates so well to the children because he was once in their shoes. Gravely’s father was a taekwondo master. By the time Gravely was comfortable on his own two legs, he was in the gym throwing kicks.
Gravely’s father was also a fight fan long before MMA reached mainstream success.
“That upbringing is what’s brought me in MMA,” Gravely said. “I’ve watched a lot, tons of martial arts movies, anything fight related. I grew up, that’s what I watched, what we watched all the time. Just fight stuff, fight movies, a lot of fight scenes, any action movie with a fight scene. It’s helped mold me into the person that I am in and given me the love for martial arts and mixed martial arts.”
Gravely and his father tried their best to watch every single UFC, PRIDE and King of the Cage event that they could get their hands on. Years later, Gravely would find his own name plastered on a King of the Cage poster in his pursuit of a career in fighting.
He turned pro in October of 2015, but he’s already amassed a record of a 10-year veteran. In less than four years, Gravely has 23 professional fights, 18 of which ended in victories.
Hitting a wall
Fighting so frequently in such a small window didn’t come without challenges. Gravely recalls two pivotal moments where adversity nearly got the better of him.
Gravely hit a roadblock in his career that began in August of 2016 and extended through half of the following year. In that span, he dropped three out of four fights, suffering defeats at the hands of future Bellator contender Ricky Bandejas, and future UFC fighters Merab Dvalishvili and Manny Bermudez.
“It was so frustrating because I put so much into it, and to not get what you feel like you’ve put into it, to not get it back, it hurts,” Gravely said. “I’ve been training full-time since about 2016, beginning of 2016. So to put so much into it and to have like everything that I do is fight related and to not get what I want, you know, it hurts. It hurts. You’re like, man, do I need to do something else? Is this not for me?”
After reevaluating himself for not much longer than a moment, Gravely returned to action just a month after his loss to Bermudez and picked up a win in King of the Cage.
“I won, and that win was like, all right, you know, maybe I need to stick with it,” Gravely said. “It was one of those things where it felt so much different than any other win. And it was just super emotional for me.”
A second setback
He would build upon the victory with three more before he reached a fork in the road for the second time. With the King of the Cage bantamweight belt in sight, Gravely again fell short.
“Growing up watching [King of the Cage] and to finally get that opportunity to fight for that title was just really — it meant a lot for me,” Gravely explained. “And losing, you know, I lost again. And it was like, man. It really hit me hard.”
Once again, Gravely questioned whether or not he was in the right field of work.
“When you lose, and I guess when they hurt really bad, it either does two things: It’s gonna make you quit or it’s going to make you dig even deeper until you get what you want,” he said.
Gravely selected the second option.
“That was my last loss,” Gravely said of that 2018 championship bout with Patrick Mix. “It was last year, but I’ve had so many fights since then. I just got back in there and kept going. And now that loss that seemed like it was so far away and it was only, I guess it was a little over a year ago, but it seems like it’s so far away because I’ve had so many fights between now and then. It’s almost like — not erased because I know what that feels like and I’ll never forget how that loss felt — but it almost pushes it in the back of other people’s heads.”
Tony Gravely gets recognized
Gravely has put together a six-fight winning streak since his loss in King of the Cage, which helped him get on the UFC’s radar and land a spot on Dana White’s Contender Series. Having been through so much in a short period of time, he feels he has an advantage over the greener prospects vying for a shot in the promotion.
“I feel like I’ve taken one of the longest, hardest roads to get to this point,” Gravely said. “I’ve had bumps and I have five losses, but also have 18 wins … I’ve taken dings, taken losses, I’ve won. But I’ve faced a lot of adversity and I’ve been tested. I’ve taken tough fights. I haven’t turned down any fights. And I’ve fought anybody that they put in front of me. So I feel like I’m ready for the opportunity to be in the UFC.”
Continuing the tradition his father put in place, Gravely does his best to watch every fight he can. When he can’t catch them live, he sets his DVR.
Most of the time, he’s just watching as a fan but simultaneously picking up some tips and tricks here and there. Watching Contender Series, in particular, has made him yearn for that coveted contract even more.
“I enjoy watching the fights because I like seeing other people that are as passionate as I am get their contracts,” Gravely said. “And it makes me feel really good, and I’m like, man, I can’t wait to see what that feels like.”
Having also watched a great deal of Legacy Fighting Alliance events, Gravely recognized the name of his opponent Ray Rodriguez when it was presented to him.
Rodriguez is a 31-year-old jiu-jitsu black belt with a 15-5 professional record. Gravely believes his advantages in the wrestling department along with his cardio will lead him to victory, but he’s not underestimating his opponent by any means.
“I’m ready for tough fights,” Gravely said. “That’s what I’m looking for. And I hope this fight coming up is the toughest fight that I’ve ever had. Tough fights are only gonna make me better.”
What Contender Series means to Tony Gravely
From the outside, the UFC’s decision to test Gravely on Contender Series was an interesting one. Traditionally, fighters with as much experience as Gravely have bypassed the show in favor of making the leap straight into the UFC.
He agrees that he is ready to begin his journey in the UFC’s crowded bantamweight division, but Gravely simply sees Contender Series as another stepping stone in his already extensive journey.
“Realistically, I’ll always go on a fight with a chip on my shoulder,” Gravely said. “I always have something to prove to myself, because I have high expectations for myself, but as far as the UFC goes — and I do feel like I could have been on the show already — but the way I see it is if I could be on a [UFC] show, then what’s a Contender Series you know? Whatever it takes to get me in the door, I’m willing to do. This has been a dream for a long time. So if they want me to fight on the Contender Series, I’ll do it. And now I’ll do my best to prove to them that I should’ve been there and they’re going to be wondering why they haven’t signed me sooner.”
When he gets that chance on Tuesday, Gravely will be doing more than just proving the UFC wrong and proving to himself that he deserves to be where he is today. He will be showing the people that look up to him that hard work and commitment pay off.
“I’ve had this dream, like I said, since I was a child. So for somebody to see a small-town guy from Virginia like me actually stick with a goal and make it happen, I hope that it pushes other people to do the same thing,” Gravely said. “Not just fighters, but people in general that have goals that think that because they’re from a small town or from this place, a small gym, that they can’t do it. So if anything, I hope that that’s some motivation to other people, and inspiration is something I bring into the UFC.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.